Category: Holiday Coverfolk


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

2 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes

New Artists, Holiday Songs 2013:
Christmas coverfolk samplers, streams, and YouTube singles

December 21st, 2013 — 2:43pm





Just past the wreaths and windows a bout of unseasonable Solstice warmth melts the New England snow from once-glistening treetops, opening the outdoors to a final foray into woods and shopping malls as we prepare the home and heart for Christmas Day itself. Inside, the tree is up, the halls decked with boughs and mistletoe; at night, when the kids are finally in bed, we nestle snug on the couch and lift our glasses of wine and nog to toast the lights that twinkle in the darkness.

As ever, nostalgia carries us into the last gasps of the season like an old friend, accompanying us on our rounds as we wind down our shopping to shed the stresses of the year and season. The kids clamor for their favorite songs, and the heart sings for the songs of our own childhoods. But by now, many of us have exhausted the familiar carols that play ad infinitum in our ears as we bustle to find our center, our moments of peace.

For your gift-wrapping pleasure, then, our final holiday feature of the year: a stocking stuffed full of young artists on the rise, plying the intensity of the season with carols designed to catch the ear and prompt further exploration. Listen as these new and newfound Noisetrade samplers, Bandcamp and Soundcloud streams, and YouTube visions give new voice to the beloved songs of Christmas.


Newfound favorites The Western Den are a young ambient folk duo prone to narrative lyricism, hauntingly beautiful arrangements, and gentle, etherial harmonies; the pulsing carols on their tiny 3-track Midwinter EP are an apt introduction to their work, with organic instrumental undertones from brass and strings that mix with their sweet voices, piano, and guitar to frame a myriad moments that soothe, silence, and soar. But we are equally floored by their ongoing celebration of nature and community, as evidenced by the year-round celebration of their peers in the Boston folk scene, and the plethora of photos taken among the leaves of every season, that fill their Facebook page. In the case of the Midwinter EP, these trends manifest in context as much as they do in craft: a pay-as-you-wish download, hand-sewn fabric sleeves for hardcopy, and the donation of all EP proceeds to UNICEF to aid children in the Philippines affected by the recent typhoon, surround their aural honesty with cherishing light, making the collection a perfect introduction to their breadth and beauty.





There’s irony aplenty in this true-blue Americana version of White Christmas from bluegrass quartet Wood & Wire, performed outdoors in their shirtsleeves just last week at the Zilker Holiday Tree for local radio station KUTX’s Austin Music Map project, which aims to build an “interactive portrait” of the vibrant music scene in a city where the snow never falls. The hum of the crowd that surrounds them as they play the grounds lends a vibrancy to their touching rendition of the Christmas classic even as beards, bass, banjo and mandolin ground the song in its southern setting.




NYC-based Nina Yasmineh trends towards lush indiepop, lovingly delivered and layered with longing; though the bold, pulsing piano that populates her 2013 debut EP Seven Years kept her from finding footing in the folkworld, it’s a joy nonetheless, aptly celebrated by a number of blogs upon its release this Summer. Happily, however, this year’s Christmas cover is eminently folk, with echoey vocals over a frozen landscape of sparse, slow-plucked guitar that totally transforms Mariah Carey’s bombastic dance-around into something wistful, gentle, and still.





Celebrated YouTube starlet Daniela Andrade was the only artist to appear twice in the Top 40 radiopop coverset we compiled earlier this year; we’ll not dwell too much on her now, as we’re expecting to revisit her work in the next few weeks as part of our upcoming Best Of 2013 features. But her newly-released “homemade” Christmas EP – available in download form, or streamable as a video series – showcases just why we’re so delighted to have found her, with intimate performance, whispery-sweet vocals, and the sexiest Santa Baby you’ll ever hear, a perfect teaser for the good things to come.





Not all of our old, familiar carols are played sweet and light, of course – and not all should be, either. Those looking for a holiday more fully grounded in grungy, gritty roots-rock will be well-served by the syrupy, sultry ballad Canadian band Del Bel makes of John Prine classic Christmas In Prison, which turns the tune into a Day of the Dead lament with heavy, heady electric bass and guitars, wailing whiskey vocals, and a fallen angel choir of saxophones and horns. Press materials here are right on target, quoting bassist and composer Tyler Belluz as saying that he “found a depressing Christmas tune and made it more depressing.”





