Archive for April 2013

New Cover Collections, Spring 2013:
Murder Ballads, Hip Hop Covers, and Top 40 Tracks

April 28th, 2013 — 1:19pm

We make a clear distinction between tribute albums and cover collections here at Cover Lay Down, with the former typified by a narrow focus on a single band or artist, and the latter a catch-all category that incorporates multitudes of subtypes, from thematic multi-artist covers albums such as last year’s Hurricane Sandy benefit project The Storm Is Passing Over to single-artist collections whose tracks share little common bond save the love of the interpreter.

As noted last month in our three-part series on New and Impending Tributes, it’s been a great year so far for the former, with strong turn-outs taking on the songbooks of John Denver, The Everly Brothers, Tim Hardin and Nick Drake already on the books and in our hearts. But there’s some strong showings emerging in the larger world of broad coverage, too – and we’d be remiss if we didn’t give our favorites a chance to shine. And so today we bring our Spring 2013 “New & Impending” series to a close with a look at some great new collections of song unified by mood, topic, and common origin from indiefolk standby Vandaveer, Cover Lay Down favorite Hannah Read, NYC singer-songwriter Bess Rogers, and folk duo Jasonrockcity.

Pulling from the radiowaves surely sells albums: as we note in our own mandate, familiarity breeds contentment, providing an entry into craft to the mutual benefit of fan and artist alike; maximizing this potential by picking only popular songs that the average listener would know is a well-hewn path to fame through coverage. But taking on the uber-popular carries risk, too – more coverage in the ether raises the competitive bar for artists, making it that much easier for single recordings to drown in a sea of commonality, and that much harder to find new meaning in songs so broadly interpreted.

By that standard, however, the newest EP from Hannah Read and Charlie Van Kirk is a triumph of tribute. Lush and layered, flowing and stunningly clear, yet ultimately less fragile and more robust than Wrapped In Lace, Read’s last EP-length outing, the gorgeous treatments Read and Van Kirk bring to the four well-known songs on their brand new Covers EP are ethnographically and sonically unifying, exposing the clear thread that runs from Fleetwood Mac (The Chain) and Nick Drake (Riverman) to Radiohead (Atoms For Peace) and MGMT (Kids) in ways that reveal the common nuances of the popular even as they transcend the originals. Frankly, I’d pay good money for this small set; that it is being released completely free gives us ample reason to download with impunity after streaming the set below.

jasonrockcityRisks abound, especially, in taking on the Hip Hop canon as folksong: as noted in our April Fool’s day feature on Gangsta rap, the tendency here is towards irony, a stance seemingly unavoidable when enacting the tensions between often-obscene lyrics and softer, more gentle production and performance choice. And doing so as a debut is essentially unheard of, in that it could too easily categorize the band as, ironically, mere interpreters.

But new folkrock band Jasonrockcity isn’t so much a debuting duo as it is a side project of Woodenhouse Records standby Jason Applin of harder-rocking post-folk indie bands Union Starr and Damn Damn Patriot and experimental-folk singer Debbie Brown. And perhaps this is why the pair transcends these potential pitfalls with aplomb in Gold Digger & Other Hip-Hop Joints of Distinction, an EP due mid-May from Woodenhouse that reconstructs originals from Missy Elliot, N.E.R.D, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and Tupac, demonstrating a keen ear towards cohesiveness and a studio sound that is as deliberate as it is successful. The atmospheric tracks that result trade the heavy beats of the originals for pulsing waves of predominantly acoustic sounds, from shimmering guitar chords to summery ukelele notes and ringing glockenspiel bells, authentically shifting the tonality of these songs into heartache and hope by bringing lovingly constructed harmonic layers to songs once sparse and stuttery without a hint of irony. The result is a true homage: alternately playful and fragile, entirely etherial, truly transformative, and totally worth our time.

    Jasonrockcity: California Love (orig. Tupac Shakur)

    Jasonrockcity: Lapdance (orig. N.E.R.D.)

vandaveer1With just three albums and an EP of original work on the market since he began performing in 2006, Mark Charles Heidinger, the core guitarist, arranger, and singer-songwriter behind Washington, DC-based alt-folk project Vandaveer, has already made his name on the ragged leading edge of the modern indiefolk movement. And we trust his ability to handle the old intrinsically, having features his work twice here on the blog: after a hauntingly beautiful 2008 take on Leonard Cohen in Teach For America benefit covers project Before The Goldrush, and a version of Long Black Veil on SpliceToday’s 2009 folk mix The Old Lonesome Sound.

Taking on an entire album of murder ballads is no stretch for Heidinger and co., and Oh, Willie, Please, the album that results, doesn’t disappoint, offering a dark indiefolk survey of the canon, bringing it into the modern with handclaps, banjo, piano and bowed strings much as Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer’s recent survey into the Childe Ballads found nuance anew in the old songs of the folkstream. Leading single Pretty Polly is an apt indicator, with a driving urgency that builds to breathlessness and ruin; the collection, which drops April 30, promises more of the same, with takes on familiar and obscure songs from Down In The Willow Garden to Poor Edward and Omie Wise; stream the whole thing at Relix, and then pre-order from Vandaveer directly in digital or CD formats.

    Vandaveer: Pretty Polly (trad.)

Bonus Tracks:

rogersFinally, Brooklynite songstress Bess Rogers‘ new cover series Songs Other People Wrote only has one song in it so far, making it a bit early to be able to comment on its cohesiveness or its coverage. But Gin Blossoms cover Found Out About You is a perfect beginning: a song hardly covered yet eminently familiar, reconstructed as a fluid, soaring combination of Americana and contemporary popfolk elements, radio-ready and sure to make a splash. We’re eagerly awaiting next month’s song. And given Bess’ previous forays into the world of coverage on these pages, her sweet duet recording of Everly Brothers classic with frequent touring compatriot Allie Moss last year, and her ongoing work with Ingrid Michaelson and others on tour, we’re sure to love it, too.

    Bess Rogers: Found Out About You (orig. Gin Blossoms)

Bonus Tracks:

    Bess Rogers & Allie Moss: Bye Bye Love (orig The Everly Brothers)

Cover Lay Down shares new coverfolk finds and feature sets biweekly on the blog…but our love for coverage doesn’t end here! Like us on Facebook to ensure frequent updates from the intersection of popular song and folk coverage throughout the week – including an incredible take on The Lumineers from an amazing young sister act, and – coming tomorrow – Sarah Blacker’s new and exclusive cover of Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy, recorded by yours truly live in concert Friday night!

