J.B. Blackford

Refine. Hone. Distill. The self is a text, too.

Cover Songs Are to Tone…

…as lyrics are to poetry.

Writing as an art, or even as a basic necessity, is a notion continually challenged by many students, and the classes of 60 to 90 reluctant learners that I taught in Florida were no exception. Luckily for me, however, many of my students were creative and explored their skills in degree programs like digital arts and design, film, computer animation, and recording arts. Even though they may not want to write their stories, I could usually get them to agree that they had stories to tell, whatever they were and however they intended to tell them.

Although only some of my students were pursuing music-industry careers, music, in general, was a “safe zone” where everyone in class could relate on some level. I used lyrics to explain grammatical concepts like the subjunctive tense (where I pointed to Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy”); lyrics from bands like Alkaline Trio helped me explain simile (“Your voice like the sound of sirens to a house on fire / you’re saving me”).

But, by far, the most success I had getting students to engage with writing concepts was the day that I used cover songs to illustrate the idea of tone in a story: that the same material can evoke a different emotion or response if presented in a different way. (Taking credit for this idea would be specious, since it came from my then-supervisor, a teacher and poet whom I admire). During the classes leading up to this lecture, I told students that we would be using cover songs and that they could bring in examples for us to listen to and discuss. The response was overwhelming, and not only did we exceed the time allotted to that segment of class but we also didn’t even have time for all of the songs on the list. Some of the most lively discussion came from listening to the following:

A Perfect Circle’s minor-key rendition of “Imagine” and their dreary (but still delicious) version of  Depeche Mode’s “People Are People.”

“Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, reimagined by Johnny Cash.

The Misfits’ “Halloween,” redone both by AFI (an even faster version than the original) and Alkaline Trio (a somber piano rendition).

Lead Belly’s version of the folk song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” compared with Nirvana’s unplugged cover.

Obadiah Parker’s acoustic version of OutKast’s “Hey Ya.”

And Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” transformed by The Fugees (I don’t want to talk about how many of my students didn’t know that The Fugees’ version was a cover).                                                                                                               



I was astounded by the energy with which my students debated the differences between songs (what one of them dubbed “sound flavor”). They even acquiesced to my continued insistence that this related to writing and to the “significant moment” memoir-style essays they would be submitting in a few weeks. We discussed how changing the key, the pace, or the rhythm of a song affects the atmosphere it creates and then linked that concept to word choice, pacing, and scene arrangement in their mini-memoirs. 

While I am under no delusions that a lecture about cover songs and tone changed anyone’s life that day, I do know that my class (which was an EIGHT-hour block lecture/lab) actually ended with groans and students imploring, “Can’t we listen to just one more?” It was the first time I’d ever heard a student say, “That was the best English class I’ve ever had; I’ll actually remember that.” Again, this may be teaching with a little bit of trickery, but I count it as a win that almost 80 kids stayed awake for an entire class on a subject they disliked because the method of delivery was a bit unusual. 

What other cover songs can you think of that would be good additions to this lesson? Are there other activities that you’ve used to teach writing concepts through music? 


10 comments on “Cover Songs Are to Tone…

  1. Anthony Cervo
    March 6, 2013

    I remember discussing this with you when you were teaching this class and absolutely loved the idea, and still do. It’s amazing that the same song can take on different tones and elicit different emotions.

    My favorite example has always been Oasis’ song “Wonderwall” and Ryan Adams’ cover. The original has a driving drum beat which creates the feeling of gratitude and hope, while the cover is hauntingly beautiful, like the subject of the song is lost or gone.

    It’s funny, because Noel Gallagher, one of the oft-cantankerous Oasis founders, has gone on record saying, “I think Ryan Adams is the only person who ever got that song right. I’d love to do the Ryan Adams version, but in front of 60,000 Oasis fans that wouldn’t be possible.”

    I agree with Noel; Adams’ version is better. You be the judge.

    Oasis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hzrDeceEKc
    Ryan Adams: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzZhtrsbJzs

  2. JB Blackford
    March 6, 2013

    I remember when I was creating this lesson, asking you for advice on songs; you’re always the music guru!

    I completely agree with your assessment of “Wonderwall.” I just listened to both versions again, and — while the original is catchy and can get itself stuck in your head — it isn’t moving, it doesn’t linger in the emotions, in the way that Adams’ cover does. I’m surprised to hear that Noel Gallagher would admit that their version was trumped, but at least he can recognize something extraordinary when he hears it.

    Although I was surprised at how frequently in that lecture my students preferred the cover to the original song. There were only a few where the original was the class favorite, but one of these was Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” The punk version was NOT received well.

    Simon & Garfunkel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX9CUau1Bvc
    Pennywise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLZAycIjbZM

  3. Mark Sullivan
    March 7, 2013

    You might want to check out Alan Light’s recent book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,” about another song far more seem to know for cover versions than the original. It’s a whole book on the viral spread of cover versions of a single song and looks at the sometimes subtle, sometimes major differences between the versions. Then when you add in its reliance on and references to Biblical stories . . .

    • JB Blackford
      March 7, 2013

      Thank you so much for the recommendation! I’ve read some Alan Light in Rolling Stone and Spin, I think, so I’ll be excited to check out a full-length book, especially on this topic; cover songs are an interesting meme. We listened to “Hallelujah” in one of these cover/tone lectures as well, and, like “Killing Me Softly,” almost none of my students knew that it was a cover song.

      • Mark Sullivan
        March 7, 2013

        Which did they think was the original, Jeff Buckley’s? My favorite version is probably John Cale’s.

      • JB Blackford
        March 7, 2013

        Yes, Buckley’s! It was the only version they had ever heard of the song.

    • Anthony Cervo
      March 7, 2013

      Thanks for the heads up, Mark! Jeff Buckley’s verision, to me, greatly surpasses Cohen’s original, but that mainly hinges on my disdain for Cohen’s voice. Cohen is a lyrical genius, I will admit, but leaves a lot to be desired on the musical side. Book: bought!

      • JB Blackford
        March 7, 2013

        Do we need to add this to the growing list of things to absorb and discuss before July? So far it’s Life of Pi movie for me and Barton Fink for you, right?

        And not so much on the topic of cover songs but more so on Leonard Cohen, have you seen “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Cohen”?

      • Mark Sullivan
        March 7, 2013

        I really like Cohen’s version. No, he can’t really sing, but over the course of his career he has learned how to frame his croak of a voice. His version on Live in London is quite good.. Another great version is Justin TImberlake’s during the Hope for Haiti telecast: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1LOm69hpR0

      • JB Blackford
        March 7, 2013

        I actually like Cohen’s voice; something about the rumbly gruffness of it works for me. I’ll always have a soft spot for the original version of “Hallelujah” mostly because I always like the “first edition” of something, but I don’t always find the pacing to be as natural as some of the covers. I totally dig the Timberlake cover! I’ve definitely never heard this before and am continually surprised by how he does things that make me take him seriously.

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