The lyrics to the duo’s new song “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade” were allegedly lifted from “Hobo Ben,” an old toast — or form of Black folk poetry — delivered by the late Slim Wilson, a gambler, pimp, robber and murderer, Rolling Stone reports. While he was doing time in Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery in 1964, Wilson met folklorist Bruce Jackson, who featured the convict’s work in his 1974 book about toasts titled Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me and a 1976 album of the same name.
“Hobo Ben” includes coarse lines like “Ladies of culture and beauty so refined, is there one among you that would grant me wine? / I’m raggedy I know, but I have no stink / and God bless the lady that’ll buy me a drink” and “Heavy-hipted Hattie turned to Nadine with a laugh / and said, ‘What that funky motherfucker really need, child, is a bath.'”
Several of these lines appear verbatim in “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade,” such as “I’m raggedy, I know, but I have no stink / God bless a lady that’ll buy me a drink” and “What that funky motherfucker really needs, child, is a bath.” The song, however, is credited solely to Depp and Beck, with no mention of Wilson, Jackson or Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me.
“The only two lines I could find in the whole piece that [Depp and Beck] contributed are ‘Big time motherfucker’ and ‘Bust it down to my level,'” Jackson told Rolling Stone. “Everything else is from Slim’s performance in my book. I’ve never encountered anything like this. I’ve been publishing stuff for 50 years, and this is the first time anybody has just ripped something off and put his own name on it.”
Listen to Jeff Beck and Johnny Depp’s ‘Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade’
Jackson’s son, Michael Lee Jackson, a lawyer who works with music and intellectual property, told the magazine that “it’s just not plausible, in my opinion, that Johnny Depp or anybody else could have sat down and crafted those lyrics without almost wholly taking them from some version of my father’s recording and/or book where they appeared.” He said he and his father are exploring legal options but have not filed a lawsuit or sent a letter signifying one.
Even though the lyrics to “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade” appear to be directly lifted from “Hobo Ben,” a lawsuit would be far from a slam dunk due to the unclear origins and authorship of the toast. They’re typically passed down orally through generations, and Wilson said he learned “Hobo Ben” from his father. “The lines in it are similar to other kinds of lines — not the specificity of the words, but the kinds of things that turn up [in other toasts],” Jackson told Rolling Stone. “It’s simply part of that genre, like a bluesman doing a certain kind of riff.”
Kevin J. Greene, a lawyer and law professor who has worked extensively on Black music and copyright law, told the magazine that the “fixation doctrine” requires works to be written down or recorded to be copyrighted. This requirement has led to the exploitation and theft of many Black artists’ work over the years.
If anything, Jackson may be able to lay claim to “Hobo Ben,” since he owns a copyright to the transcriptions of the toasts recorded for Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me.
“He can do that as a courtesy and say, ‘I know this came from this tradition, so I’m just claiming copyright in my particular work,'” Greene explained. “But he basically has rights against all comers as to that registration that he would get on that work.” Jackson is less concerned about his work getting swiped than he is about Wilson getting properly credited.
“I don’t know if this record is selling,” he told Rolling Stone. (It’s not: 18 debuted at No. 183 on the Billboard 200.) “I’ve seen some reviews that I’d be very embarrassed to have gotten had they been my album. But if it is selling, Johnny Depp is making a lot of money on it. Should it go to him, or should it go to someplace that helps the people who produced this culture?”
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