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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cover Versions

In 1983, I sat in a movie theater and wondered something. I looked at the space station on the screen and wondered why the Empire would think that their design was so great that, even though the Rebellion had destroyed the first version, they should try to build another one. Didn't they have any other ideas? Didn't the guy who wrote the story have any other ideas?

I wonder how many times "Big Yellow Taxi" has been recorded. Never mind, Google, don't tell me... I don't want to know. I'm afraid I can't count that high! I personally can think of at least three or four versions off the top of my head, and I know there have got to be dozens more. What about "Heard It Through The Grapevine"? Of course, everybody knows the old Gladys Knight version and the CCR version, but what about the California Raisins' version? What about that one, huh? Hey, what about "Knockin' On Heavens Door?" Bob Dylan, Guns 'N' Roses, and tons more. A few months ago I learned to my surprise that Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" was a rework of an older song by Big Mama Thornton. When someone else records an already-recorded song, the new recording is called a "cover" of the original. Often, these are not very different from the original versions. But sometimes they become more well-known than the originals (like "Hound Dog"), and sometimes both the original and the cover become ridiculously well-known (like "With A Little Help From My Friends", which was originally recorded by The Beatles and then covered with a completely different arrangement at Woodstock by Joe Cocker). Sometimes an artist even reworks his own song (Eric Clapton's two radically different takes on "Layla"). We just finished watching a movie whose soundtrack, for no apparent reason, consisted largely of cover versions of Beatles songs. Too strange.

I never realized how many cover songs there are in the Bible until I got into my "read the Bible in a year" project this year. Psalm 53, for example, is a revision of Psalm 14. The Psalm that David sang in 2 Samuel 22 is presented in a slightly modified form in Psalm 18. The song in 1 Chronicles 16:8–36 is reworked from pieces of Psalm 105, Psalm 96, and Psalm 106. And Psalm 136 has the earmarks of being a heavily reworked version of Psalm 135. There are many other examples of repetition of individual verses or verse clusters in the Psalms.

There are lots of Death Star-style examples of narrative being repeated, too. Take The Ten Commandments, for example: they appear in Exodus 20, and they appear again in Deuteronomy 5. Of course, a lot of the book of Deuteronomy is a repetition of material from Leviticus. Most of 1 and 2 Chronicles is derived from 1 and 2 Kings, and anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Gospels knows that some of the stories about Jesus appear as many as four times, once in each Gospel account. In a few spots in the Bible, whole passages are repeated: take, for example, 2 Kings 18-20 and Isaiah 36-38.

Why all the repetition? There's no one answer for all of the examples. I've been learning some of the reasons, though; Deuteronomy repeats Leviticus to teach a new generation of Israelites about God's law. The Chronicles are a retelling of the Kings for a different audience: the books of Kings were written before Israel had been taken into captivity in Babylon, and the Chronicles were written after they had returned. Some of the Psalms seem to have been repeated because different versions were intended for different uses. But it's fun to think that maybe years after Psalm 14 was written, some guy picked up his psaltery and recorded his cover version, which hit the charts as Psalm 53. Hey, why not? And if the writer of 1 Chronicles can piece together several existing Psalms to create a new one, then it's OK for me to use Bible language and thoughts in my own songs.

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