Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

November 24, 2012

“Happy Birthday” Copyright Protects Legacy of Plagiarism

I’ve been investigating some old folk tunes to see which ones are in the public domain. “Goodnight Irene” and “The Pines” still sound good after all these years, but is it lawful for me to self-publish my own covers of these tunes, or is a recording house going to sue me into a lifetime of poverty for such bold theft?

The Public Domain Information Project publishes a little list of public domain songs, which could helpfully confirm that a work is out of copyright. “Goodnight Irene,” unfortunately, is not on there. I was intrigued to discover “Good Morning Children,” a song that goes:

Good morning to you,
good morning to you,
good morning dear children,
good morning to all.

Well, I can only imagine that being sung to one particular tune. Wikipedia and Google were able to flesh out the picture for me, no problem.

The origins of “Happy Birthday” can be traced back all the way to 1859. Horace Waters, remembered mainly as a piano maker, published a little tune called “Happy Greeting to All.” Follow the link and press the “play” button to hear the tune.

Happy Greeting To You sheet music

The chorus is recognizable as being much like “Happy Birthday,” and its lyrics follow the same repeating, repetitious, redundant pattern. Waters went on to publish “Goodnight to You All,” and, in 1875, “Happy New Year to All.” What a creative dynamo!

An aside:

Waters ripping off himself probably didn’t look too odd at the time, when lots of music was written through the folk process. To write a song, you “stole” someone else’s song (or your own!), rewrote the lyrics, and adjusted the music to suit your own playing style and band setup. As copyright enforcement became stricter and the public domain receded into the past, folk songwriting has been effectively outlawed. Our moral sense of a song being “ripped off” has even adjusted to harmonize with the law.

Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail” and “Travellin’ Riverside Blues” strike me as a couple of folk process tunes that no one would dare to call unoriginal, although “Hellhound” resembles Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” and “Riverside” is a version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” a song that “came out of the cotton fields.” You can easily find all of these songs on Youtube, if you’re inclined.

The modern songwriting process must treat each piece as original and unrelated to any other song, forged from the collision of beats, chords and melodic riffs in massive high-energy studio cyclotrons, and yet the result is only about as good as Britney Spears.

“Happy Greeting to All”or a variant was picked up by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill, who rewrote it as “Good Morning to All” for Mildred’s kindergarten class. The sisters published their song without the birthday lyrics in 1893. According to legend, the kids at school were so enthralled by the song that they in turn reworked it into “Happy Birthday” for singing at parties.  It saw print numerous times, and by 1924 the birthday lyrics were printed with it as an alternate verse. However, no one can name the person who wrote the birthday lyrics any more than we can know which cowboy first sang “Bury Me not on the Lone Prairie.”

In the early 1930’s, “Happy Birthday” was everywhere, being delivered by singing telegram and even sung on the Broadway stage. A third Hill sister, Jessica, decided that she’d had enough of people using her sisters’ song, and she was going to act to protect it. In 1935, the publisher of “Good Morning to All” copyrighted “Happy Birthday to You,” and even formed a new company specifically to enforce that copyright. The supposed composer of “Happy Birthday to You” was Preston Ware Orem, a piano-playing songwriter best known for weaving American Indian themes into orchestral music. Somehow the deal to protect the Hill sisters’ work included giving up their claim on authorship. Although everybody was stealing “Happy Birthday,” Orem looks to have crossed a line into plagiarism by actually taking credit for someone else’s song.

When a work is published, it is automatically copyrighted unless the author specifies a different license (such as the Creative Commons license, or simply releasing the work into the public domain.) Thus, the lyrics of “Happy Birthday” were copyrighted in 1924, not 1935, and the melody copyrighted 1893 at the latest. The publisher’s copyright and its extensions were not valid… not only because the company tried to copyright a song already copyrighted with a different composer’s name attached, but also because authorship of the lyrics is just plain unclear (neither of the songwriting Hills ever specifically claimed to have written the birthday verse.)

The phony 1935 copyright is now held by Warner Music Group, which collects about $2 million per year taxing the most-recognized song in the English language. Legal scholars view the copyright as invalid, yet artists are not exactly encouraged to challenge the music group and its Goliath parent.

