Heroes of Language: DON McLEAN

Don McLean (b 1945) is a popular singer who has had the misfortune to be American.   Despite being an American who earns his living singing songs advertising a pie, Mr McLean is a bird of our Proper English Foundation feather when it comes to word stubbornness!

The word in this case was a musical term, “cover version”.   Already it has been turned into a verb by insufferable worders, before we even had the chance to protest that “to cover a song” sounds unsightly and that they are destroying the language by expanding it!

Writing in 2004, McLean mentioned that, in the era of segregation, black music was copied by white musicians, and black musicians were thus prevented from having their songs heard on “all-white” radio stations.
“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).” [1], [2€€]

Yes, I agree: don’t ever call anyone a pop singer, unless they’re really terrible.   As for “cover version”, McLean’s claim about the phrase’s origin is not supported by evidence.  It’s true that black music was ripped-off for white consumption in the US,[3] but at the time the songs werent popularly called covers.   The first recorded written use of “cover” in music was in 1965, as segregation was being abolished in the US.

More importantly, around this time, original versions of songs were starting to gain prominence.   
So the theory goes, cover version arose because non-original songs were now the exception, not the norm, and the term was used in business (“A phonograph record company is said to cover the recording of another phonograph record company when it releases a competitive recording of the same song.”, Music Business, 1965), and in music journalism (“This is a cover version of the new Beach Boys single from some friends and admirers, the Castaways.”, Melody Maker, 1966).

Even if “cover” was secretly created by racist record execs, this origin is so obscure that it is ridiculous to call modern cover versions “a racist tool”!   The only racist tool would be a person who demanded more “real” cover versions that exploit black musicians – of course McLean didn’t say this, but what he said was nearly as dumb.
This is why he is a language hero!  Words are like faith: if anyone decides that cover version or grow do not exist, the rest of the English-speaking world must respect their feelings and not say those words anymore!   But only those two!


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