The High Art of Vocal Interpretation

It started out with Bob Dylan, I think, the grand concept of the sensitive and confessional singer/songwriter. And he was very good at it, as were Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Phil Ochs, even Carole King. Some of these folks were VERY good singers and others made do with the voices they had. But it became the mark of “authentic” to write your own songs and sing only those songs. The term “cover artist” became dismissive, even scornful.  

In the late middle decades of the last century, it became acceptable to assume a courageous fiery-eyed attitude, to stand against the music industry’s everyday safe and steady, dailybland confections of the Perry Como era/type. Players and singers now became memorable and gained cred BECAUSE of their basic-ness – no-frills – warts and all, anti-pop approach. Because I myself loved so many of these artists, it took me quite a few years to learn to hear what heights a gifted singer could bring to another’s songs: dynamics, nuances, pauses, purrs, shouts-in-pitch that could elevate old songs to new fruitful, vibrant life.

I began to appreciate the endless variety of ways to interpret a song, to rebuild it from the ground up, when I first heard Joe Cocker’s version of “Let’s Go Get Stoned” from the concert at Woodstock. He delivered it with such commitment, such complete abandon that he really broke through to a crowd for which the song’s “message” was old news. This song wasn’t really about copping a buzz — it was about feeling the freedom which can come only from a holy broken-ness, the aw-shit daybreak heartache of nothing left to lose. Then Joe took on the mighty Beatles with “A Little Help from My Friends,” then Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” He hadn’t written these songs, but he might as well have – they sounded just that new, that fresh. He interpreted them, making them soar again. He became them. 

Covering the Beatles’ songs really took some horses, and Wilson Pickett at first resisted recording “Hey Jude,” which had been a world-wide hit just four months earlier. McCartney had “retired” it. But Duane Allman wanted to give it a whirl and convinced Wilson to try a run through. The first rehearsal lasted twenty minutes non-stop. The sweat soaked musicians weren’t tired, so they rolled tape and re-created another, even better, record. From Liverpool to Alabama – quick as a whistle — and not an imitation but an interpretation that still sends me back to church.

Jennifer Warnes’ menacing “First We Take Manhattan.” Dave Van Ronk growling “Both Sides Now.” Chuck Berry’s “A Cottage for Sale.” Dan Hicks’ “The Piano Has Been Drinking.” Harry Nilsson’s “Without You.” Janis Joplin’s “Little Girl Blue.” Van Morrison’s “Carrickfergus.” Let others write them. Let the singers immortalize them. Great singers can make great lyrics sound as if they were their own creations, and great interpretive singing can become just as “authentic” as performances – of whatever quality – by the original writer/composer.


Dan Todd read literature at Colorado College and law at UCLA before returning to Colorado to teach and play music. He has taught at PPCC, his alma mater, since 1987.