What’s the definitive version of a song?

We are all familiar with the idea that there is a definitive version of some song. There have been various versions of “Hotel California” for example, but we would all agree that the definitive version is the original by the Eagles. Is the definitive version always the original? I would say usually this is the case but not always. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a great song but it might have been surpassed by Jeff Buckley’s version. Or let’s consider “Layla.” I would argue the classic Derek and the Dominoes version (Featuring Eric Clapton) is the definitive version but I would be open to argument that Clapton’s later acoustic version is a contender. Obviously this is all rather subjective.

Here’s some interesting observations. In the realm of rock and pop, the definitive version is almost always the original (or at least the most successful) version. But not so much with jazz or blues. What’s the definitive version of “Misty” or “Ain’t Misbehavin’” or “Sweet Home Chicago”? We all might have our favorites but we probably wouldn’t argue that our fave is the definitive one. This is even more true with classical music. Most of those songs were performed thousands of times before we even had recording technology. Who is to say that the definitive version of Bach’s first invention wasn’t performed in a Polish salon in 1854?

In a sense, recording has enabled us to capture elements of definitiveness that were not possible in earlier days. You could, for example, play “Hotel California” on a piano or accordion, but it is much more definitive to play it as it is on the album, on acoustic guitar, specifically a 12 string acoustic. The exact instrumentation is important. On the flip side, a version of “Misty” on piano seems no less definitive that one on guitar.

When I think of my experience as a musician I note that there are certain songs that everyone feels you need to play a certain way to really capture the essence of the tune. It’s felt that you need to play the riff exactly as it is on the album or make sure a particular vocal harmony is in there. This would be true with prog rock, new wave, certain kinds of pop. It’s much less true with jazz, blues and “looser” music genres.

I’m not sure what this all means but it’s interesting to think about.

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