Happy Little Copyrights ( a tribute to the noble art of song stealing)

Table of Contents


Some years ago I read a book called It’s One For the Money, written by Clinton Heylin, all about song snatching. I always knew that borrowing tunes and words was a well-worn practice, with a healthy tradition behind it. But this book took me into a world of innocents and villains, moguls and minstrels, and dug more deeply into the topic than I had ever done before. I found it fascinating and, as I worked my way through its pages, I knew there was a show there waiting to be called on when needed. I even came up with the title, and filed that thought away for future reference.

The next chapter in the story involves the National Folk Festival, held each Easter at Exhibition Park in Canberra. We put forward a show we’d already done. The artistic director seemed keen for something that we could premiere at the festival, so I mentioned this song-stealing idea that was sitting in the recesses of my mind, and she accepted it. Somewhere in our negotiations the concept of doing it with a band and our Worldly Goods Choir developed, and off I went researching and writing.

The show was staged in the biggest venue, in what used to be the National Tally Room. Over two performances, thousands came to see Happy Little Copyrights, and the reaction was fantastic. It was a great event for a folk festival, going to the heart of the passing on of songs, and covering a range of pivotal folklorists and folk artists.

A month later, we repeated it at The Carrington Inn in Bungendore, minus the choir.

This is the story we told in Happy Little Copyrights.


In the words of Pablo Picasso  ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’.

One day, one Pablo Picasso
In the midst of a spiel
He said that good artists borrow
But that great artists steal
In the nicest sense of the word
Yes, theft can be fine
When the only sound to be heard
Is the passing of songs down the line
Folk style.

With skill each thieving musician
Would pilfer and pinch
It is a noble tradition
To filch and half-inch
In the nicest sense of the word
Yes, theft can be fair
Owning a song is absurd
When it simply exists in the air
Folk style.

Then along come the fat cats
The big wheels, the big deals
The dollar signs lit up in lights
The biggest gold diggers
The greediest piglets
With their happy little copyrights
Happy little copyrights.

Written and spoken by Shortis and Simpson for the Plagiarists’ Party. No copyrights were hurt in the making of this song.

Happy little copyrights. Ole!

(Some say it was Stravinsky who uttered those immortal words about artists borrowing and stealing, but we went with Pablo because Moya does a pretty mean Spanish accent, and there would be plenty of opportunity for her to call on her Russian, as you will soon see.)


Our story begins, centuries ago, long before mass-produced printed music, long before gramophones and records, when songs were happily passed on orally with no money changing hands. This process took place across cultures, and was given a name only relatively recently, when musicologist Charles Seeger, father of Pete Seeger, coined the term ‘folk process’.

In our show we used the traditional ballad Barbara Allen to demonstrate the folk process. One version popularised by Pete Seeger went

‘Twas in the merry month of May
When green buds they were swelling
Sweet William came from the West Country
And he courted Barbry Allen.

Another from folk singer Ewan McColl had a totally different tune, setting and characters.

It fell aboot the Martinmas time
When the green leaves they were fallin’
Then Sir John Graeme ‘o the North Country
Fell in love wit Barby Allen.

Another version comes to us from Sarah Makem of County Antrim.

It was in the latter part of the year
When green leaves they were fallin’
Young Jimmy arose from the West Country
Fell in love with Barbara Allen.

So between these three tales of Barbry/Barby/Barbara Allen, the time was either the merry month of May, Martinmas time, or the latter part of the year. The one who fell in love with Ms Allen was Sweet William, or Sir John Graeme, or young Jimmy. And it took place in the West Country, or was it the North Country?

These are just 3 of 90-odd versions of Barbara Allen that have evolved, as they got handed on from singer to singer, generation to generation, county to county, country to country.

And who owns this folk song? Maybe we all do- us folk.

Oh singer, oh singer
Go spread my song
It’s yours to have and borrow
Oh call it mine and call it yours
May it live beyond tomorrow.

And that, in a nutshell, is the folk process.


Hush, little baby, don’t say a word
Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird
And if that mockingbird don’t sing
Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.

By virtue of the aforementioned folk process, this traditional lullaby evolved, over time, into a street and playground game called Hambone.

Hambone, hambone have you heard?
Papa’s gonna buy me a mockingbird
And if that mockingbird don’t sing
Papa’s gonna buy me a diamond ring
And if that diamond ring don’t shine
Papa’s gonna take it to the five and dime

Enter into the story, ‘50s rock ‘n’ roller Bo Diddley, who took this mockingbird rhyme and combined it with a traditional rhythm brought to the Americas many years ago by African slaves. The result was what came to be known as the Bo Diddley beat, the cornerstone of his eponymous debut single.

Bo Diddley buy babe a diamond ring
If that diamond ring don’t shine
He gonna take it to a private eye
If that private eye can’t see
He better not take that ring from me.

Despite its traditional origins, this song was deemed to have been written by Bo Diddley, and his beat became one of the mainstays of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, picked up by many acts over the years, including Buddy Holly, who ditched the mockingbird but kept the beat.

I’m a-gonna tell you how it’s gonna be
You’re gonna give your love to me
I wanna love you night and day
You know my love a-not fade away
A-well, you know my love a-not fade away.

Famously covered later by The Rolling Stones, the credit on Not Fade Away went to two people- Buddy Holly and Norman Petty. Petty was Buddy’s manager, publisher and producer, who made sure he got a writer’s credit on every song Buddy recorded, whether he wrote any of it or not. So Mr Petty’s income was far from petty. On Not Fade Away, the extent of his involvement was to give Holly the idea of riffing on Bo Diddley’s riff.

