The cover version is a misunderstood musical form

From The Economist:

Chan marshall (pictured), who goes by the stage name Cat Power, has been a fixture on the American indie-rock scene since the mid-1990s. She is a highly regarded artist, praised for her sombre, powerful songwriting and sound. Her 11th album, “Covers”, a set of versions of previously recorded songs, was released this month. It will be the third such LP she’s put out, following “The Covers Record” (2000) and “Jukebox” (2008); they make up more than a quarter of her total album releases.

It is noteworthy that Ms Marshall, or any musician, makes the distinction between “covers” and “original music” at all. For the first six decades of the recorded-music era, which began in earnest in the early 20th century, there was a clear division of labour: writers wrote and singers sang. Two industries—the recording one, and the songwriting one—grew up in parallel. In America, the writing arm was nicknamed Tin Pan Alley, and the business was concentrated on a single Manhattan street. Tin Pan Alley’s early fortune lay in sheet music, and a popular song could sell in the millions.

As recorded music took over, professional songwriters remained in demand. Even the rock’n’roll era merely shifted the action 20 blocks north, to the Brill Building. Competing versions of numbers jockeyed for position in the charts; the idea that a song could belong to a particular artist, other than in a strict licensing sense, had little traction. A “standard” was just that—a song so widely performed that only a very special reading could affix it to any one artist.

Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams were prominent singer-songwriters in the early-to-mid-20th century, but both were anomalies. Two acts were chiefly responsible for a major shift in the early 1960s: Bob Dylan and The Beatles. These performers created a wider perception that the writer and the artist not only could be, but should be, one and the same. Their youthful stardom, aided by a new mass media (and television in particular), popularised the idea of the musical auteur. By 1985 Mr Dylan was in a position to boast that: “Tin Pan Alley is gone. I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now.”

This was an oversimplification. Work by Mr Dylan and the Beatles was at the time covered widely, and lucratively—in Mr Dylan’s case, often before he had released a recorded version, making him a kind of one-man Tin Pan Alley in himself. In the 2010s he recorded three consecutive sets of pre-rock’n’roll American pop standards, a loving tribute to the very songs he once claimed to have made obsolete.

This in turn raises the question: what exactly constitutes an “original”? Does a musician “cover” a songwriter, or a recording? Ms Marshall’s album features a version of “These Days”, written by Jackson Browne, and first recorded by Nico in 1967. Mr Browne would not release a version until 1973, and his iteration bore a notable resemblance to a country-rock arrangement issued by Greg Allman earlier that year. Ms Marshall’s spare, folky take steers closest to the Nico version (on which Mr Browne played a distinctive guitar part), and includes a verse Nico performed but Mr Browne later omitted. So is she covering Nico, or Mr Browne? To whom does the song “belong”?

You might argue that if it belongs to anybody, a song belongs to whoever delivers it most memorably. Elvis Presley was above all an interpreter, and a superb one. “Hound Dog”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Suspicious Minds” and (until Pet Shop Boys audaciously reworked it) “Always On My Mind” have long been thought of as “Elvis songs”, yet all are cover versions. Nina Simone and Johnny Cash—no mean songwriter, either of them—likewise possessed a gift for claiming spiritual ownership of any song they covered.

An outstanding cover version can wrest a song from the grasp of even the biggest stars. So commanding is Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares To U”, for example, that it relegates the song’s author, Prince, to a footnote. Even Mr Dylan is not impervious to this phenomenon; when touring for the first time since he recorded it, he played his song “All Along The Watchtower” not in the subdued folk-pop style of the original of 1967, but as a searing blast of rock plainly indebted to the authoritative version of 1968 by the Jimi Hendrix Experience (pictured above). In effect, he was covering a cover of his own song.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG says copyright is a wondrous and multi-faceted bundle of rights.

2 thoughts on “The cover version is a misunderstood musical form”

    • Legally? An adaptation/modernization of a PD classic.
      (Say, Sherlock Holmes. THE SHERLOCK show did a good job in its first episide, A STUDY IN PINK, taking all the elements of the first Holmes story and not just modernuzing it, but making a new story.

      Ethically questionable? Scalzi’s FUZZY NATION, his “reimagining” of H. Beam Piper’s classic LITTLE FUZZY from 1962. A story that needs no updating and wouldn’t even be fair game if not for copyright hijinks.

      Ever since he got his ten year deal, Scalzi has been mining other classic writers’ tropes and stries just a wee bit too closely for many if us.

      Movie, TG, and comics adaptations might qualify as do “authorized sequels”. Meyer’s SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION being an excellent Holmesian example.

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