Category: Single Song Sunday

Single Song Sunday: John Henry
(16 takes on an American myth from bluesfolk to gospelgrass)

February 11th, 2018 — 8:18am


We’re generally cautious about celebrating Black History Month here at Cover Lay Down. Though the earliest roots of modern folk recording and song surely include both the African-American experience and, more murkily, the origin stories of several of the instruments (including the dulcimer and banjo) which form the core of its acoustic array, the world of folk performance itself skews heavily towards caucasian artists, making any address of these roots unfinished without exhaustive exploration of the ways in which these roots have been claimed and shaped by white folks – from Lomax and Seeger to Paul Simon’s infamous Graceland controversy, Jayme Stone’s recent exploration of Gullah and other Caribbean sounds, and beyond.

But there are other ways, too, to celebrate the influence of Black America in the folkways. Today, in our first Single Song Sunday since our 2015 deconstruction of popular live performance encore The Weight, we tug at the roots of a particular story found in a broad panoply of songs: that of John Henry, a larger-than-life African American whose pride and persistence in the face of power and progress have come to represent the American spirit both within and beyond our shores.

john-henry-stampEthnographic evidence compiled by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappel through interviews in the 1920s trace the particulars of well-known folksong hero John Henry to the 1870s, where workers in the West Virginia Mountains dug the biggest tunnel job attempted by man up to that date. And although more recent historians have proposed other digs as more plausible, all share a basic narrative: a single man, the best of many African-American convict laborers in a world still healing after the end of the Civil War, pits himself against the newly-introduced steam drill in a contest of strength and willpower…and wins in the end, though it takes his last breath.

But the story above is no more or less true when Lomax places the the Old John trickster slave narrative at the heart of the song’s perpetual motion, nor when he notes, correctly, the melodic and lyrical similarities to tradtune The Lass Of Roch Royal in many versions of the song performed during his time. And it is certainly no more true than the abstract purpose of the song: to show the triumph of the underdog, of body and spirit through perseverance, and in doing so, iterate and reclaim those values which stir at the core of our identity as Americans.

Our myth comes to us wrapped around truth, in other words. And in the end, what matters isn’t whether it’s real, but whether it’s true. Like Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan, the legend of John Henry lives in our hearts and bones: grounded in the real history of real human beings just a hair larger in life than their peers, conflated to serve the cultural need for heroes symbolic of the particular sort of stubborn pride and determination that moves mountains in the rich panoply of American mythology. Man vs. nature, man vs. technology, man vs. self, and man vs. society collapse into a single story. An American myth, if ever there was one.

And this is how, today, the song serves: as cultural approbation and fatalist’s morality tale, in which we may lose to our machines both political and real, but the indomitable human spirit prevails.

And as long as we are still in struggle, so must the song be sung.

john-henry-51A plethora of songs recast the myth of John Henry. The Ballad of John Henry, for example – a standard in its own right – turns the morality of Henry’s death into a cautionary tale, pushing listeners to guard their life against the urge to spend it for foreman and fate; a “hammer song”, it is generally slow, but not always.

Not all recastings are covers, either. Modern troubadours from Songs:Ohia and Cuff The Duke to Drive-By Truckers and Driftwood Soldier have built from the ground up, applying the storyline to new tunes and lyrics, moving history into their own more immediate surroundings.

But do a simple search online of “John Henry”, and it’s clear that despite the mutability of over a dozen verses and perhaps ten times as many lyrical variants, one tune – paced and performed rhythmically, heavy on bravado and dialogue, that celebrates the man as myth for his determination even in death – remains dominant, even flush in the various byways of the folkworld. It drifts up to us from the earliest folk recordings, where it stands as a fieldhand blues number howled out in slackstring scratchy voices, filtered and reformed in a myriad of subgenres, from Leadbelly to Bill Monroe, through Doc Watson and The Stanley Brothers, John Renbourne and John Fahey, via John Jackson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Van Ronk and Guthrie and back again. (It is even familiar as an instrumental, especially with banjo and fiddle a la John Hartford or dulcimer a la Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, though we’ll stick to the lyrical conceit today.)

