Category: Mixtapes


On the Trail of Social Justice, Redux
(More songs of place and protest)

January 18th, 2020 — 5:26pm



Three summers ago, we drove together up the country on the trail of social justice, from New Orleans to the great gentrified factories at the base of the Great Lakes. The Birmingham Jail, a historical marker in a small weedy quarter-lot alcove, up against, sure enough, a modern jail and police station, just under the highway. The Maya Lin memorial chalice, at the foot of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama capitol building, all silent on a Sunday. The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and the shuttered Goodwill storefront at its base. Homeless people in the park in Birmingham, begging for cigarettes and change among the stark statues of children facing police dogs and fire hoses. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum, with its reconstructed scenes of the balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, with its rolling view of Kentucky, and the river that separates the American South and North.

I’m especially proud of the long essay that captures our 2017 journey, which I posted upon our return alongside a short soundtrack of social justice songs of hope and freedom. It’s a trip that everyone should take, to bring a sense of scale to our national struggle towards justice for all.

But I am less proud, and sometimes ashamed, at the ways in which the long arc of the moral universe bends so slowly, so inconsistently towards justice. And although I work hard to do my part to keep the world getting better – even through Cover Lay Down itself, which by remaining ad-free and always celebrating the artists we find and want to share, aims to walk the walk of fair compensation and cultural continuity – I am bothered, far too often and well, at how overwhelming the work can seem, when seen from a distance.

It’s hard to celebrate the triumphs of a culture when you work in a city whose white mayor just proclaimed, despite a unanimous vote to the contrary by a largely non-white city council, that our gates will remain closed to refugees seeking sanctuary. It’s hard when the national news of young immigrants caged at the border fades into the drumbeats of war and disillusionment, pushing us to forget that those cages are still full, and our fellow humans still not free. It’s hard when I see my students arrive each morning – if indeed they bother to show up at all – sullen, tired, and hungry, their yearning to be free inarticulate, buried under a well-worn, well-practiced patina of brash hostility and callousness, if indeed it exists in them at all.

I teach social justice, in my way: English teachers have to teach conviction, else their students’ language languishes, purposeless; in the urban environment, the pressure is higher, and the injustices more present, if less articulable by its struggling residents. But we do our part with readings and thematic focuses on loneliness, responsibility, injustice, and the inaccessibility of the American Dream. My ninth graders started the year with Baldwin and Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican, seeing their own hopeless streets in a ghettoized Harlem, their own otherness in Santiago’s struggles to redefine her identity after her native tongue became alien and strange in Brooklyn. In my Advanced Placement Language and Composition classes, we read Swift’s call to power, and King’s call to morality; we talk fairness and equity, ideals and ethics – you have to. For years, I taught media literacy, and drama, as ways out of the mass mindset.

Empowering people is what I do, vocationally. And when you work in the inner city, there’s urgency in everything.

But there’s also an awful lot of hopelessness out here.

It’s hard to feel like we live in a just world. But we have to believe: the arc of the universe still bends towards justice. As long as we do our part, that is. As with anything, our part starts with memory, and moves to action.

And thanks to its forefathers and their inheritors – among them Seeger and Guthrie; Dylan, Holly Near and Richard Farina; Richard Shindell and Emma’s Revolution and Jean Rohe – folk, perhaps more than any genre, has long provided a potent vehicle for our articulation of these values, and this mandate. And though there are some who ask where the good protest songs are, there are others, like us, who say: here they are. Sing them with us, loudly.

Today, then, in memory of Martin Luther King Jr.: a short mix of coverfolk that call us to memory and legacy and action, just the latest in a series of long, loving songlists and musings on social justice, immigration, and hope and change shared here previously. Songs whose lyrics and strong sentiment push us ever onwards, whose stubborn persistence echoes from the mountaintops, whose continued re-performance helps fertilize hope against the cold.

