Write “whim” on the lintels

Last month on Twitter, Helen De Cruz asked what the motivation is to work up an idea into a paper or book, rather than letting them remain as musings, scribbled notes, or blog posts.

My initial answer, “Whim.” I added, “Not in a fleeting sense, though. There are some papers that I just find myself writing, and I guess those are the ones.”

The thing I currently find myself writing is a book on the philosophy of cover songs, tentatively titled Philosophy of Cover Songs. Although there’s a path that got me to this point, there is no real deliberation in it. The alternatives would be either to struggle to write something else (and so get less written) or to wander off to some other activity (and so write nothing).

Hey, mister banjo

Some people have argued that the phenomenon of cover songs is inexorably bound up with racism— white musicians lifting black music. For example, Don McClean wrote that “A ‘cover’ version of a song is a racist tool.” I don’t think so. Here’s part of what I say in a current draft…

…although covers were sometimes used as racist tools, racism is not intrinsic to the concept of a cover as such. As Michael Coyle puts it, crossover covering of R&B hits by white artists “exploited racist inequality but did not arise because of it.” The word cover originally had a sense of coverage which was not in itself tied to race, and covers in that sense continued.

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Same words, different meaning

I’ve been thinking a lot about cover versions lately. A cover is typically the same song as the original version. Even if the words are changed a little, the broader meaning is the same. An example I’ve used before is Willie Nelson’s cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” Where Simon sings about “a girl from New York City”, Nelson makes it “a girl from Austin Texas.”

Yet there are also cases in which the very same lyrics can mean something different, because of a change in who sings them. Consider some examples.

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Covers in HiPhi

Last Summer, Cristyn and I went down to Poughkeepsie to talk with Barry Lam about cover songs. The episode of his podcast featuring us dropped today.

Cover Me Softly

Barry has other guests who address historical and musicological issues. I’m chuffed, though, that the distinctions form my paper with Cristyn and Christy  provided the philosophical thread of the episode.

The whole episode is genuinely interesting and engaging, and I think I’d say so even if I didn’t figure in it. I was actually surprised that I didn’t wince at hearing my own recorded voice, testament perhaps to Barry’s skills as a recording engineer.

Shagg Carpet would be a good name for a Shaggs cover band

via The New Yorker, I learn that the outsider rock band The Shaggs recently had a reunion just down the road from me. Writer Howard Fishman asks

Was it fair to even call this band the Shaggs? Or was it, rather, a Shaggs cover band providing a live karaoke soundtrack for the Wiggins to sing along with?

As someone who once judged a contest in which contestants tackled the question of whether a band can be its own cover band, I can’t let this pass as just a rhetorical question.

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Hi-phi, podcasts, mash-ups, and covers

There is a short review of Hi-Phi Nation in today’s Guardian, topped by a nice picture of host Barry Lam.

Cristyn and I were in Poughkeepsie last week to talk with Lam about cover songs. He plans to do a show about musical covers. He called us because he had read the paper we wrote with Christy Mag Uidhir and we’re local.

Walkway over the Hudson
While there, we also took in the Walkway over the Hudson.

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