Some favorites versions, then, of an old song, easy to play and sing, its renewed relevance ever on our tongues as we continue our fight against the machine. Join us as we flesh out a vast and varied set of and beyond the American range, from the high-intensity Appalachian bounce of The Mammals to The Downtown Shimmy’s harmonica-driven blues, from Snakefarm’s psychedelic funk to the frenetic energy of Del McCoury’s high tenor wail, from Chris Jones’ gospelgrass to French duo Lonesome Day’s slow walking blues, from Thomas Hellman’s chug-along Quebecois trainsong to the hoot and holler of new primitive Appalachian interpreter Lebo Jenkins, plus the neo-traditional feminist turn of Elizabeth LaPrelle, a deconstructed atmosphere from Daniel Dutton, and the regionally diverse and differentiated grit of American-and-beyond singer-songwriters and cultural ambassadors Eric Bibb, Willie Watson, Andrew Calhoun, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Tim O’Brien, and David Broad.

John Henry, Covered In Folk
A Single Song Sunday Mix

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring 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 » | Billy Bragg, Single Song Sunday, Tradfolk, Willie Watson

Single Song Snowday: The Weight
(On Finding Balance with The Band)

January 27th, 2015 — 2:31pm

We’re fattening up my daughter, by which I mean that a year into her diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease she has trained herself to eat so little that she has grown dangerously thin and bony. The doctor has prescribed a 2500 calorie diet. And so the closet gets filled with sticky and salt, donuts and cookies in small packages, and we spend the day asking if she’s eaten, and can she eat again.

Two months ago, we had the opposite problem. The wee one wasn’t so wee after 6 months of steroids, and unlike her elder sister the stick figure, the nine year old cares about her looks; so much, in fact, that she’s asked me not to go into further detail here. Suffice it to say: so go the trials and tribulations of the immunodeficient, as we learn to balance the world on our shoulders, and live in the moment always.

Last year, before the wee one presented with her sister’s disease, I watched from the window as she tried in vain to apply her smaller form to the sledding hill, and trudged back, forlorn and angry, alone in the midst of a familial refocusing not yet hers to claim. But lifelong illnesses wax and wane, and today is a good day, brought on by too much snow and a rare day at home together. The roads are closed, and the sleds inflated; the girls huddle by their electric fireplace in the everything room, watching TV and preparing their bodies for a foray into the cold together. The weight lifts, and we are at peace with the world.

The Band is hard to collect through coverage; their chosen name is essentially un-googleable, confounding the collector’s usual search strategies. But the ragtag group of Canadian roots rockers that once formed the backbone of Dylan’s fuller sound is worth pursuit: their songbook still sings loud and clear through radioplay; their influence on the modern soundscape is clearly evident in the vast collection of coverage we have featured on these pages, all the way back to our very first post, where we celebrated Richard Shindell’s 2007 cover album with his version of Acadian Driftwood.

While often a delight, then, it’s no surprise to find The Band still covered. Their canon at its best is both electric with energy and highly narrative, its downtrodden everymen and eminently singable verse-chorus-verse structure ripe for interpretation. And although deep cuts covered bring a special and unique opportunity to reconsider their collection, there’s nothing so spiritually uplifting, in my mind, as The Weight.

Although spectacular on its own merits, and recognizably spread in short form in the film Easy Rider and concert footage from Woodstock, like many of our Single Song feature subjects, The Weight settled into the American Songbook after some particularly distinctive cross-genre coverage, including early versions by Aretha Franklin, Jackie DelShannon, and Diana Ross and The Supremes, which blanketed the genre spectrum with the song between 1968 and 1969. But the song, described by PBS as a masterpiece of Biblical allusions, enigmatic lines and iconic characters, is clearly one of The Band’s favorite songs to perform, as well. It appears on three separate live albums released in the seventies, and twice in The Band’s seminal concert film The Last Waltz – once in live performance, and once as a coda, in the studio with The Staple Singers.

