Festival Coverfolk: Falcon Ridge Folk Fest 2014 (July 31-Aug 3)
with Aoife O’Donovan, Roosevelt Dime, Darlingside, The Duhks & more!


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This year marks our twentieth consecutive year at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, and although we go as much for the community as the music these days, it is a sign of the festival’s continued success in presenting a stellar, diverse line-up that even as my wife works on airing out the camper, I find myself eagerly compiling a list of don’t-miss acts – and finding plenty of fodder for it.

We’ve said so much about this festival in past years; in some ways, it seems redundant to begin again for a seventh time. As I noted last year, “Falcon Ridge…remains my favorite summer experience: a guaranteed go-to event that offers some of the best, most eclectic truly folk music on the circuit, in a lazy, generous atmosphere charged with joy,” with a perfect mix of familiar folk festival standbys, famous guests, and “great new acts from the expanding indie-traditional genre space to complement the familiar faces, and honor the vibrancy of modern folk.”

But every year is something special at Falcon Ridge, and this year promises to be a gold mine. Today, then, a short set of updates from some past favorites coming to Dodd’s Farm for summer 2014; if we’ve done our job well, you’ll be itching to join us in the fields on Hillsdale, NY the first weekend in August to see these don’t-miss artists plus John Gorka, Cheryl Wheeler, Christine Lavin, Brother Sun, Spuyten Duyvil, Tom Paxton, The Boxcar Lillies, Connor Garvey, Tracey Grammer and more.



We tracked Crooked Still carefully throughout the long life of this blog, and noted their move towards solo and other projects recently as this 2011 feature on the band’s first decade – but bookmarking such gems as the utterly beautiful 2011 solo take on a Richard Thompson classic below left an ache for founder, bandleader, and driving force Aoife O’Donovan, and we’re thrilled to find her on the performer’s list.

Indeed, even as her sweet, airy voice finds itself in collaboration with the likes of Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, Kate Rusby, Elizabeth Mitchell, Sam Amidon, and other favorite artists over the past few years, I’ve been dying to see Aoife live and solo, and probably longer than most; her long-awaited debut album Fossils, which dropped this past year, has been duly feted as a tour de force, but we’ve been fans of that breathy voice since our inception. If her appearance on Prairie Home Companion back in January is any indication, this it-girl of the neo-traditional movement is going to be the belle of the fest; I’ll see you in the front row.

    Aoife O’Donovan: The Lakes Of Ponchartrain (trad.)


    Aoife O’Donovan: Vincent Black Lightning 1952 (orig. Richard Thompson)




We fell in love with Roosevelt Dime‘s acoustic jug band steamboat soul way back in 2009, thanks to a beautiful Americana-style single-shot Radiohead cover on their debut album Crooked Roots. Since then, we’ve followed their progress closely, and become close; we were thrilled to host the band overnight for a campsite jam last summer on site at Falcon Ridge, and honored to have the chance to present the very first public performance for Goodnight Moonshine, string-player and singer Eben Pariser’s side project with Red Molly member Molly Ventner.

The new year brings some changes to Roosevelt Dime – a slight shift in line-up, a featured Most Wanted set at the upcoming Falcon Ridge Folk Festival after winning last year’s Emerging Artist Showcase, and a fuller, more polished sound courtesy of Full Head of Steam, a jazzy, toe-tapping March release that sticks in the feet and the ears. Boston area folks interested in a week-before-the-fest teaser should snag tickets now for the band’s Club Passim show July 25th in support of Full Head of Steam; attendees will receive a free copy of the album, which is a serious bonus. Three traditional tracks from the album bring the funk for now.




Like Roosevelt Dime, Darlingside will be all over Falcon Ridge this year; Most Wanted artists are scheduled for multiple song workshops in collaboration with other artists; some of the very best collaborations I have ever seen take place at the open-air workshop tent. Regular readers may remember that this band wowed us at the Lounge Stage, the all-day Thursday artist-run festival-within-a-festival that Falcon Ridge has taken under its wing, with an amazing acoustic take on Smashing Pumpkins hit 1979; since then, their recent cover of Joni Mitchell-slash-CSNY Woodstock, with local darling Heather Maloney, made the New York Times, bringing fame and hopefully some modicum of momentum to the eclectic folkpop band.

Of course, Darlingside has been around for a while yet, and as with many new favorites, a dig into the archives can be fruitful, indeed. I found this older video cover searching for coverage from this year’s emerging artists; Caitlin Canty, who also tours with Jefferey Foucault and will be one of the 20 acts in this year’s Friday afternoon showcase, is the real deal.

