Thinking Out Loud

August 18, 2020

Worship Composers Who Piggyback on Classic Hymns Create Copyright Confusion

My wife uploaded a church service video which included her congregation singing, “It Is Well with My Soul.” Although the song wasn’t annotated, the YouTube bots scanned the video and recognize the lyrics and tune and immediately informed her that the entire video would be banned in one European country, which raises the specter of more blocking to follow.

While she was staring at her screen in disbelief, I went to Wikipedia on my screen; a source I find offering increased reliability at a time when general search results can be misleading.

True enough, the song pretty much has to be in public domain, considering it is listed as first published in 1876.

But the page also noted a 2011 edition “with a new added bridge composed by Reuben Morgan and Ben Fielding.” I am willing to bet that is part of the problem. The new bridge would qualify them to claim a copyright, even though my wife has never heard it and didn’t use it at all.

You and I and she understand that. YouTube does not. When she went to file a ‘dispute’ on the blocking, the dispute itself was blocked by YouTube. The company acts as sheriff, judge and jury…

…Piggybacking on existing hymns is nothing new. I wrote about this in April, 2017:

The first time I heard a bridge added to a traditional hymn was the addition of Wonderful Cross to When I Survey. I don’t know if I took to it the very first day, but I certainly grew to like it quickly, and as a worship leader, I’ve since used the Wonderful Cross section with the hymn Lead Me To Calvary, where it also works well.

Modern worship music has been greatly influenced by popular songs. Whereas a hymn generally just has either stanzas, or follows a verse-and-chorus format; modern worship will use introductions, bridges, codas, etc., and is often more prone to key changes.

Amazing Grace is another example. My Chains are Gone is certainly a suitable addition, I don’t challenge the musical or lyrical integrity of it by itself, or its fit with the time-honored verses that precede it.

To make the bridge stand out — or I prefer to say break out — musically, some of the chord changes in When I Survey or Amazing Grace are made more minimalist so that the declaration in the bridge introduces a powerful, triumphant transition. “Oh, the Wonderful Cross!” “My chains are gone, I’ve been set free!”

If I had a similar idea a few years ago, I would have positioned my finished work as a medley, not a new arrangement, but the chord changes necessitate the piece to be considered a re-write. And the original composers aren’t around to protest.

So it was only a couple years back when someone more cynical than me — yes, it’s possible — suggested that perhaps the motivation for doing this was financial. Then it was more than one person. Freshly re-minted songs that were formerly public domain can be performed with mechanical royalties (album and print music sales) and performance royalties (concerts, radio, television and even CCLI playlists your church submits) flowing to the composer. Nice work if you can get it…

…But I was reminded of this in a new way on the weekend, when I encountered a song with a very unique title — No One Every Cared for Me Like Jesus — a title I would have considered hands-off, since the original is so iconic, but had none the less been assumed by former Bethel Worship leader Steffany Gretzinger. I can’t be convinced that this title similarity is a coincidence.

You’re allowed to be skeptical of my conclusion, but truly the title is somewhat unique. Clearly, the composers had this in the back of their minds. It’s the question of how much of this was intentional where we’re allowed to disagree.

I found myself experiencing an emotional response to this title borrowing that I was not expecting. These guys are creative types; couldn’t they have found something else to act as their motif? No, I think they wanted to catch a ride with the original hymn.

For that reason I hesitated to include it here, but for those of you who want to do an After-and-Before comparison here it is. The similarity of the mood and tone of this and the original.

For those with a sacred music memory longer than the last 12 months, I want to leave you with the original, in a tasteful arrangement by Sandy Patti. In my view, this version will always have the last word.


Postscript: In searching for a hymnbook image of “No One Ever Cared…” I found one which indicated the song as public domain, and one that indicated it as ©1932 by The Rodeheaver Company; the same company that filed a copyright claim against another song my wife uploaded, In The Garden. That hymn was well past its sell-by date in terms of legalities, but Rodeheaver apparently renewed the copyright. Why not? There’s gold in them there hills.

 

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