Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck are being accused of purloining lyrics from an incarcerated man's poem on their debut album, 18.
Lyrics in the Depp/Beck song "Sad Motherf---in' Parade" were allegedly taken from a toast called "Hobo Ben" by a Black poet published under the alias Slim Wilson in a 1974 book titled, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me.
The book was later adapted into an album of the same name in '76. According to Rolling Stone, Wilson was serving time in the Missouri State Penitentiary for a 1964 armed robbery when he met folklorist Bruce Jackson, who published his and others' work.
Jackson, now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Buffalo, gave aliases to all of the book's contributors so they wouldn't get in trouble with their wardens. Slim's real name was Willie (or Willy) Davis.
Several lines from "Hobo Ben" appear almost verbatim in Depp/Beck's "Sad Motherf---in' Parade.
"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 motherf---er really need, child, is a bath"
Jackson tells Rolling Stone that the song is credited solely to Depp and Beck on their album, even though it appears the duo only contributed a pair of original lines.
"Everything else is from Slim's performance in my book," Jackson said of the song. "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."
Jackson is exploring legal options, but has not filed a lawsuit just yet. While it may be implausible that Depp or Beck wrote the lyrics in question, the origins of "Hobo Ben" are also unclear, he notes.
Jackson recalls Slim Wilson telling him that he learned "Hobo Ben" from his father, in an oral tradition typical of toasts and the blues. He says he's more concerned about Slim Wilson being properly credited on the song than he is on profiting from any kind of copyright claim. Folk researchers (and rock musicians) have an ugly history of appropriating and profiting from the work of 19th and 20th century Black artists.
He says that if Depp and Beck are making money off "Hobo Ben," the profits should go "someplace that helps the people who produced this culture." Jackson himself often donates proceeds from his published work to an inmates trust fund if he can't locate the respective artist.
18 was announced days after Depp's defamation case with ex-wife Amber Heard concluded. The actor/singer/guitarist quickly joined Beck on tour in Europe to promote the record, which arrived in mid-July.
The duo has yet to comment on the allegation.