Artists borrow material from earlier artists in order to adapt it for use in new works. Allow me to focus on music to illustrate. If a melody has depth and flexibility it can be reworked and reused in other ways such as marrying it to different sets of lyrics, or rearranging the instrumentation.
Here’s an early one that keeps coming back to us, courtesy of Johann Sebastian Bach. In the St. Matthew Passion (1727), a truly great work, he returns again and again to a chorale. This sweet little melody was originally a popular love song (“Mein G’müt ist mir Verwirret”) written by Hans Leo Hassler over 100 years earlier. Bach added harmonies that made the pretty tune into a 4-part jewel box, a kind of perfect cube that could safely contain lyrics of intense emotion. The beauty and symmetry of the music contrasts with the aching sensitivity of the new words, which included:
Du edles Angesichte, You noble countenance,
Davor sonst schrickt und scheut before which once shrinks and cowers
Das große Weltgewichte, the great might of the world,
Wie bist du so bespeit! how you are spat upon!
Wie bist du so erbleichet! How you are turned pallid!
Wer hat dein Augenlicht, Who has treated those eyes
Dem sonst kein Licht nicht gleichet, to which no light is comparable
So schändlich zugericht’t? so shamefully?
These words had also gone through a process of being borrowed and adapted. They originated in a 13th Century poem by an abbot who wrote in Latin, addressing each of the physical areas of Jesus’ wounds in individual sections of his poem. This was the section addressing the head, which is why in English it eventually became the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”. But before that happened, Bach himself used the chorale in a cantata (159) and set the tune to different words for a Christmas Oratorio.
That tune was a resilient little container. Tom Glazer, a multi-instrumentalist and writer, worked at the Library of Congress during the Great Depression, where he met Alan Lomax, the great song collector and field recordist. Lomax influenced him to immerse himself in the borrowing traditions of folk music. From 1945-1947, Tom had a national radio show introducing America to folk music, including his own compositions. He took the jewel box from the Renaissance and added a set of words advocating equality and solidarity with the union causes of the time. This new version was recorded by the Weavers, and later by Peter, Paul and Mary during the early 60s folk revival. Most of us who remember this reboot are getting on in years:
Because all men are brothers, wherever men may be,
The world shall be one union forever proud and free.
No tyrant shall defeat us, no nation strike us down,
All men who toil shall greet us, the whole wide world around.
The last version I know of was created by Paul Simon in 1973. He wrote yet another set of lyrics, altered the melody slightly and called it American Tune. This time the song was speaking about our sense of longing for an earlier, more idyllic America of the past, while Viet Nam and Watergate were causing us to lose faith in our institutions :
I wouldn’t be too surprised if the little jewel box comes around again in some other form. As long as it speaks elegantly to the listeners of the time it’s played in, I think it’s all right.