6 Famous Songs that Copied Popular Melodies


These six songs are about as beloved and recognizable as they come. But did you know that every single one uses a borrowed melody?

1. "My Country ‘tis Of Thee"

This patriotic ode to good ole Uncle Sam copies Britain’s national anthem. In 1832, future minister Samuel Francis Smith wrote the lyrics to My Country ‘tis Of Thee while studying at Andover Theological Seminary. What he didn’t write, however, was its musical accompaniment. Note for note, this was taken from a swelling German hymn entitled "God Bless Our Native Land." But not even that song’s melody was original: It previously appeared in "God Save the King/Queen," which dates back to (at least) 1745. And some historians aren’t even convinced that was original; it might just be an adaptation of a tune that dates back to the seventeenth century.

2. "For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow"

"For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow" has a morbid backstory. In 1709, the first Duke of Marlborough John Churchill led British forces to a bloody, costly victory over the French and Spanish at the Battle of Malplaquet. Afterward, there were whispers that Churchill died amidst this carnage. He hadn’t, but detractors spat on his nonexistent grave anyway. Enter "Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre" (“Marlborough is Going to War”), a lively ballad in which Churchill not only perishes but is buried, mourned, and ascends to heaven. 

Eventually, "Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre" spread and begat several imitators set to the same tune. Among these, "For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow" is easily the most famous.

3. "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"

Stand up and sing this one out loud. Wasn’t that fun? OK, now sing that alphabet song everybody learns in kindergarten. Notice any similarities? Both are based on a popular French lullaby called "Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman" or "Shall I Tell You, Mother?" Basically, it’s about a kid with a really big sweet tooth:  

The simple tune found a fan in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who helped make it famous by composing a piece that played 12 variations back-to-back. Originally, "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" had nothing to do with any of them; it started out as a nursery poem written by Jane Taylor in 1806. Someone—we’re not sure who—later came along and paired Taylor’s words with the Gallic tune.

4. "What Child is This?"

William Chatterton Dix wrote a poem called "The Manger Throne" in 1865. Six years later, a modified version of his poem found its way into a book of carols with a melody that had been hummed around England for centuries. Shakespeare even referenced it: The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602) stars a pompous knight named Sir John Falstaff who, at one point, shouts “Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of 'Greensleeves!'”

A hymn for lovelorn dreamers, "Greensleeves" tells the story of a fair maiden and the suitor whose heart she’s broken. King Henry VIII is said to have composed it after his future wife Anne Boleyn rejected some early advances, though most historians dispute that story.

5. "The Star-Spangled Banner"

You may have heard that America’s national anthem is based on a British drinking shanty, which isn’t entirely true. Francis Scott Key’s masterpiece was actually inspired by the theme song of a respectable U.K. gentleman’s club. In 1814, musically-inclined, well-to-do Londoners gravitated towards the Anacretonic Society, which often kicked off meetings by singing this:

Lyrical highlights include “The Yellow Hair'd God and his Nine Fusty Maids/From Helicon's Banks will Incontinent Flee!” How catchy!

6. "Happy Birthday to You"

According to Guinness World Records, this is the most famous song in the English language. And, depending on who you ask, it might have also been the product of self-plagiarism. Kentucky sisters Mildred and Patty Hill published the charming tune in 1893. Called "Good Morning to All," it initially went as follows:

Good morning to you

Good morning to you

Good morning, dear children

Good morning to you.

“[Mildred] was the musician,” Patty, a kindergarten teacher whose students used to love singing this song, said, “and I was, if it is not using too pretentious a word, the poetess.” At some point, however, her poetic words were replaced. By 1935, "Happy Birthday to You" had evolved from the Hills’ ditty. But do these sisters deserve credit for that song, too? Or did a complete stranger come up with it? Opinions differ.

But if you’re planning on singing "Happy Birthday to You" anytime soon, proceed with caution. As the cast of Aaron Sorkin’s "Sports Night" found out, it’s copyrighted:

Samir Hussein, Getty Images
One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

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The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
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Getty Images

Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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