Category: Reposts

Oceanfolk 2013: Covers for Sand, Surf and Sound

July 25th, 2013 — 6:20pm

Originally posted, with slight modifications, in August 2009, and again in 2011. Because it’s one of my favorite sets – and because bloggers need vacations, too.


We’ve just got back from a short week in Truro, in the same rented beachhouse high on the dunes above the Cape Cod sound. It’s peaceful out there on the bluff: wakeless trawlers and shore fishermen, beach wanderers and bathers are few and far between, mere specks on an otherwise natural landscape that fills the sense with color: green grasses, faded yellow sand, the variable blues of sky and water.

At night the lights of Provincetown shone brightly just on the edge of the vista, a line of stars marking the difference between pitch-black sea and an invisible sky. The first year we were here a shooting star dropped towards them while I watched, as if longing to join the tourists and summer people in their shared debauchery. This year, the full moon showed its evidentiary head only once through the after-dark clouds, its tidal effect was visible in the disappearance of the dunes and meadows at dusk. I stayed up late reading the usual borrowed beachhouse paperback, the autobiography of an island lobsterwoman, and fell asleep before eleven.

The weeks ahead burn and roil on the horizon like sunset: crew chiefdom and a chance to steep in the community of music next week at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, a two week run of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) at the Hampshire Shakespeare Company up in Amherst, and then back to work, with new students to greet, new courses to teach, and new classrooms to maintain from then until eternity. But sitting there on the deck in the shade of the house, the marsh below me, the ocean beyond, this browngrey hawk drawing lazy circles in the blue overhead, I was reminded once again how vital it is to sit in stillness at the edge of it all, how centering it is to squeeze peace from the last fleeting weeks of summer.

It’s a good life. Here’s a soundtrack for it.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk sets and commentary twice weekly throughout the year thanks to the support of readers like you.

Comment » | Mixtapes, Reposts

Burning Up, 2013: More Songs for a Heat Wave
(from Ring Of Fire to Heat of the Moment, covered in folk)

July 17th, 2013 — 6:08pm

It’s been one of the hottest summers on record here in New England, with temperatures in the nineties for almost a dozen days since early June – so intolerably hot, in fact, that for the first time since the kids were born, my wife dragged out the air conditioner.

But this tiny, futile rail against the tide is not enough to make the difference. Outdoor obligations have been excruciating, and they are numerous; the rooms where we sleep remain restless torture chambers of sweat and stillness. By day, the driveway scorches, and the grass burns dry with sun. Shade offers no solace; cold showers provide but quick-fading comfort. The night is a swamp: we wilt, and nothing seems to bring us back to ourselves.

Amidst it all, I’ve been trying to put together a feature post on some great new emerging artists, but the hot, still air puts me in a stupor that stifles both the creative urge and any initiative I might have. And so we turn to the old standby: a thematic set of songs for a heat have, rebuilt around a set originally shared in May of 2010, shaken and stirred with a second round of new-found tracks, a lone concession to the creative urge. And then we’re off to the dam, to soak in the cool waters as long as we can stand it.

Listen, as the metaphors of heat – from friction to fire to the lazy lethargy of summer – stretch out in song, encompassing passion on the one hand, tempting fate on the other.

Heat Wave Coverfolk (2013) [zip!]

Previously on Cover lay Down:

4 comments » | Mixtapes, Reposts

Flower Communion, 2013:
On giving back, and taking it home

June 18th, 2013 — 2:36pm

It’s pledge time once again, folks – and so we come to you with hat and flowers in hand to ask for your support. Read on to see how you can help Cover Lay Down serve its core mission, and come away with our eternal appreciation, and a bouquet of floral coverfolk sure to thrill the senses.

Traditionally the last Sunday service before a Universalist Unitarian parish moves to a lay-led summer, the Flower Communion celebrates the contributory nature of the UU community by bringing the blooming world into the church at its last, and then letting it go back out again as we ourselves turn to the world of social justice and peace-making. The beauty and diversity of life – of our own, and of the land – is present in the rich cornucopia of the green-stemmed bounty. And by bringing flowers from our own gardens, and then taking home those of another, we pay tribute to the found and foraged nature of our practice, and of our spiritual selves.

The ritual is easily explicable: we all bring flowers, and by midservice, the dais is covered with color and scent – an even mix of found and wild sources, and the cultivated and garden-born, reflecting the organic mix of seeds and sprouts that comprise the source-cobbled praxis of our “faith where we find it.” We bless the flowers, and ourselves, and line up to pick a single stalk or clustered bloom to take with us for the summer; we sing a song of the spirit, and drift off into the fellowship hall for cake and summer goodbyes, flowers in hand and fellowship in hearts.