In addition to writing chamber, orchestral and choral music for concert and film, Connecticut composer and singer-songwriter Jonny Rodgers performs and records his own songs with a combination of electronic loops, guitar, and tuned wineglasses. The combination of glasses and strings works especially well on Every Mother’s Child: 3 Songs For Christmas, making for relatively traditional interpretations of three hymns that glisten and shimmer like tinsel in the air. In keeping with the project’s title, half of the profits will go to Project Night Night, which donates tote bags filled with a blanket, a book and a stuffed animal to homeless children living in shelters; “making sure that every mother’s child has sweet dreams, even if they’re living in trying circumstances.”





Last but never least, Tuscaloosa, Alabama singer-songwriter Joshua Hilliker and vocalist Heather Hester recorded and released their Merry Christmas EP last year, but our discovery in the midst of this year’s annual Noisetrade exploration brings comfort and joy aplenty, even if there’s little to learn about the artist’s history or craft here (Hilliker’s webpage redirects back to Noisetrade itself). Still, strong arrangement and sweet performance tell a tale of their own: Joshua and Heather’s Away in a Manger is sublime; this take on African-American spiritual Everywhere I Go (more often listed as Somebody Talking ‘Bout Jesus) simply blows me away.

For comparison’s sake, two other EPs – also released last year, but newly-found – provide a breadth of comparison. Adam Townsend’s Give & Get EP, recorded with his wife to raise money and awareness for homeless kids and teens via GA-based charity StandUp For Kids, offers weary, homegrown sentiment for the holiday homestead. Meanwhile, Floridian singer-sonqwriter Josh Gilligan’s Christmas EP, which benefits Blood:Water Mission’s fight against the HIV/AIDS and water crises in Africa, trends more folkpop, but his new brush-and-horn arrangement of Away In A Manger, with its echoes of Calexico and other indie Americana bands, fits the contemporary folkscene sweetly. All three EPs are available for free, but as always, donate if you can, the better to support artists (and, in Gilligan and Townsend’s cases, their chosen beneficiaries) well worth celebrating.




Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all our readers – may your days be merry and bright! We’ll be back in the next few days with the first volume of our annual two-part review of the best coverfolk albums and singles of 2013!

Comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, New Artists Old Songs, Soundcloud Saturday

Single Song Sunday: Fairytale Of New York
(15 coverfolk versions of a surprisingly sentimental punk favorite)

December 15th, 2013 — 1:35pm





It’s hard to remember where I first heard The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, but it’s easy to imagine why it stuck in my ears: I was 14 in 1987, jaded by pop music and just starting to find my way to punk, and on the surface, this song turns the typical holiday world on its ear. Indeed, the song is often seen as an antithesis to the many powerful, sweet, and well-covered songs in the new Christmas canon – a schizophrenic, gleefully obscene drunkard’s dream straight out of Tom Waits, with a dash of the jig and a technicolor vision of Irish holidays in the gutter that primes the pump for raucous indie encore coverage such as this week’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon performance by Iron & Wine, Calexico, Glen Hansard and Kathleen Edwards.

But like so many of our Single Song Sunday songs, Fairytale of New York has depth and promise, with much more under its scummy surface than its reputation might suggest. Its continued popularity in the 21st century is no anomaly: this is a sentimental song, in the end, that tells a tale of past and present, hope, hardship and hearth consistent with the season, and made real by its setting in the proletariat classes.

That the song remains so familiar, so frequently covered and caroled, is a testament to its portraiture and its power. And if the rousing duet that rises from the ashes of maudlin balladry to bait our downtrodden, roughshod narrator into a bawdy, joyous exchange of dirty words and dirtier thoughts keeps the song from placement alongside the maudlin modernity of Bing, Elvis, McCartney and Mariah on so many radio playlists in the US this time of year, then it falls to others like us to keep it alive on this side of the pond.


Fairytale of New York needs less support in the British and Emerald Isles, of course. It was a quick success there when released as a single by Celtic Punk band The Pogues for Christmas in 1987, a holiday harbinger from their seminal album If I Should Fall From Grace With God that featured the last-minute addition of English singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl, who was label-less at the time, but married to Pogues producer Steve Lillywhite. Anecdotally, Fairytale was written in response to a challenge to find a new Christmas song, and in many ways, the concept fit the band, whose interest in bridging tradition was a driving creative force and a key component of its popularity. The song benefitted greatly from its emergence in the early days of MTV, with a starkly black and white video filmed in NYC, and it rose rapidly on the charts; its canonical presence has since been fueled by rerelease in 1991, and again in 2005, after the song was voted most popular Christmas song by VH1 UK.

