There's nothing new about music theft. A lot of the 1950s hit ballads were nothing more than blah-blah words set to themes from well-known classical compositions. But by then, the original composers were long dead, relatively few people picked up on the thievery, and as long as the thieving composer's conscience or ego didn't trouble him, no sweat.
But sometimes a composer doesn't take the trouble to be sure the notes he cops are in anything like the public domain. In 1911, Scott Joplin accused Irving Berlin of stealing music from Joplin's opera Treemonisha to write Berlin's breakthrough hit, Alexander's Ragtime Band. Berlin had very recently reviewed Joplin's work for possible publication, but had returned it. Modern music historians have compared the two works and concluded that though the charge probably wouldn't pass muster in a court of law, there's enough to be at the least, suspicious. It's also possible that if this theft did in fact occur, it might have been unintentional, that the Joplin theme had taken root in Berlin's brain, and jumped onto the page unbidden and unrecognized.
My favorite story of musical theft involves one Saxie Dowell, who played in the Hal Kemp Orchestra during the 1930s and '40s. In 1940, Saxie composed a little tune, Playmates, which turned into a major hit for Kemp and Co. Even if you don't go back that far, you probably remember it from your playground days:
Oh, Playmate, come out and play with me
And bring your dollies three. Climb up my apple tree.
Look down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door
And we'll be jolly friends forever more.
But not everyone was thrilled with the tune. An old man, Charles L. Johnson, came storming out of Kansas City, a lawyer in tow. Johnson had been a prolific composer of folk-style ragtime during the early years of that century, and he claimed Dowell had stolen the melody for Playmates, note for note, from Johnson's "Indian intermezzo," Iola, written in 1906.
You can listen for yourself and see what you think. Here's a link to a performance of Playmates.
And here's one to Iola. You'll have no trouble recognizing the theme in question.
The judge had no trouble, either, and Mr. Johnson was awarded rights to all royalties from the tune, including those that had already been paid.
Now comes the punch line. Dowell wrote a (seldom-heard) introductory verse to his song, and it went like this:
There's a catchy little tune a floatin' through the air,
You hear it here and there, they sing it ev'ry where
How it started, where it started, seems nobody knows.
But what's the diff'rence where it came from, here's the way it goes.
Big diff'rence, as it turned out. Was that a little bit of arrogance on the part of Dowell, maybe intended as a sly joke? If so, he did not laugh last. Or even for very long.