It’s nice to have a ritual that reminds us of the way our tiny lives are part of the passing of the seasons, their beauty ours, and their bounty shared. And as it is in church, so it is here: our little space on the web is not merely a published sequence of song, but a shared nexus of give-and-take, the songs themselves flowing back and forth through us, making us whole, and making us one. A music blog, too, is a communion, as is the experience of listening we give to each other.

I wrote the above in 2010, and the sentiment stands: I love the Flower Communion, and the way it serves as a metaphor for the communion of folk and the folk of communion. But this Sunday morning, the dynamic new change-agent minister with the ear for infrastructure reminded me of the second symbolic exchange inherent in this ritual – the taking of the communal flowers, and the way they represent how we carry the community with us into our lives. And I am minded afterwards: communion requires sharing and accepting the gifts that community brings.

And so we come to you, as we do occasionally, to pass the collections plate, that we might sustain ourselves a little better in the coming months.

I’ve said it before: Cover Lay Down remains ad-free and artist-centric, but paying for private server space to serve this community at its current scale isn’t free. I find myself often reluctant to come right out and ask for donations, especially this time of year, when my busyness outside these virtual walls peaks, but the coffers are bone-dry, and the bills due; as it is in any community, so it is with this one: without you, Cover Lay Down is nothing. The blog itself, with its mixed-bag cornucopia of blooms, thrives because we all come to put ourselves in, and if it offers you just one hundredth of the strength and joy it sustains for its author, then our investment is well-served, indeed, and I am grateful for any gift you can give in sustaining us through the summer.

If you’d like to donate to Cover Lay Down, just click the button below – we take PayPal and credit cards, and every penny goes to server costs and filesharing, that we may continue to serve our mandate to connect fans and artists through song, and in doing so, help do our part to ensure that folk, acoustic, and roots music remains vibrant and alive.

In return, we offer our eternal thanks, the warm satisfaction of the community supporter and patron, the continued recreation of the community itself, and our shoulders ever at the wheel of folk itself, working for its eternal viability.

For my part, I can note only that the long struggle to stay current in the midst of inevitable life-chaos ends in June, as it always does. Going into summer provides more opportunity to populate these pages; schoolteachers can stay up later in the warm month, and their time is, if not entirely leisurely, then at least more flexible, and less dense; neither church nor choir flag my fortune as they feed the soul.

And so the liminal period that is summer comes, its arrival marked by the dual dispersement of school and congregation. We stretch, and sink into our chairs; we sleep late, and share, and are merry, at our very best. And the flowers bloom all summer. And the music never ends.

Flower Communion Coverfolk (2010)

More Flower Communion Coverfolk (2013)

Thanks, all, for everything you bring to this space: for your eyes and ears, and your hearts, and your comments; for liking us on Facebook, so that others might come; for the support you bring each artist, and for even considering lending your financial support to this little folk-lovin’ corner of the web. And just as the communities you love benefit from your gifts, may you take from their bounty, and carry them with you.

2 comments » | Mixtapes, Reposts

Covered In Folk: Show Tunes
(Rosanne Cash, Mark Kozelek, Dar Williams, Colin Meloy & more!)

May 5th, 2013 — 3:14pm

I published the below feature three years ago today, anticipating a triumphant but fleeting return to the stage alongside my wife and daughters in a local production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after more than a decade away. Since then, however, the theater bug has returned, and the roles are getting juicier as I once again find my footing on the proverbial boards; auditions and musicals have me thumbing through the works of Sondheim, Hammerstein, Hart and Gershwin, and these folk versions have never seemed more alive.

This weekend, we’re all in a production of The Sound Of Music; I’m actually completing this as I sit backstage waiting for my cue. Today’s feature is especially fitting, then, as it acknowledges my distraction while including a beautiful cover of Edelweiss to honor the work. Look for another older post featuring songs based on the works of Shakespeare this summer, when I’ll be one of three actors in a Shakespeare in the Park production of one of my favorite pieces, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.

I was one of those arty middle-class music-and-theater kids – you know, the ones who spend their free periods in the band room, stay after school to paint sets, seem utterly disconnected from the mass media-driven marks of popular consumer culture, and demonstrate a complete and utter lack of coordinated ability in running shorts.

But it wasn’t just desire or common interest that kept me there. Natural talent, a strong ear, and an ADHD sufferer’s tendency to misplace my instrument had led to formal voice lessons and private choruses as a child (lose your clarinet, and mom gets pissed; lose your voice, and it comes back on its own). From there, I found myself on stage, and until I discovered that teaching could provide the same inner thrill, I fully expected to spend my life at its center, singing under the spotlight.