But history and context stand alongside song itself in explicating our familiarity. Though originally written to be a duet with Pogues bass player Cait O’Riordan, who left the band before recording, the disparate voices of Shane MacGowan and MacColl are tied closely to the tonality of the original here. So, too, is the sudden tonal shift that leads into the duet, changing the song from haunted, hoarse immigrant’s drunk-tank piano ballad to an Irish pub-rouser populated by alcoholics and addicts, pipes and drum.

Both differences – arrangement and harmonic setting – emphasize the distance of memory as our drunkard dreams, combining with the composition itself to form a strong trifecta of elemental types to explain its success. And because they seem so determinant to the song’s power, many covers, like the aforementioned indie supergroup cover, treat both the duet and its tonal distance as canonical. KT Tunstall and Ed Harcourt, for example, play it relatively straight, though effectively, as do YouTube stars ortoPilot and Kate McGill. So, too, does the heavier rock version released by Jesse Malin in the US version of his covers album On Your Sleeve in 2008, which matches the heavy beats and bells of Springsteen’s Santa Claus Is Coming To Town to the keys of the original, burying sentiment in triumph by the song’s end.

Others transcend these limitations, taking the song one step farther from the oft-heard. Laura Boyle layers her own voice into the song, with echoes and a quiet picked-chord guitar undertone that make for a startling quietude. Alfredo De Pietra and Tom Mitchell’s solo covers, both released on Soundcloud, stick with gentle strummed triplets throughout, flattening the tonal shift to illuminate the sweetness. And several more beautiful solo covers, from the guitar-driven performances of Irish folksinger Christy Moore and snowbound steetcorner busker Ciaran Cooney to a frozen, entirely piano cover from Texas singer-songwriter Bob Schneider that skips the duet section altogether, emphasize the wistful loneliness of MacGowan’s narrator, isolating him further from the promise of Christmas redemption encoded in the original.

There’s diversity in the middle ground, too. The version recorded by Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine) and Billy Bragg in 2009 for a live BBC session, offers a perfect case of just how much room for interpretation is available in this arrangement; neither Harcourt’s mellow tones nor Bragg’s ragged voice are as broken as MacGowan’s, but the contrast remains, and the replacement of Welch’s harp for the piano part lends an even more dreamlike tone to the ballad that opens the song.

The layered beauty, full choir, and early duet harmonies that Canadian indiepop band Stars apply to their cover, released in 2005, trade the clear delineation for a more anticipatory and fluid performance. Well-known video cover artists Walk Off The Earth drop the band altogether, sticking to guitar accompaniment for their duet, drifting back and forth between several gently rolling styles, which gets them there more gradually, and allows them to travel less distance to get there in the first place. And similarly, though in entirely different genres, bands like The Beef Seeds (with tongue in cheek countrygrass) and Matthew and the Atlas (in sublime indiefolk) keep the song’s second half lighter with less rock and more folk instrumentation, flattening the difference between the two pieces of the song, emphasizing the song’s inherent tenderness.

So join us for a very special holiday Single Song Sunday set – a compendium of coverage, from Celtic Punk to gentle singer-songwriter fare, that explores the breadth of possible in tradition transformed through the immigrant’s dream at Christmas. Download the whole set, or check out individual performances individually, to find the breadth of promise in what may well be the most culturally significant late 20th century addition to the Christmas canon. And dream big yourself, no matter what your lot – for it’s Christmas, and the world is full of possibility.


Single Song Sunday: Fairytale of New York, Covered in Folk [zip!]


    Iron & Wine and Calexico with Glen Hansard and Kathleen Edwards: Fairytale of New York [2013]



Looking for a broader selection of seasonal coverfolk? Check out this year’s new Christmas cover collections, our drunkard’s christmas mixtape and 18 more sets of Christmas kidfolk, wintersongs, and holiday carols from the Cover Lay Down archives … and then stay tuned later this week for EP features from a holy host of new artists in the holiday spirit, and a set of singleshot coverage that will fill your stocking and warm your heart as the holiday approaches!



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2 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Single Song Sunday

Celebrate ALL The Christmas!
Coverfolk Mixes from Christmases Past (2008-2012)

December 10th, 2013 — 5:58pm





The season is well upon us, and the snow is falling on the trees, making a white world of what was green and brown. After school, the wee one takes the sled out; though the scant inch or two that’s fallen is too soft for traction, she seems happy enough playing on the driveway. And I am happy, too: at the fire which warms our house, and the blankets which beckon beside it; at the freedom of an afternoon shut in by snow; at the happiness of children at play.

