Dusty Springfield’s song “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself'' is nothing short of a classic. But it’s also a cover — one that’s been performed by artists numerous times.
Patrick Bryant should know. He’s scoured around for covers of the song, and it turns out that there’s a lot of them.
For two hours on Massachusetts Institute of Technology's radio station, WMBR, “Subject to Change” host Bryant picks apart a single song sung by a variety of artists and genres. As he’s discovered, cover songs appear to take a different shape with each artist that sings it. There’s soul, R&B and even Greek country disco.
The idea came from a place of boredom. Bryant, a union lawyer, spent a lot of his time in record shops and would pick up cheap records. After a while he noticed that many of the artists were singing the same song.
“Part of why I'm so fascinated is you would have the same song covered by many different artists, sometimes competing with each other to try and see if it would click with any particular one,” he says.
“I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” was written by lyricist Hal David and composer Burt Bacharach. The first person to sing the now iconic lyrics was Chuck Jackson in the 60s, followed by Tommy Hunt.
But it was Dusty Springfield’s version that catapulted the song into popularity.
More artists like Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, Andy Williams and Isaac Hayes would soon follow with their own renditions and would seem to take a snowball effect as singers across the globe took on the popular song.
Bryant says it was the TikTok of that time.
“It's a way that people are sort of communicating with each other and sometimes in very inventive and unusual ways,” he says.
But not every song made Bryant’s cut for the radio show. One of them being The White Stripes’ version. The reason? Bryant says he wanted to make space for lesser-known versions from artists like Rigmor Gustafsson, who brings a soft and lilting voice to the song.
Other tunes Bryant highlights for his show include “Little Green Apples,” a song he thinks of as “dopey and frankly, boring." Still, he was surprised to discover a trove of funk R&B versions of it.
Another is “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” traditionally a gospel song that’s been played by folk, gospel, and soul artists.
Bryant points to an article from The New York Times Magazine where author Ingrid Rojas Contreras reflects on the power of repetition and its meditative benefit. She writes how listening to something over and over had an unusual effect on her. Instead of becoming boring, it allowed her to focus her mind.
Bryant hopes his show does the same.
“Maybe after two hours of the song, there's some people who are definitely going to be sort of sick or nauseous, so to speak,” he says. “But there may be some people who become a little more open hearted and appreciative of what they've heard.”
This segment aired on June 14, 2021.