Cover, remake, sample, rip off, plagiarism. Whatever you call it, some songs are so good, they need to be sung again.
There are the songs that were so potent at their conception that their reincarnation moved a new generation. There are songs that were remade and reclaimed as little as 2 years after their original release. Then there are those songs that everyone takes a stab at. (In blues, Spoonful, Little Wing, and Crossroads Blues are popular- and excellent- choices.) Some covers merely transpose the year, while others transpose the key, change the tempo, write lyrics, add completely new instrumentation, and even leap genres. Some take a simple melody and transform it into an anthem, while others take pride in their authenticity to the original.
I don’t know enough about law to comment on the legalities that come into play. One could argue there were instances of stealing, with intent to pass off the ideas of one musician for another. (Led Zeppelin’s first album- one of my favorite albums ever- was largely a cover album with questionable crediting.) I don’t know enough about history to comment on the social context that led to some of this music being recreated by somebody else. Undoubtedly some covers exist for less than noble (even terrible) reasons like masquerading as originals for more mainstream (read: white) singers. And I don’t know enough about music to comment on the artful transformations and embellishments with any authority.
All I can comment on is that captivating feeling when I hear the original version of a song I thought I knew. Below, in chronological order by original recording date, are 10 blues songs that you may know better by their reincarnations. Some were remade for the better, some for the worse. I hope you will listen to the comparisons, enjoy them like I do, and share your thoughts.
I’m so glad I finally heard the Blind Willie McTell version, but I admit there’s a hazy sense of guilt when you discover that a song you’ve loved for years is not an original.
Blind Willie McTell (1928) Allman Brothers (1971)
When the Levee Breaks
Probably my favorite on this list. I adore the Led Zeppelin version, but listening to both back to back is amazing.
|(Click to hear Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie)|
Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie (1929) Led Zeppelin (1971)
This comparison is a bit of a stretch for this list since Eric Clapton’s version was just for an MTV Unplugged show. Eric Clapton does the blues so well though.
Robert Johnson (1936) Eric Clapton (1992)
Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Hound Dog was a hit for Big Mama Thornton, too.
Big Mama Thornton (1952) Elvis Presley (1956)
I Just Want to Make Love To You
A favorite for many- Etta James (1961) and The Rolling Stones (1964) notably covered this song as well. It was originally written by Willie Dixon.
Muddy Waters (1954) Foghat (1972)
I Put a Spell on You
Fun Fact: Sonique turned this song into a terrible dance single in 2001.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkin (1956) Creedence Clearwater Revival (1968)
Back Door Man
Also written by Willie Dixon.
Howlin’ Wolf (1961) The Doors (1966)
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
Written by Anne Bredon. Such a great song, such a great cover, if you ask me.
Joan Baez (1962) Led Zeppelin (1969)
Hendrix liked to cover the songs he liked and this is one worth liking. Led Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song also heavily borrowed from Killing Floor. It took a legal dispute to get Howlin’ Wolf’s name on the credits.
Howlin’ Wolf (1964) Jimi Hendrix (1966)
Hard to Handle
(not exactly the blues, but I love this example)
Otis Redding (1968) The Black Crowes (1990)
When I stumble upon the predecessor of a song I love, I am floored. The cover instantly gains a back-story and becomes a richer, more nuanced character, while the original feels wise and genuine like a gritty kernel of truth. And a new work of art emerges in the space between the to songs- the sometimes subtle, sometime extreme, sometimes unnecessary, but sometimes brilliant difference. What did you think about these examples? Leave a comment and start a conversation!