Like the snow – and like the fleeting calm that permeates its moments – holiday favorites tend to fall, stick for a week or two, and then melt away; though their ephemeral nature makes them precious, so, too, do the songs of every season fade too easily into the haze of memory, like Dylan’s blur of childhood Christmases in Wales. And yet just as one season’s gems hardly represent the total canon of any of the artists we feature, to spend one’s time going back and forth between the public pap of the radio dial and this year’s newest holiday soundtrack is to dwell on the popular and new – a trend which neither honors the stillnesses of the season nor the comfort of its rituals and traditions.

This week and next, our coverfolk advent calendar will feature a seasonal set of new artist EPs, and single-shot videos and streaming tracks to make the spirits bright; as always, we urge pursuit of all artists through and after the holidays, that the present might lead to support and fandom, the better to keep the fires of folk alight. For now, though, we’ve dug through the archives to bring you our Christmases past – a set of seasonal mixtapes from the secular to the sublime, and the silly to the sane, curated and shared here on the blog between 2008 and 2012. Enjoy the archives, and may the spirit of the season find you in good health and good humor.

2008



2009



2010



2011



2012


Comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes, Reposts

Holiday Cheer: New Christmas Cover Collections
from Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Elizabeth Mitchell, Andrew Greer & more!

December 7th, 2013 — 4:59pm





The radio stations play Christmas music indiscriminately as if it were a genre, holding arias against Elvis, segueing neatly from crooners to choirs, cramming the droll alongside the dreck. The Amazon charts are cluttered with cloying new Christmas releases from Kelly Clarkson, Susan Boyle, and that family from Duck Dynasty. And the biggest buzz in the folkworld at the holidays this year revolves around Just One Angel v2.0, a newly-curated two-disc set of silly-to-sublime holiday originals from a cohort of contemporary singer-songwriters which – while generally strong in its own right – is hardly fodder for a coverfolk blog.

But the season brings gifts evermore, and this year is no exception. Below, a taste of new Christmas albums full of covers and carols for the folkset, from tradfolk to indiefolk to contemporary singer-songwriter fare – something for everyone, under the tree.



British tradfolk duo Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker have hit these pages several times before – most recently in July, in celebration of sophomore effort Fire & Fortune, which we praised for “Clarke’s mature, deceptively simple interpretation of timeless traditional laments and original ballads, Walker’s stunningly subtle fretwork, and inspired settings of low winds, gentle piano chords, and soaring strings combine marvelously, making a fragile atmosphere that welcomes even as it warns.”

But although the settings here are generally sparser, the simply-titled Midwinter – a December-only Bandcamp release that will give 50% of its profits to UNICEF’s Children of Syria Appeal – is only unassuming on the surface. Clarke’s poised, pure vocals soar; Walker’s classical-folk guitar treatment rings; though its most revenant cuts would not seem out of place in church, it warms our home marvelously with its timeless arrangements, from the hearty a capella duet of Shepherds Arise to the rich, woodwind-driven triplets of We Three Kings. An unapologetic Christmas album so perfect in its treatment, so pure in its performance, so potent in its intimacy, we cannot help but preemptively lament the short-lived season.



Constant companion Elizabeth Mitchell, whose kidfolk settings and recreations of popular song for the younger set have long topped our playlists, has expanded her repertoire in the past few years, most recently with Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie, a full album of Woody Guthrie kidfolk classics, released by Smithsonian Folkways in honor of Guthrie’s 100th birthday, which we celebrated upon its release in the Summer of 2012. But although we have continued to suggest that many of Mitchell’s songs are not just for children, the songs lovingly presented on The Sounding Joy, a delightful collection of sparsely set carols selected from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1953 songbook American Folk Songs for Christmas, represent the first full collection from this teacher-turned-artist that are truly as universally accessible as they are enjoyable.

As with many recent works by Mitchell, the majority of tracks on The Sounding Joy are sweet, reverent, gently gleeful folk treatments of the classics, led by Mitchell’s simple vocals, harmonies from John Sebastian, Aoife O’Donovan, Natalie Merchant, Amy Helm, Dan Zanes, husband Daniel Littleton, and more, and a light collection of Appalachian strings, winds, and brushes that echo their source. But some tracks are gentler than others; in this case, the soft piano duet that comes of Joseph and Mary, Seeger’s setting of The Cherry Tree Carol, is a heart-stopping lament, pulsing sorrow and joy enough to make the whole pursuit worthwhile.



