Johnny Cash and the Kossoy Sisters, distanced by decades, by gender, and by style, both covered the same song, “On the Banks of the Ohio”, in very different ways. The Kossoy Sisters bury the words under layers of banjo-picking and high-pitched harmonizing. By reducing the song to one speed and one pitch, the melody becomes concentrated and dominates over the lyrics: the cheer of the melody is unaffected by, and, even, contradicts the gruesome words, which are almost incoherent. In this way, the Kossoy Sisters deliver a distinct and authentic folk song. Johnny Cash, on the other hand, delivers “On the Banks” relying only on his voice as a performative tool. Unlike the sisters, he places an emphasis on every word of each verse, fluctuating in pitch in order to convey the story. Because of the complexity of Johnny Cash’s voice and the story it delivers, the overall simplicity of his cover cannot fully be appreciated until one juxtaposes it with the Kossoy Sisters’ version. Johnny Cash delivers an authentic cover; the Kossoy Sisters’ perform an authentic folk song; both are authentically “All-American.”
Cash’s delivery of “On the Banks” is pure and “savagely simplistic”: all added elements (vocals and guitar) compliment the story he recounts. His voice varies in pitch, but it is not stylized. It supports the narrative and carries the song; it rises and falls mirroring the rise and fall of the story. The melody’s endearing primitivity highlights every word of each verse. Cash prioritizes the song over his performance; he does little to distract the listener from the content of the lyrics. His delivery is objective and detached, implying that he in no way claims this song to be his own. He is merely the mediator between listener and author, giving voice to the words of another. In this way, Cash presents the song in an authentic manner: allowing the listener to hear the song as it was intended.
The Kossoy Sisters are similarly unaffected by the lyrics, but for another reason: they are too preoccupied with their appropriation of the song. Unlike Johnny Cash, the Kossoy sisters do not hesitate to leave their mark. Their distinct instrumentals and harmonizing voices divert the audience’s attention away from the lyrics, and claim the song as their own. One verse is blurred into the next; words are incoherent. It is no longer about the song; it is about their performance; it is about a genre: folk music.
The Kossoy Sisters modify “On the Banks of the Ohio” to fit the standards of folk music just as Johnny Cash modified his pitch to compliment the story conveyed by the lyrics. It is clearly a folk song in that their high-pitched voices contradict the solemnity of the murder. For both Johnny Cash and the Kossoy Sisters, the ambiguity of emotion expresses authenticity. For the Kossoy Sisters, it is the authenticity of folk music; for Johnny Cash, it is the authenticity of being human. The Kossoy Sisters harmonize to highlight what they prioritize: the melody and performance of folk music. Similarly, Johnny Cash uses pitch to reveal the common link between his voice and the story: humanity. When Cash strains his voice, the song is personal; when the Kossoy Sisters stretch theirs it is performative.
Cash and the Kossoy Sisters’ use of pitch and pace emphasizes their values and thus differentiates their covers of “On the Banks of the Ohio.” Despite the discrepancy between their covers, Johnny Cash and the Kossoy Sisters’, both “All-American” artists, strive towards a common goal rooted in a shared value: to preserve the authenticity of American Popular music.
Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 11:57 AM