    Darlingside ft. Caitlin Canty: Volcano (orig. Damien Rice)


    Darlingside ft. Heather Maloney: Woodstock (orig. Joni Mitchell)


    Darlingside: 1979 (orig. Smashing Pumpkins)




Wherever psychedelic jamband meets mythological folk rock, The Grand Slambovians (aka The Slambovian Circus of Dreams) hold sway, and for good reason: their late night Falcon Ridge mainstage sets are the world’s best summer party under the stars; their dance tent sets are legendary roof-raisers, their at-bats under the summer sun each year at the Beatles cover workshop are always a sing-along treat; their 2007 cover of Peace Train with Dar Williams and John Gorka remains one of our favorite Falcon Ridge moments. The music video for crowd favorite Alice in Space they made on-site last year, released this March to much fanfare, offers a glimpse into the madness; if you look closely, you can catch me in the crowd shots, bouncing around with abandon. This gentle, languid electro-folk Leonard Cohen cover comes from the same set, but even their tender side is part of the ride: don’t bother bringing a chair to your own trip to Slambovia – just a glowstick suit, plenty of water, and all the energy you can muster.

    The Grand Slambovians: Suzanne (orig. Leonard Cohen)




I actually blogged about The Duhks before this blog was born, listing their cover of Tracy Chapman’s Mountains of Things as one of my favorite songs of 2006 here in the waning days of the prep school existence, and returning for a comprehensive look at their first half decade in a 2008 feature (The Duhks cover Sting, Tracey Chapman, Gillian Welch et. al). Now, several line-up changes and 13 years since their inception, the eclectic acadian-creole folkrock collective from Winnipeg emerges from a two-year recording hiatus still at the top of their game, hitting “the Ridge” on the strength of a crisp, bright, and totally rockin’ new album produced by CLD faves Mike & Ruthy, with title cut and a traditional number below. Bring on the joyful noise.


    The Duhks: Mountains of Things (orig. Tracy Chapman)




Ready to join us August 1-3 at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival? Head over to their website for more, including tickets, a complete line-up, vendor list and site map!

4 comments » | (Re)Covered, Aoife O'Donovan, Darlingside, Festival Coverfolk, Roosevelt Dime, The Duhks

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





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

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


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

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

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

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


COVERED IN FOLK: JESSE WINCHESTER [zip!]


Comment » | Covered In Folk, RIP

Kickstarter Covers, Vol. I: Milltowns
(Mark Erelli pays adept tribute to Bill Morrissey)

School’s out, the fireflies have returned, and the Oxycodone has finally faded from my system after a much-needed knee surgery, leaving us free and clear to begin filling pages again after months of apology. We’ll be back more regularly over the summer with news and new projects, tributes and songbook sets galore; today we dip our toes in the water with a clock-ticking palate-cleanser from one of our very favorite artists.





Happy 40th birthday weekend and kudos to well-travelled Boston-based folk musician and sideman extraordinaire Mark Erelli, who spent the last year recording Milltowns: A Tribute to Bill Morrissey, a warm, deep, surprisingly poignant tribute to a legendary singer-songwriter featuring multi-instrumentalist Erelli at his studio best and some smashing sideline work from the likes of Peter Mulvey, Rose Cousins, Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault, Anais Mitchell, & Rose Polenzani. After hearing Mark cover Bill several times over the last few years through bootlegs, live performances, and a single cover on The Memorial Hall Sessions album way back in 2002, we’re pleased but not so very surprised to declare the as-yet-unreleased Milltowns an unqualified success “born of love, respect and gratitude”, and an eloquent tribute to one of Erelli’s heroes and mentors – and proud, too, to urge support for the project via his Kickstarter page in the last few days of the campaign.

Regular readers may recall that we hold a special place in our hearts for Erelli, who recorded The Memorial Hall Sessions in our little town, and returned a decade later to grace us with our own little house concert; we’ve celebrated him several times on our pages (most recently for his double-dip coverage of Dawes), and have constantly been impressed by his work as a songwriter and performer. But this project is an especially potent venue for our fandom. The connection between Erelli and Morrissey is strong: Mark speaks eloquently of Morrissey’s mentorship on the road; both are known for their intimate portrayals of smalltown life in New England, and both have unusually strong connections to our favorite folk festival – Erelli as a one-time Falcon Ridge Folk Fest volunteer and main stage performer; Morrissey as a headline act from the very first year. And Morrissey is a long-time favorite, too – a Fast Folk alum who was a mainstay on the coffeehouse circuit until his death in 2011, with a catalog that is strong and worthy of the project.

The Milltown Kickstarter campaign hit its target yesterday, but extra funds are always needed to promote and distribute the album effectively – word of mouth only goes so far. So check out the project video above and a pair of older samples of Mark covering Bill below, head back in time to our 2011 feature on Mark Erelli, and then hit up the Milltowns project page to give what you can to support the record’s release, and receive an early digital download, plus the usual set of goodies, from signed records and back-catalog gems to copies of Bill Morrissey’s writings.


    TWO more Bill Morrissey covers from Mark Erelli’s mp3 of the Month series!



Comment » | (Re)Covered, Bill Morrissey, Kickstarter Covers, Mark Erelli, Tribute Albums, Tributes and Cover Compilations

Spring Awakening: Rabbitsongs, Covered In Folk


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Yes, it’s been two months since we last checked in with a new feature here on Cover Lay Down. And although the thaw is new here in New England, the long winter of our hours still presses upon us.

Tomorrow we’re off chaperoning the Senior Class Trip to Cape Cod; we’ll return on Wednesday, just in time to don a dress for a two-week run of Hairspray. Work beckons, come Monday, with year-end evaluations and a holy host of the usual stresses of state testing and final exams to prepare for with my students.