Today, like greatest hits I Shall Be Released and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Weight remains a common enough cover in live performance, especially as a sing-along encore; several of our favorites, including a superstar-laden tribute from the 2014 benefit concert Love For Levon: A Benefit to Save the Barn, Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show in fine old-timey form, new weird American band The Hollows with hoot and holler, and a beautifully sung version from Dala with Oh Susanna and the Good Lovelies, sport a similar dynamic, with multi-artist cohorts taking the stage for a verse apiece, and joyful voices raised in harmony in the chorus, as they celebrate sets well played.

But in the studio, the song has seen more transformation. Rickie Lee Jones, on her recent deconstruction project The Devil You Know, takes the more extreme path, stripping the song down to a crooning, crying lament. Other sparse acoustic covers delight, as well: YouTubers Connor Pledger and Grace Albritton slide around the melody intimately, for example, while Robin Tesch sticks with solo guitar and a husky voice backed by light harmonies for a comforting, comfortable living room cover that pays apt homage.

The rest lie between, finding their own salvation and solace in the ultimately uplifting lines of first-person narration. Cassandra Wilson croons a soulful, lilting blues; German acoustic soulband Tok Tok Tok jazz it up with sax and a trio sound. Joan Osborne keeps the beat but adds full horn and organ production for funky minor key fare, while Ashes For Trees trend towards sweetness with mando and guitar, and singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter Don Lange breaks the tune down to a troubadour’s walking blues; both Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem and the touring trio of Tony Lucca, Jay Nash and Matt Duke drop the drums and bombast, too, keeping it wholly acoustic in radio performance. Little Feat and guitar wizard Jeff Healy keep it real as we’d expect them to. Bluegrass legend Marty Stuart even brings the Staple Singers back in, for a countrified yet faithful performance that shows just how well the song stretches out into other genres, finding its place in the various forms and fields that comprise the American roots landscape.

Enjoy the song, in every incarnation. And may your weight be lifted, too, wherever you may be.

The Band’s The Weight, Covered In Folk [zip!]

Looking for a little more coverage in your life? Like the Cover Lay Down Facebook page for bonus-track video coverage, streaming singletons, and regular updates on coverage of and from our favorite songs and artists!

3 comments » | Single Song Sunday, The Band

Single Song Sunday: O Death
(15 variations on a gothic country standard)

August 10th, 2014 — 6:50pm


The American ballad O Death has enjoyed a revival of sorts in the years since Ralph Stanley’s haunted quiver reappeared in O Brother, Where Art Thou; before that, Dock Boggs had popularized the song during the Great Depression; his return to the stage in the 60’s would bring it back again for a few decades of canonical coverage. It is well known in the South, versions and variants scattered like wildflower seeds; it seems typical of the songs borne forth by the hills and hollers of the Appalachian mountains, but other early field recordings suggest African-American roots from the Georgia Sea Islands.

About the true origins of O Death we know little; the song is light on history, heavy on mystery. About death stories, we know plenty. For the deepest roots of our folk entwine love and death like yin and yang: the Ur-themes, dominant above all, in all literature.

It’s stark, this one: a plaintive prayer to death, and the hopeless litany of his cruel inevitability. Here, there is no love except in loss; though children pray, and mothers lay cool towels on fevered brows, death comes to all in time, unquestioning and all-powerful, unwilling to bargain. The conversational lyrics give the singer the impossible plea and its coldblooded response in turn, but we know the end is near; the chorus is a beggar’s howl, a whimper, even as it fades away.

And yet we pray, and croon: O Death, won’t you spare me over for another year. And in that it gives us license to rail against the dying of the light, it is, perhaps, the most human song of all.

appalachia_htmlO Death is often sung a capella in performance – perhaps because it is so fundamental, so elemental. Solo banjo coverage is common, too: raw and spare, with none so fearful and frail as Gregory Paul, none so haunted and still as Sam Amidon, none so sweet and beautiful as Ellie Bryan.

