I am intrigued by the concept of the evolution of ideas and thoughts and words in history. Wait. That was an example of a sentence in which I tried to make some pedestrian statement into something enlightening. That’s okay, I think, because I’m pretty sure these kinds of things are the whole purpose blogs exist. Let me get to my point before I do it again.
A few months ago I heard a remarkable performance on A Prairie Home Companion of a singer-songwriter named Caroline Herring. I found her newest album, downloaded it, and have been playing it for most of the summer. She’s very good. One of the songs she performed on the radio and which I like a whole lot is “See See Rider.” What I didn’t know when I first heard the song was that it is a traditional blues song that has been performed by a myriad of artists, from Elvis Presley to Janis Joplin to Ray Charles. I’ve wandered around iTunes listening to a lot of versions, including some of the first early blues recordings and some more modern rock interpretations. It probably has a lot to do with it being my first exposure to the song, but I still like the Caroline Herring version the best.
Now the concept of covering a song or putting your own twist on it is not new [I’m now hearing Shaun Bockert in my memory one morning drive during my sophomore year of high school: “Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower is the greatest cover song OF ALL TIME”]. But I really love the concept of a traditional song whose origin is not definitive. Traditional music usually is that which has been passed down orally rather than being produced by a known author who has retained the ownership of that work. There aren’t many songs that are organic in that sense; there is no composer or lyricist or author anymore. The song is so old that we don’t know the exact origin. It just exists and continues to exist. Each artist takes their own stab at it but it isn’t really a cover song. Every version of a traditional song can still be original. Another song I’ve heard that is like this is “Dink’s Song,” which I originally heard via Jeff Buckley‘s amazing [and posthumous] “Live at Sin-é” album, but also was recorded by Bob Dylan three decades earlier. [Sidenote: Dylan’s 1961 recording wasn’t released until twelve years after Buckley’s recording. And yet it sounds like Buckley is covering Dylan. In this case I think the traditional song hasn’t been tried out by as many artists as “See See Rider” and therefore there isn’t as much variation. End of sidenote].
I think I’d like to hear more traditional music with new twists or takes. Ray Charles, Elvis, Mississippi John Hurt and Caroline Herring each took the same thread of a song and made their own mark. [In my opinion, the Elvis version is the worst – I can appreciate a lot of music, but Vegas Headliner Elvis I just don’t get].
Continuing to perform traditional music reflects a respect for the oral traditions of history and the desire to continue to tell a story that is older than ourselves. At the same time, the respect for the tradition is fused with a focus on the new perspective of the current storyteller. You get to rewrite history without throwing out the old stuff to make room for the ne-w. I find this inspiring.
Plus there isn’t any copyright, so you don’t have to pay royalties. We are in a recession after all.