Thanks to this combination of talent, training, and opportunity, my adolescence was marked by more than just solos in the school chorus and lead roles in the high school play. Sure, I played Pippin in Pippin in my freshman year, losing my virginity to one of the older chorus members a few hours before opening night, but I also missed a lot of school in those years, thanks to active engagement in several major production companies in and around the Boston area before I cleared middle school. I even spent a late eighties summer at the Boston University Theater Institute, dressing like a Chorus Line extra, staying up late with the next generation of aspiring stars, burning through showtunes, improv exercises, Tennessee Williams monologues, and obscure Brecht/Weill operettas while my schoolmates got sunburned on the fields at soccer camp.

If the Internet is to be believed, many students growing up in the arts and theater crowd ultimately hew close to musical theater in their adult lives, finding preference and even pleasure in the songs of the stage. But for me, the theater was merely a means to an end – a love affair with the self, a mechanism for being at the center of attention, and a route to popularity and fame.

Though the stage was a place where I could shine, on my own time, as I’ve noted here before, my tastes ran towards the radio, the rising grunge and alt-rock movements, and the vast LP stacks of an audiophilic father heavy on the blues, jazz, folk and country. My mother’s small collection of original cast recordings of South Pacific, The Sound Of Music, and My Fair Lady may have been an endcap in our record cabinet, but just as my father never turned to those records, so did I eschew them, and groan alongside him when they came out of their sleeves for the occasional holiday.

As a result, though I recognize much of the canon of Broadway musicals – from Gershwin to Porter, Gilbert & Sullivan to Rogers & Hammerstein – unlike, say, the Top 40 of the eighties, or the East Coast alt-grunge movement, the genre does not interest me much as a fan or collector. To me, the Broadway songbook is something to sing, not something to listen to. To each his own, I guess.

In many ways, musical theater is the opposite of folk. The staging is formal; the audience is distant. The performers wear make-up, and are not themselves. And the distinct origin of song, lyric, and performance are clear, though attributed authorship is generally eschewed in favor of the shows from whence such songs came to us.

Where folk connects audience and performer within a complex of cultural feedback and communality – a sharing strategy which prioritizes emotional accessibility over pitch-perfect performance – as an ideal, the nuances of show tune performance are grand and showy, thanks to the trappings of character and grand narrative which underlie the very nature of theatrical production. Hearty where folk is delicate, melodramatic where folk is honest, stylized where folk is organic, show tunes don’t just come from a different part of the culture than folk music – they come from a very different place in the heart and the mind than the music we find and feature here.

Yet as a strand of the popular, the songs of the stage and screen quite often find their way into the folkways – most commonly via that melting pot of the popular, The Great American Songbook. Coverage, as such, is not uncommon, though it is rarer in the world of the solo singer songwriter than, say, the smoky realm of pop, jazz or blues vocalists – more common, even, for folk musicians to “go pop” or “go jazz” with these tunes, than for them to truly lend their folk sensibility to the popular songbook of musical theater.

But when it happens, it’s a beautiful thing. Given the difference in style and function between the two forms, the folk approach to the songs of Broadway and beyond tends towards the transformative, as the songs are localized, closing the vast gulf of spectacle which the stage mandates, replacing scale with intimacy. And so, as in coverage writ large, the song is born anew, with new meaning.

Here’s a broad set of coversongs, timeless and up-close, with a post-millennial focus, to help you see what I mean.

Bonus Repost Tracks (2013)

Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features and multisong sets twice a week thanks to the support of readers like you. As always, if you like what you hear, please follow the links above to support the artists we promote. We also accept donations, gratefully.

3 comments » | Covered In Folk, Mixtapes, Reposts

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 6: James Taylor covers
Sam Cooke, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Louvin Brothers & more!

April 21st, 2013 — 8:41pm


As in past years, I’m a bit woozy today after yesterday’s all-day drive up the East Coast from North Carolina. My head still swims with the sights of barbecue joints and crabcake stands, and roadside shacks where one can get smoked ham and sausages, local peanuts, and fireworks to celebrate it all.

But it’s good to be home, where the daffodils are in full blown bloom, even if the lawn still struggles against the moss and hemlock. The American South is a wonderful place to visit; I like seeing the world, and though I’ve been to more countries than states, the diversity of the US pleases me. But the beach-to-woods geography and seasonal shifts of the American Northeast feel right, somehow. With a few tiny stints out of bounds, I’ve been a Massachusetts-based New Englander all my life, and I expect to be one for the remainder of it.

James Taylor likes Massachusetts, too. And by the time I wrote the original feature below in 2008, I’d already been promising myself a feature post on good ol’ JT for ages. What better way to celebrate our triumphant return from a week in the Carolinas than with a resurrected 20-song megapost on the coversongs of this incredible singer-songwriter plus a 10-track Single Song Sunday bonus set of You Can Close Your Eyes – my favorite James Taylor composition? And so, ladies and gentlemen: James Taylor, Massachusetts resident and one-time North Carolina transplant.

