Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Jordan Becker lives in Tarrytown, New York, a suburb of NYC where the Tappan Zee Bridge crosses the Hudson (until the new bridge is finished and they knock it down). He’s been writing for Cover Me since 2013, debuting with an essay about Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco (see below). Of all his Cover Me pieces, he’s “kind of proud” of spotlighting the Grateful Dead and defending Dexys Midnight Runners.
I probably wouldn’t be a writer for a cover song blog if only ten covers mattered to me. Not surprisingly, I’ve written about some of these songs (and most of these artists) on this site and elsewhere, because many of them have figured into important events or times in my life, or were significant in shaping my musical tastes. It was hard to narrow the list, but I did, so here we go, in alphabetical order by title:
Yes – America (Simon & Garfunkel cover)
This was probably the first time that I was aware of how a song could be totally transformed by a cover. I wrote about this song in response to the Cover Me Q&A, What cover song shouldn’t work as well as it does? and what I wrote then really sums up why this one made the list: “The original, a classic example of folk storytelling, is a wistful snapshot of two people making their way from Michigan to New York by thumb and Greyhound bus….So how could a 10-minute cover by English prog-rock titans Yes ever work? Because they don’t even try to capture the feeling of the original. Instead, they just turn it into a Yes song, filled with prog-rock pomp and virtuoso playing.” I remember being shocked at the transformation and how it demonstrated that a great song can retain its greatness, even when it is almost totally unrecognizable.
Hot Tuna – Hesitation Blues (Traditional cover)
Growing up as a white, upper middle class suburban kid in the 1960s and 70s, I wasn’t really exposed to the blues. I found my way there, like so many did, through covers by white artists. And I discovered Hot Tuna through my immersion into the world of the Jefferson Airplane during high school.
Hot Tuna’s self-titled debut album was filled with covers of blues songs, including the opening track, credited on the record as being “Traditional.” Like many songs of the genre, there are questions as to who wrote the original version, or versions, but it didn’t matter to me. This song, this album, and later Hot Tuna and Jorma Kaukonen recordings, introduced me to the blues, and led me to investigate and listen to original recordings of some of the great bluesmen and women, particularly the Rev. Gary Davis [http://sixsongs.blogspot.com/2015/04/light-i-am-light-of-world.html]. Interestingly, while many Airplane songs still hold up, there’s a good portion of their music that seems interesting now more as an historical curiosity, while pretty much all of Hot Tuna’s output, grounded in the timeless blues, still sounds good today.
Devo – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones cover)
This song was one of a few signposts that demonstrated to me that my musical tastes had changed, or more accurately, broadened. It may be hard to imagine in the Internet era, but when Devo’s first album came out in 1978, access to music was limited mostly by what was played on the radio. If you were lucky, like I was, to live in a market with some free-form commercial radio and some college stations, you could get exposed to an even wider selection, but there were still limitations on what you could easily hear. As I finished high school in 1978, I was a lover of prog-rock, early Chicago, Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin. I had just discovered Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, and was beginning to see the change that was coming.
Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! was released just as I was starting college, and when I first heard Devo’s jarring, herky-jerky, mechanical cover of the Stones classic, I thought it was heresy. But after only a short period spent as a college DJ, I realized it was genius. Having the ability to randomly poke around a huge record library, and talk about music with my fellow DJs from around the country, allowed me to expose myself to so much more than I could back in high school—and I probably had a more diverse musical taste than many of my classmates. Soon, I began to appreciate The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and other punk icons, which previously seemed like undifferentiated noise. Not to mention the music and production work of Brian Eno (the producer of Are We Not Men?), who straddled and influenced so many genres. So, when this cover of “Satisfaction” sounded good to me, I knew that my tastes had changed forever.
Jason Isbell – Jailbreak (Thin Lizzy cover)
In February, 1977, during my junior year in high school, I went to see Queen at Madison Square Garden, with Thin Lizzy opening. They were, if I recall, perfectly fine—better than most opening acts, in fact. I know that radio was playing the hell out of “Jailbreak” and “The Boys Are Back In Town” which happen to be great songs, and while I was always happy when those songs came on the radio, I never became a big Thin Lizzy fan and pretty much forgot about them. I was off to college, and as noted above, immersion into a different musical world. Commercial, hard rock bands like Thin Lizzy weren’t a big part of the WPRB sound at that point.
