Archive for February 2014


(Re)Covered: New coverage from old friends
John Statz, Caroline Herring, Poor Old Shine & more!

February 18th, 2014 — 1:08pm

There comes a time in every New England winter where the endless snow begins to weigh heavy on the soul, threatening to crush the heart. Hope sputters as we teeter on the edge of resignation. Every weather report is like a curse. Spring becomes but a dream.

But it’s school vacation, and for a teacher, this means time: for children’s play, for catch-up chores, and then, finally, for the self. I’m writing poetry again, and the soundtrack is fine indeed, here alongside the roar of the pellet stove, new music snug and alive against the whispering silence of a world deadened by white.

Which is to say: the mailbag is stuffed to overflowing with the good stuff again, and we’re pleased as punch to finally have a chance to steep in it all. Today, then: news and new tracks from some of our favorite artists of yesteryear, with a second set to follow towards the end of the week. May their vibrant energy serve as a perfect antidote to the numb, dumb eternity of February.

Caroline Herring was an early favorite here on the blog, an anomalous southern voice on the Massachusetts-based Signature Sounds label whose 2007 album Lantana chilled us so powerfully with its haunting portrayals of character and place, and its perfect balance of serenity and emotional investment, that we could not help but reach out for our very first interview in celebration of follow-up CD/EP set Golden Apples Of The Sun/Silver Apples of the Moon, with its fine covers of Cyndi Lauper, Kate Wolf, and Lefty Frizzell.

The literate singer-songwriter’s newest project I Will Go Into The Day, which dropped January 11, is nominally a children’s album, one that wholly succeeds in its attempt to “set to music the magic and wonder of childhood, and celebrate the joys of imaginative play”; as long-time proponents of kidfolk, we’re excited to steep in it on those merits alone, and eager, too, to share the album’s two covers – a sweet children’s choir version of traditional song John The Rabbit and a translated take on 1940s yiddish composition Donna Donna that transforms the tune cleanly into a powerful Appalachian lullaby. But we’re equally thrilled to find this natural antidote to the bleeps and distances of the technological life simmering with more for the mature and discerning ear, with songs that call like wistful sirens to adult nostalgia and centeredness even as Herring’s gentle guitar and warm alto warble soothe at the surface.

    Caroline Herring: Donna, Donna (orig. Sholom Secunda)

    Caroline Herring: John The Rabbit (trad.)



Thanks to some sweet harmonies, timeless originals from mournful to majestic, and reverent, pitch-perfect takes on Norman Blake’s Church Street Blues and Townes Van Zandt’s Loretta, Our Lady of the Tall Trees, the debut album from “new old-time” singer-songwriters and master instrumentalists Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, was one of our favorite releases of 2012; their subsequent set at Freshgrass was the highlight of our weekend, and we said so here, in a feature that seems to have been eaten by our subsequent move from one server to another. Their brand new sophomore effort I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands finds the pair comfortable with their sound: masterful licks from mandolin, banjo and guitar twine with that lonesome duo sound exquisitely on ballads and kickers alike, making the album a fine follow-up with range and resonance, an equal mix of cowboy folk and true blue bluegrass from one of the most duly and well-celebrated young duos on the scene today. Check out upbeat original Livin’ In America, lonesome heartbreaker Down In The Lonesome Draw, swinging fiddle-and-mandolin waltz version of Louvin Brothers classic Lorene, and more over at their webpage, and then snag the album via Bandcamp.

    Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Green Pastures (trad.)

    Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Voices of Evening (orig. Alice Gerrard)



It’s rare for us to come back to an artist so soon after first discovery. But as noted in our most recent New Artists, Old Songs collection back in January, Molly Tuttle isn’t just a co-lead vocalist and guitar/banjo player for The Tuttles with AJ Lee, she’s also a budding Berklee-trained talent of her own – and her sets with both the Berklee Bluegrass crew and with her own sidestage trio at last weekend’s Joe Val Bluegrass Fest had the crowds nodding and smiling, leaving us looking for more. Happily, Tuttle proves her mettle and then some with a five-track self-titled duo EP released in early February with trio member and fellow Berklee-trained fiddler John Mailander, now available via Bandcamp, featuring lilting coverage of Joni Mitchell, traditional bluegrass tune Moonshiner, a fine original set from Molly and John, and a surprisingly sweet, robust take on country music singer-songwriter Keith Whitley’s I’m Over You that channels Kasey Chambers’ best country heartbreak.

    Molly Tuttle and John Mailander: Morning Morgantown (orig. Joni Mitchell)

    Molly Tuttle and John Mailander: I’m Over You (orig. Keith Whitley)



Midwestern singer-songwriter John Statz, who named his last release for the single cover among its potent narrative portraits of granite and field, was one of our favorite discoveries of 2012, and the proof, as always, is in the pursuit: since then, we’ve dug deeply into his back catalog, picking up older albums from his formative years, fallen in love with the longing and despair he brings to his live take on Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel No. 2, and found depth in his plainspoken poetry and joy in his celebration of the world as it is, leaving us eager to help spread the gospel.

Statz recently holed up in a Vermont snowstorm to record a new album, with fellow Wisconsinite and Cover Lay Down fave Jeffrey Foucault on board as producer and back-up musician; after catching the pair together at Northampton venue The Parlor Room in December, and recording a couple of covers to boot, we’re eager, indeed, to hear the results. But those looking for an early fix need look no farther than 12 August, a live duo album from Statz and fellow midwestern folk troubadour and honest storyteller Josh Harty that drops today. Minimally produced, with a live session sound that celebrates the intimacy of song and place, the album features gentle performances of originals from each artist, plus covers of Greg Brown, John Prine, and more; head over to Bandcamp for streaming, digital download, and physical copies.

    Josh Harty & John Statz: Paradise (orig. John Prine)

    Josh Harty & John Statz: Worrisome Years (orig. Greg Brown)




Finally, at least for today: they may have earned their place on the mainstage through top audience honors in the 2012 Emerging Artist’s Showcase, but their impromptu hour-long set in the sunwarmed vendor area at this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival simply blew us away, with a cover of Ophelia, a couple of traditional barnstormers, and a small set of raw originals delivered with a combination of explosive energy and unceasing craftsmanship that both reinforced and transcended earlier comparisons to the Avett Brothers. Now, fresh off an onstage gig as the musical accompaniment for the American Repertory Theater’s winter production of Robin Hood, neotraditional Americana stringband Poor Old Shine are back home in their native Connecticut, and back on our radar with two holiday homages: a haunting Blind Willie McTell tune filmed by flashlight in a California cabin last Halloween, and a brand new Valentine’s Day delight that transforms 80′s Huey Lewis and the News soundtrack hit The Power Of Love into a loving living-room slowdance featuring their cosmic blend of old-time instrumentation and footstomping wail, trading off lines and harmonies like The Band in their very best bootleg days. Back To The Future, indeed: I’d say these guys are going places, but all I see is up.

    Poor Old Shine: The Power Of Love (orig. Huey Lewis and the News)


    Poor Old Shine: Lay Some Flowers On My Grave (orig. Blind Willie McTell)



Looking for more Cover Lay Down in your life? “Like” our Facebook page for new coverfolk from CLD fave Al Lewis, ongoing updates from the blog and beyond, and more bonus streams and videos shared as we find ‘em. And stay tuned for a second round of new 2014 releases and one-shot cover tunes from more artists previously celebrated here, including great new discoveries from Cheyenne Mize Marie, Amy Black, Juliana Richer Daily, and Charlie Parr.

2 comments » | (Re)Covered, Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, Caroline Herring, John Statz

Valentine’s Day Present: Love, Ongoing
(Plus five Valentine’s Day mixtapes from the CLD archives!)