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. It was true in 1963, as King’s words rang forth across the air and waters; it is true today. Yet may our voices still rise in solidarity and challenge, determination and daring, as we push back against the forces that would dam that stream. And may we know justice and equality in our lifetimes, and be proud of our labors, our protest, and our pride.


Previously on Cover Lay Down

Comment » | Mixtapes

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles (2019)
A-sides, b-sides, deep cuts, one-shots and more!

January 12th, 2020 — 11:31am


It was a long lonely year, and we missed plenty, we’re sure – a natural artifact of a life lived on the road more than ever, halfway between home and hospital, and work and worry, that kept us from these pages for too many months between the covers of the calendar.

Here in the boyhowdy house, the children – now teenagers, teetering on the cusp of fragile womanhood and a robust maturity – still struggle to manage their illnesses and pain; each school day is a triumph, even if they can only make it in for an hour or two; their strengths and curiosities are increasingly clear and under their control, even as their bodies and their futures remain uncertain. Two hours away, my father fails slowly but surely, his independence increasingly scaffolded by care companions and the plastic accoutrements of age as the strengths of body and brain fade into late-stage early-onset Parkinson’s.

The things we have let falter in the face of such unpredictables are those that once served our souls, and our communities. We pare down our avocations, our calendars overscheduled with check-ins and check-ups, and the forever prospect of upheaval.

January comes on cold, and its hungry fires demand our attention.

But here in the rooms where we listen and write, the new year comes on slow and hopeful nonetheless. The barred owl and kestrel that the elderchild has come to care for as she discovers her avocation remain caged, unreleasable for life, even as she struggles to fly free on her tether of pain and unpredictability. The crafts and designed artifacts the wee one – now tall of stature – brings to painstaking life in the small hours of her insomniac existence take on their own life, too, bold and beautiful, even as their maker still founders to manage the distraction of body and brain. We come to appreciate the small, perfect moments of grace and gravity in ways we could not before.

And here, in the midst of it all, we take the weekend to ourselves. We sift through the tagged and the bookmarked, marking the songs that shouldn’t fade. And in the end, we come up for air with the ones that lasted: fifty tracks, coverfolk all; an afternoon’s worth of folk, roots, and acoustic performances that still shimmer, weeks and months after our discovery.


There’s something for everyone in this year’s three-hour mix, from alternative acoustic indiefolk to Scottish traditionals, from deep roots Americana to gypsy jazzfolk to new-wave alt- and post-folk, from classic-sounding folk radio cuts to the timeless, rare and rarified strains of what folk is at its most fragile and broken. Throw in the delicate, the wild, the beautiful and the strange, and we’ve once again found ourselves looking back at a year of powerful coverage, equally definitive and boundary-stretching in its celebration of the reimagined and the reconstructed, the torn apart and the tenderly treated.

Listen through in order, and feel the set ebb and flow – or just download the zip and shuffle to your heart’s content. Make the songs yours to savor, or keep them in the background, a soundtrack to a life lived courageous and well.

But listen, regardless. Find in each carefully-selected gem a symphony, and a cry to the world that there is still beauty and worth in the consideration of our inheritance of song, and of the world that contains it. And as always, if you like what you hear, follow the threads back to the source, to purchase and share your own favorites, the better to keep the music and the music-making going – for our children, and the generations to come.

The world is good, and its music our eternal sustenance. Let us listen, and be whole again.


The Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles:
A Cover Lay Down Mix (zip!)



Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU.

So do your part. Listen, share, and above all, follow the threads. Purchase the music you love, and in doing so, support the arts and the artists in their struggle to thrive and survive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the coverfolk flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2018.

1 comment » | Best of 2019, Mixtapes

Drive: Covering the Road and Miles
with Richard Shindell, Passenger, Patty Griffin, Lotte Kestner & more!