And as for Bo Diddley, he seemed to be blissfully unaware of Buddy’s song until he heard The Stones‘ version. In Bo’s words…

I thought The Rolling Stones had ripped me off because the song was just like mine. I didn’t find out until some time later that it was a Buddy Holly song. I wish I’d heard his version while he was alive. I’d have told that dude something.

Was it that Bo was too aware of the folk origins of his riff to make too much of a fuss?

My love a-bigger than a Cadillac
I try to show it and you drive a-me back
Your love for me a-got to be real
For you to know just how I feel
A love for real not fade away.

To complete the story, the copyright of Not Fade Away is now held by Beatle Paul McCartney who bought the entire Buddy Holly catalogue in 1976 for $150 000.

Made his money back in just one day
Profit like that never fade away.


When we think of the word ‘rock’, it’s easy to assume that it came into our lexicon in the 1950s. No, try the 1590s. To prove there’s nothing new under the sun, have a look at these words from Venus and Adonis by William Shakespeare…

My throbbing heart shall rock thee day and night.

Move forward half a millennium, to 1948, and along came a song called Let’s Rock, that’s basically a one-note melody heavily based on the words…

Let’s rock
Gonna rock
Rock around the clock

…six years before Bill Haley’s recording of Rock Around the Clock.

And in the same song, these lyrics…

One for the money
Two for the show
Three to make ready
Four let’s go

…appeared years before Carl Perkins wrote Blue Suede Shoes.

The writer of Let’s Rock was a jump blues sax player, Hal Singer, and even though two rock ‘n’ roll classics were pre-empted in his song, he didn’t mind at all. He saw it as the usual process at work, and considered his song fair game.

Rock Around the Clock was written by Max C Freedman and Jimmy deKnight in 1953, and recorded by Bill Haley and the Comets the following year. Haley wasn’t keen on the melody they gave him, so at the last minute, just before the first take was recorded, he replaced it with the melody from the verse of a Hank Williams song, Move It On Over. There were no repercussions- because Hank himself was a serial offender when it came to purloining the songs of others. More on him later.

It was Johnny Cash who first had the idea for Blue Suede Shoes, while doing military service in Germany. A fellow serviceman, who would always wear the now famous footwear when he was out on the town on leave, would regularly utter the immortal words…

Don’t step on my blue suede shoes.

Cash was under contract to Sun Records in Memphis, as was rockabilly artist Carl Perkins, to whom Cash passed on this tale.

Also, while Cash was in Germany, he heard a song called Crescent City Blues, written by Gordon Jenkins. The song appeared on what was basically a concept album created by Jenkins, the linking theme being a train trip from New York to New Orleans. This track was sung by Jenkins’ wife, Beverly Mahr.

I hear the train a-comin, it’s rolling ’round the bend
And I ain’t been kissed Lord since I don’t know when
The boys in Crescent City
Don’t seem to know I’m here
That lonesome whistle seems to tell me
Soon disappear.

Gordon Jenkins didn’t give a stuff about the folk process, and when Johnny came out with Folsom Prison Blues, he wasn’t happy.

Cash had confessed to Sun Records owner, the brilliant and influential producer Sam Phillips, that he had nicked the song holus bolus, but Phillips didn’t care less. Gordon Jenkins sued and won a cash payout of $75 000. But he didn’t manage to change the songwriting credit on Folsom City Blues. To this day it’s ‘words and music by Johnny Cash’.


Another artist in the Sun Records stable was none other than Elvis himself, who Phillips sold to Colonel Tom Parker for the grand sum of $35 000 in 1956. Elvis’s first hit under the Colonel, on RCA, was Heartbreak Hotel.

Well since my baby left me
I found a new place to dwell
It’s down at the end of lonely street at Heartbreak Hotel
Well I get so lonely baby
I get so lonely
I get so lonely I could die.

This song was written by Mae Axton and Thomas Durden, and, according to the credits on the record label, Elvis was one of the writers. But the king, great singer that he was, was not a writer, and didn’t write a word or note of it, or of anything else for that matter. The Colonel just said to the real writers, words to this effect…

Y’all wanna share the copyright with Elvis and make squillions? Or don’t share and make sweet FA?

Another big Elvis hit in those early RCA days, Love Me Tender, began as an old song of the American Civil War, Aura Lea.

Aura Lea, the bird may flee
The willow’s golden hair
Swing through the winter fitfully
On the stormy air.

The Elvis team gave the old song new lyrics, and, as before, the Colonel made sure that Elvis was listed as one of the writers, even though he wrote none of it.

Love me tender
Love me true
All my dreams fulfil
For my darling I love you
And I always will.


What we call country music today was once country and western, which was once hillbilly. These are merely marketing terms for what is essentially American music from rural regions with origins in British folk music. The terms come from different eras, each being updated to make the genre sound less hick.

And it all began in the 1920s when there were major technological changes in the recording industry that meant that equipment could be more transportable.

A dapper New York-based record producer/talent scout/ opportunist by the name of Ralph Peer saw this new portability as a means to tap the untapped grass roots musicians in the wilds of the USA. Not only was there a world of artists and songs out there who had not been heard by the nation at large, but better still for the bank account of the astute publisher, they had at their fingertips a bottomless pit of un-copyrighted material.

Peer coined the term ‘hillbilly’ to describe the music he had discovered, set up a makeshift studio in Bristol, Virginia, in the Appalachian area, and placed an ad in the Bristol News Bulletin offering locals a chance to record.

In Maces Springs, 26 miles away, there were three homespun music makers, the Carter family- Alvin Pleasant (AP), wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle. With a repertoire that drew on hymns and ballads, they decided to try their luck with a recording session at the Bristol studio. The resulting records were released and the money started rolling in.