Born in Boston, James Taylor spent his adolescence in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father was Dean of the UNC School of Medicine. But the family retained strong ties to Massachusetts, summering in Martha’s Vineyard; James attended boarding school at Milton Academy, and when he struggled with depression in his early adulthood, he headed for McLean’s Hospital, a stately suburban instititution just outside of Boston where I remember visiting one of my own friends in the last year of high school.

Though he has since lived in California and London, and though his signature voice retains the barest hint of southern twang under that clear-as-a-bell blueblood bostonian accent, like me, Taylor has always returned to the Massachusetts he loves. Today, he lives about thirty miles west of here, in the Berkshires, just on the other side of the Adirondack ridge. And he retains strong ties to his beloved Martha’s Vineyard, performing there each summer, sometimes with Ben and Sally, his children by ex-wife Carly Simon, who is also a Vineyard resident.

Beyond our shared love of the beaches and woods of Massachusetts, there’s something immutably local and authentic about my experience with James Taylor. My childhood understanding of and familiarity with folk music as a genre and a recorded phenomenon was primarily driven by a strong record collection at home, but my experience of acoustic music as folk – as something singable and sharable and communal – was peppered with young camp counselors who had learned their guitar licks from the radioplay of the day. For me, Fire and Rain will always be a song for campfire singalongs, one which helps me come to terms with the bittersweet and constant state of being both in good company and away from home.

Too, James Taylor was my first concert, and you never forget your first. I remember lying on the summer grass at Great Woods (now the Tweeter Center), looking up at the stars and letting the wave of Fire and Rain wash over me. I remember peering at the stage and recognizing the way James smiled at us, at bass player Leland Sklar, at the song itself as a kind of genuine communion, one which flavored the performance with something valid and universal.

Because of that night, and the organic songs-first-performance-afterwards way I came to it, James Taylor, for me, is the standard by which I measure the authenticity of folk performance. That so many shows have not met that standard since then is a tribute to both Taylor’s gentle nature, and his way with song and performance.

James Taylor’s voice is unmistakable, almost too sweet for some, and he doesn’t fit my every mood. His loose, white-man’s-blues guitar playing is better than most people give him credit for, but it is often downplayed in his produced work. But in the back of my mind his songs are a particular form of homecoming, one intimately tied to summer song and simple times outside of the world as we usually live it. And when I sing Sweet Baby James or You Can Close Your Eyes to my children at night, there’s a part of me that’s back on that summer lawn, letting the music reach a part of me that cannot speak for itself.

We’ll have a few choice covers of Taylor’s most popular in the bonus section of today’s megapost. But first, here’s a few of the many songs which Taylor has remade in his own gentle way over the years: doo-wop standards, sweet nighttime paeans and lullabies, hopeful protest songs, and others.

Though James Taylor does have his pop side, this isn’t it. You’ve heard ’em before, so I’ve skipped the covers which Taylor has made his own through radioplay over the years — including Carole King’s Up On The Roof and Marvin Gaye’s How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) — though I did keep a live version of Handy Man in the mix, and thought it worth trying the newer version of You’ve Got A Friend from Taylor’s stripped-down favorites recording One Man Band. I’ve also skipped his lite pianojazz ballad version of How I Know You, from the Aida soundtrack, and the vast bulk of his two recent saccharine-sweet covers albums: it’s not folk, and it’s not my thing.

Instead, by presenting a selection of Taylor’s rarer and lesser-known coversong all at once, it is my hope that the diversity of the source material here allows even the most jaded of us to come to what is too-often dismissed as Adult Contemporary pablum with new ears, attuned to more subtle differences of tone and undertone — to explore and even collapse the distance between bittersweet and tender, longing and acceptance, home and homesickness, which continues to make James Taylor worth listening to, and celebrating.

James Taylor’s works are mainstream, and distributed as such; his website sends us to for purchase. As here at Cover Lay Down we prefer to avoid supporting the corporate middleman in favor of direct artist and label benefit, we recommend that those looking to pursue the songwriting and sound of James Taylor head out to their local record shop for purchase.

Not sure where to begin? Anything released between 1968 and 1974 provides the best introduction to JT’s core sound; I promise it’s folkier than you remember. Jaded folkies who stopped listening a while back might take a second look at Taylor’s 1977 release JT, or albums from the late eighties and nineties such as Never Die Young, New Moon Shine or Hourglass, which stand on their own as well-produced contemporary folk. 2007 DVD release One Man Band, Taylor’s return to a sparser acoustic sound, is an anomaly in the midst of an otherwise-AAA pop-trending career. And coverlovers who do embrace his smoother side are advised – with caveats – to at least consider his two post-millennial covers albums.

