Category: Tradfolk


(Re)Covered: New Covers from Familiar Folk
Sean Watkins, Sam Gleaves, and Anais Mitchell’s new supergroup!

February 2nd, 2020 — 8:21pm

Yes, folk fans and cover lovers, we’re back in earnest after a slow set of tributes to the past, eager to take on the new and the novel. And where better to begin than with the truly familiar and beloved: folks we’ve heard before, like Anais Mitchell, Sean Watkins, and Sam Gleaves, and cherished; whose voices, songs, collaborations and song choices have long brought us comfort and hope in the long winter.

Today, then, in an attempt to return to normalcy, we turn to our (Re)Covered feature, in which we track recent developments in coverfolk and configuration from artists we’ve celebrated here on these pages before. Read on for new and noteworthy covers of Paul Simon, Britney Spears, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, Kate Wolf, Tom T Hall, Ola Belle Reed, and the British and Appalachian traditions. Stay tuned, as the year continues its climb towards Spring, for more news and notes from the convergence point of covers and folk. And, as always, if you like what you hear, click through to purchase from and support the musicians we feature, the better to guarantee the continued production and evolution of soul-touching music in a world too-often in need of its transformative power.


Thirteen years after their first break-up, Sean Watkins is unarguably the least well known of the three Nickel Creek co-founders; it’s hard to compete with the recent trajectories of sister Sara Watkins (whose folk collaborative I’m With Her with Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz just won a Grammy for Best American Roots Song of the year) and MacArthur Genius and NPR host Chris Thile. But even if it took him a little longer to reveal, Sean’s got a genial warmth and style all his own, and he’s found it in This Is Who We Are, his first time partnering exclusively with a band to make an entire album, and – according to press release – “the first solo record [he’s] made that fully embraces the folk/bluegrass/new acoustic sound embedded in [his] musical DNA.” It’s about time, and worth it: check out his tender, well-rounded treatments of the three covers nestled here – by Paul Simon, Warren Zevon, and Jackson Browne – among earnest originals, from ballad to barnburner.

Bonus points for that aforementioned band, founded by fiddler Tashina and cellist Tristan Clarridge, one-time sibling string section of equally-darling post-grass second wave band Crooked Still. We’ve featured The Bee Eaters here before, too, transforming the Beatles in our Double Dippers feature and, earlier, in a farewell of sorts to Crooked Still that included a cover from their very first album in 2011; we’re glad to see they’re still playing up a storm, lending zest and a newgrass sound to Sean’s guitar-driven arrangements, sweet harmony to his warm vocals, and an especially precious ring of hammered dulcimer heartbreak to the Zevon obscurity, thanks to third Bee Eaters member Simon Chrisman.

As a double-bonus, of sorts, be sure to check out two other new and closely kindred tracks before moving on: a pop cover, featuring Sean’s harmony and guitar work and sister Sara on vox and fiddle, which appears as the folkiest of three on fellow LA resident and Largo collective member Sondre Lerche‘s odd little Britney Spears tribute EP, released January first…and Sara’s own take on a Springsteen song from Born To Uke, an all-uke 2019 also-ran tribute album which features Will Kimbrough, Kai Welch, Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls, and a Weepies cover which placed on our top 50 of the year.




Astute readers may have noticed little fanfare about Bonny Light Horseman, whose namesake song appeared in our Year’s Best Coverfolk singles mix; those who range broadly round the indie outlets and folkblogs have surely already heard more. But we’re quite excited about the newly-dropped self-titled album from the new self-styled “astralfolk” supergroup formed by Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats and The Shins, and veteran multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, who – as if they needed more pedigree – premiered live at Eaux Claires in 2018 at fest founder Bon Iver’s request. As the slow label-leak of pre-release tracks such as Jane, Jane and Deep In Love continued to demonstrate in the week leading up to last week’s release, something beautiful was coming our way; now that it has arrived, we can see that the entirety is stunning and sound, a potent, adept tribute to the traditional folk made new by those used to playing folk at the cutting edge.

Strategically, as Pitchfork aptly notes, the album is a revisitation, not a mere performance – as as such, authentically, inimitably folk, as only three such barrier-breakers could produce. Songs we’ve heard moving through the fairways of each folk revival break apart; versions merge, with new choruses added for the modern ear, and generally unsung lyrics and verses returned and traded out, making the overall effect a remix of tradition, confronting our sense of the ancient songbooks as stable and welcoming. Add in a rich musicality which yaws towards indiefolk strangeness – Deep In Love, especially, with its brush beats and hollow harmonics, is perfect for the crossover modalities of low-frequency indie-alternative college radio – and well-chosen methods of transformative performance, such as the decision to trade off verses between Mitchell and Johnson on Blackwaterside, which allows the maiden to speak for herself, and we’re sure this one will appear again at year’s end in our Best Tradfolk category.




