Slim Wilson had a miserable life. He crossed the country as a tramp in the traditional sense, hopping trains and acquiring a variety of scars from bullets and knives. Slim worked odd jobs and played the dice for cash, but he proudly maintained he wasn’t a gambler—rather, he was a cheat. When he first met the folklorist Bruce Jackson in 1964, he was also a pimp, serving time for murder, and in Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery. On top of all that, Jackson thought Slim was one of the best poets and toast-narrators he’d ever heard.
Throughout their time together, Slim told Jackson personal tales from his life and multiple toasts, a highly absurd, humorous, and ribald kind of narrative Black folk poetry. Ten years later, Slim was prominently featured in Michael Jackson’s 1974 toast-themed book, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me, and you can hear him practicing his art on the album that has the same name from 1976. As he drops crude line after crude line in his thick Arkansas drawl, Slim sounds simultaneously unconcerned and happy. As he gets closer to a bawdy punch line, his laidback demeanor gives way to excitement throughout.
I’m raggedy I know, but I have no stink/and God bless the lady that’ll give me a drink/and Hobo Ben, the titular tramp, strides into a party and begs the hosts, Ladies of culture and beauty so exquisite, is there one among you that will grant me wine/.
With a grin, heavy-hipped Hattie turned to Nadine and stated, “That funky motherfucker definitely needs a bath, child.” These toasts are nearly as mild as they come.
Although you wouldn’t know it right now, Hobo Ben seems to have gained some new fans in Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck nearly 60 years after Jackson released Slim. They appear to have taken some lines from Hobo Ben for their song “Sad Motherfuckin Parade,” which has the lyrics “You best try to keep you ass in this nook of shade/cause if the Man come you make a sad motherfuckin parade,” off their latest album, 18. Some of the phrases from Sad Motherfuckin Parade that were cited above, like Im raggedy, I know, but I have no stench, God bless the lady that’ll give me a drink, and What that funky motherfucker truly needs, child, is a bath, are also present in the song. There is no mention of Slim Wilson, Bruce Jackson, or Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me on 18, Sad Motherfuckin Parade is credited to Beck and Depp.
Jackson asserts that the only two passages that “Depp and Beck” are responsible for are Big time motherfucker and Bust it down to my level. Other information was taken from Slims’ performance in my book. Ive never met anything like this. This is the first time in my 50 years of publishing that someone has simply plagiarized something and given it their own name.
(Slim is a pseudonym, it should be emphasized. To avoid difficulties with their wardens, Jackson offered aliases to everyone he spoke to who was confined. Slim’s real name, according to Jackson, a Distinguished Professor at the University of Buffalo, was either Willy or Willie Davis. (Rolling Stone attempted to learn more about Davis using the information that was available, but was unsuccessful because Davis was in his 50s when Jackson first met him in 1964.)
A representative for Depp and Beck’s record did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone.
Michael Lee Jackson, the son of Jackson, is an attorney who specializes in music and intellectual property (Michael also moonlights as a musician and once played with Deep Purples Ian Gillan). He emphasizes that neither a lawsuit nor a letter indicating one has been sent; rather, he and his father are researching potential legal possibilities. But Michael is positive that the Sad Motherfuckin Parade’s current credits are false.
They don’t accurately represent who wrote those songs, he claims. That Johnny Depp or anybody else could have sat down and composed those lyrics without virtually entirely stealing them from whatever version of my father’s album and/or book where they appeared is just not conceivable in my opinion.
It’s improbable that Depp and Beck independently came up with the lyrics of Sad Motherfuckin Parade, according to lawyer and law professor Kevin J. Greene, who is renowned for his vast and ground-breaking work on Black music and copyright law. He claims that because the phrases are so similar, it appears like “Hobo Ben” served as the inspiration for their song.
I haven’t ever come across something like this. This is the first time in my 50 years of publishing that someone has simply plagiarized something and given it their own name. Douglas Jackson
Comparing Hobo Ben and Sad Motherfuckin Parade side by side may give the impression that the situation is straightforward, but making a solid legal argument is trickier. The fundamental query is who wrote what. Hobo Ben doesn’t have a clear author, like a lot of music and art from the oral tradition. Slim informed Jackson that his father taught him how to make the toast, and Jackson now adds, Not the word specificity, but the types of things that appear “in other toasts,” are what make the lines in it similar to other types of lines. It’s merely a staple of that genre, similar to a blues musician playing a specific riff.
Jackson points out that while the exact origins of toasts are unknown, they didn’t really start to appear in literature until the late 1950s. Folklorists didn’t really begin researching them until after pornography and obscenity laws changed in the early 1960s since they weren’t often published, let alone recorded. However, toasts continued to grow and be practiced everywhere from parties to prisons. And even though, in Jackson’s opinion, they started to fade with the rise of portable audio devices, their legacy is clear enough: According to Jackson, Amiri Baraka once told me that he believed the toast custom and the rap tradition were related. Guys standing around reciting poems while playing out the voices rather than simply reading them off the cuff. (The producer Madlib referenced this history in the conclusion of his 2014 track with Freddie Gibbs, Shitsville, in which he sampled another toast on Get Your Ass in the Water, Pimpin Sam.)