Gently plucked strings and a heavenly folk tenor reminiscent of Mark Erelli or an early Paul Simon make In The Bleak Winter one of many crowning jewels of Andrew Greer‘s newest release Angel Band: The Christmas Sessions, but it’s hard to pick a favorite. Greer, a versatile Nashville singer-songwriter, has had a meteoric rise since the release of his 2009 debut Open Book, fueled in no small part by a strong fan base in the Christian music community, but don’t let the affiliation scare you off: the last album from this accomplished interpreter of Americana, an instrumental set of hymns, charted quite high on the folk charts, as did Angel Band: The Hymn Sessions, a collection of vintage hymns translated into stringforms alongside special guests like Ron Block of Alison Krauss & Union Station, Sandra McCracken, Julie Lee and The McCrary Sisters.

Snag The Hymn Sessions and a bonus EP-sized set of acoustic holiday carols for a suggested donation over at Noisetrade, and then head over to Greer’s website to order and savor Angel Band: The Christmas Sessions in all its holy glory for just five bucks.



We’ll be visiting a small but stellar collection of seasonal EPs later this week in a very special holiday edition of our New Artists, Old Songs feature series. But although with two originals and three covers in the set, it is technically not a cover collection, our list today would nonetheless be incomplete without mention of Snowed In, the newest release from singer-songwriter Mindy Smith. Snowed In keeps coming up tagged Countrypop on my playlists, which is a shame: there’s nothing to differentiate this from gentle contemporary folk in the vein of Kris Delmhorst or Lori McKenna, and everything to love in this tiny, wistful collection of winter songs both new and old.



Every Christmas since their inception in 1999, Sleeping At Last – once the name of a teenage garage band that won favor and label-distribution after notice from Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins fame; now the nom de plume used by suburban Chicago singer-songwriter and band-founder Ryan O’Neal in solo guise – has recorded and released a new holiday song as a gift for family and friends. Last year, for the first time, their Christmas Collection was offered as a full album available freely on Noisetrade, and this year’s soaring, uke-and-choir rendition of John Lennon’s classic Happy Xmas (War Is Over) makes for a fine addition to the canon. O’Neal gets major bonus points, too, for reimagining Men Without Hats 80′s classic The Safety Dance as a hushed, melancholic indiefolk lament for last week’s episode of The Carrie Diaries – making of both song and singer a gift, indeed.



Finally, A Rarebird In A Pear Tree, Vol. 3, the third holiday compilation from the indie label, is a typically eclectic mixed-bag of indie credibility, with dreampop, chamberfolk, and the occasional beat-driven indierock on the record, and a tip-if-you-like Noisetrade release. But the music flows, it’s all good, and the quiet, solo guitar-and-vox coverage we most crave this time of year is plentiful and pleasing. The end of the collection is especially dear: Jordan Fox’ ringing, hoarse O Little Town Of Bethlehem is a tiny gem; Shelly Gordon’s Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas is melancholy and deceptively bare.



Download our Christmas Cover Collections 2013 mix in handy zipped format. Subscribe to our Facebook page for bonus tracks, tidbits, and more throughout the week. Buy music locally, and direct from artists’ preferred sources, always. And be sure to stay tuned for more holiday fare from the folkworld as the days continue to darken!

2 comments » | Andrew Greer, Best of 2013, Elizabeth Mitchell, Holiday Coverfolk, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Tributes and Cover Compilations

Christmas Cheer Coverfolk:
Seasonal Songs of Drinking, Revisited

December 5th, 2013 — 2:14pm





An unexpected week in the hospital with the chronically ill elderchild has temporarily postponed what was intended to be a triumphant return to regular blogging. But last night, she was well enough to come home, and to exclaim sleepily with delight at our neighborhood alight with the trees and pageantry of Christmas as we drove though the darkened streets. And I am delighted, myself, to note that 80 years ago today, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified, ending national Prohibition, and paving the way for a return to the Christmas tradition of drinking with good company – a ritual sorely lacking in the sterile halls of even the most friendly in-patient ward.

And so a hastily-constructed thematic feature, previously lost to our server troubles last winter, is reborn.

Join us, as we lift a glass to the season and the day with a decidedly mixed-bar set of songs celebrating home, family, and holiday drinking. We’ll be back next week with some new and classic coverfolk cheer as we continue our celebration of Christmas 2013. May God bless us, every one.



Download the Cover Lay Down Drinking at Xmas mix in one convenient zip file!