And so “Happy Birthday to You” becomes a glaring example of how intellectual property law can be twisted to work against the interests of artists and instead promote the interests of those who already have some money. Copyright laws have also limited the techniques available to artists, from the folk writing process to sampling, and in their current form they constitute a real cultural attack. Joe Hill wouldn’t be framed for murder and executed today, they’d lock him up forever for copyright infringement. Eyes on the Prize, a documentary about the Civil Rights movement, was actually held back from going to video for several years, partly because of a scene which featured Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a birthday cake.

“Happy Birthday to You” is not under any legitimate copyright. It is rightfully part of the common heritage of all people.

February 5, 2012

Pigs, in Cages, on Antibiotics

We experience many benefits from living in this modern world — great material wealth (A.C. units for the poor and such), pretty good expectations for health, formal equality between the sexes, a relative lack of violence, and for the most part the powerful don’t stick their domination in our face like the whip-wielding overseers of old.

So is everything great and nonviolent because we’ve evolved into enlightened Buddhas, or what?

If we had snazzy new social institutions that produced self-reliant and compassionate people, I could believe that. I have the feeling that our world’s lack of violence and overt oppression is actually the result of people having been trained into passivity. People are simply compliant towards their managers — most people won’t fight unless they’re ordered to, and no one needs to crack a whip on a worker who’s always willing. It isn’t simple to crush the (cantankerous, unpredictable)  human spirit and produce people who would volunteer for slavery. How are souls crippled on a mass scale?

It’s almost impossible to crush the spirit of a confident adult. They will come back from most kinds of tragedy and trauma and maiming, a little crazier, but still swinging. To consistently break people, you must break them as children. So, I’ll first take a look at our child-rearing institutions: school and television.

School

Most parents seem most concerned that their child’s education prepares that child for “a good job.” Educators tout children as “our most precious natural resource.” Oh no, have you seen what people do with precious natural resources? We have tacitly accepted that schooling is meant to produce a good corporate employee — a human resource, suitable for service to a bureaucracy. We hope that our children go far in education, so that they can be the most specialized, highly-paid corporate employees. Nevermind that two-thirds of millionaires are self-employed. The message that one must seek good employment under a patron has been so successful, that we went from a colonial America with two-thirds of households headed by a self-employed worker, to 18.5% self-employment in 1948, down to about 7.5% throughout the 2000’s (citation). Right from the get-go, we’re trained for dependency, and it is the norm.

I have a special feeling about this phenomenon of “employee-ism,” as it stands in a stark contrast to my dirt-worshipping worldview. In my religion, the generative power of Earth + Sun is the big sacred thing to organize life around. This is a viewpoint developed by ancient farmers, who were acutely aware of their dependence on earth, rain, sun, birds and bees and so on. They imagined gods behind natural phenomena, and tried to do right by these gods so that they would be able to keep on harvesting and living. Nowadays, employment is the big thing. People depend on “job creators” for abundance, and try to please those masters so that they might continue having money in their bank account and in this way be able to continue living. Bottom-dwelling janitors and garbagemen are low forms of life, unpleasing to the marketplace, and top-level executives with good teeth and sharp suits are what we should all aspire to. If it’s not a religion, employee-ism is certainly the dominant myth of our time.

So, employee-ism is one form of dependency that schooling fosters. As well, schooling extends childhood into the natural time for adulthood. Indeed, since adult minds are less plastic than young ones, this results in permanent  immaturity for most of the well-schooled (as evidenced during the GOP presidential debates?). Basically, a schoolroom is taking children out of the world and putting them in a laboratory for drama and psychological manipulation, isolated from adults except for the authority figure of the teacher. With one adult in the room, children compete for that person’s attention. The teacher can only do so much to dole out rewards and punishments to their oversized flock of children, so children end up in what a rat psychologist calls an “aperiodic reinforcement schedule.” Like a rat whose food-dispensing button is on the fritz, students’ minds react to their lack of control with frustration and increasing symptoms of psychological stress, sometimes including violent behaviors. Rats who cannot escape random punishments develop “Learned Helplessness,” the laboratory animal’s equivalent of clinical depression, arguably the distinctive mental disorder of the “developed” world. Those who don’t develop pathologies still aren’t striding through the natural maturation process — people just don’t mature by sitting in a plastic chair six or eight hours a day, performing almost meaningless tasks and competing for the attention of a parental surrogate. Just to prove the point: if there were no schooling, there would be no social ill of “teen pregnancy.” That is because, in the pre-schooling world, teenagers were adults considered ready to take care of themselves and raise children of their own.