We last featured Virginian tenor and clawhammer master Sam Gleaves in our New Artists series, way back in 2013; back then, at 19, the Blue Ridge wunderkind had two albums and several collaborations under his belt, and was already teaching and passing along fiddle tunes in pursuit of the old traditions. Now he’s back on our radar with Welcome as The Flowers In May, a duo album with Kentucky-born fiddler and long-time college-and-beyond collaborator Deborah Payne – and we’re thrilled to hear him, and both, in such fine and authentic form.

Though released in mid-December, Gleaves didn’t really start promoting his newest collaboration until early January, so it got lost a bit in the shuffle. It’s not a full covers album, either, with four sweet songs by Gleaves, and one by Payne, that fit in just fine among the tradition. No matter: the record rings true with mountain folk traditions, sweetly straddling the soft acoustic line between folk and its backcountry grassroots, rocking back and forth from fiddle instrumental to picked ballad with a rhythm and sway that is loose and laissez faire, intimate and gentle as a front porch in summer, thanks to stellar company from Michael Cleveland, Tim Lancaster, and Ruth McLain and gentle, no-frills arrangements straight out of the mountain foothills. Here’s two favorite tracks, alongside a bonus track or two from Sam’s last full-length, a 2017 collaboration with fellow Southwest Virginia native Tyler Hughes, and one from his mostly-originals 2015 solo album Ain’t We Brothers, which features collaborations with Tim O’Brien, Janis Ian, and Laurie Lewis, among others.




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

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

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

Comment » | (Re)Covered, Anais Mitchell, Nickel Creek, Sam Gleaves, Tradfolk, Uncategorized

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums (2019)
Tributes, Tradfolk, Covers Compilations & more!

January 5th, 2020 — 6:17pm


They say the turning of the year is symbolic, and to use it so: for reflection, a slate to be cleaned and set, restored, upon the walls of our living spaces.   In our time of need, there is solace, and a second chance built into our calendrical lives.  

And in the long, quiet hours to and from the adrenalin crises of our lives, music is our guide.   In the heartbreak rages and the long walks, it serves us.  In the peace of night, it sustains and soothes.  The discovery of it is joyful.  And the knowing of it, when it is at its best, and our need is greatest, is sublime.  

Such is our mandate, and our mission here: the comforting under the strange; the song of our hearts revealed or transformed.  Coverage.   The roots and branches of the music of the community, and the heart, in bloom, reborn.  

It’s hubris, perhaps, that brings us here – and no small bit of sheer stubbornness, to keep us coming back, for the past month and a bit, since our long, long hiatus through the majority of 2019.   We are humbled, practically imposters, after being away from the music for so long, and only so recently returned, in laying claim to anyone’s top ten, or five, or one…except our own. 

For although we were gone, the music still sustained us.   And here it is, at year’s end, the best still spinning on the tip of our tongues and ears.  

It’s good to be back with our 8th annual Year’s Best Coverfolk collection.  As always – and perhaps more than ever – it is neither definitive nor comprehensive, merely a celebration of the albums that have stuck, or stunned, or both, in a year where music was more important than ever. 

It is a list made with love and luck – at 35 songs, and almost two dozen albums, the soundtrack of our long hours of need and desire. 

Enjoy it.  Add its gems to your collections, the better to support the artists who serve our souls.  Come back, soon, for our celebration of the best coverfolk singles of 2019. 

And may your new year burn bright with possibility, too.  




The Year’s Best Covers EP

+ Emily Mure, Sad Songs and Waltzes
+ Rachel Sumner, The Things You Forgot
+ Margaret and Gregory, Songs for Loving and Dying
+ Moonlamb Project, Derivative Blues

The five tracks on The Things You Forgot, our tied-for-first Covers EP of the Year from Boston-based roots singer-songwriter Rachel Sumner, enjoyed a slow release throughout the year, giving us time to steep in each song as it came, from the light cowgirl bluegrass of Josh Ritter’s Temptation of Adam in April to a surprisingly faithful layered-vox-and-strum Elliott Smith cover in October; by the time the full set came together with a stunningly sweet Simple Twist of Fate four weeks ago, we were already deeply in love.  The songs on The Things You Forgot are as unforgettable in version as they are in the originals; as a full disc, their compositional potency comes into focus thanks to clear-as-a-bell production and performance, each precious note sung and strummed a single, deliberate stroke.  The end result is a simple masterpiece, still lingering long after we first featured it in November’s New Artists, Old Songs mailbag review.  Though Sumner has roots in both the bluegrass and classical worlds, this is true-blue singer-songwriter folk through and through, too: achingly clear, and wide open to the world, with twang and tenderness enough to carry us through the fire of an unusually difficult year on its own.  

