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(Re)Covered, Vol. XXIX: New Coverfolk from
May 14th, 2013 — 10:32 pm
Lissa Schneckenburger, Clem Snide, Nell Robinson, Arborea & more!
New projects from folk artists previously celebrated here on Cover Lay Down continue to spring forth into the ether and into our ears; with our archives permanently hosted off-site at The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, any opportunity to bring these beloved names and voices back into the mix is especially welcome. Today, we add to the growing canon of delights with new releases from several perennial favorites.
First featured here way back in 2008 as part of a look at the new tradfolk revival in the American Northeast, “New England style” fiddler and folk singer Lissa Schneckenburger has made several strong albums of traditional and dance music, and often performs with fellow local scenesters Laura Cortese and Hanneke Cassel as Halali, a fiddle trio which explores stringfolk traditions from around the world. A graduate of New England Conservatory, she is known among her peers as a talented artist, and a careful craftsperson and ethnomusicologist, whose recent exploration of the roots of the Downeast traditions which she first heard as a young girl growing up in Maine resulted in a two-part project, 2008 release Song and 2010 companion release Dance – highly recommended albums which bring new nuance and modern interpretation to the ballads and fiddle tunes of Appalachia and beyond.
Schneckenburger’s newest album Covers, which drops on CD June 6 but has just become available for purchase on Bandcamp, benefits greatly from her talent for deep study, revealing unplumbed depths in the transformative yet true reconstructions of a diverse set of songs that define the various radio-play generations that arose in the second half of the 20th century. But like many of her “new folkscene” compatriots, Schneckenburger also knows how to use the space between notes to her advantage – both the silences, and the resonant echoes as notes fade – and here this means heavenly, luscious transformations of songs otherwise known through the distinctive voices of Jim Croce, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Tom Waits, Stephen Merritt and more.
Sensitive without sentimentality is a tough balance to find, but with deceptively simple settings, clear-as-a-bell fiddle strains and soundscapes, and a warm alto, Schneckenburger makes it seem effortless. The result is a potent mix, bright and soaring and sweet, that crosses genre borders from Americana and folk rock to traditional and contemporary folk. As a bonus, Aoife O’Donovan, bassist Corey DiMarino, and cellist Tristan Clarridge sing and play on several tracks, making this surprisingly sparse and airy album the closest thing we’ll get to a Crooked Still reunion for a while; other guests familiar to long-time readers include Ruth Ungar and Mike Merenda (who also recorded and mixed the album), and Stefan Amidon, brother of Sam and founding member of new countryfolk band The Sweetback Sisters. Check out two heartwrenching favorites below (plus a bonus track from tradfolk collection Song), and then head over to Bandcamp to stream the rest and download for just 7 bucks.
- Lissa Schneckenburger: Crimson & Clover (orig. Tommy James & the Shondells)
- Lissa Schneckenburger: You Don’t Mess Around With Jim (orig. Jim Croce)
(from Covers, 2013)
- Lissa Schneckenburger: The Fair Maid By The Sea Shore (trad.)
(from Song, 2008)
We championed deepwoods folkduo Arborea back in 2010 for their “echoey, delicate, almost nufolk sound”, and previously for their powerful contribution to a 2009 Odetta tribute, but as I pointed out to guitarist and songwriter Buck Curran when he contacted me about their newest release, anything new from this married couple is good news, indeed – and sure enough, Fortress of the Sun, which was released April 30 to honor NYC label ESP-Disk’s 50th anniversary, is a wallop to the senses, with fluid movements, abstract poetics, Shanti’s soaring vocals, and enough depth and atmosphere to drown in.
Arborea’s influences are evident in their coverage – in the past, we’ve heard them take on both Robbie Basho and Tim Buckley, and several traditional folk ballads, showing the straight line between the marginalized and primitive post-modernists and the vast potential of the old ways wrought anew. And Fortress is no exception: a spine-chilling Cherry Tree Carol and a newly-penned lyric for old Irish tune When I Was On Horseback that resets the song as a history of the death of Southern Calvary General JEB Stuart near Richmond in 1864 fit right in among a collection on the knife-edge of tradition and experimental delicacy that rivals the best of Sam Amidon, Devandra Banhardt, and other indiefolk inheritors of the Vashti Bunyan and Karen Dalton branches of the folkworld. Order it at ESP-Disk in LP or CD formats, and your digital download of all tracks will be filling your ears and soul in minutes.
- Arborea: Cherry Tree Carol (trad.)
- Arborea: This Little Light Of Mine (Harry Dixon Loes)
(from Beautiful Star: The Songs of Odetta, 2009)
- Arborea: Wake Up Little Sparrow (arr. Ella Jenkins)
(from Wayfaring Summer, 2006)
Our 2011 full-length feature on the folkier side of Eef Barzelay was a near inevitability, given the oddly broken tenderness with which the former leader of indie band Clem Snide had turned to the work of such artists as Christina Aguilera and Eddie Money since breaking up the band after after an ill-fated post-9/11 tour left him disillusioned with the industry; later that year, we named his under-the-radar EPs covering Journey and The Transmissionary Six the Best Tribute EPs of 2011, citing their ragged, heartfelt solo interpretations, and celebrating the way the latter collection provided an entry into the work of the obscure duo through coverage, and we’re happy to report that the Wayback Machine has all songs from both features linked above still live for your downloading delight.
But although nominally recorded under the old band moniker, the Israeli-born singer-songwriter’s recent pursuit of solo fan-funded coverage continues to focus and mature, and nothing provides better evidence than the surprisingly cohesive flow that takes us through Fan Chosen Covers, Pt. 2, a name-your-price collection built on songs chosen and funded individually by donors released April 30 on Bandcamp. From the almost medieval drone of All Tomorrow’s Parties to the plainspoken simplicity of Carole King & Gerry Goffin classic Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, the well-ordered sequence offers a journey through angst and pain into peace and possibility, with pensive, newly deconstructed takes on everything from the Indigo Girls, Leonard Cohen, Neil Diamond, Paul Young, and The Church in the mix. Even a slightly tongue-in-cheek version of the theme song to Welcome Back, Mr. Kotter barely disrupts the flow of earnestness. And the new melody Barzelay has written for Bonnie Raitt tearjerker I Can’t Make You Love Me is a revelation.
Email Eef if you want to commission a cover of your very own for a very reasonable rate, or just enjoy the fruits of other fan’s requests vicariously over at Bandcamp after checking out the samples below. And if you do download, remember to give a few bucks in return, if you can: the fan-funded model only works if those who can, do.
- Clem Snide: All Tomorrow’s Parties (orig. Velvet Underground)
- Clem Snide: I Can’t Make You Love Me (orig. Bonnie Raitt)
- Clem Snide: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (orig. The Shirelles)
(from Fan Chosen Covers 2, 2013)
As we’ve noted here before, the shift from records to digital media in the past decade has led to more fleeting affection for songs and artists, over-collection, and a tendency to shuffle – all listening and archival behaviors which many have cited as a death knell for the album. But Americana singer-songwriter Nell Robinson seems to have either missed the message, or is determined to push back against the modern. Her 2011 concept album On The Brooklyn Road, which we featured back in July of 2011, raised the bar for personal and historical exploration on a grand scale, impressing us with its perfect balance of classic country covers, sepia-toned originals, and octogenarian interview clips. And her ongoing work with guitarist Jim Nunally and others channelling the stories of soldiers with music “from the Revolutionary War to the present, interwoven with 250 years of letters, stories and poetry from Nell’s Alabama family,” offers an equally powerful experience, holistic and whole, unifying the soldier’s plight across time and space.
Now Nell and Jim return with a tribute to the garden, a lighter but no less substantive subject, and unsurprisingly, though short and sweet at 13 tracks and 33 minutes, the duo project is no less comprehensive, from its plant-and-grow seed packet CD inserts to the breadth of darkness and light channelled through the sheer joys of warm sun and wind and rain, and the metaphors of dirty hands and growth, homestead and harvest. Their voices blend like old friends on a backporch, with fingerpicking that dances and an old-timey twang that invites a smile, and shades of everyone from to Kate Wolf and Patsy Cline to The Louvin Brothers and Bill Monroe himself in the echoes that linger. And to our joy, in among the originals on House & Garden, the pair channels Dolly Parton and George Jones with such grace and gentle gravity, the old songs fitting in snugly like well-curated heirloom varietals among the new blooms and the tall, cool grasses. A bounty indeed.
- Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally: Old Old House (orig. George Jones)
- Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally: My Blue Tears (orig. Dolly Parton)
(from House & Garden, 2013)
Back in the New England scene, Boston-based band Joy Kills Sorrow – one of our favorite stringfolk bands here at Cover Lay Down, helmed by Berklee grad Emma Beaton, one of our favorite folk voices, and with new members with some serious chops on acoustic guitar and stand-up bass since we last mentioned them here – releases a grand teaser of a Postal Service cover this week as a possible leading indicator of a shift in sensibilities towards an even more raucous Americana sound on their upcoming EP Wide Awake, due to drop June 4 on preeminent local label Signature Sounds. As I noted on our Facebook page late last week, I tried taping a live version of this high-energy acoustic stringband take on Such Great Heights last summer at a bluegrass fest, and failed due to crowd noise. Happily, the newly-released version is perfectly clear and crisp, a bouncy early promise of summer delight sure to thrill fans of Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers. Can’t wait to hear the whole EP!
Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 6: James Taylor covers Sam Cooke, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Louvin Brothers & more!April 21st, 2013 — 08:41 pm
As in past years, I’m a bit woozy today after yesterday’s all-day drive up the East Coast from North Carolina. My head still swims with the sights of barbecue joints and crabcake stands, and roadside shacks where one can get smoked ham and sausages, local peanuts, and fireworks to celebrate it all.
But it’s good to be home, where the daffodils are in full blown bloom, even if the lawn still struggles against the moss and hemlock. The American South is a wonderful place to visit; I like seeing the world, and though I’ve been to more countries than states, the diversity of the US pleases me. But the beach-to-woods geography and seasonal shifts of the American Northeast feel right, somehow. With a few tiny stints out of bounds, I’ve been a Massachusetts-based New Englander all my life, and I expect to be one for the remainder of it.
James Taylor likes Massachusetts, too. And by the time I wrote the original feature below in 2008, I’d already been promising myself a feature post on good ol’ JT for ages. What better way to celebrate our triumphant return from a week in the Carolinas than with a resurrected 20-song megapost on the coversongs of this incredible singer-songwriter plus a 10-track Single Song Sunday bonus set of You Can Close Your Eyes – my favorite James Taylor composition? And so, ladies and gentlemen: James Taylor, Massachusetts resident and one-time North Carolina transplant.
Born in Boston, James Taylor spent his adolescence in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father was Dean of the UNC School of Medicine. But the family retained strong ties to Massachusetts, summering in Martha’s Vineyard; James attended boarding school at Milton Academy, and when he struggled with depression in his early adulthood, he headed for McLean’s Hospital, a stately suburban instititution just outside of Boston where I remember visiting one of my own friends in the last year of high school.
Though he has since lived in California and London, and though his signature voice retains the barest hint of southern twang under that clear-as-a-bell blueblood bostonian accent, like me, Taylor has always returned to the Massachusetts he loves. Today, he lives about thirty miles west of here, in the Berkshires, just on the other side of the Adirondack ridge. And he retains strong ties to his beloved Martha’s Vineyard, performing there each summer, sometimes with Ben and Sally, his children by ex-wife Carly Simon, who is also a Vineyard resident.
Beyond our shared love of the beaches and woods of Massachusetts, there’s something immutably local and authentic about my experience with James Taylor. My childhood understanding of and familiarity with folk music as a genre and a recorded phenomenon was primarily driven by a strong record collection at home, but my experience of acoustic music as folk – as something singable and sharable and communal – was peppered with young camp counselors who had learned their guitar licks from the radioplay of the day. For me, Fire and Rain will always be a song for campfire singalongs, one which helps me come to terms with the bittersweet and constant state of being both in good company and away from home.
Too, James Taylor was my first concert, and you never forget your first. I remember lying on the summer grass at Great Woods (now the Tweeter Center), looking up at the stars and letting the wave of Fire and Rain wash over me. I remember peering at the stage and recognizing the way James smiled at us, at bass player Leland Sklar, at the song itself as a kind of genuine communion, one which flavored the performance with something valid and universal.
Because of that night, and the organic songs-first-performance-afterwards way I came to it, James Taylor, for me, is the standard by which I measure the authenticity of folk performance. That so many shows have not met that standard since then is a tribute to both Taylor’s gentle nature, and his way with song and performance.
James Taylor’s voice is unmistakable, almost too sweet for some, and he doesn’t fit my every mood. His loose, white-man’s-blues guitar playing is better than most people give him credit for, but it is often downplayed in his produced work. But in the back of my mind his songs are a particular form of homecoming, one intimately tied to summer song and simple times outside of the world as we usually live it. And when I sing Sweet Baby James or You Can Close Your Eyes to my children at night, there’s a part of me that’s back on that summer lawn, letting the music reach a part of me that cannot speak for itself.
We’ll have a few choice covers of Taylor’s most popular in the bonus section of today’s megapost. But first, here’s a few of the many songs which Taylor has remade in his own gentle way over the years: doo-wop standards, sweet nighttime paeans and lullabies, hopeful protest songs, and others.
Though James Taylor does have his pop side, this isn’t it. You’ve heard ‘em before, so I’ve skipped the covers which Taylor has made his own through radioplay over the years — including Carole King’s Up On The Roof and Marvin Gaye’s How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) — though I did keep a live version of Handy Man in the mix, and thought it worth trying the newer version of You’ve Got A Friend from Taylor’s stripped-down favorites recording One Man Band. I’ve also skipped his lite pianojazz ballad version of How I Know You, from the Aida soundtrack, and the vast bulk of his two recent saccharine-sweet covers albums: it’s not folk, and it’s not my thing.
Instead, by presenting a selection of Taylor’s rarer and lesser-known coversong all at once, it is my hope that the diversity of the source material here allows even the most jaded of us to come to what is too-often dismissed as Adult Contemporary pablum with new ears, attuned to more subtle differences of tone and undertone — to explore and even collapse the distance between bittersweet and tender, longing and acceptance, home and homesickness, which continues to make James Taylor worth listening to, and celebrating.
- James Taylor: A Change is Gonna Come (orig. Sam Cooke)
(performed on The West Wing, 2004)
- James Taylor: In My Life (orig. The Beatles)
(live on the BBC, 2010)
- James Taylor: Wasn’t That A Mighty Storm (trad.)
(live in New York, 2012)
- James Taylor: Walkin’ My Baby Back Home (Turk/Ahlert)
(from Hourglass, 1999)
- James Taylor: Second Star To The Right (orig. Disney)
(from Stay Awake: Interpretations of Music from Disney Films, 1988)
- James Taylor: You’ve Got A Friend (orig. Carole King)
(from One Man Band, 2007)
- James Taylor: Suzanne (orig. Leonard Cohen)
(from Covers, 2008)
- James Taylor: She Thinks I Still Care (orig. Dickey Lee; pop. George Jones)
- James Taylor: Handy Man (orig. Sparks of Rhythm)
(from (Live), 1993)
- James Taylor: Oh, Susannah (trad.)
(from Sweet Baby James, 1970)
- James Taylor: Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha (orig. Sam Cooke)
(from New Moon Shine, 1991)
- James Taylor: Greensleeves (trad.)
- James Taylor: On Broadway (orig. The Drifters)
(live from the Oakland Colliseum, 1972)
- James Taylor: The Water Is Wide (trad.)
(unknown live source)
- James & Kate Taylor: Auld Lang Syne (trad.)
(from a CD single, 1999)
- James Taylor, Carly Simon, and Graham Nash: The Times They Are A-Changin’ (orig. Bob Dylan)
(live from No Nukes: The Muse Concerts For a Non-Nuclear Future, 1979)
- James Taylor, Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor: Hard Times Come Again No More (orig. Stephen Foster)
(from Appalachian Journey, 2000)
- James Taylor, Mark O’Connor et al.: Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier (trad.)
(from Heartland: An Appalachian Anthology, 2001)
- Mark O’Connor & James Taylor: Old Blue (trad.)
(from An Appalachian Christmas, 2011)
- James Taylor & Allison Krauss: How’s The World Treating You (orig. Louvin Brothers)
(from Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers, 2003)
James Taylor’s works are mainstream, and distributed as such; his website sends us to amazon.com for purchase. As here at Cover Lay Down we prefer to avoid supporting the corporate middleman in favor of direct artist and label benefit, we recommend that those looking to pursue the songwriting and sound of James Taylor head out to their local record shop for purchase.
Not sure where to begin? Anything released between 1968 and 1974 provides the best introduction to JT’s core sound; I promise it’s folkier than you remember. Jaded folkies who stopped listening a while back might take a second look at Taylor’s 1977 release JT, or albums from the late eighties and nineties such as Never Die Young, New Moon Shine or Hourglass, which stand on their own as well-produced contemporary folk. 2007 DVD release One Man Band, Taylor’s return to a sparser acoustic sound, is an anomaly in the midst of an otherwise-AAA pop-trending career. And coverlovers who do embrace his smoother side are advised – with caveats – to at least consider his two post-millennial covers albums.
