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.
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.
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.
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.
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.