December 2nd, 2019 — 1:35pm

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Saturdays used to be ours: the one day a week when no one had to work, or get ready for it. And because we live in the woods, that generally meant driving somewhere – breakfast, a museum, a festival, a small town to wander in, a tour of some old estate – anything, really, as long as it afforded us a chance to be together, just the four of us in and out of the minivan, looking out the window and sharing in the joy of adventure and discovery.

Now I get up while they’re sleeping, and start each Saturday with a long trip alone in the car: first the rural roads, then the small towns, with their weekender Farmer’s Markets, now dwindled down to a single canopy with root vegetables and a stalwart local in a parka; from there into Sturbridge and its commercial strip; then onto the Turnpike, then South on 495, and then another half hour North again, along and into the sleepy suburbs. Finally, I arrive at the assisted living complex where I lived this summer, while I moved my father and as much of his photos, books and records as we could carry from his independent living apartment into a 12×20 room, creating in the process a compact yet life-sized diorama of a life once lived large and well. We have lunch, which can take hours: out of the apartment with keys and credit card, in and out of the car, into the restaurant, back home again. I help out for a few hours more, tending to bills and chores, maybe reteaching him how to turn on the CD player, or starting a Netflix video for him to watch later.

And then I say goodbye. And I do the same drive all over again, only backwards, and in darkness.

I could drive it in my sleep, either way.


15489376505_c68717f886_k-700x466-700x466My brothers would come, but they live in other countries; he’s an only child, and his cousins live too far. He tends to avoid the other residents – they are, after all, a decade or more older than him on average, and he doesn’t identify with their needs or outlook, nor with their acceptance of what they can and cannot do for themselves.

And so, mostly, when it comes to Dad, it’s me or nothing.

It’s hard to watch. My father used to be Superman, though the world got more of him than I did: a self-made man in Saville Row suits and a thousand silk ties, a hard-stock business- card-carrying managing partner who pulled himself up into suburban success with nothing more than street smarts, determination, and a blazing intellect. He was one of the most powerful, influential lawyers in Boston; he had a hundred dear, close friends. His marriage worked, or so it looked on the outside; his kids were happy, see above.

Then Dad started falling asleep at his desk at work. Early onset Parkinson’s led to early retirement; his marriage fell apart; his kids moved out, and on. His circle of friends began to shrink; once he moved on to this small, spare assisted living apartment complex 30 minutes away, with a few exceptions, they stopped coming by altogether.

He blames the distance, but I think we both know the truth. And we forgive them, because we know it’s hard to watch those you love lose the things that brought you that love in the first place.

I’m a lot closer to my father than I used to be – even as the list of things my father used to be grows longer every week. But I’m fighting for balance, too. For years, I gave Saturdays to the children; now, just as the specter of college and adulthood begins to blossom in them, I choose to give my father the time I used to save for us. And it matters. To become my father’s lists, his agendas, his shopping cart guide, I have had to take a leave of absence from the adventures we used to take Saturdays, when the kids were small.

I worry, sometimes, on the long miles back and forth to Boston every weekend, that the model I am giving them is one which will ask them to take time from their own kids to give it to me, someday. Parkinson’s is hereditary, after all. My mother’s father had it, too.

But mostly, on those long miles down the turnpike, and in those afternoons in and out of Dad’s tiny room on the assisted living floor, I’m struggling with something bigger than anything I can put into words. I think it’s what my students call “the feels” – a complicated set of sadness and love and powerlessness in the face of loss that calls us to be still, and embrace our affliction, because we can’t do anything else.

It’s disorienting to just drive, and feel. Feeling the feels doesn’t play to my strengths. I’m like Dad, in that way: I’m used to being someone who makes sense of the world by taming it, turning it into something sensible and concrete – through writing, or teaching, and other product-oriented pursuits.

