Willie Dixon–a well-known blues writer–sued rock band Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement not just once, but TWICE. In 1972, when Dixon discovered that the lyrics to his “Bring it On Home” (written in 1966) were extremely similar, almost identical, to the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s “Bring it On Home” (written in 1969) Dixon took the matter to court. He took the band to court again in 1985 after discovering that the lyrics to his “You Need Love” and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” were also very similar. Both times, Dixon won and walked away with large sums of money, but not after Led Zeppelin made a huge profit off of stealing Dixon’s lyrics. This is only one example of other groups making a profit off of black labor.
Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love” sung by Muddy Waters
Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”
Blues music originated in the South during the late 19th century. Drawing inspiration from holler songs that were sung to make time go faster during slavery, blues music is a reminder of hard times, depression, slavery, and the black experience. Music in this genre often utilized the sounds of guitars and although the blues persisted in the United States among African Americans, other groups in the United States did not have an appreciation for the blues; however, many American and European adaptations of the blues gained widespread popularity. During the “British Invasion” and in the rise of rock-and-roll, bands would cover original blues songs passing them as their own (as seen in the example of Willie Dixon and Led Zeppelin above).
Many times when copyright infringement was discovered, nothing was done, Willie Dixon’s lawsuit win was a rare occurrence. The money made from these songs go to the covering or copying artists and their recording companies. In addition to the profit made on the initial song recording, these groups go on tours, get played on the radio, on television, in movies, the list goes on. In the end, the only person not making money from the song is the original songwriter. This is absolutely wrong, but nothing can be done about it if those guilty of stealing music, because that’s what it is, do not come clean and tell the truth.
I now find myself wondering if some of my favorite songs were somehow stolen from someone else, it makes me a little paranoid. I wondered why and how, morally, someone could take something that’s not their but make it seem as if it were. I tried to see it from their perspective, playing devil’s advocate: As wrong as it may seem, it’s genius. Why create something from scratch when you can just take someone else’s item, change it a bit and let it pass as your own work? Even trying to rationalize why groups have stolen songs just feels wrong, these acts are wrong. Blues music, music in general, and many other ideas and innovations were stolen from African Americans by dominant groups of people. For too long they have passed original and traditional African American works as their own and this will not end until the teller of these narratives change. As the African proverb goes, “Until the lion learns to write, every story will always glorify the hunter.” We as African Americans must take our stories into our own hands as to preserve and protect them at all costs.