I was taught to read by a witch with a dried apple for a head. Her name was Witch Wilma, and she was 103 and still struggling with reading. She was also one of my first grade teacher Marion’s many doll-friends who needed our help to learn to read. We helped her read sentences on big sheets of lined paper; we helped her learn to memorize words by singing songs. Witch Wilma helped Marion teach the 90 songs we memorized over our first grade year.
Some songs everyone knows: “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “A Rum Sum Sum” and “Chairs to Mend”. Some–“The Little Hola”–I have never met anyone outside of my middle school (Peninsula) who knows them. “Kookaburra”was definitely one of them.
In middle school, everything seemed to be in the public domain. We could sing “Happy Birthday” without worrying about it; we performed Dido and the Beatles and “Amazing Grace” indiscriminately. All music was free, both as in root-beer and as in speech.
Children’s songs, subversive, simple and occasionally profound, always seem like they are public domain. They are the songs that taught me how to memorize, how to tell stories, how to think like other people. Oh, and how to perform in front of strangers without being scared.
Even those childrens’ songs with definite authors seem designed to spread virally–like cold germs or cooties, kids don’t think about who they share music with.
Yes, authors need to be paid for their work. But how much? And for how long? And what happens after they die?
Australian teacher Marion Sinclair (not my teacher) wrote “Kookaburra” more than 70 years ago. It been sung around campfires and in classrooms ever since. Ms Sinclair died in 1988, but this year Larrikin Music, the publishing company which holds the copyright for “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree” sued Australian band Men at Work for using the tune of “Kookaburra” in a flute solo in their 1980s hit “Down Under”. They won, though Men at Work is appealing.
How copyright is regulated in Australia, and internationally, and how it is regulated are desperately important questions. But their power to realistically restrict what music children learn and what music we teach them is nearly null. Yes, authors need to get paid. But children also need to sing. Copyright laws need to protect their interests as well as those of the authors.
Physical property will always exist, whether or not someone uses it. A hand-carved chair will continue to be itself even if it is never sat upon. But a song, particularly a campfire children’s song, does not exist in its essence if it is not sung. That is the difference between intellectual and physical property. One can be memetic; another is a group of atoms squished together and sometimes sold. Ideas are not chairs, and we can neither sustainable regulate them as such, or expect children to treat them the same.
Songs will be sung; that is the point of music.
Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush is he
Laugh Kookaburra, laugh
Kookaburra gay your life must be
–Marion Sinclair. Copyright owned by Larrikan Music (for now).