Friday, May 29, 2015

Wet/Water: Cool Water

Joni Mitchell (with Willie Nelson): Cool Water
Sometimes a set of lyrics can change meanings depending on who sings them. On the surface, "Cool Water" is a simple enough song, about a thirsty man who sees a mirage in the dessert. (Old Dan, by the way, is his mule). But as I listened to the original version of the song by the Sons of the Pioneers, I was struck by a religious subtext, in which the song becomes a battle for the man‘s soul between the devil and God. In this interpretation, the poisoned water represents sin, while the clear water is the promise of Heaven. Joni Mitchell made minor changes to the lyrics for her recording in 1988, mostly to make the rhythm work for the way she wanted to sing the song. But this is Joni Mitchell, so the song, for me at least, still has a spiritual dimension, but now it is about environmentalism. Joni Mitchell rarely covered other people‘s songs, and this is the only time the meaning of the song changed. "Centerpiece," when bracketed by "Harry‘s House," became more bittersweet, but still expressed a yearning for perfect love. "Twisted" remained joyfully intact. "You‘re So Square" may not have been Mitchell’s finest interpretation, but the meaning of the song did not change. And "Unchained Melody" should be regarded as more of a reference than a cover, since Mitchell only used the chorus.

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