If I were to say the phrase cover tune to you, what would come to mind? In all likelihood, you would think of modern music and, in particular, the history of rock n’ roll which is replete with examples of singers and bands “covering” music that was originally written and performed by others. In fact there are many examples of local bands who thrive by exclusively covering the music of one band, such as The Practically Hip who, as you may guess, play non-stop Tragically Hip songs in concert. This makes the cover song a time-honoured tradition in modern music. As one would expect, there have been instances when an artist covering a popular tune does a tremendous job, just as there have been some really bad mash-ups, as well. One of the best instances of a cover song being done well is particularly relevant to today’s post. That was the time that the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, did his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt”.
“Hurt” was originally written by the lead singer of Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor. The song is about drug use and depression and survival. It is moody and atmospheric and stands as one of Reznor’s most beloved and recognizable songs. “Hurt” was released in 1994 and is regarded as one of the all-time greatest songs in Alternative music history. In addition, the live video of “Hurt” that was filmed at Woodstock in 1995, against the backdrop of disturbing onscreen images, is easily one of the most memorable music videos of the 1990s. Personally, I have always loved the way Trent Reznor sings this song. It is the perfect mix of substantive content and performative theatricality, coming as it did from Reznor’s soul at a time when he was living in the very same house in Los Angeles that actress Sharon Tate had been murdered in by Charles Manson’s followers. Reznor often called “Hurt” a valentine for the sufferer. Proof that the Nine Inch Nails version of this song is a classic can be seen in the fact that “Hurt” was rarely, if ever, covered by another musician of note. The reason for that is simple: how is it possible to cover a song and make it your own when it already exists in its definitive form? That was the thinking that still existed when it was announced that a musician of note was actually going to cover “Hurt” for his upcoming album. That musician of note turned out to be Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash was approaching the end of his life when he recorded his cover of “Hurt”. He had been working on an album of cover songs with famed producer Rick Rubin. It was Rubin who suggested to Cash that he take a run at “Hurt”. Rubin felt that there was just something within the anguish that permeated Trent Reznor’s lyrics that might find purchase in Johnny Cash’s lived experiences. At first, Cash was reluctant to try a song that was so far from his musical roots. He was afraid of publishing something that might end up more akin to parody than compliment. But Rubin asked him to trust him and give the song a try. Cash finally agreed. The one change that was made was to pare the core of the musical structure down and move it from electric keyboard to a standard piano. Members of Tom Petty’s back up band, The Heartbreakers, played with Johnny Cash on “Hurt”. When the track was finished, everyone who heard immediately knew that Cash had reached within himself and had laid his soul within Reznor’s very personal lyrics. When the video was created for this new cover version, “Hurt” played like the story of Johnny Cash’s life. It was an absolute masterpiece. Many call the Johnny Cash video for “Hurt” as being the best music video ever made. When Trent Reznor heard Cash’s version of his song, he felt a range of emotions, the core of which felt invasive. Reznor is quoted as saying, “Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend”. That someone else could take such a personal song and completely reinterpret it was as stunning to Reznor as it was to the rest of the world. As Reznor glumly said, “The song wasn’t mine anymore”.
To read this post thus far, one would have the impression that cover tunes are more of a modern phenomenon in the world of music. But, did you know that one of the very first popular cover versions occurred almost one hundred and fifty years ago? In the late 1720s, German composer Johann Sebastian Bach composed a series of four orchestral suites which were designed to accompany courtly dances. The style of suite that Bach created was very popular in Germany and France at the time. The most well received of these suites was “Suite #3 in D Major”. This suite was made up of five distinct parts, of which “Air in D Major” was the second part. In this particular case, the term “Air” does not mean oxygen and blue skies. Instead, it refers to a style of instrumental music that acts in the same capacity as an operatic aria does. Bach’s “Air in D Major” became the most recognizable portion of the five-part suite and has lived on in history as a stand-alone classical music piece that is often played at formal events such as weddings and graduations. In fact, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air in D Major” is regarded as one of the most famous pieces of music ever written. I guarantee you that even if you don’t recognize the title of this composition, you will recognize the music when it is played from the very first notes.
Just as was the case with Trent Reznor’s version of “Hurt”, Johann Sebastian Bach’s version of “Air in D Major” was regarded as the definitive version of that composition. If other orchestras dared to play it publicly, they did so by faithfully reproducing what Bach had created, note for note. That was until a violin teacher named August Wilhelmj came along in 1871 and viewed Bach’s composition with fresh eyes. Just as Rick Rubin tweaked “Hurt” by changing from electric keyboard to standard piano for Johnny Cash, Wilhelmj changed Bach’s “Air” from D Major to C. This simple change made the playing of the “Air” much easier because all of the violinists could now play the entire piece on the lowest string on their violin which was the G string. Wilhelmj’s “Air on a G String” is a slight variation on Bach’s original version, but because it was so much easier to play, it has become the version that is most commonly associated with this piece of music today. Consequently, if you are ever at a gathering that features orchestral music being played and you hear “Air” begin, chances are that you are actually listening to the oldest cover tune in the world and not Bach’s original version. A classical cover tune! Who knew?! Now you do.
The link to the video for the song “Hurt” by Trent Reznor can be found here.
The link to the video for the composition “Air in D Major” by Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here.
The link to the video for the composition “Air on a G String” by August Wilhelmj can be found here.
The link to the Johann Sebastian Bach Museum can be found here.
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