February 14th, 2014 — 2:29pm





My plans to zip over to my wife’s workplace with flowers and lunch for a Valentine’s Day surprise were overtaken by a double snow day this year, turning what might have been a romantic moment into a promise unfulfilled, leaving me without a single heart to offer save my own.

Happily, true love doesn’t fade so fast, nor does it depend on any particular trinket. Love is in every moment, if you know where to look, and choose to embrace it, and be grateful.

Every morning as I leave for work, I kiss my wife, and speak love into her day before she wakes. Every night, in the darkness, I whisper my love to her as she sleeps warm beside me. Every day I thank the universe that after over half a lifetime together, there’s still beauty and love in my life.

In her honor, then, and yours: a set of coverfolk love songs released in the last year or two, followed by links back to five mixtapes and features from our Valentine’s Days past. For love is in all ways complicated, always forever and ever new. May you find comfort and hope here, and everywhere, on this most romantic of days, and every day that follows.


Valentine’s Day Present [download here!]



Valentine’s Days Past

3 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes

20 Questions: A Coverfolk Mixtape
in celebration of a life of wonder and amazement

February 13th, 2014 — 2:03pm





To be a public school teacher in the new millennium is to be under constant scrutiny, both as a self-critic and from outside. Though the true outcomes of great teaching are essentially unmeasurable, new state-mandated evaluations pick at the edges of sheer competency and compliance by attempting to measure that which can be collected or seen.

The result is a doubling-down of stress and time, with so many hours per day given over to documentation and meetings that our time planning for and delivering instruction becomes threatened. Gone, it seems, is the teachable moment; gone, too, is the depth that brings love and true understanding: if a lesson cannot stand on its own, look like it was supposed to on paper, and correspond directly to at least one question on the state-written test that follows, the black mark will haunt forevermore.

In response, teachers are leaving the profession in droves: hardly a week goes by without yet another teacher’s early retirement condemnation going viral. In my own school, almost a fifth of our faculty has disappeared for warmer, more friendly climates since the school year began. The rest of us live in constant fear, frayed at the edges and cut to the core: too overwhelmed to do anything well, and constantly concerned that we have missed something that might make or break our careers.

But I am young enough to think I am invincible, or at least, unwilling to go without a fight. And so, despite my insistence that excellence should be evident in any moment, I found myself overthinking this Wednesday’s planned observation. And because I am ever the iconoclast, at my best on the edge, I planned something fun, if risky: a lesson on how poets use questions to call attention to the limitations of understanding, starting with Shakespeare’s Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day, and concluding with an activity analyzing Langston Hughes’ A Dream Deferred.

For students who have failed, and are failing. Who come to school sometimes, entering two thirds of the way into class with a swagger and a yell that distracts and disrupts, or stay home because it is too cold, or they missed the bus again. Who have been sullen, and distracted. Who have watched a score of of their classmates drop out, or just stop coming, until we hardy few – the three or four or six who show up most days – find ourselves leaning over a common table, pulling out our hair, putting away the phones over and over again, dancing around the truth as the hourglass sand threatens to drown us all.

thinkerI talk a good game in the hallways about how the new evaluation tool we use in my district: about how the tool is sound, but an inconsistent and aggressively biased application of it is a major focal point of the terror and frustration we feel as teachers. But it is also true that the threat of observation can prompt a healthy, deliberate attention to detail and self-reflection, a sort of critical, vocational soul searching which, when it works, can push us to be our best. It is a social scientist’s Heisenberg principle, in which the act of being observed changes the subject, using pressure to turn coal into diamond.

Over the last week, as I began to pay more precise attention to my practice in the class, and as our population has finally become stable, there was a change in the air. Sure, the kids and I still fought to stay on task, an activity more like wrangling cats than truly teaching. But they started asking questions in ways that reveal minds turning over, about my relationship to poetry, and about the poems themselves. And the shift towards poems that share their language and cultural lineage – of Pablo Neruda, and Martin Espada – seemed to prompt the beginnings of ownership, as if knowing that poets spoke their languages, too, was a key to the magic that evaluation tools call “student-centered learning”.
And when it works, it really works.