But the song has been treated more pliantly than most, from the bootstompin’ Americana of the Tarbox Ramblers to the psychedelic folk of The Horse Flies. The Sydney-based Bellyache Ben and The Steamgrass Boys come off gypsy gothic like an old-timey Tom Waits collective, while Jason Davis cuts a full-band countrygrass stepper. Farther afield, Jen Titus buries death under electronica and industrial noise; femmefolk collaborative Rising Appalachia turns in a mystical trance; Lauren O’Connell builds the song from its bones into a crashing country rocker. Tim Eriksen pares down to palpable tension with fiddle drone and chanting voice. Dawn Landes, in her earliest outing as solo artist Faun Fables, paints a sepia portrait in timbre and wood. And Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem play a sultry field gospel almost tender in its delivery.

Taken together, the songs comprise a dictionary of despair, an ethnography entire. Listen, as their sounds veer and yaw across the American map. Listen: how broad and deep our folkways run.

O Death: A Single Song Sunday Mix
[download the whole set here!]

Cover Lay Down celebrates folk through coverage and coverage through folk throughout the year thanks to the kind support of readers like you.

3 comments » | Single Song Sunday, Tradfolk

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

January 19th, 2014 — 7:24pm

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.


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!

4 comments » | Reposts, Single Song Sunday, Tradfolk

Single Song Sunday: Fairytale Of New York
(15 coverfolk versions of a surprisingly sentimental punk favorite)

December 15th, 2013 — 1:35pm

It’s hard to remember where I first heard The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, but it’s easy to imagine why it stuck in my ears: I was 14 in 1987, jaded by pop music and just starting to find my way to punk, and on the surface, this song turns the typical holiday world on its ear. Indeed, the song is often seen as an antithesis to the many powerful, sweet, and well-covered songs in the new Christmas canon – a schizophrenic, gleefully obscene drunkard’s dream straight out of Tom Waits, with a dash of the jig and a technicolor vision of Irish holidays in the gutter that primes the pump for raucous indie encore coverage such as this week’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon performance by Iron & Wine, Calexico, Glen Hansard and Kathleen Edwards.

But like so many of our Single Song Sunday songs, Fairytale of New York has depth and promise, with much more under its scummy surface than its reputation might suggest. Its continued popularity in the 21st century is no anomaly: this is a sentimental song, in the end, that tells a tale of past and present, hope, hardship and hearth consistent with the season, and made real by its setting in the proletariat classes.

That the song remains so familiar, so frequently covered and caroled, is a testament to its portraiture and its power. And if the rousing duet that rises from the ashes of maudlin balladry to bait our downtrodden, roughshod narrator into a bawdy, joyous exchange of dirty words and dirtier thoughts keeps the song from placement alongside the maudlin modernity of Bing, Elvis, McCartney and Mariah on so many radio playlists in the US this time of year, then it falls to others like us to keep it alive on this side of the pond.

Fairytale of New York needs less support in the British and Emerald Isles, of course. It was a quick success there when released as a single by Celtic Punk band The Pogues for Christmas in 1987, a holiday harbinger from their seminal album If I Should Fall From Grace With God that featured the last-minute addition of English singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl, who was label-less at the time, but married to Pogues producer Steve Lillywhite. Anecdotally, Fairytale was written in response to a challenge to find a new Christmas song, and in many ways, the concept fit the band, whose interest in bridging tradition was a driving creative force and a key component of its popularity. The song benefitted greatly from its emergence in the early days of MTV, with a starkly black and white video filmed in NYC, and it rose rapidly on the charts; its canonical presence has since been fueled by rerelease in 1991, and again in 2005, after the song was voted most popular Christmas song by VH1 UK.

But history and context stand alongside song itself in explicating our familiarity. Though originally written to be a duet with Pogues bass player Cait O’Riordan, who left the band before recording, the disparate voices of Shane MacGowan and MacColl are tied closely to the tonality of the original here. So, too, is the sudden tonal shift that leads into the duet, changing the song from haunted, hoarse immigrant’s drunk-tank piano ballad to an Irish pub-rouser populated by alcoholics and addicts, pipes and drum.

