Category: RIP


RIP: David Bowie, 1947-2016

January 11th, 2016 — 5:22pm


david_bowie


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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Danny Michel: Young Americans
    A slowbuild backporch slackstring folk-blues; the storysong of an American awakening. My absolute favorite Bowie cover. Ladies and Gentlemen, Danny Michel, from beautiful tribute Loving The Alien: Danny Michel Sings the Songs of David Bowie.

Comment » | David Bowie, RIP

Covered In Folk: Jesse Winchester (1944-2014)
(with Roseanne Cash, Chris Smither, Mark Erelli, The McGarrigles +8 more!)

June 30th, 2014 — 4:36pm





I started this entry towards the end of March, an early thaw that revealed a fertile earth ready for Spring even as insanity reigned in my personal life, and many drafts went unfinished. Since then, southern-born musician and songwriter Jesse Winchester has succumbed to the bladder cancer that plagued him for the better half of a decade – but the deceptively simple, direct lyrics and tunes that brought him a modicum of fame and no small counterpart of peer recognition through a long and storied career linger in the air, soothing mind and body as the world slows down to summer heat.

I first wrote about Winchester’s work over at Star Maker Machine back in 2009. Today we take the more comprehensive approach with a long-overdue Covered In Folk feature in tribute to Winchester’s songbook, featuring coverage from a company of contemporaries, including Emmylou Harris, Chris Smither, Pierce Pettis and more.


The musician’s musician, the singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter: even as we overuse such terms through our criticism and praise, it remains both trope and truism that some of the best artists make their name through the works of others. And although he produced and released his songbook almost entirely through his own performances, Jesse Winchester is one of those artists whose name is all over the liner notes of his generation. His work has been recorded and celebrated by Tom Rush, Emmylou Harris (x2), Lyle Lovett, The Everly Brothers, Jimmy Buffett (x3), Elvis Costello, Little Feat, Wilson Pickett, and a host of well-known Country artists; many of those same stars, plus James Taylor, Lucinda Williams, Allen Toussaint and more, came together in 2012 for a tribute album after the gentle interpreter of the human condition fell ill with cancer.

Winchester deserves the attention. In his own voice, he was a contemporary polymath of genre, with folk and blues elements that cross boundaries even as they dig deep into the soul. Rolling Stone named him The Greatest Voice of the Decade after a 1977 performance that marked a triumphant return to the US after a draft-dodging decade in Quebec.

And although the bulk of his work dates back to the seventies, Winchester continued to write and record throughout his life, albeit sparingly, and in a career ever hampered by a reluctance to play the popstar game. His 2009 appearance on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle, where he performed Sham-A-Ling-Ding-Dong – a song that American Songwriter aptly called “an ode to both the triumph of true love over time and to the profundity of nonsensical doo-wop lyrics, all delivered by Winchester in a fragile croon that transmits all of the deep emotions hiding between the lines” – is a stunning example of a true master at the end of a too-short career, in a performance that brought Neko Case – and me – to tears.

What makes a musician’s influence so strong that his work affects his peers so well? Mostly, the ability to put into words those universal sentiments that songwriters have long struggled to make. Winchester’s work is often thick with nostalgia, and rich with first person sentiment, but it is, in the end, stunning in its simplicity, with plain lines bare and carefully constructed, pitch-perfect hidden depths that shimmer under seemingly straightforward lyrics. Listen, as his songs shine through the voices that celebrate him – from Mark Erelli’s tender folk lullaby to Chris Smithers’ stomping, driving blues, Emmylou’s inimitable balladry, and the countrygrass sounds of New Grass Revival.


COVERED IN FOLK: JESSE WINCHESTER [zip!]


Comment » | Covered In Folk, RIP

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

Covered In Folk: George Jones
(James Taylor, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Proclaimers & more!)

May 4th, 2013 — 10:47am


george-jones


The threads that entwine early country music and American folk music are clear and bright in the folkways. Early country came from folk, coupled with other Southern strands that would lead to the blues; before the folk-revival canonization of radio and festival genres in the 50s and 60s, the folk community welcomed country artists as their own.

But although it is common for modern folk musicians to pay tribute to the early blues and country songs of depression-era radio and the early Grand Ole Opry, and to certain subgenres such as outlaw country, outside of a smaller subsection of folk artists playing on the periphery where swing, honky-tonk, and bluegrass elements are second nature, they don’t always acknowledge their debt to the Nashville strains of modern country music, even in those subgenres which arose simultaneous with the revival movements.

Enter George Jones, a Texan by birth who found voice in the be-suited Nashville crowd in the late fifties, and never left, even as country began to branch out into country rock, outlaw county, and rockabilly forms. With an identity closely tied to his alcoholism, a hard-livin’ attitude which caused him to miss no small share of his own shows, a penchant for overspending and lawn tractor accidents, and four wives – including a stormy “country couple” pairing with country icon Tammy Wynette at the height of his career which produced at least one seminal album – Jones lived the country life, and the way he channeled this life into music was duly celebrated in the sixties, seventies, and eighties by peers and critics who saw him pour heart and soul, hardship and struggle into his music as he did that daily life.

Jones identified himself as having been pushed aside in the nineties by a move towards younger, more pop-influenced artists, and record sales alone tell us his read is accurate. But there was nothing personal in this shift. Although Jones primarily performed on acoustic guitar, both his generational perspective and the country band-driven and orchestrated elements he favored in his recordings placed him squarely in the same camp as other true-blue Nashville-era artists of his time and place, from Johnny Paycheck to Charlie Daniels, and their audience aged with them as the world changed.

But the emotional core of his songwriting resonates nonetheless. And that inimitable voice – sad and pensive, soulful and sweet – continues to be as recognized and recognizable as the songs he wrote and interpreted, many of which have become true-blue staples of the honky tonk jukebox.

Fittingly, when Jones passed last week at 81, it was primarily those artists who had been most directly influenced by him in the country world – both of his own generation, and relative newcomers such as Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, and Randy Travis – who stood at the forefront of tribute, recognizing their debt even as their presence acknowledges the shift in county over time. Still, with over 150 hit records in an alcohol-fueled lifetime of touring and recording, and a knack for getting to the plain-spoken heart of the sorrow and pain inherent in the human condition, even as the world moved on, it was almost inevitable that a few of Jones’ songs – both those which he wrote, and those which he made his own – would find their way into the hands of others outside of the genre.

Today, then, we explore just a few songs from that vast periphery where the genres blur, and folk meets country, in tribute to a seminal songwriter and performer whose voice and vices were hallmarks of a bygone era. From twang to stomp, from slight to sure, from folkies-gone-country to delicate singer-songwriter and indiefolk, the breadth of coverage alone offers ample evidence for a life well interpreted. Listen individually, or download the whole set as a zip file for a tribute set that’s as country as we get.




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1 comment » | Covered In Folk, George Jones, RIP

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