1 comment » | Bess Rogers, Hannah Read, Tributes and Cover Compilations, Vandaveer

Laura Cortese Moves Into The Dark
with exclusive covers of Laura Veirs, Emmylou Harris, and more!

April 23rd, 2013 — 6:49pm

Although she’s only been recording for a decade, Boston-based fiddler, singer-songwriter, Berklee College of Music graduate and Boston Celtic Music Fest co-founder Laura Cortese has earned our respect and fandom dozens of times over, thanks to vibrant, voracious, and versatile output we described back in 2011 as “grounded in the lush, joyous, gleeful sound of the collaborative at work and play, and built around Cortese’s full-bodied, percussive, lusty fiddlework, her hearty yet oh-so-feminine vocals, and her playful, surprisingly deep songwriting.”

Indeed, one of Cortese’s great strengths as an artist is her willingness to build each new project from the ground up, letting each incidence find its own voice anew, with partners or in solo guise. As such, Cortese’s solo work, and her legendary collaborations with Jefferson Hamer, indietrad stars Aoife O’Donovan and Sam Amidon, pubfolk band Session Americana, Michael Franti, Pete Seeger, and numerous fellow fiddlefolk have run the gamut from sparse singer-songwriter to full-bore tradfolk, modern folk rock and folkpop, and chamberfolk, making for a surprisingly diverse canon for such a young musician.

Cortese’s newest project Into The Dark, which drops today, finds her performing and touring under her own name with a chamberfolk trio of equally adept stringplayers – cellist Natalie Haas, and Brittany Haas and Mariel Vandersteel on fiddles – plus plenty of special guests, and the results are sublime: hearty vocals over rich, poppy layers of fiddlefolk, kickdrums, and harmony that make the heart sing and the feet ache to move, with a contemporary mix of traditional, classical, and indie elements that speak to Cortese’s easy confidence at the crossroads of what modern folk is, and can be, at its best. Her promotional tour will take her from coast to coast over the next few months, with shows in NY, VT, ME & MA in the week ahead, and I’m thrilled to note that it will include a stop this Friday in The Parlor Room, a hip, intimate folkvenue recently established by Signature Sounds founder Jim Olsen in the heart of Northampton, with tickets still available as of presstime.

Here’s a pair of exclusive tracks to whet your whistle for the tour and album – a Laura Veirs cover from Into The Dark, and another trickle from that secret Kickstarter covers EP granted to a hardy few who gave to make her last album happen – plus a few previously-posted favorites to remind us of just why Laura Cortese remains atop our list of perennial favorites here at Cover Lay Down. Check ‘em out, hit up Laura’s website for tour dates, and purchase Into The Dark today.

1 comment » | Featured Artists, Laura Cortese, Tidbit Tuesday

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 6: James Taylor covers
Sam Cooke, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Louvin Brothers & more!

April 21st, 2013 — 8:41pm


As in past years, I’m a bit woozy today after yesterday’s all-day drive up the East Coast from North Carolina. My head still swims with the sights of barbecue joints and crabcake stands, and roadside shacks where one can get smoked ham and sausages, local peanuts, and fireworks to celebrate it all.

But it’s good to be home, where the daffodils are in full blown bloom, even if the lawn still struggles against the moss and hemlock. The American South is a wonderful place to visit; I like seeing the world, and though I’ve been to more countries than states, the diversity of the US pleases me. But the beach-to-woods geography and seasonal shifts of the American Northeast feel right, somehow. With a few tiny stints out of bounds, I’ve been a Massachusetts-based New Englander all my life, and I expect to be one for the remainder of it.

James Taylor likes Massachusetts, too. And by the time I wrote the original feature below in 2008, I’d already been promising myself a feature post on good ol’ JT for ages. What better way to celebrate our triumphant return from a week in the Carolinas than with a resurrected 20-song megapost on the coversongs of this incredible singer-songwriter plus a 10-track Single Song Sunday bonus set of You Can Close Your Eyes – my favorite James Taylor composition? And so, ladies and gentlemen: James Taylor, Massachusetts resident and one-time North Carolina transplant.

Born in Boston, James Taylor spent his adolescence in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father was Dean of the UNC School of Medicine. But the family retained strong ties to Massachusetts, summering in Martha’s Vineyard; James attended boarding school at Milton Academy, and when he struggled with depression in his early adulthood, he headed for McLean’s Hospital, a stately suburban instititution just outside of Boston where I remember visiting one of my own friends in the last year of high school.

Though he has since lived in California and London, and though his signature voice retains the barest hint of southern twang under that clear-as-a-bell blueblood bostonian accent, like me, Taylor has always returned to the Massachusetts he loves. Today, he lives about thirty miles west of here, in the Berkshires, just on the other side of the Adirondack ridge. And he retains strong ties to his beloved Martha’s Vineyard, performing there each summer, sometimes with Ben and Sally, his children by ex-wife Carly Simon, who is also a Vineyard resident.

Beyond our shared love of the beaches and woods of Massachusetts, there’s something immutably local and authentic about my experience with James Taylor. My childhood understanding of and familiarity with folk music as a genre and a recorded phenomenon was primarily driven by a strong record collection at home, but my experience of acoustic music as folk – as something singable and sharable and communal – was peppered with young camp counselors who had learned their guitar licks from the radioplay of the day. For me, Fire and Rain will always be a song for campfire singalongs, one which helps me come to terms with the bittersweet and constant state of being both in good company and away from home.

Too, James Taylor was my first concert, and you never forget your first. I remember lying on the summer grass at Great Woods (now the Tweeter Center), looking up at the stars and letting the wave of Fire and Rain wash over me. I remember peering at the stage and recognizing the way James smiled at us, at bass player Leland Sklar, at the song itself as a kind of genuine communion, one which flavored the performance with something valid and universal.

Because of that night, and the organic songs-first-performance-afterwards way I came to it, James Taylor, for me, is the standard by which I measure the authenticity of folk performance. That so many shows have not met that standard since then is a tribute to both Taylor’s gentle nature, and his way with song and performance.

James Taylor’s voice is unmistakable, almost too sweet for some, and he doesn’t fit my every mood. His loose, white-man’s-blues guitar playing is better than most people give him credit for, but it is often downplayed in his produced work. But in the back of my mind his songs are a particular form of homecoming, one intimately tied to summer song and simple times outside of the world as we usually live it. And when I sing Sweet Baby James or You Can Close Your Eyes to my children at night, there’s a part of me that’s back on that summer lawn, letting the music reach a part of me that cannot speak for itself.

We’ll have a few choice covers of Taylor’s most popular in the bonus section of today’s megapost. But first, here’s a few of the many songs which Taylor has remade in his own gentle way over the years: doo-wop standards, sweet nighttime paeans and lullabies, hopeful protest songs, and others.