Songwriter for the Carters was always the patriarch, AP, but his songs were rather products of the folk process than original compositions, One of their biggest successes was originally a hymn written a couple of decades earlier by Charles H Gabriel and Ada R Habershon.

Mr Carter changed the odd word and note, claimed it as his, and, as with all his recording artists, Ralph Peer claimed the copyright, giving himself a nice little cut. The original went…

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
Is a better home a-waiting
In the sky, in the sky?

The Carter Family’s version went…

Can the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky

…with marginal changes to the music.

In the words of Maybelle Carter…

Mr Peer made us famous and we made him rich.

Maybe the song should have gone…

There’s a bigger cheque a-waiting
Finger in the pie, Lord, in the pie.

The folk process gets very interesting when song stealer steals from song stealer, which happened when folksinger Woody Guthrie heard a Carter Family song called When the World’s On Fire, which was itself originally an old hymn.

Guthrie was writing an angry response to Irving Berlin’s patriotic pop song God Bless America, and used the main tune of the Carter Family track.

One sunny morning
In the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office
I saw my people
As they stood hungry I stood there wondering
If God blessed America for me.

Woody toned it down over the years, and it became This Land is Your Land, America’s unofficial anthem, sung everywhere- in schools, at community events, and at the inauguration of Barack Obama.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.


In the ‘30s, American folklorists, John and Alan Lomax (father and son), were given a grant by the Library of Congress to go deep into real America and record its folk songs. The search took them into prisons, including Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. It was here, in 1933, that they encountered an inmate who sang them a whole bunch of songs that had come via the folk process from a range of sources- parlour songs, minstrel songs, traditional ballads, and family hand-me-downs. His name was Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly. The last song he recorded that day was called Irene.

Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in the town
Sometimes I have a great notion
To jump into the river and drown

Irene, good night
Irene, good night
Good night, Irene
Good night, Irene
I’ll get you in my dreams.

He said he learned it from an uncle, and it has a number of possible origins, all from the southern states. The Girls Won’t Do to Trust, published in 1906…

Irene, goodnight, Irene
Irene, goodnight, my life
I’ll kiss you in my dreams.

Sometimes I Lib in de Country, published in 1915…

Sometimes I lib in de country
En sometimes I lib in town
En sometimes I hab uh notion
Tuh jump in de ribber en drown.

The Lomaxes copyrighted Leadbelly’s work, and, in 1936, published the songs they’d collected from him in Negro Folk Songs As Sung By Leadbelly. They paid him 1/3 of the royalties, but Leadbelly was not happy with the deal, so he hired a lawyer and got out of the Lomax contract.

In 1950, a year after his death, folk group The Weavers slowed Irene down, softened the original lyrics by removing the verse about morphine, and changing…

I’ll get you in my dreams


I’ll see you in my dreams.

Their recording of Goodnight Irene sold over 2 million copies in the US alone. The songwriting credits went to Alan Lomax/Huddie Ledbetter.

Other songs credited to Leadbelly included Midnight Special, Cotton Fields, and Rock Island Line, all coming from traditional sources.


And now for some good old Aussie plagiarism.

During World War 2, with beer rationing in place, a Queensland sugar cane farmer, Dan Sheahan, rode into his nearest town to have a couple of beers at the pub, only to find that the American soldiers stationed in the area had drunk the bar dry. So he went home thirsty and put pen to paper.

It is lonely away from your kindred and all
In the bushland at night when the warrigals call
It is sad by the sea where the wild breakers boom
Or to look on a grave and contemplate doom
But there’s nothing on earth half as lonely and drear
As to stand in the bar of a pub without beer.

This was the first verse of A Pub Without Beer, that went on to be published in 1944 in the North Queensland Register.

Meanwhile about 80 years earlier, a legendary song was published in America. The music of that song was written by the man known as ‘the father of American music’, Stephen Foster.

Beautiful dreamer
Wake unto me
Starlight and dewdrops
Are waiting for thee
Sounds of the rude world
Heard in the day
Led by the moonlight
Have all passed away
Beautiful dreamer
Awake unto me.

Take verse one of the Dan Sheahan poem, adapt, add new characters, and write new verses. Set it to a tune that’s more than a little reminiscent of Beautiful Dreamer, and you get…

It’s lonesome away from your kindred and all
By the campfire at night where the wild dingos call
But there’s nothin’ so lonesome, so dull or so drear
Than to stand in the bar of a pub with no beer.

Slim Dusty first came across The Pub With No Beer in 1957 when the writer of the song, Gordon Parsons, was part of his touring entourage. It became a landmark record for Slim, taking him to number one on the pop charts, selling half a million copies, and propelling him into the mainstream.

Old Billy the blacksmith, the first time in his life
Has gone home cold sober to his darling wife
He walks in the kitchen, she says ‘you’re early my dear’
But then he breaks down and he tells her the pub’s got no beer.

On a subsequent tour to North Queensland, the son of Dan Sheahan came backstage and told Slim the story of his father writing the poem that the song was based on. It was then that the story came out that Parsons had been given a hand-written uncredited version of the poem. He said he assumed it was traditional.

The Sheahan family contacted the publisher of The Pub With No Beer, but the song remained Parsons’ property alone.

It all makes sense when you learn that The Pub With No Beer was recorded on April Fool’s Day.


And so to 1965, when BobDylan shocked the purists by appearing on stage at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar over his shoulder and a 3-piece rock band lined up behind him. When they launched into rocking versions of songs, mostly from his latest album Highway 61 Revisited, the performance was met with derision by the crowd.

Among those lamenting what was seen by some as the passing of the golden age of folk music, was a New York playwright/author/folksinger called Gene Raskin. His answer was to write a song that was nostalgic for former times. He wrote…

Those were the days, my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day.

