Here's a question: what's your favorite version of "9,999,999 Tears"? Dickie Lee's? Kelly Willis'? Whose version of "All Along the Watchtower" would you spin endlessly on a desert island: Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Dave Mason, and U2 have all recorded popular versions.
How about “Take It Easy” – do you prefer the version by Jackson Browne or the Eagles? What about Travis Tritt’s version? I once heard a country DJ – who should have known better – call the Eagles’ version of that song a cover of Tritt’s. What’s the world coming to when DJs don’t know anything about the music they’re playing? (That's another column for another time.)
Jerry Lawson, Bobby Blue Bland, and Billy Joe Royal all did "Members Only." William Bell, Bonnie and Delaney, and Linda Ronstadt each recorded "Everybody Loves a Winner.” Jackie DeShannon and The Searchers both did "Needles and Pins." Suzy Bogguss and Judy Collins did "Someday Soon." John Stewart, the Monkees, and Anne Murray each recorded "Daydream Believer."
Such a list of cover songs and the choices attending them could go on and on. Artists covering songs written or sung originally by others litter the musical landscape. Devotees of the original will fiercely defend its purity, while fans of the cover may never have heard the original, and they attribute the song to the artist they first heard covering it. Sometimes there is enough distance between the original and the cover that the cover drives you back to hear the original. If you’re familiar with the original, you keep waiting for that guitar lick or vocal flourish that makes you shudder. When it’s missing in the cover, you’re disappointed. Yet, artists will continue to cover others’ songs as long as the music industry thrives.
There is a question, of course, about the word "cover." What exactly does it mean, and why would you even want to choose between one version of a song and another? Music critic and historian Barry Mazor points out that these are simply versions of a particular song. Each artist brings his or her style, phrasing, vision, licks, and riffs to his or her version of the song they're "covering." After all, why record a song exactly the way another artist already did? The dynamic character of music allows new exploration of themes and melodic structures as one version of a song evolves into a newer one, often for a new set of listeners.
In pop, rock, country, bluegrass, soul, and folk music, imitation is not simply a sincere form of flattery. When singers or bands record the song or songs of other artists, they are performing a tribute to the artistry, skill, and vision of the musicians and writers whose songs they are performing. Often they're recording a song that they learned early in life and now have the chance to send their recorded version into the world. Jimi Hendrix, Dave Mason, and U2, among others, have recorded their own versions of Bob Dylan’s prophetic ode on politics, “All Along the Watchtower.” Although the screaming guitars of Hendrix’s version are likely even more well-known – and to some folks’ ears, much better – than the gravelly vocals of the Dylan original, each artist embraces Dylan’s song and wrings from it his or her own particular meaning.
These versions, for which the now-accepted term is "cover songs" – both to distinguish between artists’ original compositions and to indicate their special performative take on the original song they’re singing – abound on the radio and CDs. Sometimes artists use a few bars from another song as a hook to draw listeners into an original composition. Other artists record entire albums of other people’s songs. Patti Smith’s album, Twelve (2007), for example, contains no original compositions. It’s all covers of songs recorded originally by artists like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.
The reasons that artists cover others’ songs range from the simple to the complex. Some – Linda Ronstadt’s version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” for example – simply honor the beauty and integrity of the original performance. Others, such as Eric Clapton’s cover of Elmore James’s “Crossroads,” demonstrate an artist’s struggle to craft their own artistic identity.
In his recent book, Soul Covers: Rhythm and Blues Remakes and the Struggle for Artistic Identity (Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Phoebe Snow) (Duke University Press), Michael Awkward, Gayl A. Jones Collegiate Professor of Afro-American Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan, takes a look at three artists as his case studies of the ways that artist use cover songs to establish their own musical identities: Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and Phoebe Snow.
Awkward writes that “aspects of the singers’ selves are communicable in, reflective of, and have the potential to enhance their renderings of others’ songs and that covers seem unavoidably to provoke comparisons whose outcome is always potentially in doubt.” In exploring these claims, he examines Franklin’s Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington (1964), Green’s Call Me (1973), and Snow’s Second Childhood (1976).
His chapters on Green and Snow offer few helpful insights into these artists’ use of cover songs. Green’s album contains songs that he either composed himself or that he partly composed. Awkward primarily shows the ways in which Green’s songs express the singer’s attempt to balance his deep religious feelings with his longings for passionate love. The section on Snow, most famous for her song “Poetry Man,” also focuses more on her own compositions than her covers of other’s songs.
Awkward’s chapter on Franklin most effectively captures his thesis. On Unforgettable, the young Franklin pays tribute to her idol, Dinah Washington, while at the same time offering her own stylings of Washington’s songs. Franklin’s soaring song stylings not only honor Washington but also elevate Franklin to a position far above Washington. She uses Washington’s song to establish her own career, not simply to honor her mentor. In her performances of “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Drinking Again,” in particular, Franklin captures the power and vulnerability of the tradition of black female singers, from Billie Holiday to Washington. More than Green and Snow, Franklin uses cover songs as a platform from which to launch her own career.
Awkward fills his book with jargon that often obscures his valuable insights, but in spite of this shortcoming, his explorations of these three albums in his book do exactly what a good music book should do: he encourages listeners to pick up albums and listen to them again in light of his examination of them.