Yesterday, the stars aligned.

Four students showed up on time, or close to it, and to begin with, became poets, finding distinction in writing and sharing our own little poems, before moving on to the small set of poems I had chosen for their question marks and little else, making for a treasure hunt for tone and literal meaning that was more engaging than usual.

Two more arrived, and their timing was perfect, for once – in transition between idea and poem exemplar, so that they could find themselves quickly. They read poems proudly, and found brave comfort in their ability to make metaphor come alive, vivid in their heads.

And then, the six of them found recognition in critical analysis of Langston Hughes’ A Dream Deferred. They remembered that Hughes was plainspoken, and frustrated with racial identity in 1930s Harlem, and looked for that meaning in the similes of the poem; they embraced the ambiguity of figurative language, and thought about dreams, and raisins dying black in the sun.

And the poem came alive for them, unlocking its secrets. And they said so, and smiled, and showed us, me and the administrators lurking in the background, that they could articulate – haltingly at first, and then with more confidence – how, and why, and where.

And the bell rang. And I thanked them, and collected their work.

And sat, stunned, while the administrators slipped out, and my next class came in, catcalling and chaotic, ready to learn.

And then, afterwards, the one who sometimes comes, and cannot focus, and uses his big unassuming grin to avoid learning, found me in the hallway during lunch, and proudly showed me the thick book of Countee Cullen poems he had found in the library, and asked if I could give him a note to get back in to find more.

And later, he brought his friend, the Latino boxer, the one who refused to put pen to paper from September to December, and sat with his arms crossed or on his phone, and spun in his chair, defiant, though he knew how to see the meaning behind the words better than anyone in the class. And he said Mister, the library doesn’t have that Neruda book you talked about last week, but they did have this other one, and it’s really cool, it’s got the spanish on one side and the english on the other, and I promised I would find him more.

Your kids really understand poetry, said my evaluator when I passed her in the hallway at the end of the day.

And in my heart, I became the teacher I always wanted to be.

Now it is Thursday, a snow day. I sit on the porch in the cold and think about poetry, and words; the way literature can bring us together, and the way it can kindle the heart. Because I could not stand it, I stopped teaching from fear, and started teaching from love. In response, my 6 little irregulars finally discovered what literature is for, and why it is so much a part of being alive. And though we will need to work to keep them in this place of love, I think – for one shining hour – it made them students, in the true sense of the word, pleased to question, and find answers, and pleased, too, with their ability to do so.



As always, steeping too long in work has left me in too deep to move on quickly. My head swims still with questions, because of how deeply we considered them in our poems and analyses, because we were able to come to the higher order ones together. And I find myself pondering the world, and my place in it, after a day where everything went right, in a place where for so long I have been neither free nor safe.

And so we turn to the question as theme. And why not? As a rhetorical device, the question is broad, both in expression and purpose: it can show us ambiguity, or reveal depth and detail; it can call attention to mystery or meaning; it can reverse, or reinforce, even as it closes the gap between author and text.

And as it is in poetry, so is it in song. The selections we present below in this weekend’s coverfolk mix run the gamut from the rhetorical to the genuinely curious, from plaintive to pensive, from reflective to redirective. But all empower the listener to seek answers that may not always be clear, or even present. All offer new insights and understanding, that we may be who we are, at our best, by knowing the world. All remind us that questions are nothing to fear, but something to embrace, a natural consequence of being alive, and engaged.

May wonders never cease.



5 comments » | Mixtapes, Teaching

RIP Pete Seeger, Humble Giant of the Folkways

February 5th, 2014 — 7:47pm





The passing last week of seminal folk revivalist, labor organizer, five-string banjo master, and champion-of-community Pete Seeger hit the folk community hard, and no wonder: though the 94 year old legend had been in failing health for a while, I think some of us just felt like Seeger would be here forever, the last scion of an ethnomusical era marching ever onward in the name of change and children.