School doesn’t even help academically. The Founding Fathers lived in a culture of self-education, where people ate up knowledge so that they could become more accomplished. George Washington did not enter school until he was eleven, at which time he could already read, write, and do simple math. He studied surveying for three years, and at the age of fifteen went to work earning the equivalent of six figures in today’s dollars. While surveying and amassing a real estate empire, Washington taught himself geography and astronomy. By the age of 18, he’d read all the works of Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Daniel Defoe, the Commentaries  of Julius Caesar, Morals  by Seneca, and other works by Roman generals. Yet, according to John Adams, he was “too illiterate, too unlearned, too unread for his station and reputation,” and other contemporaries agreed. What Washington really liked was dancing and riding horses, not being an intellect, yet his academic accomplishments are impressive enough by today’s standard. He spent three years at school, learning mainly surveying. Ben Franklin, writer, diplomat, inventor, pretty much the National Genius, was schooled for only two years (citation).

The important skills like literacy and numeracy can be learned in a few weeks, when the student is ready. What is going on during all those other years of education?

Our American system of schooling was intentionally and explicitly designed to produce docile workers,  as shown in this 1906 statement by Rockefeller’s General Education Board:

In our dreams…people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [intellectual and character education] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple…we will organize children…and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.

So, schooling encourages stupidity, subservience and immaturity, in the name of an efficiently-managed society. I have educator friends, and I know that you guys are trying your best to push against that system, to raise up kids who can think for themselves, and to teach powerful skills like literacy. I know, and I respect you for it. You have little chance with the system you’re in. A guard can only do so much to make prison nicer for the inmates.

Television

For most Americans, time not spent at school or work is spent under the blare of a television. According to Nielsen, the average American watches 4 hours of television in an average day, every day, for their entire life. Over a 65-year life, that totals to 9 years of solid gazing time. It’s amusing to see Americans as television-junkie couch potatoes, so go ahead and visualize a guy drinking canned beer, with orange Cheetoh fingerprints all over the white-T-shirted dome of his belly. Are you back?

Television is the new hearth. Instead of gathering around a fire, good for warmth, cooking, and generating relaxing alpha brainwaves, we gather around the television, often eating meals in front of it, and getting the same brainwave payoff as from a flickering fire. The chatter and friendly faces on television alleviate loneliness , just a tiny bit. And, television can captivate small children and temporarily prevent them from creating chaos. So having no hearth and maybe no friends, television is a necessary second-best. This may tend, however, to devalue actual human relationships.

While we like to deride television-watching as “mindless,” all that time spent watching is time spent learning, absorbing the truth as television presents it. Even though no one believes  that they are influenced by advertising, we know  that everybody is wrong on that count. First of all, big, for-profit corporations pay for most of the advertising on teevee. To those entities, even charitable giving is calculated to maximize profit. They find that $60 billion / year is about the optimum amount to spend on televised ads (citation).

To some extent, these ads are about brand choice. I may have been influenced by the pro-working-class Miller High Life delivery guy character to drink that beer instead of Budweiser, but that doesn’t concern me a lot because the choice between macrobrews was pretty meaningless to begin with. Ads are also designed to increase demand, even to create a demand where there was none before (how did life ever go on before Febreze?). Often the protagonist in an advertisement caves in to desires they know they should resist, or acts selfishly and puts the product above their human relationships. The programming around the paid ads is also advertising, for the most valuable programs create a buying mood — ever watch HGTV?

Comparing ourselves to the comfortable families on teevee, we experience “relative deprivation,” the feeling of doing worse than our neighbors. No, you cannot keep up with the Kardashians, but why would you even want to emulate those hopeless consumer addicts? Oh yes, real people are uglier than those on television. Sometimes you may catch a British show and be startled to see actors with imperfections such as crooked teeth or a droopy eye, but thanks to miracles of modern medicine, the people on American teevee are pretty close to flawless. You  need some new clothes, a little surgery, and a case full of Maybelline products.