I know Dad is struggling with this, too. I know, because in my wallet, I carry one of his newer business cards – the ones that he made after his retirement, that just say “every step of the journey, is the journey”. For a long time, it sustained me on Saturdays, as I drove in for what I think of, increasingly, as a sort of shared Zen practice: the two of us, in the waning afternoon light, trying to find our balance in the shifting eye of the storm that is our lives, together, now; and in the aftermath, as I drove back home quietly in the darkness.


2018-Honda-Civic-Hatchback-E_oCars generally represent freedom or power, control or escape; the ability to get the hell out, or to come back home again. But just as that one friend with a truck knows you’ll call him up for help on moving day, soft songwriters know that the car can be the chain that pulls you down, too: the enabling tool, the thief of time.

More and more, on those long hours back and forth on what used to be my time with my wife and kids, I’ve come to think of the car as a burden, the road as prison cell, the driving as the penance for too much love, and a life lived fully up until now.

And although this year, for Thanksgiving, I am grateful for so much in my life, I really, really miss the days when we drove together, the four of us, over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house and table.

Because this year, for the first time, they left without me, to have a beachside adventure with their young cousins, my wife’s parents and her sisters, and their respective dogs before moving on to the delightful oceanside inn where we would meet up for the feast.

And for me, on my own, it was two hours to pick up Dad, two hours South to meet up with the clan, two hours of helping Dad through the restaurant buffet, and then four hours back again, just me and my faltering, fading father, driving in mostly silence, listening to the relationship between us stutter and fade as he sleeps and struggles to understand.

It was a long way there, and a long way home, to have so little time with the rest of the family I love. And it was hard, really hard, for Dad to ask in the car about the others at the table, and to realize that I had spent all my time and attention attending to him.

But this Saturday I took the day off, and drove downtown with the family for the annual multi-venue town crafts fair. I held hands with the wee one, now tall and slender at 14, as we picked out stocking stuffers, as we have done each year: small earrings and baubles, local honey balms and soaps, fingerless gloves and yarn scarves, handmade journals for secrets and poetry. The elderchild brought her new boyfriend, who was Romeo in the play we just finished; he seemed grateful to be with her, and eager to discover the delights of small community life alongside us. My wife and I kissed in passing, each time we found each other among the hustle and squeeze of stalls – we’re romantics; the seasonal kick-off gets to us, I guess.

It was a good day, for such a short drive. And good, too, to be home with time enough to write, and compile a playlist of driving songs.

May your travels this season be pensive and merry, in equal delight and measure.

And if you need company for the long, lonely miles, try these.

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, follow links to purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

2 comments » | Mixtapes

In Praise of Summer, As It Goes
(A Cover Lay Down mix)

August 31st, 2018 — 10:23pm

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This week was a slammer: first week of school for both myself and the kids, late-night rehearsals for the play I am directing, which opens next weekend; the wife away for days, on retreat as she works towards certification in her late-in-life spiritual calling as a religious educator. With a heat wave in the middle of it, the air cavernous and close. And both children sick, in a house where hurt will always be.

But my classroom is outfitted in new white boards and stocked with a year’s worth of supplies, thanks to the world’s shortest crowdsource campaign at Donors Choose. This morning I came in late after a shorter-than-expected meeting with the smallerchild’s new teachers, and my intervention students were writing, quietly, building confidence as they grappled with their haphazard prompt without me. My AP class is eager and bright, engaged and having fun; the seniors, who I cared for over two years and then thought I had abandoned last Spring, come to visit with respectful grins, seeking their oracle as they look towards college. Last block, the girl who couldn’t stop chattering Monday asked if she could read her work to the class, and the kids settled in, respectful and sure, to see what they could praise, and found more than enough to satisfy us all.

The play is a stunner. My wife is home, and beautiful, and still smarter than me – tonight’s date at the new restaurant in town felt like renewal. The wee one – at thirteen a willowy, slim pale creature – pushes through her hours and days, and comes home babbling joyfully of friends and teachers she loves for the first time in years. The elderchild pushes, too – through a short dose of steroids that took her to the children’s hospital for the first time in almost two months; through the newest and deepest-so-far of loves, a quiet boy who holds our fancy, too, and stayed with us last weekend in Vermont, at summer’s last summerhome, where every year might be our last.