Though James Taylor does have his pop side, this isn’t it. You’ve heard ‘em before, so I’ve skipped the covers which Taylor has made his own through radioplay over the years — including Carole King’s Up On The Roof and Marvin Gaye’s How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) — though I did keep a live version of Handy Man in the mix, and thought it worth trying the newer version of You’ve Got A Friend from Taylor’s stripped-down favorites recording One Man Band. I’ve also skipped his lite pianojazz ballad version of How I Know You, from the Aida soundtrack, and the vast bulk of his two recent saccharine-sweet covers albums: it’s not folk, and it’s not my thing.

Instead, by presenting a selection of Taylor’s rarer and lesser-known coversong all at once, it is my hope that the diversity of the source material here allows even the most jaded of us to come to what is too-often dismissed as Adult Contemporary pablum with new ears, attuned to more subtle differences of tone and undertone — to explore and even collapse the distance between bittersweet and tender, longing and acceptance, home and homesickness, which continues to make James Taylor worth listening to, and celebrating.

James Taylor’s works are mainstream, and distributed as such; his website sends us to for purchase. As here at Cover Lay Down we prefer to avoid supporting the corporate middleman in favor of direct artist and label benefit, we recommend that those looking to pursue the songwriting and sound of James Taylor head out to their local record shop for purchase.

Not sure where to begin? Anything released between 1968 and 1974 provides the best introduction to JT’s core sound; I promise it’s folkier than you remember. Jaded folkies who stopped listening a while back might take a second look at Taylor’s 1977 release JT, or albums from the late eighties and nineties such as Never Die Young, New Moon Shine or Hourglass, which stand on their own as well-produced contemporary folk. 2007 DVD release One Man Band, Taylor’s return to a sparser acoustic sound, is an anomaly in the midst of an otherwise-AAA pop-trending career. And coverlovers who do embrace his smoother side are advised – with caveats – to at least consider his two post-millennial covers albums.

As for bonus tracks: for years, I’ve been saving the bulk of my collection of covers of James Taylor originals for a future Folk Family Feature on the Taylor family – including James, brother Livingston, sister Kate, son Ben, daughter Sally, and Ben and Sally’s mother Carly Simon. But I’ve been leaking them slowly and surely as time goes on, and the floodgates are open today. So here’s a full Single Song Sunday-sized set of covers of my favorite lullaby, from Mark Erelli’s tender bedtime crooning to William Fitzsimmons’ fragile indiefolk to a young and drunken Bonnie Raitt’s live heartbreaker. Download the zip file here, or pick and choose below.

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Comment » | Featured Artists, James Taylor, Reposts, Single Song Sunday

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 5: The Avett Brothers
take on Jason Molina, Jim Croce, Paul Simon, Elliott Smith & more!

April 19th, 2013 — 4:40pm

For the first four volumes of our Vacation Coverfolk series, we pulled from the archives to bring you features on the songs and coverage of Elizabeth Cotten, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Doc Watson, and a mixtape of coverfolk songs with Carolina in the title.

Today, we turn to a new subject: Concord, North Carolina natives The Avett Brothers, whose rise to fame over the past decade has represented a coalescing of neo-traditional elements from the region and beyond. Read on for a look at one of the newest bands to pay tribute to the past and present of the great state in sound and sentiment, plus a full set of covers that speaks soundly to their history and inspiration.

Early harbingers of the same modern tendency towards mixing tradfolk elements into acoustic singer-songwriter almost-rock that brought a Grammy to British-Americana band Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers – currently a five-piece formed around banjo-wielding elder brother Scott, guitar-picking younger brother Seth, and their constant third man, bass player Bob Crawford – have risen through the ranks of the indiefolk world by making intimate, self-effacing music that tears into the soul. Honest hipsters who enact the tensions between the cultural expectations of strong, silent masculinity and the deep urge to feel, their appropriately broad songbook ranges from ballads to full-blown raucous romps, each one a tip of the hat to the myriad of guises and gazes that modern men must straddle to remain whole.

Which is a big part of why fans of their more acoustic sound, with its obvious bluegrass, country, Americana and folk elements, are often startled to find that the brothers, who have been playing together since childhood, got their start in “thrashing” rock bands, which merged in the late nineties when Seth was in high school and Scott was in college, and released three albums together under the name Nemo before breaking up to pursue more traditional American musical forms, allowing what had started as a back-porch side project exploring the potential in acoustic music to become their primary outlet.

The deconstruction reveals roots that reflect their Piedmont origins, with the exploratory paths and soundscapes of hybridized forebears from proto-country banjoist Charlie Poole to early bluesman Blind Boy Fuller echoing throughout, though their own admitted influences run wider still – incorporating, as one 2007 critic put it, “the heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, [and] the raw energy of the Ramones.” And although their subsequent rise to fame has seen them shift back and forth from subtle folk-Americana to a more country rock sound, and from rougher, homespun acoustic studio origins to a recorded and highly produced modality more recently refined by inimitable producer Rick Rubin and distributed by in-house kingmaker Starbucks, their common narrative themes, and their preference for the organic, collaborative one-mic performance that supports their grounded and well-populated narratives, have been strong threads throughout a still-growing career.

In the studio, The Avett Brothers reserve their time for sensitive originals – seven albums, four EPs, and twelve years past their 2000 EP debut, not a single cover appears in their major studio release catalog. But the North Carolina natives appreciate good coverage, and clearly recognize its value as a driver of attention and affection in the post-millennial world of viral pass-along; as a promotion for their last album The Carpenter, they asked fans to take on single Live And Die via YouTube, and the result was exactly as one might expect: a series of amateur takes on the song which contained several nice interpretations and a glut of also-rans which took fairly straightforward shots at what turned out to be an almost prototypical track from the brother-led band.

More significantly, at least for our own purposes today, The Avett Brothers’ coverage of the songs of others is both legendary and equally diverse, transcending their songbook. A survey of YouTube reveals hundreds of wryly and well-chosen full-band and solo takes from radio stations, home studios, and live shows, including a large collection of tender solo living room and green room covers from Seth and Scott paying tribute to a broad set of influences – from country classics to rock and Americana standards to touching songs written and originally performed by their peers in and beyond the indiefolk borderlands.

