Slim Wilson lived a hell of a life. A tramp in the classic sense, he hopped trains and traveled the country, picking up all manner of scars from bullets and knives along the way. For money, he did odd jobs and threw dice, but Slim proudly proclaimed he wasn’t a gambler — he was a cheat. He was also a pimp, did time for murder, and was in Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery when he met the folklorist Bruce Jackson in 1964. On top of all that, Slim was, to Jackson’s ears, “one of the best narrators” of poetry and toasts he’d ever heard.
During their time together, Slim shared stories from his life and several toasts — a wildly outlandish, funny, ribald form of narrative Black folk poetry — with Jackson. A decade later, Slim featured heavily in Jackson’s 1974 book about toasts, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me, and you can hear him exhibiting his craft on the 1976 corresponding album of the same name. In his heavy Arkansas drawl, Slim sounds at once unbothered and delighted as he peels off uncouth line after line, that lackadaisical nature ceding to bites of excitement as he approaches a bawdy punch line.
In one toast, “Hobo Ben” (which you can hear below), the titular tramp, walks into a party and asks the hosts, “‘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.’/Heavy-hipted Hattie turned to Nadine with a laugh/and said, ‘What that funky motherfucker really need, child, is a bath.’” (These are about as tame as the toast gets.)
Nearly 60 years after Jackson recorded Slim, “Hobo Ben” appears to have found some new fans in Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck, though you wouldn’t know it as things stand. Their song, “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade,” off their new album, 18, appears to pull numerous lines from “Hobo Ben,” including one that ostensibly gives the song its title: “[Y]ou better try to keep you ass in this corner of shade/’cause if the Man come you make a sad motherfuckin parade.” Some of the lines quoted above — “I’m raggedy, I know, but I have no stink,” “God bless the lady that’ll buy me a drink,” and “What that funky motherfucker really needs, child, is a bath” — also appear on “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade.” On 18, “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade” is credited to Beck and Depp; there is no mention of Slim Wilson, Bruce 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 claims. “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.”
(Slim, it should be noted, is a pseudonym. Jackson gave aliases to all the incarcerated people he spoke to to make sure they didn’t get in trouble with their wardens. Jackson — now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Buffalo — says Slim’s real name was either Willy or Willie Davis; using the information available, Rolling Stone tried to track down additional information about Davis, who was in his 50s when Jackson met him in 1964, but was unsuccessful.)
A rep for Depp and Beck’s album did not immediately return Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.
Jackson’s son, Michael Lee Jackson, is a lawyer whose practice involves music and intellectual property (Michael also moonlights as a musician and once played with Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan). He says he and his father are looking into possible legal options, but stresses that a lawsuit hasn’t been filed, nor has a letter signifying one been sent. But what Michael is certain of is that the current credits on “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade” are incorrect.
“They do not reflect the actual authorship of those lyrics,” he says. “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.”
Kevin J. Greene, a lawyer and law professor known for his extensive and groundbreaking work on Black music and copyright law, agrees that it’s unlikely Depp and Beck “independently” created the lyrics to “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade.” “The words are so similar, it looks like they really did base their song on [‘Hobo Ben’],” he says.
“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” – Bruce Jackson
But while a side-by-side comparison of “Hobo Ben” and “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade” may make things look clear-cut, building an actual legal case is a murkier proposition. The biggest question is authorship: “Hobo Ben,” like so much music and art in the oral tradition, does not have a definitive author. Slim told Jackson he learned the toast from his father, and Jackson adds now, “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]. It’s simply part of that genre, like a bluesman doing a certain kind of riff.”
The exact origins of toasts are unclear, and Jackson notes they didn’t really start to appear in print until the late Fifties. Because they were so lewd they were rarely published, let alone recorded; folklorists didn’t really start studying them until after pornography and obscenity laws changed in the early Sixties. Still, toasts spread and thrived, performed everywhere from parties to penitentiaries. And though they began to disappear, in Jackson’s view, with the proliferation of portable audio devices, their legacy is obvious enough: “Amiri Baraka said to me once he thought the rap tradition derived from the toast tradition,” Jackson says. “Guys standing around reciting poems… And not reading them by rote, but acting out the voices.” (The producer Madlib drew on this lineage when he sampled another toast on Get Your Ass in the Water, “Pimpin’ Sam,” at the end of his 2014 track with Freddie Gibbs, “Shitsville.”)
