The Most Insincere Form of Flattery

One of the realities of teaching, especially when you teach massive numbers of people, is that your creative ideas get reused by your students.

Lenny Ross, a burlesque song and dance man who once worked Atlantic City’s sleazier joints, once told me that jokes are contagious. They spread like germs in a nursery school. Once you tell a joke on stage, it’s over for you – but it keeps growing and changing as people in the audience go to work the next day and retell it around the water cooler. You either have to constantly be writing new material, or paying somebody to keep your magazine loaded.

When I see a student reworking – or even rehashing – my material, I see it as a good thing. My teaching style is a patchwork of my dad, Ed Parker, Peggy Seeger, Remy Presas, Elizabeth Cotten, Ted Vollrath, Lenny Ross, Tiny, Paul the Beatnik, and countless other men and women who took a moment to work with me. The resulting crazy quilt of influences that I wrap myself in proudly – but not too tightly. I am still my own person. I do not use a persona on stage or in a lesson. The Philadelphia Mummer in me knows when to brass it up a bit and my radio experiences help me use my voice to be understood clearly, but I never present myself as anyone but Joseph Patrick Costello III.

Today I stumbled across a heavily photoshopped and stylized Instagram image of an old lady with a caption taken right out of my workshop on The Smart Hand and the Dumb Hand. If it was just that I wouldn’t care, but she did it to sell her books and records.

This happens a lot. I don’t talk about it because the banjo Internet is completely and freakishly insane. I get death threats against myself and my family. When Amy died I got hate mail mocking my loss. I know that sounds terrible, but I have been dealing with this crap since 1997.

There are several monetized versions of The How and the Tao of Old-Time Banjo and my other books on the web. They took the book apart and posted it page by page with clickbait advertising all over it. Several prominent artists have blatantly copied my presentation style, plagiarized my tab files right down to the mistakes and all manner of silly childish nonsense.

There is a video on YouTube advertising a banjo company. The artist – a Grammy winner – copies my presentation so well that I started getting calls and emails within an hour of the clip going live. Then this person plays one of my arrangements almost note-for-note but badly.

I don’t mind them taking from me. As a teacher, I view myself as a resource. For every cretin there are countless others doing the right thing. What drives me nuts is that the takers never have the moxie to do much with their borrowed ideas, concepts, mannerisms, jokes, insights and all that jazz.

If you are going to take from me, at least take it somewhere. Either make good art or at least a good payday. Just flopping around going nowhere is just going to make me mad.

If you are that stuck, if you are that desperate, just contact me. Be nice and I will help you. The next person who plagiarizes me and goes nowhere is going to get slapped silly.