Stripping these songs from their visual component flattens them out a bit, so in addition to a small set of too-good-to-resist favorites, we’ve included a “selected best” playlist as well, with HUGE thanks to visual artist Mike Beyer, aka Crackerfarm, who has been photographing and videorecording Avett Brothers coverage backstage, on stage, and in small on-site sessions since at least 2007; it is Crackerfarm who provides the vast bulk of our live coverage today, and there’s scores more covers and originals where that came from over at the Crackerfarm YouTube page. Also well worth sharing: The Avett’s contribution to the 2010 Starbucks Valentine compilation, a track or two from the Avett’s earliest live album, The Avett Brothers covering Dylan on Jimmy Fallon, the boys taking on a John Prine cover for 2010 tribute Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, and Scott & Seth’s appearance as both producers and sidemen on folk-hopster G Love’s 2011 release Fixin’ To Die that boils both an old Paul Simon talkie and a Velvet Underground classic into ragged Americana glory.

Stay tuned for a weekend feature on James Taylor, who – like us – moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina and back again…followed by a return home, and a feature on new and impending EP-length coverage sure to knock your proverbial socks off!

1 comment » | Featured Artists, The Avett Brothers, Vacation Coverfolk

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 4:
The Traditional Songs (and Beyond) of Doc Watson

April 17th, 2013 — 4:57pm

We’ve covered Doc Watson twice here at Cover Lay Down: through his interpretation of the traditional songs of the Carolinian Appalachians in our original Vacation Coverfolk 2008 feature, and via his coverage of more popular tunes in tribute last June, when the inimitable picker passed on to the great band in the sky. Today, as part of our week-long Carolina Coverfolk compendium, we revive both, collapsing both features and over 30 songs into a single omnibus that shows both sides of Doc’s legacy – as an interpreter of the folkways, and as an active member of the folk and bluegrass revivals of the second half of the last century

APRIL 2008: Elizabeth Cotten and Arthel “Doc” Watson share more than just a connection to the state of North Carolina. Both were culturally disadvantaged — Cotten due to her skin color, and Doc due to a lifelong blindness. Each started performing in childhood, but became truly famous in the great folk revival of the sixties. Both are known for songs which celebrate the hard life and trials of their beloved rural south while addressing universal themes of loss, change, and heartache. And, most importantly, though no one could confuse Cotten’s rural bluesfolk for Doc’s country swing style, each is ranked among the best acoustic fingerpickers of their generation.

But the differences between the two are great, as well. In fact, presenting Doc Watson and Elizabeth Cotten side by side this week makes for an interesting exercise in folk history, one which allows us to see the great diversity of the strands and influences which came together to make modern folk music in America.

Unlike Elizabeth Cotten, who came back to folk in the sixties after a long hiatus, Doc Watson (b. 1923) was always a musician, busking with his brother for pennies as a child, supporting himself and his family with his work as a piano tuner to pay the bills when he could not find paid work as a sideman. Though he worked through much of the fifties as an electric guitar player with a country and western swing band, when the modern folk scene began to crystalize in the early sixties, Doc switched over to acoustic guitar and banjo exclusively, making a name for himself as one of the best fingerpickers in the business, and finding himself in high demand on the burgeoning folk circuit.

Where Cotten is primarily known for her original songs and original rhythmic style, Doc Watson’s greatest contributions to folk music came from his source material and lightning speed. His ability to blow the socks off every other picker in the room is well known, and his work as a songwriter is honest and respectable. But as folk, his repertoire is most significant for its use of songs from the oral tradition which might otherwise have been lost. We might say that while it was Mike Seeger’s recordings of Elizabeth Cotten which saved her authentic voice, Doc Watson’s recordings and performance of the mountain ballads from the areas around his home of Deep Gap, North Carolina allow us to consider Doc a Seeger to his own people.

This is not to say that the tradsongs of Doc Watson sound anything like Cotten’s originals, stylistically-speaking. While Cotten’s fingerpicking style comes from applying banjo style to the guitar, Watson’s quickfingered picking style is the successful result of moving songs that were traditionally fiddle tunes to the acoustic guitar. Where Cotton was self-taught, Watson learned his trade through the traditional country songs of the south, and the songs of early country greats like the Louvin and Monroe Brothers.

Where Cotton ended up finding a style that sounded more like early blues musicians, Watson’s different approach and experience, plus his apprenticeship in the country and western genres, left him with a wail and a sense of rhythm that call to the same acoustic old-timey country sound that you might hear in the rougher, hippier corners of bluegrass and country festivals today.

Another way of saying this might be to point out that where Cotten shows the blues influence on folk music, Doc Watson shows the country — an influence which, despite its significance, is often the elephant in the room when it comes to folk music. His style and his “mountain music” sound hark to a time back before country and folk music had truly split off from each other, and long before alt-country bands like Uncle Tupelo, newgrass bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, old timey bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, and modern western swing folk musicians like Eilen Jewell went spelunking in the deep well of potential that lies between true country music and the post-sixties folk (and rock) music scenes.

Today, both country and folk music claim Doc Watson as one of their own, and rightfully so. Doc holds multiple Grammy awards in both the Traditional Folk and the Country Instrumental categories; Merlefest — the festival named after Doc’s son and long-time musical partner, who died in a tractor accident in 1985 — is known for attracting the best music and musicians from the intersection of folk, bluegrass, and country. But no matter what you call it, Doc Watson’s sound is instantly recognizable, powerful, and no less potent today, eighty years after it could be heard on the streets of his beloved North Carolina.

Today’s collection is a bit heavier on the tradfolk than cover lovers might ordinarily prefer. But this is no loss. Focusing primarily on the traditional folksongs Watson interpreted allows us to celebrate one of his greatest contributions to American folk music. And so, out of hundreds of possibilities, we offer a short set of great and representative tradfolk from a fifty year career, from old live recordings with Merle and early collaborators Clarence Ashley and Bill Monroe to Doc’s haunting baritone lead vocals on several beautiful early-and-late-career back-porch standards.

docwatsonJUNE 2012: When Arthel “Doc” Watson passed on to the great jam session in the sky at the end of May, the ensuing nationwide recognition for the man and his impact on our culture was inevitable. Watson is and was rightly cited for his ethnomusical bent, most particularly for how the masterful fingerpicker transformed the fiddle tunes which he heard in his native appalachia for guitar and banjo, bringing traditional songs out of the mountains and hollers into the mainstream of popular music via the folk revival of the fifties and sixties, and creating a trademark picking style out of the transformation, in a time when bluegrass, folk, blues and country were at a crossroads.

The combination of timing, talent, and treatment became the perfect platform for fame and fortune, winning him multiple Grammy awards in both the folk and country categories. And many of the classic tunes he helped spread and salvage run strong in the tradfolk revival today; there is no questioning his legacy.