Twinned honors go to Emily Mure, another solo artist we’ve touted here before for her delightful covers of Cake’s Mexico and Bowie’s As The World Falls Down.  But Sad Songs and Waltzes catapults her to the top of any list: from the first warm chord to the rich wistful harmonies floating in air, the EP – named after a Willie Nelson classic that melts like butter in this songstress’ supple hands and voice – offers an enveloping journey through the transformed songbook of modern radio, sweet and subtle and oh so cool.  It’s the tender covers album Kate Wolf would have made, if she had been born a half century later, and raised on Radiohead, Wilco, and The Cranberries, all of whom are covered softly and well; even Coldplay’s Yellow, which has been so over-covered in the last decade, takes on new shape and meaning here, once captured in Mure’s capable, enrapturing gaze.  Listen deeply, and be comforted anew.  

Honorable mention this year goes to Margaret and Gregory, whose small, homespun, oddly diverse lo-fi folk-and-indie-rock Songs for Loving and Dying takes on Dylan, Gillian Welch, John Prine, AP Carter, and a Mr. Rogers classic: a short ride, yet wide ranging, both full of death and life-affirming; the imperfections are delightful, too, making for a delicate yet definitive celebration of the bedroom antifolk subgenre.  And although it, too, is amateur at heart, Belgian’s Moonlamb Project – a duo – has a great concept in Derivative Blues, a five-track released on Bandcamp back in May.  There’s nothing polished here: raw grit, growling accented vocals, and a grungy barroom guitar-and-harmonica blues mood lend sparse verisimilitude to tracks originally by Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Robert Plant, and gone-before-his-time Delta Bluesman Napoleon Washington, leaving us a potent reminder that the good stuff observes no boundaries.  




The Year’s Best Covers Album

+ Ben Lee, Quarter Century Classix
+ S.T. Manville, Somebody Else’s Songs
+ Unwoman, Uncovered Volumes 4 & 5
+ Corb Lund, Cover Your Tracks
+ Greg Laswell, Covers II
+ Angel Black-Orchid, Classic Beauty
+ Becky and Cloud, Decade

Relatively few full-length mass-market covers albums hit the radar this year; as such, our Year’s Best Covers Albums this year come sourced primarily from deep dives into Bandcamp and Soundcloud, where the primacy of home recording, musicians-as-producers, and indie sensibility hold sway.   But our by-a-nose favorite is one of the the exceptions: like us, Aussie indie pop rocker Ben Lee came to maturity amidst the alternative indie punk rock scene of the early nineties, even touring with Sebadoh in his late teens as part of his first band, and Quarter Century Classix, his dreamy snowed-in post-pop celebration of the soundtrack of our respective youths – Fugazi, Dinosaur Jr., Guided By Voices, Pavement, and Sonic Youth among them – offers a surprisingly tender, eminently professional retelling of songs obscure yet seminal to those who share our origin story.   Session play from William Tyler and a guest spot from Petra Hayden only serve to cement Lee’s collection’s place in the great pantheon of honest, poignant tributes to a generation’s lost youth and deep influence.  And anyone unsure about whether this is folk need only check out his Daniel Johnston cover, which hits the essential sound of Dylan and the Byrds square on.

Lee’s tribute stands strong against two other 2019 collections heavy with similar trends towards the interpretation of the loud and the electric in our category this year.   The softer of these, ex-punk-rocker S. T. Manville‘s Somebody Else’s Songs, drops a dozen more modern pop punk tunes into hushed tones and a sparse, lower fidelity modality for a hazy acoustic ride through classics from Green Day, Jimmy Eats World, The Offspring and others; as we noted in November, it’s “pretty and pensive in performance”, and delightfully delicate from cover to cover, thanks to an understated approach: “quiet vocal and slow picking drone, with occasional light accents from accordion, banjo, and violin” still fill our ears, and serve us well.   

The other end of the spectrum runs raucous, and broader in its range.  Those who prefer their cover “folk” on the far edge of high stepping countrified barroom roots rock a la Wilco, Buddy Miller, or Steve Earle need look no farther than Canadian country roots artist Corb Lund, whose Cover Your Tracks – his first album in several years – is a bootkickin’ alt-country romp through some serious classics, most of which add twang and slide and otherwise hew relatively close to the energy of an unusually cohesive set of almost random originals –  from Dylan and Lee Hazelwood to ACDC and, most oddly, Billy Joel’s It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me.   