In 2007, I went to see Jason Isbell, then in the early stages of what has turned into a spectacular solo career, open for Son Volt at Irving Plaza in New York with my son. Isbell’s short set was incredible, and as an encore, he played a tight, rocking, relatively faithful version of “Jailbreak,” which reminded me about how great the song is. One of the things that I enjoy about covers is that they can give you often surprising insight into an artist’s influences and likes. That someone who I had pigeonholed as a Southern singer/songwriter/rocker clearly loved the hard rock of Thin Lizzy was a revelation, and also gave me a deeper insight into his music.
Stanley Jordan – The Lady In My Life (Michael Jackson cover)
Sure, I liked the Jackson Five, but the solo MJ wasn’t really my cup of tea. The videos for some of the songs on Thriller were interesting the first few (hundred?) times I saw them on MTV, and while I appreciated the fact that some of the songs on the album were incredibly well-crafted, I just didn’t listen to them away from the TV screen.
A few years later, I saw the video of Stanley Jordan’s cover of “The Lady In My Life” and it made me happy. Stanley was a year ahead of me in college, and for a brief period, I followed him on the air on our college radio station. We were never close friends, more like acquaintances who chat briefly when our paths cross, often at college reunions. Even then we all knew that the guy was an incredible guitarist, but there are probably a million guys who are incredible guitarists in college who do not end up with a successful music career like Stanley’s. So, when I saw his video on MTV, it just made me glad to see that he had bucked the odds and succeeded. I’ve written a bit more about this song here.
Gil Evans Orchestra – Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix cover)
Coincidentally, I featured Stanley Jordan covering “Little Wing” in a Five Good Covers piece a couple of years ago. I also mentioned the Gil Evans Orchestra version in that article. It is a song that I have come to really love, both in its original and cover form.
Back in the summer of 1981, I was wandering around in Europe with my two roommates. We were in Italy, I think Florence, when I saw a poster for a free concert by the Gil Evans Orchestra. It was outdoors, in a beautiful plaza. I was vaguely familiar with Evans, mostly that he was an arranger, but I probably hadn’t heard his Orchestra. It was a great show featuring a big band that included electric instruments, playing Evans’ innovative and interesting arrangements. Did they play “Little Wing” that night? I really don’t remember, but it is possible. I do know that when I got back to school, I checked out some of Evans’ music, and I certainly listened to his album of Hendrix covers. So hearing this song always brings me back to that summer, which was a blast. Years later, when Sting released his cover of the song, backed by Evans and his Orchestra, it also brought back fond memories. (Coincidentally, when I returned from Europe, I went to Princeton a couple of weeks before classes started, was able to attend a concert headlined by The Police, and I interviewed Sting backstage. He was surprisingly pleasant.)
Billy Bragg and Wilco – Mermaid Avenue (Woody Guthrie covers)
A bit of a cheat here — I can’t really pick a single song from this album to write about because it was the whole album that matters to me. The bottom line is, I just loved this album, which I wrote about here, as my first ever contribution. I had become a Wilco fan after the release of Being There, which was a significant contribution to my increasing interest in and love of Americana music. Wilco eventually became one of my favorite bands. I had become aware of Billy Bragg’s early, stripped down music probably at WPRB, and certainly later listening to WFUV, so the collaboration was intriguing. And, of course, I knew about Woody Guthrie, but at a very shallow level (much of it derived from the movie Bound for Glory).
Mermaid Avenue was conceived by Nora Guthrie as a way to make her father’s music relevant to new generations of listeners, and it certainly worked for me, my wife and for my children. We played the CD constantly. It also encouraged me to learn more about Guthrie’s interesting life and music. And it cemented my love for Wilco, who were on the verge of a creative peak.
Princeton University Band – Rock Lobster (B-52’s Cover)
I was a bad, if loud, drummer in the Princeton marching band. The band was, and still is, an organization more devoted to the fun of its members and being provocative than music or marching. When I was there, we got banned from playing at West Point, our drum major Steve was arrested for leading an illegal parade and was officially pardoned by the governor (a loyal alumnus), we were attacked by students at both Rutgers and Dartmouth and created a fake “spontaneous demonstration” in the stadium, with confetti and helium balloons. We also stole signs, usually from other campuses, but I did once drunkenly run across I-95 at night to help purloin a huge sign from a highway rest area and lived to tell the tale. I’m not proud of that (or am I?) We also did play music at football and home basketball (and a couple of hockey) games.