But though it is his prowess with the songs of Deep Gap, North Carolina which most impacted the folkways, Doc’s true impact on the culture goes far beyond the direct line between the appalachian hills and the folk movement which NPR and others so respectfully recognized in the last several days.

A child prodigy who learned from radio as much as he did from his elders, and who spent much of the fifties playing in a country and western swing band, Doc was a prolific performer and studio musician, and his ear for the popular was equal to his ear for the local.

As such, although it is predominantly for his traditional resurrections which we hear of him today, in his many years of recording and performing, Doc focused no small amount of attention on the swinging Nashville sound, using it to channel the hits and a small handful of originals. After a lifetime achievement of over fifty albums recorded live and in the studio, in collaboration and at the helm, his vast catalog came to include a number of hits from the country charts, plus standards from Elvis to the Everly Brothers, from Broadway to Tin Pan Alley, from The Mississippi Sheiks to Mississippi John Hurt.

We covered the traditional songs of Doc Watson way back in 2008 in a Vacation Coverfolk post, when a trip to North Carolina brought us to steep in the sounds of his particular south. Here, we pay tribute to the man with a second set of song, which features Doc, friends, and family taking on the tunes of his own century. Listen, especially, for the two lullabies, recorded just after the untimely death of his son and life musical partner Merle, which mark a poignant turning point in our set below.

As you can see from the diverse source years listed above, Doc’s catalog is especially prolific; long-standing official website Doc’s Guitar has the comprehensive discography, and it’s a bit overwhelming. If you’re new to his sound, and want to begin a collection, purists tell me the best place to start for the older stuff is Smithsonian Folkways. Also recommended, in recognition of Record Store Day this coming Saturday: head to your local record store and, after searching fruitlessly for sections labeled “Traditional Folk” or “Traditional Country”, ask for any of the above-noted disks by artist and year.

Comment » | Doc Watson, Reposts, Vacation Coverfolk

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 3: Carolina Chocolate Drops
(An African American String Band recreates the Piedmont blues)

April 15th, 2013 — 9:53pm

As noted previously (and as made obvious by the fact that this post is Volume 3 in a series), in recognition of our return to the Outer Banks for the fourth time since 2008, we’re in the midst of a set of Vacation Coverfolk features pulled from the archives of past trips to the North Carolina coast with a newly penned post on The Avett Brothers scheduled for the end of the week as a triumphant finale to our collected survey of music of, from, and about the region.

Earlier this week, Volumes 1 and 2 of our series took on songs whose titles mention the Carolinas, and a tribute to the songs of Elizabeth Cotten. Today, we present a slightly modified tripartite feature on the Carolina Chocolate Drops: a Carolina Coverfolk set originally posted in 2009, and postscripts from both a 2010 multi-artist feature that acknowledges their last album together before the original trio splintered off to become the quartet currently touring under the moniker, and a 2012 check-in which acknowledges the changes to personel and sound which resulted from that transformation.

APRIL 2009: There are two ways to learn music, really: by formal study and by direct transmission. The vast majority of musicians these days learn through the former method, a mixed bag of training, recorded music and noodling, balancing their books on a combination of heart and chords, songbook and soul.

There’s nothing wrong with this, per se: originality, after all, comes of such ownership, coupled with a sense of creation. Indeed, the folkworld thrives on such evolution, depending as it does on a connection to an everchanging culture. Those of us who love modern confessional and coffeehouse folk, not to mention the myriad hybrid forms which have emerged over the last few decades, appreciate the way music stretches and evolves in the hands of such practitioners.

But the transmissionary model isn’t dead. Just as there are audiophiles who insist on the scratchy authenticity of their original 78s, there are still folk musicians who believe that to truly become part of an authentic tradition of music, one must learn the trade authentically, too. From blueswoman Rory Block to Kentucky Appalachian Brett Ratliff, such modern followers of the folkways eschew records and scales, and look to the older ways, seeking out the ancient progenitors of their forms to listen and play along, learning the scratchy, earthy sounds and songs from their elders as if through osmosis.

The result isn’t generally polished, but that’s the point. Instead, such performers tend towards a raw sound, rich in feeling but often sparse in instrumentation, which favors emotional impact over consistent tempo. There’s no gloss here, only timelessness. And folk needs such old blood, too, lest it evolve so far it becomes unrecognizable; lest we lose touch with our origins, and forget that without the old ways to refer to, we cannot have them to reinvent.

Writ large, the Piedmont or “East Coast” blues emanates from a vast swath of rural East Coast America; popular in the early days of recorded music, from the twenties to the forties, its most famous tracks, such as Blind Boy Fuller’s 1940 recording of “Step It Up & Go”, sold as many as half a million copies to blacks and whites alike. Generally, the ragtime-based fingerpicking style which characterizes the once-popular African-American dance music is located as far North as Richmond, VA, and as far south as Atlanta, though of course the emergence of records helped spread the sound much farther in its heyday.

The rediscovery of acoustic blues by folk fans in the sixties brought the music back into the mainstream, bringing many artists out of hiding and into the festival circuit, where they began to trade licks. Today, the Piedmont style and its repertoire can be found in the modern playing of many formally trained folk musicians, from Leo Kottke to Paul Simon.

Modern inheritors of the Piedmont sound, the founding members of “African American string band” Carolina Chocolate Drops may have found each other through the newest technology — two of the three met in a listserv and chatspace for Black banjo fans and players — but they picked up their music the old way, seeking out the oldest surviving members of the Piedmont style, learning at the feet of fellow North Carolinans Algia Mae Hinton and Etta Baker, who passed just before the ‘Drops released their debut albums Heritage and Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind in 2007.

Learning from North Carolina musicians magnifies the Carolinan connection in this particular incarnation. Fans of Baker, Hinton, and Carolina Chocolate Drops mentor Joe Thompson of Mebane, NC, said to be the last black traditional string band player, will hear the mannerisms of each in their playing. Even their name, which recalls that of 1920s fiddle-led band the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, pays tribute to the combination of form and geography.

Mountain strings — the banjo, guitar, and fiddle — feature heavily in the Piedmont sound, though not all at the same time; these, plus a smorgasbord of washboards, jugs, combs, and other household instruments round out the Carolina Chocolate Drops performance. But in the end, the instrumentation and the process are subservient to the madcap, heartfelt, almost desperately gleeful energy of the Piedmont style itself, as reincarnated here. It’s dance music, designed to get you jumping, appealing to your basest instincts, your wildest primal hopes and fears.

Here’s a short set of samplers — a modern cover done up old style, a video link to a great version of an old classic learned from Etta Baker, a handful of traditional tracks from their albums, soundtracks, and live appearances — which, in their timelessness and raw beauty, prove the value of the osmotic process, even as they celebrate the eternal spirit of the music itself.

