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Diamonds in the Rough

Five Great Song Covers by Women

by DAVID MACARAY

First of all, I confess to being more or less unenlightened when it comes to music, which is why I enjoy CounterPunch’s regular feature, printed on Fridays, listing what sorts of music the CP staffers and contributors have been listening to. It’s not only a fascinating compilation, but for someone like me, it’s educational (not to mention humbling).

Secondly, I’m just cranky and stubborn enough to dislike most covers. That goes all the way back to when people tried telling me the Byrds version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” was better than Dylan’s original, which was like telling me Denny’s corned beef on rye was better than Cantor’s. Sorry, but the same goes for Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Dylan conceived it, wrote it, sang it, defined it. It’s his.

My aversion to covers is both aesthetic and nostalgic. Aesthetically, I can’t, for example, abide Eric Clapton doing Johnny Otis’ “Hand Jive,” because Clapton, bless his heart, entirely misses the point. He basically ruins it. And nostalgically, I will never appreciate anyone—I don’t care who it is—doing the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” so let me say in advance that when Justin Bieber gets around to covering it, I ain’t going to be listening.

My all-time favorite cover is Sid Vicious doing Eddie Cochran’s “She’s Something Else.” That rockin’ Cochran song is a great combination of masculine sass and existential yearning, which Sid Vicious amplifies brilliantly.

While everyone is probably way ahead of me on this, for what it’s worth, I thought I would share five women covers that have won me over.

1. Linda Ronstadt’s cover of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou.” Great track made greater by a greater voice. There are half a dozen songs of Orbison’s I wouldn’t want to hear anyone, including Bruce Springsteen, try to sing, but “Blue Bayou” isn’t one of them. Linda kills with it.

2. Amy Winehouse: “Cupid.” Whereas Sam Cooke turned that teenage record (1961) into a hit by making it catchy and wistful, Winehouse turned it into a memorable cover by lowering the tempo and making it an achingly haunting plea. Cooke and Winehouse: two artists who died way too young.

3. Anne Murray: “Walk Right Back.” Loved the Everly Brothers. Loved their harmonics, loved their phrasing, loved their bitterly ugly family feuds. But what Anne Murray does with this Everly number is inject it with a mega-dose of energy and vitality that blows away the original. Play the two versions back-to-back, and the Brothers will sound surprisingly subdued.

4. Janis Joplin: “Me and Bobby McGee.” It took a while even to “accept” this version of the Kristofferson hit, much less prefer it to the original. Actually, I don’t “prefer” it. I consider the two to be in a flat-footed tie. But what Janis brings to this song is vintage Janis. When people suggest that, if I like Janis’ energetic version, I will positively love Jerry Lee Lewis’ version, I tell them I’m aware of Jerry Lee’s cover, and that, alas, they are confusing frenetic with energetic.

5. Joan Baez: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” A key factor here was my own ignorance. Having been out of the country a few years, I didn’t realize this was a Band song before it was a Baez song, and made the blunder of calling the Band’s version a “cover.” Still, where the Band offers an interesting take on the Civil War, Baez presents a heartbreaking ballad. This is a folk song, not a rock song, and not to go out on a limb here, but no woman other than Emmylou Harris does folk better than Joan Baez.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), is a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net