I was never really a huge David Bowie fan. But as a child of the first MTV generation, it’s hard not to recognize and respect both man and myth.
Bowie’s songbook was potent, his influence as immense as his chameleon-like persona. A deliberately unreliable narrator who found universal truths in imagined worlds, he mastered the video form early, the better to spread the music, paving the way for today’s YouTube world. He spent a lifetime recording and touring on the strength of over a hundred charting singles in a career that spanned five decades.
And fittingly, two years ago, his song Space Oddity served as soundtrack for the first music video created in outer space.
So when David Bowie passed on this morning after an long struggle with cancer, just days after the release of Blackstar – his thirtieth studio album, counting soundtracks – we took a quick dip into the archives. And sure enough, there it was: our very first Covered In Folk feature, from way back in December of 2007, covering the songbook of Ziggy Stardust himself.
In memory of Bowie, then, whose songs populate our weirdest dreams, today we resurrect and rebuild that feature, adding several new and newfound recordings to the list of covers that follows. May the man himself live on through the music, as all great men.
The recent penchant towards folk interpretations of songs from the popworld is really nothing new. After all, though modern folk music has turned its eye towards confessional songwriting and urban poetry, and quite often away from its agrarian roots, traditionally, folk music is not so much about the rural as it is populated by the music of the folk, which quite literally means whatever is popular in the eyes and ears of the people.
Instead, we might suggest that it was inevitable that folk music change its tone once radio and the recording studio changed forever the hum lingering in the ears of the populace. As a result, we have urban and anti-folk, folk rock and folkpop, subgenres of folk music which often share the same production values as pop music of today. And we also get a heck of a lot of songs from the radio entering the cover repertoires of folk musicians themselves.
How else can we explain the prevalence of David Bowie covers “out there”? Certainly Bowie is nothing like folk — his stylistic pose and chameleon-like personality are antithetical to the authentic and direct relationship between artist and audience that characterizes folk music. Neither is his broken-glass poetic imagery and trope terribly folk, though I suppose one could make a case for the odd science-fiction motif as resonant with the same audience as modern folk music, and surely some of today’s choice cuts reveal some storysong structures and cultural journey motifs common to much folk music.
A few years ago, when Dar Williams asked her fan base to vote on which song she should record, Bowie’s Starman won by a landslide. I suppose it goes to show us: part of what has always made folk music folk music is the way it tries to connect with the audience. And if this means a reflection of the classic rock radio that permeates our culture, or a shared recall of that late-seventies or mid-eighties childhood, ears glued to the shimmery radio glamstars of those last pre-MTV days, then who are we to question the origin of the ultimately authentic, earnest songs and reinterpretations that result?
Today, a few choice covers from the surprisingly vast spectrum of David Bowie songs performed by folk musicians, available track by track or as a one-shot download. Play ‘em in public to watch two generation of cool kids smile as the songs in their heads come back to life, stripped down and stretched out, in spades, in style, and in beauty.
- Dar Williams: Starman
This Bowie-esque popfolk cover from urban folk goddess Dar Williams was produced and distributed solely via Dar Williams’ fanbase; they own her albums, and so should you.
- The Gourds: Ziggy Stardust
Alt-country bluegrass boys The Gourds bring their signature hoot and holler, swagger and twang to this cover, originally recorded for a March 2003 CD insert in Uncut magazine and now available on french-produced Bowie coveralbum Bowiemania.
- Lotte Kestner: Space Oddity
- Natalie Merchant: Space Oddity
A dreamy live post-pop tour de force from the cusp of Natalie Merchant‘s turn towards alt-folk, though the bass and electric guitar slide into the chorus are a blast from the past – matched with a much quieter, more pensive interpretation from Lotte Kestner, requested on Kickstrater and shared for the first time today.
- M. Ward: Let’s Dance
Though I usually prefer the stripped down nature of in-studio covers, the slow atmospheric layers of this produced version, off Transfiguration of Vincent, really set off M. Ward‘s rough-hewn vocal style.
- Leaf Rapids: The Man Who Sold The World
Grungy, gothic dreampop cover of a song made famous by Nirvana, and then transformed again by Leaf Rapids, the Manitoba-based husband and wife duo whose Handsome Family cover we celebrated in our 2015 lost coverage roundup just last week.
- Seu Jorge: Rebel, Rebel
No modern exploration of Bowie’s influence on folk would be complete without at least one selection from Seu Jorge‘s wonderful, delicate Portuguese translations of the canon, produced as part and parcel of the narrative arc for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou under the inspired direction of Wes Anderson.
- Hezekiah Jones: Ashes To Ashes
Hezekiah Jones, “a collection of Philadelphia-area artists orbiting around the songwriting talents of one Raphael Cutrufello”, originally recorded their sweet, creaky waltz-time banjo-and-harmony cover of Ashes To Ashes for a compilation that never came to be.
- Happy Rhodes: Ashes To Ashes
- Happy Rhodes: Space Oddity
Low, primitive vocals and warm singer-songwriter guitar typify this pair of throwback covers from happily retired alt-rocker Happy Rhodes – the first a solo acoustic studio recording, the second a soaring live take with subtle flourishes from a grungy back-up band.
- PHIA & Josh The Cat: As The World Falls Down
Thumb piano, fingersnaps, and summer-sweet harmonies from Berlin-based artists PHIA and Josh The Cat. From a 2014 Rolling Stone Germany CD tribute otherwise lost to the ether.
- Anna Ternheim: China Girl
- The Last Town Chorus: Modern Love
Indiefolk darlings Anna Ternheim and Megan Hickey’s alter-ego The Last Town Chorus make surprisingly similar production choices on two very different originals, create sultry, rich environments that bring the lyrics out.
- Keller Williams: Under Pressure (orig. David Bowie/Queen)
Keller Williams is typically playful in this live take on Bowie/Queen collaboration Under Pressure, but listen carefully – under the surface, the song takes itself seriously, and ultimately, so does Williams.
- Solotundra: Sound And Vision
Lo-fi alt-country from Italian minimalists Solotundra, who use doubled voices and a guitar drone to replicate this mostly instrumental piece from Bowie’s equally minimalist, equally lo-fi 1977 album Low.
- Dan Hardin: Heroes
It’s hard to find folky covers of Heroes, though the song seems to have become a staple of the hard rock cover circuit, but YouTuber Dan Hardin reins in the angst, dampening the fire without losing the tension.
- He’s My Brother She’s My Sister: Moonage Daydream
Muffled retro indiepop with a dash of country alt-rock from slightly mysterious LA-based project He’s My Brother She’s My Sister. A bit beyond folk, but a high point nonetheless.
- Elizabeth Mitchell: Kooks
Fave kindie-folker Elizabeth Mitchell put this delightfully cheery cover on her 2012 album Blue Clouds, where it soars alongside a full complement of other gentle lullaby transformations.