Archive for February 2018


Single Song Sunday: John Henry
(16 takes on an American myth from bluesfolk to gospelgrass)

February 11th, 2018 — 8:18am


johnhenry


We’re generally cautious about celebrating Black History Month here at Cover Lay Down. Though the earliest roots of modern folk recording and song surely include both the African-American experience and, more murkily, the origin stories of several of the instruments (including the dulcimer and banjo) which form the core of its acoustic array, the world of folk performance itself skews heavily towards caucasian artists, making any address of these roots unfinished without exhaustive exploration of the ways in which these roots have been claimed and shaped by white folks – from Lomax and Seeger to Paul Simon’s infamous Graceland controversy, Jayme Stone’s recent exploration of Gullah and other Caribbean sounds, and beyond.

But there are other ways, too, to celebrate the influence of Black America in the folkways. Today, in our first Single Song Sunday since our 2015 deconstruction of popular live performance encore The Weight, we tug at the roots of a particular story found in a broad panoply of songs: that of John Henry, a larger-than-life African American whose pride and persistence in the face of power and progress have come to represent the American spirit both within and beyond our shores.



john-henry-stampEthnographic evidence compiled by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappel through interviews in the 1920s trace the particulars of well-known folksong hero John Henry to the 1870s, where workers in the West Virginia Mountains dug the biggest tunnel job attempted by man up to that date. And although more recent historians have proposed other digs as more plausible, all share a basic narrative: a single man, the best of many African-American convict laborers in a world still healing after the end of the Civil War, pits himself against the newly-introduced steam drill in a contest of strength and willpower…and wins in the end, though it takes his last breath.

But the story above is no more or less true when Lomax places the the Old John trickster slave narrative at the heart of the song’s perpetual motion, nor when he notes, correctly, the melodic and lyrical similarities to tradtune The Lass Of Roch Royal in many versions of the song performed during his time. And it is certainly no more true than the abstract purpose of the song: to show the triumph of the underdog, of body and spirit through perseverance, and in doing so, iterate and reclaim those values which stir at the core of our identity as Americans.

Our myth comes to us wrapped around truth, in other words. And in the end, what matters isn’t whether it’s real, but whether it’s true. Like Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan, the legend of John Henry lives in our hearts and bones: grounded in the real history of real human beings just a hair larger in life than their peers, conflated to serve the cultural need for heroes symbolic of the particular sort of stubborn pride and determination that moves mountains in the rich panoply of American mythology. Man vs. nature, man vs. technology, man vs. self, and man vs. society collapse into a single story. An American myth, if ever there was one.

And this is how, today, the song serves: as cultural approbation and fatalist’s morality tale, in which we may lose to our machines both political and real, but the indomitable human spirit prevails.

And as long as we are still in struggle, so must the song be sung.


john-henry-51A plethora of songs recast the myth of John Henry. The Ballad of John Henry, for example – a standard in its own right – turns the morality of Henry’s death into a cautionary tale, pushing listeners to guard their life against the urge to spend it for foreman and fate; a “hammer song”, it is generally slow, but not always.

Not all recastings are covers, either. Modern troubadours from Songs:Ohia and Cuff The Duke to Drive-By Truckers and Driftwood Soldier have built from the ground up, applying the storyline to new tunes and lyrics, moving history into their own more immediate surroundings.

But do a simple search online of “John Henry”, and it’s clear that despite the mutability of over a dozen verses and perhaps ten times as many lyrical variants, one tune – paced and performed rhythmically, heavy on bravado and dialogue, that celebrates the man as myth for his determination even in death – remains dominant, even flush in the various byways of the folkworld. It drifts up to us from the earliest folk recordings, where it stands as a fieldhand blues number howled out in slackstring scratchy voices, filtered and reformed in a myriad of subgenres, from Leadbelly to Bill Monroe, through Doc Watson and The Stanley Brothers, John Renbourne and John Fahey, via John Jackson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Van Ronk and Guthrie and back again. (It is even familiar as an instrumental, especially with banjo and fiddle a la John Hartford or dulcimer a la Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, though we’ll stick to the lyrical conceit today.)

