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.
I’ve been thinking about allusion recently, specifically the claim that “it is impossible to properly appreciate an allusion without considering what it is an allusion to.”1
Of course, it is impossible to understand an allusion in a semantic sense if you don’t know what it’s alluding to. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to properly appreciate it in an aesthetic or artistic sense.
Take this example, from the Paul Simon song “The Late Great Johnny Ace”:
I was living in London With the girl from the song before2
In a post at Cover Me, Riley Haas describes Depeche Mode’s 1990 song Personal Jesus as having “sex appeal with a sinister undercurrent of dominance and submission.” Michelle Kash, whose cover is featured in the post, “said she aimed to turn it from a song about a man dominating every aspect of a woman’s life to a song about sexual freedom.”
There’s breathy sex appeal in the original, sure, but I had always thought of that as just Depeche Mode being Depeche Mode. They could write a song about standing in line at the Orange Julius, and it would have sex appeal and an undercurrent of D&S.
This week of posting my favorite holiday songs concludes with one that’s only tenuously a holiday song.
“Greensleeves” has an alternate set of lyrics which are about baby Jesus, making it a Christmas song. But the original lyrics are just more fun to sing, so let’s sing those instead. It has a million verses, but everyone can sing the chorus.
“Good King Wenceslas” (YouTube) is a song I learned in elementary school. The narrative is actually pretty weird. A king’s magical powers are downplayed in favor of extolling charity and sharing.
What sells it for me is the extra verse, which I saw years later in an episode of Phineas&Ferb (Wiki). Buford Von Stomm, in order to establish that he knows the whole story, gives us this:
The words were by an English guy. The music, Scandinavian. Wenceslas was five-foot-six. He kept his face unshaven. Though just a duke throughout his life, He always ruled so justly His kingly title was conferred Upon him posthumously.
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (Wikipedia/YouTube) is another grim carol from 19th-century America. It has that distinctively Unitarian sensibility of cosmic optimism tempered with awareness that people are typically terrible.
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (Wikipedia/YouTube) is a pretty song. No schmaltzy holiday tune, it reflects terrible darkness. You wouldn’t know it from most renditions, though, because they skip the dire middle verses. The version by Echosmith that I link to has the full lyrics in the comments, but they replace the dark bits in the performance with a jaunty instrumental transition.
Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
“Fuck you if you don’t like Christmas” (YouTube) is a bit Not Safe For Work, but all the NSFWness is in the title. It makes you wonder whether you like that Panama is an isthmus, which is something I never even thought about having an opinion on before.
“We need different stuff in the economy now, things are changing. … You can’t just think of yourself. Just this one time, because it’s Christmas.”
Above all that, it hangs together. And it’s catchy.
“The Boar’s Head” (Wikipedia/YouTube) can be made very subtle and pretty, as in the arrangement I’ve linked to, but at bottom it’s a silly song. Written half in Latin doggerel, it begs to be belted out with gusto: “Let us servire cantico!“
My wife’s family had printed packets of sheet music, so singing carols always meant picking from the ones in the book. When she moved to Albany, we went on-line to look for sheet music. Sending links back and forth, we sang from our open laptops. This led to us discovering lots of great holiday songs, but The Boar’s Head is perhaps my favorite.
Blair Thornburgh isn’t far from the mark in calling it “Almost the absolute best carol ever written.”