When I was small, my parents would sing a certain lullaby to me. I don’t think I’ve heard it since. Like any writer, I took that tender memory and perverted for the sake of a story. I made a rough, funny character write and sing “The Whore Song,” set to the lullaby’s tune.
The writing business as usual.
Now this story is being transformed into an audio book, which thrills me quite a lot. The producer asked me whether “The Whore Song” was set to a specific tune. Did I write it? Was it copyrighted? Did I intend to violate the copyright like I was a Chinese cell phone company?
My mom sang this song to me more than fifty years ago, which in the music business is like 12,000 years, and the Beatles would be like four woolly mammoths about to go extinct. Ask anybody under age 20 who the Beatles were. You’ll see. But back to the song–it couldn’t be copyrighted after all this time. Definitely not. No way.
Or maybe it could. Research was in order.
The song’s first line was, “Go to sleepy, little baby.” Plugging those five words into a search engine returned several thousand websites, and the first hundred were about lullabies I had never heard of. Sometimes they had no more than a couple of words from my search. I tried, “Little sleepy? Baby to go!” for the hell of it. Failure. Woe.
Down around the 150th result, Google yielded to me the proper website, just like a middle-aged man would give up his high school football championship trophy.
So, it turns out the lullaby is a folk song of African American origin. In the 1930’s and 40’s the singer Judy Canova always closed her radio show with it, and she said her mother sang it to her when she was small. That’s more than a hundred years ago. Judy Canova would have been a much healthier and fluffier mammoth than Ringo Starr. This song had to be out of copyright. Right?
Maybe. My producer is checking it out.
One thing came out of this experience. (Well, two things if you count the suspicion that Google shows websites that pay the most for advertising rather than the ones you’re searching for.) I don’t think I’ve heard this song (at least that I recognized) since my mom sang it, but now I understand why she sang that song. My mom was a huge Judy Canova fan.
Right now it feels a little like she’s still alive and has just filled me in on this detail.
Judy Canova’s 1946 recording of the lullaby Go to Sleepy, Little Baby: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqVYWOsfiuk