In February of 2013, Cover Lay Down's host went bankrupt, leaving us to reconstruct the blog from scratch. Happily, features from our first five years remain available thanks to the Wayback Machine Internet Archives, a non-profit working to preserve the web for posterity, and we are eternally grateful for their hard work. Check out the first five years of Cover Lay Down here!
Forever this will be the year we cut it almost too fine, working ourselves too close to exhaustion trying to juggle illness, worklife, the desperate hobbies of the well-intentioned. The week came and went in a blur, and suddenly there we were, just across the Chesapeake Bridge Tunnel, taking turns at the wheel despite shared exhaustion, both of us struggling to stay awake as the rain came and went in the dead miles of Virginia, past fields and factories we’ve passed a dozen times, but never seen in daylight.
We made it, of course: to the beach for sunrise, breakfast in the tiny village of Corolla, through the long tired hours before the rental property delivers the keys. Now we are in the house on the lagoon, the same one we have rented for almost a decade. The osprey wheels just yards from this porch, his spiral hypnotic and soothing; the turtles snooze in the sun; across the lagoon, something – a beaver? a fish? – splashes by the bank. The day slows. The soul lags, even as we ply the day with moments, ice cream, beach walks, the children struggle with the buzz that makes boredom of stillness. But the bright horizon brims with the peace we need, and the shared communion we crave.
Soon the others will come: my father, and his companion; my brother; two families of friends next door. Until then, the stress of the world lifts slowly, like the fog burning off the beach at dawn. Here’s a soundtrack to ease us into it: over a hundred songs in all, contained within our six previous collections of songbook coverage by, from and about The Carolinas and their rich history of artists and musicians.
It’s been a long winter, but it’s easy to believe in spring, with the last few heaps of heavy snow finally turning to slush on the lawn and the crocus buds breaking through in the garden. Spiritually, too, the clouds are breaking: after a two-week hospital stay, the elderchild seems to have recalibrated, gaining weight on a diet of protein shakes and constant exercise; my students can see the fourth quarter end of the tunnel, and renew their vigor in discourse and deconstruction. It’s a good life, I know, but it’s been hard to see it for the fog; to know that it is lifting brings hope, slow and sure, with equal parts reluctance and relief.
Our mixed-metaphors of weather, water, and want belie the continued weight of life as it is: we’re not yet at rest, and we won’t be for at least another week, when we take our annual pilgrimage down south to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the herons soar over the lagoon, and life slows down for a while every year. Until then, we’ll keep clearing the head, and the soul, readying ourselves to emerge into warmth.
Part of this, as always, is in the gathering of new songs and videos, albums and news from familiar sources – a strong and rising crop which have peppered our winter and gathered in our heart, where they threaten to burst upon us like the dam in spring snowmelt. And so we turn to the detritus of shoreline, the songs that spring upon us like buds in the snow, and cheer our hearts even as they moan and mourn for that which is lost, and those who are lonesome. A spin of the dice, and the world comes up with equal parts hope and heartache, roots and branches: the songs of John Hiatt, covered in folk.
Though still technically representative of the younger generation’s rich, reclaimed ground at the intersection of folk, Americana and bluegrass, Sara Watson, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sarah Jarosz are all beloved here at Cover Lay Down: each has been featured here before, both in collaboration and solo, for a combined respective breadth of work that has included plenty of sweet coverage along the way. Now the three artists have joined forces for a tour and a track, and the combination of the three is heavenly, with vocals sharp and soft pulling against each other, banjo and fiddle and guitar precise and sparingly, achingly melded. Their choice of song is inspired, too – a far cry from the hoarse cry of John Hiatt’s original, but with just as much longing and hope intermingled.
This continent-crossing trio are not the first women to take on the John Hiatt songbook so sweetly. Too folk for rock, too rock for folk, Hiatt is the epitome of the songwriter’s songwriter; the words “critical success but commercial failure” pepper his resume. He has been nominated for several Grammy awards, but drifted from label to label throughout his career; though he has recorded over two dozen albums studio albums in four decades, he’s never really charted that high. As such, he owes much of his early career to borrowing, most notably the 1974 release of Three Dog Night’s Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here, which rose to number 16 on the Billboard charts, and a spate of covers from his 1987 breakthrough album Bring The Family, recorded with Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder, which brought such hits as Thing Called Love, Memphis In The Meantime, and Have A Little Faith In Me to other voices and other rooms.
But his songs speak plainly of universal themes; his rock and roll is edged and catchy; his chords and melodies are eminently playable. And so, like most folk fans, I suspect, my own experience with Hiatt comes from stirring echoes on late night Americana radio, plus long play of his turn-of-the-century, predominantly acoustic record Crossing Muddy Waters, coupled with popular covers in celebration of his work from Raitt, Linda Rondstadt, Roseanne Cash, Willie Nelson, and a broad swath of other folk, blues and Americana artists – and with two generally solid late-century tribute albums in the canon (2000 Telarc compilation Rollin’ Into Memphis and Vanguard’s 2003 release It’ll Come To You) there’s plenty to choose from, here.
Either way, Hiatt is worth both the coverage and the comparison to each original. His best songs delve deep into divorce, addiction, and other dire extremities; that gritty voice and guitar are inimitable, and play out his motifs and themes with pain and prescience. Indeed, with a few notable exceptions – Raitt’s take on Thing Called Love comes to mind, as does Suzxy Bogguss’ Drive South and Cliff Eberhardt’s Back Of My Mind – coverage of Hiatt’s work tends to fall into decidedly gendered camps, with his heartbreaking balladry trending towards the female side, and his gruffer, angrier or more celebratory tracks more often than not delivered in the hands of raspy bluesmen.
A split set, then, from sweet to sour, sugar to spice – seven and seven, with women on the A side, and men on the flipside – as we celebrate John Hiatt’s work, and his legacy, through coverage. Enjoy.
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A familiar conversation last night over dinner with the church choir director, in which the old trope of wondering why our choir is so oversensitive to the Catholic liturgy turns quickly to the larger questions of why Unitarian Universalists as a general case are so often afraid of this particular text and source. And there is unusual urgency, this evening, as holy week approaches; tonight, our kids choir takes the stage in an especially non-canonical production of Godspell, the musical, and although we believe strongly that ours is a vision truly realized, there is no way to anticipate whether or not that vision will offend at least a few of the parents and family friends who will attend our production this evening.
My first college major was religious studies, and I attended a liberal high school that required a course in Bible As Literature; to claim ownership of the name and meaning of Jesus in the pure textual sense is honest and easy for me. But as a native Jew, and a convert of sorts to the sort of Unitarian Universalism that holds the gospels at arms length, my lifelong understanding of Jesus has been almost exclusively literary and historical, not spiritual.
There’s some use in this, I think: for years, a combination of iconoclastic playfulness and a coincidental look-alike comparison to the classic image of the Catholic cross – long hair, beaked nose, and reddish beard – let me play Jesus at Halloween for years; I have worn the crown of thorns, and the robe, and even the stigmata, several times, and reveled in the glee and discomfort it produced.
But as I wrote in my director’s note for the program, the Gospels as portrayed in Godspell are daunting, from both religious and theatrical perspectives. I’ve performed it, and found it a risky show by design; I’ve studied it, and know that the character of Jesus is heavy, indeed, in our history, both as Unitarian Universalists, and as denizens of a 21st century world.
And so to frame Godspell in the terms of Unitarian Universalist practice seemed especially challenging, at first. And then I started working with our kids. And suddenly, making this production into a true reflection of their growing vision of what it means to be UU was natural and humbling.
As part of this realization, I decided that being authentic about the communal ownership of text and source was best served by finding a way to cast the character of Jesus as more of a rotating facilitator’s role than a prophetic voice – or at least, an opportunity to give all who are ready to do so the chance to model and find comfort in leadership.
Yes, in our production of Godspell, Jesus is a role, a costume to don, through the seriousness of play. Eight children, my daughter among them, take their turn in the robe as the play progresses, each revealing their own interpretation of leadership as they model the multivocal lay-led facilitation that lies at the heart of our UU practice.
And so, through our exploration of Jesus as man and myth, we enact the larger questions of the culture these twelve to fourteen year olds have inherited. And so, as is so often the case, my thoughts turn to the world of music, and coverage, to find solace and insight in the way others have done so, too.
Love it or hate it, Jesus the character floats troubled above our modern mythology, ripe and ready for transformation and memetic use. For some, he stands for love; for others, hope; for still others, a focus for frustration, a lens into the troubled metrics of the most rigid trappings of the modern world.
And so throughout the past half decade, our everquesting culture and its craftspersons have come to produces artifacts which our forefathers would have considered the worst of heresies. Sacrilegious and strained, the songs we find in our folk and rock genres are neither hymns nor carols, but borrow from the gospels and the cross to criticize and calm, making as they go new ownership of the character of Jesus: as everyman, as savior, as lost boy, as teacher.
Listen, as the robe becomes flesh in song. Listen, as our favorite songsmiths transform the world anew, their treatments tender and caustic in turn. Listen, for he is risen in our hearts and souls.
Daylight savings time notwithstanding, the nearness of Spring makes for a brighter world when I leave my children to their sleep. Most mornings, it is not enough to lift the heaviness I feel, here in the breakneck days of March, when the various components of my life – teaching, directing, serving on the local school board – come to a head all at once, and me with my children continuing to struggle with chronic illness.
But the soundtracks of life are everpresent, and they say music soothes the savage breast. And so I make and listen to my own playlists in the car, trading NPR awareness away for just a few moments to feel each day, before the car stops, and I walk into the confusion and stress of what is increasingly an unsettlingly precarious new normal.
Recently, that’s meant a lot of Paul Simon covers; in both his incarnations – alongside Art Garfunkel, and as a solo act – Paul Simon serves the yearning soul better than most, in these days on the edge of grief. There are many reasons for this, from the continued primacy of Simon’s songbook in the popcult airwaves to the recent televisory reminder that he was a key player on the early days of Saturday Night Life to the constant renewal of his songs through evermore coverage. But mostly, to say that Simon is a better speaker on behalf of my soul is to acknowledge the sheer potency of that particular subset of his canon that speaks directly to the unmoored sense of self which typifies my own uneasy days.
Simon’s everyman, restlessly longing for stability in the storm, is legendary. His descriptors of distance and domain are unparalleled among the chroniclers of the heart. And a full complement of songs serves to prove our case; their diversity – of situation, and of interpretation – validates our dreams.
Simon’s recipe is potent: lead with a crisply envisioned moment, widen the lens to capture the leavetaking of home, end with the setting sun, a question on the horizon. Pilgrims and immigrants, travelers and tour-mates, our narrators search their own stories, looking back on love affairs and road trips, trying to make sense of the lost and found, the detritus that floated them here, finding temporary solace and stillness in wistful memories of seventh avenue whores, store-bought pies, and other simple, concrete pleasures. United in their plight, they stand for all of us, awed by the world that whizzes by from the windows of our trains and cars, humbled by the poignancy and precariousness of love and the gritty imperfections of our broken promises, always, always, grateful for the memories.
Listen as the nirvana of Simon’s searchlight songbook of hope grants grace in gravity. Listen, as like a magician, Simon reveals motion itself to be the human condition, and celebrates it.
Listen, that our hearts and bones remain true, and not come undone.
Listen, and be still in the whirlwind of your life, too.
Back early from a weekend in Boston with my father, where I got to experience firsthand a city besieged as never before, its streets narrowed into a byzantine maze of snow-carved tunnels.
It was tempting to stay. The fireside was warm and welcoming in the Sheraton Tara, home of the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival; the hotel’s nooks and crannies buzzed with jams and impromptu sessions; the mainstage shone with talent. But a record amount of snow has fallen in Massachusetts this winter. And so we cut short our annual pilgrimage when the flakes started to fly midday, and good thing, too: by the time I made it home to join my spouse and children by our own Valentine’s Day fire, it was blizzard conditions.
Over five feet of snow in less than three weeks, and it’s still falling – enough to cancel church today; enough to block entire our view of the driveway from couch, chair, and bed. But snow doesn’t scare us out in the woods. After a week of hospital visits and chaos, the girls teeter on the edge of well, with school vacation ahead. And so we’re settling in, watching movies and cuddling into the morning, saving our plans for another day.
It’s a good life. Here’s a celebration of it, from my family to yours – nothing focused, just a loose set of optimism just right for a lazy snowed-in Sunday.
Perfect, Heavenly, Beautiful Day: A Coverfolk Mixtape [zip!]
A generation-spanning pair of tradsongs: gently upbeat celebration from high school bluegrass prodigies The Onlies on the one hand; sweet, slow singer-songwriter folk from cowboy countryfolk favorite Kimmie Rhodes on the other.
Yet another New England snowday grants us the time to sift through a surprisingly rich field of new, pending, and ongoing covers projects recently received by mail from the far reaches of the folkworld. Read on for a set of features and futures that are already setting the house on fire: a pair of ambitious tradfolk projects, and a label-driven covers collection well worth the folkfan’s attention.
It takes dedication and a unique mindset to devote a year to coverage, let alone to a single songbook – and guts, indeed, to commit to such a project in the first decade of performance.
But young husband-and-wife folk duo Jonathan and Rebecca Moody, aka Forest Mountain Hymnal, have proven themselves before, earning our respect and admiration as artists and interpreters. And so we are thrilled to name Dear Balladeer: The Moodys and the Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, a bi-weekly project which will see them taking on 24 previously unrecorded Appalachian folksongs collected by the folk-revival’s own balladeer, a genuine gift, sure to keep giving throughout the year and beyond.
Forest Mountain Hymnal is already a staple at our table and our stereo; any news of novelty from these childhood sweethearts is inherently worthy of our attentive ears. Previous EP-length collections, an exclusive, otherwise-unreleased transformation of I Heard It Through The Grapevine, and the self-titled, newly re-collected set that serves as their first official full-length album, explicate our praise: rich, soft, deceptively simple indiefolk in the same haunting-yet-melodic vein as Cover Lay Down favorites Arborea, Sam Amidon, Jose Gonzalez, and Kings of Convenience combine with traditional sensibilities of harmony, melody and instrumentation and a pure, sweet, echoing production dynamic almost ecstatically in the band’s previously recorded versions of well-crafted originals and known songs from Pretty Polly and The Leatherwinged Bat to Burl Ives’ Buckeye Jim and Aussie children’s standard Kookaberra, making Forest Mountain Hymnal as welcome, as essential, and as awesome for year-round fare as their wonderful 2011 Christmas Hymnal EP is for the holiday season.
Meanwhile, Niles, though seminal in his influence on the folk revivalists of the fifties and sixties, is a bit of an undersung hero in the modern folkways; his most-covered compositions and reworkings, including I Wonder as I Wander, Black is the Color, and Go ‘Way From My Window, are often cited as traditional, spreading and reinforcing his influence even as the lack of attribution obscures his own contribution to the tradition. Too, as noted in Dear Balladeer’s statement of project intent, the Hollywood machine has co-opted both Niles and the songs he loved and collected, framing them as the product of a denigrated hillbilly culture in ways that deny the true complexity and intelligence of both the songs and their people.
Dear Balladeer’s aim, therefore, is as corrective as it is celebratory, with the Moodys taking on two curated “lost cuts” per month from his published ballad collections, by permission of Niles’ estate – a set which owes enough deliberate debt to the tradition that Niles organized them by Child Ballad equivalence in their original incidence. And, in keeping with the spirit of the project, all recordings for this project are being released free, as “we really feel like this music came from the people and should go back to them.”
The Moodys promise a debt paid in full, and they deliver: after spending a few days steeping in the comfort and craftwork of the first two tracks, it’s easy to crown the project a great success; if the remainder of the songs on Dear Balladeer are even half as good, their efforts should bring Niles’ name – and theirs – back to the forefront of the modern. I certainly expect to see this project again at the end of the year, both on the blogs, and here in our annual Best Of set, ’round the top of the Tradfolk categories. For now, best wishes and kudos to Forest Mountain Hymnal on a kickass start to an ambitious year; may their ways be smooth as they forge ahead, for we are eager, indeed, to hear the rest.
Of similar ethnographic vein is banjoist, composer, and “instigator” Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, which pursues our chosen genre’s prototypical collector and celebrant with a multigenerational cohort of praiseworthy peers – Tom O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Margaret Glaspy, Eli West and more – that serves as high predictor of project success.
Touting the official nineteen-track album, and the deep-delving ethnographer’s dream of a 54 page booklet which accompanies it, is a bit premature, and somewhat of a tease. Though Stone’s Lomax Project has been in place for a while now as a live touring collaborative, playing sets and hosting sessions at all the right festivals and stages, and inviting in the process a continuation of the discovery and sharing process that Alan Lomax himself practically invented, the recorded collection isn’t scheduled to drop until March 3.
But the work of the talented Stone and his crowd of celebrated cronies under this particular umbrella is not unknown to us. Stone’s earlier albums interpreting the canons through originals and airs from Bach to Africa to Appalachia are themselves keystone components of a modern folklorist’s collection; that the names above all signed on to this project alongside Stone’s center shows their mutual respect. The stated goal here is renewal, not preservation, which is always a strong indicator of true craftspersonship. And even as live in-studio and stage takes from the project’s players have already cropped up on YouTube in the last few months, giving us more than a taste of what is to come, we needed little encouragement to share Lazy John, a just-released first listen from the album itself which showed up in our mailbox over the weekend, which simply sings with talent, love, and gleeful energy.
The merits of music, mandate and means make for a powerful trifecta; that the result is nearly perfect is not unexpected, but no less of a delight. The album earns our respect and admiration with hot sets that burn the barn and then some alongside other, more subtle interpretations of the Lomax collection, which themselves range from Appalachian fiddle tunes and Southern work songs to the African-American shanties and chants of the Bahaman and Georgia Sea Island cultures, finding joy and depth in the collections of a driven archivist, interpreter, and, in the case of the first song below, creator in vein, who in his single album in 1963 reworked familiar folk motifs and characters into a series of nominally original works. Listen and fall in love now, so you can say you were one of the first to know.
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Lazy John (orig. Alan Lomax) (from Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, 2015)
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Goodbye Old Paint (trad.)
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Maids When You’re Young (trad.)
Way on the other end of the folkworld, where indie and Americana cuts nestle alongside harder-edged alternatives, lies Nettwerk, a large yet still-independent Vancouver-based label and promotional house founded on electronic music that has, over three decades in the industry, provided a host of services for Canadian acts such as Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, and The Be Good Tanyas, international artists from Dido to Sinead O’Connor to Dispatch to Joshua Tillman, and – more recently – radio-ready bands and singer-songwriters like Passenger, Joshua Hyslop, and fun.
Our focus today is From Cover to Cover: 30 Years At Nettwerk, a brand-new anniversary tribute-in-coverage to the label’s own, and it’s a great one, with versions that run the gamut in selective scope and interpretive strategy. Takes on everything from Coldplay to Barenaked Ladies to Ron Sexsmith to The Be Good Tanyas call to the diversity of Nettwerk rosters past and present; the mix is solid and smooth in transition from track to track, and though only half of the album could truly be categorized under folk, the performances are consistently fine, indeed.
Regular readers have already heard from this collection; though we were holding off on celebrating it in full until now, we couldn’t help but sneak label stalwart William Fitzsimmons’ cover of Sarah McLachlan’s Ice Cream into our artist feature a few weeks ago. But we’ve been sitting on other greatness therein, from Great Lake Swimmers to Caroline Pennell, from Lily Kershaw’s strong take on modern standard Wagon Wheel to Joshua Hyslop’s stunning take on Weepies favorite The World Spins Madly On. Now, just a day before it drops officially, here’s the whole shebang. Enjoy.
Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down shares new coverfolk features and songsets regularly here on the blog, with ongoing bonus tracks and streaming coverage on our Facebook page. And you can help! Donate now to support our continuing mission and receive our grateful praise…plus a select mix of over 30 otherwise-unblogged acoustic, roots, and Americana covers from 2014!
We’re fattening up my daughter, by which I mean that a year into her diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease she has trained herself to eat so little that she has grown dangerously thin and bony. The doctor has prescribed a 2500 calorie diet. And so the closet gets filled with sticky and salt, donuts and cookies in small packages, and we spend the day asking if she’s eaten, and can she eat again.
Two months ago, we had the opposite problem. The wee one wasn’t so wee after 6 months of steroids, and unlike her elder sister the stick figure, the nine year old cares about her looks; so much, in fact, that she’s asked me not to go into further detail here. Suffice it to say: so go the trials and tribulations of the immunodeficient, as we learn to balance the world on our shoulders, and live in the moment always.
Last year, before the wee one presented with her sister’s disease, I watched from the window as she tried in vain to apply her smaller form to the sledding hill, and trudged back, forlorn and angry, alone in the midst of a familial refocusing not yet hers to claim. But lifelong illnesses wax and wane, and today is a good day, brought on by too much snow and a rare day at home together. The roads are closed, and the sleds inflated; the girls huddle by their electric fireplace in the everything room, watching TV and preparing their bodies for a foray into the cold together. The weight lifts, and we are at peace with the world.