Both differences – arrangement and harmonic setting – emphasize the distance of memory as our drunkard dreams, combining with the composition itself to form a strong trifecta of elemental types to explain its success. And because they seem so determinant to the song’s power, many covers, like the aforementioned indie supergroup cover, treat both the duet and its tonal distance as canonical. KT Tunstall and Ed Harcourt, for example, play it relatively straight, though effectively, as do YouTube stars ortoPilot and Kate McGill. So, too, does the heavier rock version released by Jesse Malin in the US version of his covers album On Your Sleeve in 2008, which matches the heavy beats and bells of Springsteen’s Santa Claus Is Coming To Town to the keys of the original, burying sentiment in triumph by the song’s end.

Others transcend these limitations, taking the song one step farther from the oft-heard. Laura Boyle layers her own voice into the song, with echoes and a quiet picked-chord guitar undertone that make for a startling quietude. Alfredo De Pietra and Tom Mitchell’s solo covers, both released on Soundcloud, stick with gentle strummed triplets throughout, flattening the tonal shift to illuminate the sweetness. And several more beautiful solo covers, from the guitar-driven performances of Irish folksinger Christy Moore and snowbound steetcorner busker Ciaran Cooney to a frozen, entirely piano cover from Texas singer-songwriter Bob Schneider that skips the duet section altogether, emphasize the wistful loneliness of MacGowan’s narrator, isolating him further from the promise of Christmas redemption encoded in the original.

There’s diversity in the middle ground, too. The version recorded by Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine) and Billy Bragg in 2009 for a live BBC session, offers a perfect case of just how much room for interpretation is available in this arrangement; neither Harcourt’s mellow tones nor Bragg’s ragged voice are as broken as MacGowan’s, but the contrast remains, and the replacement of Welch’s harp for the piano part lends an even more dreamlike tone to the ballad that opens the song.

The layered beauty, full choir, and early duet harmonies that Canadian indiepop band Stars apply to their cover, released in 2005, trade the clear delineation for a more anticipatory and fluid performance. Well-known video cover artists Walk Off The Earth drop the band altogether, sticking to guitar accompaniment for their duet, drifting back and forth between several gently rolling styles, which gets them there more gradually, and allows them to travel less distance to get there in the first place. And similarly, though in entirely different genres, bands like The Beef Seeds (with tongue in cheek countrygrass) and Matthew and the Atlas (in sublime indiefolk) keep the song’s second half lighter with less rock and more folk instrumentation, flattening the difference between the two pieces of the song, emphasizing the song’s inherent tenderness.

So join us for a very special holiday Single Song Sunday set – a compendium of coverage, from Celtic Punk to gentle singer-songwriter fare, that explores the breadth of possible in tradition transformed through the immigrant’s dream at Christmas. Download the whole set, or check out individual performances individually, to find the breadth of promise in what may well be the most culturally significant late 20th century addition to the Christmas canon. And dream big yourself, no matter what your lot – for it’s Christmas, and the world is full of possibility.

Single Song Sunday: Fairytale of New York, Covered in Folk [zip!]

  • Iron & Wine and Calexico with Glen Hansard and Kathleen Edwards: Fairytale of New York [2013]

Looking for a broader selection of seasonal coverfolk? Check out this year’s new Christmas cover collections, our drunkard’s christmas mixtape and 18 more sets of Christmas kidfolk, wintersongs, and holiday carols from the Cover Lay Down archives … and then stay tuned later this week for EP features from a holy host of new artists in the holiday spirit, and a set of singleshot coverage that will fill your stocking and warm your heart as the holiday approaches!

Always ad-free and artist-friendly, Cover Lay Down shares new coverfolk songsets and ethnographic explorations throughout the year thanks to the generous patronage of readers like you. Want to help? Here’s how:

  • Support the continued creation of music by purchasing artists’ work directly from their own websites and shows whenever possible.
  • Donate to Cover Lay Down to help cover our growing server and bandwidth costs.
  • Spread the word to friends and family by joining our Facebook page and clicking “like” on a favorite post.
  • Share the wealth – and the songs – by sending us your own coverfolk finds and recordings.

