Saturday, September 16, 2023

Quote of the Day (Tom Bligh, on Cover Songs)

“Movies get remade, songs get covered. A cover song comes with history attached. The song’s past blends with its present to create something surprising yet recognizable: two stories in one, two contexts, two visions. Covers are familiar enough that we know what to expect, plus there’s opportunity for the unexpected, an appealing combination of same/different. Our favorite songs slip away from us when overplayed. The familiarity does breed contempt. They become routine. We hardly notice what makes them special. A friend of mine says these songs don’t register until you’re drunk. Then they come through, fresh and strange; you appreciate them all over again. I propose another way to make old songs new: the cover song. The best covers show both artists in a new light.”— Fiction writer and Mount St. Mary’s Univ. English Professor Tom Bligh, “A Treatise on Cover Songs,” The Oxford American, Issue 54, Fall 2006 (Music Issue 2006)

Growing up, I never cared much to know if a song was a cover version or not. But as I’ve grown older, having witnessed the whole cavalcade of American rock ‘n’ roll and more fascinated by its history, cover songs have fascinated me more and more.

In fact, I’ll even search YouTube for songs by artists I enjoy, but covered by others.

Tom Bligh’s article From The Oxford American—which I came across again the other day—has some interesting things to say about this phenomenon, including that the “original artist” doesn’t refer to the songwriter, but rather the person who made the first public recording. (Case in point: Frank Sinatra, who did not compose songs himself but often was the first to release songs created by some of the prime names in the Great American Songbook, notably Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen.)

He also makes a telling observation about how performers “make the song their own”:

“When people like a cover, the common saying is that the artist ‘made it his/her own.’ That’s never entirely true. Bits of associative residue cling to even the best covers. The relationship of cover to original is not wax-museum dummy to real person. We don’t listen to a cover song because we can’t find the original—we listen to experience the pleasure of a familiar song in a different way.”

I think you might also like this article listing “75 Greatest Cover Songs by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees.” Yes, this list is entirely subjective, so I’m sure it’ll start more than a few arguments about what gets included, what doesn’t, and whether certain artists deserve to be ranked so high or low.

But I’m also sure nearly everyone will find songs that they will nod along in agreement with—and maybe sing along to. My personal favorites on the list, for what it’s worth, are (to list the cover artists with original performers in parentheses): George Harrison’s “If Not for You” (Bob Dylan), David Bowie’s “China Girl” (Iggy Pop), Rod Stewart’s “I Know (I’m Losing You)” (The Temptations), Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Got To Get You Into My Life” (The Beatles), and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Woodstock” (Joni Mitchell).

Over the years, I have created mixtapes for friends of cover songs. At some point I’ll share one or more of those lists—and maybe even the “liner notes” I included.

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