“I Stole A Song”

At last: I’ve found it!

Not the holy grail, not the place where pencils and single socks live, but the melody to Steel Guitars, James Damiano’s composition that Dylan allegedly stole and used for his song Dignity.

[see  this if you don't have a clue what I'm talking about (and this and this if you're still hungry for more)]

So – it is obvious to anyone who has heard Dignity and Steel Guitars, that Judge Simantle’s words:

To the ear of this court, there is no substantial similarity in the structure, instrumentation or melody of the two songs.

is a fairly precise judgement. The mystery that was beginning to nag me was where on earth Paul Greene had found the pitches that he presented in his court testimony as “The main melody of Steel Guitars”:

a'-g'-d'-e'-d'-b-g-a-b-a-g

How can it be that a trained musicologist can find enough identity between two melodies to support a claim of theft where common-sense judgement hears nothing of the kind?

Greene is courteous enough to define “melody” for us:

I define melody as the sequence or ordering of pitches in a single line of a musical composition.

But I could not for the life of me find any such “single line of a musical composition” in Steel Guitars.

One thing is the quasi-Schenkerian nonsense he presents — e.g. that

the notes (2) & (3) are just accompaniments of (1) when the note (2) or (3) precedes the note (1). [...] Theoretically the (2) note or (3) note in reference to this melody line can be considered the same note.

But the melody itself seemed to have been taken out of thin air in the first place.

Hm.

The methodology is fundamentally flawed, the application is deceiving, bordering on fraudulent, but surely, he couldn’t be that bad — he did, after all, graduate magna cum laude from Haaaavard.

So I sat down and listened one last time. I slowed it down to half speed, and when I isolated the left channel and yanked up the volume to an audible level — there it was! In the barely audible first run-through of the verse, before the steel guitars enter, there is actually something, half picked, half strummed, from which the following can be isolated (not, mind you, reduced), which actually matches with Greene’s sequence (which is marked with red in the transcription):

  G
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .   
|-5---3-----3-----|---------------3-|-----------------|
|---------3-------|-3---5---5-3---3-|---5---3-5-3---3-|
|-----------------|---------------0-|-------------0---|
|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|

                    D                                              
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----0-----0-----|---3-------------|-----------------|
|---0-----0-----0-|-2---2-2-4-2-0-2-|---2-2-2-4-2-0-2-|
|-0---0-----------|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------------|-----------------|-----------------|

                G
  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------------|-----------------|
|---2-2-2-4-2-0-0-|-----------------|
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------------|-----------------|
|-----------------|-----------------|

Right. So it wasn’t “a sequence of pitches in a single line” after all, as I had suspected all along, but pitches, chosen among many others to be  the most important ones. Pitches that are not played in sequence (i.e. one after another), but which appear in this sequence over the course of the musical composition, sometimes as melodic fragments (as in the beginning) sometimes as a condensation of a long passage (as in the end), and sometimes, it seems, picked out just to have something to pick out (as at the end of the first line, where the doodling can hardly be claimed to have a melodic character but is merely harmonic filler).

OK.

Fine. So, if these are the rules: if you’re allowed to leave out things at will, and apply stupid “transformational rules” such as the “(2)=(3) if it comes before (1)”, regardless of the harmonic and rhythmic context, then it’s not very difficult to show that two unrelated melodies share the same “melody”.

I Stole a Song

So I wrote this little tune, to lyrics which just came to me. Careful analysis will show that my composition is in fact identical to the melody of Steel Guitars (and, hence, of Dignity). What’s worse, the melody actually appears not once but twice in this short tune. And in fact, the melodic character of the sequence of pitches is even more pronounced here than in Steel Guitars, so the plagiarism should be even more apparent. I didn’t even use the (2)=(3) rule.

I recorded the song, of course, and it will be released on my next album, where I will shamelessly cash in on other people’s creative efforts:

I Stole A Song

Here’s a transcription of the stolen composition. Again, although it’s probably unnecessary, since the derivative nature is so obvious, I’ve marked the melodic line in red:

  Em                          Am            G
  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .  
|-------------|-------------|-0---2---3---|-5---3-------|
|-0---0---0---|-0-------0---|-------------|---------3---|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
 I  stole a   song,    I     took it from  someone who

  Cadd9         G/b           Am            D7
  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .  
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-5---3---0---|-5-3---------|-0---1---0---|-------------|
|-------------|---------0---|-------------|-2-----------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
 needed   the   money   more  dearly than   me

  B7            Em            D7            G  D/f# Em
  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .  
|-------------|---------0---|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-3---1---3---|-0-----------|
|-4---2---4---|-0-----------|-------------|-----2---0---|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
 I  was so    cruel    and   he  was a     fool, I make

  Am7           G             F             D7
  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .  
|-5-3---------|-------------|-5---3-------|-------------|
|-----------3-|-5-3---------|---------3---|-5-3---------|
|-------------|---------0---|-------------|---------0---|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
 millions   of dollars   and  he's left with nothing, I

  C#m7-5        B7            Fmaj7         E9
  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .  
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-5-------5-3-|-0-----------|-5-3-----5---|-0-----------|
|-------------|---------2-0-|-------------|---------0-2-|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
 swim in champagne,   I do  nothing  in   vain,   I don't

  A9            C9      B9-7  Em
  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .  
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-4-------2-0-|-3---2---0---|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-2-----------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
|-------------|-------------|-------------|-------------|
 care    I just tear out his soul.

Yes, I know: it sounds exactly like both Dignity and Steel Guitars. So now I’m just waiting to see who’s going to sue me first for this blatant theft: Dylan or Damiano.


4 thoughts on ““I Stole A Song”

  1. If you’ve spent more than a day with James Damiano, you’ll know the man doesn’t have a coherant thought in his body.

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