[Hype Hype Hooray] Beck Hansen and the Reprise of True Folk Music

Hype Hype Hooray is a biweekly “critique” of the music scene and the blogosphere that feeds it, told through the lens of Jamie Hale, a journalist who likes music about as much as he likes scotch and a firm leather chair. Please enjoy with a grain of salt.

There’s been a lot of interesting buzz lately about our old friend Beck Hansen. Nearly two decades after making stoners swoon with genre-bender “Loser,” he’s releasing a new album that defies expectations once again. He’s not experimenting with genre or style, as the man is wont to do, but with the concept of the album. As you might well know, Beck isn’t releasing a recording, he’s releasing sheet music.

The idea is invoking a lot of praise from business-minded critics who argue the move will circumvent pirates, will generate more interest for his inevitable tour and will be a generally interesting experiment.

But the sheet-music album, appropriately called Beck Hansen’s Song Reader, goes much deeper than music revenues and crowd sourcing – it takes America, and the world, back to a long-forgotten era of music. It takes us to the era in which songs didn’t belong to the people who wrote them, but to the people who learned them, played them, and passed them along.

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Over the last few months I’ve been burying my nose into Chasing the Rising Sun, a book by journalist Ted Anthony about the complicated history of “House of the Rising Sun.” “Complicated history?” you might say. “What’s so complicated about a song written by The Animals in 1964?”

See that? See what you just said there? THAT’S what’s so complicated about the history of the song. Contrary to popular belief, The Animals didn’t write the song. Neither did Bob Dylan or Joan Baez or Lead Belly or the dozens of other musicians who recorded it before 1964. In fact, nobody actually wrote it at all.

“House of the Rising Sun” is a perfect example of a song that belongs to nobody, as well as everybody. The tune was “discovered” by folklorist Alan Lomax after a 1937 household performance from 16-year-old Georgia Turner, who allegedly learned it from her grandparents. It’s even said, although there is little proof, that the Appalachian ballad originated in 18th century England.

Like so many other folk songs, “House of the Rising Sun” has remained fluid across time – there are no set lyrics or tune, and it’s basically up for interpretation. Some versions don’t even include a House of the Rising Sun or New Orleans at all. Because of its “traditional” status, nobody can really call it their own, not even The Animals.

Today, however, we get caught up in the idea of ownership of a song. “I own this song because I wrote this song, and if you use my song you’ll pay, man,” Lars Ulrich says to the mirror every night. But as Anthony points out, this simply wasn’t the case before the advent of recorded music.

When “House of the Rising Sun” bounced around the backwoods of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, and on trains from Mississippi to Georgia to western Pennsylvania, it was nothing more than an idea. Some versions collected by Lomax and other folklorists, who lugged ancient tape recorders through small Appalachian towns, contained rambling verses from other songs or contained original verses made up by the musicians themselves.

People picked up “House of the Rising Sun” or “Rising Sun Blues” or simply “Rising Sun” from some friend, relative or traveller and sang it as they remembered it, naturally evolving the tune. By the time the song reached The Animals, by way of Bob Dylan, by way of Dave Van Ronk, by way of Hally Wood, by way of Alan Lomax, by way of Georgia Turner, it was very different than the traditional tale of caution belted out from mountain porches decades earlier.

In this way, the song perfectly encapsulates the romantic idea of the folk tune – a song that belongs to nobody and everybody, a tune carried by boat, train and foot, across continents and through time, always changing and ever-evolving.

Like it or not, that romantic notion is dead.

With the advent of instantaneous global communication came the advent of obsessive authorship. The internet allows for more plagiarism than a high school cafeteria, but when an offender is caught, it’s usually a pretty big deal.

Take the recent Beach House/Volkswagen scandal, for instance. When Volkswagen couldn’t secure the rights for Beach House’s “Take Care,” they recorded a soundalike, a song that used a very similar tune and featured very similar lyrics. The hive mind of the internet immediately noticed and the company quickly issued an apology and pulled the ad. While, in a way, their soundalike harkens back to the old folk tradition, it’s a major offense today.

And why shouldn’t it be? Beach House wrote an original song that is theirs. Blatantly ripping off an artist is unoriginal, uninspired and generally a horrible thing to do. But that sentiment is relatively new. Alongside “House of the Rising Sun” were thousands of other authorless songs played and even recorded by countless different musicians over time.

But as technology has pushed us to claim stronger authorship over music, it has also pushed artists to write more original works. I can’t tell you how many great songs my high school garage band wrote before realizing we were ripping off The Kinks or The Stooges or Tall Boys or The Hives. Instead of pushing on with our blatant rip-offs, we were forced to scrap the songs and write something more original.

Gone are the days when one pop group can record another pop group’s song without fear of repercussion. Gone are the days when any garage band can fill their debut LP with their favorite covers. Gone are the days when a song can bounce around the world, changing as different musicians interpret it over time.

In many ways this is a great thing! The push for authorship forces artists to be more original, which in turn requires a stronger sense of authorship, which in turn forces artists to be even more original. Today we have a broader, more creative world of music that can give us fully-realized songs like “Take Care” on fully-realized albums like Teen Dream.

But as the world grows more interconnected, isn’t this a prime time for that romantic idea of the folk song to return? Imagine the journey of a song interpreted by the entire world, American and European and Asian and African, across hundreds of genres and millions of creative minds, all instantaneously. What kind of incredible result would we see?

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Thanks to Beck, we might just get to see what that journey looks like. Song Reader encourages people to not just buy and listen to a piece of music, but to participate in it. The people who buy the sheet music and play his songs will interpret them in their own way, using their personal experiences and musical influences to craft something unique.

In a way, Beck is putting a modern spin on the oral tradition that spread “House of the Rising Sun.” The songs are still his – he still wrote the music and words and can still claim ownership. While people can’t necessarily change the tunes or the lyrics (although I doubt very much that Beck would care if they did), they can still make them their own.

Maybe, like “House of the Rising Sun,” some artist will record a masterful version of one of Beck’s new songs. Maybe people will eventually attribute the songs to the people who played them the best and maybe Beck’s authorship will fade over time. While Beck Hansen’s Song Reader can’t change the world, it can take us back to a world that we have all but forgotten – one where music belonged to the world and one to which we can never truly return.

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