A song off Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck’s collaborative album 18 reportedly contains lyrics from a poem by an incarcerated man. The duo have been accused of stealing several lines from the piece, called “Hobo Ben”, in their song “Sad Motherf**kin’ Parade”.
The poem was written by Slim Wilson, a self-proclaimed cheat and pimp, who served time for murder and armed robbery. While in Missouri State Penitentiary, back in 1964, Wilson met the folklorist Bruce Jackson who recorded his poetry and toasts- “a comic form of narrative Black folk poetry, akin to hobo balladry”- to include in Jackson’s 1974 book, a collection on the latter artform.
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Two years later, Get Your A** in the Water and Swim Like Me was accompanied by an album of the same name in which Wilson performed his works, including the toast “Hobo Ben”, where he seemingly asks hostesses:
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 motherf**ker really need, child, is a bath.’
Multiple lines from the song are featured in Depp and Beck’s track including, “I’m raggedy, I know, but I have no stink”, “God bless the lady that’ll buy me a drink” and “What that funky motherf**ker really needs, child, is a bath.”
“The only two lines I could find in the whole piece that [Depp and Beck] contributed are ‘Big time motherf**ker’ and ‘Bust it down to my level,’” Jackson, a professor at the University of Buffalo, told Rolling Stone.
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“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,” he continued.
“Sad Motherf**kin’ Parade” credits Beck and Depp as the sole songwriters, however the original authorship of “Hobo Ben”, a literature piece passed on through a competitive oral tradition, will likely be impossible to trace, as well as the copyright ownership.
Jackson’s son, Michael Lee Jackson, shared that possible legal options have been explored.
“They do not reflect the actual authorship of those lyrics. 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,” he said.
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Since Bruce is the author of Get Your A** in the Water, he owns the copyright to the transcriptions of the toasts, which make him tantamount to the author in U.S. law, lawyer Kevin J Greene told Rolling Stone, explaining that the scenario may be more of an ethical issue, not covered under U.S. copyright law, than a legal issue.
“I don’t know if this record is selling,” Bruce said of 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?”