The Band is hard to collect through coverage; their chosen name is essentially un-googleable, confounding the collector’s usual search strategies. But the ragtag group of Canadian roots rockers that once formed the backbone of Dylan’s fuller sound is worth pursuit: their songbook still sings loud and clear through radioplay; their influence on the modern soundscape is clearly evident in the vast collection of coverage we have featured on these pages, all the way back to our very first post, where we celebrated Richard Shindell’s 2007 cover album with his version of Acadian Driftwood.
While often a delight, then, it’s no surprise to find The Band still covered. Their canon at its best is both electric with energy and highly narrative, its downtrodden everymen and eminently singable verse-chorus-verse structure ripe for interpretation. And although deep cuts covered bring a special and unique opportunity to reconsider their collection, there’s nothing so spiritually uplifting, in my mind, as The Weight.
Although spectacular on its own merits, and recognizably spread in short form in the film Easy Rider and concert footage from Woodstock, like many of our Single Song feature subjects, The Weight settled into the American Songbook after some particularly distinctive cross-genre coverage, including early versions by Aretha Franklin, Jackie DelShannon, and Diana Ross and The Supremes, which blanketed the genre spectrum with the song between 1968 and 1969. But the song, described by PBS as a masterpiece of Biblical allusions, enigmatic lines and iconic characters, is clearly one of The Band’s favorite songs to perform, as well. It appears on three separate live albums released in the seventies, and twice in The Band’s seminal concert film The Last Waltz – once in live performance, and once as a coda, in the studio with The Staple Singers.
Today, like greatest hits I Shall Be Released and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Weight remains a common enough cover in live performance, especially as a sing-along encore; several of our favorites, including a superstar-laden tribute from the 2014 benefit concert Love For Levon: A Benefit to Save the Barn, Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show in fine old-timey form, new weird American band The Hollows with hoot and holler, and a beautifully sung version from Dala with Oh Susanna and the Good Lovelies, sport a similar dynamic, with multi-artist cohorts taking the stage for a verse apiece, and joyful voices raised in harmony in the chorus, as they celebrate sets well played.
But in the studio, the song has seen more transformation. Rickie Lee Jones, on her recent deconstruction project The Devil You Know, takes the more extreme path, stripping the song down to a crooning, crying lament. Other sparse acoustic covers delight, as well: YouTubers Connor Pledger and Grace Albritton slide around the melody intimately, for example, while Robin Tesch sticks with solo guitar and a husky voice backed by light harmonies for a comforting, comfortable living room cover that pays apt homage.
The rest lie between, finding their own salvation and solace in the ultimately uplifting lines of first-person narration. Cassandra Wilson croons a soulful, lilting blues; German acoustic soulband Tok Tok Tok jazz it up with sax and a trio sound. Joan Osborne keeps the beat but adds full horn and organ production for funky minor key fare, while Ashes For Trees trend towards sweetness with mando and guitar, and singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter Don Lange breaks the tune down to a troubadour’s walking blues; both Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem and the touring trio of Tony Lucca, Jay Nash and Matt Duke drop the drums and bombast, too, keeping it wholly acoustic in radio performance. Little Feat and guitar wizard Jeff Healy keep it real as we’d expect them to. Bluegrass legend Marty Stuart even brings the Staple Singers back in, for a countrified yet faithful performance that shows just how well the song stretches out into other genres, finding its place in the various forms and fields that comprise the American roots landscape.
Enjoy the song, in every incarnation. And may your weight be lifted, too, wherever you may be.
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There’s something fun finding a song that people don’t take to be that serious …
is actually kind of heartbreaking and sweet and poignant. (William Fitzsimmons, 2009)
Pittsburg-bred artist William Fitzsimmons became an easy posterchild of the sensitive indiefolk movement in 2005 with a home-recorded debut that brought him MySpace popularity, early blog recognition from the hushfolk crowd, and tours with fellow social media-driven folkstars Cary Brothers and Ingrid Michaelson. But in many ways, his music was made for the loneliness and disconnectedness of the kitchen-table digital age: his performances are heartbreak incarnate, and a history of coveted soundtrack spots on indiefolk touchstones such as One Tree Hill and Gray’s Anatomy speak to the essence of quiet honesty in his work.