As for bonus tracks: for years, I’ve been saving the bulk of my collection of covers of James Taylor originals for a future Folk Family Feature on the Taylor family – including James, brother Livingston, sister Kate, son Ben, daughter Sally, and Ben and Sally’s mother Carly Simon. But I’ve been leaking them slowly and surely as time goes on, and the floodgates are open today. So here’s a full Single Song Sunday-sized set of covers of my favorite lullaby, from Mark Erelli’s tender bedtime crooning to William Fitzsimmons’ fragile indiefolk to a young and drunken Bonnie Raitt’s live heartbreaker. Download the zip file here, or pick and choose below.
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Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 5: The Avett Brothers
April 19th, 2013 — 04:40 pm
take on Jason Molina, Jim Croce, Paul Simon, Elliott Smith & more!
For the first four volumes of our Vacation Coverfolk series, we pulled from the archives to bring you features on the songs and coverage of Elizabeth Cotten, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Doc Watson, and a mixtape of coverfolk songs with Carolina in the title.
Today, we turn to a new subject: Concord, North Carolina natives The Avett Brothers, whose rise to fame over the past decade has represented a coalescing of neo-traditional elements from the region and beyond. Read on for a look at one of the newest bands to pay tribute to the past and present of the great state in sound and sentiment, plus a full set of covers that speaks soundly to their history and inspiration.
Early harbingers of the same modern tendency towards mixing tradfolk elements into acoustic singer-songwriter almost-rock that brought a Grammy to British-Americana band Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers – currently a five-piece formed around banjo-wielding elder brother Scott, guitar-picking younger brother Seth, and their constant third man, bass player Bob Crawford – have risen through the ranks of the indiefolk world by making intimate, self-effacing music that tears into the soul. Honest hipsters who enact the tensions between the cultural expectations of strong, silent masculinity and the deep urge to feel, their appropriately broad songbook ranges from ballads to full-blown raucous romps, each one a tip of the hat to the myriad of guises and gazes that modern men must straddle to remain whole.
Which is a big part of why fans of their more acoustic sound, with its obvious bluegrass, country, Americana and folk elements, are often startled to find that the brothers, who have been playing together since childhood, got their start in “thrashing” rock bands, which merged in the late nineties when Seth was in high school and Scott was in college, and released three albums together under the name Nemo before breaking up to pursue more traditional American musical forms, allowing what had started as a back-porch side project exploring the potential in acoustic music to become their primary outlet.
The deconstruction reveals roots that reflect their Piedmont origins, with the exploratory paths and soundscapes of hybridized forebears from proto-country banjoist Charlie Poole to early bluesman Blind Boy Fuller echoing throughout, though their own admitted influences run wider still – incorporating, as one 2007 critic put it, “the heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, [and] the raw energy of the Ramones.” And although their subsequent rise to fame has seen them shift back and forth from subtle folk-Americana to a more country rock sound, and from rougher, homespun acoustic studio origins to a recorded and highly produced modality more recently refined by inimitable producer Rick Rubin and distributed by in-house kingmaker Starbucks, their common narrative themes, and their preference for the organic, collaborative one-mic performance that supports their grounded and well-populated narratives, have been strong threads throughout a still-growing career.
In the studio, The Avett Brothers reserve their time for sensitive originals – seven albums, four EPs, and twelve years past their 2000 EP debut, not a single cover appears in their major studio release catalog. But the North Carolina natives appreciate good coverage, and clearly recognize its value as a driver of attention and affection in the post-millennial world of viral pass-along; as a promotion for their last album The Carpenter, they asked fans to take on single Live And Die via YouTube, and the result was exactly as one might expect: a series of amateur takes on the song which contained several nice interpretations and a glut of also-rans which took fairly straightforward shots at what turned out to be an almost prototypical track from the brother-led band.
More significantly, at least for our own purposes today, The Avett Brothers’ coverage of the songs of others is both legendary and equally diverse, transcending their songbook. A survey of YouTube reveals hundreds of wryly and well-chosen full-band and solo takes from radio stations, home studios, and live shows, including a large collection of tender solo living room and green room covers from Seth and Scott paying tribute to a broad set of influences – from country classics to rock and Americana standards to touching songs written and originally performed by their peers in and beyond the indiefolk borderlands.
Stripping these songs from their visual component flattens them out a bit, so in addition to a small set of too-good-to-resist favorites, we’ve included a “selected best” playlist as well, with HUGE thanks to visual artist Mike Beyer, aka Crackerfarm, who has been photographing and videorecording Avett Brothers coverage backstage, on stage, and in small on-site sessions since at least 2007; it is Crackerfarm who provides the vast bulk of our live coverage today, and there’s scores more covers and originals where that came from over at the Crackerfarm YouTube page. Also well worth sharing: The Avett’s contribution to the 2010 Starbucks Valentine compilation, a track or two from the Avett’s earliest live album, The Avett Brothers covering Dylan on Jimmy Fallon, the boys taking on a John Prine cover for 2010 tribute Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, and Scott & Seth’s appearance as both producers and sidemen on folk-hopster G Love’s 2011 release Fixin’ To Die that boils both an old Paul Simon talkie and a Velvet Underground classic into ragged Americana glory.
- The Avett Brothers: In The Aeroplane Under The Sea (orig. Neutral Milk Hotel) 
- G. Love & The Avett Brothers: 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (orig. Paul Simon) 
- G. Love & The Avett Brothers: Pale Blue Eyes (orig. Velvet Underground) 
- The Avett Brothers: I’ll Fly Away (trad.) 
- The Avett Brothers: Will The Circle Be Unbroken (trad.) 
Stay tuned for a weekend feature on James Taylor, who – like us – moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina and back again…followed by a return home, and a feature on new and impending EP-length coverage sure to knock your proverbial socks off!
We’ve covered Doc Watson twice here at Cover Lay Down: through his interpretation of the traditional songs of the Carolinian Appalachians in our original Vacation Coverfolk 2008 feature, and via his coverage of more popular tunes in tribute last June, when the inimitable picker passed on to the great band in the sky. Today, as part of our week-long Carolina Coverfolk compendium, we revive both, collapsing both features and over 30 songs into a single omnibus that shows both sides of Doc’s legacy – as an interpreter of the folkways, and as an active member of the folk and bluegrass revivals of the second half of the last century
APRIL 2008: Elizabeth Cotten and Arthel “Doc” Watson share more than just a connection to the state of North Carolina. Both were culturally disadvantaged — Cotten due to her skin color, and Doc due to a lifelong blindness. Each started performing in childhood, but became truly famous in the great folk revival of the sixties. Both are known for songs which celebrate the hard life and trials of their beloved rural south while addressing universal themes of loss, change, and heartache. And, most importantly, though no one could confuse Cotten’s rural bluesfolk for Doc’s country swing style, each is ranked among the best acoustic fingerpickers of their generation.
But the differences between the two are great, as well. In fact, presenting Doc Watson and Elizabeth Cotten side by side this week makes for an interesting exercise in folk history, one which allows us to see the great diversity of the strands and influences which came together to make modern folk music in America.
Unlike Elizabeth Cotten, who came back to folk in the sixties after a long hiatus, Doc Watson (b. 1923) was always a musician, busking with his brother for pennies as a child, supporting himself and his family with his work as a piano tuner to pay the bills when he could not find paid work as a sideman. Though he worked through much of the fifties as an electric guitar player with a country and western swing band, when the modern folk scene began to crystalize in the early sixties, Doc switched over to acoustic guitar and banjo exclusively, making a name for himself as one of the best fingerpickers in the business, and finding himself in high demand on the burgeoning folk circuit.
Where Cotten is primarily known for her original songs and original rhythmic style, Doc Watson’s greatest contributions to folk music came from his source material and lightning speed. His ability to blow the socks off every other picker in the room is well known, and his work as a songwriter is honest and respectable. But as folk, his repertoire is most significant for its use of songs from the oral tradition which might otherwise have been lost. We might say that while it was Mike Seeger’s recordings of Elizabeth Cotten which saved her authentic voice, Doc Watson’s recordings and performance of the mountain ballads from the areas around his home of Deep Gap, North Carolina allow us to consider Doc a Seeger to his own people.
