John Mellencamp: Death Letter
Cassandra Wilson: Death Letter
You may hear that the blues is dead. It has been done to death, and there is nothing more to say. After all, the blues consists of one simple structure, and the lyrics are just someone complaining. Unfortunately, a lot of the blues music that is out these days supports this point of view. But, if you love the blues as I do, you will want to have a rebuttal handy. And here it is.
Consider these two versions of Death Letter. The original is by Son House. A man receives a letter, informing him that his lover is dead. As he reflects on this news, he comes to realize just how much he loved her.
John Mellencamp takes the song and delivers a version that feels old. The arrangement is spare, with no bass that I can hear. The guitar and national steel have knife-like parts that cut through the singers heart. Mellencamp sings this with a passion. His performance makes you wonder how you could have heard him sing all of those hits, and never realized how perfect his voice was for blues. His version burns like a fresh wound.
Cassandra Wilson takes the same song in a completely different direction. Of course, she changes the genders, but that is the smallest part of it. Her version is new, a combination of sounds no one ever thought of before. There is a solo on a tenor banjo. The other instruments create a wall of support that wobbles, reflecting the unsteadiness of the singer’s emotions. And Wilson sings this as a sob. Some of the words almost disappear, as if singing them aloud will make them true.
So here are two different versions of the same song, two completely different approaches. Both are emotionally valid. Taken together, they demonstrate that there is plenty left to do with the blues.