Bardcraft – covering songs

While writing your own songs is always going to be an attractive choice for a bard, there’s also a lot to be said for singing other people’s material. It’s easier to learn existing songs than to write them. Engaging with existing songs roots you in your tradition and honours your ancestors of musical tradition. Keeping a song alive is a meaningful thing to do and can also be part of keeping culture and tradition alive.

As songwriters, most of us have habits. Few are the performers who can do a whole set of their own material without it starting to sound a bit samey. Throwing in some well chosen covers can help considerably with keeping your own material sounding fresh and interesting.

Covering a song well isn’t straightforward. You need to find a balance between making it your own, and being faithful to the original. You have to work out which aspects of the song are essential to its character, and which you can afford to do without. Traditional British songs tend to be fine if you just take the tune and words – often there are variants of those already in existence. Other cultures have traditional music where the harmonies are intrinsic and you can’t pull a single tune out and have it still work. Contemporary music from numerous genres can depend on the interplay between tune and accompaniment. 

I find it helps to listen to multiple versions of a song before I start trying to find my own way of doing it. With more famous songs, it’s usually possible to find cover versions, which help me explore possible ways of interpreting the music. When the song isn’t so well known, you might be able to find live versions from the songwriter, and these also help. It can also be helpful to find versions recorded much later – James doing ‘Sit Down’ at their final live concert defined my approach to covering the song.

There’s much more to working with existing material than just ‘doing a cover’ implies. As a bard, you’re going to be looking for a deeper relationship with the piece. You have to know it at a level that allows you to bring it to life, and to perform it with sincerity and a sense of meaning. It pays to take time forming a relationship with a song and letting it become part of your life, and part of you, before you try and take it out into the world.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

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