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Mar 06

Surf classic “Walk, Don’t Run” illustrates evolution of art

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I’m sure someone has written about this topic before. Because, as the Barenaked Ladies once sang, “It’s all been done.”

In fact, I’ve actually noted that lyric before.

In this blog.

But the thing about art is that it’s all derivitive.  And a great example came up recently while I was doing research for my Ticket story on local surf bands.

While researching the history of surf music, I read about “Walk, Don’t Run” by the Ventures. While this is often considered the first surf song, it actually started as a song written for a 1928 operetta, “The New Moon.” That song, “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” was often covered by jazz artists who would significantly change the melody. One jazz performer, Johnny Smith, changed it so much, he renamed the song “Walk, Don’t Run.”

Smith’s song is distinctly jazz, with brush sticks and stand-up bass. But when Chet Atkins covered it, the song took on a rockabilly slant. That’s the version the Ventures heard. And when they covered it, they added whammy bar accents and reverb, turning it into a surf tune.

So there you have a lineage of music resulting from the same song. The artists weren’t stealing from “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” but they were expanding upon it. And that’s still creating art. (Listen to the evolution here: First, an operatic version of “Softly;” a jazz version of that song by George Benson;  Smith’s version of “Walk, Don’t Run;” followed by the Atkins rockabilly take. Finally, the Ventures surf cover can be heard in the video above.)

Back in the 60s, the blues wasn’t even that popular in America — its place of origin. But British rockers became enamored with American blues albums. And when they made their version of blues, they added their own rock and pop influences. The result was blues songs that were suddenly more catchy and accessible to audiences. Not only did that give rise to blues rock, but the Brits actually helped some of the old blues guys finally get recognition.

You’ll frequently hear songwriters claim they were ripped off. And sometimes that’s blatantly true. But even the blues guys had their influences. So finding a true original song — like any art — is pretty rare. Because, as the Barenaked Ladies once said –

Well, you know by now.

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