Haven’t you done that?
There was an Irish lumberjack song, and I didn’t know I was using it or misusing it. But I was writing in an airplane, and the verse of this Irish lumberjack song, “Johnson says he’ll load more hay, says he’ll load ten times a day.” I was making up a verse: “Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing.” Well, it probably will reach more people than any other song I’ve written. Marlene Dietrich sang it around the world. When her youthful glamour was gone, she had Burt Bacharach put together a small orchestra and for several years she sang around the world. If she was in an English-speaking country like Australia she’d sing it in English, but if she was in Buenos Aires or Tokyo, she’d sing the German verse. The German translation sings better than the English: “Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind.” When she went back to Germany, the old Nazis were out to run her down, “don’t listen to this woman, she sang for the soldiers fighting us!” But that very month her song was number one on the German Hit Parade.
How do you feel about your songs getting covered and interpreted by so many other people?
I’m very proud. It’s a great honor to have different people sing it—even if they sing them differently. Ani Difranco got a group of young men, I think all 10, 11, 12 years old called Roots of Music, and they have a brass band, trumpets and clarinets and so on down in New Orleans. They used a song, which I recorded; I didn’t write the song but I recorded it with my banjo and it became well known: “Which Side Are You On.” By the time they got done rearranging it, you wouldn’t think it had anything to do with my song, except the title.