“Sleigh Ride“, music by Leroy Anderson, words by Mitchell Parrish.
If you don’t like something and think it’s cheap, unless you really have a great sense of responsibility for your culture, I think it’s best to keep it to yourself. That might be the song that gets someone through a dark hour […] All this plumbing the culture-mongers do is quite irrelevant. If someone has the grace to write a song that touches the hearts of thousands, I think it’s a matter for applause. Or of silence, if you think the air has been polluted by a song.
According to the Guardian, where the interview appeared, Cohen was responding to Martin Amis’s critiques of Simon and Garfunkel’s music “ being not so much art as therapy and of Suzanne Vega producing a style of music that is both symptomatic of, and reinforcing, a climate of passivity and retreat.” (please note that I cannot find the original 1988 interview or any text of Amis’s critique).
What I love about this quote is not so much the dismissal of these sorts of critiques of songs, as the idea that a song can “get someone through a dark hour”, can touch people’s hearts, and that this is the most important thing when it comes to considering their significance. My songs have certainly reached nowhere near as many people as those of Cohen, Paul Simon or Suzanne Vega, but the nicest thing anyone ever said about my songs is that some of them helped her through a rough time. I hope my songs and words will reach more people and help them with whatever inspiration, healing, or venting they need at a given time.
Here’s a possible timeline of that classical guitar passage that was under dispute at the Stairway to Heaven plagiarism trial:
Sonata di Chittarra, e Violino, con il suo Basso Continuo” by Giovanni Battista Granata (1659)
Video description: “Extremely similar to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”; the arpeggio can be heard at 0:32 in this 17th Century Composition titled “Sonata di Chittarra, e Violino, con il suo Basso Continuo” by Giovanni Battista Granata.”
My Funny Valentine (from the 1937 Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical Babes in Arms)
The performers notice the similarity.
Taurus by Spirit (1968)
The relevant passage begins about 0:48 into the piece
Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin (1971)
Is There Anybody Out There? by Pink Floyd (1979)
The classical guitar piece, which was allegedly contributed by producer Bob Ezrin, also bears a striking similarity to the passage in question, especially at the end.
My source for many of these pieces is an article from Guitar World,
“Five Songs That Sound Like Stairway to Heaven“. I don’t completely agree with the point the article is making: the issue wasn’t just a chord progression, but also a striking melodic similarity over that progression. Still, as you can hear from the above videos, variations on that melodic motif have been around for a long time. Another song referenced in the article, Davey Graham’s version of “Cry Me a River”, does use the same chord progression, but its melody is quite different. Still worth listening to, though!
Today Led Zeppelin (or, more precisely, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant) were cleared of plagiarism charges related to their most iconic song, “Stairway to Heaven”.
Led Zeppelin do have a history of taking bits and pieces of other people’s songs. Taking elements from other songs and building new songs out of them, or incorporating them into new songs, is as old a practice as songwriting itself. Some will even tell you quite openly about how they did it. Elvis Costello, in his Rhino reissue liner notes and then in his autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, goes into considerable detail about the inspirations both of his songs and of the arrangements he and his band The Attractions devised for these songs. His point, I think, is that, if you have an original voice and bring enough disparate influences to bear, the result will not be a copy of anything.
This should not be confused with simply taking other people’s songs, making a new arrangement or adaptation of them and then claiming credit. Led Zeppelin had to settle out of court with a few songwriters for doing that. In the folk domain it is an accepted practice to make adaptations of traditional tunes. Bob Dylan is well known for taking traditional songs, reworking them, and adding new lyrics. For example, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is an adaptation of an old spiritual known as “No More Auction Block For Me”. You can hear Dylan singing that song on the first of his Bootleg Series albums. It’s not a copy- the melodic similarities are there, but there are differences too- but it is melodically derivative. It is said that Woody Guthrie hardly wrote any original melodies at all.
Such adaptations are one thing when you’re messing with traditional tunes. No particular person is known to have written these songs, after all. It’s another matter when you do it with a song that does, under copyright, belong to someone else, as Led Zeppelin found when blues singer Willie Dixon took them to court over a couple of songs including “Whole Lotta Love”.
So Led Zeppelin have a reputation for plagiarism. But did they steal from Spirit’s song Taurus to build their “Stairway to Heaven”? Today a jury said no, and as a songwriter I am relieved by this verdict. Yes, there is a classical guitar figure that is (for three bars each time) common to both songs, which is also common to a number of other pieces, including a section of Pink Floyd’s “Is There Anybody Out There?”. Copyrighting riffs and chord progressions strikes me as a bad idea.
Expecting complete originality in any work of art is absurd. Any artist works within preexisting forms, is influenced by what others have done, attempts to find their own way of recreating the magic that, for them, exists in their favourite pieces, and hopefully manages to make their own thing out of it all. That’s the best you can hope for.
This came out a year ago:
It’s a compilation EP featuring songs from my three albums, including alternate mixes of some tracks. I originally planned to make CD copies and send them to radio stations, but other things in life had to take priority over those plans. I still hope to get around to it eventually. Meanwhile, happy listening!