Slim explained the ineffable way toasts were shared and taught in Get Your Ass in the Water: “Songs and conversation. You tell one and then I’ll try to top it and so on down the line… It was not on just one occasion that I’d heard these things. I’d hear it from him, probably I’d get some of it then, and later on I’d visit another party and get some more of it.”
Though a distinct art form and craft, copyright law for toasts and other works in the oral tradition is “very problematic,” Greene says. And that goes double for an old work like “Hobo Ben” which would fall under the Copyright Act of 1909 (the current law was passed in 1976 and went into effect in 1978). Under the 1909 Act, there are specific things an artist would need to do to secure a copyright, many of which obviously weren’t happening for those working in an oral tradition.
For instance, Greene says, there’s the “fixation doctrine,” which is still around today and states that a work has to be written down or recorded in some way. “That left the door open for others to basically fix the work and claim copyrights,” Greene says, “and this happened quite a bit to Black artists.” On top of that, the work has to be original, and “if it did come down from a long tradition, it might fail on that test of being independently created.”
“It’s a perfect storm, basically, for these people who create in this particular manner, and the law is pretty hostile to that form of creation,” Greene says.
The person who may actually have standing is Jackson. Jackson of course does not claim authorship of “Hobo Ben,” or any of the toasts he recorded for Get Your Ass in the Water; but he does own a copyright to his transcriptions of those toasts as recorded in his book and album. And in the eyes of the law, Greene notes, that more or less makes him the author: “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 says. “But he basically has rights against all comers as to that registration that he would get on that work.”
Even still, that standing might not be enough to back up a copyright infringement claim considering all the aforementioned issues with authorship, fixation, and originality.
Ultimately, the issue here may be more ethical than legal, especially since U.S. copyright law doesn’t really make room for ethical considerations. Europe, Greene notes, has “moral rights,” which essentially mandates proper credit be given if due. Adding that to U.S. copyright law is one reform Greene would love to see, noting it could help remedy longstanding and persisting problems (e.g. young Black people who aren’t credited for the viral TikTok dances they create, but are successfully monetized by other, often white, creators).
“The attribution is important to artists, even if they can’t claim copyrights — it’s important that they get credit for their work” – Kevin J. Greene
But when it comes to ethical issues involving alleged appropriation, the court of public opinion can be powerful. Greene offers two examples. In 2006 — after a pressure campaign that included a Rolling Stone article and a PBS documentary — Disney finally settled a royalty dispute with the estate of Solomon Linda, the South African musician whose 1939 song “Mbube” was featured heavily, but without credit, in The Lion King film and stage musical as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” More recently, Lizzo gave credit to the author of the tweet that inspired the first line of her breakout hit, “Truth Hurts.”
Of “Hobo Ben”/“Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade,” Greene says it’s conceivable Depp and Beck could be “shamed” into giving some attribution and compensation, “particularly in this post-George Floyd era.” He continues, “I think there’s increasing awareness that these sorts of things, which are really commonplace throughout the history of the music business, aren’t okay anymore… The attribution is important to artists, even if they can’t claim copyrights — it’s important that they get credit for their work.”
Folk research, especially when it comes to field recordings, has its own long, problematic history of appropriation, theft, and improper crediting. For his part, Jackson has always tried to do right by the people he’s worked with. Whatever money his books and albums did earn — even if “you couldn’t go out and get a good dinner for it,” he jokes — he would send to those who helped him. If he couldn’t locate them, as was often the case for his album of work songs recorded at a Texas prison, he sent the money to an inmate trust fund instead.
Michael adds that his father has “always been extremely liberal” with granting people permission to use his work, requesting commensurate royalties if there’s a budget, and letting it slide if there’s not but it seems like a worthwhile project. If that money can get to the right person’s estate, that’s where it goes; if not, it’s given to an appropriate non-profit. (One such project was The B-Side, a production staged by the celebrated experimental theater company, the Wooster Group, based on Jackson’s albums of Texas prison work songs; a follow-up, based on Get Your Ass in the Water, is currently in the works.)
But what clearly irks Jackson is not just someone using his work without credit, but passing off another person’s words as their own.
“I don’t know if this record is selling,” Jackson says of Depp and Beck’s 18. “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 some place that helps the people who produced this culture?”