In the folk tradition, he set his words to an already existing song, in this case a Russian song, Dorogoi Dlinnoyu, written around the turn of the twentieth century by Konstantin Podrevsky and Boris Ivanovich Fomin. Raskin’s tune is not identical, but very close.

The song, in its original form, had been recorded by a Russian cabaret star and by gypsy singers, and was noticed by the world in 1958 when it was performed in the movie adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov.

Yechali na trojke sbubenzami
Av dali mil’kali agan’ki
Echt ka da boomnitji pirt, za Vami
Dushu boorazvyat at taski

Da rogoj dlinnayu, da notch’ku voonnayu
Da spesni toj, shto vdal’ letit zvinya
Is toj starinnayu, s’ toj simistrunnoyu
Shto po notcham tak mutchala minya.

There is no better way to give you the translation of the song than to reproduce the script from our show, spoken by Moya in her very best Russian accent…

In Russian, the song is also lament for days of long time ago. You and I darling we rode together in three-horse troika with bells jingling down long and winding road. Days are passing, multiplying my sorrows and my depression, but soon you will come back for me- and we will ride in troika down same road to bury me. One of our happier songs.

As Gene and Francesca (Raskin and his wife), they recorded Those Were the Days in 1962.

Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours
Thinking of the great things we would do.

Meanwhile in Britain, a young Welsh singer, Mary Hopkin, appeared on TV talent show, Opportunity Knocks, and caught the eye and ear of one of the world’s first supermodels, Twiggy, who promptly told Paul McCartney about her. McCartney happened to be at a London nightclub when Gene and Francesca were the headlining act. When Paul signed Hopkin up, this became her debut single…

Then the busy years went rushing by us
We lost our starry notions on the way
If by chance I’d see you in the tavern
We’d smile at one another and we’d say
Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days

Those were the days, my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we’d choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.

The song has been recorded in Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Hebrew. There’s even a Bollywood version.

Covered by acts like Engelbert Humperdinck, The Fifth Dimension, and The Three Tenors, Those were the Days has been a blockbuster success, credited to Gene Raskin alone, with no mention of the original Russian writers.


Bob Dylan, who was not averse to using or abusing the odd folk tune himself, was strongly influenced by the celebrated folksinger Dave van Ronk. Many years ago, van Ronk was touring Australia, and I happened to be in Adelaide when he was there, so I went along to see him. He was playing a small bar, to an audience that numbered five, three of which were Eric Bogle, Doug Ashdown and me. I overheard a bloke, who playing pool at the back of the bar, tell his mate…

He’s just copying Bob Dylan.

I couldn’t help replying…

Actually, mate, it’s the other way round!

For example, back in ‘62 when both His Bobness and van Ronk were folksingers in Greenwich Village, Dylan was in the middle of making his first album and asked van Ronk if he could record his version of House of the Rising Sun. He told Bob he’d rather he didn’t, to which Bob declared that it was a pity because he already had.

Alan Lomax comes back into the story again, because it was he who had unearthed House of the Rising Sun back in 1937, when he made a field recording in the Kentucky mountains. Among his discoveries was Georgia Turner, a 16 year old miner’s daughter, who sang two songs including this one…

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many poor girl
And me, Oh God, for one.

In 1941, Lomax published Rising Sun Blues, and passed it on to The Almanac Singers, the members of which included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who recorded it under the title of The House of the Rising Sun.

It was consequently recorded by many folk and country artists, including black blues singer, Josh White., and when his version was played on the BBC in the ‘50s, it was promptly banned, for these reasons…

This gentleman appears to be singing about a house of ill repute. Here at the BBC we do not believe this is appropriate for our listeners. This record is not to be broadcast.

But the version we know and love was passed down via the folk process, from Dylan’s take on van Ronk’s version, to English group, The Animals. But it was Dave van Ronk who gave the world the now-famous chords that were soon on the fingers of every burgeoning guitarist.

Songwriting credits on the sheet music show that words and music were written by Alan Price, the organist, in The Animals- no Dave van Ronk, no Lomax, no miner’s daughter.

Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your life in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun.


Alan Lomax features again in the late 1940s, when he played a 1939 recording of a certain South African song to Pete Seeger of The Weavers. The song was Mbube, meaning ‘lion’, and it was sung by its writer, a Zulu man, Solomon Linda.

Thinking the singer was singing ‘Wimoweh’, and, believing the song to be traditional, The Weavers recorded it, crediting themselves as arrangers, with no mention of its South African source. But when it became apparent that Linda was the writer, Seeger did pay some royalties over to him.

Later, in 1961, American doo wop group, The Tokens, were in the studio, running through their material to search for a good track to record. When they sang Wimoweh, the producers thought it could be a hit if they played with it a bit. So they took one of the lines, extended it, gave it English lyrics, and it became The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

In the jungle the mighty jungle the lion sleeps tonight.

The writers of this version claimed it as theirs, and it became a nice little earner for them, being a hit several times over- not only for The Tokens, but for Scottish singer Karl Denver, and Australian group Love Machine.

Royalties soared when it was used in The Lion King, movie and musical. Then, after an article appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, alerting the world to the injustice, a deal was finally made with the family of Solomon Linda. The song writing credits now actually include Solomon Linda, who wrote it in the first place.


I’m a political animal, and I love nothing better than watching the TV coverage of elections. When Scott Morrison announced the election date in 2019, it happened to be for the same night on which we were to perform Happy Little Copyrights in Bungendore.

So I decided that I would make some reference to politics in the show that night, via the song What a Wonderful World. I chose it, not because it directly had a connection (or so I thought at first), but one of its writers was also one of the writers who claimed complete ownership of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. His name? George David Weiss.

