Better Off Not Knowing?

It seems relevant, on a day when an important Republican operative defended the recitation of a plagiarized speech by the wife of the Republican candidate for President of the United States by saying it came from My Little Pony, to ruminate a bit on sources and where they come from.  Rather than talk about a corrupt, vain, narcissistic publicity hound who stops at nothing to get attention, I’ll instead offer a little cautionary tale about Mick Jagger.

Here’s a passage from Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1937 novel The Devil and Daniel Webster; the 1941 film of the same name retains the same speech, I think.  Here, Scratch (=the devil) offers his resumé as an American:

“And who with better right?” said the stranger, with one of his terrible smiles.  “When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there.  When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck.  Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on? Am not spoken of, still, in every church in New England? ’Tis true the North claims me for a Southerner, and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither.  I am merely an honest American like yourself—and of the best descent—for, to tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.”  Stephen Vincent Benét, The Devil and Daniel Webster (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1937), 39.

Mick Jagger’s song Sympathy for the Devil (1968, off Beggars Banquet) rings familiar, here.  Here are a couple of relevant verses, just to illustrate:

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate


I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

Now, here’s Mick, contextualized and quoted in Wikipedia:

In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger said, “I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s, I think, but I could be wrong. Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can’t see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song.” (Wenner, Jann (14 December 1995). “Jagger Remembers,” Rolling Stone, Retrieved 25 June 2006.)

Sourcing Baudelaire has more art-school credibility than an American novel or film, I suppose, even though the spitting impieties feel far more American (to me, certainly) than French.  I can’t be the first one pointing out this correspondence, but I don’t recall having heard it before.  In an interview I once read, Warren Zevon admitted: “Sometimes you’re better off not knowing where things are from.”  And, of course, there’s the cliché that a student borrows, but only a genius can steal.  (Stravinsky?)  And again, we have Brahms railing against people who seek to identify the sources of tunes, peering into the composer’s closet as it were (I’ve never found that to be entirely what it seems to be on the surface).  What about stealing something that isn’t there?

I’m sure that every musicologist has had the experience of looking at a score, apprehending it, “hearing” it even, and beginning to formulate a brilliant, discerning critical opinion, only to have it blown to pieces when the piece is finally heard in real time.  It is a common occurrence for musicians to think something original when in fact they got it from another musician.  The case can be made that it is easier to do this unconsciously with music than with words, and I would agree.

Still, the moral of this story it: own your $λ¡†.

Thus endeth the lesson.  I would appreciate knowing if someone else has already pointed out the bit about the Benét novel.  It seems so obvious, but I don’t recall having seen it.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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1 Response to Better Off Not Knowing?

  1. kpl says:

    Good points, but I do wonder if Jagger was thinking of this:

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