And Fitzsimmons – a gentle giant with a majestic hipster beard and a comfortably self-effacing demeanor on stage – comes by his heartbreak honestly. A multi-instrumentalist born to blind parents whose marriage fell apart in his adolescence, his 2006 sophomore effort explored their divorce, and his 2008 release The Sparrow and the Crow, which was lauded by critics, is an intensely personal exploration of his own.
Fitzsimmons knows emotion by trade, too, having left a budding career as a mental health specialist to pursue his music; if anything, his songs are an extension of the therapeutic urge, healing as they expose the pain. Add in his distinctive husky voice and pulsing, shimmery style, and the result is a constant comfort, reverent and hushed, as he caresses each song, offering little adornment and great reserve.
We’ve shared most of Fitzsimmons’ covers here in one mix or another; most recently, his take on Cat Stevens, recorded for last year’s tribute to the films of Wes Anderson, topped our Best Coverfolk of 2014 list. His take on James Taylor’s lullaby You Can Close Your Eyes is an oft-resurrected addition to our kidfolk compilations. And we highly recommend his original work, most especially 2014 release Lions, and The Sparrow and The Crow, both of which delve deep into introspection, and unsettles the soul.
But while the short arrangements Fitzsimmons prefers in performance makes each song a fleeting moment of quietude and respect, gathering his coverage in together allows for a steeping perfect for the first real snow outside, and the hush of winter. Click through for an EP-length compilation of our favorite studio covers, and then stick around for a trio of live-in-concert video covers, including a sublime take on Wonderwall, and a Tom Petty cover that will have you checking his tour schedule for more.
William Fitzsimmons ft. Gungor: Wildflowers (orig. Tom Petty)
William Fitzsimmons, David Bazan, Abby & Noah Gundersen, Chris Carraba: I Shall Be Released (orig. Bob Dylan)
Proudly ad-free and artist-centric since 2007, Cover Lay Down shares artist features, and coverfolk collections regularly here and on our Facebook page. Donate now to help support our continuing mission, and receive an exclusive mix of over thirty otherwise-unblogged folk, roots, and acoustic covers from our 2014 archives as our gift to you!
Concerts are held in our own wooded sanctuary, and feature a combination of well-beloved musicians and new folk voices committed to the UU Coffeehouse tradition of channeling the spirit of community through song.
Our 2014-2015 season features artists from the Northeast, including Meg Hutchinson (October), The Gaslight Tinkers (March), and our Winter show, a co-bill with Jean Rohe and Jay Mankita, two artists who speak truth to power with beauty, grace, and poise.
My first encounter with the visionary songs of Jean Rohe this summer at a side stage at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival was so stunning, it left me in tears; I had to leave the tent, and so I missed the rest of her tiny in-the-round set.
Approaching Jean again during the festival and asking her to join us at our fledgeling UU Coffeehouse series this year was a no-brainer, especially after her full band wowed the crowd in their Emerging Artist Showcase set the following day on the mainstage. Waiting six months to hear her again has been the hardest part, but pulling the threads of the digital and recorded output has helped fill the void.
“A sure-footed young singer-songwriter” (NY Times) with a “unique musical voice that sounds like a love song for a world imperiled” (Albany Times Union), Jean Rohe captivates audiences with her intelligent well-crafted narrative songs and a unique, multilingual aesthetic fusion of traditional and modern folk, world beat, and jazz that speaks truth to power in equal measures of beauty and mysticism. The Brooklyn-based artist joins us fresh off her first European tour, accompanied by long-time collaborator and producer Liam Robinson on accordion, guitar, and voice, and we’re thrilled to have them both.
Even if you can’t join us, check out Jean’s carefully curated collection of albums and videos, especially 2014 release The End of the World Show, which one fellow musician at Falcon Ridge named their favorite album of the year. The album won three Independent Music Awards, and deservedly so: from its playful multi-stage packaging to the rich, layered, precisely arranged music it contains, the record is a gem, thick with found sound and poetry, international folkrock and world beat melodies, accompanied by crisp bowed strings and a full rhythm section. Similar praise goes to Lead Me Home, a sultry, subtle, potent and playful folk-meets-bossa-nova release from 2008 that includes several covers of popular Brazilian songs from the seventies among its set – and though it’s no cover, I can’t help but include the video of my favorite Jean Rohe original, the powerful National Anthem: Arise! Arise!, in today’s short set.
