I’m taking a little break from the cultural/historical theme this week in order to follow up on a remnant thought from last week’s post about the Beatles’ popularity. They ushered pop music into the era of original compositions, and this led me to think about cover versions. Covers that remain true to their sources are often enjoyable and certainly have their place; for example, few people attend a tribute band concert in order to hear them put their own, original twist on a song. However, my favorite covers are those that breathe new life into a song by reinterpreting it. I’ve chosen five and tried to stay away from the obvious, like Ike and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” and the Clash’s “I Fought the Law.” I’ve also left out jazz covers, which would entail another list altogether.
This is not my top five list, nor are they in order. After I made this list, I realized that all of these songs share a similar mood.
“Jackson Cage” by John Wesley Harding This is a case when I prefer the cover version. Bruce Springsteen’s original, on “The River,” suffers from the album’s poor production. The lyrics are lost between the overdone reverb and the speed of the song. John Wesley Harding slowed it down and gave it an acoustic backing, emphasizing the lyrics and enabling the listener to follow Springsteen’s story of a young woman trapped in her surroundings.
“Bein’ Green” by Ray Charles The original version of this song was performed by none other than Kermit the Frog. It was written by Joe Raposo, who wrote several other songs for “Sesame Street.” Frank Sinatra was the first to sing the song for an adult audience and several others followed suit, including Lena Horne, Buddy Rich, Van Morrison, and Diana Ross. Ray Charles’ version came to prominence because he sang the song with Kermit on a 1975 episode of Cher’s television series. When Charles sings it, it becomes a poignant statement about being a person of color in America and a blind person in a society that assumes one is sighted.
“In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)” by Merle Haggard I suppose it’s a real tribute to Dolly Parton that Haggard, who was an exceptional songwriter, decided to cover this song from her 1969 album. Haggard did not refashion the song to a great extent but, as much as I like Parton’s original, I do think that Merle’s has a more spare production which, in this case, is exactly what the song needs. In addition, his delivery tells the listener that he could well relate to the hardships about which Parton wrote.
“Wild Is the Wind” by Nina Simone Few singers could interpret songs as skillfully as Nina Simone. While this song borders on the “very well known” category that I said I’d avoid, Simone’s version of the title song for the 1957 film, originally sung by Johnny Mathis, made such an impact on me that I can still remember the first time I heard it. In addition, I think that many people may be more familiar with David Bowie’s rendition, which was inspired by Simone’s. That Bowie did a cover of a cover just tells you the extent to which Simone made the song her own.
“Broken Bicycles/Junk” by Anne Sofie von Otter and Elvis Costello This medley of the Tom Waits and Paul McCartney songs was released on the 2001 album “For the Stars.” The two odes to discarded things complement each other extremely well, even if Costello’s delivery of “Junk” is a slightly jarring interjection between the soothing segments performed by the mezzo-soprano. Maybe that was the intention and, if not, one could always argue that it was.