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:

Your Library Has a Free Music Service That You Probably Didn't Know About

Did you know that you can download free music from your local library? Music that you can keep. That's right: not borrow, keep.

It's all possible thanks to a service called Freegal (a portmanteau of free and legal), which gives patrons of participating libraries access to 15 million songs from 40,000 labels, notably including the Sony Music Entertainment catalog. All you need is a library card.

Here's how it works: You can download a few songs a week, and, in many areas, enjoy several hours of streaming, too (the precise number of songs and hours of streaming varies by library). Once you download MP3 files, they're yours. You're free to put them on iTunes, your iPhone, your tablet, and more. You don't have to return them and they don't expire. The counter resets on Mondays at 12:01 a.m. Central Time, so if you hit your limit, you won't have long to wait before you get more downloads. And Freegal has some great stuff: A quick scan of the front page reveals music from Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Cardi B, Simon & Garfunkel, Childish Gambino, The Avett Brothers, Lykke Li, and Sara Bareilles.

Freegal has been around since 2010 and is offered at libraries worldwide. In the U.S., that includes the New York Public Library, Queens Library, Los Angeles Public Library, West Chicago Public Library, Houston Public Library, and more. In the past few years, libraries have debuted some other amazing free digital services, from classic films streaming on Kanopy to audiobooks and e-books available to borrow on SimplyE and OverDrive. But the thing that's so exciting about Freegal is that you can keep the MP3 files, unlike services that limit you to borrowing.

Freegal's site is easy to navigate: You can browse playlists and make your own, check out the most popular tunes, and save songs to your wishlist for when you get more credits. In the old days, music fans would check out CDs from the library and upload them onto their computers before returning them. But Freegal eliminates the need to go to your local branch, check out an album, and bring it back when you're done.

Freegal app

To find out if your local library has Freegal, go to and click login, then search for your area. It's important to note: Your library's contract might not have both streaming and downloading privileges. You can use Freegal on the web or as an app available on the App Store, Google Play, and Amazon. Of course, the service doesn't have everything. And sometimes, when it does have an artist, it will only have a few of their most popular albums. But if you frequently buy music on iTunes or elsewhere, checking Freegal first may save you a bit of money.

If you don't yet have a library card, Freegal is just one more reason why you should get one ASAP.

Rick Diamond, Getty Images
An Anthology Series Based on Dolly Parton's Songs Is Coming to Netflix
Rick Diamond, Getty Images
Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Though she may be best known for her music career, Dolly Parton is a Hollywood powerhouse. In addition to starring in more than a few contemporary classics, from 9 to 5 to Steel Magnolias, she's also been partly responsible for some of your favorite TV series. As part owner of Sandollar Entertainment, a film and television production company, she's been a silent figure behind shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, the queen of country music is preparing to return to the small screen once again—this time on Netflix.

The beloved singer is partnering with Warner Bros. Television to produce an anthology series for Netflix, Engadget reports. Set to debut in 2019, each of the eight episodes will have a theme based on a song by Parton, who will serve as executive producer and singer-songwriter in addition to appearing in the series.

"As a songwriter, I have always enjoyed telling stories through my music," Parton said in a statement. "I am thrilled to be bringing some of my favorite songs to life with Netflix. We hope our show will inspire and entertain families and folks of all generations, and I want to thank the good folks at Netflix and Warner Bros. TV for their incredible support."

The list of songs hasn’t yet been released, but I Will Always Love You, Jolene, and The Bargain Store are among Parton’s greatest hits.

Parton previously worked with Warner Bros. to produce the made-for-television movies Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors (2015) and Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love (2016). She has also nearly finished the music for the upcoming film Dumplin'—based on a novel by Julie Murphy and starring Jennifer Aniston—and the soundtrack will be released via Dolly Records and Sony Music Nashville, according to Parton’s website.

[h/t Engadget]


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