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6 Famous Songs that Copied Popular Melodies

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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:

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Pop Culture
5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:


Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.


A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.


Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.


A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.


A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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Pop Culture
How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.


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