The Borrowing (Not Stealing) Tradition

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January 5, 2013 by folkchris

Its’ pretty well accepted that many things in the world of entertainment are to some extent, re-interpretations of something that has previously existed under a different guise.  In current literature, critics have drawn significant parallels between best seller ‘Hunger Games’ (2008) and Japanese novel ‘Battle Royale’ (1999) just as ‘West Side Story’ (1961) for example, is a take on Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

In music, however, the notion of certain songs being ‘based on’,’ heavily inspired by’ or ‘sounding incredibly similar’ to other pieces is inevitable, yet at times, taboo.

Generally speaking, this is no accident. This is a practice which has been carried out for centuries, going back to the folk tradition known as ‘borrowing’.

‘Folk songs are all about borrowing. The idea of the totally original musician is a relatively recent development. Folk musicians have been reusing chord progressions and musical phrases for as long as such traditions have existed.’    

Such practice is not just limited to folk music, however. ‘Borrowing’ is present in many genres:  Country songs often use similar riffs and progressions to ‘typify’ a country song, many blues songs use similar rhyming patterns to express the ‘bluesy feel’ while Rap and R’n‘B  artists often use the technique of ‘sampling’ from other pieces (and genres) , a trait  which could be considered a modern day version of ‘borrowing’.

However, one must not confuse the art of borrowing, with the act of stealing. Stealing is stealing. Borrowing (at least in artistic terms) is merely taking a piece of music out of its original context and placing it within a new context, in order to make it relevant to a different audience, perhaps even a different generation.

In some respects, borrowing even ensures that the ‘life’ of a particular piece of music continues to exist, at least in some form. This can vary in different circumstances, from the melody or musical phrase simply being re-used or a particular chord progression being played to the song being performed in its entirety, acknowledging one’s source material of course.

However, this may also prove problematic, in the sense that artists may have made notable changes to a particular piece, thus altering the piece entirely, but are not given the deserved credit for their contribution to the song.  

A famous example of this concerns American ballad ‘The House of The Rising Sun’. The piece was re-worked (considerably) in the early 1960s by Greenwich Village based folkie Dave Van Ronk. Van Ronk’s version was then recorded by a then relatively unknown musician by the name of Bob Dylan. Van Ronk recalls:

‘…Bobby picked up the chord changes from me. They had really altered the song considerably…when he was doing his first album he recorded my version of ‘The House of the Rising Sun. After he recorded it, I had to stop singing it because people were constantly accusing me of having got the song from Bobby’s record…later, when Eric Burdon and ‘The Animals’ picked up the song (from Bobby) and recorded it, Bobby told me that he’d had to drop the piece, because people were accusing him of ripping it off Eric Burdon’ (Scorsese 2005)



Given that that particular song is a public domain piece, the reality of that scenario is that all musicians concerned are simply actively engaging in the ‘borrowing tradition’. To the onlooker, as Van Ronk illustrates, each artist is being seen to be ‘ripping off’ each other.

Of course Dylan would go on to famously borrow vast quantities of material, his early discography being heavily informed by this tradition:

Hard Rains’ A-Gonna Fall’ (a rework of ‘Lord Randall’)’The Walls of Red Wing’ ( melodically based on Scottish folk ballad ‘The Road and the Miles To Dundee’) ‘Masters of War’ ( based on English medieval  folk song ‘Nottamun Town’) ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ ( melody borrowed from slave song ‘No More Auction Block’) ‘Girl from the North Country’ (based on ‘Scarborough Fair’).

‘Girl from The North Country’ (Dylan 1963) is perhaps the best example of a borrowed tune being successfully introduced into a new context and ultimately, to a new audience.

While in England, filming the ill-fated ‘Madhouse on Castle Street’ in 1962, Dylan met a young English folksinger by the name of Martin Carthy. According to Carthy’s account, Dylan would frequently ask him to play ‘Scarborough Fair’ among other traditional pieces. Dylan (went to Italy) and returned with his re-work of ‘Scarborough Fair’ entitled ‘Girl from the North Country’.

‘It was delightful, lovely ‘cos, I mean he…he made a new song’ recalls Carthy.

The song was well received on the other side of the Atlantic and made it onto Dylan’s second LP: ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’. (Dylan 1963)

Six years later, it would be re-worked and re-recorded by Dylan and Jonny Cash for inclusion onto Dylan’s ninth LP ‘Nashville Skyline’ (Dylan 1969). Recorded with one of the biggest names in country music and with a stunning Nashville session band, this was effectively Dylan’s ‘country album’. 



In terms of the borrowing tradition, what had started life as an English folk ballad, had been placed in a new context, re-worked, re-vamped and successfully presented to an entirely new audience.  

In 1996, Jonny Cash recorded a track called ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ for Rick Rubin’s ‘American’ label. (Cash, 1996)

A few years later, when I heard the piece, I just assumed that this was a Cash original, an elderly icon reminiscing about his career in music.

I discovered however, that this track was actually an Australian song, written in 1959 b Australian songwriter Geoff Mack, and recorded by Lucky Starr in 1962. It had been released (by Lucky Starr)as an EP, including four different versions of the same song. The song’s protagonist really had ‘Been Everywhere’ as the EP included Australian, American, British and New Zealand versions of the song.  

Perhaps this could be seen as an albeit, slightly bizarre example of a songwriter ‘borrowing’ from oneself and ultimately designing alternate versions of the same song to appeal to and resonate with different audiences on different continents.


Even prior to Cash’s version, however,  the song had already been a number one hit in the country charts for Hank Snow in 1962 as well as being recorded by a whole list of other musicians.

Cash’s rendition, would therefore, be considered a ‘cover version’ as opposed to a ‘borrowed’ song, as it was a piece that was ‘at home’ anyway, in the country genre.

In 2011, pop star Rihanna released her sixth studio album ‘Talk That Talk’. One of the album’s notable tracks was a dance-pop and techno song titled ‘Where Have You Been’ in which the song’s protagonist has been everywhere, ‘lookin’ for someone’ who can ‘love me all night long’.  

While the song is aimed at a modern day audience, familiar with the content of Rihanna’s music, the song’s refrain and melody are indeed, very much borrowed from Geoff Mack’s 1959 hit ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’.

Thus, taking the lyric and out of its original context and presenting it in a new context, to a new audience, over 50 years after it has been conceived.

As I previously noted, borrowing must not be confused with stealing. Rather, it should be embraced and acknowledged as a tremendous source of preserving music for new audiences in different contexts or generations who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to experience such music.



Borrowing from Folk Songs Available:


 [Accessed January 4 2013]

 Did The Hunger Games Really Rip Off Battle Royale? Available:

[Accessed January 4 2013]

 Dylan Discography. Available:

[accessed January 4 2013]

 Dylan Influences . Available:

[accessed January 4 2013]

Fellow Folks Available:

[accessed January 4 2013]

 ‘Ive Been Everywhere Man’ Hank Snow version:

[Accessed January 4 2013]

 I’ve been  Everywhere’ Lucky Starr version. available:

[Acceseed January 4 2013]

Rihanna Lyrics Available:  

[Accessed January 4 2013]

 Shakespeare Plays. Available:

[Accessed January 4 2013]


Cash J (1996) Unchained [CD]USA: American  51011 2793-2

Dylan  B (1963) The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan [CD] USA: Columbia 5 12348 2

Dylan B (1969) Nashville Skyline [CD] USA: Columbia 5 12346 2

Dylan B (1991) Bootleg Series Volumes 1 – 3 [CD] USA: Columbia 02-488100-10


No Direction Home (2005)Directed by Martin Scorsese [DVD] USA. Paramount



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