We could have put experimental acousto-electric cellist, producer, and composer Unwoman, aka San Franciscan steampunk singer-songwriter Erica Mulkey, in our EP category this year, simply on the strength of November 7-track release Just Go Away, with simply shines with glitchy drumtrack joy as it celebrates Blondie, Hole, Bowie, and more.  But that smaller set was just a coda to something much, much greater: double album Uncovered Volumes 4 & 5, which covers 30 amazing soundscapes originally released and recorded for (and in many cases, chosen by) the artist’s Patreon and Bandcamp supporters over the past several years.  It’s grand and at times even orchestral, but there’s little to skip through here: the set shows an artist with poise, balance, and a sense of the complex made real and personal, celebrating and worth celebrating at year’s end and beyond.  And although it’s a little overly dramatic for our daily tastes, we’d be remiss in skipping San Diego singer-songwriter Greg Laswell, last seen on these pages over a decade ago for his cross-gender Cyndi Lauper cover, who returns to the world of coverage this year with Covers II – a dark folkpop piece, with thudding piano, stimulating strings, and the strong addition of co-vocalist Molly Jenson throughout, to capture our own darker moments. 

Honorable mention even farther beyond the punk sourcebook goes to a pair of Bandcamp-only releases: Classic Beauty, an album of oft-covered, relatively faithful reproductions of 60s and 70s classics from self-admitted session singer and circus show collaborator Angel Black-Orchid that reminds us that authentic, brashy playback is its own form of apt tribute, and Decade, which offers well-articulated folk pop fare from French duo Becky and Cloud, celebrating their tenth anniversary with aptly titled covers album taking on a familiar indiefolk sourcebook head on: hits from Poison & Wine, Damien Rice, The Weepies and The Innocence Mission up against equally familiar songs from Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Beatles.  Neither album is truly transformative, but both offer bright voices clearly articulated, bright song choices, and a brighter sound, thanks to production choices which trend towards faithful reproduction of songs generally framed in wider berth: it’s the buskers you’d miss your bus for, and that’s a good thing, too. 




The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists)

+ Various Artists, Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits
+ Mercury Rev ft. Various Artists, Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited

For a while there, it was looking like 2019 would be a bust for compilation tribute records, at least as far as our softer roots-and-folk focus would allow: Mojo magazine, usually a go-to source for genre-pushing compilations in tribute, stuck to originals; 2014 follow-up This Is the Town: A Tribute to Nilsson (Volume 2) turned up with Cheap Trick sounding like Cheap Trick, Martha Wainwright channeling the sixties, and even Mikaela Davis in hopping poprock flashiness; the recorded release of 2018’s live Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration concert came in far too slick; several micro-labels and collaboratives released underground tributes to outsider’s artist outsider artist Daniel Johnston after his death in early September, but they were all just as weird as the original.  

Psychedelic moodmakers Mercury Rev‘s tribute to Bobbie Gentry’s countryfolk classic The Delta Sweete gets a nod here, and not in our single artist tribute category, primarily because of how dependent the album is on a wonderfully-selected set of track-by-track guest female indiefolk vocalists, including turns from Norah Jones, Vashti Bunyan, Hope Sandoval, Lucinda Williams and others worth hearing. Still, Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited, however wonderful, is genre-pushing, tenuously folk at best, even in its lighter moments, most notably Laura Marling’s tense, chiming, crescendoing dream of Refractions, and the soaring wall-of-gospel Beth Orton piece that follows; the rest sounds more like a remix of U2’s Achtung Baby as filtered through the majesty of both the Moody Blues and Thompson Twins production engineers.  (Although that’s not bad, necessarily – the band pulls the whole thing off really, really well.)  

Happily, Cover Me was on the ball when they covered Warren Zanes-produced tribute Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits twice this year: first in a short teaser post in August, then in a track by track five star review after the album’s release that claimed “instant classic” status for the record.  They’re right, of course: it’s all good, and quite good at that, from end to end a solid, strong tribute to a well-deserved gravel-voiced crooner of the downtrodden, with some of our favorite moods and voices – Patty Griffin, Aimee Mann, Roseanne Cash, Iris Dement – familiar to this type of project on the roster, and truly a canon of coverage in homage overall.  We’re especially loving the selections from newer artists, too: the simple grandeur of sister act Joseph’s title cut, which comes on so much more static, and then turns up so much more tense, when held up against Sarah Jarosz’ seemingly seminal cover of the same; Courtney Marie Andrews’ driving, high-countrified Downtown Train; Phoebe Bridger’s slow, mournful Appalachian-Celtic gospel hymn reinvention of Georgia Lee.    




