Monday, September 26, 2011

Statutory Interpretation Illustrated

I frequently use music in class to illustrate a legal principle.  My theory is generally that students understand how music "works." Therefore, music can be used as a scaffold to assist understanding of more complex principles.

I assign the videos below, all of various versions of the song, The First Cut is the Deepest, to illustrate the concept of statutory interpretation. Start with the performance of the composer/lyricist, Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam).  He wrote "the law" as expressed in the melody, lyrics, tempo, arrangement and overall feeling of his performance. Next, PP Arnold interprets the law by adding an R&B tempo and arrangement. Linda Ronstadt’s version tracks close to Arnold’s precedent, but adds energy and richness. In the chorus of Ronstadt’s version, there is a slight but noticeable change in the lyrics of the chorus, transferring focus from the “other” in the story to the “self” and, thereby, altering the meaning. Rod Stewart’s performance slows the tempo, stylistically shifting the feel of the song to more of an acoustic rock ballad and makes two notable textual and substantive changes.  In the third line of the first verse Stewart changes the word “got” to “have.” The word change does not affect the meaning of the sentence and is arguably a grammatical improvement.  However, the change destroys the three-line rhyming scheme of the verse as composed and falls more clumsily on the ear of the audience.  Even more notably, Stewart truncates the chorus, bringing it to a close after only two lines of the original three-line rhyming scheme and abandoning the reiteration of the “first cut” reference.  Sheryl Crow’s popular version matches Stewart’s version, embracing and solidifying in audience memory both the clumsiness of the first verse and the truncated, unfinished sounding chorus over the composer’s own aesthetic.  Crow has confirmed in interviews that she did not return to the original text in arranging her version because she knew Stewart’s version as precedent and “heard” the song principally in that way. Ultimately, she recorded the song as it sounded right to her, regardless of the composer’s intent.  Finally, Papa Dee’s version bears the least resemblance to the Cat Steven’s original despite similarity in melody and lyrics.  Each interpretation of the original (the statute) results in different meaning while retaining some measure of fidelity to the original composition. 

A tip of the hat should go to Ken Schneyer from Johnson and Wales who has suggested that a better example may be found by using a song that was composed but never performed by the composer.  (More like a legislature which must leave "performance" of the staute to the courts.)  He has suggested using Over the Rainbow.  I think that is also an excellent example.

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