In the works, and almost finished, lie fertile features on new CDs and singles, tributes to Will Oldham and Jackson Browne, and the songs of Jesse Winchester, in memoriam. But today it’s Easter, an especially fitting day to rise again.

Let it be rabbits, then. Soft, warm, and reassuring, thieves and harbingers of garden and grass; symbols of growth and rebirth, and the proliferation that is sure to follow.


4 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

(Re)Covered: New coverage from old friends
John Statz, Caroline Herring, Poor Old Shine & more!

There comes a time in every New England winter where the endless snow begins to weigh heavy on the soul, threatening to crush the heart. Hope sputters as we teeter on the edge of resignation. Every weather report is like a curse. Spring becomes but a dream.

But it’s school vacation, and for a teacher, this means time: for children’s play, for catch-up chores, and then, finally, for the self. I’m writing poetry again, and the soundtrack is fine indeed, here alongside the roar of the pellet stove, new music snug and alive against the whispering silence of a world deadened by white.

Which is to say: the mailbag is stuffed to overflowing with the good stuff again, and we’re pleased as punch to finally have a chance to steep in it all. Today, then: news and new tracks from some of our favorite artists of yesteryear, with a second set to follow towards the end of the week. May their vibrant energy serve as a perfect antidote to the numb, dumb eternity of February.

Caroline Herring was an early favorite here on the blog, an anomalous southern voice on the Massachusetts-based Signature Sounds label whose 2007 album Lantana chilled us so powerfully with its haunting portrayals of character and place, and its perfect balance of serenity and emotional investment, that we could not help but reach out for our very first interview in celebration of follow-up CD/EP set Golden Apples Of The Sun/Silver Apples of the Moon, with its fine covers of Cyndi Lauper, Kate Wolf, and Lefty Frizzell.

The literate singer-songwriter’s newest project I Will Go Into The Day, which dropped January 11, is nominally a children’s album, one that wholly succeeds in its attempt to “set to music the magic and wonder of childhood, and celebrate the joys of imaginative play”; as long-time proponents of kidfolk, we’re excited to steep in it on those merits alone, and eager, too, to share the album’s two covers – a sweet children’s choir version of traditional song John The Rabbit and a translated take on 1940s yiddish composition Donna Donna that transforms the tune cleanly into a powerful Appalachian lullaby. But we’re equally thrilled to find this natural antidote to the bleeps and distances of the technological life simmering with more for the mature and discerning ear, with songs that call like wistful sirens to adult nostalgia and centeredness even as Herring’s gentle guitar and warm alto warble soothe at the surface.

    Caroline Herring: Donna, Donna (orig. Sholom Secunda)

    Caroline Herring: John The Rabbit (trad.)



Thanks to some sweet harmonies, timeless originals from mournful to majestic, and reverent, pitch-perfect takes on Norman Blake’s Church Street Blues and Townes Van Zandt’s Loretta, Our Lady of the Tall Trees, the debut album from “new old-time” singer-songwriters and master instrumentalists Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, was one of our favorite releases of 2012; their subsequent set at Freshgrass was the highlight of our weekend, and we said so here, in a feature that seems to have been eaten by our subsequent move from one server to another. Their brand new sophomore effort I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands finds the pair comfortable with their sound: masterful licks from mandolin, banjo and guitar twine with that lonesome duo sound exquisitely on ballads and kickers alike, making the album a fine follow-up with range and resonance, an equal mix of cowboy folk and true blue bluegrass from one of the most duly and well-celebrated young duos on the scene today. Check out upbeat original Livin’ In America, lonesome heartbreaker Down In The Lonesome Draw, swinging fiddle-and-mandolin waltz version of Louvin Brothers classic Lorene, and more over at their webpage, and then snag the album via Bandcamp.

    Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Green Pastures (trad.)

    Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Voices of Evening (orig. Alice Gerrard)



It’s rare for us to come back to an artist so soon after first discovery. But as noted in our most recent New Artists, Old Songs collection back in January, Molly Tuttle isn’t just a co-lead vocalist and guitar/banjo player for The Tuttles with AJ Lee, she’s also a budding Berklee-trained talent of her own – and her sets with both the Berklee Bluegrass crew and with her own sidestage trio at last weekend’s Joe Val Bluegrass Fest had the crowds nodding and smiling, leaving us looking for more. Happily, Tuttle proves her mettle and then some with a five-track self-titled duo EP released in early February with trio member and fellow Berklee-trained fiddler John Mailander, now available via Bandcamp, featuring lilting coverage of Joni Mitchell, traditional bluegrass tune Moonshiner, a fine original set from Molly and John, and a surprisingly sweet, robust take on country music singer-songwriter Keith Whitley’s I’m Over You that channels Kasey Chambers’ best country heartbreak.

    Molly Tuttle and John Mailander: Morning Morgantown (orig. Joni Mitchell)

    Molly Tuttle and John Mailander: I’m Over You (orig. Keith Whitley)



Midwestern singer-songwriter John Statz, who named his last release for the single cover among its potent narrative portraits of granite and field, was one of our favorite discoveries of 2012, and the proof, as always, is in the pursuit: since then, we’ve dug deeply into his back catalog, picking up older albums from his formative years, fallen in love with the longing and despair he brings to his live take on Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel No. 2, and found depth in his plainspoken poetry and joy in his celebration of the world as it is, leaving us eager to help spread the gospel.

Statz recently holed up in a Vermont snowstorm to record a new album, with fellow Wisconsinite and Cover Lay Down fave Jeffrey Foucault on board as producer and back-up musician; after catching the pair together at Northampton venue The Parlor Room in December, and recording a couple of covers to boot, we’re eager, indeed, to hear the results. But those looking for an early fix need look no farther than 12 August, a live duo album from Statz and fellow midwestern folk troubadour and honest storyteller Josh Harty that drops today. Minimally produced, with a live session sound that celebrates the intimacy of song and place, the album features gentle performances of originals from each artist, plus covers of Greg Brown, John Prine, and more; head over to Bandcamp for streaming, digital download, and physical copies.

    Josh Harty & John Statz: Paradise (orig. John Prine)

    Josh Harty & John Statz: Worrisome Years (orig. Greg Brown)




Finally, at least for today: they may have earned their place on the mainstage through top audience honors in the 2012 Emerging Artist’s Showcase, but their impromptu hour-long set in the sunwarmed vendor area at this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival simply blew us away, with a cover of Ophelia, a couple of traditional barnstormers, and a small set of raw originals delivered with a combination of explosive energy and unceasing craftsmanship that both reinforced and transcended earlier comparisons to the Avett Brothers. Now, fresh off an onstage gig as the musical accompaniment for the American Repertory Theater’s winter production of Robin Hood, neotraditional Americana stringband Poor Old Shine are back home in their native Connecticut, and back on our radar with two holiday homages: a haunting Blind Willie McTell tune filmed by flashlight in a California cabin last Halloween, and a brand new Valentine’s Day delight that transforms 80′s Huey Lewis and the News soundtrack hit The Power Of Love into a loving living-room slowdance featuring their cosmic blend of old-time instrumentation and footstomping wail, trading off lines and harmonies like The Band in their very best bootleg days. Back To The Future, indeed: I’d say these guys are going places, but all I see is up.

    Poor Old Shine: The Power Of Love (orig. Huey Lewis and the News)


    Poor Old Shine: Lay Some Flowers On My Grave (orig. Blind Willie McTell)



Looking for more Cover Lay Down in your life? “Like” our Facebook page for new coverfolk from CLD fave Al Lewis, ongoing updates from the blog and beyond, and more bonus streams and videos shared as we find ‘em. And stay tuned for a second round of new 2014 releases and one-shot cover tunes from more artists previously celebrated here, including great new discoveries from Cheyenne Mize Marie, Amy Black, Juliana Richer Daily, and Charlie Parr.

1 comment » | (Re)Covered, Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, Caroline Herring, John Statz

Valentine’s Day Present: Love, Ongoing
(Plus five Valentine’s Day mixtapes from the CLD archives!)





My plans to zip over to my wife’s workplace with flowers and lunch for a Valentine’s Day surprise were overtaken by a double snow day this year, turning what might have been a romantic moment into a promise unfulfilled, leaving me without a single heart to offer save my own.

Happily, true love doesn’t fade so fast, nor does it depend on any particular trinket. Love is in every moment, if you know where to look, and choose to embrace it, and be grateful.

Every morning as I leave for work, I kiss my wife, and speak love into her day before she wakes. Every night, in the darkness, I whisper my love to her as she sleeps warm beside me. Every day I thank the universe that after over half a lifetime together, there’s still beauty and love in my life.

In her honor, then, and yours: a set of coverfolk love songs released in the last year or two, followed by links back to five mixtapes and features from our Valentine’s Days past. For love is in all ways complicated, always forever and ever new. May you find comfort and hope here, and everywhere, on this most romantic of days, and every day that follows.


Valentine’s Day Present [download here!]



Valentine’s Days Past

3 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes

20 Questions: A Coverfolk Mixtape
in celebration of a life of wonder and amazement





To be a public school teacher in the new millennium is to be under constant scrutiny, both as a self-critic and from outside. Though the true outcomes of great teaching are essentially unmeasurable, new state-mandated evaluations pick at the edges of sheer competency and compliance by attempting to measure that which can be collected or seen.

The result is a doubling-down of stress and time, with so many hours per day given over to documentation and meetings that our time planning for and delivering instruction becomes threatened. Gone, it seems, is the teachable moment; gone, too, is the depth that brings love and true understanding: if a lesson cannot stand on its own, look like it was supposed to on paper, and correspond directly to at least one question on the state-written test that follows, the black mark will haunt forevermore.

In response, teachers are leaving the profession in droves: hardly a week goes by without yet another teacher’s early retirement condemnation going viral. In my own school, almost a fifth of our faculty has disappeared for warmer, more friendly climates since the school year began. The rest of us live in constant fear, frayed at the edges and cut to the core: too overwhelmed to do anything well, and constantly concerned that we have missed something that might make or break our careers.