It demeans human relationships and promotes consumerism and encourages passivity with its very form… there’s one last nasty effect of television worth mentioning. Television dominates our politics. For national-level positions, 94% of candidates spending the most money win. We could auction off Congressional seats, and not lose anything important from our democracy. Much of the ruling campaign / PAC money goes into television ads. These are so hopelessly small-minded and childish that it’s hard to imagine people being manipulated by them… a black background, scary violins, an unflattering still of Newt Gingrich and an ominous narrator claims that… NEWT EATS BABIES! I’m not sure what they’ve claimed about Newt lately, but the specific, rational content hardly matters. Either 1) voters have been so pacified by schooling and television that they lack the critical thinking ability of a voodoo zombie or 2) television ads exert sway over our subconscious minds, similar to hypnotic suggestion.

I can’t prove it at this point, but I believe that advertising is the most powerful force in mainstream American culture. Advertising may have more sway than reason, ideology, or religion — after all, it is the deciding force in elections, and not those other dusty old ideas. Today is Superbowl Sunday, a national festival of advertisement. Everyone is eager to see the newest innovations in the external control of their minds. We identify as employees, but relish the role of consumer.

A Well-Managed Life

If I am correct, people’s ability to determine the direction of their own life has been hollowed out by the vast time devoted to the passive pursuits of watching television and being schooled. Television specializes in creating artificial demand, and schooling specializes in letting every student know their proper place in the class hierarchy (mainly, the system needs worker bees). Welcome to the cycle of work-consume-sleep. It’s tempting to apply livestock metaphors to the half-people produced by this way of life. We are cattle, we are the herd, we’re sheeple. Or rather, all the people outside my own clique are cattle — our  little clan is totally above it!

Sheep need shepherds. We have a vast priesthood of experts to manage our unmanageable lives for us.

While the availability of quality food is abysmal and the validity of most nutrition research is questionable, a standing army of nutritional experts will happily tell you how to eat. The massive effort hasn’t helped the Average Person’s health any — that guy keeps getting fatter and sicker. The experts will tell you how much to drink — 1 drink per day for women, 2 for men. They’ll tell you what drugs are okay to use and which are not, and the consequences of stepping out of line on this count are drastic. There are experts to reassure you that your sex life is normal while telling you how you’re doing it wrong. Experts advise on exactly how to write a resume and conduct yourself during a job interview, and I have to wonder what differences a manager can even find between applicants #’s 1 and 2. Hell, today the television is full of talking heads advising you on how to understand the Superbowl, in case you can’t invent your own Superbowl comment to share around the water cooler tomorrow.

The cult of expert serves a greater evil — the consolidation of power in the hands of a few. The new power is a unity of government with big finance and leviathan-scale corporations: it goes by the names corporate fascism, corporatism, crony capitalism, the bailout state, oligarchy, plutocracy, or kleptocracy. Part of what these people want is to limit economic activity to establishments like Big Pharma, Big Food, and Hollywood. People who willingly follow expert advice, vote, work hard and consume mass quantities of corporate goods will experience a slowly declining quality of life and loss of rights. Those who resist the encroachment of a corporate-government Uberpower will be vilified as conspiracy mongers, terrorists or violent protestors.

I write this mainly from a blindered American perspective, but it is a worldwide phenomenon. Recently Greece’s democratically-elected Prime Minister Papandreou was ousted and replaced by the “technocrat” Papademos — a professional banker, the former employee of JP Morgan and the European Central Bank.

I will not accept a totally passive existence, with my personal life hanging on expert advice and my material and political life dictated by managers working for the corporatist monster. My own struggle is with depression, aka Learned Helplessness. I just can’t seem to deeply believe that I can change the circumstances of my life through my own actions. I will keep trying, though, so you keep trying and maybe someday we’ll both break out of our cages and meet out there beyond the barbed-wire fence.

Special thanks to Radiohead for recording the inspirational “Fitter, Happier.”

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