In his latest New York Times blog, Jeffrey Lewis talks about wanting to make a political song in support of Barack Obama.

Seems like an unnecessary idea seeing as how nearly every other musician stood behind Obama, as I noted in an earlier blog. Once I got past the mundane subject of his song, I enjoyed reading about his creative process in writing the song.

All of the blogs on the Measure for Measure New York Times series are amazing. It’s the only place I’ve found on the web where artists are so willing to reveal all the little details that go into writing a song.

Here’s what Jeffrey Lewis came up with:

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Antifolk singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis delivers his stunning lyrics in rapid-fire fashion. Lewis normally accompanies himself on acoustic guitar, but for his self-described “low-budget videos” he reaches into his backpack and pulls out one of his comic books as a visual aid.

Lewis has about 20 of these comic books. His innovative approach may be simple, but it is intriguing.

In the first video, he pulls out a comic book and hands off his guitar to an audience member.

This next is the fourth part of his series on the history of communism. He races through a couple hundred years of Chinese history in a four-minute song.

Are you original?

September 22, 2008

Most artists struggle to find their own unique voice in the landscape of sound that already exists.  Critics laud bands with originality and deride the imitators and rip-off artists.

Antifolk singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis discusses in his New York Times blog his troubling realization that he’s been ripping people off his entire career.  Lewis said he always prided himself on his unique style and looked down on cover artists and traditional folk singers for doing what’s already been done.

Later in his career, he realized that he had been stealing from other artists all his career and was no different than the cover artist.  In the end, he is resigned to call himself a rip-off artist.

I’m inclined to agree with him, but maybe he’s being too hard on himself.  Jonathon Lethem wrote an article in Harper’s Magazine titled “The ecstasy of influence” where he makes an argument for plagirism.  He argues that society benefits if artists are allowed to pick and steal from one another. 

One example he cites is Bob Dylan’s use of the line “When you live outside the line, you have to eliminate dishonesty” from the 1958 film in “The Lineup” in his song “Absolutely Sweet Marie.”  Lethem says that this kind of plagirism is good because without we’d be deprived of a brilliant Dylan song.   

I like Lethem’s argument, but I still think private property rights need to be respected.  If Dylan wants to use that line then he can pay for it.  It’s important to point out the difference between influence and theft.  Obviously, love, death and sex are going to be constantly covered in all art.  The I-IV-V chord progression is always going to be popular in music. 

An immature artist will imitate the works of his predecessors.  As the artist grows the influence will be absorbed, and the artist will be able to produce something new by connecting the previously unconnected or by applying the themes to their own life.