As for bonus tracks: for years, I’ve been saving the bulk of my collection of covers of James Taylor originals for a future Folk Family Feature on the Taylor family – including James, brother Livingston, sister Kate, son Ben, daughter Sally, and Ben and Sally’s mother Carly Simon. But I’ve been leaking them slowly and surely as time goes on, and the floodgates are open today. So here’s a full Single Song Sunday-sized set of covers of my favorite lullaby, from Mark Erelli’s tender bedtime crooning to William Fitzsimmons’ fragile indiefolk to a young and drunken Bonnie Raitt’s live heartbreaker. Download the zip file here, or pick and choose below.

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Comment » | Featured Artists, James Taylor, Reposts, Single Song Sunday

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 4:
The Traditional Songs (and Beyond) of Doc Watson

April 17th, 2013 — 4:57pm

We’ve covered Doc Watson twice here at Cover Lay Down: through his interpretation of the traditional songs of the Carolinian Appalachians in our original Vacation Coverfolk 2008 feature, and via his coverage of more popular tunes in tribute last June, when the inimitable picker passed on to the great band in the sky. Today, as part of our week-long Carolina Coverfolk compendium, we revive both, collapsing both features and over 30 songs into a single omnibus that shows both sides of Doc’s legacy – as an interpreter of the folkways, and as an active member of the folk and bluegrass revivals of the second half of the last century

APRIL 2008: Elizabeth Cotten and Arthel “Doc” Watson share more than just a connection to the state of North Carolina. Both were culturally disadvantaged — Cotten due to her skin color, and Doc due to a lifelong blindness. Each started performing in childhood, but became truly famous in the great folk revival of the sixties. Both are known for songs which celebrate the hard life and trials of their beloved rural south while addressing universal themes of loss, change, and heartache. And, most importantly, though no one could confuse Cotten’s rural bluesfolk for Doc’s country swing style, each is ranked among the best acoustic fingerpickers of their generation.

But the differences between the two are great, as well. In fact, presenting Doc Watson and Elizabeth Cotten side by side this week makes for an interesting exercise in folk history, one which allows us to see the great diversity of the strands and influences which came together to make modern folk music in America.

Unlike Elizabeth Cotten, who came back to folk in the sixties after a long hiatus, Doc Watson (b. 1923) was always a musician, busking with his brother for pennies as a child, supporting himself and his family with his work as a piano tuner to pay the bills when he could not find paid work as a sideman. Though he worked through much of the fifties as an electric guitar player with a country and western swing band, when the modern folk scene began to crystalize in the early sixties, Doc switched over to acoustic guitar and banjo exclusively, making a name for himself as one of the best fingerpickers in the business, and finding himself in high demand on the burgeoning folk circuit.

Where Cotten is primarily known for her original songs and original rhythmic style, Doc Watson’s greatest contributions to folk music came from his source material and lightning speed. His ability to blow the socks off every other picker in the room is well known, and his work as a songwriter is honest and respectable. But as folk, his repertoire is most significant for its use of songs from the oral tradition which might otherwise have been lost. We might say that while it was Mike Seeger’s recordings of Elizabeth Cotten which saved her authentic voice, Doc Watson’s recordings and performance of the mountain ballads from the areas around his home of Deep Gap, North Carolina allow us to consider Doc a Seeger to his own people.

This is not to say that the tradsongs of Doc Watson sound anything like Cotten’s originals, stylistically-speaking. While Cotten’s fingerpicking style comes from applying banjo style to the guitar, Watson’s quickfingered picking style is the successful result of moving songs that were traditionally fiddle tunes to the acoustic guitar. Where Cotton was self-taught, Watson learned his trade through the traditional country songs of the south, and the songs of early country greats like the Louvin and Monroe Brothers.

Where Cotton ended up finding a style that sounded more like early blues musicians, Watson’s different approach and experience, plus his apprenticeship in the country and western genres, left him with a wail and a sense of rhythm that call to the same acoustic old-timey country sound that you might hear in the rougher, hippier corners of bluegrass and country festivals today.

Another way of saying this might be to point out that where Cotten shows the blues influence on folk music, Doc Watson shows the country — an influence which, despite its significance, is often the elephant in the room when it comes to folk music. His style and his “mountain music” sound hark to a time back before country and folk music had truly split off from each other, and long before alt-country bands like Uncle Tupelo, newgrass bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, old timey bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, and modern western swing folk musicians like Eilen Jewell went spelunking in the deep well of potential that lies between true country music and the post-sixties folk (and rock) music scenes.