Some favorites versions, then, of an old song, easy to play and sing, its renewed relevance ever on our tongues as we continue our fight against the machine. Join us as we flesh out a vast and varied set of and beyond the American range, from the high-intensity Appalachian bounce of The Mammals to The Downtown Shimmy’s harmonica-driven blues, from Snakefarm’s psychedelic funk to the frenetic energy of Del McCoury’s high tenor wail, from Chris Jones’ gospelgrass to French duo Lonesome Day’s slow walking blues, from Thomas Hellman’s chug-along Quebecois trainsong to the hoot and holler of new primitive Appalachian interpreter Lebo Jenkins, plus the neo-traditional feminist turn of Elizabeth LaPrelle, a deconstructed atmosphere from Daniel Dutton, and the regionally diverse and differentiated grit of American-and-beyond singer-songwriters and cultural ambassadors Eric Bibb, Willie Watson, Andrew Calhoun, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Tim O’Brien, and David Broad.



John Henry, Covered In Folk
A Single Song Sunday Mix
[zip!]



Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

Comment » | Billy Bragg, Single Song Sunday, Tradfolk, Willie Watson

New Artists, Old Songs: from Indiefolk to Americana
with The Ahern Brothers, Gina Clowes, Kyle Carey & more!

February 7th, 2018 — 3:12pm

So much wonderful new music has hit the radar screen since the turning of the year, it’s hard to know just where to begin. But another snow day here in New England offers a great opportunity to pass along the good stuff ringing in our ears, making for a lovely mix to accompany the soft quiet of falling flakes.

So join us by the fire as we run down some of our favorite new covertracks and their rising star sources – a global smorgasbord of tasty treats and treatments from the wide, wide spectrum of modern folk and acoustic music. Life has never sounded as good as it does here, now, today.

aherns2Thanks to Aussie folkblog Timber & Steel for celebrating fellow down-under harmony singing folk duo The Ahern Brothers and their smashing self-titled 2017 debut in their end-of-year wrap-up – and apologies for taking so long to get to their delightful cover of Ryan Adams’ Prisoner, a video-sourced ballad that simply soars with pure, atmospheric harmonies a la The Milk Carton Kids and The Everly Brothers. It’s hard to decide which we like best: the sparse sound of this and other acoustic duo performances typical of an album that Rolling Stone called “A mesmerising contemporary folk recording: restrained, pithy, and pure”, or the crisp, lighthearted Simon-and-Garfunkel-esque studio production that typifies catchy new singles “There’s A Light” and “Passing Through”. Lucky for us, we get both.



ginaFrequent forays into the world of musical theater have me running hot for any version of a song originally written for the stage – as long as it isn’t dripping with schmaltz, that is. But where many of the folk covers we featured in our 2013 feature on showtune covers stick to the ballad-or-bombast model which so typifies the average musical theater performance, bluegrass rising star Gina Clowes’ album-closing take on Beautiful Land, a curtain-opener from mid-sixties class-consciousness musical The Roar of the Greasepaint…The Smell of the Crowd made mildly popular by Nina Simone, is a true transformation, turning what had been a b-side into a complex yet truly American neo-traditional delight that fits perfectly among the originals on September 2017 debut album True Colors, a solid survey of what’s new at the progressive crossroads of acoustic swing, gypsy jazz, and bluegrass, featuring performances from fellow members of the “absurdly talented” Furtado family and more.


kylecCeltic crossroads artist Kyle Carey‘s brand new recording is no debut – the honor belongs to 2011 release Monongah, recorded in western Ireland and produced by Donogh Hennesy of the acoustic super-group Lùnasa. But The Art of Forgetting, her third outing and her first recorded on American soil, nonetheless represents something new: a fully realized work that combines her deep reclamation of her Gaelic roots with the rich panoply of sound that typifies the contemporary integration of pan-regional folkways, supported by Dirk Powell’s stunning production and cajun-flavored studio work, Louisiana’s Sam Broussard on guitar, Scotland’s John McCusker on fiddle, Nashville’s Kai Welch on trumpet, and the warm harmonies of crossover superstar Rhiannon Giddens on a reinvented Irish tradtune. Heavenly, and highly recommended.



polhuellouIn his introductory email, Breton-based “Japanese music specialist” Pol Huellou calls his new album The Lost Agenda “kind of a musical UFO”, and that’s not so far off: his French acoustic boogie-woogie big band take on Just A Gigolo, to take just one example, is unexpected every time it comes around, as is the gentle instrumental harp-and-flute traditional that follows it; though the latter is a closer exemplar of what happens when you mix the genre-straddling Celtic, Breton, and Asian influences that typify Huellou’s panoptic ouvre, there’s little here that could truly be called typical of anything, really.

