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Tim Chipping

Ranting & Reeling

Tim Chipping’s monthly column

A New York band called Satorii are involved in a legal campaign to have Woody Guthrie’s 1945 protest song This Land Is Your Land declared as public domain, alleging that the copyright was never renewed. They’re using the same law firm that recently freed Happy Birthday from its publishing shackles so they stand a good chance. Regrettably Satorii’s own recording of This Land Is Your Land sounds like someone in the studio sat on the demo function of a Casio keyboard, but it’s proof the song endures in the public imagination.

It got me thinking about the often uttered adage that today’s hits are tomorrow’s folk songs. And how I’ve always thought that was balls. When we sing a pop song, even if we do it in an unfettered regional accent at a folk club floor spot, we know its history and authorship. Robbie Williams’ Angels will never not be Robbie Williams’ Angels, no matter how many weddings, funerals and children’s nativities it’s inappropriately bawled at.

The difference between a traditional song and a pop song is surely the unknowability of its past. Authorless, placeless, scraps of a lost entertainment; a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world of cross-dressing sailors, fratricide and mistaken swan shootings. They may once have been of the people but it’s their mystery we revived and fetishised.

But as often happens when I think a theory is watertight, the guillemot of inconvenient truth shoves its beak through my hull.

I’m watching film of Elvis Costello playing live at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. He’s paused the performance to show the audience a clip of his father Ross McManus singing Pete Seeger’s If I Had A Hammer. It was first recorded in 1950 by Pete’s group The Weavers, then twelve years later the song was a pop hit for Peter, Paul & Mary and a smash for Trini Lopez over here. And yet, like This Land Is Your Land, it’s transcended its origins to become… well what? Not an oral tradition. At Junior School we sang it from thin soft-cover books, the colour of faded jeans. But we knew nothing more about it. We accepted it in our young minds as a song to be sung whenever 400 or more children reluctantly gathered, alongside Sydney Carter’s hymn erroneously insisting Jesus claimed to be Lord Of The Dance.

If I Had A Hammer made a bid for the charts as recently as 1999 in a version by Handy Andy who, for younger readers, was a sort of Olly Murs for the daytime DIY show generation. For older readers, Olly Murs is a sort of Robbie Williams for the given-up-trying-completely generation. It’s a song so ubiquitous that Handy (if that is his real name) trusted we’d get the joke. Although sadly he never completed the accompanying concept album If I Were A Carpenter, Oh Wait I Am Literally A Carpenter.

So now I don’t know what to think about Angels. Perhaps one day, following a successful legal challenge to EMI Publishing it will become a song of the people; people who won’t know or care it once saved Rob’s post-Take That career from the dumper. “And through it all she did offer I protection…” [insert floating verse about the angel visiting his girlfriend in the night; accordeon solo to fade.]

Tim Chipping


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