Blues players have always borrowed and adapted other people's tunes and lyrics. Some would call this 'artistic transmission', but other people call it stealing. Sometimes they players even stole each other's names! In a time and place where there was little regard for copyright, players would always copy each other's styles and swap phrases, although there are instances of more formal tutelage. Charley Patton was an avid pupil of Henry Sloan who he met when he moved to Dockery Plantation, and by the time he was 20 he was an accomplished player in his own right.
A few years later he was offered a place in W C Handy's band, which is a fine accolade for a young player. Son House picked up many of Patton's tunes, and much of Son House's work was picked up in turn by a young Robert Johnson, who is said to have been given his first guitar at Dockery. These important players were all living in the Clarksdale area in the late 20's, and the Delta Blues was deeply enriched by their creative interaction.
An important insight into the music has been left to us in the work of various ethnographers and musicologists working in the field at this time. Dorothy Scarborough, in 'On the Trail of Negro Folksongs', tells how tunes and stories are passed down the generations, and how illiterate black people were able to learn about their culture through this powerful transmitter of oral history. Passing something on can be a gift, but it is annoying when the gift is sold to someone else! Howard Odum made field recordings, and in 1928 he was surprised to hear one of the singers preface each performance with “I am Will Smith of Chatanooga Tennessee. This song will be sung all over the world, and I deserve the credit!” He may have been a relative of Bessie Smith,who was also a native of Chatanooga, but in any case he was obviously sick and tired of having the fruits of his labours taken by others.
The problem was just as real for established recording stars. Bessie Smith was being cheated by her agent, so she signed an exclusive personal contract with Colombia in 1923 for a much better deal. She was to be paid $125 per track, guaranteeing $1,500 per year, rising to $1,800 in the second year. It was more money than she had ever seen, but there was no provision for royalties and the first release, 'Down-hearted Blues' sold 780,000 copies!
When John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson was brutally murdered in Chicago in 1948, Aleck 'Rice' Miller took his name. He was arguably a better harp player than John Lee, and certainly a better showman, but he still found it necessary to insist he was the 'real' Sonny Boy. Some investigations show this was indeed the case and John Lee was the usurper, but the truth is hard to pin down, as both men may have been prone to a degree of deviousness. Years later, the notoriously hot-tempered Little Walter was said to have shot a man he found performing under his name.
Blues is a spontaneous music, and singers often vary their lyrics to incorporate lines and verses they have heard, using something like a 'cut and paste' technique. Tunes, melodies and riffs are often used by players who didn't compose them, but there is a fine line between influence and outright stealing. Willie Dixon was credited with writing hundreds of songs in the Golden Age of Chicago Blues, but there is a case for saying that many of them were 'adapted' from riffs and phrases Willie picked up from young musicians newly arrived from the South, who were trying to impress him with their best work. Led Zeppelin were successfully sued by Howlin' Wolf when they reworked 'Killin Floor' as 'The Lemon Song', and Chuck Berry did the same when the Beach Boys used 'Sweet Little Sixteen' as the tune for 'Surfin USA'. In both cases the 'new' versions sold many times more records than the originals, and the authors probably didn't get a square deal the first time around.
If you want the credit for your Blues, you've got to fight for it.