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Who Stole Music First? It Might Have Been Debussy

A portrait of composer Claude Debussy painted by Marcel  Baschet, 1884.
Public Domain
A portrait of composer Claude Debussy painted by Marcel Baschet, 1884.

Pop music has always  borrowed liberally from classical themes: think Al Jolson’s 1920 hit “Avalon” lifting Puccini’s opera “Tosca,” 1970s disco sensation "A Fifth of Beethoven” or Vitamin C’s more modern sampling of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.”

But it's a two-way street! In fact, the first borrowing might have taken place on the classical side.  

We can look to 1909 for an example. "Hello! Ma Baby" is a Tin Pan Alley song written in 1899. It was a hit back then but it’s best known today from the 1955 Merrie Melodies cartoon, "One Froggy Evening":

Here’s the original Arthur Collins pop hit from 1899:

The 1909 piano piece "Le Petit Nègre" by Claude Debussy features a melody very similar to "Hello! Ma Baby," and was clearly inspired by the song:

(Editor's note: "Le Petit Negre" is based in ragtime rhythm, which was emerging at the time and was associated with African-Americans. It was originally intended to be in a collection called "The Children's Corner," loosely based on things in Debussy’s daughter's room, including a black doll.)

In light of the evidence that Debussy borrowed from popular music, it’s especially interesting that decades later, his 1890 composition "Reverie" inspired Larry Clinton's "My Reverie," a song that went on to become one of the biggest pop hits of 1938.

Here’s the original Debussy music:

But unlike Debussy, who used  "Hello! Ma Baby" without special permission, Clinton had to ask for the right to use "Reverie,"  and it wasn't easy.

Singer Bea Wain explained in a 2007 KUOW interview just how that story unfolded:

And here is Wain singing "My Reverie":

Year started with KUOW: 2003