This is not to say that the tradsongs of Doc Watson sound anything like Cotten’s originals, stylistically-speaking. While Cotten’s fingerpicking style comes from applying banjo style to the guitar, Watson’s quickfingered picking style is the successful result of moving songs that were traditionally fiddle tunes to the acoustic guitar. Where Cotton was self-taught, Watson learned his trade through the traditional country songs of the south, and the songs of early country greats like the Louvin and Monroe Brothers.
Where Cotton ended up finding a style that sounded more like early blues musicians, Watson’s different approach and experience, plus his apprenticeship in the country and western genres, left him with a wail and a sense of rhythm that call to the same acoustic old-timey country sound that you might hear in the rougher, hippier corners of bluegrass and country festivals today.
Another way of saying this might be to point out that where Cotten shows the blues influence on folk music, Doc Watson shows the country — an influence which, despite its significance, is often the elephant in the room when it comes to folk music. His style and his “mountain music” sound hark to a time back before country and folk music had truly split off from each other, and long before alt-country bands like Uncle Tupelo, newgrass bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, old timey bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, and modern western swing folk musicians like Eilen Jewell went spelunking in the deep well of potential that lies between true country music and the post-sixties folk (and rock) music scenes.
Today, both country and folk music claim Doc Watson as one of their own, and rightfully so. Doc holds multiple Grammy awards in both the Traditional Folk and the Country Instrumental categories; Merlefest — the festival named after Doc’s son and long-time musical partner, who died in a tractor accident in 1985 — is known for attracting the best music and musicians from the intersection of folk, bluegrass, and country. But no matter what you call it, Doc Watson’s sound is instantly recognizable, powerful, and no less potent today, eighty years after it could be heard on the streets of his beloved North Carolina.
Today’s collection is a bit heavier on the tradfolk than cover lovers might ordinarily prefer. But this is no loss. Focusing primarily on the traditional folksongs Watson interpreted allows us to celebrate one of his greatest contributions to American folk music. And so, out of hundreds of possibilities, we offer a short set of great and representative tradfolk from a fifty year career, from old live recordings with Merle and early collaborators Clarence Ashley and Bill Monroe to Doc’s haunting baritone lead vocals on several beautiful early-and-late-career back-porch standards.
- Doc Watson: Little Sadie (trad.) 
- Doc Watson: Shady Grove (trad.) 
- Doc Watson: Little Maggie (trad.) 
- Doc and Merle Watson: Cuckoo Bird (trad.) 
- Doc and Merle Watson: The Train That Carried My Girl From Town (trad.) 
- Doc Watson Family: Ground Hog (trad.) 
- Doc Watson Family: My Grandfather’s Clock (trad.) 
- Doc Watson & The Chieftains: Fisherman’s Hornpipe / Devil’s Dream (trad.) 
- Doc Watson w/ The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Tennessee Stud (orig. Jimmie Driftwood) 
- Doc Watson & Bill Monroe: Where is My Sailor Boy? (trad.) 
- Doc Watson & Clarence Ashley: Crawdad Song (trad.) 
JUNE 2012: When Arthel “Doc” Watson passed on to the great jam session in the sky at the end of May, the ensuing nationwide recognition for the man and his impact on our culture was inevitable. Watson is and was rightly cited for his ethnomusical bent, most particularly for how the masterful fingerpicker transformed the fiddle tunes which he heard in his native appalachia for guitar and banjo, bringing traditional songs out of the mountains and hollers into the mainstream of popular music via the folk revival of the fifties and sixties, and creating a trademark picking style out of the transformation, in a time when bluegrass, folk, blues and country were at a crossroads.
The combination of timing, talent, and treatment became the perfect platform for fame and fortune, winning him multiple Grammy awards in both the folk and country categories. And many of the classic tunes he helped spread and salvage run strong in the tradfolk revival today; there is no questioning his legacy.
But though it is his prowess with the songs of Deep Gap, North Carolina which most impacted the folkways, Doc’s true impact on the culture goes far beyond the direct line between the appalachian hills and the folk movement which NPR and others so respectfully recognized in the last several days.
A child prodigy who learned from radio as much as he did from his elders, and who spent much of the fifties playing in a country and western swing band, Doc was a prolific performer and studio musician, and his ear for the popular was equal to his ear for the local.
As such, although it is predominantly for his traditional resurrections which we hear of him today, in his many years of recording and performing, Doc focused no small amount of attention on the swinging Nashville sound, using it to channel the hits and a small handful of originals. After a lifetime achievement of over fifty albums recorded live and in the studio, in collaboration and at the helm, his vast catalog came to include a number of hits from the country charts, plus standards from Elvis to the Everly Brothers, from Broadway to Tin Pan Alley, from The Mississippi Sheiks to Mississippi John Hurt.
We covered the traditional songs of Doc Watson way back in 2008 in a Vacation Coverfolk post, when a trip to North Carolina brought us to steep in the sounds of his particular south. Here, we pay tribute to the man with a second set of song, which features Doc, friends, and family taking on the tunes of his own century. Listen, especially, for the two lullabies, recorded just after the untimely death of his son and life musical partner Merle, which mark a poignant turning point in our set below.
- Doc Watson: Sitting On Top Of The World (orig. The Mississippi Sheiks) 
- Doc Watson: Nashville Blues (orig. The Delmore Brothers) 
- Doc Watson Family: A Tiny Broken Heart (orig. Louvin Brothers) 
- Doc Watson: My Rough and Rowdy Ways (orig. Jimmie Rogers) 
- Doc Watson: Peach Pickin’ Time In Georgia (orig. Jimmie Rodgers) 
- Doc & Merle Watson: Snowbird (orig. Gene MacLellan) 
- Doc & Merle Watson: The Last Thing On My Mind (orig. Tom Paxton) 
- Doc & Merle Watson: If I Needed You (orig. Townes Van Zandt) 
- Doc Watson Family: Anniversary Blue Yodel (orig. Jimmie Rodgers) 
- Doc & Merle Watson: All I Have To Do Is Dream (orig. The Everly Brothers) 
- Doc & Merle Watson: Got The Blues (Can’t Be Satisfied) (orig. Mississippi John Hurt) 
- Doc & Merle Watson: Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (orig. Bob Dylan) 
- Doc & Merle Watson: St. Louis Blues (orig. W.C. Handy) 
- Doc & Merle Watson: Stormy Weather (orig. Ethel Waters) 
- Doc Watson: Prairie Lullaby (orig. Billy Hill) 
- Doc Watson: My Little Buckaroo (orig. Dick Foran) 
- Doc Watson: Heartbreak Hotel (orig. Elvis Presley) 
- Doc Watson: Walking After Midnight (orig. Patsy Cline) 
- Doc Watson & David Grisman: Summertime (orig. Abbie Mitchell) 
- Del McCoury, Doc Watson, And Mac Wiseman: Live And Let Live (orig. Wiley Walker & Gene Sullivan) 
- Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Scaggs: The Storms Are On The Ocean (orig. The Carter Family) 
- Doc Watson: Tennessee Stud (orig. Jimmie Driftwood) 
As you can see from the diverse source years listed above, Doc’s catalog is especially prolific; long-standing official website Doc’s Guitar has the comprehensive discography, and it’s a bit overwhelming. If you’re new to his sound, and want to begin a collection, purists tell me the best place to start for the older stuff is Smithsonian Folkways. Also recommended, in recognition of Record Store Day this coming Saturday: head to your local record store and, after searching fruitlessly for sections labeled “Traditional Folk” or “Traditional Country”, ask for any of the above-noted disks by artist and year.
Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 3: Carolina Chocolate Drops
April 15th, 2013 — 09:53 pm
(An African American String Band recreates the Piedmont blues)
As noted previously (and as made obvious by the fact that this post is Volume 3 in a series), in recognition of our return to the Outer Banks for the fourth time since 2008, we’re in the midst of a set of Vacation Coverfolk features pulled from the archives of past trips to the North Carolina coast with a newly penned post on The Avett Brothers scheduled for the end of the week as a triumphant finale to our collected survey of music of, from, and about the region.
Earlier this week, Volumes 1 and 2 of our series took on songs whose titles mention the Carolinas, and a tribute to the songs of Elizabeth Cotten. Today, we present a slightly modified tripartite feature on the Carolina Chocolate Drops: a Carolina Coverfolk set originally posted in 2009, and postscripts from both a 2010 multi-artist feature that acknowledges their last album together before the original trio splintered off to become the quartet currently touring under the moniker, and a 2012 check-in which acknowledges the changes to personel and sound which resulted from that transformation.
APRIL 2009: There are two ways to learn music, really: by formal study and by direct transmission. The vast majority of musicians these days learn through the former method, a mixed bag of training, recorded music and noodling, balancing their books on a combination of heart and chords, songbook and soul.
