Cover v. Original: Morning Dew

August 24, 2009

The original: “Morning Dew” by Bonnie Dobson

The contenders: The Grateful Dead, Jeff Beck, Lulu, Devo (video below), Einstürzende Neubauten, & Lee Hazlewood (link to mp3 below).

I’m not sure whether it’s the oppressive heat, the path of destruction being left throughout east Asia by typhoon Marakot, or my recent viewing of the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s next masterwork 2012 that’s got me feeling, well, feelin’ a little apocalyptic.

I suppose Nevil Shute must have felt that way in 1957 when he penned his novel “On The Beach”, a bleak tale of nuclear war in which the forced euthanasia of an infant is one of the more positive occurrences on humanity’s inexorable march to extinction. Shute didn’t have to worry about our modern doomsday scenarios (it’s gonna be the LHC, I tell you); no, in the 50′s men were men and our impending doom was an old-fashioned nuclear holocaust.

The novel struck a chord with a lot of people, probably because they had been performing duck & cover drills before homeroom since the Soviets got the bomb in 1949. Stanley Kramer adopted the novel was into a film starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in 1959 and it was this film that inspired a young Bonnie Dobson to write “Morning Dew” in 1962.

Dobson’s lyrics lament a world in which nothing is spared by the apocalypse: “You didn’t hear no young man cry/Now there is no more morning dew” – the end will be swift and brutal. The relentless hopelessness of Shute’s novel hammered home, that was not a young man crying out, it was humanity’s death rattle.

Dobson’s version of the song, recorded live in 1962 at Folk City in Greenwich Village consists of just Dobson’s voice and guitar accompaniment and was a modest success. The song was destined to become another slightly well-known folk standard until it was plucked from obscurity by a soon-to-be world famous band from San Francisco.

The Grateful Dead, hippies, Jerry Garcia, Dick’s Picks… honestly, nuclear holocaust doesn’t seem like a bad option when confronted with this list. But crazy as it may seem, The Dead did occasionally pull a gem out of their never-ending pile of boring, pointless, patchouli-scented jams (and even one fair-to-good album!). On their 1967 debut, they wisely chose to stick to someone else’s songwriting for at least one track, and cut their own version of “Morning Dew”. It became a live favorite that the band played for decades. Their version, expanded for a full band, takes the song from its stark folk roots and turns it into a nice piece of west-coast psychedelia. The Dead’s version lacks the ominous sorrow of Dobson’s original, but its midtempo, laid-back vibe has considerable charm of it’s own. On the other hand, all it takes is one Deadhead completely missing the point of the song and talking about “Jerry’s moving and soulful riffs” to consider getting your hands on the suicide pills handed out to the victims of radiation in On The Beach.

Inexplicably, this song about nuclear holocaust, written by a relatively unknown Canadian folkie went on to be covered by a wide range of artists. Maybe it’s the timeless subject matter of our species’ march toward annihilation, or maybe it’s just good songwriting. But now it’s time for a battle royale to determine which version of this song is the best, one of the covers or the original. Before you vote, let’s take a look at some of the other contenders in addition to the Grateful Dead.

Lee Hazlewood
Lee Hazlewood covered the song on his 1968 LP Love And Other Crimes. Hazlewood, who pioneered psychedelic country, always sounds relaxed and his baritone drawl is a sharp contrast to Dobson’s angelic tones. On this song, however, there is a note of earnestness in his voice. As the music builds and recedes you can’t help but think that Lee is quite serious in wanting to avoid Armageddon.

Einstürzende Neubauten
In some ways, Einstürzende Neubauten is the perfect band for a post-apocalyptic world – they’ve been using scrap metal, construction equipment, and hacked together noise generators as instruments since the beginning. Blixa Bargeld’s vocals are the definition of sinister and creepy, but you can’t help but feel a little seduced as well. This is not a lament for Ragnarök, it’s an invitation.

Bonnie Dobson is on record as not being a big fan of Devo’s version of the track, recorded for 1991′s Smooth Noodle Maps. It’s Devo, so you know it’s going to be a little weird, but probably still pretty catchy. They add some lyrics which take the song in a more nihilistic direction than the others, which is difficult to do with a song about nuclear holocaust. Still, they seemed happy and resigned to their fate and some it all up in the end with the line “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway”.

Lulu: Scottish pop singer, actress, and fake girlfriend of Davey Jones of the Monkees. Her first hit, at the tender age of 15 was a cover of the Isley Brother’s Shout and later in her career she won the Eurovision song contest with a track called “Boom Bang-a-Bang”. So it’s a little strange to that her cover of Morning Dew starts off sounding like Terry Riley laid down the backing track and ends up somewhere around Dusty Springfield or Tina Turner.

Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck is probably most famous as the Yardbirds’ guitar player who was not Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page. That’s probably selling him a little short. His 1969 cover of the song goes with guitar freak-out rave up routine, and to be honest his voice sounds a little bit like the white, male, English Aretha Franklin.

Cover v. Original works like this:  A contributor presents covers and originals in a post.  Readers debate over which is better in the comments.  Final verdict is given about one week later.

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3 Responses to “ Cover v. Original: Morning Dew ”

  1. iliketodance on August 26, 2009 at 3:57 am


  2. iliketodance on September 9, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    I decided I don’t like any versions of this song. It’s awful. How can people like it?

  3. Richard Grant on November 1, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    the original is chilling. the rest are pale. she also has a great track ‘winters going’ which is even better.

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