“A sin takes on a new and real terror when there seems a chance that it is going to be found out.”
If I told you I originated the quote above, I’d be rightfully and quickly labeled as a plagiarist. I didn’t say or write that first. I am merely repeating a Mark Twain quote. It’s in the public domain, of course. Mark Twain died in 1910, but that doesn’t make it morally acceptable for me to now claim it belongs to me.
This being the case, I would like for someone to explain why it’s apparently just fine for modern songwriters to write new melodies for existing public domain lyrics, then slap only their own name on them as if they came up with the whole thing.
I could post a number of examples, but I’ll just post one for illustrative purposes. We tend to focus on Southern Gospel here, but I’m confident most of you are familiar with “Glorious Day” as performed by Casting Crowns.
So, who wrote it? According to BMI, the writers are John Mark Hall and Michael Bleeker.
No credit is given to J. Wilbur Chapman who wrote the lyric used by Bleecker and Hall. No, if you’re thinking maybe they just started with his basic idea and added something new to it, that isn’t the case. They didn’t re-write the words at all.
In addition to the four verses used in the Bleeker/Hall arrangement, Chapman also wrote at least one more. His lyric was first set to a tune written by Charles H. Marsh and published in 1910 under the title “One Day!” Around 1915, the opening line of Chapman’s original fourth verse was modified from “One day when fullness of time was fast dawning” to “One day the grave could conceal Him no longer” and the opening line of the fifth verse was changed from “One day He’s coming, for Him I am longing” to “One day the trumpet will sound for His coming.” A few more phrases and words were tweaked as well. The stone “rolled” rather than “moved,” for example.
The Bleeker/Hall arrangement employs the lyrics from verses 1, 2, 4, & 5 as they appear in this scanned image from a hymnal published in 1915 (and virtually all publications since):
I admire Clydesdale Music. They did the right thing by including Chapman’s name on the cover of their choral arrangement in 2008. (I’m not sure why they left off Hall’s name.)
Clydesdale Music is the exception, however. Every other printed copy I’ve seen only gives credit to Bleeker and Hall.
I’m all in favor of songs entering the public domain after a reasonable amount of time, so derivative works can be created without fear of infringing a copyright. However, it is a morally dishonorable practice for a songwriter to claim to be the sole creator of a song they did not completely write.
If it’s wrong to plagiarize Mark Twain, why should it be any different for a song lyric?
On a related note, Ernie Haase & Signature Sound recorded the same lyric with a different melody on their CD by the same title, Glorious Day. I could not put my hands on a copy of the CD to check credits, but on their website under the lyric link, the song credits are presented as being “arranged by Wayne Haun.” While it would have even been better if they’d credited Chapman for the lyric, at least “arranged by” makes it quite clear that no one else is claiming to have had a hand in writing the lyric.
Finally, there’s the 1960s version by the Statesmen from their Happy Sounds LP with an entirely different melody and a rather creative arrangement. They simply credited the song as “traditional” and listed the song title as “Lived And He Loved Me.” They set it up with a new intro that isn’t found in the original lyric. (Thanks for looking it up, JC!)
David Bruce Murray
David Bruce Murray is a church music director in Ellenboro, NC. He is the author of Murray's Encyclopedia Of Southern Gospel Music and the owner of both SGHistory.com and MusicScribe.com. David plays piano for Southern Sounds Quartet and the Foothills Community Choir.