There’s nothing wrong with this, per se: originality, after all, comes of such ownership, coupled with a sense of creation. Indeed, the folkworld thrives on such evolution, depending as it does on a connection to an everchanging culture. Those of us who love modern confessional and coffeehouse folk, not to mention the myriad hybrid forms which have emerged over the last few decades, appreciate the way music stretches and evolves in the hands of such practitioners.
But the transmissionary model isn’t dead. Just as there are audiophiles who insist on the scratchy authenticity of their original 78s, there are still folk musicians who believe that to truly become part of an authentic tradition of music, one must learn the trade authentically, too. From blueswoman Rory Block to Kentucky Appalachian Brett Ratliff, such modern followers of the folkways eschew records and scales, and look to the older ways, seeking out the ancient progenitors of their forms to listen and play along, learning the scratchy, earthy sounds and songs from their elders as if through osmosis.
The result isn’t generally polished, but that’s the point. Instead, such performers tend towards a raw sound, rich in feeling but often sparse in instrumentation, which favors emotional impact over consistent tempo. There’s no gloss here, only timelessness. And folk needs such old blood, too, lest it evolve so far it becomes unrecognizable; lest we lose touch with our origins, and forget that without the old ways to refer to, we cannot have them to reinvent.
Writ large, the Piedmont or “East Coast” blues emanates from a vast swath of rural East Coast America; popular in the early days of recorded music, from the twenties to the forties, its most famous tracks, such as Blind Boy Fuller’s 1940 recording of “Step It Up & Go”, sold as many as half a million copies to blacks and whites alike. Generally, the ragtime-based fingerpicking style which characterizes the once-popular African-American dance music is located as far North as Richmond, VA, and as far south as Atlanta, though of course the emergence of records helped spread the sound much farther in its heyday.
The rediscovery of acoustic blues by folk fans in the sixties brought the music back into the mainstream, bringing many artists out of hiding and into the festival circuit, where they began to trade licks. Today, the Piedmont style and its repertoire can be found in the modern playing of many formally trained folk musicians, from Leo Kottke to Paul Simon.
Modern inheritors of the Piedmont sound, the founding members of “African American string band” Carolina Chocolate Drops may have found each other through the newest technology — two of the three met in a listserv and chatspace for Black banjo fans and players — but they picked up their music the old way, seeking out the oldest surviving members of the Piedmont style, learning at the feet of fellow North Carolinans Algia Mae Hinton and Etta Baker, who passed just before the ‘Drops released their debut albums Heritage and Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind in 2007.
Learning from North Carolina musicians magnifies the Carolinan connection in this particular incarnation. Fans of Baker, Hinton, and Carolina Chocolate Drops mentor Joe Thompson of Mebane, NC, said to be the last black traditional string band player, will hear the mannerisms of each in their playing. Even their name, which recalls that of 1920s fiddle-led band the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, pays tribute to the combination of form and geography.
Mountain strings — the banjo, guitar, and fiddle — feature heavily in the Piedmont sound, though not all at the same time; these, plus a smorgasbord of washboards, jugs, combs, and other household instruments round out the Carolina Chocolate Drops performance. But in the end, the instrumentation and the process are subservient to the madcap, heartfelt, almost desperately gleeful energy of the Piedmont style itself, as reincarnated here. It’s dance music, designed to get you jumping, appealing to your basest instincts, your wildest primal hopes and fears.
Here’s a short set of samplers — a modern cover done up old style, a video link to a great version of an old classic learned from Etta Baker, a handful of traditional tracks from their albums, soundtracks, and live appearances — which, in their timelessness and raw beauty, prove the value of the osmotic process, even as they celebrate the eternal spirit of the music itself.
- Carolina Chocolate Drops: Tom Dula (trad.)
- Carolina Chocolate Drops: Starry Crown (trad.)
(from Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind, 2007)
- Carolina Chocolate Drops: I Got Blood In My Eyes For You (orig. Mississippi Sheiks)
(from The Great Debaters Soundtrack, 2007)
- Carolina Chocolate Drops: Cornbread and Butter Beans (trad.)
(from Heritage, 2007)
- Carolina Chocolate Drops: In the Jailhouse Now (orig. Jimmie Rogers)
(live at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 2007)
- Carolina Chocolate Drops: Hit ‘em Up Style (orig. Blu Cantrell)
(live on WDVX Blue Plate Special, May 2008; video here, and worth it)
- VIDEO: Carolina Chocolate Drops: Goin’ Down That Road Feelin’ Bad (trad.)
(live from the Buckjump Blues Fest, 2006 — and plenty more where that came from!)
JANUARY 2010: I finally managed to catch the Carolina Chocolate Drops last weekend at the Somerville Theater, and was utterly thrilled to find they are even more stunning in concert than I had imagined. Their infectious joy in not just recovering but truly rejuvenating a whole set of found song, from old country blues and minstrel-show jazz to stringband and rural jugband classics, is evident in every smile, holler, and nuanced move on an array of authentic instruments, from quills and autoharp to banjo, fiddle, guitar, voice and bones. And as performers and ethnomusicologists, their patter and performance offers a first rate journey through the folk traditions of Black America.
New album Genuine Negro Jig will include a studio version of their infamous Blu Cantrell cover and a delicious take on Tom Waits’ Trampled Rose alongside a whole new set of resurrected stringband and old-time jazz and blues tunes done in their inimitable Piedmont style. Here’s two delightful cuts from the newest – a tightened studio release of the aforementioned Blu Cantrell cover, and a sweet, wry newly-recorded version of old stringband classic Cornbread and Butterbeans – plus a Mississippi Sheiks cover from a recent tribute, and a live cut to keep your feet moving in the meantime; for more, order Genuine Negro Jig, sit back, and wait for the magic to arrive.
- Carolina Chocolate Drops: Cornbread and Butterbeans (trad.)
- Carolina Chocolate Drops: Hit ‘Em Up Style (orig. Blu Cantrell)
(from Genuine Negro Jig, 2010)
- Carolina Chocolate Drops: Sitting On Top Of The World (orig. Mississippi Sheiks)
(from Things About Comin’ My Way: A Tribute to the Music of the Mississippi Sheiks, 2009)
APRIL 2012: Unless you’ve been living under a cone of silence, you already know that once-featured, once-revisited African American String Band Carolina Chocolate Drops hit the ground this winter with a new release and a major change in personnel: gone is high-energy co-founder Justin Robinson, here to stay is beatboxer Adam Matta and new multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins. The result, an appropriately titled mixed bag called Leaving Eden, underutilizes all members (Matta appears on just a small handful of tracks), leaving us hoping for a second round with more cohesiveness. But the album also continues the band’s journey aptly, bringing forth a broad tracklist of songs from spare to jubilant that channel the traditions of Appalachia, turning the folk of the slavefields and the holler (and their modern equivalents) into songs at once ancient and timeless. And though the set is somewhat ragged as it yaws from slave hollers and fiddle tunes to melodic folk narratives, some of the selections here are quite stunning, with these sparse yet vastly different covers of North Carolinian songwriter Laurelyn Dossett’s title track and South African guitarist Hannes Corteze’s instrumental Mahalla serving as an apt exhibit A and B, and a bonus track from the biggest Dylan tribute ever as further evidence.
- Carolina Chocolate Drops: Leaving Eden (orig. Laurelyn Dossett)
- Carolina Chocolate Drops: Mahalla (orig. Hannes Corteze)
(from Leaving Eden, 2012)
- Carolina Chocolate Drops: Political Words (orig. Bob Dylan)
(from Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 2012)
Like what you hear? Carolina Chocolate Drops will be appearing at several folk festivals this summer, but there’s more than one way to support the old ways; musicians can’t survive without fans who buy records, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops catalog is well worth owning. Buy direct from the artists, or head out to your local record store; both strategies help spread the word and warm the heart while keeping music small and local.
And stay tuned this week for more Carolina Coverfolk, including features on James Taylor and The Avett Brothers!
North Carolina is rich in history and broad in geography, stretching from warm beachfront majesty to the base of Appalachia. That it holds a dominant place in the history of folk music is due in part to its cultural diversity, and in part to its situation midway up the coast, along the route that folk strands might have once traveled from North to South and back again. This combination of factors has made it an influential locus and crossroads for several southern folk movements of the last century, including branches of the blues, appalachian music, strains of bluegrass, and other early rural folk forms.
Rather than give the musicians and musical forms of this diverse region shorter shrift than they deserve, instead of our typical biweekly megaposts, this week we offer a host of Carolina Coverfolk sets, starting with yesterday’s exploration of songs that use the Carolinas as a setting, and moving on to several features on the songs of North Carolinan songwriters from James Taylor to The Avett Brothers.