By the time I was an upperclassman I was heavily involved in writing our shows. They were mostly created by a core group sitting around a particular table in the dining room of my eating club (which sounds way more snobby than it was—if it bothers you, just substitute the phrase “frat house”), which became known, at least to us, as the “funny table.” We were required by the University to submit the shows to a censor, who would cut the most offensive jokes (too sexual, too insulting to alumni, too insulting to the administration…..) leading us to make the shows twice as obnoxious, so that we would have something left after the red pencil did its job.
At some point, someone, possibly me, suggested that it would be fun for us to play The B-52’s already iconic “Rock Lobster,” which was only a few years old at that point, for our show during the Princeton/Maine game. The problem was that there was no sheet music available for that song. Luckily, our student conductor, John, was a prodigy of sorts, and just arranged the song for an entire marching band. It became an immediate hit, especially when we marched to it, with members of the band rolling on the ground during the “Down, down, down” part. Three decades later, it appears that the band still plays it regularly, even at major events like the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade (although I don’t know if it is the same arrangement—like I said, I’m not a musician). I can’t hear “Rock Lobster” without thinking of the fun I had marching around various northeastern towns and drumming to the song. John, who is a classical composer, arranger, conductor and music professor, recently went back to the well and arranged “Love Shack” for an acapella (generally Renaissance music) chorus that he conducts. No video, unfortunately.
Richard Thompson – Shenandoah (Traditional Cover)
I was in downtown Manhattan on 9/11. Near enough that the building where I worked was engulfed by the dust cloud when the second tower collapsed, but not so close that I was in any actual danger. I returned to work on September 18 to an unrecognizable downtown and a very changed world. One small portion of that change was the strangeness of any large gathering of New Yorkers. As a Mets fan, for example, I remember the big deal that was made about the first game played a few days after the attack, and Mike Piazza’s game-winning home run. At some point during this period, my wife and I had tickets to a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden, and I remember how quietly the crowd waited on line to have our bags checked (part of the new paradigm) before we could enter the seating area.
Only a couple of weeks after the attack, while ground zero was still a smoking pit, my wife and I had tickets to see Wilco at Town Hall. This was during the period when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had been recovered from Reprise, and the band had released it for free over the Internet. I have subsequently read that Wilco wanted to cancel the shows in New York, but really needed the money. It was, at times, a somber show, but other times, the band tried to bring joy to the still shell-shocked audience.
On November 1, 2001, we went to see another family favorite, Richard Thompson, at the Tarrytown Music Hall. It was still hard not to imbue any public performance with some resonance to the events of just a month and a half before, including Thompson’s performance of “Outside From The Inside,” sung from the perspective of a terrorist. Not to mention that Thompson is a Muslim, although from the Sufi tradition, and was in no way sympathetic to the 9/11 attack. Toward the end of the show, he delivered a beautiful, heartfelt cover of the traditional “Shenandoah,” which began as a sea chantey, and which extolls the beauty of America and expresses a longing for happier times. I can’t, all these years later, remember if he prefaced the song with any reference to the attack, but it was clear to all in the hall that he was making a statement.
Katharine Swibold – Summertime (George Gershwin/DuBose Heyward cover)
My wife, Katharine, has a very beautiful voice. She sang in choirs in high school and college, but rarely in public since then. Every once in a while, when karaoke (and alcohol) is available, as I once wrote elsewhere, she “waits until the appropriate moment, steps to the stage and demolishes everyone else with a smoldering version of Patsy Cline’s classic” “Crazy.” But that’s not the song from her repertoire that I want to discuss.
My kids were lucky that their mother was able to stay at home when they were young and put them to sleep almost every night. For some of that time, I worked long hours, and sadly often got home after one or both of them were asleep. My wife read to the kids pretty much every night, and as the child of a children’s librarian, it came easy for her. But she was also aware of the benefits that reading to your kids confers, not only in language and reading development, but in providing critical parent-child time. Whenever I could, I tried to join in, but bedtime was really mom time.
Before she ever cracked a book and read to the kids, she sang to them. And continued to do so for years. Sometimes, I’d be in another room, and I would hear my wife’s sweet, pure voice singing “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess, as she lulled them to sleep. It is one of the great songs in the American songbook, and, according to Wikipedia has been covered more than 25,000, including by such greats as Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Janis Joplin and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. All wonderful versions. But I prefer Katharine’s.
Excellent. I love covers. Thanks.
So many I have never heard. Thanks, Jordan.