Today, both country and folk music claim Doc Watson as one of their own, and rightfully so. Doc holds multiple Grammy awards in both the Traditional Folk and the Country Instrumental categories; Merlefest — the festival named after Doc’s son and long-time musical partner, who died in a tractor accident in 1985 — is known for attracting the best music and musicians from the intersection of folk, bluegrass, and country. But no matter what you call it, Doc Watson’s sound is instantly recognizable, powerful, and no less potent today, eighty years after it could be heard on the streets of his beloved North Carolina.

Today’s collection is a bit heavier on the tradfolk than cover lovers might ordinarily prefer. But this is no loss. Focusing primarily on the traditional folksongs Watson interpreted allows us to celebrate one of his greatest contributions to American folk music. And so, out of hundreds of possibilities, we offer a short set of great and representative tradfolk from a fifty year career, from old live recordings with Merle and early collaborators Clarence Ashley and Bill Monroe to Doc’s haunting baritone lead vocals on several beautiful early-and-late-career back-porch standards.

docwatsonJUNE 2012: When Arthel “Doc” Watson passed on to the great jam session in the sky at the end of May, the ensuing nationwide recognition for the man and his impact on our culture was inevitable. Watson is and was rightly cited for his ethnomusical bent, most particularly for how the masterful fingerpicker transformed the fiddle tunes which he heard in his native appalachia for guitar and banjo, bringing traditional songs out of the mountains and hollers into the mainstream of popular music via the folk revival of the fifties and sixties, and creating a trademark picking style out of the transformation, in a time when bluegrass, folk, blues and country were at a crossroads.

The combination of timing, talent, and treatment became the perfect platform for fame and fortune, winning him multiple Grammy awards in both the folk and country categories. And many of the classic tunes he helped spread and salvage run strong in the tradfolk revival today; there is no questioning his legacy.

But though it is his prowess with the songs of Deep Gap, North Carolina which most impacted the folkways, Doc’s true impact on the culture goes far beyond the direct line between the appalachian hills and the folk movement which NPR and others so respectfully recognized in the last several days.

A child prodigy who learned from radio as much as he did from his elders, and who spent much of the fifties playing in a country and western swing band, Doc was a prolific performer and studio musician, and his ear for the popular was equal to his ear for the local.

As such, although it is predominantly for his traditional resurrections which we hear of him today, in his many years of recording and performing, Doc focused no small amount of attention on the swinging Nashville sound, using it to channel the hits and a small handful of originals. After a lifetime achievement of over fifty albums recorded live and in the studio, in collaboration and at the helm, his vast catalog came to include a number of hits from the country charts, plus standards from Elvis to the Everly Brothers, from Broadway to Tin Pan Alley, from The Mississippi Sheiks to Mississippi John Hurt.

We covered the traditional songs of Doc Watson way back in 2008 in a Vacation Coverfolk post, when a trip to North Carolina brought us to steep in the sounds of his particular south. Here, we pay tribute to the man with a second set of song, which features Doc, friends, and family taking on the tunes of his own century. Listen, especially, for the two lullabies, recorded just after the untimely death of his son and life musical partner Merle, which mark a poignant turning point in our set below.

As you can see from the diverse source years listed above, Doc’s catalog is especially prolific; long-standing official website Doc’s Guitar has the comprehensive discography, and it’s a bit overwhelming. If you’re new to his sound, and want to begin a collection, purists tell me the best place to start for the older stuff is Smithsonian Folkways. Also recommended, in recognition of Record Store Day this coming Saturday: head to your local record store and, after searching fruitlessly for sections labeled “Traditional Folk” or “Traditional Country”, ask for any of the above-noted disks by artist and year.

Comment » | Doc Watson, Reposts, Vacation Coverfolk

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 3: Carolina Chocolate Drops
(An African American String Band recreates the Piedmont blues)

April 15th, 2013 — 9:53pm

As noted previously (and as made obvious by the fact that this post is Volume 3 in a series), in recognition of our return to the Outer Banks for the fourth time since 2008, we’re in the midst of a set of Vacation Coverfolk features pulled from the archives of past trips to the North Carolina coast with a newly penned post on The Avett Brothers scheduled for the end of the week as a triumphant finale to our collected survey of music of, from, and about the region.

Earlier this week, Volumes 1 and 2 of our series took on songs whose titles mention the Carolinas, and a tribute to the songs of Elizabeth Cotten. Today, we present a slightly modified tripartite feature on the Carolina Chocolate Drops: a Carolina Coverfolk set originally posted in 2009, and postscripts from both a 2010 multi-artist feature that acknowledges their last album together before the original trio splintered off to become the quartet currently touring under the moniker, and a 2012 check-in which acknowledges the changes to personel and sound which resulted from that transformation.

