I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been approached at the end of a gig, by someone who exclaims something like: “I loved that song when I was a kid!” or “I’d forgotten all about that song and how much I loved it!” Remembering, passing along and keeping alive a great song is actually a strong part of folk and roots music tradition. For generations, songs were sung and played at gatherings, and with any luck at all, they were recorded, and in this way they lived on. It’s really interesting to see how a particular song changes as it moves along this path, taking on the characteristics of the person performing it. Through the years lyrics may be slightly altered, harmonies added, maybe even a bridge or verse included that wasn’t in the original. The song is a living, growing organism.
An extreme example of this practice are the ancient songs She Moved Through the Fair and Black Waterside. These tunes can be traced back to medieval times and the earliest lyrics to She Moved Through the Fair were penned in 1916. There are many, many people who have performed these songs, passing them along through time, but look how Jimmy Page morphed these songs and made them his own.
There’s also the haunting song Molly Ban which can be traced back to 1796 and has been passed on through the generations. Here’s a version leaning towards the traditional. Peter Paul and Mary fans probably know it as Polly Von, which they recorded in 1963 and made unmistakably their own. Bob Dylan also recorded it in 1992 and Chris de Burgh in 2002, among countless others throughout the decades.
The idea of the importance of the cover song really hit home for me personally, when I heard the news that Linda Ronstadt could no longer sing now that she is stricken with Parkinson’s Disease. Now Glen Campbell is losing all memory of the songs he wrote and is unable to recall or even play most of them. Sadly, there have been several of our heroes who have passed away in recently years and we’ll lose even more as our own generation ages. What occurs to me is that if people aren’t singing their songs live to an audience then does the great work done by these artists just disappear? Do these songs just die too? Certainly, the majority of the radio stations aren’t sharing them, so when the original artists aren’t around to perform them for us then it’s up to musicians who are currently on the road, to keep these great songs alive. The icing on the cake is that current performers are likely to, just like in the folk and roots traditions, be adding some spit and polish and breathing new and different life into the old songs.
Does this mean we shouldn’t strive to be singer/songwriters and support the working artists of our time? Absolutely not! We need to keep populating the world of music with more new songs, more new music. We should however, pay attention to and support the performers that are working hard to keep the older songs alive.