In Get Your Ass in the Water: Songs and Conversation, Slim described the indescribable manner in which toasts were shared and taught. You give an example, I’ll strive to top that, and so on. I have heard similar things on more than one time. He would tell me about it, and I would probably acquire some of it at that time. Later, I would go to another party and get more of it.
Copyright law for toasts and comparable works in the oral tradition is particularly complicated, despite being a separate art form and craft, according to Greene. Additionally, the Copyright Act of 1909 would apply to an old work like Hobo Ben (the current law was passed in 1976 and went into effect in 1978). There are particular actions an artist must take in order to obtain a copyright under the 1909 Act, many of which clearly weren’t taken by people working in an oral tradition.
For instance, the fixation concept, which is still in effect today, mandates that a work be recorded or written down in some fashion, according to Greene. According to Greene, this opened the door for others to essentially modify the work and claim copyrights, which happened frequently to Black artists. The work must also be original; if it has a long tradition behind it, it might not pass the test of being independently developed.
It’s basically a perfect storm for those who produce in this particular way, and according to Greene, the law is quite unfriendly to that kind of creativity.
Jackson is the one who might genuinely have authority. Jackson does not assert authorship for Hobo Ben or any of the toasts he recorded for Get Your Ass in the Water, but he does possess copyright for his transcriptions of those toasts as they appear in his book and album. Greene adds that this effectively qualifies him as the author in the eyes of the law. As a courtesy, he may remark, “I realize this came from this tradition, therefore I’m only claiming copyright in my own work,” according to Greene. However, he essentially has rights in relation to that registration that he would receive on that job against everyone else.
Even so, given the aforementioned problems with authorship, fixing, and originality, that standing could not be sufficient to support a copyright infringement claim.
Since U.S. copyright law doesn’t properly account for ethical issues, the problem may ultimately be more ethical than legal. According to Greene, Europe has moral rights, which effectively require that credit be given where credit is due. One change Greene would like to see in U.S. copyright law is the addition of that, as it might assist address persistent issues that have existed for a long time (e.g. young Black people who arent credited for the viral TikTok dances they create, but are successfully monetized by other, often white, creators).
Even if artists cannot claim copyrights, they nevertheless value attribution since it allows them to be recognized for their contributions. J. Kevin Greene
But the court of public opinion can have a significant impact when it comes to moral questions regarding accused appropriation. Greene provides two instances. Solomon Linda, a South African musician whose 1939 song Mbube was prominently featured but not given credit for in both The Lion King movie and stage musical as The Lion Sleeps Tonight, was the subject of a royalty dispute with Disney that was finally resolved in 2006 after a pressure campaign that included a Rolling Stone article and a PBS documentary. More recently, Lizzo acknowledged the creator of the tweet that served as the basis for the opening phrase of her breakthrough single, Truth Hurts.
Greene thinks that it is plausible that Depp and Beck may be coerced into providing credit and payment for Hobo Ben/Sad Motherfuckin Parade, especially in the post-George Floyd era. He says, “I think there’s growing understanding that these kinds of behaviors, which have historically been quite normal in the music industry, aren’t acceptable anymore.” Even if they are unable to assert their copyrights, artists value the attribution since it ensures that they be recognized for their contributions.
Folk research has a lengthy history of misappropriation, theft, and inappropriate crediting, especially when it comes to field recordings. Jackson, on the other hand, has consistently made an effort to treat everyone he works with fairly. He jokingly says that he would send any money his books and CDs did make to individuals who had assisted him, even if you couldn’t go out and eat a nice dinner for it. He sent the money to a prisoner trust fund in their place if he couldn’t find them, as was frequently the case with his album of labour songs that was recorded in a Texas prison.
Michael continues by saying that his father has always been quite lenient when it comes to granting permission for people to use his work. He will ask for appropriate royalties if there is a budget and will let it pass if there isn’t but the project looks important. If the correct person’s estate can receive the money, that is where it goes; if not, a suitable non-profit organization receives it. (One of these initiatives was The B-Side, a show put on by the renowned experimental theater group the Wooster Group and based on Jackson’s LPs of Texas prison labour songs; an follow-up, based on Get Your Ass in the Water is currently being developed.)
But what annoys Jackson more than someone simply stealing his work without giving acknowledgment is someone who uses someone else’s words as their own.
Regarding Depp and Beck’s 18 album, Jackson remarks, “I don’t know if this record is selling.” I’ve read several reviews that, if they had been for my CD, would have made me feel really ashamed. However, if it is successful, Johnny Depp will profit greatly from it. Should it go to him or somewhere that supports the individuals who created this culture?