It’s complex, and often challenging, but the mix works, thanks to a dazzling and diverse set of songs, sources, and artists featuring everything from oud, sanza, and banjo on instrumental Irish tradtune-turned-arabic-melody The Star of Co. Down to his jazz-fueled chanson-style rendition of a Marlene Dietrich standard to the funky world-beat of album-closing Armenian traditional song Let’s Blues It. We actually included Huellou’s mostly-Celtic Serge Gainsboro cover on our 56-track end-of-year bonus mix, an exclusive for donors who give to support the continued existence of Cover Lay Down, but everyone should hear it; here’s a pair of the aforementioned, more Bela Fleck meets Morocco than anything, for those who, like us, just can’t get enough.



casstIf we’ve got a lot less to say about Harmless Sparks – a Tel Aviv amateur side project presumably named after the David Bazan song – it’s because all we’ve got so far is one admittedly stunning cover. But according to Israeli musician Omri Levy, whose previous covers and originals date back over a decade, and who sent it to us exclusively “since I really love your blog”, their dreamy take on Alphaville’s Big In Japan, a mournful, electro-atmospheric lullaby that leaves us breathless and wanting for more, will join three others on a soon-to-be-released EP; watch their Bandcamp page for upcoming covers of The Cure, Cyndi Lauper, and My Favorite Things.



vlcoverWe’re not above touting music before official release here at Cover Lay Down, especially when it comes from Hearth Music, one of our very favorite sources for authentic Americana, Cajun, old-timey, countryfolk, and other decidedly regional subgenres. This month’s case in point: Time Is Everything, a Pledgemusic-driven debut from surprisingly young Lexington, VA roots artist Vivian Leva, won’t drop until early March, but we’ve spent the last several weeks reveling in the deeply masterful set it presents, and now we just can’t help but pass it along, with kudos for its maturity, the rich-and-tender countryfolk-to-contemporary production that forces Leva’s heady voice and potent songwriting forward, and a sweet way with a vocal that wrings hope and heartache from a stunning survey of sentiment deeply rooted in land, loneliness, and languid country life.


2017_Sarah_McQuaid_1_LRUK-based singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid‘s fifth outing If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, its title sparked by a warning uttered to her son as he excavated an enormous hole in their backyard, offers an appropriate whirlwind of languid musings on mortality and hubris, with a thick and well-trained alto reminiscent of Annie Lennox astride ringing electric guitar and piano from McQuaid and legendary musician Michael Chapman, who lends both studio flourishes and producing credits to the effort. In the end, it’s a powerful album that simply shimmers with nuance, observational depth, and despair, just out and already named one of the top ten of the week by The Alternate Root magazine, and sure to please fans of The Unthanks, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits equally.



foxgloves-1LA-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumental vocalist Kristen Lynn is joined by The Foxgloves, a full fourpiece gypsy-jazz folk Americana band, on her second foray into the world of Kickstarter-funded projects, making Lonely Girl an easy fit for our diverse set today, with a haunting, sparse arrangement of Wild Mountain Thyme and a number of solid originals that romp and stomp. But it’s our very favorite cut so far that demands sharing today, an interesting experiment that really works: listen as You Are My Sunshine moves from the sweet and gentle to the dark and heady hullabaloo of a high-octane drumkick funeral rag, neatly nestling the true sentiment of the song in the shift from major to minor…and then head back in time to her 2012 debut LALA to hear it again, all sweetness and light.


Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 2.21.58 PMLast but not at all least: we’re hereby declaring Old Freight, a fine debut from flatpicking singer-songwriter Alan Barnosky released last November, nothing less than a new folk essential – one that doesn’t so much gather in the various influences which make modern singer-songwriter folk work as it reduces and transcends them, laying claim to the one-man, one-song center of the tent with little more than six sharp strings and warm, twangy voice, offering fair comparison to both Norman Blake and Townes Van Zandt. Barnosky also plays in a bluegrass five piece and an acoustic trio in and around his native Durham, North Carolina, and he’s played stages at Merlefest, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and the IBMA’s Bluegrass Ramble. But as the timeless originals and sole traditional cover on this record amply demonstrate, sometimes, simple IS best.



Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, like, donate, and follow us on Facebook for bonus tracks – including our Jan. 31 track-by-track covered-in-folk mix of Paul Simon’s Graceland album – and instant notice of new features, like a brand new Single Song Sunday feature due to drop this weekend. And above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

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