Monday, 14 March 2011

The Social Evolution of a song: 50 years changes the interpretation- or does it?

Songs Everyone Should Know

“I Put a Spell on You” - Various Artists1

Let’s beckon back now to a few weeks ago when we talked about fortune tellers, gypsies, etc.

The first version of “I Put a Spell on You” was recently in “Nowhere Boy”, the British movie documenting the early life of John Lennon. Originally the record was released on 78 rpm format, which is really difficult to find now. Most people do not have a 78 rpm record player that works, let alone the original “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins” version of this.

In 1956 the story goes that this was supposed to be kind of a sedate blues number and when the producer brought in ribs, chicken and rum, the arrangement changed. Screamin’ jay Hawkins says he does not even remember making the record. The original version was banned by record stores and radio stations as too wild.

After the success of the record – because everyone still found out about it and bought it anyway, Hawkins took on the persona of a strange Voodoo Witchdoctor in live performances. This song sounds sexist and at times bordering on psychotic in its maniacal Boris Karloff sort of way. But was it meant to be a bit of a lark as they say? Men very much ruled the roost still at this time. It was before Women’s Lib and the freedom movements of the 1960’s. There are a lot of blues songs that warn their ‘partner’ of the consequences of foolin’ around. Little Walter turned this around a bit on My Babe 1955. In 1966 James Brown covered "Spell' on his album “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s, World” - speaking of male domination themes.

Nina Simone2 blues/jazz/soul singer that carried the civil rights message in the late sixties interpreted this song as well. Her version is very much a plea, much more bluesy - almost a sad commentary on men in 1965. Somehow this is more believable but still has the hurtin' blues feel to it to which it was originally intended.

In the 1970’s, Credence Clearwater revival had a hit with it again. Culturally the music was male-dominated, alpha-male guitar rock. This is what sold. (It was unfortunately difficult for female artists at this time to break into the biz and really did not happen till the late ‘70’s) With that there was still an attitude of this male superiority that lingered from the post-war generation. At this point though, the lyrics sounds a bit more like a plea than a maniacal command coming out of John fogerty’s mouth. CCR also was advertised as a band from the Louisiana Bayou, but they really weren’t. The sound is supposed to be reminiscent of sort of a Bayou-blues thing. Fogerty was born, not on the Bayou as he suggests in one song, but rather Berkley, California. It’s all about persona and what sells! Music is after all a business much to purists chagrin.

So many people covered it and continue to cover it. A few people had changed the interpretation of this song over the years but Marilyn Manson’s brilliant take on this song is unmistakable. Through the format of an early black and white horror movie it clearly screams to us that there is something wrong here.  

In 2010 Shane MacGowan, Nick Cave, Chrissie Hynde, Mike Jones, Johnny Depp et al, released their take on “I Put a Spell on You” to raise money for the plight of Haiti following the earthquake there.

What is up with this enduring song? Is there any truth to it? Is that truth the same anymore?

1)       Some of the artists that have covered this song include: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Nina Simone, Credence Clearwater Revival, Alice Cooper, Arthur Brown, James Brown, Black Sabbath, Dr. John, Ted Nugent, George Clinton, Iggy Pop, Roxy Music, Bonnie Tyler, The Animals, Peter Townsend and Joe Cocker.

2)       Nina Simone – Check out her album “Wild is the Wind” from 1966. “Remixed and Reimagined” 2006 is also good.

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