stevenarntson on 10/12/2009 at 08:08AM
In 1931, the Carter Family recorded a song called "Can't Feel At Home," a spiritual about storing up treasure in heaven in the face of the world's cruelty. The chorus contains the line "I can't feel at home in this world anymore." The catalog of copyright entries produced by the Library of Congress Copyright Office contains the following notice for A.P. Carter:
Can't feel at home ; words and melody by A.P. Carter. © 1 c. Aug. 25, 1931; E unp. 45219 ; Southern music pub. co., inc., New York. 21378
A.P.'s lyric and melody is substantially equivalent to another song called "This World Is Not My Home," by Albert E. Brumley, who copyrighted his words and melody in 1936, five years after Carter. Despite the suggestion of authorship suggested by these copyrights, the song is older than either of these versions. In his essay, "Roots of Bluegrass Music," Richard L. Matteson Jr. charts its history, which reaches back in print to a 1909 hymnal and likely long before that in the oral tradition. There are two recordings that predate that of the Carter Family. One is by Sam Jones, from 1924, and the other is by The Kentucky Thorobreds, from 1927.
Sometime in the late 1930s, Woody Guthrie heard a version of the song and penned a parody of it titled "I Ain't Got No Home," which considerably changes the tone of resigned worldly rejection of the original spiritual. The line "Angels beckon me to heaven's open door/And I can't feel at home in this world anymore," becomes "Rich man took my home and drove me from my door/And I ain't got no home in this world anymore." The earliest recording of "I Ain't Got No Home" that I know of is from 1940, made by Folkways chronicler Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.
Sixty-eight years later, in 2008, I heard "Can't Feel and Home" and "I Ain't Got No Home," and felt the latter lyric connected well with some lyrics I was writing for what would become The Emerald Arms suite. I decided to arrange "I Ain't Got No Home" as the second movement. After creating the recording and sheet music of the entire work, I set out to discover whose permission I should ask before giving the suite away online as free recordings and a score.
Because the melody dates back to 1909, it's in the public domain (the current cutoff for which is 1923). Guthrie's lyric, on the other hand, is not. Two companies own different rights to it. The Richmond Organization (TRO) owns the rights to reproducing the song's sheet music and the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) owns the rights to reproducing sound recordings of the piece.
I approached TRO first, sending them the score I'd written for concertina and voice, which contains many annotations specific to my purpose as well as modifications to the tune's melody and chords. A few weeks later I received a letter from TRO. "We are enclosing our music copy of I AIN'T GOT NO HOME," they wrote, "and request that you use the "words and music" from the enclosed copy in your book." The following page contained a photocopy of the melody line of Woody's lyric from what looked like a children's book, accompanied by a cartoon of a guy's butt protruding from the front door of a house.
As TRO was evidently unwilling to discuss the particulars of my arrangement, I decided, regretfully, to remove Woody's lyrics from the score.
I approached HFA next about securing a mechanical/digital license, hoping for a better resolution. Their website, HarryFox.com, boasts an automated fee calculator called SongFile, which represents over two million songs. The standard fee is 9.1 cents per copy up to 2,500 copies; beyond that, a non-automated license must be negotiated.
My previous album, The Devil's Dreamworld, has thus far been downloaded from the Internet Archive fifty thousand times. Were a similar number of downloads to accrue, at the 9.1-cent-per-copy rate, for my version of "I Ain't Got No Home," I'd owe HFA almost five thousand dollars, though my use will have generated no income for me.
I met with a copyright lawyer (through the nonprofit group Washington Lawyers for the Arts) to see if there were any other, less expensive option for releasing the song. The lawyer empathized with my frustrations and confirmed that I had explored the correct avenues. At the end of our meeting, he said, "If Woody knew, he'd roll over in his grave."
The folk process is as old as music, and depends on the ability of musicians to adapt from existing sources. A.P. Carter heard an old spiritual, probably while on the road, and arranged it for the Carter Family as "Can't Feel At Home." Woody Guthrie took "Can't Feel At Home" and modified it further into "I Ain't Got No Home." As copyright laws become more restrictive, the folk process suffers. When Woody sings, "Rich man took my home and drove me from my door," it relates not only to the human right to shelter, but also to the human right to culture.
For now, I'm distributing the sound recordings of The Emerald Arms without the second movement, and the sheet music (through the Petrucci Music Library) without Guthrie's lyrics. I hope eventually I'll be able to include these elements as I originally intended.
Composing, notating, and recording The Emerald Arms has occupied me for two years. I'm proud of the effort, and I hope you enjoy the music. Thank you for supporting this project.
Seattle, Washington 2009