Cover songs are a great way to rediscover the trajectory of sound.
There is a collection of music scholars who direct their attention to how regular listeners interact with music. In “the Future is Now. . . and Then: Sonic Historiography in Post 1960s Rock,” Kevin Holm-Hudson draws together several similar strands of thought regarding sonic historiography, which he describes as intramusical references (247). He cites “self-quotation, quotation from previous rock songs by other artists and stylistic references to (not direct quotations from) previous rock songs or artists” as major types of intramusical references (251). Holm-Hudson also links sonic historiography to Kofi Agawu‘s notion of listener-competence, which requires the listener to know the sonic vocabulary a song uses (247). He also cites Theodore Gracyk‘s work: “Intelligent listening occurs when one makes appropriate intertextual inks and responds in terms of both musical and social contexts” (248).
While song covers are not included in Holm-Hudson’s treatment of sonic historiography, they can contribute to a listener competence. Like Holm-Hudson and Gracyk, Doyle Greene recognizes the ability of regular listeners to develop competence, as they ” ‘understand’ music by listening to it and the affect produced” (6). As a result, they can detect the different meanings when the performer of a song embarks on a different performative interpretation, where “authorship is primarily assigned to the performer” (7). At the same time, the performance of a cover song is linked to what Greene calls the “standard version,” or the “best-known version associated with a specific performer and performance of a song” (8). The dynamic between the cover and the standard version can expand listener competence and allow the recognition of a set of intramusical references.
“Les Fleur,” Ramsey Lewis/Minnie Riperton
“Les Fleur” originally appears on Ramsey Lewis‘ 1968 album Maiden Voyage. The album features covers of several well-known songs, including The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” and Dionne Warwick’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” Given that Lewis is a pianist, it is no surprise that the piano is featured in the track. Trippy vocals and orchestration alternatively build and recede throughout.
However, searching for Lewis’ “Les Fleur” also brings up Minnie Riperton‘s version of the song included on her 1970 album Come To My Garden. With a slower tempo and more fleshed out lyrics, the instrumentation is denser, includes guitar as well as horns and foregrounds Riperton’s vocals. In fact, Charles Stepney was arranger on both Lewis and Riperton’s track. Fun fact: Maurice White, of the legendary group Earth, Wind and Fire, played drums!
The two versions of this song creates a sonic relationship between Lewis, Stepney and Riperton. Lewis and Stepney have jazz roots and Riperton sang backing vocals for Lewis. Also, Riperton, who is well-known for her high octave range, demonstrates an additional kind of vocal. By listening to both versions, listeners expand their competence over several genres.
“I Don’t Know Why (I Love You),” Stevie Wonder/Brand New Heavies
“I Don’t Know Why (I Love You)” originally appears on Stevie Wonder‘s 1968 album For Once In My Life, and also appeared as a B-side on the 1969 hit single, “My Cherie Amour.” Opening with sparse instrumentation that features guitar, the short track includes Wonder’s distinctive vocals. The instrumentation builds as the tracks continue, with percussion and guitar flourishes added.
The Brand New Heavies‘ version of the track appears on the group’s 2007 album Get Used to It. It features the more direct and pointed vocal style of N’Dea Davenport, who is supported by strategically placed backing vocals. After the introduction, the track develops with more varied instrumentation, which complements Davenport’s equally diverse vocal stylings.
Listening to both versions show how the artists make different musical choices. Wonder’s version sounds understated compared to the Brand New Heavies, who bring up the vocals as well as the R&B instrumentation.
Sonic historiography helps us to track how sounds develop over time and link artists and genres together across generations of listeners.
Delicious Vinyl. “BRAND NEW HEAVIES – “I DON’T KNOW WHY (I LOVE YOU)” YouTube. 25 Jun 2006. https://youtu.be/DHM3-TtCK9I (27 May 2021).
Doyle Greene. The Rock Cover Song: Culture, History, Politics. McFarland & Company. 2014.
Kevin Holm-Hudson. “The Future is Now. . . and Then: Sonic Historiography in Post 1960s Rock.” Genre 34 (2001): 243-265.
Ramsey Lewis – Topic. “Les Fleur.” YouTube. 18 Oct 2018. https://youtu.be/jnGRfQtFmp8 (27 May 2021).
Stevie Wonder. “I Don’t Know Why.” YouTube. 25 Jul 2018. https://youtu.be/_QtgkxwG1Ew (27 May 2021).
therotatingchinmen. “Minnie Riperton – Les Fleurs.” YouTube. 14 Apr 2010. https://youtu.be/g1kDd6yBQZ4 (27 May 2021).
Sonic Historiography and Cover Songs: Ramsey Lewis/Minnie Riperton and Stevie Wonder/The Brand New Heavies by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.