But I am young enough to think I am invincible, or at least, unwilling to go without a fight. And so, despite my insistence that excellence should be evident in any moment, I found myself overthinking this Wednesday’s planned observation. And because I am ever the iconoclast, at my best on the edge, I planned something fun, if risky: a lesson on how poets use questions to call attention to the limitations of understanding, starting with Shakespeare’s Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day, and concluding with an activity analyzing Langston Hughes’ A Dream Deferred.

For students who have failed, and are failing. Who come to school sometimes, entering two thirds of the way into class with a swagger and a yell that distracts and disrupts, or stay home because it is too cold, or they missed the bus again. Who have been sullen, and distracted. Who have watched a score of of their classmates drop out, or just stop coming, until we hardy few – the three or four or six who show up most days – find ourselves leaning over a common table, pulling out our hair, putting away the phones over and over again, dancing around the truth as the hourglass sand threatens to drown us all.

thinkerI talk a good game in the hallways about how the new evaluation tool we use in my district: about how the tool is sound, but an inconsistent and aggressively biased application of it is a major focal point of the terror and frustration we feel as teachers. But it is also true that the threat of observation can prompt a healthy, deliberate attention to detail and self-reflection, a sort of critical, vocational soul searching which, when it works, can push us to be our best. It is a social scientist’s Heisenberg principle, in which the act of being observed changes the subject, using pressure to turn coal into diamond.

Over the last week, as I began to pay more precise attention to my practice in the class, and as our population has finally become stable, there was a change in the air. Sure, the kids and I still fought to stay on task, an activity more like wrangling cats than truly teaching. But they started asking questions in ways that reveal minds turning over, about my relationship to poetry, and about the poems themselves. And the shift towards poems that share their language and cultural lineage – of Pablo Neruda, and Martin Espada – seemed to prompt the beginnings of ownership, as if knowing that poets spoke their languages, too, was a key to the magic that evaluation tools call “student-centered learning”.
And when it works, it really works.

Yesterday, the stars aligned.

Four students showed up on time, or close to it, and to begin with, became poets, finding distinction in writing and sharing our own little poems, before moving on to the small set of poems I had chosen for their question marks and little else, making for a treasure hunt for tone and literal meaning that was more engaging than usual.

Two more arrived, and their timing was perfect, for once – in transition between idea and poem exemplar, so that they could find themselves quickly. They read poems proudly, and found brave comfort in their ability to make metaphor come alive, vivid in their heads.

And then, the six of them found recognition in critical analysis of Langston Hughes’ A Dream Deferred. They remembered that Hughes was plainspoken, and frustrated with racial identity in 1930s Harlem, and looked for that meaning in the similes of the poem; they embraced the ambiguity of figurative language, and thought about dreams, and raisins dying black in the sun.

And the poem came alive for them, unlocking its secrets. And they said so, and smiled, and showed us, me and the administrators lurking in the background, that they could articulate – haltingly at first, and then with more confidence – how, and why, and where.

And the bell rang. And I thanked them, and collected their work.

And sat, stunned, while the administrators slipped out, and my next class came in, catcalling and chaotic, ready to learn.

And then, afterwards, the one who sometimes comes, and cannot focus, and uses his big unassuming grin to avoid learning, found me in the hallway during lunch, and proudly showed me the thick book of Countee Cullen poems he had found in the library, and asked if I could give him a note to get back in to find more.

And later, he brought his friend, the Latino boxer, the one who refused to put pen to paper from September to December, and sat with his arms crossed or on his phone, and spun in his chair, defiant, though he knew how to see the meaning behind the words better than anyone in the class. And he said Mister, the library doesn’t have that Neruda book you talked about last week, but they did have this other one, and it’s really cool, it’s got the spanish on one side and the english on the other, and I promised I would find him more.

Your kids really understand poetry, said my evaluator when I passed her in the hallway at the end of the day.

And in my heart, I became the teacher I always wanted to be.

Now it is Thursday, a snow day. I sit on the porch in the cold and think about poetry, and words; the way literature can bring us together, and the way it can kindle the heart. Because I could not stand it, I stopped teaching from fear, and started teaching from love. In response, my 6 little irregulars finally discovered what literature is for, and why it is so much a part of being alive. And though we will need to work to keep them in this place of love, I think – for one shining hour – it made them students, in the true sense of the word, pleased to question, and find answers, and pleased, too, with their ability to do so.



As always, steeping too long in work has left me in too deep to move on quickly. My head swims still with questions, because of how deeply we considered them in our poems and analyses, because we were able to come to the higher order ones together. And I find myself pondering the world, and my place in it, after a day where everything went right, in a place where for so long I have been neither free nor safe.

And so we turn to the question as theme. And why not? As a rhetorical device, the question is broad, both in expression and purpose: it can show us ambiguity, or reveal depth and detail; it can call attention to mystery or meaning; it can reverse, or reinforce, even as it closes the gap between author and text.

And as it is in poetry, so is it in song. The selections we present below in this weekend’s coverfolk mix run the gamut from the rhetorical to the genuinely curious, from plaintive to pensive, from reflective to redirective. But all empower the listener to seek answers that may not always be clear, or even present. All offer new insights and understanding, that we may be who we are, at our best, by knowing the world. All remind us that questions are nothing to fear, but something to embrace, a natural consequence of being alive, and engaged.

May wonders never cease.



5 comments » | Mixtapes

RIP Pete Seeger, Humble Giant of the Folkways





The passing last week of seminal folk revivalist, labor organizer, five-string banjo master, and champion-of-community Pete Seeger hit the folk community hard, and no wonder: though the 94 year old legend had been in failing health for a while, I think some of us just felt like Seeger would be here forever, the last scion of an ethnomusical era marching ever onward in the name of change and children.

But even as we watched grandson Tao Rodriguez Seeger become his constant companion and voice over the last few fragile years of Pete’s life, we knew: Seeger’s voice will never truly die. Children of several generations, from my own to my mother, who once used Seeger’s songs as a vehicle for planting the seeds of peace and justice in both myself and in the inner city classrooms of New York City, recognize Pete’s songs, and his long-standing contribution to social, environmental, and political change though the act of singing them loud and proud. And we will sing them for a long, long time, and some of the time – maybe even most of the time – we won’t be thinking about him, but each other, just as Seeger would have wanted it to be.

And you know all this, I think. Or you wouldn’t be here.

Pete Seeger’s impact on the modern folk canon is inherent, and deeply ingrained; there is something so obvious about his legacy that it seems almost redundant to go into it on the page. And it’s hard to imagine anyone genuinely untouched by the compassionate, tireless work in the name of human dignity, empowerment, and awareness which Seeger considered his life’s work through sixty years as a recording artist and activist. Yet one trope, I think, bears note here regardless – one which befits a cover blog who aims to explore the nexuses in song which fuel folk itself. For although he has been justly feted for his politics and song on the web in the days since his passing, Seeger’s practice of the folkways became a prototype for the folk revival that followed, and continues to spread today.


pete-seeger2The son of an ethnomusicologist and a true believer in folk as a mechanism for tying past to future, perhaps more than any artist in history, Seeger lived folk song as if it truly did belong to the community for which it speaks. And although this practice was occasionally dismissed as a form of cultural disrespect, it is this, as much as his songs, which may well prove to be the longest lasting of his influence.

Though many songs list his name as whole or partial composer and arranger, and though his sense of singability and play were unparalleled in the history of modern social justice song, like Dylan after him, Seeger didn’t so much write and perform many of his most popular songs as he did translate them for his times. Several of his best known, from Wimowe to Turn, Turn Turn to We Shall Overcome, were created from existing hymns and folk melodies from around the world, found fragments shaped towards sociopolitical aims and sing-along user-friendliness by an earnest master. And as others have taken on the songs Seeger passed forward, versions drift, as well, with new verses added and new words sung, in the spirit of communal ownership that the statesman of folk-as-justice so exemplified.

Those who have suggested that Seeger was a theft of song from the third world cultures and underclasses he so loved both unfairly denigrate a man who loved all people and, simultaneously, miss the point of how the folk tradition truly works at its most powerful and honest. And if losing Seeger hurts so much, it is because his may well have been the most powerful, honest voice that so many of us will ever have the pleasure to meet, and love, and sing with.

Paying tribute to Seeger’s songbook, then, requires covering love – specifically, that broad sense of version ownership much like that of the oral tradition, which pays tribute to the teacher while acknowledging the timeless cultural history behind the songs. Instead of trying to parse the margins of copyright and origination, then, here’s a set of personal favorites with a much simpler organizing principle: songs which other folk artists of a certain political bent learned from or associate with Pete Seeger himself, regardless of authorship, and recorded in deliberate tribute to this long-standing folk icon.


REMEMBERING PETE SEEGER [download here!]



Looking for more great Pete Seeger coverage? There are some great tributes out there, most notably the three sets which the activist-founded, socially conscious folklabel Appleseed Recordings has released in a scant decade of existence. Each is represented in the set list above, but I’m especially enamored of double-disc first release Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs Of Pete Seeger, which in addition to Bruce Cockburn, Indigo Girls, Tish Hinojosa, and Billy Bragg, includes a veritable who’s who of big-name inheritors of the activist folkmantle, from Springsteen to Richie Havens to Odetta. Head over for Seeger catalog gems, coverage, and great albums from other folksingers carrying the torch into the 21st century!

Comment » | Pete Seeger, RIP

New Artists, Old Songs: from indiefolk to bluegrass
with Stampede Road, Mountain Man, AJ Lee, Brandi Ediss & more!

I’ve been too deep in the songs up in my head these past weeks, trying to call up old fragments and refrains in memory while sitting in silence marred only by the whirring pellet stove and the faint and constant ring of tinnitus. But this is a practice that is wholly the wrong way ’round: music is meant to be heard and sung, not merely echoed in the brain; we are shamed at the realization, and determined to make amends.

And so we pursue a corrective action: a dig into the mailbag, the artist blogs and facebook pages, and the various components of the digital rumor mill to celebrate the emergent coverfolk of folk, roots, and Americana artists both known and new with a New Artists, Old Songs feature today, and the promise of news to come of recordings and releases from other, more familiar voices as winter marches ever onward.