And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.

Then, while we were rehearsing it, I realised that much of the tune is the same as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

I see trees of green
Red roses too
I see them bloom
For me and you.

Made famous by Louis Armstrong, we used What a Wonderful World to pay tribute to the wonderful world of the 2019 election campaign- from Satchmo to ScoMo.

I see ScoMo’s campaign
He’s shearing sheep
He’s kicking balls
Sends me to sleep
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world

I see Shorten on the hustings
Makes another gaffe
Eats another oyster
Permanently naff
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world

I see Richard di Natale
Reach out to the ALP
And Palmer with his millions
Sharing preferences with glee
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world

I see ABC guru, Antony Green
Computer doesn’t always
Agree with his screen
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.

Yes, thank you ScoMo, Bill, Richard, Pauline and Clive for a scintillating election campaign.

And I think to myself
What a wonderful world
Oh yeah! 


The same team who ‘wrote’ The Lion Sleeps Tonight also claimed to have written the music of an Elvis classic. What are the chances it was ‘borrowed’?

Wise men say only fools rush in
But I can’t help falling in love with you
Shall I stay? Would it be a sin
If I can’t help falling in love with you.

To answer the question, have a listen to the YouTube of Plaisir d’Amour, written in 1715 in the court of King Louis XVI of France.

Plaisir d’amour
Ne dure qu’un moment
Chagrin d’amour
Dure toute la vie.

Pilfering European tunes has been a common occurrence in the commercial music world.

For example, There’s a Hole in the Bucket, made famous by Harry Belafonte and Odetta, also comes from European sources, beginning life as a traditional 19th century German kids’ song, possibly brought to America by the Pennsylvania Germans.

Wenn der Pott aber nu ein Loch hat
Lieber Heinrich, lieber Heinrich?
Stopf ‘s zu liebe, liebe Liese
Liebe Liese, stopf ‘s zu.

It’s the same circular story, with call and response between Heinrich and Liese.

Womit soll ich’s aber stopfen
Lieber Heinrich, lieber Heinrich?
Mit Stroh, liebe, liebe Liese
Liebe Liese, mit Stroh.

At this point in our show Moya went into a frantic Deutsch moment that quickly led us through the next part of the song.

Aber Heinrich das Stroh ist zu lang. Muss ich abhacken? Mit einem Beil, Heinrich? Das Beil is zu stuumpf. Mach scharf mit einem Stein? Der Stein ist zu trocken, Heinrich!!

Which translates roughly as- hole in bucket, straw too long, axe too blunt, stone too dry. Henry a dickhead.

That latter statement certainly pervaded the well known version, as Odetta became more and more frustrated with Harry’s obvious solution to each problem.

Well, wet it, dear Henry, dear Henry
Wet it, dear Henry, dear Henry, wet it

With what shall I wet it, dear Liza, dear Liza?
With what shall I wet it, dear Liza, with what?

Try water, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry
Try water, dear Henry, dear Henry, try water

In what shall I fetch it, dear Liza, dear Liza?
In what shall I fetch it, dear Liza, in what?

In a bucket, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry
In a bucket, dear Henry, dear Henry, in a bucket

There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza
There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, a hole.

As I played the final chords, Moya summed it all up with…

Mein Gott Heinrich, was für ein Dumkopf!


Where are you going to, Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to a bonny lass there
For once she was a true lover of mine

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Without any needle or thread worked in it
And she shall be a true lover of mine.

Like all good folk songs that are subject to the folk process, Scarborough Fair has many variations. This one, which also has a different tune from the one we know and love, hails from Yorkshire where Scarborough is located, and was collected by English folklorist, Cecil Sharp. By the end of the eighteenth century there were dozens of versions of this song, only a few of which are now widely known.

At the height of the sixties’ folk boom, an American troubadour by the name of Paul Simon who was doing the rounds of the British folk clubs, was invited to dinner at the home of legendary English folksinger, Martin Carthy, who taught Simon his reading of one of the traditional tunes of Scarborough Fair, complete with his very own haunting guitar arrangement. Carthy had in turn learned the song from Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger.

In 1966, when Simon and Garfunkel were fabulously rich and famous, they had a massive hit with Scarborough Fair. They superimposed a beautiful counter melody that sounds like it was maybe improvised by Garfunkel.

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

Remember me to one who lives there.

She once was a true love of mine.

On the side of a hill in the deep forest green.

Tracing of sparrow on snow-crested brown.

Blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain

Sleeps unaware of the clarion call.

The lyrics of the counter melody are loosely based on a 1963 Paul Simon song called The Side of Hill, so no problem with stealing from your own song.

On the side of a hill in a land called ‘Somewhere’
A little boy lies asleep in the earth
While down in the valley a cruel war rages
And people forget what a child’s life is worth

And the war rages on in the land called Somewhere
And generals order their men to kill
And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten
While the little cloud weeps on the side of a hill.

On the sheet music of Scarborough Fair/Canticle, the songwriting credits are given to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, no mention of Carthy, or tradition.

Many years later, Simon contacted Carthy, and got the Englishman up on stage to sing it with him, and afterwards asked him if he was mad at him. Carthy said he was, and in a moment of catharsis, forgave the American.

It’s a bit of a similar story to House of the Rising Sun. The plagiarism is to do with chords and guitar arrangement. I suppose it would have been gentlemanly to have at least acknowledged the source at the time.

The other consideration is that these are traditional songs, owned by nobody and everybody. Given there’s a percentage allocated to the writers as royalties, if the musician doesn’t claim it, the publisher will.

Still, acknowledgement would have been nice.