APRIL 2009: There are two ways to learn music, really: by formal study and by direct transmission. The vast majority of musicians these days learn through the former method, a mixed bag of training, recorded music and noodling, balancing their books on a combination of heart and chords, songbook and soul.

There’s nothing wrong with this, per se: originality, after all, comes of such ownership, coupled with a sense of creation. Indeed, the folkworld thrives on such evolution, depending as it does on a connection to an everchanging culture. Those of us who love modern confessional and coffeehouse folk, not to mention the myriad hybrid forms which have emerged over the last few decades, appreciate the way music stretches and evolves in the hands of such practitioners.

But the transmissionary model isn’t dead. Just as there are audiophiles who insist on the scratchy authenticity of their original 78s, there are still folk musicians who believe that to truly become part of an authentic tradition of music, one must learn the trade authentically, too. From blueswoman Rory Block to Kentucky Appalachian Brett Ratliff, such modern followers of the folkways eschew records and scales, and look to the older ways, seeking out the ancient progenitors of their forms to listen and play along, learning the scratchy, earthy sounds and songs from their elders as if through osmosis.

The result isn’t generally polished, but that’s the point. Instead, such performers tend towards a raw sound, rich in feeling but often sparse in instrumentation, which favors emotional impact over consistent tempo. There’s no gloss here, only timelessness. And folk needs such old blood, too, lest it evolve so far it becomes unrecognizable; lest we lose touch with our origins, and forget that without the old ways to refer to, we cannot have them to reinvent.

Writ large, the Piedmont or “East Coast” blues emanates from a vast swath of rural East Coast America; popular in the early days of recorded music, from the twenties to the forties, its most famous tracks, such as Blind Boy Fuller’s 1940 recording of “Step It Up & Go”, sold as many as half a million copies to blacks and whites alike. Generally, the ragtime-based fingerpicking style which characterizes the once-popular African-American dance music is located as far North as Richmond, VA, and as far south as Atlanta, though of course the emergence of records helped spread the sound much farther in its heyday.

The rediscovery of acoustic blues by folk fans in the sixties brought the music back into the mainstream, bringing many artists out of hiding and into the festival circuit, where they began to trade licks. Today, the Piedmont style and its repertoire can be found in the modern playing of many formally trained folk musicians, from Leo Kottke to Paul Simon.

Modern inheritors of the Piedmont sound, the founding members of “African American string band” Carolina Chocolate Drops may have found each other through the newest technology — two of the three met in a listserv and chatspace for Black banjo fans and players — but they picked up their music the old way, seeking out the oldest surviving members of the Piedmont style, learning at the feet of fellow North Carolinans Algia Mae Hinton and Etta Baker, who passed just before the ‘Drops released their debut albums Heritage and Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind in 2007.

Learning from North Carolina musicians magnifies the Carolinan connection in this particular incarnation. Fans of Baker, Hinton, and Carolina Chocolate Drops mentor Joe Thompson of Mebane, NC, said to be the last black traditional string band player, will hear the mannerisms of each in their playing. Even their name, which recalls that of 1920s fiddle-led band the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, pays tribute to the combination of form and geography.

Mountain strings — the banjo, guitar, and fiddle — feature heavily in the Piedmont sound, though not all at the same time; these, plus a smorgasbord of washboards, jugs, combs, and other household instruments round out the Carolina Chocolate Drops performance. But in the end, the instrumentation and the process are subservient to the madcap, heartfelt, almost desperately gleeful energy of the Piedmont style itself, as reincarnated here. It’s dance music, designed to get you jumping, appealing to your basest instincts, your wildest primal hopes and fears.

Here’s a short set of samplers — a modern cover done up old style, a video link to a great version of an old classic learned from Etta Baker, a handful of traditional tracks from their albums, soundtracks, and live appearances — which, in their timelessness and raw beauty, prove the value of the osmotic process, even as they celebrate the eternal spirit of the music itself.

JANUARY 2010: I finally managed to catch the Carolina Chocolate Drops last weekend at the Somerville Theater, and was utterly thrilled to find they are even more stunning in concert than I had imagined. Their infectious joy in not just recovering but truly rejuvenating a whole set of found song, from old country blues and minstrel-show jazz to stringband and rural jugband classics, is evident in every smile, holler, and nuanced move on an array of authentic instruments, from quills and autoharp to banjo, fiddle, guitar, voice and bones. And as performers and ethnomusicologists, their patter and performance offers a first rate journey through the folk traditions of Black America.