There is pain in our lives: in my student’s struggle to catch up and transcend the urban blight; in the workload and the weariness; in how little we see our spouses and parents, and the distances that yaw between us; in the prone existence my children live in the darkness as each day wanes, curled around their chronic aches. I come home with a voice hoarse and torn, too tired to care for the rest. Eventually, I think, something else, like this space, too, may have to give.

But there are blessings here, too, and pride – and not just for now: these, and a thousand other pieces of this imperfect world, its challenges met, its promises real.

Each night, as the sun sets behind the trees of a still-summer yard, something I cannot see or hear suddenly startles the turkeys and their babies, almost grown and only slightly smaller, that cross our driveway. And they fly into the low trees like my heart: heavy, in its way, yet weightless in another; winged and free, able to lift still from the earth.

And there is music there, of an origin deep in me and all of us: rustling and beautiful; rejuvenating; reassuring; real.

I am not often here, it’s true. But I love you as I love the world. Let us be here together, as the September world starts to spin again.

3 comments » | Metablog, Mixtapes, Teaching

Little Sparrow: A Cover Lay Down Mix

January 23rd, 2018 — 8:31pm

sparrow

The sparrow: a symbol of fragility, and a semaphore for desperation and despair. In our case, though, the term is literal: the elderchild’s been rehabilitating one in a small cage in her room after finding it trapped in a coal grate in one of the coldest days of winter, its tailfeathers mostly missing, its mate picking at it in a vain attempt to startle it into freedom. It’s been there a month, and sometimes, I forget she has it.

But Saturday night, in a rare moment of hubris, she brought it downstairs to show our dinner guests, and suddenly, it sprang free. What followed was more reality television show than sitcom: two and a half hours of climbing up furniture and taking apart Ikea bookshelves, punctuated by frantic minutes chasing a tiny, terrified bird as it skimmed the ceiling from room to room, occasionally touching down on window dressings too high to reach, or diving into piles of boxes and wrapping paper, inviting us to uncover it time and again through intense intervention and careful disarray.

Eventually, we managed to chase it into the elderchild’s room, where the door could be closed, and the still-wobbly flier coaxed into its rehabilitative cage. And because we are who we are – easily exhausted, generally busy, prone to procrastination – today, the place remains a disaster: childhood photo albums piled high on the playroom daybed, the pantry undone, half the bookcase disassembled, pink screwdrivers and boxcutters scattered around it.

Our house is often messy. Our inner lives are, too. We are too easily goaded into self-celebration, and risk the sanctity of our service in the name of pride. But if this fragility is made of our own foibles, then we are wise to attend to it, indeed.

And so we turn to the songs of the sparrow. In the name of our children, and the fears we harbor within.

Little Sparrow: A Cover Lay Down Mix


Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

2 comments » | Mixtapes, William Fitzsimmons

Born At The Right Time:
A Cover Lay Down Birthday Mix

January 15th, 2018 — 5:49pm

baby feet

I was born on Superbowl Sunday 1973, in a hospital just outside Atlanta; apocryphally, the doctor praised my mother for completing her labor just in time for kickoff. It would be another decade before Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law, tying my birth to King’s, and in the process making my birthday weekend a bank holiday, and – as I have become a teacher by trade – a long weekend ripe for pensiveness.

Now I’m 45, and in many ways, I’m still finding my footing. It’s not impostor syndrome – I’m good at what I do, own my faults and habits, and work hard to do it well every day. I teach my students that life is greater with a sense of grown and growing capacity, and a honed-to-instinct sense of how and what to offer in a given situation, and I practice what I preach. But I’ve learned to embrace the moment, too: to watch, and be watchful, knowing that to account for ground conditions quickly, and adapt accordingly, is built on a foundation of trust that there is a place for me in the things to come, so that we can find it, and serve therein.

I’m not a fatalist. I’m not one of those folks that believes in destiny. I’m not sure if I was born for anything, particularly. But I do believe that the world has given me much, and I owe it the best of what I have to give. And it is this sense of grateful obligation, more than anything, that fuels my days and my choices, pushing me towards mindful motion, even on days such as this, when the cold comes, and – for a moment, at least – we have time for reflection.

So come, celebrate with me the possibility of birth and being with this haphazard mix: in honor of Reverend Doctor King, and of my own birth, and of yours, too, in an era where social justice is both needful and named. We were born for this, whatever this is. How wonderful it is to share this path together, today and in the days to come, as we work to build the world anew.

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

2 comments » | Mixtapes

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles (2017)
A-sides, b-sides, deep cuts, one-shots and more!

January 4th, 2018 — 1:14pm

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We’re later that usual this year with our annual singles mix, but it’s not for lack of trying. For several weeks, behind the scenes, we’ve been involved in the process of sifting and surveying, mining bookmarks, tags, and the archives for this year’s best coverfolk.

It’s a joyful process. Heartbreaking, sometimes, but always joyful, too. And if we’ve rediscovered anything, it’s that great music demands listening to.

Through Christmas and the long, slow days afterwards, the conversation among us – future and past – that the resurrected and reformulated song represents served its purpose, leaving us breathless at the scope of it all, and the sheer diversity. And in the end, we emerged refreshed, reinvigorated, and triumphant with yet another 52 track mix – one for every week gone by, and as last year, a whisper in the wings of what wonders are to come.

Now it’s snowing here, and the hiss of the falling snow and the whine of the pellet stove mask the tinnitus perfectly. The children are sleeping, and will be for hours; in the corner, the tree slowly settles as it dries, branch and bauble slowly bending towards the floor. Those of us on the East Coast, at least, hunker down against a growing storm, the first of a new year, taking comfort in the fact that we are here, together, safe and ready, and sure of reinforcements.

So, take a long afternoon and shuffle through the mix with us. Savor the delight and despair, the raucous and the resonant: our subjective best of the realm that is folk, and the vast diversity of sources reinvented for our pleasure; each reinvention a gem, borne up against the world-that-is like a torch; each burning performance exquisite, and beautiful in its own way.

Download it all, that the songs might linger, and bear repeating. And if you like what you hear, follow the links, as always, to purchase and share your own favorites, the better to keep the music and the music-making going for our children, and theirs.

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Singles (2017)
A Cover Lay Down mixtape

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

2 comments » | Best of 2017, Mixtapes

Hearth and Candle, Snow and Star
(Wintersongs of Darkness, Loneliness, Warmth, and Light)

December 17th, 2017 — 9:31pm

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There are moments now when Christmas is everywhere, flowing forth from the hidden speakers of the culture, lurking behind shrubbery gaily festooned with plastic holly berries and angels, stockings and Santas, and lights, lights, ever more lights to ward off the dark.

But there are moments, too, when it is just winter. When the lasting snow covers the earth and swallows all but the airiest of sounds: cars crunching over salt-strewn country roads; the bark of the dog and the low cry of the cow at the base of the hill, just through these bare trunks and evergreens. When the house gets smaller, and we retreat to the snug isolation of the living room, where the pellet stove beckons bright with flame, its intimacy a bulwark against the cold.

Which is all to say this: baby, it’s cold outside. And sometimes, like now, the snow falls out the window, closing us in.

The metaphor of in and out runs hot in our seasonal soundtrack, of course – as if fire was warmth, and warmth the heat of humanity. Safety and comfort and the eternal hope of the season’s end hold sway as the shortest day draws near, projected into a night illuminated by candle flame and woodstove smoke, the chill held at bay through thin layers of window glass and scarves.