Read on for covers of Dylan, the Dead, Low Anthem, John Denver, Blondie, Traffic, tradfolk and more from new artists Stampede Road, Mountain Man, The Tuttles with AJ Lee, Brandi Ediss, and Holy Moly and the Crackers. May your ears, too, take pleasure in the new sounds, even as we cherish those in our hearts and heads.

stampedeAll I know about Edinburgh-based folk band Stampede Road is what they sent me, which wasn’t much: a pair of streaming split singles on Bandcamp, and nary a website to be found. But the lo-fi session cover of The Low Anthem’s OMGCD that accompanied the missive from this newly formed quartet led by singer songwriter Graeme Duncan is beautifully raw, intimate, timeless and weary. And following the threads to more produced tracks White Rooms, Night Terrors, and brand new 2014 single Old Town, recently featured on Largehearted Boy and Captains Dead, reveals a shimmery overlay of reverb and harmony that adds richness and flavor in the studio, making for a dreamy, delicate Appalachian-flavored folkpop with just enough originality and quirkiness to suit the indie ear.



mountainmanFans of First Aid Kit and labelmates Deer Tick and Dolorean will love this recent John Denver cover from all-girl indie group Mountain Man, with its layered voices and gentle, melodic acoustic guitar. All of us love that Mountain Man, a trio of young twenty-something singer-songwriters who met at Bennington College, and were essentially dormant in the last few years after touring around 2010 debut Made the Harbour, appear to be back on the radar for more precious, precocious quietfolk in the months and years to come, both as a band, and with solo and side projects from members Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, and Amelia Randall Meath, who continue to share news of recordings and shows with Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafaun, Feist, and other well known names from the indie community on the Mountain Man Facebook page. Here’s hoping for more as the year goes on.



Skafolk isn’t a thing, but if it were, first in line for kudos and Grammy nominations this season would surely be Newcastle based band Holy Moly and the Crackers, who add celtic fiddle flavor and a Jamaican beat for a brooding cover of tradtune Ain’t No Grave to close out their upcoming three-track EP Lilly, a “re-imagining” of three traditional folk/blues songs that evokes eras of whiskey and guns on modern punk folk steroids. The band, who play “a lively, moonshine mix of Romani, Americana and contemporary British ‘folk’n’roll’”, claim broad influence from the likes of Woody Guthrie, Gogol Bordello, and Laura Marling; others hear The Pogues, Billy Bragg, and The Waterboys, too, and you can hear it all here, in some great live covers and originals on YouTube, and in full album First Avenue, which can be purchased directly from the band on their website.


    Holy Moly and the Crackers: Mississippi Moonlight (orig. Buffalo Skinners)


    Holy Moly and the Crackers: Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie (orig. Bob Dylan/trad.)


    Holy Moly and the Crackers: Cocaine (trad.)



This year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival is just around the corner, putting us in mind of mandolins and stand up bass, and creating a context which leaves us especially happy to have found The Tuttles with AJ Lee; we’ve a long history of championing young tradfolk and bluegrass artists here at Cover Lay Down, and these kids have been wowing the bluegrass circuit and beyond, garnering ovations and awards since their formation in 2008. Both band and co-lead vocalist Lee are up for “Best of” awards at the Northern California Bluegrass Awards tonight, where bandfather Jack Tuttle, who teaches bluegrass and old-time instruments of all types, will be honored with a lifetime achievement award in recognition of his well-respected work, including his guidance and leadership of this current lineup. But the kids are the true driving force here: stunning singer-songwriter and picker Molly Tuttle, whose trio will appear on the Joe Val sidestage, is finishing up her last semester at Berklee this year; younger brothers Sullivan and Michael demonstrate chops and agility beyond their years; sweet yet hearty-voiced mandolin player AJ Lee, who is still finishing high school and trends towards Grateful Dead covers on tour, has been aptly compared to Alison Krauss or Sarah Jarosz, both of whom, we should remember, got their start as early. Listen, and we think you’ll hear the magic, too.

    The Tuttles with AJ Lee: Ripple (orig. Grateful Dead)


    The Tuttles with AJ Lee: Sugar Moon (orig. Bob Willis)


    AJ Lee: Tomorrow Is A Long Time (orig. Bob Dylan)



Finally, thanks to the ever-discerning Mary Lou Lord, who has a knack for finding and touting the best new voices, for passing along coverage from Brandi Ediss, an alto on the knife-edge of alternative pop and singer-songwriter folk who sweetly interprets beloved songs into a mellow-tinged wash of sound and riotous video effects on a weekly basis. The finished results, produced at home with digital tools or in collaboration with facebook friends from afar, sound like a band and a half, with a warm, decidedly retro california tone and luscious, sighing vocal layers sure to delight; download a bunch over at Bandcamp, and subscribe to her YouTube page for more originals and coverage in the same sweet vein.

