This Legal Conundrum We Call "The Blues"

... Just ran across a class action lawsuit that’s been filed by the few surviving original Delta and Chicago blues artists, along with relatives and estate representatives for dozens more who are deceased.


The suit alleged copywrite infringement by numerous original Delta and Chicago blues artists deceased or otherwise — to wit, that the defendants “stole” song structures without giving credit or royalties to the original writers.


The case is being called by legal scholars and entertainment lawyers as one of the most perplexing ever filed in the United States for one big reason.


“Essentially, the problem is that every blues song is exactly the same as every other blues song,” said Wyatt “Gatorboy” Reece, an Austin guitarist who once played in Blind Lemon Amputee’s band, and who writes a monthly column on blues history for True Roots Music Monthly.


“If you analyze any blues song, you’ll find that it’s essentially a I-IV-V chord progression,” Reece explained. “Well, not ‘essentially,’ it is a I-IV-V chord progression."

In fact, the rigid form has been ingrained in the blues for years; bluespioneer Robert Johnson was poisoned outside Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938 for daring to play a new song that wasn't a I-IV-V chord progression.” *


The only variations in any given blues tune, then, is what key it’s in, and whether the lyrics of the piece start with “I woke up this morning,” “My baby left me” or “I’m being chased by the devil" or a more generic demon or even some of Satan’s pets – most typically, a “hound” (to see actual footage of a "hellhound" in action, click here). But these minor variations are not deemed by most experts as sufficient to provide distinction in any given case.


Over the years, more and more bluesmen started to note a tendency in newer blues songs to rely on the original blueprint of the genre. Gradually, as one or another bluesman had success and scored royalty checks with a song that suspiciously bore eerie similarities to any of a number of earlier works, a collective feeling of disgruntlement swept through the clubs and record labels associated with blues artists. The musicians began to talk of filing a collective lawsuit for copywright infringement and to collect lost royalties.


But it wasn’t until the musicians and survivors banded together and several early documents were filed that the core issue began to surface.


“It’s sort of an embarrassment, really,” said attorney Marius Whuzzner of Sawyer, Carson & Whuzzner, a Los Angeles firm specializing in entertainment law. “What happened is that, since no one can authenticate who actually wrote the first blues song, and since they are all exactly alike, the very plaintiffs who brought the suit eventually discovered that -- oops! -- they are the defendants in their own litigation!”


As it stands now, the judge overseeing the case, the Honorable Geri Scoggins, has suggested the plaintiffs – which is to say the defendants – might want to reconsider the parameters of their original claims and possibly find a different way to define what precisely constitutes a “blues song.”


Attorneys on both sides—which is somehow the same side — have agreed to postpone further activity until an attempt at mediation can be made.


Only one of the original plaintiffs, Blind Tick Forbert, has dropped out of the civil suit, having reached an out of court settlement with himself.


More as things develop.

* Scholars suggest the off-putting chord structure Johnson played the night of his death bears an uncanny similarity to an entire Genesis concert that took place October 30, 1973 during their Selling England by the Pound tour.

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

The passing of Barkley Hendricks, and grown men wearing concert t-shirts

Is it appropriate for an adult man to walk around wearing the jersey of his favorite sports team? How about a concert t-shirt? Aren't we just paying a band for the privlege of advertising for them? Shouldn't they pay us? Plus, reflecting on the...

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame snubs, The Musical Box Genesis tribute, and the Knickerbocker All-Stars

Who deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Who's in the shouldn't be? Should music be a meritocracy similar to sports? Plus, Rick's thoughts on the Genesis tribute band The Musical Boz, and the Knickerbocker All-Stars.

New London Youth Talent Show, Bon Jovi, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night

The seventh annual New London Youth Talent Show is coming to The Garde on Saturday night, Bon Jovi is coming to Mohegan Sun Arena, and Flock Theatre is staging performance of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night" in real time in the...

Joshua Tree nostalgia, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin’s final tour

Was U2's The Joshua Tree a life-changing album, or is it overrated? Is the new Joshua Tree 30th anniversary tour a chance to cash in on nostalgia, or is the album relevant again in today's political climate? Plus: reflecting on the passing of Chuck...

Podcast: So you think you want to be a concert reviewer?

Some people think reviewing concerts is the coolest job in the world. Sometimes it is, but it's not always easy to write something that people will actually read. The Day's Rick Koster shares some things he has learned in his years writing about...

Eating at Guy Fieri’s and listening to bro-country

Rick Koster shares his thoughts on his recent dining experience at Guy Fieri's Kitchen+Bar at Foxwoods (Donkey Sauce! Trash Can Nachos!) and reveals his in-depth reseach into the Saturday party/Sunday church dichotomy in the lyrics of Florida...

Podcast: 20 years of The Rivergods

Rick Koster and Peter Huoppi discuss the longevity of New London band The Rivergods, and preview tracks from their new album "State of the Union." Also, cellist Matt Haimovitz plays Connecticut College.

Podcast: Rick and Kristy go to The Oscars

Rick Koster and Kristina Dorsey discuss the upcoming Academy Awards, plus The Subdudes atThe Garde and The Banff Mountain Film Festival at Connecticut College.

Podcast: The Grammys and King Crimson at opposite ends of the musical spectrum

Rick Koster and Peter Huoppi discuss the 2017 Grammy Awards and King Crimson's album Larks' Tongues in Aspic.

Podcast: Thor Jensen, Matt Charette and Super Bowl halftime shows

Rick Koster and Peter Huoppi look forward to upcoming performances by Thor Jensen and Matt Charette, and discuss the distinction between music and entertainment in the Super Bowl halftime shows.

Body painting, funky Zappa covers, and dying rock stars

After the death of John Wetton, Rick Koster and Peter Huoppi talk about losing your musical heroes. Also, Hygienic body painting, The CarLeans, Mike Casey Trio, and The Z3.

Podcast: Revisiting favorite teen albums

Rick Koster and Peter Huoppi offer their takes on each other's top album from their teenage years.

Hygienic weekend 2017 and the Facebook top ten album phenomenon

Rick Koster and Peter Huoppi talk about the upcoming Hygienic weekend in New London as well as the recent spate of "top ten album" posts on their Facebook feeds.