Music Nerds! I Need Your Help

I know this is a dorky thing to wonder, but I’ve got it fixed in my brain now, so here it is. You know Alan Jackson? He sings “Mercury Blues,” in which is contained the line “gal I love, stole her from a friend, he got lucky stole her back again.”

This is a cover. The original is K. C. Douglas’s “Mercury Blues” (sometimes called “Mercury Boogies”), which dates from 1949. He sings “girl I love I stole from a friend, the fool got lucky stole her back again.”

Robert Johnson, in ’36, in “Come On in My Kitchen,” sings “the woman I love, took from my best friend, some joker got lucky, stole her back again.”

Then, back in ’31, Skip James, in “Devil Got My Woman,” sings “The woman I love took off for my best friend, but he got lucky, stole her back again.”

I can see why people borrow the shit out of that line, it’s great. But I wonder if you know of any instances of it older that James’s?

10 thoughts on “Music Nerds! I Need Your Help

  1. It’ s not dorky. It’s a field! And it leads to the interesting reminder that (as is often the case) the “earlier than the Delta” appearance of this blues verse was not in so-called “folk” or country blues, but in Ida Cox’s “Worried Mama Blues,” recorded 1923. Vaudeville. My friend Elijah Wald helped out with that one.

  2. I am so not as familiar with the old blues women as I should be. I think the problem is that Bessie Smith was my introduction and, though I love Bessie Smith, I sometimes find her a difficult listen.

    But Ida Cox? Wow. She’s flooring me. How have we not managed to carry these songs forward with us?

    And yep, there indeed, in 1923 is “I stole my man from my best friend, but she got lucky and stole him back again.”

    Ha, so, it’s funny. Have we basically established that you can claim copyright on something you demonstrably stole (though I think “stealing” is a problematic concept in this case)? Man, being the copyright lawyer trying to sort out ownership of all these old blues songs must be a riot.

  3. They’d get copyright on variations, on the flow of verses in a recorded song–and then see if anybody pay. (Kind of the way they still do…

    There’s a more convincing case to be made, at this point, that an awful lot of the rural blues was the hick guys’ adaptations, best they could manage, of what more sophisticated performers–mostly women–were doing in town and on records, than the other way around, which is the way generations of people were taught, and the way folkies, folklorists and others dedicated to the myth of isolation wish were true!

  4. That’s one thing that just FLOORED me about Gordon and Nemerov’s Fisk book–the wide, wide range of music Muddy Waters knew and could perform. I mean, it makes sense–he was basically the bandleader of the house band at the Stovall Plantation and would have had to have known music that would have been pleasing to both black and white audiences. But that was the first moment when I really understood that the whole myth of the isolated genius who has maybe the help of the Devil and an easily traceable musical lineage that extends only to other rural Mississippi (or possible Arkansas) men was bullshit.

    Of course, if you want to play music, especially if you want to play music for a living rather than doing the backbreaking labor of working in the fields, you would love music, so you’d be keeping up on what was popular, AND you’d be trying to play stuff you thought your audience would like, so you’d be keeping up on what was popular.

    But, yeah, a lot of folks are still really invested in the idea of these lone isolated geniuses.

  5. It has always, always been possible to copyright these variations and arrangements within copyright law. But if you mean that, say, Skip James is a joker, Casey, for recording a line in one context that Ida Cox recorded in another (and how old was it then!), or Alan jackson worked a turn on decades later–we just couldn’t have a continuing roots music tradition–and profession– at all if they couldn’t do those things; but they can. Repurposing a crusty line or two is not stealing a song.

  6. I just wanted to let you know that today at a conference of librarians (we move in conferences, like a murder of crows or a pod of whales) there was a presentation on using music to teach college kids not to plagiarize, and I quoted this post. It was fun to hear the moderator boom out over the microphone “That’s Tiny Cat Pants Dot Com”.

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