Singing a new song: a personal take on covers

I remember, as a young child, singing in groups and youth choirs. Naturally, young choristers don’t know to ask the important questions about a song’s origins or a composer’s particular intentions. We dutifully follow the director’s instructions, learning our respective SATB parts and trying, as best young children can, to learn to sing the notes and “get them right”. As an adult trying to develop my own style as an aspiring singer, however, my perspective has shifted. When I learn a new song—or try to find a way to put my own signature on a quintessential one—I listen to several renditions. Which brings me to the very subject of this writing: covers.

As I recently mused about the merits—and shortcomings—of cover versions, a friend asked me a most interesting, if not altogether complex and perplexing, question. One I myself have wrestled with for the better part of my life, from the time I was old enough to hum along with familiar songs that were—and still are—favourites. A singer himself, my friend laid out for me the dilemma many of us face: as performers, do we pay homage to the “original”, recorded version? Does deviating from it in any fashion disrespect the artist? Are we correct to bristle when even the original artists (e.g., Aretha Franklin), during live performances of their works, interpret them in a manner different from the recording? Are appropriation, experimentation, and variation permissible? Do they pay proper respect to, or debase and sully, the original work? Do they add to, improve upon, or advance it in any way?

I’ve always loved music, and, although I am by no means a music historian, I will try, in the following paragraphs, to respond to these questions in the manner my limited knowledge will allow. You see, I have formed some strongly held beliefs as to music’s important role as chronicler of history and, specifically, of social movements, popular sentiment, mores, and norms.

It was during my teen years that I really discovered Taco’s cover (1983) of Fred Astaire’s “Putting on the Ritz“, Echo and the Bunnymen’s rendition of the Doors’ “People Are Strange” or Soft Cell’s take (1981) on Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” (1964). In my 20s, I thought Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” (1977) was fantastic, ignoring the fact it traces its origins to an cappella recording by the convict James “Iron Head” Baker and a group at Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas, in 1933. Similarly, I much preferred Streetheart’s version of “Under My Thumb” to the Rolling Stones’ original. Even in my 30s, I thought Pearl Jam’s “Last Kiss” was a so-so throwback to the J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ version of my parents’ generation.

It wasn’t until I returned to music again in my mid-40s, taking up both voice and piano lessons, that I started to think more about the origins of popular music and to make important connections. My teachers, like many music teachers, wanted to instill in me an appreciation of music and its many forms—from classical to jazz, contemporary and musical theatre. Thankfully, they were also open to my questions and, to my great delight, encouraged me to ask and explore them! I can’t say for certain, but I imagine Billy Joel had similar conversations with his father Howard (born Helmut) Joel, a classical pianist born in Nuremburg, Germany. It may help to explain why the chorus in Joel’s “This Night” (from the album An Innocent Man) uses the melody and harmony of the second movement to Beethoven’s 1798 Sonata “Pathétique”, otherwise known as Piano Sonata No. 8.

Joel certainly isn’t the only artist to do this. Consider also Paul Simon’s “American Tune” (from the 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon). A meditation on American experience, Simon’s song is based the melody of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”, a hymn by Johann Sebastian Bach. There is also the example of Elvis Presley’s ever-popular “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, which borrows from “Plaisir d’Amour”, composed by Jean-Paul Égide Martini in 1784. These classical compositions still stand—very beautifully—on their own centuries after they were originally written, despite having been appropriated by Joel, Simon, Presley and others.

Here is where, in my opinion, things take an interesting turn. Where Simon “covered” Bach, taking “American Tune” to number 35 on the Billboard Top 100, a number of artists, including Dave Matthews, Shawn Colvin and even Mandy Patinkin (likely best known for his portrayal of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride) have covered “American Tune”.

Similarly, many artists have covered Simon and [Art] Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”. Some covers of this song—and of others I’ve tried to learn—are technically flawless and useful when wanting, as I all too often do, to learn by ear and get the notes and timing right. However, as technically brilliant as some performances are, they sometimes lack raw passion and emotion—the drama—that truly allow a performer to connect with an audience. The Disturbed version is the one often played during Remembrance Day observances and it has become a new favourite. There’s a vulnerability and angst to it that resonates personally with me on a very deep level. For a performer to bring this level of passion to his or her interpretation of a work, there must be something—whether in the lyric or melody or both—that is relatable.

Originally recorded by Nine Inch Nails (NIN), few can deny that “Hurt”, a brutal depiction of self-loathing and emotional numbness, is now the late Johnny Cash’s defining song. Cash, suffering from autonomic neuropathy brought on by diabetes, identified not with the downward spiral of youth toward self-destruction, but with the struggle of a man in ill health at the end of his life. As Disturbed’s front man David Draiman’s voice communicates—to me, anyway—anger at the futility of a particular set of circumstances, Cash’s quavering, emotional voice gives “Hurt” a new lease on life, just as recording it appears to have redefined his 50-year career.

Initially, NIN frontman Trent Reznor admitted to feeling confused by the result. “It felt very strange hearing the highly identifiable voice of Johnny Cash singing it. I certainly wasn’t cringing or anything.” However, upon seeing the video, in which Cash performs in the derelict House of Cash museum, Reznor was moved to tears. “It really made me think about how powerful music is. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in.

“Somehow that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era and still retains sincerity and meaning—different, but every bit as pure.” (Source: “How covering ‘Hurt’ gave Johnny Cash’s career a new lease of life”. Radio X. 12 September 2020.)

Perhaps this answers, definitively, I daresay, the question as to whether Cash’s rendition takes away from or sullies the original version. Returning to my earlier “Sound of Silence” example, I maintain that it, too, adds something and that there is still more as to why Disturbed’s version resonates with me so. Consider the lyric and the fact Simon and Garfunkel had become interested in folk music and the growing counterculture movement in the early 1960s.

And my eyes were stabbed
By the flash of a neon light
That split the night
[…]
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
[…]
And the words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
Echo
In the well
Of silence.

It’s difficult to know precisely what Simon was thinking when he penned these lyrics: he has been ambiguous when asked. Yet the poignancy of these lines in particular cannot be denied. At the time these verses were written, America was deeply divided over the Viet Nam War. It was, as it is now, in the throes of civil unrest, racial inequality, and the fight for human rights. As those of my parents’ generation—those of the counterculture movement—rallied against the injustices of their day, there is a new generation proclaiming that silence is synonymous with complicity.

This is nothing new, though, and it goes back even further than the 1960s. If you recall, I mentioned Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” earlier. I was surprised to learn this is a 20th century African-American work song often credited to Huddle “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Some music historians claim it is an adaptation of earlier folk material. In fact, like much of the music in today’s contemporary repertoire, it would likely be forgotten were it not for musicologists John and Alan Lomax. Alan Lomax, a musician himself, is best known for his numerous field recordings of folk music of the 20th century. These recordings played an important role in preserving folk music traditions and helped start the American and British folk revivals of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.

Perhaps, as Lomax brought folk music to my parents’ generation, contemporary artists who cover the songs of that generation are ensuring these quintessential songs live on and that the message of advocacy, resistance, and the lessons of history are not lost but instead resound far and wide for subsequent generations.

Here is a Spotify playlist featuring the songs listed in the above post. Consider the questions and points raised as you listen to, and compare, multiple versions of the same song.

If you’ll pardon the pun, my friends, that about “covers” it.

Thoughts? Comments? Weigh in below.

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