Nothing says Australia like a kangaroo. Unless it’s a kookaburra. We love ‘em. There’s nothing better than being awakened in the morning by their raucous laughter.
We were out and about in Tanunda this morning when Jamie suddenly stopped and asked, ”Did you hear that?”
Indeed, I had. Somewhere very nearby, just off to our left, a kookaburra was laughing hysterically.
Although you may not know it, you’ve probably heard a laughing kookaburra hundreds of times. Seems like Hollywood sound editors use it every time they need a sound effect for a jungle scene. It doesn’t matter where the film is set — Borneo, Africa, India — this uniquely Australian bird’s cry gets inserted.
Here you go: Enjoy the sound of a laughing kookaburra for yourself.
Oddly enough, the kookaburra was the central figure in one of the most famous legal cases in Australian history. And it was no laughing matter.
In 1934 Victorian schoolteacher Marion Sinclair rushed home from church one Sunday after hearing a kookaburra. She quickly scribbled out the lyrics to Kookaburra Sits on the Old Gum Tree and was as surprised as anyone when the song went on to become a favorite of children around the world.
In her unpublished autobiography, Kookaburra, she admitted that she didn’t really ”compose” Kookaburra because it was really more of a collection of “snatches of songs.” Some musicologists say it sounds suspiciously similar to an old Welsh folksong.
Let’s pause for a little history that may sound like a detour, but is really key to this story.
Aussie rock group Men at Work’s song Land Down Under was a huge hit, selling more than 30 million copies worldwide. It hit number one on the Aussie music charts in late 1981 and a similar lofty position on the American charts in late 1982. Seven years later, in 1988, Sinclair died. She bequeathed the Kookaburra song to the Girl Guides (a group not unlike the Girl Scouts), and they later gave those same publishing rights to the State Library of South Australia. Finally, in 1990, Norman Lurie, managing director of Larrikin Music Publishing, bought the rights to Kookaburra from the library for a mere $6100.
The legal controversy began in 2008 when an Aussie TV quiz show asked, “What children’s song is contained in the song Down Under?” Its answer was, “The Kookaburra Song.”
Sinclair had gone to her grave without thinking Men at Work’s worldwide hit had infringed on her song. Apparently any so-called similarities had also eluded Lurie because he didn’t bother to file a copyright infringement suit until June 2009, nineteen years after he acquired the rights to the Kookaburra Song and twenty-eight long years after the The Land Down Under topped the Aussie music charts.
The suit always seemed a bit dodgy to me. Lurie didn’t claim that the entire song had been ripped off, just the flute riff that encompassed five of the song’s 92-bars.
Nevertheless, the court ruled that Down Under’s flute riff “…reproduced a substantial part of Kookaburra”. Men at Work was ordered to pay Larrikin Music 5% of its royalties backdated to 2002 and a similar rate on future royalties.
It was a Pyrrhic victory because 2002 was twenty years after Land Down Under had been a hit and the royalties had long ago dried up. Whatever royalties Larrikin was awarded must have been dwarfed by its legal expenses, and the case generated so much negative publicity that Larrikin ended up changing its name. Even worse, Greg Ham, the Men at Work flutist who laid down the offending notes, ended up committing suicide due to his despair over being labelled a plagiarist. In other words, there were no winners in this suit.
Here Is a quick comparison of both songs. Do you hear a similarity between the two? Even if you do, should Men at Work have been found guilty of plagiarism when the ”composer” of the original song admitted that it was nothing more than ”snatches” of other songs?
Jamie and I and a bunch of our San Luis Obispo neighbors were having a dinner party one night when one of the neighbors, a Scottish immigrant, mentioned that Colin Hay, the lead singer of Men At Work, was appearing that night at a local bar. She felt some kinship because he had emigrated from Scotland to Australia as a child. After about two minutes discussion, we all jumped in our cars and headed for the bar.
Hay put on a great show and demonstrated a beautiful self-deprecating sense of humor. He told the story of how as a member of Men at Work, he had played sold out stadium shows around the world. And then, without a trace of embarrassment, he told us that within a year after the group broke up he found himself playing in a ramshackle outback bar for an audience composed of two drunks and a bored traveling salesman.
This bar in San Luis Obispo, however, held a couple hundred avid fans. Colin sang lots of Men at Work songs, but everyone in the audience was clearly waiting to hear the very identifiable opening notes of ”Land Down Under.” When that moment arrived, everyone enthusiastically sang along. Hay didn’t even attempt to sing, he just held his microphone out to pick up the audience’s vocals.
Looks like the he got the last laugh.