1 comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes, Reposts

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.

10 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes

Feminist Anthems, Covered In Folk
for International Women’s Day / International Women’s Month

March 8th, 2013 — 1:18pm





It’s International Women’s Day, and International Woman’s Month: important markers of how far we’ve come in our ongoing struggle towards true gender equality, and important reminders that exploring history through the lens of the other is a key component of our ongoing growth as a humanity.

But the very fact of International Women’s Day is also an indicator of just how deeply we still suffer, and how much we still need to pause, thoughtfully, in order to explore the hidden and not-so-silent assumptions which keep us from being who we should be. And so, as a father of daughters, a husband of a wife, there’s a part of me that finds myself more than a bit frustrated that it’s 2013, and here I am raising two girls in a world where people still insist on setting aside a whole and single month to acknowledge 51% of the population.

I cherish and celebrate the women in my life – though like most men, probably not as much as I should. It is a hard-won habit, and one needful of constant reinforcement. But it’s not enough to honor. Lingering inequalities undermine all of us, and to address them, we must start by being honest with ourselves about that which we still carry in ourselves, both collectively and individually. And so I have celebrated the tomboy tendencies of the elderchild, and then later been ashamed, for unconsciously nurturing that within her which would make her able to compete with boys and men on their own turf, for forgetting that becoming the other is never the right path to consensual change. And I have struggled, mightily, with the pink princess preferences of my younger daughter, before ultimately deciding that as long as we are able to help her reach a point where she is able to make a conscious and informed choice to embrace such range of identity, girlishness should be a legitimate point on that spectrum for her or anyone to defend, and proudly.

After a lifetime coming to terms with both my own white male privilege, I consider myself a feminist, of a sort – a term which I use, in part, because it makes everything stop for a while, leaving that breathing room which can become the foundation of self-healing. And this means many things: accepting, for example, that it is not my place to decide what women need or want, but owning the idea that it is my place to both guard the rights of those whose gendered lives I cannot truly know or claim, and to confront and help illuminate the worlds of those men who – through their casual words, or their subtle actions – create discomfort without knowing.

Believing in true equality also means walking the walk in my teaching practice, too. More often than not, this means working hard to seize each teachable moment, all in the name of teaching both boys and girls that it is to their ultimate benefit to claim their role as active collaborators in the process of change, lest they find the world more confusing than it needs to be. The immediacy of my reactions to what my male students often try to defend as mere horseplay (or worse, as culturally-grounded role-play which I, as a white outsider, should respect and allow), confounds many of them, who too often spout (or worse, enact and embody) the misogyny of the naive and brash, and are too often startled by the vehemence with which I call them on their casual objectification of their female peers when I see it in the hallways and classrooms.

Working hard to use non-gendered terms, and to correct my students gently when they use them in daily practice, is an ongoing struggle: too many of the texts we use still automatically assign male pronouns to hypothetical CEOs, Chairs-of-the-Boards, and Doctors, and female terms for office assistants, nurses, and airline hosts. But I am privileged to teach a subject where such discourse can be explicit, too. For the sophomores who take my Introduction to Media Literacy class, our upcoming study of both the strict division of toy and television programming – from the Dora/Bob The Builder dichotomy to the increasingly subtle but no less present gender cues in the Disney Princess canon – will offer a more explicit lesson: that the stories we tell ourselves about who we are still limit us; that the patterns they embed in our developing minds recreate generations of disempowered girls and boys, who are ill-prepared to confront themselves, and less able to open themselves to each other in healthy ways as they find each other and themselves in adulthood.

As it is in my world, so it is in yours: as long as men and women work every moment to see themselves as equal partners and allies in the fight for true equality, and to develop the habits of mind and practice that teach others that such lenses are normative, there is hope, to pair with our frustration.

Until then, I suppose, we must reluctantly accept Women’s Day as the desperately needed touchstone that it is.

Still, it remains my hope that my daughters will one day live in a world where discourse of quotas and glass ceilings is truly moot; where strangers and grandparents do not cite my daughters for their prettiness first and foremost; where the sixteen year old adolescents I cry for in my darkest hours not only cease their grab-ass corridor ways, but accept their role as parents and partners before they impregnate their peers – and where, because we set aside every day to celebrate and reflect upon all the things we are, International Women’s Day can take its place in the cultural pantheon as just one more of those crumbling granite edifices that – like footprints in the fading snow of a warm Spring – mark the path that has taken us to where we want to be.



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