New album Genuine Negro Jig will include a studio version of their infamous Blu Cantrell cover and a delicious take on Tom Waits’ Trampled Rose alongside a whole new set of resurrected stringband and old-time jazz and blues tunes done in their inimitable Piedmont style. Here’s two delightful cuts from the newest – a tightened studio release of the aforementioned Blu Cantrell cover, and a sweet, wry newly-recorded version of old stringband classic Cornbread and Butterbeans – plus a Mississippi Sheiks cover from a recent tribute, and a live cut to keep your feet moving in the meantime; for more, order Genuine Negro Jig, sit back, and wait for the magic to arrive.

APRIL 2012: Unless you’ve been living under a cone of silence, you already know that once-featured, once-revisited African American String Band Carolina Chocolate Drops hit the ground this winter with a new release and a major change in personnel: gone is high-energy co-founder Justin Robinson, here to stay is beatboxer Adam Matta and new multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins. The result, an appropriately titled mixed bag called Leaving Eden, underutilizes all members (Matta appears on just a small handful of tracks), leaving us hoping for a second round with more cohesiveness. But the album also continues the band’s journey aptly, bringing forth a broad tracklist of songs from spare to jubilant that channel the traditions of Appalachia, turning the folk of the slavefields and the holler (and their modern equivalents) into songs at once ancient and timeless. And though the set is somewhat ragged as it yaws from slave hollers and fiddle tunes to melodic folk narratives, some of the selections here are quite stunning, with these sparse yet vastly different covers of North Carolinian songwriter Laurelyn Dossett’s title track and South African guitarist Hannes Corteze’s instrumental Mahalla serving as an apt exhibit A and B, and a bonus track from the biggest Dylan tribute ever as further evidence.

Like what you hear? Carolina Chocolate Drops will be appearing at several folk festivals this summer, but there’s more than one way to support the old ways; musicians can’t survive without fans who buy records, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops catalog is well worth owning. Buy direct from the artists, or head out to your local record store; both strategies help spread the word and warm the heart while keeping music small and local.

And stay tuned this week for more Carolina Coverfolk, including features on James Taylor and The Avett Brothers!

2 comments » | Carolina Chocolate Drops, Reposts, Vacation Coverfolk

Carolina Coverfolk 2013, Volume 1:
Songs of the South, As Place and Metaphor

April 13th, 2013 — 3:26pm


Apologies for the long gap between posts – with rehearsals for an impending production of The Sound Of Music, long nights interviewing Superintendent candidates for our local school system, and both end-of-term grades and my yearly professional evaluation due in a single week, it was all I could do to keep my head above water.

But through it all, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and this is it: the view from the balcony overlooking the lagoon and the sound beyond, where the turtles lounge on sunny banks, the geese protect their island nests, the ospreys and the cormorants vie for fishing rights, the breeze is warm and tinged with swimming pool steam and barbecue smoke, and the sunsets are to die for.

Which is to say: it’s school vacation, and I’ve earned our by-now bi-annual respite on the very upper tip of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where we can spend the week far from the cares and stresses of the working life with extended family and friends enough to fill three adjacent houses with a week of laughter and leisure, barbecue and beer. And so, in honor of our temporary locale, we kick off the week with an expanded list of otherwise familiar songs about the region – with a promise to return in a few days with a brand new feature on native sons The Avett Brothers, and a reposted series of older features on other artists associated with the Carolinas, including The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Elizabeth Cotten, James Taylor, Doc Watson and more.

  • Mud Acres: Carolina in My Mind (orig. James Taylor)
    Another song by a native son, this one reinvented as a ragged hootenanny by Happy Traum, banjoist Bill Keith, bass player Roly Salley (who penned the oft-covered Killin’ The Blues) and others from the mid-seventies Woodstock, NY Mud Acres music collective.
  • Trocadero: Carolina In The Morning (orig. William Frawley)
    This Tin Pan Alley-era American popular song, well-known from versions by Al Jolson, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, and others, takes a maudlin turn in this version from “experimental rock” band Trocadero, originally recorded for the Red vs. Blue Season 10 soundtrack.
  • Grace Cheng: Carolina (orig. Ben Gibbard)
    Toronto-based Soundcloud amateur Grace Cheng has the sweetly lo-fi vibe of a young Mary Lou Lord; the melancholy tone that results makes for an especially apt vehicle for Ben Gibbard’s escapist break-up fantasy.
  • Doc & Merle Watson: Kinfolks In Carolina (orig. Merle Travis)
    A native son and his son take on Merle Travis’ upbeat tribute to family lines back in the homestead with everything from jazz guitar and brush stylings to boogie-woogie piano in the mix. From Two Days in November, a personal favorite recorded the year before I was born.

3 comments » | Reposts, Vacation Coverfolk

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