Christmas honors this dichotomy, in its way – and so does much of the Christmas canon, from Silent Night to chestnuts roasting on an open fire. We do, too: today after dark, for example, we will drive to the local tree farm, and choose a tree in the dim and temporary glow of the same make-shift outdoor lighting, and bring it home, and take it inside, and make it festive, as if to manifest in our very living rooms the possibility of life in the holiday rituals of old.

But here, away from Christmas and the giving spirit of the season, is a quieter, more contemplative space. And there is music, here, too, if you can hear it: fragile, languid, lo-fi songs of longing and of letting go, of waiting and hope, of memory and time, which help us meditate on that which transcends the red and green poinsettia, the white of the angel choir, the silver bells.

Let ours be a humanist’s playlist for the season, then: not antidote or anti-Christian, but acknowledgement and celebration of the human spirit that calls to us beyond the religious and cultural trappings of holidays and hymn. After all, the world reminds us of what it needs of us, in the end. It is stillness and loss, death and despair, which call us so meaningfully to life and longing.

Hearth and Candle, Snow and Star
A Cover Lay Down Winter Mix

[download here!]

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

Comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes

Friday, In The Fall: A Triptych Concludes

September 2nd, 2017 — 10:29am

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Cover Lay Down will celebrate its tenth anniversary on the web this month, and behind the scenes, we’re just starting to gather in news, fragments, and new and beloved tracks for a series of September features honoring the folkways that got us here, and keeps us moving ever forward, as culture and community.

But today, as I sit on the porch watching the sun come up through the still-green trees, I find myself not yet ready to dive into the songs and artists that have sustained us, and helped us stay sane and present through the rise and fall of life as it comes.

Instead, I’m still thinking about Aida, after meeting her husband and infant at Thursday’s somber wake. About my own marriage, now the same age as Aida was when she passed on from this world. About all the times I have written here about the stress and triumphs of the students I teach, and our struggle together. About my father, and our Saturdays across the state. About my children, and their ongoing struggle with their imperfect bodies, and the stress that brings them pain.

I’ve been thinking about history, in case you couldn’t tell: mine, and the earth’s, especially the way the nights turn colder this time of year, and it’s Autumn again, kids laughing and learning how to learn. The elderchild and her sister are back in school, a day at a time; my own work is deeply satisfying, though ever imperfect, and always exhausting. My Drama class takes their first tentative steps bravely, stretching and walking into neutral as they prepare for a term exploring body and voice as the tools of the trade; my Advanced Placement students dive in to rigor, testing their capacity, and my own, as we raise the bar for rigorous analysis of speeches and essays.

Somewhere past these trees, our little rural town is holding its annual yard sale. Sidewalks and driveways once covered in the detritus of the tornado that ripped through our homes sport furniture and books, lamps and tools, restored to shabby, weathered glory, ready for use in another home. Life happens, and here we are, sifting through it, thinking ahead about what we might need as we take then next steps in our continued journey.

We’re rising to the challenge of the world that needs it. We’re dancing about architecture, and making it work. We’re navigating the impeded waters, singing. The not-so-wee one went home early from school on her second day, but she made it, and that’s something. The elderchild finds a small group in the lunchroom, determined to stay out of the drama she sees in her adolescent cohort, lest it distract from her academic development. My father hangs his pictures in the dining room, six months after moving in to his new assisted living apartment. The kid who locked the laptop cart lock to his backpack comes respectfully, without headphones, to ask to be released. He still won’t stay the entire block. But he came again today, and he’ll come again tomorrow, too.

Here. We’ve made it to the end of another week, the end of the endless summer once again. Let us dwell not in words, save those which are sung in reverence and glee. Let us speak our piece and move on, in honor of the respite we’ve earned a hundredfold. Let us celebrate the fruits of labor, and the work it takes to get there: the hard work of play, and letting go, to be present in the moment, and the music, and the self.

