Versionality: “Season of the Witch”

A few months ago when the Popdose staff was voting on their favorite covers of all time, I placed Richard Thompson’s cover of  “Season of the Witch,” originally performed by Donovan and released 1966, at number two. I have been in love with that particular cover since I first heard it being used in an episode of the now-defunct NBC series Crossing Jordan and it really stuck with me.  When the series’ official soundtrack album was released in 2003, I bought it solely based on the fact that Thompson’s haunting, frenetic and epically wonderful “Season of the Witch” was listed in the tracklisting. Once I got the album home, I proceeded to play it on a loop for hours, despite the fact that it was more than nine minutes long. I was obsessed.

But I have a confession to make: I didn’t know Thompson’s version was a cover. At the time, I’d never heard Donovan’s original — in fact, I really didn’t know much about Donovan’s oeuvre, outside of “Mellow Yellow.” So I thought that “Season of the Witch” was Thompson’s song and I started seeking out more of his work, wondering if there were more songs like that one to be discovered. You’re laughing at me right now, I can hear you. It’s OK — I’d laugh at me, too.

Eventually, after I learned the truth about the song’s origins, I figured I should probably hear the original. And while I do enjoy Donovan’s version, I actually don’t love it as much Thompson’s cover. Sacrilege? Maybe. But that’s how I feel. Deal with it.

Anyway, because of all this, I’ve wanted to write a “Versionality” column about this song for a while — in fact, I had originally intended it to be the second song I discussed, after “Stagger Lee.” But, for whatever reason, it’s taken me this long to finally get around to it and I figured that Halloween was a good (though admittedly cheesy) time to write about it, despite the fact that it really isn’t a song about witches in the truest sense. Whatever. I suppose I could just as easily have said I chose to discuss it now because the lyrics really seem to resonate with the current climate in this country — ominous, dark, confusing, full of discontent — particularly with the Occupy movement (I guess I am saying that because, well, I think it’s true).

Thanks to some of my Popdose colleagues, I’ve managed to compile 17 covers of “Season of the Witch.” Most are studio versions, but a few come from live performances — Hole’s version comes from their 1995 MTV Unplugged session; Robert Plant’s comes from a 2001 show in Detroit (interestingly, Led Zeppelin used to perform “Season of the Witch” during soundchecks back in the day); Karen Elson’s is from a performance at Third Man Records last year. Like Thompson, most turned the song into a long jam — 13 of the 17 covers I found are longer than the original, with several of them clocking in at eight minutes or longer (the longest is the Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills version, which is more than 11 minutes long).

As far as how the sound of each cover compares to the original, there’s a little bit of everything. Some of the artists take a pretty straightforward approach (Julie Driscoll, with Brian Auger and the Trinity, Luna, Robert Plant). Some of the artists amp up the dark tripiness (Terry Reid, Vanilla Fudge, Pesky Gee!). Some give it more of a rock edge (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Hole). Some take a jazzier approach (Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills, Suck), while others go for a bluesier vibe (Sam Gopal, Lou Rawls, Dr. John and the Blues Brothers Band). And others somehow make the song annoying and boring (The Strangelings, Karen Elson). The versions that I like the most, besides Thompson’s, are the ones by Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger and the Trinity, Luna, Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills, Terry Reid, and Lou Rawls.

Which versions are your favorites? Which ones did I miss including? Let me know in the comments!

Michael Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills – Season of the Witch
Hole – Season of the Witch (Unplugged)
Dr. John and the Blues Brothers – Season of the Witch
Karen Elson – Season of the Witch
Jellyfish – Season of the Witch
Luna – Season of the Witch
Terry Reid – Season of the Witch
Vanilla Fudge – Season of the Witch
Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger & the Trinity – Season of the Witch
Sam Gopal – Season of the Witch
Pesky Gee! – Season of the Witch
Suck – Season of the Witch
Robert Plant – Season of the Witch (Live)
Lou Rawls – Season of the Witch
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – Season of the Witch
The Strangelings – Season of the Witch

Kelly Stitzel
After shutting down her own blog, Looking at Them, in mid-2008, Kelly migrated over to Popdose, bringing with her Soundtrack Saturday, the most popular column from her old site. Kelly makes a living as a fashion and marketing copywriter, which takes up a lot of her time. However, when she is able to write about things that have nothing to do with her day job, she contributes reviews and musings on music, film and a variety of other topics. In addition to Soundtrack Saturday, columns she's written include Filminism and Pulling Rank.