JANUARY 2010: I finally managed to catch the Carolina Chocolate Drops last weekend at the Somerville Theater, and was utterly thrilled to find they are even more stunning in concert than I had imagined. Their infectious joy in not just recovering but truly rejuvenating a whole set of found song, from old country blues and minstrel-show jazz to stringband and rural jugband classics, is evident in every smile, holler, and nuanced move on an array of authentic instruments, from quills and autoharp to banjo, fiddle, guitar, voice and bones. And as performers and ethnomusicologists, their patter and performance offers a first rate journey through the folk traditions of Black America.

New album Genuine Negro Jig will include a studio version of their infamous Blu Cantrell cover and a delicious take on Tom Waits’ Trampled Rose alongside a whole new set of resurrected stringband and old-time jazz and blues tunes done in their inimitable Piedmont style. Here’s two delightful cuts from the newest – a tightened studio release of the aforementioned Blu Cantrell cover, and a sweet, wry newly-recorded version of old stringband classic Cornbread and Butterbeans – plus a Mississippi Sheiks cover from a recent tribute, and a live cut to keep your feet moving in the meantime; for more, order Genuine Negro Jig, sit back, and wait for the magic to arrive.

APRIL 2012: Unless you’ve been living under a cone of silence, you already know that once-featured, once-revisited African American String Band Carolina Chocolate Drops hit the ground this winter with a new release and a major change in personnel: gone is high-energy co-founder Justin Robinson, here to stay is beatboxer Adam Matta and new multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins. The result, an appropriately titled mixed bag called Leaving Eden, underutilizes all members (Matta appears on just a small handful of tracks), leaving us hoping for a second round with more cohesiveness. But the album also continues the band’s journey aptly, bringing forth a broad tracklist of songs from spare to jubilant that channel the traditions of Appalachia, turning the folk of the slavefields and the holler (and their modern equivalents) into songs at once ancient and timeless. And though the set is somewhat ragged as it yaws from slave hollers and fiddle tunes to melodic folk narratives, some of the selections here are quite stunning, with these sparse yet vastly different covers of North Carolinian songwriter Laurelyn Dossett’s title track and South African guitarist Hannes Corteze’s instrumental Mahalla serving as an apt exhibit A and B, and a bonus track from the biggest Dylan tribute ever as further evidence.

Like what you hear? Carolina Chocolate Drops will be appearing at several folk festivals this summer, but there’s more than one way to support the old ways; musicians can’t survive without fans who buy records, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops catalog is well worth owning. Buy direct from the artists, or head out to your local record store; both strategies help spread the word and warm the heart while keeping music small and local.

And stay tuned this week for more Carolina Coverfolk, including features on James Taylor and The Avett Brothers!

2 comments » | Carolina Chocolate Drops, Reposts, Vacation Coverfolk

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 2:
The Songs of Elizabeth Cotten

April 14th, 2013 — 4:56pm


North Carolina is rich in history and broad in geography, stretching from warm beachfront majesty to the base of Appalachia. That it holds a dominant place in the history of folk music is due in part to its cultural diversity, and in part to its situation midway up the coast, along the route that folk strands might have once traveled from North to South and back again. This combination of factors has made it an influential locus and crossroads for several southern folk movements of the last century, including branches of the blues, appalachian music, strains of bluegrass, and other early rural folk forms.

Rather than give the musicians and musical forms of this diverse region shorter shrift than they deserve, instead of our typical biweekly megaposts, this week we offer a host of Carolina Coverfolk sets, starting with yesterday’s exploration of songs that use the Carolinas as a setting, and moving on to several features on the songs of North Carolinan songwriters from James Taylor to The Avett Brothers.

Today, we continue our journey with the songs of Elizabeth Cotten, born in Carrboro, North Carolina in 1895, who made her mark on folk music long before the sixties transformed American folk from cultural phenomenon to a true genre. It is a tribute to her indelible influence and stellar songwriting that these songs are still treasured in performance today.

Like many early folk musicians born at the turn of the century, Elizabeth Cotten had two careers: one in her early years, as a self-taught blues folk prodigy, and one later in life, when the folk revival of the fifties and sixties drove a desperate effort to recover and record the authentic sounds of early American folk forms before they could be lost to the ages. Cotten’s story of rediscovery is especially notable for its serendipity: though a few of her songs had taken on a life of their own in the hands of other blues and folk musicians during the forties, Cotten herself had quit making music for twenty five years, only to be rediscovered in the sixties while working as a housekeeper for the Seeger family.

Cotten’s strong songwriting and original upside-down “Cotten picking” guitar style, with its signature banjo-like low-string drone and alternating fingerpicking bass, would eventually result in a star turn on seminal disks and collections from the Smithsonian Folkways label, many culled from home recordings made under the reel-to-reel direction of Mike Seeger in the nineteen fifties. The support of the Seegers and others, and the subsequent success of her first album, 1957 release Folksongs and Instrumentals, brought her onto the folk circuit, where her unique sound influenced the burgeoning folk movement, and where her songs would be heard, recorded, and passed along by the likes of Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Peter, Paul and Mary.

In the end, though only four albums of her original and traditional material were ever released, Cotten remained a celebrated member of the folk touring scene into her late eighties, winning a Grammy in 1985 for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for Elizabeth Cotten Live! a year after being named a “living treasure” by the Smithsonian. Her music continues to be celebrated today for its timeless and distinctive qualities, and for the way it speaks to a childhood among the simple folkways of the rural North Carolina south. And her influence as a songwriter, a guitarist, and an artist echoes in the work of generations.

Our original post on Elizabeth Cotten way back in 2008 featured a few covers each of two of her most familiar songs: two fragile kidfolk versions of Freight Train, which was written when Cotten was eleven, and a full set of folkvariants on the timeless Shake Sugaree, from the hearty tones of folk blues legends Chris Smither and Taj Mahal to the delicate second-wave folk field recordings of Laura Gibson and grunge-folk goddess Mary Lou Lord. To that set, we add a number of other covers of the former, and of Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie, a distinctive Cotten arrangement often mistakenly identified as traditional, made famous by Davy Graham, The Grateful Dead, and others.

As always, artist and album links above lead to the most authentic, honest, and local places to buy music: from the artists and labels themselves, wherever possible. The Elizabeth Cotten originals, especially, are core must-haves for any true tradfolk collector; pick up her solo albums at Smithsonian Folkways.

