free markets, free culture

Benjamin Franklin takes on: remix culture

with 3 comments

I’m reading Ben Franklin’s biography in fits and starts. It’s slowly dawning on me how much of American culture this man predicated over 200 years ago. I always thought Founding Father types were distant, unrelatable, irrelevant to the multicultural modern American life as I knew it.

I love being proven wrong though — opens the mind to new possibilities — and this book is doing it.

The Almanack: precursor to the general-interest mag

Ben was a liberal borrower. I’m positive he would have joined his local chapter of “Creative Commons” had it existed back in the day or, more likely, he would have started the group himself.

Under the pen names “Poor Richard” or “Richard Saunders”, Ben published Poor Richard’s Almanack in the 1730’s. It was like a general-interest magazine, containing a miscellany of information every early colonialist would need: “lunations, eclipses, planets motions and aspects, weather, sun and moon’s rising and setting”… and, it’s strong suit, jokes, witticisms and clever aphorisms.

Think of it as an early-day Reader’s Digest or Saturday Evening Post, modern-day incarnations of this folksy Americana vernacular. (For you history buffs, Ben Franklin’s 1728 Pennsylvania Gazette paper became known as The Saturday Evening Post by 1821.)

Proverbs 2.0: borrow, recycle, repeat

What survives from Poor Richard today are the proverbs — the moral sayings that have become cliche: “Haste makes waste” or “Gold helps them that help themselves.”

In Ben’s biography, Walter Isaacson notes:

Most of Poor Richard’s saying were not, in fact, totally original, as Franklin freely admitted. “They contained the wisdom of many ages and nations,” he said in his autobiography, and he noted in the final edition “that not a tenth part of the wisdom was my own.” Even a near version of his “early to bed and early to rise” maxim had appeared in a collection of English proverbs a centurly earlier.”

Ben was a complete and unabashed remixer!…. of proverbs.

“Franklin’s talent,” Isaacson notes, “was inventing a few new maxims and polishing up a lot of older ones to make them pithier.”

Remix session: Old English proverbs edition

[The glass armonica was one of several musical instruments Franklin invented — and recreated in this modern-day scene by two jolly folks from The Black Horse Inn in Flourtown, PA.]

Old English version:

  • “Fresh fish and new-come guests smell, but they are three days old.”
  • “Three may keep a secret if two of them are away.”
  • “A muffled cat is no good mouser.”

Philly dub-style remix, feat. Benjamin “B. Frank” Franklin:

  • “Fish and visitors stink in three days.”
  • “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”
  • “The cat in gloves catches no mice.”

21st century remixes?

  • “Stick the houseguests at the HoJo
  • Stop Snitchin’
  • … and I’m still trying to figure out the cat in gloves reference

Written by @hellopanelo

March 22, 2009 at 9:51 am

3 Responses

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  1. I also used to think the colonial era was pretty stuffy and uninteresting, but in the past several years after reading some histories of the era and biographies it is obvious it was an interesting and dynamic time. At that time, newspapers generally shamelessly copied from each other (without attribution, of course), but that was probably the only way mass communication could really spread. It’s also interesting to note that the US didn’t join an international copyright treaty until the late nineteenth century (perhaps not coincidentally around the time the US started having home-grown authors who could benefit from a copyright regime).


    April 2, 2009 at 11:36 pm

  2. Benjamin Franklin had a remarkable impact in so many ways, especially in his humour and self-reflection. A Benjamin Franklin article just received the ‘Top 100 Electricity Blogs’ Award


    November 12, 2009 at 9:17 pm

  3. Great post, would you mind if I linked to your fine words from a handful of UK focused blogs I run?

    Laurette Kamirez

    February 28, 2010 at 10:43 am

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