Thursday, 18 July 2013

Woody Guthrie, Ani DiFranco & Nirvana: "Do Re Mi"

One of the most influential factors of music is its versatility.  There will always be the artist’s interpretation and the listener’s re-interpretation or miss-interpretation. This can be in the context of other artists doing a cover of their own personal, creative interpretation or a listener using a song to get through a rough time by relating their personal experiences to the lyrics.  The beauty of this is that it doesn’t matter; someone can be listening to a song about drug addition and use it to get through a break-up.  It’s about the feeling the melody gives you or the relatability of the lyrics.

For anyone who hasn’t heard “Do Re Mi” by Woody Guthrie, just think “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck.  It’s a dustbowl fuelled folk and country classic.  The first cover of it that I heard was also a folk cover, by Ani Difranco, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Bo Ramsey.  Growing up, my dad promoted a lot of Ani Difranco tours so I spent a lot of time watching her perform live and I saw a lot of different hair colors!  I’ve only heard this song performed live, and it’s not that it’s bad… it just doesn’t live up to the original.  The imperative emotion is just not there.  I think if I had never heard Woodie Guthrie sing this song, I would like this version a lot more... but therein lies the problem with doing a cover. Even as a folk artist, it’s a pretty ballsy move to cover a classic like this!  It doesn’t live up.
The reason this other cover is so notable is that it was the last song that Kurt Cobain recorded before his suicide.  Actually, all that was recorded was a solo acoustic demo.  I think that a lot of people like to over interpret the meaning of these lyrics when Cobain sings them, hoping to find some hidden further understanding of his suicide.  The problem with that is simple: he didn’t write them.
Regardless, I was really surprised by how much I like this cover.  This song is not meant to be a rock song yet, in my opinion, Nirvana successfully make it one.  It’s by no means better than Guthrie’s, but it certainly stands its own.  When I hear a cover of a well-known song I always unintentionally compare the two (as I think most people do).  It's impossible not to.  That being said, I found that I didn’t do that the first time I heard this song!  I think that, along with the fact that people don’t interpret this song as a cover (although perhaps that’s simply musical ignorance!), demonstrates how strong of a cover this is.  Even though it’s an acoustic cover, like the original, the guitar has a much more raw, harsh sound.  The cover has a naturally haunting tone to it, which is hugely amplified due to the eeriness of it being Cobain’s final recording.

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