AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — Last month, when the songwriter Irving Gordon died, nestled within a few of his obituaries was the arcane fact that Gordon had authored the famous Bud Abbott and Lou Costello baseball routine "Who's on First?" The estate of Abbott and Costello, which controls the copyright, contested Gordon's credit, claiming the principals had written the routine themselves. An outside source gives part credit to a writer named John Hart, who worked for Abbott and Costello. So who's on first for "Who's on First"?
There is nothing new about various authors claiming credit for a single work, though it is especially difficult assigning paternity for works of popular culture that are often the product not of collaborators, but of individuals who have never even met one another. Whenever I see a movie credit where the screenplay is ascribed to three or four writers, I envision a producer passing the script down an assembly line, with each contributor adding his or her own touch.
But as nettlesome as these issues can be, popular culture raises another issue of paternity with another kind of collaboration. There are an increasing number of artworks and artifacts like "Who's on First?" that have entered the collective consciousness. Over the years, they have been amended, embroidered on, satirized, reconfigured, so they are no longer the product of one sensibility or even a few. They become the product of our joint sensibility--our national property.
In bygone cultures, this process was taken for granted. "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" are, of course, attributed to a blind bard named Homer. But we know these poems were enmeshed in an oral culture; they were passed down from one generation to the next through recitation. It is only logical that, over time, the text would undergo alterations--new passages added, others subtracted, still others changed--until these epics could be said to be the expression not only of Homer but of the entire Greek people.
Similarly, the Bible is believed by scholars to have been a collaboration over time. As an organic text, it kept mutating, depending on whose hands it had passed into and what agenda was being pressed. In fact, it continues to mutate today, with new colloquial and politically correct versions.
Obviously, we have produced nothing in America comparable to "The Iliad" or the Bible. Rather, what has happened in America this century, with the rise of the mass media and the popular culture it purveys, is that an entire culture has become a continuing mutation and everyone an author of it. "Who's on First?", for example, gets told and retold, largely from memory. Sit-coms and commercials quote from it. "In Living Color" once did a black version, with actors playing Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton. It is so much a part of our culture now in these different forms that someday its original provenance may attenuate, and it will wind up barely recognizable as Abbott and Costello's routine.
"Who's on First?" is just one of millions of shards of culture in which we now live and pass on. There are riffs from songs, half-remembered lines from movies, characters from old TV shows, commercial jingles, jokes. There are even ideas that have become part of our cultural inheritance, presumably as a result of old movies and TV shows but that need only the oral tradition to sustain them.
Think of quicksand. Few of us have ever experienced quicksand, or been taught about it in school, but even my pre-teenage daughters, who haven't seen '30s jungle pictures, know what quicksand is and how it can suck you under. Or think of a posse. All of us instantly know what a posse is--though there hasn't been a movie or TV show in years that has had occasion to round one up. We also know that you can breathe under water using a hollow reed plucked from the riverbank, that you can render someone senseless by slipping him a "mickey." We know these things because they've been passed on to us, often by what seems like osmosis.
One doesn't think, of course, of modern culture as oral. When everything is preserved on film or video or CD, there seems little room for the transmission of ideas by word of mouth. But because there is so much material being thrown at us every day, whatever sticks gets processed by us in our own particular ways and gradually gets disengaged from a specific source. People recognize Jimmy Cagney imitations and his signature line, "You dirty rat!", who have never seen a Cagney film. Practically everyone knows the line, "Play it again, Sam," though fewer people have seen "Casablanca," from which it allegedly came, and fewer still know the line is not actually in the movie, but is yet another oral reconstruction.