The website for Dr Martin Shaw OBE FRCM (1875 –1958)

"It is not progress that is the worry, but pilfering! "

Joan Shaw on Cat Stevens' use of the hymn Morning has Broken




1:ROCKING, a Traditional Czech Carol

This well-known carol, which originated the phrase "We will rock you", is an example of a traditional tune collected by Martin Shaw which remains in his copyright.

The reason is this:

As the pre-industrial era came to an end, a group of composers, including Martin Shaw, worked to write down traditional folk tunes in order to save them for posterity. They travelled across rural England noting down the tunes, a process they called 'folk-songing'. The tunes collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw were later to appear in The English Hymnal, Songs of Praise and The Oxford Book of Carols.

Sometimes though, the folk-tunes came to them, which is what happened with Rocking. In the early 1920s Martin Shaw worked as Music Director for St Martins in the Fields, a church next to London's Trafalgar Square. A refugee from the Czech Republic sang some native songs to him on the steps, and Shaw noted them down. Shaw gave the words to Percy Dearmer for translation, and in time the song duly appeared in the Oxford Book of Carols as Rocking. As Martin Shaw was the first person to collect the tune, he retains the copyright.


2: Cat Stevens and BUNESSAN

Bunessan on the other hand, is a folk tune which had been collected by someone else. In this case, only Shaw's particular arrangement, the one in Songs of Praise (paired with Morning has Broken), remains in his copyright.

To explain further:

Whilst a lot of people growing up in the mid-20th Century would have been familiar with the Anglican hymn Morning has Broken, Cat Stevens, having been to a Roman Catholic school, was not. In an interview about MhB, he explained that he had came across an old school hymn book for the first time and had found it to be a compendium of folk tunes, a veritable treasure-trove for a musician like him.

Thumbing through, Stevens did not have to look far to find inspiration. Morning has Broken is Hymn No. 30, and, assuming it was a Victorian hymn, (the irony of it! Songs of Praise was written as an Anti-Victorian hymn book), he took it off to the recording studio, changed the key from B flat to C major, and made it famous.

The assumption that it was a Victorian hymn was probably due to the discretion with which Martin Shaw made his copyright declaration: it is tucked away on page xi of the Preface. Nowadays composers know better, their names proclaim their good work alongside the title, original work or no.

Because, as a result of Cat Stevens using Morning has Broken without permission, the Martin Shaw Estate brought a court case. The Farjeon Estate own copyright for her poem, but even though Martin Shaw was the primary creator of the hymn, (he had asked Eleanor Farjeon Estate to put words to the tune), Cat Stevens won the case. The judge's decision was that Martin Shaw's copyright extended to his arrangement only, not to the tune itself.

Which is fair enough. Otherwise, anyone could use any old tune (e.g. Happy Birthday) and claim it as their copyright for evermore, which would lead to a copyright free-for-all.

Meanwhile Morning has Broken continues to be Cat Stevens' greatest hit, which just goes to show that it's not the hymns which are boring, it's the way you play them. And of course, the man could be a bit more humble when he complains about other people (e.g. Coldplay) pilfering his work.


3: A Gentle Old Man

This story does not involve Martin Shaw at all, but is an illustration of the power of the copyright holder. It was told to me by the former director of the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, before its absorbtion into the PRS:

In the mid to late 1990s a gentle old man got in touch with the MCPS about a copyright matter. As the sole copyright holder, he wanted to prevent the re-issue of a song.

The MCPS looked into this, but there was nothing in law that could be done to prevent it. Once something has been published, it has been made available to the public, and as long as its use is not injurious to the author's reputation (e.g. for something illegal) further publication cannot be stopped.

The gentle old man was Christopher Milne, the son of A.A.Milne, the real Christopher Robin, whose life, he felt, had been stolen by his father and later, Walt Disney. He had wanted to prevent the re-issue of a song from the Disney film - the music was so awful. But even though he was the sole copyright holder, he could do nothing to prevent the re-issue of a work already in the public domain.