2 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Single Song Sunday

Single Song Sunday: Dead Flowers
(From “appalling” original to countryfolk standard)

July 14th, 2013 — 10:48am

Critics seem to agree that the original version of Dead Flowers is a bit of a mess, though like most older Rolling Stones tracks, it still shows up on classic rock radio from time to time. Mostly, its weakness springs from irreparable tensions between the song’s performance and its innate compositional character: a co-write from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, born of Richards’ continued friendship with Gram Parsons, the song is eminently countrified, which makes it ill-suited to both Jagger’s voice and the band’s overall performance trends at the time.

Indeed, Rolling Stone magazine, in its review of 1971 origin album Sticky Fingers, panned the recording, writing that “the mere thought of the Stones doing straight country music is simply appalling. And they do it so poorly, especially the lead guitar.” And although they would later go on to include a version of the song on 1995 small-venue retrospective Stripped, a close review of live takes from the era of its birth, such as this 1971 performance, seem to show Jagger bored with the verses, and a ragged acceleration into the chorus that suggests everyone on stage is eager to get the damn thing over with.

But as a composition, Dead Flowers is decidedly redeemable: a simply organized, deliciously dark first-person country song framed as a bitter and dismissive parting shot from a tainted self-effacing narrator to an insufferable rich girl who’s been proudly slumming in the “ragged company” of the heroin rock underclass, with the titular arrangement and its live graveside complement a beautiful and potent symbol of the complex connections that can linger under regret and resentment. No wonder, then, that the song has gone on to become one of the most covered Stones songs in recent memory – at least in those several genres which pull from rock towards country, and for artists who dip into the Country Rock canon.

As with several of our previous Single Song Sunday subjects, although nominally born in rock, Dead Flowers has gone on to become a switched-genre standard through coverage – most notably, we suspect, through the influence of Townes Van Zandt, whose reinvention, released on live covers album Roadsongs in 1993 but played in concert for years beforehand, turns the song into a pensive solo picker, trading the high country rock bombast of the original for a slow, ragged syrupy mourning that brings the bitter darkness of its heroin lyrics into focus. Van Zandt’s take would go on to be used in The Big Lebowski, and sure enough, that placement, and the general resurgence of his popularity in the modern Americana and roots camps, seem to have prompted several recent covers which clearly owe their intonation to his drawling cowboy countryfolk – see, for example, the in-studio solo take from Northampton, MA singer-songwriter Erik Alan, or from John McCauley of Deer Tick, whose own 2012 solo video version only benefits from the lazy lowbrow outdoor setting, from his slouched posture to the cans of beer at his feet.

But Townes’ version comes from secondhand sources, too – and even as they must have influenced his own tired take, those who took on Dead Flowers in the early years pushed the song into other developing genres as well. Tracing this summer’s newest live covers – both Wilco’s recent version from their now-famous all-covers festival set and the Deadly Gentlemen cover I recorded on Wednesday at their CD release show – through the newgrass and jamgrass movements all the way back to the version recorded in 1976 by psychedelic country rock Grateful Dead spin-off New Riders of the Purple Sage is a neatly linear exercise in inheritance and songsourcing.

Hard rockers, too, have often nodded to the song when they cross into country. The infamous Guns & Roses “unplugged” cover is too far from folk, but Uncle Tupelo‘s hard-edged roots rock seems to nod to that bombast without straying too far from the No Depression camp, even as it anticipates Townes’ recording. Even anti-popstar Ke$ha has covered it without much irony – and though it seems a bit anomalous for a crowd of young emo kids to enact the song’s narrative, she and her friends pull it off reasonably well in their YouTube hallway session.

The result of this braided path is a set of covers that tend to split between countrified rock and bluegrass on the one hand, and slow solo guitar takes on the other, allowing us to play the folk side of each camp broadly, while still acknowledging other covers that fall outside our focus. But variants exist beyond those poles, too. Though the slow, sunshiny lyrical delivery seems a bit too fluffy, for example, Brooklyn artist Batja‘s grungy genre-crossing version brings a refreshing acoustic reggaepop sound to the song, transcending mere curiosity. Electrograss jamband supergroup Stir Fried comes through with a live session that rocks hard even as it shows its bluegrass and folk roots. And Steve Earle‘s version, recorded live in Calgary and released on the 2008 bonus disc of his seminal “power twang” album Copperhead Road, eschews the rock’n’roll error of the original for punkgrass sentiment that flavors the lyrics with an appropriate anger.

