Over the past several weeks I have kept coming back to an episode of The Voice (which I was not watching by choice) in which one of the contestants performed the standard “Georgia on My Mind.” The arrangement of course slavishly copied the arrangement of Ray Charles’s classic 1960 recording, minus the strings and choir. What struck me, though, was when I heard Adam Levine – I think – refer to Ray Charles’s recording as the “original” version. First on my mind was the matter of the appalling ignorance of music history on display here: Ray Charles did not write the song, nor was it written for him. Instead, by the time he recorded the song it was already 30 years old and had been recorded a large number of times. The song had in fact been written by Hoagy Carmichael, prominent songwriter and pianist (along with Stuart Gorrell, his non-songwriter friend who collaborated on this one effort). As far as I know, the earliest version of the song was recorded by Hoagy himself. Certainly, Ray Charles’s recording has become the definitive version – as witnessed by the up-and-comer’s slavish copying. But original is something else.
This led me to a much more fundamental question, far more important than who was first: What does it even mean for something to be “original”? When Levine calls Ray Charles’s version the “original,” it does not mean simply the first one to be recorded. It means something more. When we say that the Beatles did the original version of “Come Together,” we do not mean simply that they recorded it first; when we say that Aerosmith covered it, we do not mean to suggest simply that they recorded it later. They were not covering simply the song, the notes on a page; they were covering the performance. Thus, to say that the Beatles did the original version of “Come Together” is to say that the entire conception of the song, embracing both composition and interpretation in performance, is theirs. And as I have suggested, this notion of originality would not have been recognized by Hoagy Carmichael. Carmichael was a professional songwriter in a time when professional songwriters wrote songs performed by singers and dance bands. In many cases, the performer (not an “artist”) was essentially anonymous, the individual recording secondary; it was the song that mattered. This is a leftover of sorts from an era (up to the 1910s) when songs were sold and promoted primarily not through recorded sound but through sheet music. The song was the thing. (This conception of originality, of composer as auteur, is familiar to us from classical music. There, the score is everything; the performer’s possibilities for innovations fall within a much narrower range.)
In fact, in the first half of the twentieth century, the very idea of an “original version” and a “cover” was problematic, or at least carried a different meaning than it does now. Different record companies would put out competing versions of a song – or even a single company might put out multiple versions, one to take advantage of each market – pop, “race”, “hillbilly”, etc. And none of these was “original” in the sense that Levine meant it.
This emphasis on composition, and of the composer of auteur, was not the only one operable at the time, however. It is on the contrary in direct opposition to that found in jazz. Except for the earliest forms of jazz (specifically, New Orleans jazz, with its structured polyphony), most jazz music is centered on the idea of improvisation. Jazz has in fact had a series of notable composers – first Jelly Roll Morton, later Duke Ellington, later still Thelonious Monk – but these figures were marginal to the development of the music itself; they were not the most widely influential musicians (as emphasized by Gunther Schuller in Early Jazz.) Instead, in a sense the true “composers” of jazz have been the most admired performers: Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, etc. And for the most part, they were not composers in the traditional sense, as their music was composed of improvisations on current or standard pop songs, or blues; to the extent that they wrote songs, these were largely improvisations themselves. In fact, from the late 1920s and especially the 1930s, improvisation in jazz increasingly meant mostly discarding the melody, the song itself, and simply improvising on a song’s chord changes. In this mode of originality, all originality lies with the performer and the performance; the song itself is irrelevant, or at least secondary. Paradoxically, this conception – like the opposing one I discussed above – again leads to a lack of concern with the “original” version of a song.
The combination of composer as auteur and performer as auteur was achieved in rock music in the 1960s – notably, as “rock ‘n’ roll” became “rock”. At that time, in that genre, the idea of the rock band as a self-contained composing and recording unit, following the innovative trail of the Beatles, became predominant, at least in the minds of serious rock fans. To some extent, this explains the criticism of a supposedly fake band like the Monkees, but this line of criticism was a new one, or even anachronistic or different from what we might expect. I imagine it must have revolved specifically around the “artificial” origins of the group (assembled through a casting call for a TV show) and the fact that they faked playing their own instruments on the show. The fact that they didn’t play their own instruments – only on record as opposed to on tour, only for the most part, and primarily on their early singles and albums – was not unusual at the time. Session musicians were often hired for this task in the music industry, even for more critically acclaimed or respected “rock” bands. I am reminded especially of Roger McGuinn, guitarist and vocalist from the Byrds, who appeared in the “Rock & Roll” miniseries (produced by the BBC and NOVA/WGBH in 1995) talking about the fact that “Mr. Tambourine Man” shared its rhythm with the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” – because the drums on both were played by session drummer extraordinaire Hal Blaine. “Mr. Tambourine Man,” moreover – a song written by Bob Dylan! Of course, a good portion of the Byrds’ career was made covering the work of Bob Dylan (or covering Pete Seeger cover Ecclesiastes in “Turn! Turn! Turn!”).
On the one hand, the conception of originality as both composition and interpretation in performance was not simply invented by the Beatles; it existed previously in popular music, if intermittently. Take, say, Ray Charles himself, with songs such as “I’ve Got a Woman” embracing both conceptions – but even here, the idea of “originality” is problematic since the music and arrangement of “I’ve Got a Woman” were largely an adaptation of the 1954 gospel recording of “It Must Be Jesus” by the Southern Tones. Ray Charles’s career on Atlantic Records in the 1950s was filled with such borrowings from gospel songs. And, as it happens, Charles’s three #1 pop hits were covers of a then 30-year-old Hoagy Carmichael song, a Percy Mayfield demo, and the country tune “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
On the other hand, the notion of the composer and not performer as auteur has never disappeared, but has continued in rock and especially in other forms of popular music, as witnessed by the longevity of various songwriters and songwriting teams: from Bacharach and David and Holland-Dozier-Holland, through Ashford and Simpson and Gamble and Huff, to Stock-Aitken-Waterman and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and on and on. Of course, many of these songwriting teams doubled as producers, and so were involved in fashioning more or less all aspects of their artists’ sounds. Thus in recent decades we see the emergence of the idea of producer as auteur – an idea that has become even more prominent with the rise of sampling, mashups, and electronic music. And this in turn has introduced yet another conception of originality and authorship into popular music. While the idea of originality lying with the composer or performer reflects a romantic or modernist notion of the artist as auteur, the newer mode is a postmodern one. Instead of ideas being borrowed, we have recorded sound copied verbatim; instead of homages or covers, the reuse of previously existing material – essentially found sound – now repurposed.
Yet the other modes of originality persist, particularly the concept of a song as a combination of composition and performance. I think we often take for granted this concept of originality, of authorship. We have internalized it to the point where it seems natural, perhaps the only one thinkable. But the naturalness of this concept is simply an illusion. Not only are different ways of viewing originality and authorship possible, but alternate ways have been and continue to be operative in our culture, even within just our music. Different modes have existed over time; at the same time in different genres; and competing within a single genre. By reminding ourselves of this fact, we open up worlds of possibility in creating music, in reusing it – or in the simple joy of listening.