I mentioned earlier that one of the serial offenders when it came to song snatching was country and western star Hank Williams. One great example of this is the song Jambalaya, which was a hit for Williams in the ‘50s, and for The Carpenters in the ‘70s. This song has its roots in New Orleans, in an old Cajun lament for a lover who has run away to Texas with another- Gran’ Texas.

M’as quitté pour t’en al-ler s’ul Gran’ Texas
T’en allez aussi loin z’avec un autre
Criminelle, comment t’y crois moi j’peux pas
M’as quitté pour t’en aller s’ul Gran’ Texas.

The song in French Creole, is a stalwart of Cajun repertoire, and if you check out the 1946 version by Chuck Guillory, you will hear the source of Hank’s hit. He varied the tune slightly, gave it those great Cajunesque lyrics, and claimed it as his own.

Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirowgue down the bayou
My Yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou

Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and a file’ gumbo
‘Cause tonight I’m a-gonna see my ma cher amio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-o
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou. 


(This may) This may be the last time
(This may) This may be the last time children.

The Last Time is a traditional gospel song recorded by, among many others, The Staple Singers.

(This may) This may be the last time
Maybe the last time I don’t know.

When The Rolling Stones first made it big, their hits were covers, and when their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, watched Lennon and McCartney’s success with originals, he knew it was time for the group to do the same. But with The Beatles it was organic- John and Paul had been writing together long before they’d been discovered. With The Stones it would have to be forced, so Oldham designated Mick and Keith as the group’s writers, locked them in a room and said he’d let them out when they’d come up with something. This was it…

It is the evening of the day

A hit for Marianne Faithfull…

I sit and watch as tears go by.

Writing a song for The Stones proved harder than they thought, but they kept at it, and one day Keith was sitting guitar in hand, playing along with the Staple Singers recording of The Last Time, and soon he and Mick had the beginnings of what became the first self-penned A-side for The Stones.

Well I told you once and I told you twice
But you never listen to my advice
You don’t try very hard to please me
With what you know it should be easy

Well this could be the last time
This could be the last time
Maybe the last time
I don’t know
Oh no. oh no.

The song bore the credit Jagger/Richard, with no nod to The Staple Singers or to tradition in general.

Well, I’m sorry girl but I can’t stay
Feelin’ like I do today
It’s too much pain and too much sorrow
Guess I’ll feel the same tomorrow

Well this could be the last time
This could be the last time
Maybe the last time
I don’t know
Oh no. oh no.

And, did Keith and Mick ever need to steal a song again?

This may be the last time
Maybe the last time I don’t know.

In 1966, Oldham once again took a cue from The Beatles, whose producer, George Martin, had released an album of orchestral arrangements of Beatles songs. Out came The Rolling Stones Songbook, performed by The Andrew Oldham Orchestra. The album rightly drifted into oblivion until, in 1997, the orchestrated recording of The Last Time was sampled by The Verve in their hit song Bitter Sweet Symphony. By then, The Stones’ manager was Allen Klein, who demanded and received 100% of the royalties.

But, in 2019, Jagger and Richard reversed the court’s decision, and handed all the royalties back to writer of Bitter Sweet Symphony, Richard Ashcroft.


From The Stones to The Beatles, and to the words of Mr Paul McCartney…

What do they say? A good artist borrows, a great artist steals, or something like that. That makes The Beatles great artists because we stole a lot of stuff.

For example, the riff in Lady Madonna was lifted from Bad Penny Blues by English jazzman, Humphrey Littleton.

Come Together from the Abbey Road album is a bit like a 1956 Chuck Berry song You Can’t Catch Me. The only direct lyric steal is..

Here come old flat top.

The verses of both songs are pretty well based around one note, so no one could claim melody theft, but it’s in the phrasing that there are similarities. The dispute was settled out of court, and Lennon recorded the Berry song on his 1975 Rock ‘n’ Roll album. I suppose a healthy royalty cheque from a song on an album by an ex-Beatle, was pretty good compensation.

Also post-Beatles, the main tune of Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over) is a direct pinch from a traditional folk song, Stewball. Lennon, in his pre-Beatles band, The Quarrymen, was influenced very much by skiffle music, and my guess is that he came across Stewball via skiffle star, Lonnie Donegan, who did a version of it.

But the most notorious Beatle-related copyright case is associated with George Harrison, in the early days of his solo career. It all began in 1963 with He’s So Fine, recorded by The Chiffons.

He’s so fine
(Doo lang doo lang doo lang)

I wish he were mine
(Doo lang doo lang doo lang)

That handsome boy over there
(Doo lang doo lang doo lang)

The one with the wavy hair
(Doo lang doo lang )

 Don’t know how I’m gonna do it
(Doo lang doo lang doo lang)
But I’m gonna make him mine
(Doo lang doo lang doo lang)

Be the envy of all the girls
(Doo lang doo lang doo lang)

It’s just a matter of time
(Doo lang doo lang).

And it was just a matter of time before someone noticed the obvious similarities between He’s So Fine back in 1963 and Harrison’s mega-hit of 1971, My Sweet Lord.

My Sweet Lord (Alleluia)
Mm my Lord (Alleluia)
Mm my Lord (Alleluia)
My Sweet Lord (Alleluia)
I really want to see you, (Alleluia)
I really want to be with you, (Alleluia)
I really want to see you Lord (Ah)
But it takes so long

My Lord (Hare Krisna)
Mm my  Lord (Hare Krisna)
My sweet Lord (Krisna Krisna)
My sweet Lord (Hare Rama)
I really want to know you, (Hare Rama)
I really want to go with you, (Hare Rama)
I really want to show you Lord (Ah)
That it won’t take long my Lord (Alleluia).

