The legend of how George Harrison didn’t realize he was plagiarizing “He’s So Fine” when he wrote “My Sweet Lord” is the stuff of legends (and settled lawsuits) by now, but the other day I realized another thing George “stole” and never noticed until 53 years after the fact.
The two best songs on one of the Beatles’ best albums, Abbey Road, are written by Harrison. “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” I think I’ve seen him admit that he liked the phrase James Taylor used in his song “Something in the Way She Moves” and used it as a launching point for his own song.
It’s ridiculous that I never noticed he kind of did the same thing with his other masterpiece, which begins … wait for it …
“Little darling …”
There’s nothing wrong with this. Heck, Elton John also riffed off the classic Diamonds tune when he wrote the intro to “Crocodile Rock.”
In fact, stealing bits and entire melodies from other songs is an ancient tradition. Woody Guthrie used the melody of the Carter Family’s “When the World’s On Fire” when he wrote a little something called “This Land is Your Land.” You do know Francis Scott Key grafted the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” onto the melody of an English drinking song, right?
There is a haunting melody that, if you start humming it, half the room will sing one set of lyrics and the other half will sing another: “What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” or “Alas, my love, you do me wrong to cast me off discourteously.” It’s not clear who paired William Chatterton Dix’s 1865 poem with the melody of the 1580ish English ballad “Greensleeves,” but it was brilliant.
It used to be commonplace to take a familiar melody and add new words to it. It’s only when the lawyers got involved that it became taboo.
This is the 10th anniversary of Austin Kleon’s nifty book Steal Like An Artist, which essentially makes the point that there’s nothing original under the sun anyway; all artists are building on what’s already been discovered and molding it into their own creation.
I’m not sure at what point borrowing from elsewhere turns into plagiarism; to paraphrase the familiar Supreme Court justice’s comment, I can’t define plagiarism but I know it when I see it. But the result can be something wonderfully “original,” as when George “stole” from older work and crafted three very beautiful songs during that period of his growth as an artist.