The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist)

+ Steve Earle, Guy
+ Sudhananda with Lucia Lilikoi, Golden Slumbers
+
Janileigh Cohen, Bird on a Wire

We figured Steve Earle‘s tribute to Guy Clark – a quickly-recorded and heartfelt tribute to one-time mentor and friend, and thus, in its way, a companion piece to his previous end-of-the-decade tribute, 2009’s Townes – was going to slam this category, as long as it didn’t go too hard for folk.   Sure enough, though it certainly teeters on the edge in its louder, more bombastic tracks, the simply-titled Guy comes in loving, generous, gritty, and heartstrong in the end – a solid choice for those already invested in the world of No Depression, a high point in the alt-country roots range, and a fine reminder that Earle is still atop his own game.  

Our runners-up lie not far behind, though vastly different in sound.   First up: Golden Slumbers, a collection of Beatles covers originally intended to be instrumental lullabies, until long-haired project visionary, multi-instrumentalist, and long-time children’s music producer Sudhananda met Spanish vocalist Lucia Lilikoi.   Slow and syrupy, recorded at 432 hertz for warmth, and driven throughout by classical-sounding layers of guitar, harp, and keys, Golden Slumbers comes across as a delicate contemporary folk album – not just for kids at all, but perfect for those looking to wind down at the end of day with something that aims to be perfect, and comes damn close, from a master mixer, engineer, producer, artist, and arranger who has previously worked with Maria Muldaur and Donovan.   

Second, although its title points to but one of its subjects, we celebrate Janileigh Cohen‘s album Bird On A Wire, a tribute to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan – an odd pairing that works.  Simple, quiet guitar (or, sometimes, piano) and sweet, aching vocals go back and forth among a second string of less-and-better-covered tracks from both songbooks, revealing range and a depth of understanding that closes a gap we never knew hid in our brains, unveiling the common underpinnings of two poet-lyricist masters with delicacy and care.   It’s not complex, but it doesn’t have to be: If It Be Your Will has never felt more satisfied, or more brave; One Too Many Mornings has never sounded sadder.




The Year’s Best Tradfolk Collection

+ Tui, Pretty Little Mister
+ Thirty Pounds of Bone & Phillip Reeder, Still Everywhere They Went
+ Sam Amidon, Fatal Flower Garden

Appropriately sparse, almost atonal fiddle-and-banjo play hold sway on Pretty Little Mister, a raw collection from young old time duo Tui, whose transformation of the old sound and lyrics ring strong with timeless sorrow and Appalachian alliance.  It’s short, but so are the songs; it’s authentic, to be sure, but in a familiar, intimate neo-traditionalist mode, learned through scholarship and close collaboration with Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons of Carolina Chocolate Drops fame, just right for the modern tradfolk crowd that surrounds the likes of Anna & Elizabeth, Andrew Bird, and Sam Amdion, albeit with a few more instrumentals in the mix than we generally share and celebrate.  No matter: those looking for their tradfolk to sound traditional, yet looking for something new and wonderful in the stark combination of voices and instruments, could easily stop and linger here for days.  

The drowning sounds of creaking hull and deck, droning engine, surf, gulls, wind, and a passing Coast Guard helicopter on Still Everywhere They Went, a set of well-chosen traditional British fishing and maritime songs made modern and strange by performers and fellow university lecturers in ethnomusicology Johny Lamb (aka lo-fi recording artist Thirty Pounds of Bone) and Phillip Reeder, are as authentic as they come: originally recorded aboard a moving, working 1974 fishing boat out of Cornwall, the collection of eight songs – a “mini-album”, if anything, justifying a blur in this year’s category between long and short form releases – push the shanty form into its context, making for a unique yet wonderful journey not so much crossing past and present as collapsing them into deep, crowded, almost futuristic fathoms. 

And speaking of Sam Amidon: though it’s hard for a four-track to compete with something so sprawling, his short EP release Fatal Flower Garden (officially released on 7″ vinyl) offers a small collector’s gem for year’s end: four perfect tracks, each on their own and altogether precious and fragile, warm and weary as anything.   It’s been a few years since we last saw Sam, but this tiny teaser is a potent reminder that he is at the top of his game – and the top of the craft – as a vessel and interpreter: Amidon first arranged these songs for a concert in tribute to Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and though they yaw wide, indeed, each is just perfect in its way, leaving us hopeful about the tradition and its continued survival through the respectful evolution of the masters among us.   Bonus points: with a single exception – EP-ending instrumental Train on the Island, which churns fiddle wonderfully throughout – these songs would fit just perfectly alongside aching favorites from Bon Iver, Ray LaMontagne, Iron and Wine, and the rest of the moody indiefolk crowd; indiebloggers and radio runners, take note and spread the word.    