But even as we watched grandson Tao Rodriguez Seeger become his constant companion and voice over the last few fragile years of Pete’s life, we knew: Seeger’s voice will never truly die. Children of several generations, from my own to my mother, who once used Seeger’s songs as a vehicle for planting the seeds of peace and justice in both myself and in the inner city classrooms of New York City, recognize Pete’s songs, and his long-standing contribution to social, environmental, and political change though the act of singing them loud and proud. And we will sing them for a long, long time, and some of the time – maybe even most of the time – we won’t be thinking about him, but each other, just as Seeger would have wanted it to be.

And you know all this, I think. Or you wouldn’t be here.

Pete Seeger’s impact on the modern folk canon is inherent, and deeply ingrained; there is something so obvious about his legacy that it seems almost redundant to go into it on the page. And it’s hard to imagine anyone genuinely untouched by the compassionate, tireless work in the name of human dignity, empowerment, and awareness which Seeger considered his life’s work through sixty years as a recording artist and activist. Yet one trope, I think, bears note here regardless – one which befits a cover blog who aims to explore the nexuses in song which fuel folk itself. For although he has been justly feted for his politics and song on the web in the days since his passing, Seeger’s practice of the folkways became a prototype for the folk revival that followed, and continues to spread today.


pete-seeger2The son of an ethnomusicologist and a true believer in folk as a mechanism for tying past to future, perhaps more than any artist in history, Seeger lived folk song as if it truly did belong to the community for which it speaks. And although this practice was occasionally dismissed as a form of cultural disrespect, it is this, as much as his songs, which may well prove to be the longest lasting of his influence.

Though many songs list his name as whole or partial composer and arranger, and though his sense of singability and play were unparalleled in the history of modern social justice song, like Dylan after him, Seeger didn’t so much write and perform many of his most popular songs as he did translate them for his times. Several of his best known, from Wimowe to Turn, Turn Turn to We Shall Overcome, were created from existing hymns and folk melodies from around the world, found fragments shaped towards sociopolitical aims and sing-along user-friendliness by an earnest master. And as others have taken on the songs Seeger passed forward, versions drift, as well, with new verses added and new words sung, in the spirit of communal ownership that the statesman of folk-as-justice so exemplified.

Those who have suggested that Seeger was a theft of song from the third world cultures and underclasses he so loved both unfairly denigrate a man who loved all people and, simultaneously, miss the point of how the folk tradition truly works at its most powerful and honest. And if losing Seeger hurts so much, it is because his may well have been the most powerful, honest voice that so many of us will ever have the pleasure to meet, and love, and sing with.

Paying tribute to Seeger’s songbook, then, requires covering love – specifically, that broad sense of version ownership much like that of the oral tradition, which pays tribute to the teacher while acknowledging the timeless cultural history behind the songs. Instead of trying to parse the margins of copyright and origination, then, here’s a set of personal favorites with a much simpler organizing principle: songs which other folk artists of a certain political bent learned from or associate with Pete Seeger himself, regardless of authorship, and recorded in deliberate tribute to this long-standing folk icon.


REMEMBERING PETE SEEGER [download here!]



Looking for more great Pete Seeger coverage? There are some great tributes out there, most notably the three sets which the activist-founded, socially conscious folklabel Appleseed Recordings has released in a scant decade of existence. Each is represented in the set list above, but I’m especially enamored of double-disc first release Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs Of Pete Seeger, which in addition to Bruce Cockburn, Indigo Girls, Tish Hinojosa, and Billy Bragg, includes a veritable who’s who of big-name inheritors of the activist folkmantle, from Springsteen to Richie Havens to Odetta. Head over for Seeger catalog gems, coverage, and great albums from other folksingers carrying the torch into the 21st century!

1 comment » | Pete Seeger, RIP

Back to top