Today, we continue our journey with the songs of Elizabeth Cotten, born in Carrboro, North Carolina in 1895, who made her mark on folk music long before the sixties transformed American folk from cultural phenomenon to a true genre. It is a tribute to her indelible influence and stellar songwriting that these songs are still treasured in performance today.
Like many early folk musicians born at the turn of the century, Elizabeth Cotten had two careers: one in her early years, as a self-taught blues folk prodigy, and one later in life, when the folk revival of the fifties and sixties drove a desperate effort to recover and record the authentic sounds of early American folk forms before they could be lost to the ages. Cotten’s story of rediscovery is especially notable for its serendipity: though a few of her songs had taken on a life of their own in the hands of other blues and folk musicians during the forties, Cotten herself had quit making music for twenty five years, only to be rediscovered in the sixties while working as a housekeeper for the Seeger family.
Cotten’s strong songwriting and original upside-down “Cotten picking” guitar style, with its signature banjo-like low-string drone and alternating fingerpicking bass, would eventually result in a star turn on seminal disks and collections from the Smithsonian Folkways label, many culled from home recordings made under the reel-to-reel direction of Mike Seeger in the nineteen fifties. The support of the Seegers and others, and the subsequent success of her first album, 1957 release Folksongs and Instrumentals, brought her onto the folk circuit, where her unique sound influenced the burgeoning folk movement, and where her songs would be heard, recorded, and passed along by the likes of Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Peter, Paul and Mary.
In the end, though only four albums of her original and traditional material were ever released, Cotten remained a celebrated member of the folk touring scene into her late eighties, winning a Grammy in 1985 for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for Elizabeth Cotten Live! a year after being named a “living treasure” by the Smithsonian. Her music continues to be celebrated today for its timeless and distinctive qualities, and for the way it speaks to a childhood among the simple folkways of the rural North Carolina south. And her influence as a songwriter, a guitarist, and an artist echoes in the work of generations.
Our original post on Elizabeth Cotten way back in 2008 featured a few covers each of two of her most familiar songs: two fragile kidfolk versions of Freight Train, which was written when Cotten was eleven, and a full set of folkvariants on the timeless Shake Sugaree, from the hearty tones of folk blues legends Chris Smither and Taj Mahal to the delicate second-wave folk field recordings of Laura Gibson and grunge-folk goddess Mary Lou Lord. To that set, we add a number of other covers of the former, and of Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie, a distinctive Cotten arrangement often mistakenly identified as traditional, made famous by Davy Graham, The Grateful Dead, and others.
As always, artist and album links above lead to the most authentic, honest, and local places to buy music: from the artists and labels themselves, wherever possible. The Elizabeth Cotten originals, especially, are core must-haves for any true tradfolk collector; pick up her solo albums at Smithsonian Folkways.
Stay tuned throughout the week for a lengthy treatise on James Taylor coverage, a brand-new feature on The Avett Brothers, and a piece on the work of Doc Watson, yet another North Carolina fingerpicker. Meanwhile, I’ll be sitting on the back porch, local brew in hand, watching the sun set over the sound and the North Carolina mainland, while the wild deer and the goslings root for grub in the low grass below. Y’all come back now, y’hear?
A chance encounter with Asheville bluegrass quintet Town Mountain and their twangy, countrified cover of I’m On Fire at this weekend’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival – a dark and yet surprisingly charming version of the Bruce Springsteen classic song that chugs along like a train through the psyche – reminded me how deeply this particular classic is embedded in our national songbook. And a check back at our own archives confirms it: in the last twelve months alone, we’ve posted no less than four separate covers of the song, from Shakey Graves‘ bedraggled grungefolk cover, found last week despite a nominal 1987 release, to Coty Hogue‘s live, sweetly yet hauntingly resonant banjo-driven take, which made our Best of 2012 mixtape for its rootsy, raw Americana, with rich and stellar bounce and harmony from contemporary folk trio Coyote Grace and a gentle late-night YouTube rip from singer-songwriter Robby Hecht along the way.
Add in four other, earlier favorites from our first few years on the web – Swati‘s aching, ringing suspension and wail, which we featured in our first Valentine’s mix back in 2008; Alex Cornell‘s home-recorded sentimentalism; Paul Curreri and Devon Sproule‘s relative faithfulness; a frozen, fragile gypsyfolk take from Brooklyn-based indie quintet The Snow – and we’ve practically proven its relevance without touching on the song itself. And, as always in our Single Song Sunday surveyances, such a common thread begs the question of why the song is so well beloved, and so often taken on by others.
I’m On Fire has a good backstory: according to reliable sources, its original recording was the accidental result of an improvisational studio session during the first wave of Born in the U.S.A. sessions in February of 1982, in which Springsteen, playing around with a few stray lyrics and an impromptu melody, was joined by drummer Max Weinberg and keyboardist Roy Bittan for what turned out to be a song for the ages. Subsequently released amidst stadium rockers on what would become Springsteen’s best-selling album ever, the song would nonetheless climb its way to the top ten of several charts; a generation later, the continued presence of the original on late-night radio and in Springsteen setlists validates any claim that it is, undeniably, a staple, from one of the most recognizable canons of the modern era.
But there’s much more in and about today’s feature subject to recommend it to other artists than sheer availability. As Aquarium Drunkard notes in their 2011 song analysis, I’m On Fire “is the first song in [Springsteen's] catalog to express the anxiety of unrequited love as a kind of suffering, rather than a kind of freedom”, making it especially attractive to younger musicians looking to dig back towards the prototypical origin of that which makes Springsteen’s last several decades of work so stunning, and so folk.
Even more significant is the song’s merit as an object of coverage on the structural level. From the openness of its slight and fragmented lyrics and easily sung melody to the universality of the mood and madness it contains, the sparseness of the two and a half minute song allows for surprisingly broad variance, making our stream of recent coverage but the tip of a vast iceberg that chills and cools the soul in its various guises.
And so, today, we flesh out our study of the single song in coverage both new and old, offering a broad set of diverse and favorite covers alongside each other, that we might once again see the breadth of possibility in the single song.
Popfolk hipster charmer Sara Bareilles deconstructs, repeating and losing lyrics until live piano and vox become a ricochet of mental health; Bat For Lashes breaks the song down musically, building it up again with pulsing shards of plucked strings, hammered dulcimer, and hollow bass notes. AA Bondy‘s 2009 version is smoothly note-bent and curiously Dylanesque alongside Kate Tucker‘s haunted, lingering take, a version of which would appear on that same year’s Starbucks Valentine’s Day love song sampler. The playful little girl harmonies and the start-and-stop loops of Swedish solo singer-songwriter (and wonderful cover artist) Sea Lion collapse the mystery of the lyrics, while Scottish folk-rockers Big Country trade the mystery altogether for an urgent, almost Zydeco feel, with bright mandolin and fiddle nuances.
Though the band trends indie rock in their typical fare, Dubliners The Dirty 9s offer a plucky ballad take which is easily sparse enough for folk. The Airborne Toxic Event bring in a stuttering, raucous acoustic session with high-energy fiddle and Appalachian living room aplomb. Harry Manx adds sitar and Indian drums, creating a world-beat immigrant’s angst. John Mayer mostly plays it straight, though as Aquarium Drunkard notes, the combination of his own stamp and song make for something quite akin to the Paul Simon songbook in the end. And like Alex Cornell and Robby Hecht above, singer-songwriters Catherine Feeny and Luke Doucet bring passion and pain to guitar-and-voice-driven solo takes and subtleties.
Listen, as yet another American classic wends its way through the folkstream, offering nuance and substance to the lives it speaks of, for, and to even as it pays tribute to the softer side of Springsteen himself. Seek out others where you find them, too, even if they pass the genre line; versions from elder statesman Johnny Cash, pop-rockers The Morning Birds, alt-rock hipster Octoberman, and dream-pop band The Chromatics, for example, are well worth the pursuit, though none are truly folk enough for our usual fare. And, as always, if you’ve got a favorite cover we didn’t mention, feel free to add your voice in the comments below.
Cover Lay Down features new coverfolk recordings and new-found folkversions twice weekly, with bonus tracks and extras throughout the week on Facebook and extra karma to all who donate to support our ongoing work connecting artists and fans through the comfort of coverage. Stay tuned later this week for exclusive pre-release tracks from a brand new J. Tillman tribute!
Coverfolk Traditions: Child Ballads in the 21st Century, pt.1
February 8th, 2013 — 08:10 am
(w/ Brand New Balladry from Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer!)
