The other night I watched a short documentary about The Carter Family on PBS. It wasn’t the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, but given how little I really know about The Carter Family, it was somewhat educational. And it did have a few interesting moments. This related web site mentions one of the things I found interesting:
A.P. [Carter] provided the songs, traveling in ever widening circles in Appalachia to collect lyrics and melodies, then along with Sara and Maybelle “working them up” into something new and more modern.
The site has a show transcript, and here’s the relevant bit of how the documentary addressed this:
Narrator: To build a repertoire for the next recording session, A.P. relied heavily on the musical tradition of Poor Valley.
Barry Mazor: He did the subtle thing that might have been the most important. He got a hold of these songs. He found a way that would make them work cause they kind of knew what people would respond to. He changed them. He arranged them. He updated them.
Bill Clifton: And often he would say just well no, I didn’t write it I just kind of fixed it up. And that was his way of talking about making an arrangement he fixed it up.
Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Lord I told the undertaker, “Undertaker, please drive slow, for this body you are hauling…”
Bill Clifton: When he fixed them up he fixed them up right. Everybody who sings Will the Circle Be Unbroken sings the way A.P. fixed it up. And they don’t sing it the original way.
I suppose this is what happens with any traditional song, including “SJI” and its antecedents: It gets “fixed up” by somebody. In fact, “SJI” can be viewed as an extremely “fixed up” version of “The Unfortunate Rake.”
Of course, when “fixing up” intersects with copyright law, the upshot can be that the right fixer-upper, at the right time, gets credit (or at least future royalty streams) not just for any fixing up he or she did, but for all the fixing up built into the whole tradition of that song up to that moment.
In the specific case of “SJI,” it’s not completely clear how much fixing up the credited writer, “Joe Primrose” (Irving Mills), actually did. But leaving that aside for now, I’m reminded of the earlier observations of Mr. Robert Harwood, described in this post, about the “Redman” credit on the old Louis Armstrong “SJI” 45, and Don Redman’s apparent skill as an arranger. Perhaps he’s the fellow who’s “fixing up” is most important to the song’s history….
Which isn’t to say other musicians shouldn’t keep adding their own fixes. And I’m sure they will.