Happy Labor Day, dear readers. May your work, too, be employed joyfully, when it comes.

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Passages: For Aida, And A Thousand Stars

August 22nd, 2017 — 11:02pm

aida

Aida was an outlier in my very first English class, a summer school test-run after years teaching media and instructional technology. Bright, beautiful, articulate, and quietly confident at just thirteen years old, she didn’t really belong in the remedial program, but she had lost most of a year to hearing issues and poor health, and now, recovering from implant surgery, she was mostly just there for the credit, to justify her existence in high school.

So while other students struggled to focus, to read, and to care, Aida wrote volumes, and shared with me the fruits of her blossoming awareness and skill. I gave her my copy of The Poet’s Dictionary, and spoke quietly to her in passing and after class about sestinas and pantoums, rhythm and language as a path to the self. She could talk literature and heartache with a wisdom far beyond the capacity of most adults I know. And that smile was the sweetest ever – grateful, knowing, wry; one that lingers in the memory, even now.

I’ve taught thousands of students in over two decades in education. In a very real way, I’ve loved them all. But once a year or so, if you’re lucky, you get a couple of students that connect on a much deeper level – the kind of kids you happily break the rules for, and drive them to work in the shampoo warehouse on the other side of the city because you just want a chance to chat with another bright, vibrant human being, and to be a part of their climb out of the city, to the stars.

Aida wasn’t the first of these kids, and she wasn’t the only one from her year – being a class advisor tends to bring you closer to the cohort, I think. But she was something special all the same. Hers was a smile that could light up a room, one that never faded, and always seemed authentic. Even in sorrow or stress, she was positive and proud. Her cheerful, unapologetic arrival at prom, solo and shimmering and hours late after her hair took too long to come together, lives as a high point in my year. Watching her walk across the stage three years ago as a graduate made my heart jump.

And today, struggling to define that inimitable something, I know that more than almost any student I have ever had, a shining star among thousands, Aida knew herself joyfully, like a natural-born Buddha, having discovered earlier than most that hers was truly a self worth knowing, and worth waiting for.


I last saw Aida in person purely by accident, a year ago this week; she was working as a cashier at Target to pay for school; we were there to buy school supplies for my classroom, and for the kids. Afterwards, as before, social media provided an opportunity to watch her from a distance, as the precocious, beautiful child I had first encountered continued to grow, into an increasingly articulate and determined career-minded adult, spouse, and very recently, just this summer, a mother, loved by and loving to so many of us.

But in the end, Aida’s health was her undoing. A car crash with her infant son a few weeks ago left her shaken and in pain, and stirred up old injuries. For a while, she was recovering, alive and proud of her struggle, as always. And then, this morning, we awoke to the news that after a seizure, Aida had passed in the night.

There’s a video on Aida’s husband’s Facebook page from just three days ago, a short clip featuring her beautiful son, wailing for mama while her father coos reassuringly behind the camera. Aida was alive when this was filmed, just working – on the last course for her degree, on her health, and on her ever-changing beauty, a rare trifecta among our inner city youth. Forever, that clip, and every other artifact of Aida’s life that lives on in so many of us, will break my heart.

I owe Aida so much, and I think I never told her. She was the right kid, in the right place, at the right time: the one who reminded me, way back when I needed it most, that teaching has both love and friendship in it, even – maybe especially – in the darkest of communities, and the most sullen of crowds. She will forever exemplify the positive attitude, kindness, and grit I wish of every student I teach. I will treasure the memory of that smile forever, even if it were not all I have to remember her by – that, the company of her friends and schoolmates, and the space on the bookshelf where my Poet’s Dictionary used to live.

May there always be those among us us who bring us joy, however brief, and remind us that we are in the right place in the world. May those we serve go from this life as they found us in it: alive and kicking, determined and bright, at peace with the world even as they push themselves for more.

May we love, fiercely, those who bring out our best.

And may there always be Aidas, that we may remember ourselves.

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