There are definite crossovers between the two- the three-note melody of the verses, the beginning of the bridge, and the use of the backing chorus between the lines.

The publishers of the older song went for the jugular and sued George, who was found guilty of subconscious plagiarism, and had to fork out half a million bucks. But the story ended well for George because he bought the publishing company that owned He’s So Fine.

And The Chiffons recorded My Sweet Lord. Everyone was a winner.


Doo lang doo lang doo lang

soon became…

C’ching c’ching c’ching c’ching.

Subconscious plagiarism is an interesting one as it’s so easy to do. Here’s an example of my being guilty of it. Back in 2007 when Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister the first time, I did a bit of research and found out that until then there’d never been a leader called Kevin, anywhere in the world. So I wrote this song…

In Rome we’ve had a Romulus, a Constantine the Great
In Pommy land a Winston and a Henry number eight
In the USA a Dwight, a Lyndon and a Franklin D
But delve and dig and search you might but still there’ll never be

A Kevin
As sure as God is in his heaven
There’s never ever been a leader called Kevin.

I realised many years later that the melody of the first line of the verse is identical to Simply The Best, made famous by Tina Turner.

I call when I need you my heart’s on fire.

Then, just recently, it hit me that it was also very much like Something Stupid, a hit for Nancy and Frank Sinatra.

I know I stand in line
Until you think you have the time.

Just like George I was guilty of subconscious plagiarism- twice in the one song. The difference is that if you sue him you make millions, whereas if you sue me for a percentage of the earnings of my song, you’d make about $3.50, if you’re lucky.


The Summer of Love came into common parlance as a term to describe the height of the hippie movement in 1967. It evokes San Francisco, flowers in the hair, lots of drugs, and some landmark songs. One of these was by English band Procol Harum. 

We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kind o’ seasick
But the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
The waiter brought a tray

And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale.

The drummer in our band, Jon Jones, tells a story of a friend meeting a bloke in an English pub and asking him what he did. He replied that he wrote A Whiter Shade of Pale in the ‘60s and was still living off the royalties. When asked what the song meant he said he didn’t have a clue because he was so out of it on illicit substances.

I don’t know who our drummer’s friend spoke to, but it was most likely Keith Reid, the singer in the band, who was the writer of those enigmatic lyrics.

But it’s the music that has a copyright tale attached to it.

The sheet music that came out at the time shows the composer as Gary Brooker, the lead singer in Procol Harum. The song has a beautiful 5-note melody, notes from the time-worn pentatonic scale, the black notes on the piano. The chords are based on a descending bass line, once again a time-worn tradition that has precedents in classical music, namely Pachebel’s Canon in D, and Bach’s Air on a G String.

It’s that latter piece of music that you can hear borrowed by Procol Harum’s organist, Matthew Fisher, a classically trained musician.

Solos and riffs are interesting beasts because, whilst they’re vital to the success of the record, they’re extra to the tune that the singer sings.

For example, Bill Wyman, The Stones’ bass guitarist, reckons he wrote the riff of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, but he receives no royalties for the song.

Raphael Ravenscroft, the session musician who played the iconic and stunning sax solo on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street was paid a session fee of £27, full stop.

The Beatles’ producer, George Martin, scored the classical sections of their songs, like the French horn solo in For No One, the piccolo trumpet solo in Penny Lane etc. Martin was on staff at Parlophone Records, and was paid a salary, no royalties on these million sellers.

As for Fisher, he claimed that his instrumental was integral to the composition of A Whiter Shade of Pale, but didn’t rush in to staking his claim officially, waiting 38 years before he did so. He was successful, and, in 2005, was considered to be one of the song’s writers, entitled to 40% of the royalties, but without back pay. 


I’ll finish with the biggest copyright dispute in this country, one that began with a song written by schoolteacher Marion Sinclair in 1934, as an entry in a competition for the Girl Guides Association of Victoria. It won and was picked up worldwide.

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush is he
Laugh, Kookaburra, laugh
Kookaburra, gay your life must be.

Apart from having gay kookaburras corrupt the innocence of Girl Guides, the song became an Aussie and worldwide classic. And many years later, so did this Men At Work masterpiece…

Travelling in a fried-out Kombi
On a hippie trail, head full of zombie
I met a strange lady, she made me nervous
She took me in and gave me breakfast

And she said,
Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.

In 2007, the ABC ‘s quiz show Spicks and Specks unwittingly opened a can of worms by asking…

What children’s song is contained in the song Down Under?

The answer of course is Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree, two references to which appear, not in the main song written by Colin Hay and Ron Strykert, but in the instrumental solos played by the band’s woodwind player, Greg Ham.

I actually met Marion Sinclair in the early ‘80s, in Adelaide Hospital, when I was researching Australian children’s music. The meek elderly woman I encountered then would die in 1988, oblivious of the kerfuffle caused by her song.

After her death, the copyright was bought by Bob Wise’s Music Sales, and eventually ended up in the hands of Larrikin Records. When the honchos at Larrikin were alerted to the information brought to light, dollar signs flashed loud and clear, as Down Under had sold millions of copies around the world.

Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six-foot-four and full of muscles
I said, “Do you speak-a my language?
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

And he said
I come from a land down under
Where beer does flow and men chunder
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.

In many Australian songbooks, like The All-Time Favourite Australian Song Book, Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’s songwriting credit is listed as anonymous. Like The Weavers before them, Men At Work thought they’d quoted a traditional tune in their song. They were sued, and lost the case. Larrikin asked for 40%- they got 5, but still earned themselves a nice fat six-figure settlement.

We come from a lawyers’ office
Where the golden rule’s to fill the coffers
Men At Work, they went and plundered
They’d  better run, they’d better take cover.

