Author: Zuniga, Nancy

Taking Liberties

Years ago, comedian Woody Allen gave a most unfunny interview in which he advocated "capital punishment" for movie producers who had the audacity to colorize classic black-and-white films in order to make them more appealing to modern audiences. Allen's outrage stemmed from his belief that it was a crime for anyone to alter the content or appearance of an artistic creation when the creators were no longer around to protect or defend their original artistic vision. Of course, the practice of taking artistic license with another's work extends to virtually every artistic medium. For example, we've all seen humorous greeting cards with satirical interpretations of iconic paintings such as the Mona Lisa or American Gothic. If Leonardo da Vinci or Grant Wood could have known that their works of art would have been treated with such irreverence, I wonder if they would've hired a lawyer, or, like Woody Allen, demanded "capital punishment" for those who dared to tamper with their creations. Or would they have shrugged off the alterations, or perhaps even enjoyed a chuckle over them? After all, it has often been said that imitation is the highest form of flattery.

In our present-day litigious society, where a painting, song, or movie might potentially earn astronomical sums of money that our ancestors could never have imagined, one treads on slippery ground when reinterpreting pre-existing works without permission from those who originated those works. However, changing the lyrics of bluegrass songs, especially those that have been around for awhile, seems to be fair game. I'm reminded of a time when I was in a jam with Bob James and he called for the song "Banks of the Ohio." I cringed as I do every time someone suggests that song; murder ballads are not my cup of tea. But then Bob proceeded to sing a gentle love ballad in which the couple lived happily ever after "by the banks of the Ohio." It turns out that Bob isn't a big fan of murder ballads either, and he had revised the words to suit his own sensibilities. I was delighted with the new version, but I can only imagine that some purists would have been appalled by the changes. Of course we'll never know what the original author, whose name has been lost to antiquity, would've thought of the twist Bob put on his song.

Recently, Geoff Sargent noted in his welcome message that Cliff Carlisle had recorded the song "Footprints in the Snow". I had been under the mistaken impression that "Footprints in the Snow" was a Bill Monroe original, but a little research indicated that the song is credited to an early songwriter named Rupert Jones, and Cliff Carlisle's 1939 recording actually predates Bill's by thirteen years. After listening to Cliff's recording, I instantly had a whole new appreciation for a song that I had never liked. Rather than jumping straight from finding Nellie in the snow to placing her up in Heaven, Cliff included an all-important middle lyric in which he stated that the happiest day of his life was when Nellie became his wife. Prior to hearing that verse, I had thought the song macabre, as it seemed wide open to interpretation; I wondered if the singer had considered it a "happy day" when he found Nellie lying in the snow if only because her cold lifeless body could receive a decent burial rather than being left to the mercy of the elements and hungry wolves. Bill Monroe himself did nothing to dispel the ambiguity of his lyrics, as evidenced by a telephone conversation that took place some years ago between west coast fiddler Jim Moss and Bill's son James Monroe:

Jim Moss: So, ah.. James... can you ask your father something for me?
James Monroe: What is it?
Jim Moss: Well, it is about the song Footprints In The Snow....
James Monroe: The boy on the phone wants to ask you something about Footprints In The Snow.
Bill Monroe: What does he want?
Jim Moss: Ask him... (testing the waters) if in the song it is snowing?
James Monroe: The boy wants to know if it is snowing in the song..
Bill Monroe: Yes, it is snowing..
James Monroe: Yeah, it's snowing
Jim Moss: I thought so.. (that worked all right)
Jim Moss: Ok, ask him, does the girl gets lost out in the forest?
James Monroe: The boy from California wants to know if the girl gets lost out in the forest?
Bill Monroe: Tell him yes the girl is lost. (it sounds like Bill is reading or doing something else)
James Monroe: Yes the girl is lost.
Jim Moss: (also, now I am the boy from California!!, I wonder what the meaning of that is?)
Ok, ask him if she dies in the snow.. When he finds her, is she dead?
James Monroe: The boy wants to know if she dies in the snow?
Bill Monroe: ( pause.. ) Yes she dies out in the snow.
James Monroe: She dies in the snow.
Jim Moss: Well, now here is one last question, James: Why is it that he blesses that happy day when Nellie lost her way only to die in the show? Why is he happy that she is dead?
James Monroe: The boy wants to know why is it you are happy that she is dead?
Bill Monroe: (...real long pause....)
James Monroe: We have work to do here, is there anything else I can do for you?

Clearly, the Father of Bluegrass Music enjoyed messing with people, and equally clear is the fact that he had no qualms about altering the lyrics of pre-existing works to suit his own tastes.

Some years back, I added a third verse to the Vern Williams/Ray Park number "Thinking of Home." Unlike Bill Monroe's changes to "Footprints", my extra verse simply expanded on the theme of Vern and Ray's song rather than changing it. It's not that I thought there was anything wrong with the original version; on the contrary, I liked the song so much that I just wanted it to last a bit longer without having to repeat a verse when I sang it in a jam. I dared to approach Vern in Camp Spam one year and sing my third verse to him. Rather than being offended, he seemed happy that someone liked one of his songs enough to extend it for an extra minute. Perhaps Vern was just being polite, although from J.D.'s stories, I get the feeling that Vern wouldn't have pulled any punches if he had been offended.

More recently, my husband Henry added a couple of new verses to "Standing on the Mountain", an old song that has been recorded by the Delmore Brothers and Jim & Jesse, among others. Henry's additions actually do change the original content, giving the song a more upbeat ending. Thus far, he has received nothing but positive feedback on his new interpretation. I haven't been able to determine who was the original author of this song, but I'm hoping that he or she would be pleased. And I'm glad that Woody Allen isn't among the ranks of the bluegrass police.

Posted:  2/4/2010

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