On the slower side, Cowboy Junkies translate the song into something inevitably, almost dismally their own, with mandolin, slide, and accordion riffs that fill the stretched-out spaces in a version that surprisingly predates Townes’ release by a few years. Bluegrass pickers The Brothers Comatose take it slow, too, putting harmonies against wistful, sparse banjo to great effect. A brand new take from the lead singer of Reno, Nevada country bar-band Hellbound Glory puts acoustic countryrock vocal mannerisms against gentle solo guitar strums, trading heroin for whiskey as it collapses the waveforms of the song’s history into a tender backporch intimacy, while The Record Low, in a 2007 Hear Ya session coda, wail broken pain into the night. And seemingly defunct old-timey stringband revivalists The Powder Kegs find a different middle ground, with fiddle strains and a mournful twang that seems perfectly suited to the song.

In the end, though confounding when couched in pure rock and roll, the class criticism and countrified sound Mick and Keith found in Dead Flowers continue to resonate among a wide swath of American artists with a better sense of how to play it straight, offering redemption to song and sentiment. Below, as evidence: a bouquet of our favorites, from roots rock to singer-songwriter solo takes to true-blue bluegrass and beyond – download en masse, or hit ’em up separately to consider the beauty of each bud and blossom.

Always ad-free and artist-friendly, Cover Lay Down shares new songsets and ethnographic exploration bi-weekly thanks to the kind support of readers like you. Here’s how to do your part:

  • Support the continued creation of music by purchasing artists’ work whenever possible.
  • Spread the word to friends and family by joining our Facebook page and clicking “like” on a favorite post.
  • Share the wealth by sending us your own coverfolk finds and recordings.
  • Donate to Cover Lay Down to help defray server and bandwidth costs.

3 comments » | Single Song Sunday

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.

Cover Lay Down shares new songsets and ethnographic musings bi-weekly thanks to the kind support of readers like you. Here’s how to do your part:

  • Support the continued creation of music by purchasing artists’ work whenever possible.
  • Spread the word to friends and family by joining our Facebook page and clicking “like” on a favorite post.
  • Share the wealth by sending us your own coverfolk finds and recordings.
  • Donate to Cover Lay Down to help defray server and bandwidth costs.

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

Single Song Sunday: I’m On Fire
(featuring 21 folk covers of Springsteen’s accidental gem)

February 17th, 2013 — 9:50pm

A chance encounter with Asheville bluegrass quintet Town Mountain and their twangy, countrified cover of I’m On Fire at this weekend’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival – a dark and yet surprisingly charming version of the Bruce Springsteen classic song that chugs along like a train through the psyche – reminded me how deeply this particular classic is embedded in our national songbook. And a check back at our own archives confirms it: in the last twelve months alone, we’ve posted no less than four separate covers of the song, from Shakey Graves‘ bedraggled grungefolk cover, found last week despite a nominal 1987 release, to Coty Hogue‘s live, sweetly yet hauntingly resonant banjo-driven take, which made our Best of 2012 mixtape for its rootsy, raw Americana, with rich and stellar bounce and harmony from contemporary folk trio Coyote Grace and a gentle late-night YouTube rip from singer-songwriter Robby Hecht along the way.

Add in four other, earlier favorites from our first few years on the web – Swati‘s aching, ringing suspension and wail, which we featured in our first Valentine’s mix back in 2008; Alex Cornell‘s home-recorded sentimentalism; Paul Curreri and Devon Sproule‘s relative faithfulness; a frozen, fragile gypsyfolk take from Brooklyn-based indie quintet The Snow – and we’ve practically proven its relevance without touching on the song itself. And, as always in our Single Song Sunday surveyances, such a common thread begs the question of why the song is so well beloved, and so often taken on by others.

