(The formatting for this post went a bit wonky when I cut-and-pasted the lyrics from another site. I hope this renders the way it’s supposed to.)
There are a few songs that I’ve known since the earliest time I was aware that there were things called “songs” in the first place. One of them has lyrics that go like this:
CHORUS: I have been a roverI have walked alone Hiked a hundred highways Never found a home Still in all I’m happy The reason is, you see Once in a while along the way Love’s been good to me.There was a girl in DenverBefore the summer storm Oh, her eyes were tender Oh, her arms were warm And she could smile away the thunder Kiss away the rain Even though she’s gone away You won’t hear me complain
There was a girl in PortlandBefore the winter chill We used to go a-courtin’ Along October hill And she could laugh away the dark clouds Cry away the snow It seems like only yesterday As down the road I go
This song is called “Love’s Been Good To Me”, and it was written by poet and songwriter Rod McKuen, whose work was apparently very popular in the 20th century. I honestly don’t know much about his work at all other than this particular song, to be honest.
This song has not attained “classic” status, but it hasn’t vanished into obscurity, either. It’s been covered a bit, though not so much as some other stalwarts of the “Great American Songbook”. Maybe that’s because melodically it’s not a “big tune” kind of song that rewards vocal pyrotechnics; this isn’t the kind of ballad that the Whitney Houstons of the world would belt from the stage of an arena in front of 15,000 lighter-waving (or cell-phone waving, these days) fans. It’s a more wistful kind of song; the attraction here lies in the words themselves. A convincing performance of this song requires vocal acting, really: the singer has to actually sound like a person looking back at relationships from the vantage point of years (or even decades), with a mix of sadness that the love has ended but also the happiness that the love happened at all.
Here is the Kingston Trio:
That’s lovely, although it’s not the version I grew up hearing. This next version, by Tom Jones, is interesting. Of all the versions I’ve heard, Jones comes closest to making “Love’s Been Good To Me” into a vocal showpiece, which is probably to be expected; after all, it’s Tom Jones. He chooses a slower tempo, which is interesting in itself, and the guitar in the background is certainly busy. The song becomes more of a vocal showpiece by virtue of Jones taking it slow and pitching the song to favor his almost-operatic sound in his upper register. This is a beautiful rendition, but still not the one I knew as a kid.
Next is, so far, the only cover I’ve found thus far by a female singer: Nina Simone, who gender-flips the song for her own tastes. Her voice here does have the sound of someone with the experience of roaming the country, occasionally finding love along the way. She has a raspy quality, especially in the higher notes, that suits this song pretty well.
Then there’s this, maybe the most convincing version as far as the sound goes: you can’t hear this version and not think, “Yup, that’s the voice of someone with decades on the road behind them.” This is Johnny Cash, who covered “Love’s Been Good To Me” on one of his very last albums. (In fact, it was released posthumously.) At this point, Cash’s baritone remained, but it was thinner, reedier; you can hear the air in his voice, and you can hear him working to get into the higher register. In all the versions of this song I’ve heard, Cash’s might be the closest marriage of the meaning of the words with the voice singing it.
There are others that I won’t post here, more for space reasons than anything else…Orson Bean covered it (though it seems to have disappeared from YouTube for now), and of course Rod McKuen himself recorded it, quite effectively. If you search the song on YouTube you’ll find a lot of covers, some by well-known singers and more by singers who are not much known these days anymore. But the version I grew up learning and knowing?
Well, that’s by perhaps the single biggest singer of the entire twentieth century. I always figured that he was a younger man when he recorded it, but I’ve just looked it up, and the album A Man Alone, which is all songs by McKuen, came along when the singer in question was already in his 50s.
Here’s Mr. Sinatra.