The Year’s Best Mostly/Half-Covers Album

+ Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, There Is No Other
+ BAILEN, Mixtape
+ Nicolette Macleod, Love and Gold

Every year, we toy with collapsing this category, and just letting individual tracks come through in our collection of Year’s Best Singles.  But the placement of covers up against original work is its own kind of tribute, and nowhere is this more evident than in our main honorees for this year’s half-covers albums – three artists, and/or artist collaborations, who approach the issue in entirely different ways.     

First up: There Is No Other, from Rhiannon Giddens with pianist and percussionist Francesco Turrisi – an expert in the often-unacknowledged influence of Arabic and Middle Eastern music on the European “sound” which together trace and recreate a common thread among a clean and fluid mix of songs, pulling from the Appalachian tradition and far beyond, to Nina Simone, opera, and more, plus two original songs that fit so perfectly among the old, you’d have to know them to identify them as other.  The diversity of sources is enough to make There Is No Other a non-contender as a full covers or a truly traditional album – where it would have easily tied for top honors, to be sure – but it remains, as reviewers have said since its Spring release, a handbook for both the evolution of popular music, and the universality of folk, with banjo, frame drum, and cello settings, coupled with Giddens’ huge talent for song resurrection, making for something well worth celebrating everywhere.   

Meanwhile, as promised in our previous celebration of their Holiday fare, BAILEN‘s Mixtape offers an aptly titled mix of album cuts, previously-unreleased originals, and four wonderful covers which together serve to map the influences of the NYC-based trio’s hard-to-categorize, vastly diverse sound: a wonderful and surprisingly faithful live Joni Mitchell cover, a stripped down song from Billie Eilish, a soft, dreamy, high-harmony-rich cover of The Sugarcubes’ Hit, and a June Taboresque take on Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, all of whom can be heard in the rich echoes of their folk-to-pop-and-back-again recordings and live shows.   And finally, from across the pond: though its covers and originals stand out as heavily vocally-driven, and in many cases a capella through and through, the soundscape created by Glaswegian “singer/songwriter, sound-designer, performer & live improvised sound maker” Nicolette Macleod on April’s Love and Gold is exquisite and fully-formed, weaving traditional British Isle folksongs with her own compositions to create a rich tapestry of song that soars and swoops like birds in a landscape otherwise ominous and still.  


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

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

1 comment » | Best of 2019, Emily Mure, Rhiannon Giddens, Sam Amidon, Tradfolk, Tributes and Cover Compilations

A Very Merry Coverfolk, Vol. 1 (2019)
(New takes on old familiar hymns and carols)

December 15th, 2019 — 4:54pm

 
No, this isn't our living room - I found it on Pinterest.

 

We’ve spent the weekend cleaning house, both figuratively and literally, and we’re proud of the results: a new WordPress install behind the scenes here at Cover Lay Down to fix some pesky spam issues (sorry, folks!) and a living room almost ready for a tree, already peppered with various figurines and ornaments of holiday cheer and temporarily festooned with drying dress shifts freshly washed in anticipation of the various holiday concerts and office parties to come. 

Now the fire burns bright under the half-eaten advent calendar, and as they have since morning, the soft, celebratory sounds of the holidays fill the air, piped through a growing sense of wonder and delight that Christmas – Christmas! – is upon us again.  Join us as we bring on the Holidays with our very own all-streaming seasonal sampler: this year’s first-out-of-the-gate folk EP and Album length releases, featuring favorites from the Elder Christmas Canon, gleaned from all our favorite sources, and simply shimmering with joy.

 


 

We kick off today’s focus on the traditional stuff (as opposed to the pop standards of Christmas, which will surely follow posthaste as the season progresses) with one of my favorite old hymns, done up weird and wonderful as one of four indiefolk delights on Jesse Blake Rundle’s charming EP It’s Light Now. Wait ’til the drum, vibraphone, and marimba kick in: goddamn and rat-a-tat, it blooms alright.

 


 

You gotta love a Christmas album that includes, among its “album of modern Christmas classics”, covers of non-holiday Smiths standard Please Please Please and a droning, gauzy zither-and-uke take on Yaz classic Only You, neither of which have previously been associated with Chrimbo at all. But Cambridge, UK duo Hitman Hooker (and friends) make it work, with modern standards and carols alongside, on A Christmas Gift For You, a grungy, lo-fi antifolk album that shimmers with the sheer, ragged glee of the season.  A raw, rare gift, indeed.