A highly anticipated new release from Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer is starting to make the rounds, and though it’s only early February, we’re going to go out on a limb and declare Child Ballads an early contender for best tradfolk album of the year. And we’re not going to be alone, either: with 6 weeks left to its March 19th US release date, the seven track album has already garnered high and well-deserved praise from Pitchfork, and a full-page feature in today’s edition of The Sun seems a harbinger of loud and voluminious praise to come in the major media on the cusp of a February 11th UK release.
Child Ballads being what they are, its tempting to call this one an LP; five of the tracks come in at between five and seven minutes long, and it’s easy to imagine the sequence filling both sides of a vinyl package. But however we categorize its size, for culture vultures of a particularly coverfolk bent, the meeting of these two modern indiefolk sirens and their centuries-old subject comes as especially wonderful news. Indeed, the viability of folk as an eternal and looping thread is proved so well and so warmly here, as much as the album cements the stature of Hamer and Mitchell, it reminds us of the import of the Child Ballads themselves.
A little history, for the uninitiated: as an enthomuscologist and archivist, Francis James Child provides the protogenesis of more recent folk collectors from Seeger to Lomax, collecting and publishing 305 ballads in ten volumes between 1882 and 1898 under the title Popular English and Scottish Ballads, and in the process single-handedly creating the concordance which would serve as guide and touchstone for the folk revolutions that would follow throughout the 20th century. And though it is the comprehensive nature of his collection which is generally cited as so significant, Child’s timing should not be denied: though the ballads were, as their title implies, already at the core of popular English-language folk music, the advent of recording technology would speed and solidify their spread, canonizing their narratives and their collector alike, and fueling further exploration of their potential.
Variants abound, even in Child’s collection: as differentiated from more modern coverage, where lyrics are often treated as sacred text, the treatment of the popular ballad is heavily influenced by regionalism, and Child duly noted significant shifts where he found them. The result is a canon which, while definitive, is one nonetheless accurately dubbed “fluid and almost endlessly mutable” by the Guardian. In our sample set below, for example – neither comprehensive nor cautious, but merely a set of favorites from ballads 1-100 released by relative youngsters in the last decade – Jim Moray’s Lord Douglas bears clear but vastly shifted ground in Child Ballad 7, more typically called Earl Brand; Annalivia’s lively False Sir John counts as a variant of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, also known in some regionalisms as May Colvin, while Shady Grove represents an Americanized take on Matty Groves, in which the violence of the original has been boiled out for the more puritanical audience which typifies much of the Appalachian traditions.
Similar shifts and reformations abound in the American folkways. Leadbelly’s 1939 recording of The Gallis Pole, which would later be picked up by Judy Collins, Dylan, and Led Zeppelin under similar nomenclature, traces its ancestry to Child Ballad 95; here, it finds voice in a brand new version from husband and wife tradfolk duo The Quiet American. Wind & Rain, which Crooken Still revives so achingly, is but one of almost two dozen “standard” variants of a ballad whose recorded nomenclature includes multiple versions called either Two Sisters or Cruel Sister. And Sam Amidon’s How Come That Blood, erroneously attributed to Bessie Smith upon its release, is in fact an Irish variant of Child Ballad 17, which Child simply lists as Edward.
As the above list suggests, though my father’s American generation met most of these songs through the britfolk revival of Steeleye Span, Martin Carthy, Pentangle, and Fairport Convention (and such later popular folk rock hybridizers as Traffic and Jethro Tull), the ballads which Child collected remain vibrant in the hands of a new generation on both sides of the proverbial pond. As such, today’s mix aims solely to address the first hundred of ballads from the Child collection, with the assumption that other albums yet-to-be will prompt further exploration of House Carpenter, The Golden Vanity, The Raggle Taggle Gypsy, The Great Silkie, Mary Hamilton, and other favorites from the later parts of the multi-volume set.
Though our own collection of post-millennial takers of the tradition trends towards greatness even before now, the addition of Mitchell and Hamer’s Child Ballads to the vast and varied is an apt kick-off to such a survey, and a special delight to boot. Fluid, engaging, clear as the running streams and lakes of its myriad stanzas, and equally adept in mournful darkness and moral tale, in its exquisite treatment of both the easily recognizable (Tam Lin) and several unusually obscure and under-covered selections, this new collection is rightfully on its way to being regarded as masterpiece, a showpiece for how modern solo and duet forms can still find life in the sourcebook.
As Timber & Steel noted earlier this week, a pair of Mitchell and Hamer’s seven tracks had already hit the web in one form or another; we’ve shared Child 100 below in streaming form to kick off an otherwise-sequential set. But our recent acquisition of the EP in full assures us that the real joy here is in the scope and sequence; this is one for the ages, and we highly recommend pre-order via Mitchell’s website. And we note, too: though the Mitchell’s grand classical folk opus Hadestown made her appropriately name-brand enough to make her the central addressee of most early reviews, and though her voice throughout is achingly sweet and tender, Hamer’s contribution here is equal to hers, and equally essential; for example, though we’ve taken it down at label request, their take on Riddles Wildly Expounded (Child #1), which represents but one of the two tracks on this incredibly perfect EP which feature his voice first, brings his lead vocals into the public mix, lending a new chord of credence to all arguments for why and how this simply produced, stunningly clear duo recording sets the sterling standard for folk music in the modern era.
Child Ballads in the 21st Century, Volume 1 [zip!]
- Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer: Willie of Winsbury (Child #100)
Looking for more coverfolk to liven up your ears? Like the Cover Lay Down Facebook page for streaming samples, video finds, and more bonus tracks throughout the week!
‘Tube Thursday: Videos and Streaming Coverfolk
January 23rd, 2013 — 10:48 am
with covers of Elliot Smith, The Beatles, The Louvin Brothers, and more!
Though we share videos and other streaming singletons over at the Cover Lay Down FaceBook page throughout the week, a critical mass of open tabs has made it needful to share the most recently discovered crop of one-shot releases, recordings, and new finds all-at-once, if only just to clear the air and move on. Read and click below to hear why we collected these top-notch songs and songwriters in the first place.
The Chapin Sisters, who we’ve previously featured filtering Britney Spears and Madonna into their haunting indiefolk harmonies, are among the first singer-songwriters who have committed to our “dream project” (a full album of second-generation artists covering their famous fathers to support inner city youth and family initiatives). Though we’re still soliciting musicians to fill the roster, these raw and twangy live videos from a January “classic country covers” residency at Brooklyn hipster hangout Pete’s Candy Store offer more than a hint of what we’re in store for when the project finally gets off the ground – and explain why we’re so excited to have them aboard.
- The Chapin Sisters: I Never Will Marry (orig. The Carter Family)
- The Chapin Sisters: While You’re Cheatin’ On Me (orig. The Louvin Brothers)
Retro-alternative trio-turned-quartet The Living Sisters aren’t sisters, but they, too, sport a second-generation connection: Inara George, daughter of Lowell and one-half of co-ed indie duo The Bird And The Bee, features prominently in the band’s classic girl-group harmonies, alongside equally hip indie names Becky Stark and Eleni Mandell, and new addition Alex Lilly. We’ve shared their work before, and celebrated 2010 collection Love To Live, but the lower-fidelity of this live take trades their usual hi-fi-era warmth for a raw authenticity that comes much closer to folk and offers huge promise for their new Run for Cover EP, which – although it has drawn sneers from Paste for an admittedly sparse and stuttery Funkadelic cover that never really comes together – is easily worth pursuit nonetheless for gems including a much stronger pair of Patsy Cline tunes and a quite aggressive take on Parton classic Jolene.
- The Living Sisters: Que Sera Sera (orig. Doris Day)
Speaking of faux-sibling groups: I wish I could remember where I found this great knee-slapping version of traditional folksong Haul Away Joe from kindie up-and-comers The Okee Dokee Brothers, but no matter: the titular duo that comprises the core of this group are hardly a secret. Denverite outdoorsmen and childhood friends (but not brothers), Joe and Justin get a bonus boost from parents and critics alike for being unapologetically pro-nature, but get core recognition for crafting and performing cheerful, celebratory music for all ages; with their most recent album Can You Canoe? (composed on a rafting trip, natch) garnering top honors on so many parenting blogs’ 2012 Best Of lists, the first-time Grammy nominees are bound to make some sort of splash as the days close in on the awards ceremony.
- The Okee Dokee Brothers: Haul Away Joe (trad.)