    Brandi Ediss: Love Is Making Its Way Back Home (orig. Josh Ritter)


    Brandi Ediss: Dear Mr. Fantasy (orig. Traffic)


    Brandi Ediss: Kodachrome (orig. Paul Simon)


    Brandi Ediss: Call Me (orig. Blondie)


    Brandi Ediss: I Wish I Was The Moon (orig. Neko Case)



Looking for more streaming coverfolk throughout the week? Join the Cover Lay Down facebook page, where we’ve recently posted new coverage from YouTube stars Kina Grannis, Daniela Andrade, and Kiersten Holine!

2 comments » | New Artists Old Songs

Single Song Sunday: Wayfaring Stranger
(white spirituals and the religious origins of modern folk music)





A morning retreat with the worship associate team at our UU church yesterday, a religious education teach-in on songs as tools of social justice, and a scheduled jaunt to check out a church for sale tomorrow to see if it can be transformed into a new home have cast a non-secular sentiment over my long weekend, putting me on the lookout for the spiritual in everything. In response, we’ve gone back five years to resurrect an early Single Song Sunday feature on oft-covered traditional “white spiritual” Wayfaring Stranger, and added a whole second set of versions found and recorded since then from Gregory Paul, Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt, folk supergroups Red Horse and Red Molly, and more.

Enjoy all twenty tracks, and if you, too, need a little more spirituality in your life, check out related features on Songs From The Universalist Unitarian Hymnal and Songs of Social Justice for further musings and song.


Through much of recorded history, religion has served communities as both as a community locus and as a carrier of song; as such, it is perhaps unsurprising to find a relationship of sorts between folk music and the church itself. As with any folk form, of course, context matters; to note that several songs commonly associated with Cat Stevens can be found in the Universalist Unitarian hymnal says something very different about both artist and religious community than pointing out that a move to the heavily Jewish neighborhoods of New York’s Coney Island in the 1940s led to the recent release of a wonderful album of Woody Guthrie-penned Klezmer music.

To note that the folk song Wayfaring Stranger (or sometimes Poor Wayfaring Stranger) was first published in 1816 in the shape note tunebook Kentucky Harmony, which in turn was primarily an expansion of the work of John Wyeth and his two Repositories of Sacred Music, then, is to locate that song in the white spiritual canon — which, in turn, calls us to the American white revivalist movements of the last few centuries, to consider the common threads of a form of folk product which includes The Sacred Shakers, the work of Doc Watson, and many other works and performers with roots in New England, Appalachia, and other American church-based communities.

Though it echoes similar terminology — bluegrass gospel, most obviously — the term “white spiritual” is striking and vivid; to be honest, I’m surprised to find that Google lists only a few uses of the term, most of which seem to be part of classical choral scholarship. The conceit that white audiences had their own spriritual song, which derived its rhythm and subject from their European ancestry, illuminates folk’s origins in a way that is both new and suddenly fitting, creating a parallel path to modernity in stark contrast to the gospel folk which comes to us through african american blues music. Further, such a conceit says much about the context in which music evolved, and traveled, and spoke to and for the “folk”; exploring the term is a fine way to help reshuffle and rethink the origin of many songs which remain at the core of folk music today.

The semiotic implications of the term “white spiritual” do seem apt, when you think about it; so much of the folk which has its roots in the appalachian mountains and stark New England Shakers, after all, is about redemption, framing man’s connection to man in the context of God. And Wayfaring Stranger is an especially interesting example of the white spiritual. Though other white spirituals may be more central to the form — for example, our first Single Song Sunday subject, Amazing GraceWayfaring Stranger is notable for being a song which does not as obviously call to its spiritual nature. Which is to say: though both songs ultimately play out the relationship between the internal sinner-self and the spiritual Father, the former is a hymn of the post-redemptive self, less about the more modern folk-as-call-to-complexity and more about morality-play.

But the humble determination of the pre-redemptive self which characterizes the narrative voice of Wayfaring Stranger is not uncommon to the narrative stance of many an old British folk ballad, from the pining lass of Fair William to the besworn folkmaiden and lusty, easily swayed folklad who so often stray, only to regret it, and come back to their God. Meanwhile, the plight of the poor wayfarer remains open and non-specific, an everyman’s resolve pulling us in to folk communion. No wonder the song remains enticing; no wonder we find so many versions to pluck our fruit from.

In practice, whether or not you accept the label of “white spiritual” as applied to a song whose most famous version is in the voice of as haunted and searching a man as Johnny Cash, it is true that there is a certain emotional reverence common to all versions of the song. In fact, circularly, though there are as many ways to worship as there are men, and thus high diversity in the way different folk musicians choose to make Wayfaring Stranger their own, the question of what makes this particular song a white spiritual may be best answered by the consistent care with which all comers take on the song. To explore that commonality, and the variance in sound and tone and tempo that it nonetheless allows, here’s some interesting takes on the song, a vast array of approaches to traditional material from the very big tent that is modern folk.


WAYFARING STRANGER: A COVER LAY DOWN MIX
[download!]



Cover Lay Down shares coverfolk celebrations and ethnographic musings throughout the year thanks to the support of donors like you. Coming soon: a mailbag dip for the first covers of 2014. Plus: The Grammys!

3 comments » | Reposts, Single Song Sunday

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