I’m On Fire has a good backstory: according to reliable sources, its original recording was the accidental result of an improvisational studio session during the first wave of Born in the U.S.A. sessions in February of 1982, in which Springsteen, playing around with a few stray lyrics and an impromptu melody, was joined by drummer Max Weinberg and keyboardist Roy Bittan for what turned out to be a song for the ages. Subsequently released amidst stadium rockers on what would become Springsteen’s best-selling album ever, the song would nonetheless climb its way to the top ten of several charts; a generation later, the continued presence of the original on late-night radio and in Springsteen setlists validates any claim that it is, undeniably, a staple, from one of the most recognizable canons of the modern era.

But there’s much more in and about today’s feature subject to recommend it to other artists than sheer availability. As Aquarium Drunkard notes in their 2011 song analysis, I’m On Fire “is the first song in [Springsteen’s] catalog to express the anxiety of unrequited love as a kind of suffering, rather than a kind of freedom”, making it especially attractive to younger musicians looking to dig back towards the prototypical origin of that which makes Springsteen’s last several decades of work so stunning, and so folk.

Even more significant is the song’s merit as an object of coverage on the structural level. From the openness of its slight and fragmented lyrics and easily sung melody to the universality of the mood and madness it contains, the sparseness of the two and a half minute song allows for surprisingly broad variance, making our stream of recent coverage but the tip of a vast iceberg that chills and cools the soul in its various guises.

And so, today, we flesh out our study of the single song in coverage both new and old, offering a broad set of diverse and favorite covers alongside each other, that we might once again see the breadth of possibility in the single song.

Popfolk hipster charmer Sara Bareilles deconstructs, repeating and losing lyrics until live piano and vox become a ricochet of mental health; Bat For Lashes breaks the song down musically, building it up again with pulsing shards of plucked strings, hammered dulcimer, and hollow bass notes. AA Bondy‘s 2009 version is smoothly note-bent and curiously Dylanesque alongside Kate Tucker‘s haunted, lingering take, a version of which would appear on that same year’s Starbucks Valentine’s Day love song sampler. The playful little girl harmonies and the start-and-stop loops of Swedish solo singer-songwriter (and wonderful cover artist) Sea Lion collapse the mystery of the lyrics, while Scottish folk-rockers Big Country trade the mystery altogether for an urgent, almost Zydeco feel, with bright mandolin and fiddle nuances.

Though the band trends indie rock in their typical fare, Dubliners The Dirty 9s offer a plucky ballad take which is easily sparse enough for folk. The Airborne Toxic Event bring in a stuttering, raucous acoustic session with high-energy fiddle and Appalachian living room aplomb. Harry Manx adds sitar and Indian drums, creating a world-beat immigrant’s angst. John Mayer mostly plays it straight, though as Aquarium Drunkard notes, the combination of his own stamp and song make for something quite akin to the Paul Simon songbook in the end. And like Alex Cornell and Robby Hecht above, singer-songwriters Catherine Feeny and Luke Doucet bring passion and pain to guitar-and-voice-driven solo takes and subtleties.

Listen, as yet another American classic wends its way through the folkstream, offering nuance and substance to the lives it speaks of, for, and to even as it pays tribute to the softer side of Springsteen himself. Seek out others where you find them, too, even if they pass the genre line; versions from elder statesman Johnny Cash, pop-rockers The Morning Birds, alt-rock hipster Octoberman, and dream-pop band The Chromatics, for example, are well worth the pursuit, though none are truly folk enough for our usual fare. And, as always, if you’ve got a favorite cover we didn’t mention, feel free to add your voice in the comments below.

Cover Lay Down features new coverfolk recordings and new-found folkversions twice weekly, with bonus tracks and extras throughout the week on Facebook and extra karma to all who donate to support our ongoing work connecting artists and fans through the comfort of coverage. Stay tuned later this week for exclusive pre-release tracks from a brand new J. Tillman tribute!

2 comments » | Bruce Springsteen, Single Song Sunday

Back to top