We celebrated Irish singer-songwriter Heidi Talbot back when the blog was new, as a part of a feature on Compass Records, and featured covers from her award-winning breakthrough 2008 album In Love + Light in more recent features; we’ve probably mentioned, as well, her earlier years as a singer in popular Irish-American folk supergroup Cherish The Ladies. Now, on the cusp of release for her newest solo album Angels Without Wings, Heidi’s website is temporarily down pending the usual PR push – a trend, incidentally, which breaks the web, but we won’t take that out on the blond Irishwoman whose confident, understated delivery first captured our hearts. But you can pre-order the album there, and probably should: if this cover of Carter Family standard When The Roses Come Again is any indication, we’re in for another great record. And her newly-recovered version of Tom Waits’ Time, recorded last April, is a perfect bonus, more subtle and sad than ever.
- Heidi Talbot w/ Tim O’Brien: When The Roses Come Again (orig. The Carter Family)
- Heidi Talbott w/ Boo Hewerdine & John McCusker: Time (orig. Tom Waits)
It’s a perfectly constructed hipster’s dream: an artist named LP, from LA by way of NYC, recording with uke and warble (and whistle!) in an echoey stairwell – and, as such, it had high potential to cross the line. But the newly-signed Warner Brothers recording artist, who has earned her indie cred playing Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza on the strength of 3 million YouTube hits and a hit track (Into The Wild) on a single EP, presents us with one of the most centered-yet-soaring Beatles covers we’ve heard in a long, long time. Her other covers, which include a take on In The Pines which would do Leadbelly and Janis Joplin proud, a haunting Mars Volta cover in a cave, and a live Beyonce cover with full band, are just as echoey, and equal parts lightness and depth; join her mailing list to download the last for free.
- LP: Something (orig. The Beatles)
- LP: In The Pines (trad.)
NYC-bred and newly UK-grounded singer-songwriter Annie Dressner‘s 2011 debut Strangers Who Knew Each Other’s Names offered a catchy set with strong indie/alternative influences and a hint of contemporary twang in the production; her upcoming EP, the Pledgemusic-driven project East Twenties, which drops in April, is a teaser, but on first listen, it seems to represent a shift to a folkier, smoother side which should slide smoothly through the indiefolk blogs upon release. Her delicious one-take recording of Elliot Smith’s oft-covered Between The Bars is a rarity, the only cover she’s recorded in any form to date, but even in demo form, it’s crisp and clear and raw, with sweet soaring coffeehouse vocals – a solid indicator of album strength, and a promising harbinger of more to come.
- Annie Dressner: Between The Bars (orig. Elliot Smith)
Sarah Jarosz’ live cover of Kathy’s Song from early 2012 never got posted here, though I kept coming back to it: her interpretation was beautiful, with singer and song seemingly a near perfect match, but the quality of the video which resulted was too wan and warbly to be worth passing on (unlike, say, her recent take on Dylan’s Ring Them Bells, which is sweet and simply gorgeous). A year later, here to the rescue is UK’s own Sam Sallon, whose version is pure and fluid, and who – with subtle changes in chord progression and a faithful, gentle combination of both originator’s voices combined into one – manages to produce his own stunner of a song. The track comes from an EP of the same name; Sallon’s upcoming debut, which drops in May, sounds like it’s going to be a wild ride of catchy roots-to-pop indie-Americana, but don’t take my word for it – head over to his music page to sample the tracks, and hear for yourself.
- Sam Sallon: Kathy’s Song (orig. Simon & Garfunkel)
Last, but certainly not least, in our streaming set today comes this pair of delights from young up-and-coming Philly-based folk artist Brittany Ann, who certainly knows how to take on the here-and-now and make it her own. The Shovels and Rope cover is countrified and twangy, with a touch of Brandi Carlisle; the Robyn cover is flowing and warm, with pulses of subtle folkpop and shades of early Lori McKenna in her voice; both were released with little fanfare last week, and we’re pleased as punch to be the first to pass them along, ’cause despite the easy comparisons, this girl from the suburbs has got a tenderness and soul all her own.
- Brittany Ann: Dancing On My Own (orig. Robyn)
- Brittany Ann: Boxcar (orig. Shovels & Rope)
The Year’s Best Coverfolk, 2012: The Singles
December 30th, 2012 — 11:42 am
(b-sides, deep cuts, YouTube one-offs, & more one-shot coverage)
As we noted late last week in The Year’s Best Coverfolk, Vol. 1: Tribute Albums and Cover Compilations, it’s been a reasonably good year for full-album coverage. But although tracks from tributes continue to overwhelm singletons in my collection, as in previous years, a significant majority of the songs that lingered came from a mixed bag of borderline genre albums and single shot coverfolk releases, via the usual sources: YouTube and Soundcloud, in-studio sessions, website and bandcamp singles, full folk albums, and more.
That we continue to find so much of our favorite coverage of the year outside the album-length covers collection is an ongoing testament to our folk-first, artist-centric approach here at Cover Lay Down. After all, the point of our biweekly forays into the folkworld is to introduce you to the best of the singer-songwriter, roots, americana, bluegrass, and contemporary folk rock and folkpop canon. Our nominal focus on coverage is, in the end, merely a vehicle, to provide an entry into the craft and appreciation of those artists through the comfort zone of familiar song. And that artists, knowing this, remain prone to cover a song or two along the way, granting both a sense of their sound and an exposition of their influence, continues to lend credence to this folk-first mandate.
We eschew ranking for single songs; you’ll not find hierarchies here. But I’m not so humble as to enjoy the challenge of creating the perfect mix of coverfolk, circa 2012. And so, once again, we’re offering a two-part compromise: the short, mostly tongue-in-cheek “Best Of” which appeared on Friday…and here, today, the piece de resistance: a 29-song set of our favorite and most-played tracks from this year’s vast collection of singletons and deep cuts, designed to be downloaded and played in order for maximum emotional impact.
Like so many of the songs we posted in part one of this dual reluctance, every one of them gives me chills. Taken together, subjective though they are, they offer a challenge to 2013 and beyond.
So download the full set, or pick and choose among the singletons. Compare them against last year’s mixtape, to see how our tastes have changed. Hit the links beside each track to learn more about these amazing artists, and their output, and their journeys.
May the coming year bring us evermore joy through shared culture and communion. And may this humble offering grace your ears and raise your spirit, for now and for years to come.
The Year’s Best Singles: A 2012 Coverfolk Mix [Zip!]
- The Honey Dewdrops: Bright Morning Stars (trad.) [via]
- Gibson Bull: Laura (orig. Bat For Lashes) [via]
- Hey Marseilles: True Love Will Find You In The End (orig. Daniel Johnston) [via]
- The Staves: Songbird (orig. Fleetwood Mac) [via]
- Bryan John Appleby: Duncan (orig. Paul Simon) [via]
- Brian Vander Ark w/ Lex Land: Sweetness Follows (orig. R.E.M.) [via]
- Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Loretta (orig. Townes Van Zandt) [via]
- Infamous Stringdusters: Walking On The Moon (orig. The Police) [via]
- John Statz: Old Old Fashioned (orig. Frightened Rabbit) [via]
- David Pramik: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (orig. U2) [via]
- Coty Hogue: I’m On Fire (orig. Bruce Springsteen) [via]
- Ben Howard: Dancing In The Dark (orig. Bruce Springsteen) [via]
- Julia Stone: Bloodbuzz Ohio (orig. The National) [via]
- Zella Day: 7 Nation Army (orig. White Stripes) [via]
- Amber Rubarth: Just Like A Woman (orig. Bob Dylan) [via]
- Susan Kane: Loser (orig. Grateful Dead) [via]
- Martha’s Trouble: You Are My Sunshine / Open Up Your Heart (orig. Oliver Hood / The Lancers) [via]
- Shovels & Rope: (What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace Love & Understanding (orig. Brinsley Schwarz) [via]
- Nathaniel Rateliff: If I Had No Place To Fall (orig. Townes Van Zandt) [via]
- Mindy Smith: No One Is To Blame (orig. Howard Jones) [via]
- Sarah Winters: S&M (orig. Rihanna) [via]
- Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem: East Virginia Blues (trad.) [via]
- Joshua Hyslop: Shelter From The Storm (orig. Bob Dylan) [via]
- The Big Bright: Don’t Change (orig. INXS) [via]
- Mumford & Sons w/ Jerry Douglas: The Boxer (orig. Simon & Garfunkel) [via]
- Rose Cousins w/ Mark Erelli: If I Should Fall Behind (orig. Bruce Springsteen) [via]
- Hannah Read: Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood (orig. Richard & Mimi Farina) [via]
- Laura Gibson: Down By The Riverside (trad.) [via]
- Hezekiah Jones: Last Parade On Ann Street (orig. Chris Bathgate) [via]
Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, 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 year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of alternate favorites and rare 2012 covers otherwise unblogged.
Thanks, folks. May your days be merry and bright.