History and astronomy lessons from They Might Be Giant Plagiarists

Check this out, via Corrente, to see a most undeserved tribute to our eleventh President, “Mr. James K. Polk, the Napoleon of the Stump,” by They Might Be Giants.

stars.JPGIncidentally, a close family member of mine has discovered that TMBG has tried this schtick of “borrowing” from textbooks before. When perusing an old astronomy primer (don’t ask!), he discovered that the first line of their song “Why Does the Sun Shine?” was cribbed directly from Stars: A Guide to the Constellations, Sun, Moon, Planets, and Other Features of the Heavens, a Golden Nature Guide (Western Publishing Company, 1951, 1956), shown here on the left (click for larger view). Below, you can see the proof on page 16–note the first sentence in the second paragraph shown here:


That’s OK–writing new song lyrics is hard, so why not turn to used bookstores for inspiration? (Don’t you?)

0 thoughts on “History and astronomy lessons from They Might Be Giant Plagiarists

  1. Pingback: Astronomy: Search The Galaxy » History and astronomy lessons from They Might Be Giant Plagiarists

  2. As I huge TMBG fan I know this… but if you look in the album linear notes for both songs, the original writers are credited.

    Both songs are great, imho. From what I’ve heard TMBG say about Polk their song is less of a tribute than its lyrics and catchy tone might suggest. Maybe.


  3. Smith Michaels–thanks for the clarification! And I thought my family member was so clever in finding the original source…but we’re too cheap to buy the CDs, so who’s fair-using whom, right?

    I kind of like the James K. Polk song–but the Sun song is better.


  4. The actual studio-produced version of the Polk song on the record is more musically satisfying than this one captured on a handheld videocam, though it’s nice to see the kids enjoying the event. I never took it to be an apologia, though, for Polk–the dead white president after whom my elementary school was named! You could unpack a lot, I think, trying to figure out what Buchanan was a “moderate” about, in 1841. TMBG seems like an admirable follow-on to the satiric tradition pioneered in the 1960s by the still-active Firesign Theater troupe. Isn’t the borrowing of or aural allusion to small parts of extant works called “sampling” in modern musical production practice? And I think that first part of the sentence in the second para would be considered, for intellectual property purposes, a fact, rather than an expression about a fact. Who knows?


  5. I have never heard of this band. But I now suspect that their song about Polk, explains why one of my loony colleagues started a James K. Polk Fan Club on Facebook. There goes my theory that the colleague in question was an imperialist warmonger.


  6. Dang! There goes a perfectly good reason for disliking someone. (Unless you don’t like They Might Be Giants–in which case, it is on, Ortho!)

    What were you researching in New York? Inquiring minds want to know! (And did you bring me any photos of the dollies?)


  7. Wow–thanks for the link and the info, Vast Left. So we can presume that the Stars book was fresh and not purchased in a used bookstore or found in a basement when the song was composed. And I thought I was a twisted child for playing old LP’s and memorizing the lyrics to “The Battle of New Orleans”! Sheesh!

    And–hi Josephine! Thanks for stopping by to comment.


  8. Hi Historiann,

    Sorry, I didn’t take photos of the dollies. There were so many — it was like doll heaven. Have you been to the Museum of the City of NY? If you haven’t been, you must go the next time you’re on the east coast.

    At the Museum, I finished a database of all the prisoners who were incarcerated at NY’s first penitentiary “experiment.” At the Municipal Archives, I cross-checked my database with indictment records. Since over 60% of the people sentenced to this prison were convicted of (grand & petty) larceny, I wanted to find out what they allegedly stole and who their victims were.


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