Answering my own questions since 2001

History of the Cover Song

A while back I subscribed to the RSS feed for Ask MetaFilter, a kind of free version of Google Answers. People post questions on everything from pet ettiquette to Greek philosophy, and, for the part, people answer them. Today, somebody asked a question about the origin of the term ‘cover song’. In reply, someone posted an explanation of sorts by singer-songwriter Don McLean:

Back in the days of black radio stations and white radio stations (i.e. segregation), if a black act had a hot record the white kids would find out and want to hear it on ‘their’ radio station. This would prompt the record company to bring a white act into the recording studio and cut an exact, but white, version of the song to give to the white radio stations to play and thus keep the black act where it belonged, on black radio. A “cover” version of a song is a racist tool.

He finishes off the piece with “Madonna did not ‘cover’ American Pie, she just sang an old song, and made an old songwriter mighty happy.”

5 Responses to “History of the Cover Song”

  1. Chris

    Don McLean liked Madonna’s version? *shudder* I can’t decide which is worse – Madonna’s cover of an old classic, or Madonna’s take on a Bond theme song. Both are pretty awful.

    I don’t think cover songs are a racist tool any more. There are no more “white” stations or “black” stations. True, there are “urban” stations, and urban is often a word people use when they think it would be rude to say “black”, but Eminem, Swollen Members, etc. get played on them. Rage Against the Machine and others get played on rock stations, even though those stations are predominantly filled with white musicians.

    When I hear Me First and the Gimme Gimmes cover a song from Phantom of the Opera, I don’t think racist tool, I think new interpretation. I don’t think you can say that cover songs wouldn’t exist if not for segregated radio – hell, classical composers did it all the time. They would often write variations on each other’s music.

  2. Derek

    He may not have liked the version of his song, but I bet he liked the money he got from it.

    And “cover song” may have originated as a racist term, but it’s certainly lost that connotation over time. Language changes.

  3. Rog

    I too would say that the term seems to have lost it’s original overtones and has simply become a word for a reinterpretation of someone else’s song, regardless of the colour of anyone’s skin.

    Cover songs are a great tool for new musical artists to establish themselves. It deserves its own word and since it already has one that’s used commonly, you would have a hard time replacing it.

    On one hand I’m thinking Kudos to Don McLean for reminding us of some unfortunate history, but on the other hand I also think it’s a mistake to try to obliterate the word from the dictionary at this point. Just leave it as it is and hope people continue to adapt it to its more modern connotations.

    Or less wordy: reclaiming words is more powerful than ignoring them.

  4. Darren

    I certainly agree that ‘cover song’ is no longer a racist term–that wasn’t really my point (which I should have made clearer). Mostly, I just thought the history was interesting.

  5. Lynn S

    Interesting. I never heard the term until just a few years ago. I’ve always thought it sounded kind of silly. I’ve linked to this, by the way.

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