 


 

Slippery and thick and chilling as ice, with horns like a brass quartet doped up for the holidays: Lana Winterhalt’s take on traditional carol The Holly and The Ivy is a gorgeous track, with staircase vocals and an eternity in just 3 minutes.  The frozen futuristic tone her shimmery electronica accompaniment brings to Ave Maria make for a powerhouse second act, too.  The originals on Diamonds, a holiday-themed full-length, are equally stunning.

 


 

Those looking for something a little more relaxed and traditional need look no further than Noel, a gentle, gleeful, touchingly amateur three-fer from Mackenzie Profitt of King’s Lynn, UK. The name appears to be a duo, or so say the male-and-female harmonies; thanks to a Bandcamp page otherwise bereft of information, we’ll have to let the songs speak for themselves elsewise.

 


 

Fragile and decidedly moody – in a good, majestically indiefolk mode, of course – comes the first track of Home For the Holidays: A Christmas Collection, a collection unassuming on the surface yet rich in the friendship and collaboration its first-named artists imply. And this one moves along, folks: kudos, especially, to “Noah, Mitch, & Kate” for a dreamy, uke-driven sunshine of a track in Silent Night, and others both old and popular done in surprisingly diverse and playful style.

 


 

Mosquito Fleet describes their sound as etherial soundscapes, and they’re not wrong; compare their ambient take on I Heard The Bells with the Anais Mitchell track we featured last week for an interesting study: both build slow to a triumphant note appropriate to the poem’s sentiment, but this one pulls back and forth more, creating an interesting tension and no small amount of mystery as its rich instrumental and vocal layers come together to reach towards the angels.  Click through, too, for an Auld Lang Syne b-side – a popular track this year, but in this case, making for a pairing that reaches into the world of poetics stunningly.  

 


 

12th Night masquerades as a slow form of punk folk; its underbelly is scummy Texan alt-rock with retro guitar licks and an urgency that can’t be beat, recorded on 45 but played on 33. Thanks to a penchant for dreampop arrangement, it’s nowhere near too heavy to include in a list for the folkfan, neither.  Everyone’s covering O Come Emmanuel this year, and this band’s covered it twice, both electric and acoustic…so although we’ve started with the second-gentlest track among their full set of tradcarols (one which turns surprisingly discordant, in canon, in the end), click back to the start of the collection for the good old grit and grunge that is modern indieroots music at its very best…

 


 

Finally, and in a different medium, thanks to artist preference of release format: Celtic-American Roots band RUNA first found themselves on these pages in 2014, when Current Affairs, the supergroup’s third full-length, won top honors in our year’s end traditional album category.  Here, in a first release from a brand new Winter Song EP, the quintet closes out our midseasonal set with a cheery take on a familiar upbeat friend.

 

 

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

Comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, Tradfolk

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

February 11th, 2018 — 8:18am

johnhenry

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
[zip!]

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.

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2 comments » | Billy Bragg, Single Song Sunday, Tradfolk, Willie Watson

Covered In Tradfolk: New Takes on Old Songs
with Jayme Stone, Hannah Read, Allysen Callery, Leftover Cuties & more!

February 24th, 2017 — 3:39pm

SidHemphill04

Because we are a folkblog first, the essential question of whether the performance of traditional song is an act of coverage is treated as trivial here at Cover Lay Down. Indeed, as alluded to in our 2013 feature on the Child Ballads, and in Single Song Sunday features on O Death, Wayfaring Stranger, Barbara Allen and The Water Is Wide, songs so old as to have lost their origin act as the prototype for our exploration of the depth and breadth of the folkways as they continue to stretch and evolve.

Someone has to have written these, of course; neither lyric nor melody springs from the cotton of whole cloth. Songs do shift as their culture grows around them, especially those originally carried by memory and not notation, but it strains the boundaries of reason to suppose that rhyming quatrains used to emerge from the air. But in the case of songs marked not standard but traditional, by definition, the mutation through versioning is so strong, the songs belong truly to the ages, to be identified by region rather than author. And this, in turn, makes of their reinvention an ideal opportunity to meet our mandate: to discover the performer through their interpretation of the familiar, and in embracing that comfort, to discover the new through the old.

