Sunday, December 28, 2003

I Write The Songs…

There's an interesting letter exchange in this month's edition of Country Yossi magazine.

A reader writes:
Dear Country Yossi,
I happen to be a very avid reader of your Family Magazine and I do enjoy it very much. However, I read your response to a letter you printed in the November issue, written to you by a reader who complimented Pinky Webber on the great job he did adapting your song of the 'Deaf Man'. I realize how even though you did acknowledge the beauty of his work, you felt you should have been credited for originating the storyline. I find this very odd, being that your whole success is owed to your talent of swiping tunes from the great secular artists of our time, and interestingly enough, I don't recall seeing you credit any of the males or females who worked extensively writing and performing their songs making them the success they are now. You then just conveniently came along and benefited from their work without even the smallest bit of recognition.
Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with adaptation, but as you say, give credit where credit is due.
Yasha Zagu (via email)
Country Yossi responds:
Dear Yasha,
You make a good point, but let me explain. When I first wrote the songs for CY and the Shteeble-Hoppers in 1983 they were parodies of monster #1 hits that I assumed everybody knew and enjoyed. A big part of the charm of those songs was the cute re-working of lyrics to give them a Yiddishe message or slant. It never entered my mind that people would assume these were original works and I never claimed they were. It was only later when people started stopping me on the street to tell me Kenny Rogers and Johnny Cash were stealing my songs that I realized I should set the record straight. Thus, when we reprinted our inserts we made sure to specify which songs were parodies (and of which songs) and which were original (yes, I do write some of those too). Today all of our lyrics sheets feature that information.
But all that aside, I would think there would be a different standard within the frum community between artists who are readily available to each other and who want to use each others material. A quick phone call is all it would take to do things right. I remember R' Shlomo Carlebach a"h complaining to me about people using his material without permission or accreditation.
By the way, back in '83 I did try to reach the original artists for permission but couldn't get to them and was subsequently told that parodies and satires were permitted in any case (especially religious oriented ones for a specific ethnic market).
Be that as it may, I still think that if someone is going to, in effect, translate my lyrics into Yiddish on a recording he should at least have the mentchlichkeit to give me a call or at least credit inside.
It's a good thing it doesn't bother me!
The issue of properly attributing and compensating artists for their songs is not new. Here's one presentation of the issue. There are two separate issues here. One is the proper attribution of songs to their rightful composers.

The second issue is the matter of compensation to the original artist when their song is used. I'll leave that lengthy discussion for another post.

With regard to the first issue, this example will illustrate the problem. In 1999 Michael Steinhardt wrote: (scroll down)
First off - Michoel Schnitzler has a new tape, called "Simcha Chassidit" (A Hasidic Simcha), on which he includes some original compositions, and quite a few covers. All the latest wedding tunes from MBD, Dedi, Dachs, Fried and the rest are jumbled into Schnitzler's medleys. He's entitled - Yochi Briskman (the producer of 'Simcha') has been doing similar work with Neginah Orchestras and the Project X series of albums. Needless to say, Briskman credits each composer on the album insert.
Except for one song. And the song is unmistakable. It is Ata Takum by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, zt"l. The album's producers credit "Traditional" with composing this tune. I find this extremely insulting and egregious. If they don't want to associate Reb Shlomo's name with the album - they shouldn't use the song. I think everyone with a shred of conscience should prevail upon Yochi Briskman and Michoel Schnitzler to rectify this mistake. It's not just stealing; it's stealing from the departed.
I find it hard to believe that they didn't know it was a Carlebach tune and agree that it should have been credited as such on that album. I think that all artists should acknowledge their sources whenever they use someone else's work. This should apply whether the tune they are covering has Jewish or secular origins.