Song of the Week

Song of the Week: “Compared to What?”

When music can span time and issues, is there a potential for it to lose its original significance? Is that what you want as a musician? Is timeless music the ultimate goal?”

Ownership of music is an issue that pervades the music industry. Songs have been covered, altered, sampled, and adapted by artists almost as much as they have been originally produced. Of course, this is an issue associated with legal matters and property rules, but I find it interesting to think about from the perspective of a listener. How do we make associations of ownership when we listen to music?

I first came upon the song, “Compared to What” when I heard it on John Legend and the Roots’ 2010 album, Wake Up! As a pretty passive listener, I heard the song, liked it, and moved on with no further questions.

Fast forward about five years, and I am listening to the upcoming music to be played during the Winter ‘17 Term edition of the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble. I hear Les McCann’s and Eddie Harris’s “Compared to What” again. The song was very familiar, and instantly recognizable with all the same lyrics, but this version had much more jazz piano and saxophone (too bad- I play trumpet in the ensemble) throughout, and was much jazzier over all.

notesironbound-blogspot-com
Les McCann and Eddie Harris                      (Source: notesironbound.blogspot.com)

With just a bit of research, I found out that the song was originally written by Gene McDaniels. He gave it to Les McCann to perform, and it eventually became known as his biggest hit. The single made over a million sales, and later, the album it was featured on went gold[1]. (Gleason 239). The song was also recorded in 1969 by famous jazz singer Roberta Flack, and her version of the movie has been featured in both the 1997 film Boogie Nights[2] and the 2015 film, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.[3] Or maybe still, you remember it from the 2003 Coca-Cola ad campaign which used the Roberta Flack version in its commercials[4]

The use of Roberta Flack’s version in mainstream media and culture is an interesting point in itself, as the lyrics of the song were written and performed by black musicians, and reflect social and political struggles of disenfranchised members of society. But regardless of how and when you may have heard it, the lyrics have remained more or less exactly the same these past 50 or so years. The words reveal McDaniel’s angst and frustrations with the social and political climate in the United States during the 1960s, as they take on issues like war, poverty, and apathy. With lyrics like: “President, he’s got his war/The folks don’t know, just what it’s for”[5]McDaniels opinions about the Vietnam War are clear. Musicians often utilize song-writing to express opinions and feelings about the time they were living in, and “Compared to What” is no exception.

That is precisely what makes this particular song so interesting to me. On one hand, the song was written as a reflection on a specific time period, and was very successful within that time period. On the other hand, the meaning of the song has been carried over through time to remain well beyond the 1960s, so much so that when I heard the song in the 2010s, I accepted the lyrics to be about the current day, and did not know it was originally written in 1966.  The fact is that the song was written to represent a very specific time in history, and yet, to the unknowing listener, the song can be associated with a wide range of time periods, issues, and inspirations, and applied to a wide range of meanings.

So what does all this mean for the original creator of a piece of music? When music can span time and issues, is there a potential for it to lose its original significance? Is that what you want as a musician? Is timeless music the ultimate goal?  Because when we listen, we might not relate to the original meaning of the creators, and as listeners, the meaning and associations become our own, but I think the history is always there, if you’re willing to look for it.

[1] Gleason, Ralph J., and Ted Gioia. Conversations in Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews. Ed. Toby Gleason. New Haven: Yale UP, 2016. Print.

[2] “Boogie Nights (1997) Soundtrack and Complete List of Songs.” What-song. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2017.

[3] “The Man from UNCLE (2015) Soundtrack and Complete List of Songs.” What-song. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2017.

[4] Neal, Mark Anthony. “Real, Compared to What: Anti-War Soul.” PopMatters. N.p., 28 Mar. 2003. Web. 15 Jan. 2017.

[5] McDaniels, Eugene. “Compared to What? – Les McCann.” Google Play. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2017.

Sophia Kinne, Author

Memory Apata, Editor

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