We all do “do, re, mi,” but you have got to find the other notes yourself.
A teacher hands out tools—pencils or paintbrushes or musical instruments—and immediately begins instructing students in the art of imitation. Children copy letters and paint by numbers and squeak out Beethoven’s Ninth on cheap plastic recorders, and through these acts of reproduction the growth of the artist begins.
Every artist essentially begins as a cover artist. We learn the rules of the color wheel, the narrative arc, how to count in 4/4 time—and then we take what we’ve learned and create, convincing ourselves that despite all the artists who’ve come before we’re making something fresh.
The first song I remember hearing on the radio—I must have been three or four—was “Please Mister Postman.” The song remains a favorite, reminding me of the good ole days of grilled cheese sandwiches and hanging with mom at home listening to AM radio, yet I’m not sure which version of the song I first heard. Was it the Marvelettes? The Supremes? The Beatles? I only know it couldn’t be The Carpenters because their version didn’t come out ‘til I was seven, by which point I’d been listening to the radio for ages.
“Please Mister Postman” has been covered about two dozen times by bands in every continent except Antarctica, and it’s been a hit in all those continents too. But it’s hardly the only song about a letter that’s been sung—and re-sung—a lot.
Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” has been recorded by Elton John, Peter Frampton, the Osmonds, and Alvin and the Chipmunks; the Beatles’ “All My Loving” has been covered by everyone from Annette Funicello to Amy Winehouse; and “The Letter,” originally by the Box Tops (with the lovely Alex Chilton on lead vocals at just age 16), has been redone more than 200 hundred times—most notably by the great Joe Cocker, who is such a masterful singer, he doesn’t just cover a song, he reinvents it.
And isn’t that really the goal? The world needs another song about a letter about as much as we need another movie about a road trip or another story of star-crossed romance, and yet we always love it when someone manages to surprise us with what we thought was the same old thing. A love song, an action movie, the next great American novel.
We learned to create by copying, and then we must learn to create by making new stories and new music and new pictures out of what we’ve been looking at and listening to and living through our whole lives—all of which is entirely unoriginal, even if we’re experiencing it all for the first time ourselves. The art is in the re-creation itself—making a successful story or song or painting feel fresh and surprising though the lineage behind it is ancient.
So I guess the good news is that we never have to come up with new material. We’re all just cover artists at heart, it’s just a matter of whether you want to be a Marvelette, a Beatle, or some guy singing karaoke in a bar downtown. I know what I choose.