Before the cover version

There is a phenomenon in pop culture that has bemused me ever since I was a little kid. It’s the relationship between the famous cover version of a song and the sincere original recording by the songwriter.

There are so many songs that have become iconic, sung by someone channeling someone else’s personal experience. At some point I started to track them down.

In some cases I had heard the original first. For example, I still associated “Angel from Montgomery” with John Prine, even though the cover by Bonnie Raitt has become iconic.

Even when the cover version is pure genius — such as Harry Nilsson’s cover of “Everybody’s Talkin'”, I still have a soft spot in my heart for the original version by Fred Neil, who wrote it — and you can tell.

In some cases, a great singer/songwriter can boost the career of a pop singer by giving them the material for a definitive cover version. That’s certainly the case for Dolly Parton’s brilliant song “I Will Always Love You”, famously covered by Whitney Houston.

And much as I love Janis Joplin’s cover of “Me and Bobby McGee”, I still prefer hearing Kris Kristofferson’s version, knowing that he wrote it. The same goes for Joni Mitchell’s original version of “Woodstock”, even though the cover by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young became the anthem for a generation.

And don’t even get me started on Jimmy Webb. Just listen once to his original version of “All I Know”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” or “Galveston”, and you might end up renouncing cover versions forever.

One thought on “Before the cover version”

  1. I once heard that Bruce Springsteen didn’t recognize Manfred Mann’s _Blinded by the Light_ the first time that he heard it even though Springsteen had written it.

    If you could go back in time and show _West Side Story_ to William Shakespeare, would he recognize it?

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