Stay tuned throughout the week for a lengthy treatise on James Taylor coverage, a brand-new feature on The Avett Brothers, and a piece on the work of Doc Watson, yet another North Carolina fingerpicker. Meanwhile, I’ll be sitting on the back porch, local brew in hand, watching the sun set over the sound and the North Carolina mainland, while the wild deer and the goslings root for grub in the low grass below. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

4 comments » | Elizabeth Cotten, Vacation Coverfolk

Carolina Coverfolk 2013, Volume 1:
Songs of the South, As Place and Metaphor

April 13th, 2013 — 3:26pm


Apologies for the long gap between posts – with rehearsals for an impending production of The Sound Of Music, long nights interviewing Superintendent candidates for our local school system, and both end-of-term grades and my yearly professional evaluation due in a single week, it was all I could do to keep my head above water.

But through it all, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and this is it: the view from the balcony overlooking the lagoon and the sound beyond, where the turtles lounge on sunny banks, the geese protect their island nests, the ospreys and the cormorants vie for fishing rights, the breeze is warm and tinged with swimming pool steam and barbecue smoke, and the sunsets are to die for.

Which is to say: it’s school vacation, and I’ve earned our by-now bi-annual respite on the very upper tip of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where we can spend the week far from the cares and stresses of the working life with extended family and friends enough to fill three adjacent houses with a week of laughter and leisure, barbecue and beer. And so, in honor of our temporary locale, we kick off the week with an expanded list of otherwise familiar songs about the region – with a promise to return in a few days with a brand new feature on native sons The Avett Brothers, and a reposted series of older features on other artists associated with the Carolinas, including The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Elizabeth Cotten, James Taylor, Doc Watson and more.

  • Mud Acres: Carolina in My Mind (orig. James Taylor)
    Another song by a native son, this one reinvented as a ragged hootenanny by Happy Traum, banjoist Bill Keith, bass player Roly Salley (who penned the oft-covered Killin’ The Blues) and others from the mid-seventies Woodstock, NY Mud Acres music collective.
  • Trocadero: Carolina In The Morning (orig. William Frawley)
    This Tin Pan Alley-era American popular song, well-known from versions by Al Jolson, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, and others, takes a maudlin turn in this version from “experimental rock” band Trocadero, originally recorded for the Red vs. Blue Season 10 soundtrack.
  • Grace Cheng: Carolina (orig. Ben Gibbard)
    Toronto-based Soundcloud amateur Grace Cheng has the sweetly lo-fi vibe of a young Mary Lou Lord; the melancholy tone that results makes for an especially apt vehicle for Ben Gibbard’s escapist break-up fantasy.
  • Doc & Merle Watson: Kinfolks In Carolina (orig. Merle Travis)
    A native son and his son take on Merle Travis’ upbeat tribute to family lines back in the homestead with everything from jazz guitar and brush stylings to boogie-woogie piano in the mix. From Two Days in November, a personal favorite recorded the year before I was born.

3 comments » | Reposts, Vacation Coverfolk

Spring 2013: New & Impending Tributes
Part 3: Tim Hardin & Nick Drake, Revisited

April 3rd, 2013 — 11:06pm

Last week, we kicked off our exploration of this year’s new and impending tribute albums with feature-length posts on John Denver and The Everly Brothers, both of whom are enjoying strong homage in 2013. Today we continue our series, moving on to tributes to Nick Drake and Tim Hardin, a pair of artists who lived in the shadows and died young, leaving legacies of pain and poetics still open to interpretation.

Although it sports a cutting-edge roster of both British and American indie talent, at first glance, Reason To Believe: The Songs of Tim Hardin is surprisingly mainstream, at least as tribute albums go. Indicators include the range of sound, which covers the usual “alternative” tribute genre gamut from dreampop to grunge to neo-folk, and the fact that the album itself is named after the singer-songwriter’s most familiar song, with a title track that does little more than rehash earlier alt-country covers from Ron Sexsmith et al.

But looks can be deceiving – especially when considering an auditory medium – and the fact that we’re still coming back to this tribute despite a mid-February release speaks to the fact that, as a comprehensive package, Reason To Believe transcends its limitations, just as its honoree did, toiling in relative obscurity after an early stint at Woodstock until his untimely death at age 39. Cuts from Okkervil River (a languidly buzzy It’ll Never Happen Again) and The Phoenix Foundation (a richly layered and pulsing piano-and-vox ballad Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep), for example, offer appropriately up-to-date atmospheric explorations of what were originally envisioned as sparse acoustic songs, grounding the overall album in a tone which calls to mind both Neil Young’s more abstract soundtrack work and Fleet Foxes’ majesty, causing more popular pages from Hardin’s songbook such as a post-rock If I Were A Carpenter to come off as barely recognizable transformations that challenge us to rethink and re-imagine.

The folkier cuts on the album linger. Mark Lanegan’s Red Balloon and Alela Diane’s How Can We Hang On to a Dream, especially, capture the fragility of Hardin’s original work without disrupting the moody, maudlin flow; both are included here, with encouragement for readers to buy the album to hear them in context. For comparison’s sake, we’ve also included older covers of Hardin’s work from Okkervil River and Lanegan, the aforementioned Ron Sexsmith tune, a broken version of the same from Rickie Lee Jones’ triumphantly fragile covers album of 2012, and a cover of Hang On To A Dream by down-to-earth britfolk songstress Kathryn Williams which has long been a personal favorite. To hear more coverage, and read more about Tim Hardin and his legacy, head back in time to the Wayback Machine, where to our immense surprise, the 17 tracks originally posted in our 2012 Tim Hardin Covered In Folk feature remain live and downloadable.

waytoblueLive albums created from tribute concerts run a huge risk of mediocrity or worse, both because of how poorly playing to the crowd can come across in aftermath, and because such meager rehearsal time is generally afforded the performers beforehand, causing a sort of default “concert sound” with little variation to emerge – the inevitable result of averaging out a large set of musicians’ most normative playing styles over decidedly unrevolutionary interpretations of familiar songs. As such, also-rans abound in this particular sub-category: recent examples include, sadly, this year’s live DVD/CD tribute to Levon Helm, which – although it featured a few strong cuts from My Morning Jacket and John Mayer – was so weighted down by star power, it overwhelmed any chance at bringing the world the well-crafted tribute that Levon and his Band-mates truly deserve.

But although much of the video from a recent pair of live tribute concerts to Nick Drake suffers from an overabundance of strings and syrup, the tracklist released from the close-to-the-chest Way To Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake album that resulted – compiled from 2010 performances in London, Melbourne, and New York – demonstrate that not all live-recorded tribute albums are created equal. In part, this is because the Brits seem to have a better handle on how to throw a good tribute album than the average American mega-venue: mix a small population of diverse artists together, go light on back-up band, err on the side of sparse, and save the collaborations for an encore. And Joe Boyd, a friend of the legendarily fragile, withdrawn folksinger who produced both concert and album, gets a lion’s share of the kudos as well, for knowing that “a unity of sound and spirit” among the players can matter, even if he goes a bit overboard in suggesting that such unity is “the only way to make a tribute record work”.

