What makes a cover song overcome the original song it covers? When does it become an independent piece and stop being a tribute? Well, first, it needs to try. The musical world is flooded with covers, only a few aspire to be independent songs. Most of the covers try to highlight the singer’s qualities. Some are more abusive in spirit and only try to promote a new performer with an old tune. Those covers might be sentimental and pleasant but most of them do not last long. So, what does it takes for a cover-song to go free and depart from the original version?
There is no scientific formula for these question but for sure there is one idea that must be kept: the new song needs to cover the old one till it fully possess it. Only by total possession the new one can become an independent creature. But what does “possession” means?
Possessing a song is taking the song and performing it as if it was written by you or for you. It only sounds clear and obvious but most of the covers do not act driven by that idea. When treating the songs that way, one can fit the song’s characteristics – style, lyrics, meaning – to himself/herself. In order to avoid abstractness I’ll give an example.
The song “In the pines” is an old American folk song. According to Wikipedia, its first version is dated back to 1870 and the first recorded version was made at 1925. There are several versions of lyrics to the song, most of them discuss a woman who is having an affair or running from her husband. Most versions include a horrible thing that happens to the lover.
A research from 1970 found 160 recorded versions of the song and at the last four decades many others have been added to this list. What can someone renew in such an over-recorded song?
In 1993 Nirvana performed this song live in the Unplugged concert in New York. For most band’s fans that was the first time to hear the band play the song. But for Curt Cobain, Nirvana’s lead singer, that was the last stop of a few years’ journey with “In the pines”.
Cobain got familier with the song from his friend Mark Lanegan. Lanegan had an 1944′ original record of blues singer Lead Belly with “In the pines”. They both felt attached to the song and decided to record it, but with a different attitude and style. In 1990 they recorded their version and it was published in Lanegan’s solo album. Cobain sang there and played the guitar.
But Cobain wanted to play the song by himself. He recorded a home demo version, which did not find its way to any of the band’s studio albums. In 2004, a decade after his death, the recording was published in the album “With the Lights Out”. Cobain sings there a beautiful melody. It’s a homey, quiet version, with no anger and shouting. Maybe the most beautiful recording by him of this song. In a way, it is a bit closer to Lead Belly’s version.
Nirvana’s cover was praised a lot and got very successful. Why? I think the success stands for the possession of the song by Cobain in three levels:
Lyrics: “Black girl” became “My girl”. From now on Cobain doesn’t sing the old folk song that everybody knows. He sings about his girl. I guess he isn’t the first one to make that change, but it was a necessary thing to do because Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, isn’t a black girl. If he sang about black girl, it wasn’t as if the song was written by him.
Style: Most versions of the song stayed in the country/blues area. Nirvana plays it with its own style. The few decades distance from the original song made it easy for them to give up the origin blues characteristics. In general, the further the distance in years from the original song, so it is easier to say something new about the song with only change in style.
Interpretation and expression: Cobain shouts. His roar is intimidating. You can feel the violent atmosphere; the girl safety is in danger. Maybe he shouts the pain of betrayal, maybe it’s the aftermath of the horrible thing he did. With his shouts Cobain made the song his song, his story, his pain.
The common versions of the song tell a story when there is a distance between the singer and the character telling the story in the song. Lead Belly is not the man who ask the girl where were she last night. In Nirvana’s cover, Cobain is the man in the song. He is the one in the conversation, which starts quietly in a questionnaire way and ends up with loose nerves of a violent man.
Cobain made this folk song his own one. Nirvana’s version became dominant and pushed aside many others. Well known singers sang it before Cobain, like Joan Baez, Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan, but it was Cobain who managed to transform the old song into a contemporary private anger. By that he got possession of the song to himself.
As been said earlier, there is no formula for a good cover. Those who wish to play a new version for an old song need to consider in which levels they can bring the old one a new life. There are few who try to accept the challenge, but those who try might be in turn be covered by others.