The lyrics to the opening verse of “Waterfalls” by Paul McCartney go as follows: “Don’t go jumping waterfalls / Please, keep to the lake. / People who jump waterfalls /Sometimes can make mistakes.” If these lyrics sound familiar to those who grew up in the 1990’s, there is a good reason why this is the case, if one compares it with the chorus of TLC’s song with the same title: “Don’t go chasing waterfalls / Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to. / I know that you’re gonna have it your way or nothing at all / But I think you’re moving too fast.” If you noted these similarities between these two songs, you are not alone. Paul McCartney has noted the lyrics, complaining gently about the song borrowing the opening lines to his songs without acknowledgement and then going into another song. It should be noted that Paul didn’t sue over the copying, but the song credits for TLC’s “Waterfalls” do not yet include credits for Paul McCartney’s song as an interpolation, which they ought to in order to acknowledge the debt to the song that came before.
To the extent that we create anything at all, we cannot help but utilize elements of the cauldron of creations that have come before us, whether we have subconsciously or openly taken it up or responded to it in some fashion. This leads us to a decision between two options. We can choose to acknowledge the debts that we owe to those who came before us, or we can choose not to acknowledge them, in which point we try to deceive others that we are more original than we actually happen to be. It is to be lamented that TLC was not willing to acknowledge the debt that they owed to Paul McCartney for bringing their attention to waterfalls as a suitable symbol for excitement and thrills that have a dangerous side. It is not that the achievement of TLC in making a compelling song full of rich detail about the troubles of contemporary urban life would be any less by acknowledging their debt to a former Beatle, but rather something of the nature of creativity itself would be better understood, as one can see that fragments of inspiration can indeed go many different dimensions, but that these fragments should be openly faced and admitted.
It should be noted that Paul McCartney himself, and his famous bandmates, owed a large debt to the black music of gospel and R&B and early rock and roll that inspired them as they took their first steps forward as a cover band and then as creative songwriters themselves. This debt was openly acknowledged–the Beatles performed these songs as covers and were known as connoisseurs of obscure R&B songs within their native Liverpool, one of the things that brought them to the attention of other musicians at the time. To be sure, there were other threads to the Beatles’ inspirations, including the folk traditions of the British isles as well as skiffle, but they were not chary about openly admitting their influences even as they sought their own creative muses, and eventually those influences branched into Eastern Music, country, and to the Scottish pipe tradition (see, for example, in Wings’ “Mull Of Kintyre”). And while cultural trends are rather fickle about the permissibility of people finding inspiration in outside traditions, thus far at least in the popular eye, the Beatles have not suffered at all for their openly acknowledged debt to those who came before them in rock and roll.
It is well worth wondering the extent to which we are inspired by those who came before us. This inspiration can be nearly unconscious in nature. For example, I once heard a song idly, without paying much attention to it. The song was Bob Welch’s “Sentimental Lady,” and the melody line of that song became lodged in my head and attached to different words to lyrics I wrote in high school, “Hold me in your loving arms.” Some years later, I was having my hair cut and I heard the song again, and I recognized the melody and understood how it was that the hook of that song had buried its way into my own head. Had I recorded my song and it had been released, it would have behooved me to recognize that I owed a debt to that former member of Fleetwood Mac, and it would have been a debt happily acknowledged, considering my fondness for the band and its music. To deny such a debt would have been dishonest, but also foolish, as people often receive a great deal of credit for having been inspired by sufficiently worthwhile and good things. If we must stand on the shoulders of giants, and indeed we must, if we are to see anything at all, we should at least cheerfully acknowledge those who carry the weight of our own exploration and observation. For by recognizing the worth of the past, we demonstrate ourselves to be people of worth and of good taste ourselves, and that is far better than to attempt to steal a reputation for creativity and originality that we simply do not deserve.