Still, if the album trumps the concert, it is also because curation matters more than the average listener might imagine. And there’s no need to simply take my word for it: the London concert is scheduled to be shown on BBC4 over the next several weeks, making it possible to hear exactly why a number of tracks were left off the recording; for US readers willing to suffer a bit of degradation in order to make the same comparison, and to save time and effort, I’ve included a somewhat audio-compromised version of the same concert on YouTube below Robyn Hitchcock’s single; listen, especially, for Lisa Hannigan’s haunting Black Eyed Dog, and Krystle Warren’s beautifully flowing Time Has Told Me, both of which made the album for obvious reasons.

Of course, many others have visited Nick Drake in depth before now, and so have we: regular readers may remember an 18-track Covered In Folk tribute to Nick Drake here on the blog a few Decembers ago; though the archived feature remains available via the Wayback Machine, in this case, unlike the Tim Hardin set referenced above, the songs are no longer live. Our bonus tracks, then, are the covers with staying power: a small handful of favorites from Denison Witmer, The Books w/ Jose Gonzalez, Lucinda Williams, and Lamya, plus a newer track from Josienne Clarke, released in the intervening years, that is pure and sweet and golden like the sun.

    Robyn Hitchcock: Parasite (orig. Nick Drake)

    Way To Blue: A Tribute to Nick Drake (London concert)

Cover Lay Down posts coverfolk features and songsets twice weekly, with bonus tracks throughout the week at our Facebook page. Coming soon: a look at some great new and impending cover EPs, including a 7″ & CD single package giveaway!

4 comments » | Nick Drake, Tim Hardin, Tribute Albums, Tributes and Cover Compilations

All Folked Up: Gangsta Rap
(Sincere, Streetsmart, and Straight Up Folk)

April 1st, 2013 — 12:26am

We interrupt our ongoing series on early 2013 Tribute albums to bring you this specially re-heated feature, originally posted April 1, 2008.

As a culture vulture, I have a particular fondness for the iconography of Hip Hop and Hardcore Rap; as a fan of trope and the body politic, I’ve always admired the complex rhyme and rhythm they bring to the table.

But I never really made a connection with hardcore rap as a cultural form. I’m an outsider on the streets; I can appreciate their gritty reality only as a sociologist can appreciate the poverty dynamic of his cityscape under the microscope. Though a six month stint in Boston’s inner city as a member of Americorps and five years teaching in the most racially mixed inner city district in Massachusetts make me somewhat more than an urban tourist, I make no claim that it gives me credibility to speak to the relative merits of, say, East Coast over West Coast style.

Even when I try to embrace the less hardcore side of the hip hop world, I know I’m just visiting. I’ve seen De La Soul and KRS-ONE in concert, but I felt awkward in the audience. I tried to write a rap lyric, but my friends were right to laugh at me. (Two words: iambic pentameter.)

But where the plastic lip-sync spectacle of Britney Spears is the polar opposite of folk, and where the lighter forms of Hip Hop are probably closer to R&B spoken-word poetry and Funk than anything else, I think Gangsta Rap can make a legitimate claim as street folk.

Sure, musically, anything built predominantly out of beatboxing, drum machines, and an atonal delivery is about as far from the singer-songwriter model as it gets; you’d be hard pressed to find a folk song with no melody to carry it. And the highly stylized, high-adrenalin street pose of the Gangsta lyric is hard to reconcile with the open-hearted communion that most associate with the folksinger in performance.

But the way that Gangsta Rap captures the authentic experience and emotion of an urban generation is most definitely “of the folk”. The collaborative process which typifies Rap and Hip-Hop performance – both onstage and with the audience – is very much in a vein with the traditional relationship between the folk performer and his audience. The use of sampled sound is a kind of cultural recycling which could arguably be compared to the tendency towards community ownership of traditional song in the folkworld. And if we make allowances for the differences in environment, both the storytelling and the narrative structure of hardcore rap forms turn out to be surprisingly consistent with the way folk has always used the natural world to speak for the inner life of the song’s subject.

To note that today’s songs are, one and all, truly beautiful in their own way is not to deny the beauty of the originals. The high tension between Nina Gordon’s sweet voice and gentle acoustic guitar and the obscenity-laden lyric of NWA signature song Straight Out Of Compton merely reframes the deeply personal history and strong, complex emotion of the original, making it newly accessible. The etherial layers Ben Folds brings to Bitches Ain’t Shit only exposes the frustration family man Dr. Dre feels about the unavoidably mysogynistic pose of the streets to which he owes his life and livelihood. Meanwhile, Zach Heckendorf’s take on Dre’s mid-life crisis comeback song Forgot About Dre cuts in and out of the crowd, echoing the narrative sentiment and its ultimately tentative, soul-searching tropes quite powerfully.

Gin and Juice comes off wild and desperate in The Gourds’ juked up bluegrass, but wasn’t it always a song on the edge? Alt-punkers Dynamite Hack join in with a great, mellow acoustic take on NWA’s Boyz in the Hood. Kevin Davis’ singsong Fuck Tha Police underscores the authenticity of the original storylines endemic to the street. The Unholy Trinity go acoustic bass-and-drums (mostly) for a sparse and dirty alt-country take on Public Enemy’s Bring The Noise that exposes the bittersweetness of growing up in the ‘hood.

Grandmaster Flash recorded The Message in 1982, long before urban blight turned to the gangsta life, but the weary note young alt-folkster Willy Mason brings to his recent rendition reminds us how prescient a warning the song really was. And the fact that the highest energies post-dorks Barenaked Ladies can bring to bear on Public Enemy’s political hip hop anthem Fight the Power fall far, far short of anything remotely resembling anger only reinforces just how far most of Canada really is from the streets of the hardcore world.

I seriously considered switching out today’s covers for the originals as an April Fools spoof. But the best hoaxes are subtle, almost beautiful in their believability. And each of these performances is something special, simultaneously a hoax and a masterpiece, teetering on the edge of sincerity like a gangster caught between the rock of urban decay and the social pose that is, in the end, all that is left to matter.

So mind the language, folks. And enjoy a short set of the folk of the street.

Happy April Fools’ Day, everyone. We’ll be back later this week with a serious look at some real folk artists, I promise.

11 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes

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