There are times when you just can’t get it right, and then there are times when you learn you haven’t been getting it right your entire life.
This summer I learned the difference between accuracy and precision. The lesson came in the form of a centuries-old folk song. It’s estimated “House of the Rising Sun” has been covered well over a hundred times, and I made it my mission these past few months to find the very best version.
Copydesk is big on tradition. A stubborn copy editor is a good copy editor, and we obstinately stick to our stylebooks and grammar laws despite the fact that the greater population of the world wouldn’t care whether or not a writer used an extraneous comma. It’s come to my attention that in the music world it’s tradition to think the original is always the best — pioneering, innovative, uncorrupted by others’ versions and opinions. What’s unique about “House of the Rising Sun” is no one knows the original. In fact, all recordings today are believed to be covers, with the first version sung in a different country, possibly in a different language, long ago.
The Animals launched the song onto the global stage in 1964, inspiring many musicians to lift their voices to that recognizable A-minor pattern, including Kesha, Toto, The Dead South, Hank Williams, Jr. and Bon Jovi.
Other artists decided to ditch the chord pattern and make the song from scratch, producing truly unique renditions from a multitude of genres such as Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic rock, Doc Watson’s bluegrass, Lead Belly’s Delta blues (titled “In New Orleans”), Bob Dylan’s folksy Americana, Jerry Reed’s outlaw country, Idris Muhammad’s jazzy funk and Muse’s heavy rock. The list goes on and on.
One question stuck with me on this quest to find the best cover: what’s better, precision or accuracy? A fascinating query for a neurotic copy editor. My job revolves around correcting style precision and grammar accuracy, but there was a lot that had to be analyzed and there was even more than meets the eye.
I define precision as how close a song comes to the popular version by The Animals. This definition fits the songs by Kesha, Bon Jovi and the others who use the same cyclical chord pattern and forces artists to emphasize their idiosyncrasies to create a distinct sound; therefore, it’s more about the artist’s interpretation of the song rather than a remaking of it.
The version I believe emulates this the best is an instrumental version by The Ventures recorded live in Japan in 1965. This particular rendition took the traditional chord pattern and broke it down throughout the course of the song until it is nearly unrecognizable through a beautiful and unpredictable mess of guitar riffs.
On the other hand, I define accuracy as how close the song comes to what’s believed to be the original lyrics. Because the song’s oldest published lyrics predate the song’s oldest recording, there is no original music genre. This definition would include songs that differed from The Animals’ accustomed rock-and-roll style.
“House of the Rising Sun” has been recorded in a surprisingly wide variety of musical genres, and its lyrics vary from song to song. The oldest published lyrics, written by Robert Winslow Gordon in 1925, tell the story from the perspective of a woman abused by her husband instead of the more popular story of a man abused by life. Nina Simone performed the original lyrics live at the Village Gate, New York in 1961 and, in my opinion, stunningly captured the sorrowful tale with her soft, longing voice like no one else. The background noises of people shuffling around the nightclub only add to the song’s overwhelming lonesomeness.
Put against one another, The Ventures’ and Nina Simone’s renditions are almost complete opposites. I am unable to choose between precision and accuracy because both yield such different yet beautiful results. I think this is an important lesson for all artists out there, and for all who edit artists’ work: to focus on perfection with respect to tradition is quite limiting. Both songs take something from the original but end up making another thing entirely.
This revolt against tradition doesn’t mean I’m about to toss my stylebook out the window — we still need coherence and consistency in our writing — but it is enough to make me pause. I now find myself more curious in the reasoning behind the grammar rules and style guidelines, and I hope this curiosity will make me a better editor.