The song Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade appears to take several lines from Hobo Ben, a poem and song by Slim Wilson, the alias of a self-proclaimed cheat and pimp who served time for murder and armed robbery.
In 1964, while in Missouri State Penitentiary, Wilson met the folklorist Bruce Jackson, who documented his poetry and toasts – a comic form of narrative Black folk poetry, akin to hobo balladry – for his 1974 book on the latter artform, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me, accompanied two years later by an album of the same name in which Slim performed his works.
In the toast Hobo Ben, the titular wanderer asks the hosts of a party:
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 motherfucker really need, child, is a bath.’
Several lines from the song appear in Depp and Beck’s Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade, including the title, “I’m raggedy, I know, but I have no stink”, “God bless the lady that’ll buy me a drink”, and “What that funky motherfucker 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 motherfucker’ and ‘Bust it down to my level,’” Jackson, a professor at the University of Buffalo, told Rolling Stone.
“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.”
The liner notes to the album credit Beck and Depp as the sole songwriters. The Guardian has contacted representatives for the duo for comment.
However, the original authorship of Hobo Ben, a work passed on through a competitive oral tradition, may be impossible to trace, along with the ownership of copyright.
Jackson’s son, Michael Lee Jackson, said they were exploring possible legal options. “They do not reflect the actual authorship of those lyrics,” he said. “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.”
As the author of Get Your Ass in the Water, Jackson owns the copyright to the transcriptions of the toasts making him tantamount to the author in US law, lawyer Kevin J Greene told Rolling Stone, adding that it may be more of an ethical issue – not covered under US copyright law – than a legal one.
Of the album 18, the author told Rolling Stone: “I don’t know if this record is selling. 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?”