Jean Rohe & Rogerio Boccato: O Morro / A Love Supreme (orig. Antonio Jobim / John Coltrane)
Jean is joined by Massachusetts-based American singer-songwriter and guitarist Jay Mankita, an artist well-known and well-lauded on the global stage for his earth-friendly, Grammy-nominated collection of kids albums and songs, and the messages of social justice and environmental consciousness they promote through playful, often hilarious sing-along rhythm and rhyme. (Rohe herself sang Jay’s lyrics as an introduction to her infamous anti-McCain speech at her New School graduation ceremony in 2006, making this a pairing too tempting to pass up.)
But Jay isn’t all kid’s stuff, as evidenced by the universal appeal of such “heart and soul” songs as Bread Alone, and 2004 release They Lied, and its title song, which deftly skewers the political scene of its decade but remains just as apt today. Jay’s songs for adults are equally playful, in their way, as his work for kids – see the video below, of his cover of Bob Blue’s lyric for Scott Joplin’s Pineapple Rag, for evidence of the close connection Jay makes with his audiences – and they retain their messages of social justice, environment, and community. And the breath of sentiment yaws wide, from bitter to wistful, as Jay speaks truth to power in his own accessible, fun way.
In performance, Mankita is “a musical pied piper; quick, nimble, and wonderfully crazy” (Margie Rosenkrantz, Director, The Eighth Step); his children’s show and chapel appearance last year made him a natural choice for return as we dig into our new Saturday series. But Mankita is also as humble as he is gentle. Last week, he touted Jean on his facebook page, noting that Arise, Arise will be appearing in Rise Again, the upcoming next-generation sequel to the seminal sing-along folk bible Rise Up Singing, but failed to note that THREE of his songs will appear in the collection, including From A Dog’s Stance – a delightful, wry parody of the oft-covered Julie Gold song – and Living Planet, which has already been covered by the likes of Emma’s Revolution, Kim and Reggie Harris, and Magpie.
A cover of, and a cover from, then, with our highest recommendations for Jay Mankita’s work, whether you’re a parent or just a fan of the good stuff from the sociopolitical side of the folksinger canon.
Jay Mankita: Pineapple Rag (orig. Bob Blue / Scott Joplin)
Non-profit and ad-free since 2007, Cover Lay Down posts regular features on artists and songwriters as part of its continuing mission to ply the experience of coverage as a comfortable space for discovery. As always, we hope you’ll consider following the links above to hear more from and about the artists we feature, the better to support and sustain the arts, the artists, and the folkways.
And, if you live within driving distance of Springfield, Massachusetts – just a hop, skip, and jump away from Hartford, Northampton, and the Berkshires – we hope you’ll join us this Saturday, as Jay Mankita’s gentle wit and biting political satire, and Jean Rohe’s beautiful, visionary lyrics and masterful melodies, find full voice in the passionate, potent collection of songs they bring to our Unity House Concert stage. No reservations are necessary; Facebook confirmations greatly appreciated.
So much of what we have to offer went unblogged this year, though it lived in our hearts. And although those precious songs that remain when the detritus of the year is sifted through are an honest bunch, so are they a needful one, tainted by proximity to the pain of life that drove us to them, and back to them again.
And so there’s blues here, and frivolity, too, for when we needed the escape. Crooners, for holding; achers, for the empathy. Joy, to remind us what to cherish, in our darkest hours, and our brightest.
The songs that lasted, and stayed. The songs that sang in our hearts.
To sift through them again is to live the year over again in music. Words fail us. Better, as always, to let the music speak for itself.
And so we come to this, Cover Lay Down’s annual end-of-year coverfolk mix: not the best of an objective universe, but the songs that mattered, greatly, in our greatest need.
From madcap to maudlin, then. From respectful to irreverent, in their treatment of the songs of the air. From indie to traditional, and all the contemporary singer-songwriter, alt-country, and acoustic poprock genres in between.
This we offer with undying thanks to the labels, the artists, the fans, and you, for holding us up, and in, and close, when the world keeps spinning right round, like a record.
May the music go on forever. May the best of 2014 ring in our ears, and our hearts. May the new year bring comfort, and joy evermore.
The Year’s Best Singles: A 2014 Coverfolk Mix [zip!]
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 kicking.
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 covers otherwise unblogged. Click here to give – and thanks.