Why is a "cover song" called a "cover" song?
November 10, 2004 6:20 AM   Subscribe

Why is a "cover song" called a "cover" song?
posted by Outlawyr to Media & Arts (10 answers total)
From Don McLean's fan site, the man himself explains:

The word “cover” is now used by music writers and music fans incorrectly. They use it to describe any attempt by an artist to perform old songs or previously recorded material. The use of this term gives them a bit of authority since it makes them sound like they are in the music business. They are in fact ignorant of what a cover version of a song really is.

Back in the days of black radio stations and white radio stations (i.e. segregation), if a black act had a hot record the white kids would find out and want to hear it on “their” radio station. This would prompt the record company to bring a white act into the recording studio and cut an exact, but white, version of the song to give to the white radio stations to play and thus keep the black act where it belonged, on black radio. A “cover” version of a song is a racist tool. Many examples can be found from “Sha Boom” to “Good Lovin’” It is NOT a term intended to be used to describe a valid interpretation of an old song. In that case every pop singer is nothing more than a cover artist (a derogatory description if ever there was one). I am not a “cover” artist and I do not do “covers”. The Crewcuts were cover artists.

The term has morphed into its present misuse and I suppose I’ll not see this change anytime soon but I do hope the readers of this website and fans who are kind enough to write concert reviews will not use this term.

Madonna did not “cover” American Pie, she just sang an old song, and made an old songwriter mighty happy.


posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:36 AM on November 10, 2004

From Wikipedia:
"An interesting note about the origins of the phrase "Cover Song" from Mark Edwards at WICC Radio:
An example of a COVER record would be the release of "Sh-Boom" by the Crew Cuts in 1955 at almost the same time as the original by The Chords. The term COVER record is taken from the fact that the Crew-Cuts version, being performed by a white group and distributed by a major record label, and thus finding considerable additional radio airplay, would COVER any chance of success that the original release may have had."
posted by Mwongozi at 6:41 AM on November 10, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks. Still doesn't really clear up the use of the word "cover". That part about "would COVER any chance of success that the original release may have had" makes partial sense, I suppose.
posted by Outlawyr at 7:21 AM on November 10, 2004

My guess is that it's "cover" in the sense of hiding...listeners were getting the "same" song, but the objectionable skin color of the original artist was hidden from the marketplace.

Similarly, a cover version of a song is like a cover story -- a falsity that's proferred in order to obscure the original story.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:25 AM on November 10, 2004

Of course, over time, I think the meaning has changed, and I would disagree with Mr. McLean over whether the word is used 'wrongly'. It is used differently, and when 99% of the public understands it to meean one thing, sorry, that's what it means now.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 9:47 AM on November 10, 2004

and I would disagree with Mr. McLean over whether the word is used 'wrongly'. It is used differently, and when 99% of the public understands it to meean one thing, sorry, that's what it means now.

agreed. language evolves. still: great question and interesting answer!

posted by fishfucker at 10:38 AM on November 10, 2004

Maybe they say it's a "cover" song to "cover" their ass, legally?
posted by DrJohnEvans at 11:37 AM on November 10, 2004

Maybe it's a reference to album covers. Can't have black folks on your record shelf, after all.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:23 PM on November 10, 2004

It's kind of amazing to look at pop charts of the early-mid 1950s and see several versions of the same song on the charts at the same time. (Not all of them being white covers of black artists, either.) They were not cover-shy then at all. If someone came out with a good song, a swarm of artists would release their own versions nearly instantly. (Think of the term "standard" for old pop songs -- they were "standards" because everyone performed them.)

<idle speculation> There was no shame at all, back then, in performing songs one didn't also write, and everyone did it -- so there was no real need for a term to describe what we modernly think of as a "cover." (Except, maybe, "standard." Which has a wider meaning. A "standard" might be done by hundreds of people -- that's why it's a standard. A "cover" might only done by two -- the original and the cover artist.) So the term may have developed with the specific meaning McLean refers to, to describe a specific social situation of the time -- white artists covering black songs for a white audience.

Post-Beatles, though, recording artists were expected to do more original material, and those who didn't were frequently put down for it. The 1950s-style "covers" died out as black artists had become mainstream, so that sense of the word died out. Eventually "cover" mutated to mean an artist doing any song that was previously made popular by someone else, because now that this had become more of a special circumstance rather than something everyone did all the time, a word was needed for it.

</idle speculation>

I agree that Don McLean needs to get over this -- the word has no racist meaning now. The language has shifted. But one can't expect the author of "American Pie" not to live in the past just a little bit.

Anyway, I still don't know the actual origin of "cover" either, and I'd love to find out.
posted by litlnemo at 6:03 PM on November 10, 2004

I call bullshit on Don McLean. (You can read him defend his interpretation in proxy postings.)

The earliest citation of the phrase cover version may be as late as 1966, judging by the Online Etymology Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary as cited in a Usenet thread about this question. These citations are all from music industry publications, suggesting that the phrase hadn't yet leapt into popular usage by that time.

The origin clearly seems to be in terms of "covering" the market in a business sense. The music industry before radio was much more regional and the term, if it were around then, could simply have had a geographical sense. It may also have referred to putting the song in a different album cover. I doubt it meant hiding the origin of the song (fruitless in any case for examples like Pat Boone's Tutti Frutti -- everyone knew where these songs came from).

Perhaps cover as a slang verb existed before then, but judging by references to the practice (a label putting out a version of a newly popular song by one of its own artists) dating back to the Tin Pan Alley days, it's likely that the business practice was entrenched and only slightly modified during the period of R&B covers by white rock and roll artists. If so, the racist interpretation is practically an urban legend, or the term of art for this in language, folk etymology (e.g. fuck deriving from for unlawful carnal knowledge). By 1966 the color barrier had certainly been broken. Notably, the term was being used in ways which McLean objects to today, four decades ago.

In any case, McLean is Canute ordering back the tide as far as the "original" meaning of the phrase, which has long since gained a popular usage with fairly broad range.
posted by dhartung at 12:38 AM on November 11, 2004

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