I published the below feature three years ago today, anticipating a triumphant but fleeting return to the stage alongside my wife and daughters in a local production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after more than a decade away. Since then, however, the theater bug has returned, and the roles are getting juicier as I once again find my footing on the proverbial boards; auditions and musicals have me thumbing through the works of Sondheim, Hammerstein, Hart and Gershwin, and these folk versions have never seemed more alive.
This weekend, we’re all in a production of The Sound Of Music; I’m actually completing this as I sit backstage waiting for my cue. Today’s feature is especially fitting, then, as it acknowledges my distraction while including a beautiful cover of Edelweiss to honor the work. Look for another older post featuring songs based on the works of Shakespeare this summer, when I’ll be one of three actors in a Shakespeare in the Park production of one of my favorite pieces, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.
I was one of those arty middle-class music-and-theater kids – you know, the ones who spend their free periods in the band room, stay after school to paint sets, seem utterly disconnected from the mass media-driven marks of popular consumer culture, and demonstrate a complete and utter lack of coordinated ability in running shorts.
But it wasn’t just desire or common interest that kept me there. Natural talent, a strong ear, and an ADHD sufferer’s tendency to misplace my instrument had led to formal voice lessons and private choruses as a child (lose your clarinet, and mom gets pissed; lose your voice, and it comes back on its own). From there, I found myself on stage, and until I discovered that teaching could provide the same inner thrill, I fully expected to spend my life at its center, singing under the spotlight.
Thanks to this combination of talent, training, and opportunity, my adolescence was marked by more than just solos in the school chorus and lead roles in the high school play. Sure, I played Pippin in Pippin in my freshman year, losing my virginity to one of the older chorus members a few hours before opening night, but I also missed a lot of school in those years, thanks to active engagement in several major production companies in and around the Boston area before I cleared middle school. I even spent a late eighties summer at the Boston University Theater Institute, dressing like a Chorus Line extra, staying up late with the next generation of aspiring stars, burning through showtunes, improv exercises, Tennessee Williams monologues, and obscure Brecht/Weill operettas while my schoolmates got sunburned on the fields at soccer camp.
If the Internet is to be believed, many students growing up in the arts and theater crowd ultimately hew close to musical theater in their adult lives, finding preference and even pleasure in the songs of the stage. But for me, the theater was merely a means to an end – a love affair with the self, a mechanism for being at the center of attention, and a route to popularity and fame.
Though the stage was a place where I could shine, on my own time, as I’ve noted here before, my tastes ran towards the radio, the rising grunge and alt-rock movements, and the vast LP stacks of an audiophilic father heavy on the blues, jazz, folk and country. My mother’s small collection of original cast recordings of South Pacific, The Sound Of Music, and My Fair Lady may have been an endcap in our record cabinet, but just as my father never turned to those records, so did I eschew them, and groan alongside him when they came out of their sleeves for the occasional holiday.
As a result, though I recognize much of the canon of Broadway musicals – from Gershwin to Porter, Gilbert & Sullivan to Rogers & Hammerstein – unlike, say, the Top 40 of the eighties, or the East Coast alt-grunge movement, the genre does not interest me much as a fan or collector. To me, the Broadway songbook is something to sing, not something to listen to. To each his own, I guess.
In many ways, musical theater is the opposite of folk. The staging is formal; the audience is distant. The performers wear make-up, and are not themselves. And the distinct origin of song, lyric, and performance are clear, though attributed authorship is generally eschewed in favor of the shows from whence such songs came to us.
Where folk connects audience and performer within a complex of cultural feedback and communality – a sharing strategy which prioritizes emotional accessibility over pitch-perfect performance – as an ideal, the nuances of show tune performance are grand and showy, thanks to the trappings of character and grand narrative which underlie the very nature of theatrical production. Hearty where folk is delicate, melodramatic where folk is honest, stylized where folk is organic, show tunes don’t just come from a different part of the culture than folk music – they come from a very different place in the heart and the mind than the music we find and feature here.
Yet as a strand of the popular, the songs of the stage and screen quite often find their way into the folkways – most commonly via that melting pot of the popular, The Great American Songbook. Coverage, as such, is not uncommon, though it is rarer in the world of the solo singer songwriter than, say, the smoky realm of pop, jazz or blues vocalists – more common, even, for folk musicians to “go pop” or “go jazz” with these tunes, than for them to truly lend their folk sensibility to the popular songbook of musical theater.
But when it happens, it’s a beautiful thing. Given the difference in style and function between the two forms, the folk approach to the songs of Broadway and beyond tends towards the transformative, as the songs are localized, closing the vast gulf of spectacle which the stage mandates, replacing scale with intimacy. And so, as in coverage writ large, the song is born anew, with new meaning.
Here’s a broad set of coversongs, timeless and up-close, with a post-millennial focus, to help you see what I mean.
- Vic Chesnutt & Liz Durrett: Somewhere (orig. from West Side Story)
(from The “Somewhere” Compilation, a rarity from TIAA-Cref’s ad campaign, 2005)
- Pura Fe: Summertime (orig. from Porgy & Bess)
(from Hold The Rain, 2007)
- Colin Meloy: Summertime (ibid.)
(from Colin Meloy sings Sam Cooke, 2008)
- Peter Mulvey: Our Love Is Here To Stay (orig. from The Goldwyn Follies)
(from Letters From A Flying Machine, 2009)
Bonus Repost Tracks (2013)
- Martin Simpson: Brother Can You Spare A Dime (orig. from New Americana)
(from Purpose & Grace, 2011)
- Lavinia Ross: Millworker (orig. from Millworker)
(from Keepsake, 2003)
- Emmylou Harris: Millworker (ibid.)
(from Portraits, 1996)
Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features and multisong sets twice a week thanks to the support of readers like you. As always, if you like what you hear, please follow the links above to support the artists we promote. We also accept donations, gratefully.