Old tunes, new opportunities

I play a bit of fingerstyle guitar as a hobby, and a while ago I found a nice arrangement of The Tennessee Waltz which I’ve been trying to learn. The other day I went to YouTube to check out some other arrangements. Wow. There’s a smoking version by Bonnie Raitt and Norah Jones, a classic Patti Page version, a jazzy version by Kirk Whalum, a soul rendition by Otis Redding, this sweet one by Dan Hardin, and a bunch more. It’s astonishing to be able to sample all these different arrangements. It’s also, very likely, an anomaly. What happened to Napster, and what’s happening to Internet radio, will very likely happen here too.

We can argue until the cows come home about fair use and the appropriate scope of copyright, but the current regime has serious momentum, and significant change could be a long way off.

Meanwhile, a profound new kind of collaboration — enabled by Internet video — is trying to emerge. Sure, you can use Internet video to share cute animal movies1, but you can also use it to share knowledge about lawnmower maintenance or — as Lucas Gonze notes here — guitar playing.

In that post, Lucas reacts to an NPR story about the YouTube takedown of video guitar lessons. And he writes:

When a music publisher prevents musicians from learning a song, they are destroying the value of the song. There’s no reason to learn the Smoke on the Water riff except that everybody else knows it, and cultural ubiquity isn’t possible unless learning is absolutely free and unencumbered. Notice that the song in the original quote is by the Rolling Stones, a band that couldn’t matter less if it weren’t part of pop culture canon.

One result of copyright extremism will be the disappearance of cultural icons like the Rolling Stones. They haven’t contributed anything fresh to the culture for close to forty years, and without third parties reusing their old work in ways that make it fresh they hardly exist. In terms of 2007 pop culture, all those covers of “Paint it black” *are* “Paint it black.”

This is why I am resurrecting 150-year old songs and posting them, along with sheet music, on my blog — it’s possible for those songs to be used as source material for new work.

Although most of my friends disagree with the premise that out-of-copyright material can interest modern audiences, Lucas had me at hello with this project. That’s probably because, though I wouldn’t have thought Episcopal hymns would be toe-tappers, I love to hear — and play — John Fahey’s arrangements of tunes like In Christ There Is No East Or West.

Now I learned that one from a book, so the arrangement is copyrighted by the publisher, although the tune itself is available for reuse. But as I watched and listened to all those different versions of The Tennessee Waltz, I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if that dynamic were applied to out-of-copyright tunes. Can more of the old tunes be reborn? If so, will our new ability to share, teach, and learn turbocharge the creative process surrounding them? If so, will that process in turn lead to the production of new tunes? If so, will some of those new tunes achieve cultural ubiquity? If so, will some of those conceivably remain outside the copyright regime?

That’s a whole lot of ifs and, as I said, most of my friends think none of this will ever happen. As for me, I dunno. Maybe yes, maybe no. Either way, props to Lucas for having the vision and taking the shot.


1 At 41000 views and climbing steadily, I sometimes worry in dark moments that, when all is said and done, I’ll be known as “the guy who made that cute video with the kittens and the bunnies.”

9 Comments

  1. ‘Private study’ used to be and normally still is a legitimate loophole in music and other printed matter copyrights, allowing a student to photocopy a textbook, but not allowing a lecturer to make multiple copies (even if many do). Surely 99.9 per cent of internet tab/tutorial use is private study. Maybe a site could get round the future problems likely to be created by the biz, by having a sign-up agreement which stated that the content of the site is only to be used for private study. I don’t know anyone, except mechanically inclined beginners, who will literally reproduce a guitar tab as a finished performance. By the time they get good enough to perform to others, they have normally made many changes of their own to the arrangement, either to simplify it or embellish it – consciously or otherwise. I guess in the rock-pop-metal world there are ‘cover’ operators desperate to reproduce every nuance and noodle of a particular recorded solo (ignoring the twenty other ways it got played by the originator). But fingerstyle guitarists… we should be safe!

    I also dig up old songs, often from 18th and 19th century music books. I enjoy collecting the books, which can be hard to find, and introducing people to things they have NEVER heard before. In one or two cases, I have successfully put old tunes and songs back into circulation after decades of neglect. A couple of my friends, Matt Seattle and Rob MacKillop, have put entire bodies of old music back into print after 200 years.

  2. Wow! I never expected to see a reference to Matt Seattle on this blog. In the UK, there are projects like the village music project (www.village-music-project.org.uk) which is putting an astonishing range of tunes from manuscripts dating back to the 17th century online. In the US, there are sites like the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection (http://maxhunter.missouristate.edu/) and the Wolf Folklore Collection (http://www.lyon.edu/wolfcollection/index.html) putting huge collections of recordings of folk singers from the Ozarks online, specifically stating that they’re free to be used for private study. The Max Hunter recordings of Mrs Ollie Gilbert alone runs to 350 recordings, and she was a quite fabulous singer.

    I’ve written before about the dead hand of DRM and short sighted publishers (http://www.bofh.org.uk/articles/2005/10/23/stealing-culture) – these people need to be stopped.

  3. Check out powertabs.net . I found that the software is quite useful for guitarist. There’s a request form if you need a new tune.

  4. Aren’t you also struck by how much great music you can find on YouTube that is beyond the reach of publishers to control? It’s rather like an Open Source movement in music. Doesn’t music, like software, want to be free?

    My guess is that with the track music publishers are on, first the Stones become irrelevant, but then so do the publishers.

  5. I wrote a Parish Prayer to St Helen and the tune that settled beautifully to it was “Ghost Riders in the Sky” So how DOES one find out if a TUNE may be used/where do I look first? I found a site that said it was originally borrowed from a Civil War ditty, “When Johnny comes Marchin’ Home”

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