by Kevin W. Bliss
In October 2022, movie star Johnny Depp and musician Jeff Beck countersued artist and educator Bruce Jackson for libel and slander, after he accused them of plagiarizing lyrics for the song Sad Motherfuckin Parade, off their collaborative album 18, from his 1974 book Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me.
Jackson, 86, is a folklorist and University at Buffalo professor whose prison photography has also earned acclaim. In his book, he documented poems passed along in the oral tradition of Blacks in the Deep South, who were often denied education and literacy well into the 20th century. The poem in question is one Jackson learned in the 1960s from a Missouri State Penitentiary prisoner, to whom he gave the alias “Slim Wilson.” In keeping with the oral tradition, he in turn attributed the poem to someone called “Hobo Ben.” Attempts to trace the prisoner’s real identity have so far proved unsuccessful. But his voice survives in a recording of the poem as a toast that Jackson made at the time.
His suit, filed in August 2022, says Beck and Depp plagiarized the entire poem, including the title, even going so far as to transcribe portions of the vocal track from the recorded toast. “The only two lines I could find in the whole piece that [they] 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.”
Jackson said when he first sent a letter informing Beck and Depp of the allegations, their spokesperson replied that the claims would be reviewed and any needed copyright credits added. But since that time, Beck and Depp decided to countersue, calling Jackson’s suit a “shakedown.” Their complaint alleges it is not possible to copyright someone else’s toast, insisting also that Sad Motherfuckin Parade is an original piece of work – though one that may “mirror the words” of the unknown “Hobo Ben.”
Rachel and Michael Jackson, Bruce Jackson’s children and also his attorneys, called Depp and Beck’s lawsuit “a bald attempt” to deflect attention from “their repeated attempts to claim authorship for a song that they did not write.”
“It is important to understand that Depp and Beck have not denied that the lyrics and nuance of the vocals performed on [Sad Motherfuckin Parade] appear to have been duplicated by Depp and Beck, which they appropriated and credited to themselves,” the two stated. Noting the stars’ previous promise – which they repeated to Rolling Stone – to add additional credits to the album, the octogenarian’s kids wondered: “Why have they walked away from this promise?”
For his part, Jackson denied any attempt at a shakedown. Rather he said the two should give credit to the prisoner responsible for the song. He added that any proceeds realized from his suit would go to organizations dedicated to his passion of preserving African-American culture and traditions.
Sources: The Guardian, Rolling Stone
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