The Art of the ‘Cover’ … to cover or not to cover?

(May 12, 2015)

Taking a song from another artist and adding it to your set is nothing new, and neither is there anything fundamentally wrong with the practice. The barbs of motivation range from hearing a stunning song and ‘needing’ to play it, to an act of homage to the original artist, and everything else in between. The process of creating the ‘cover’ can result in a carbon copy or something entirely different. There is of course, no absolute requirement on an artist to make a ‘cover’ their own, many are comfortable with performing a simple replay of someone else’s work. However, in an unkind world this lays the artist open to immediate and often unfavourable comparison with the original. Yes, I know that some covers are almost identical twins, so close to the original that only the most ardent aficionados can ‘spot the difference’ but some move into different realms to become intrguingly different and able to stand alone.

Talking with a number of artists about the stimulus behind taking the ‘cover’ route, whether it’s to create a close cousin or an identical twin, there clearly remains the desire to add your own touch to the song, to make it yours, to express what you heard in the original and what drew you to it in the first place. Songs resonate, some more than others, and when a certain song touches that part of us where the emotions reside it achieves a status that can extend beyond expectations. It's that 'shiver down the spine' moment. The beauty of this experience is that each of us is touched in different ways by different songs, a part of the human condition that engenders both emulation and innovation. Arguably, it’s that aspect of us that often engenders the ‘cover’.

Folk gave us the first 'covers'

Folk music has probably more covers than anything else (disregarding the constant regurgitation of pop tunes from way back remodelled into today’s sampled versions). This is primarily because a vast plethora of folk songs have over the years gained multiple versions of tunes and lyrics. The breadth and spread of folk songs across county boundaries, rivers, mountain ranges and continents has spawned so many versions, ‘covers’ if you will, that often the origins are lost in dim and distant entropy of time. The advantage of course, is that broadly speaking it matters not how artists interpret the song as there are few comparisons to be made to an ‘original’. All that occurs are contrasting opinions about artists and the way they play the songs, which in the final analysis comes down to personal taste rather than any form of judgement against an arbitrary standard. The list is as long as the discussion on what defines a folk song, which is simply too tedious to go over once again. There are dozens of versions of ‘Wife of Usher’s Well’, each with differing lyrics and tunes, others that spring to mind include ‘Raglan Road’, ‘Bonny Blue Jacket’, ‘The Factory Lad’, ‘A Begging I Will Go’, ‘Black Velvet Band’ … an endless index with limitless variations.

Such multiplicity of tune and lyric is mostly confined to songs of tradition. There are many iconic folk songs written within living memory that have morphed their way into different versions with each successive performer adding their own ‘edge’ to the song to express their style or interpretation. However, in many cases the tune and the lyric are more or less untouched, there are rarely multiple sets of lyrics for modern songs, the odd word may change but that’s pretty much it. The change comes with the phrasing and expression. The freedom remains, however the potential downside of covering a more contemporary song is, as stated earlier, the issue of comparison with the original.

Contemporary covers and consequences 

A catalogue of contemporary covers is not the subject of this observation (and neither is a debate on which constitute folk songs) so confining it to a few examples: ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ – thousands of covers most not a patch on the original; ‘American Pie’ – the same applies; ‘Caledonia’ – most recently Kelly Oliver hit it pretty well; ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ – a few passable takes but far the best by Red Molly; ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ – stunning version by Tinderbox; ‘Fairy Tale of New York’ – done to death with many badly-performed versions. The immediate comparison always appears, perhaps more so than ever before, simply because our intensely communicated world allows ‘everyone’ to hear ‘everything’. Songs don’t spread by word of mouth, the development isn’t organic. The spread is instantaneous and the development equally rapid, and so a kind of 'standard' is quickly assimilated and established.

So there we are, ‘to cover or not to cover’, write your own song or cover a song that gets under your skin and you have to express it? The answer is there is no answer. It’s down to the artists, the only caveat with contemporary songs is make sure you ‘hit it’ because there’s bound to be someone ready and willing to tell you what a rotten job you’ve made of it. The truth is that if you can make it your own, within or without the parameters laid down by the original artist, then you’re on the right track. And to make it your own may mean more than minor tweaks it involves ‘living’ the song to a degree that makes that shiver run down the spine of the audience … well that’s my view anyway.

‘Caledonia’ from Kelly Oliver  

'1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ from Red Molly


Who Knows Where The Time Goes’  from Tinderbox 

And before I'm inundated with a host of other suggestions for outstanding covers or a catalogue of complaints that I've missed out your favourites, these are simply a personal view, as I mentioned earlier: "...contrasting opinions about artists and the way they play the songs, which in the final analysis comes down to personal taste rather than any form of judgement against an arbitrary standard."



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