Plagiarize This | Sojourners

Plagiarize This

"Plagiarism is basic to all culture." Pete Seeger claims that his father, a Harvard musicologist, told him that. To which I could only reply (plagiarizing Jerry Lee Lewis), "You're so right you don't know what you're saying."

Seeger was, of course, talking mostly about the folk cultural process by which the same stories and tunes get passed down and reinterpreted from generation to generation. Today that process continues in popular culture. If you don't believe me, read Dave Marsh's landmark work of cultural criticism, Louie Louie.

In his book, Marsh traces the strange career of that tune from its beginnings as a pseudo-calypso authored by an L.A. rhythm-and-blues singer named Richard Berry, who was inspired by a "cha-cha" he'd heard from a band of Filipino-Americans. Marsh follows the song through various cover versions by white Pacific Northwest garage bands. One of those bands, The Kingsmen, had half-learned the song off a jukebox. They twisted the beat into the now-famous "duh-duh-duh, duh-duh," and, since their singer didn't know all the lyrics, he mumbled through some lines. This led to the legendary "secret dirty lyrics," which led to a national scandal and even an FBI investigation, which declared The Kingsmen's recording unintelligible at any speed. But Marsh's story doesn't end there. He follows "Louie Louie" through an afterlife in which it became the template for countless garage-rock records (starting with that class-conscious classic "Hang On Sloopy"); the "secret lyrics" are finally recorded by Iggy Pop and The Stooges; "Louie Louie" becomes a marching band classic; and the song's signature riff is reincarnated (with more unintelligible lyrics) as Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

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Sojourners Magazine July 2004
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