Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

December 21, 2012

Sharing Music

“How come everybody wanna keep it like a Kaiser?
Give it away, give it away, give it away now!”
~-Red Hot Chili Peppers

Music is meant to be shared, passed around and tweaked like messages in a game of “Telephone.” That’s how it grows. I believe that there is just one song, and people began playing it in different ways depending on whether they were happy or sad, what instruments were at hand and who their teacher was. Nowadays variations and fragments of the vast and ancient Song are shuffled together through the arts of songwriting and mixology. There is quite a rich and global heritage of music available to even the humblest of Western consumers, largely as canned recordings.

I’ve got no complaints about the branch library, airwaves and Internet being stocked with free un-live music; it is a huge benefit to me. Still, I want to keep the more organic means of growing the Song well and vital.

One of those means is the distribution of sheet music. The oldest surviving written music is from about 1400 BCE, a hymn left behind by the Hurrian people in what is now Syria. The notation on the clay tablet resembles modern guitar tablature, but for lyre. Here is Michael Levy’s rendition (with lots of background information and links buried in the Youtube notes):

Of course, no one knows exactly what “Hurrian Hymn No. 6” originally sounded like. It’s an interesting fact, that no one even knows at what speed “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” was first performed, or what pitch it used for middle C. Every orchestra plays it a little differently. Music distributed in written form is inevitably subject to performers’ interpretation, whereas a “cover band” of the current era may opt for rigid fidelity to recorded material. Reproducing an exact guitar tone through a board of pedals and a stack of speakers is a project in an of itself, although it is all worth it when one gets to experience a good-as-real Pink Floyd show (now available in Australian and British flavors).

Beck Hansen was disappointed when he read a songbook based on one of his albums, and found it to contain a lot of vague directions for teasing weird sounds from recording equipment and synthesizers… so, Beck decided to write an album strictly for release in written form, for all the bands, musicians and combos in the world to take a stab at. “Song Reader,” released earlier this month, is a book of twenty songs, scored in various formats for various band setups. Like popular music from before the era of recording, the music must be reasonably easy to play, for once you have bought the music, you must go on to find people who can play it!

“Song Reader” is an invitation to learn, play and share. “I thought a lot about making these songs playable and approachable, but still musically interesting,” says Beck. “I think some of the best covers will reimagine the chord structure, take liberties with the melodies, the phrasing, even the lyrics themselves.” No one can claim to have laid down the definitive recording of any of these songs, but many musicians and acts have submitted their performances to, the Internet home of the project.

People used to pass around songs with no music at all: just plain lyrics were printed on pamphlets called broadsides, or even bundled up into songbooks. This is one of my favorite ways to learn/write a song: give me some solidly rhythmic words, and a melody and chords will fall right into place around them. I once wrote guitar music to go with J.R.R. Tolkein’s songs included in “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” novels, and of course that has been done for the movies, too. Lately I am perusing a 1921 book, “Songs of the Cowboys” by N. Howard “Jack” Thorp. Full of lonesome and violent cowpuncher tales, the book is included in a collection of public domain songbooks at

Passing songs around in incomplete form helps to keep music growing, because it demands creative participation. In my family, the main musical event of the year is singing Christmas carols. Singing together reminds me of my grandma Stade and pretty well gets me blissed out. However, many of us are not Christian and ostensibly should not celebrate Christmas. Actually, Christians did not invent Christmas — they adapted it from Pagan celebrations such as Saturnalia and Yule. So, today, Pagans are taking back Christmas by Paganizing Christmas carols! The results range from beautiful to humorous to kind of obscene. Cern has posted some re-Paganized carols in an online songbook, in the format of lyrics with chords (how the chords are played is up to the imagination of the musicians.)

 Later on, by the fire,
 Cone of Power, gettin' higher
        G7       Dm          G7        F
 It's a Magickal Night we're having tonight,
 D7           G7            C
 Dancing in a Wiccan Wonderland

It bears mentioning here that estraven/innana has been sharing links to Christmas music over on “View from the Loft,” for your listening pleasure. She knows some weird old tunes, so you will probably find something new there.

Music is meant to be shared so that it can grow. 70+ year copyrights are clearly supporting publishing-company profits over creative growth (ie, the advancement of human culture.) IMHO, by the time you are very old, you should have full rights to the songs of your childhood. The U.S. Constitution allows for copyrights of limited term, but Congress has the ability and willingness to extend copyright every time the Disney company stands to lose control over Mickey Mouse. That seems to constitute an unlimited copyright, something unconstitutional and therefor illegal. The copyright law is as invalid as it is unjust, and it should be regarded as nothing more than a cruel, small-minded and criminal threat aimed at capturing the world’s Song and other branches of human culture for private profiteers.

This post points to works that were meant to be shared, or are actually so old as to be public domain, or can be passed off as First Amendment-protected parody. You can always play cover tunes in your own living room, too. So, there is a good deal of free space to play in around the edges of copyright protection. The attempt to dominate the growth of the Song for the sake of private profit is as laughable as it is full of hubris.

Anyone can help feed the Song, by supporting musicians as well as exchanging instruments, music and ideas. Being in the music is the fullest human experience — engaging more of your brain than writing about philosophy or having sex. There’s no need to feel cowed by a phony ideal of originality or the standards of professional musicianship — music is for all people, and music is to be shared.



  1. I love this post! And not because you mentioned my blog, either, but because music is all about sharing and making offshoots and different versions of stuff and whatnot. It’s about creativity, about making the song “yours” (in a way) but universal (in a way). And everybody really can do it! This is one of your best posts EVER!

    Comment by estraven — December 21, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    • Thank you! You got it right. I’m sure that this is something I learned from you in the first place.

      Comment by paragardener — December 21, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

      • Aww, sweet of you to say that. I love that you love music.

        Comment by estraven — December 21, 2012 @ 9:30 pm

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