If writers and musicians have a token bird that symbolises what they do, it is not, however much they may like it to be, a nightingale, a skylark or a peacock.
It’s a magpie.
We are all, while writing, scavenging around for something shiny and brilliant from the past to take back to our own little nest.
In my view, there are no exceptions to this rule of creativity – indeed, one could argue that the greater the writer, they more he or she helps themselves to little gifts from their fellow-writers. ‘Stealing’ may seem too harsh a word to describe this process – some might prefer ‘influence’ or ‘inspiration’ – but I think it’s the right one. No one who is any good is entirely innocent of a little pick-pocketing now and then.
The brilliantly talented subject of the first of my series of short videos Some Songs I Have Stolen is a case in point. When Paul Simon returned to America from hanging out in English folk clubs in the early 1960s, he returned with a hatful of songs and tunes he learned from young folkies like Martin Carthy, the most famous of which was ‘Scarborough Fair‘, and he weaved them into his pioneeringly original first album The Paul Simon Songbook.
Throughout his career, Paul Simon took rhythms and riffs from around the world (notably South Africa, Brazil and Cuba) and let them act as a sort of springboard into his own songs.
The most perfect example of the process is one of his greatest songs ‘An American Tune’. The melody, as is now well-known, was taken from one of the chorales in JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion. What makes the example revealing is that Bach himself borrowed it from a hymn written in 1653 called ‘O Haupt voll Lut and Wunden’, Translated as ‘O Sacred Heart Now Wounded’ which, in its turn, used the melody of a secular song, written in around 1600 by Hans Leo Hassler, called ‘Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret’
So the confessions behind Some Songs I Have Stolen are perhaps not so shocking. But they are interesting, I think.
Every week, I’m going to take one of my songs and fossick around for the influences and musical ideas that helped it along its way. It also happens to be a perfect excuse for me to talk about songwriters I love and how their songs work.
And if those who watch the short videos on Facebook and YouTube are shocked by the acts of theft they reveal, I promise not to be too upset.
After all, I’m in good company.