Posts Tagged ‘Huckleberry Finn’

I may be late to this party, but a friend of mine just turned me on to The Johnny Cash Project.

It’s an amazing example of crowdsourcing, billed as “A unique communal work, a living portrait of The Man in Black.” Basically, artists get to draw an image of Johnny Cash to be integrated into an animated music video of Cash’s song, “Ain’t No Grave.” For me, one of the coolest aspects is that because people are constantly adding new content, the video is always changing. And you can choose to view the video by watching Highest Rated Frames, Director Curated Frames, Abstract Frames, Realistic Frames, and more.

I highly recommend checking it out. And thanks to my friend, surfer, homeopathic physician, and killer folk music artist Acoustic Apothecary, for sharing this with me. (Check out Acoustic Apothecary’s You Tube videos here.)

But of course, I’m not here simply to bring you the new and interesting (at which I’ve failed miserably given that this has been around awhile). I think there’s a much more important issue at stake here: who owns a creator’s work, and what rights does the creator have as to it’s reproduction and use.

I have written before about who actually owns a creator’s work (please read my posts about Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and The Who’s My Generation). In this instance, while “Ain’t No Grave” is Johnny Cash’s final studio recording, this video is posthumous.

Because it was created with the support of the Cash Estate, I’m sure all the legal bases have been covered. But what about the moral ones? (Including whether his estate is the right authority to make that decision, when its interest in continuing to make money on his creativity may be in conflict with its responsibility to protect the integrity of his legacy? For more on this, see my post, “I See Dead People…”.)

Specifically, would Mr. Cash approve of his fans collaborating with him on his last song? Is he the kind of artist who would have micro-managed every aspect of creative interpretation, as many do, or is he the kind that would willingly allow fans to play in his creative playground, as a growing number of transmedia creators are doing?

Companies and brands face this dilemma whenever they decide to allow their customers to create user-generated content. There have been disasters, like the Chevy Tahoe crowdsourced commercials, and successes, like the Doritos Super Bowl ads.

But what about artists? How do artists feel about covers? Some, like Prince, are against them, and even take their battles to court. Others, like Lady Gaga, who clearly understands the power of social media, are thrilled to death, and tweet about fan videos she finds and likes.

In other words, different creators make different choices about who can use their work, and how. And I believe it is their right to do so.

So, as much as I love The Johnny Cash Project, and as much as I am personally in favor of letting fans play in my own playground (which I am currently developing as part of my “Spirit In Realtime” science fiction series I’m writing), can someone please explain to me whether you think it’s okay to steal and use a dead man’s song for any purpose, even that of celebrating his life?

Like so many of you out there, I am outraged at the sanitizing of Huckleberry Finn by replacing the “N” word with “slave.” At first, I assumed Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books must be doing it to sell books to schools and libraries that banned the original, riding the wave of political correctness and sensationalism to the best seller list.

But then I read the article in Publisher’s Weekly and came to the realization that Gribben really thinks he’s doing the right thing:

“After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.” Gribben became determined to offer an alternative for grade school classrooms and “general readers” that would allow them to appreciate and enjoy all the book has to offer. “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” he said.

The article ends with a quote from NewSouth publisher Suzanne La Rosa:

But the heart of the matter is opening up the novels to a much broader, younger, and less experienced reading audience: “Dr. Gribben recognizes that he’s putting his reputation at stake as a Twain scholar,” said La Rosa. “But he’s so compassionate, and so believes in the value of teaching Twain, that he’s committed to this major departure. I almost don’t want to acknowledge this, but it feels like he’s saving the books. His willingness to take this chance—I was very touched.”

Sounds reasonable, right? Even noble: Making Huckleberry Finn accessible to everyone, at the cost of one’s reputation. I mean, after all, the book is considered one of the great American novels, perhaps the greatest. It’s the ultimate indictment of those who judge people by how they look, or the title or position in society they hold, or even their familial relationship, rather than judging them by their actions and their hearts.

And wouldn’t that message be just as strong without the “N” word or “Injun” scattered over 200 times across its pages?

Who cares? That’s not the issue here.

The question is: Who owns Huckleberry Finn? And I don’t mean who owns the right to publish it. I mean, whose book is it?

It’s not Gribben’s book. It’s not our book. Librarians and school teachers and school boards and offended readers don’t own it.

It’s Mark Twain’s book. He wrote it. He could have used the word slave, but he didn’t.

Good intentions don’t justify censorship or the mutilation of art, whether you’re a teacher or the Pope. (Sorry, Pius IX.)  And I don’t think anyone who has ever read Mark Twain would suggest he would approve of Gribben’s actions. This is exactly the kind of misguided sophistry Twain would skewer with his rapier wit. Rather than openly fight the injustice of censorship, our brave hero slinks in shrouded in a cloak of acceptability.

But mostly, it’s just wrong. Twain is powerless to defend his words against Gribben’s literary rape.

Isn’t there a word for depriving someone of their right to self-determination, when you treat them like an object to serve your needs rather than as a human being deserving of respect?

Can someone please tell me who gave Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books the right to treat Mark Twain like a… “slave?”