In this litigious world in which we now live, you can always guarantee that there’ll be copyright disputes going on. At the time of writing, Twisted Sister managed to stop Clive Palmer using their song We’re Not Gonna Take It in his political advertising. Interestingly, Twisted Sister’s song is, in turn, derivative of O Come All Ye Faithful, which is well and truly out of copyright.

Singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran has just had to pay out millions to the estate of Marvin Gaye, and not that long ago Led Zeppelin won a court case that was based around the  chord progression of good old Stairway to Heaven.

As long as there are moguls and millionaires, and money to be made, disputes like these will continue. But in the hands of us humble writers and musicians, who make up a sizable part of the music industry, the folk process carries on regardless. So here’s to all of us- song recyclers of the world, unite!

And, finally, I’ll pilfer from an Aussie classic to which I owe the title of this show and essay.

We’re happy little copyrights
We’re all held legally
So sit and watch us copyrights
Advance financially
Our profits show we’re growing stronger
Every single week
And we adore the copyrights
With bucks galore clear in our sight
Our profits grow with every week

Although we hold the copyrights
We sometimes stole the copyrights
They put a rose in every cheek
We perfected the technique
And put a bum on every seat. 


Songs, YouTubes, Credts
All parodies written by John Shortis.
Happy Little Copyrights written by John Shortis.
Barbara Allen, traditional
Barbara Allen- Pete Seeger’s version
Barbara Allen- Ewan McColl’s version
Sarah Makem’s version comes from the singing of Frankie Armstrong on the CD The Garden of Love
Hush Little Baby, traditional
Hambone, traditional
Bo Diddley written byBo Diddley
Not Fade Away written by Buddy Holly and Norman Petty
Not Fade Away Rolling Stones’ version
Let’s Rock written by Hal Singer
Rock Around the Clock written by Max C Freedman and Jimmy deKnight
Blue Suede Shoes written by Carl Perkins
Move It On Over written by Hank Williams
Crescent City Blues written by Gordon Jenkins
Folsom Prison Blues written by Johnny Cash
Goodnight Irene written by Huddie Ledbetter
Goodnight Irene- Weavers’ version
Heartbreak Hotel written by .Mae Axton, Thomas Durden, Elvis Presley
Aura Lea written by George R Poulton and W W Fosdick
Love Me Tender written by Elvis Presley and Vera Matson
Will the Circle Be Unbroken written by Charles H Gabriel and Ada R Habershon
Can The Circle Be Unbroken? written by A P Carter
When the World’s on Fire written by Virginia Franks and A.P. Carter
This Land Is Your Land written by Woody Guthrie
A Pub Without Beer (poem) written by Dan Sheahan
Beautiful Dreamer written by Paul J. Frederick and Stephen Foster
The Pub With No Beer written by Gordon Parsons
Those Were the Days written by Gene Raskin
Dorogoi Dlinnoyu written by Konstantin Podrevsky and Boris Ivanovich Fomin
Those Were the Days Bollywood version
House of The Rising Sun, traditional (Alan Price credited)
House of the Rising Sun Bob Dylan version
House of the Rising Sun Dave van Ronk’s version
Rising Sun Blues- Georgia Turner (original Lomax recording)
Mbube written by Solomon Linda
Wimoweh The Weavers’ version
Wimoweh The Tokens’ version written by George David Weiss, Hugo E. Peretti and Luigi Creatore
What a Wonderful World  written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss
I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You written by George David Weiss, Hugo E. Peretti and Luigi Creatore
Plaisir d’Amour written by Jean-Paul Egide Martini and Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian
There’s a Hole in the Bucket traditional German, adaptation by Belafonte and Odetta
Heinrich und Liese, traditional German
Scarborough Fair, traditional, collected by Cecil Sharp, sheet music
Scarborough Fair Martin Carthy’s version
Scarborough Fair/Canticle, written by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel
The Side of the Hill written by Paul Simon
Grand Texas written by Chuck Guillory
Jambalaya written by Hank Williams
The Last Time, traditional
The Last Time- The Rolling Stones written by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger
The Last Time- The Andrew Oldham Orchestra
Bitter Sweet Symphony written by Richard Ashcroft
Lady Madonna written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Bad Penny Blues written by Humphrey Littleton
Come Together written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
You Can’t Catch Me written by Chuck Berry
Merry Xmas (War Is Over) written by John Winston Lennon and Yoko Ono
Stewball, traditional
He’s So Fine written by Ronnie Mack
My Sweet Lord written by George Harrison
A Leader Called Kevin written by John Shortis
Simply the Best written by Holly Knight and Mike Chapman
Something Stupid written by C Carson Parks
Whiter Shade of Pale written by Keith Reid, Gary Brooker, Matthew Fisher
Air on a G String written by J S Bach
Down Under written by Colin Hay and Ron Strykert
Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree written by Marion Sinclair
Happy Little Vegemites, written by Alan Weekes.

Buddy- The Biography by Phillip Norman
Down Under- The Tune, the Times, the Tragedy by Trevor Conomy
It’s One For the Money by Clinton Heylin
Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave van Ronk
Rock Around the Clock by Jim Dawson
Stone Alone by Bill Wyman
Walk a Country Mile by Slim Dusty
What a Wonderful World by Bob Thiele as told to Bob Golden
Who Wrote the Ballads? by John S Manifold.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight- songfacts
The Last Time -songfacts
Scarborough Fair- The Telegraph (UK)
Dave van Ronk House of the Rising Sun- Esquire
Grand Texas- earlycajunmusic
Goodnight Irene- whats-in-a-song

Show performed April/May 2019
Essay written December 2019