There’s some wonderful tradfolk on rotation in our ears these days, from last year’s oops-we-missed-it super-collaborative Songs of Separation project, which brought together ten well-known female folk musicians from Scotland and England (with Karine Polwart, Eliza Carthy, and Hannah Read among them) for a tribute to their own ancient traditions, to Across The Waters, a newly-released full-length traditional album by Glastonbury’s Nathan Lewis Williams & Caelia Lunniss, and the upcoming sophomore album from Jayme Stone’s Folklife project, this time with a focus on the songs of the American sea islands and mountains.

Add in a recently-discovered Child ballad from UK storyteller and folk explorer Christine Cooper and her lovely 2011 5-track traditional EP, and an older live cut from Rachel Newton, whose most recent traditional album was celebrated in our Best Covers Albums of 2016, then cross the pond again for a cut or two from the American gospel hymnal from Americana icons The Stray Birds and an upcoming debut EP from new Mexico City-based band Peregrino, much-beloved tracks from ‘ghost folk” fave Allysen Callery and fiddlefolk duo 10 String Symphony, a mystical rebuild of Scarborough Fair from Sacramento banjofolk minimalist Hannah Mayree, a hopping bluegrass number from Beehive Productions recorded live at the Caramoor American Roots Music Program in Katonah, NY, and a heavily-modified Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies from Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri‘s fine and intimate all-covers Valentine’s Duets series, recently rereleased for their well-stocked and easy-to-justify Patreon patronage project, and you’ve got a fine set indeed, with links to both artists and song origin, just for fun.

Looking for more? We’ve got two bonus tracks today, both nominally authored – the first a Bandcamp Frenchwoman’s amateur version of a popular Appalachian tune generally viewed as by Ola Belle Reed but also claimed as an original hymn by the Church of Latter Day Saints, the second a brand new live recording of a song y’all will surely recognize, originally of disputed authorship and first recorded towards the beginning of WWII – but both often attributed and treated as American standards. Check ’em out, download the entire set, and then click through as always above and below to purchase the music, the better to support the continued effort of those who channel and celebrate the folkways in all their myriad forms.

Comment » | Mixtapes, Tradfolk

New Tributes and Covers Collections, 2015 (Vol. 1)
(Forest Mountain Hymnal, The Lomax Project, and Nettwerk’s 30th!)

February 2nd, 2015 — 6:03pm

Yet another New England snowday grants us the time to sift through a surprisingly rich field of new, pending, and ongoing covers projects recently received by mail from the far reaches of the folkworld. Read on for a set of features and futures that are already setting the house on fire: a pair of ambitious tradfolk projects, and a label-driven covers collection well worth the folkfan’s attention.



It takes dedication and a unique mindset to devote a year to coverage, let alone to a single songbook – and guts, indeed, to commit to such a project in the first decade of performance.

But young husband-and-wife folk duo Jonathan and Rebecca Moody, aka Forest Mountain Hymnal, have proven themselves before, earning our respect and admiration as artists and interpreters. And so we are thrilled to name Dear Balladeer: The Moodys and the Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, a bi-weekly project which will see them taking on 24 previously unrecorded Appalachian folksongs collected by the folk-revival’s own balladeer, a genuine gift, sure to keep giving throughout the year and beyond.

Forest Mountain Hymnal is already a staple at our table and our stereo; any news of novelty from these childhood sweethearts is inherently worthy of our attentive ears. Previous EP-length collections, an exclusive, otherwise-unreleased transformation of I Heard It Through The Grapevine, and the self-titled, newly re-collected set that serves as their first official full-length album, explicate our praise: rich, soft, deceptively simple indiefolk in the same haunting-yet-melodic vein as Cover Lay Down favorites Arborea, Sam Amidon, Jose Gonzalez, and Kings of Convenience combine with traditional sensibilities of harmony, melody and instrumentation and a pure, sweet, echoing production dynamic almost ecstatically in the band’s previously recorded versions of well-crafted originals and known songs from Pretty Polly and The Leatherwinged Bat to Burl Ives’ Buckeye Jim and Aussie children’s standard Kookaberra, making Forest Mountain Hymnal as welcome, as essential, and as awesome for year-round fare as their wonderful 2011 Christmas Hymnal EP is for the holiday season.

Meanwhile, Niles, though seminal in his influence on the folk revivalists of the fifties and sixties, is a bit of an undersung hero in the modern folkways; his most-covered compositions and reworkings, including I Wonder as I Wander, Black is the Color, and Go ‘Way From My Window, are often cited as traditional, spreading and reinforcing his influence even as the lack of attribution obscures his own contribution to the tradition. Too, as noted in Dear Balladeer’s statement of project intent, the Hollywood machine has co-opted both Niles and the songs he loved and collected, framing them as the product of a denigrated hillbilly culture in ways that deny the true complexity and intelligence of both the songs and their people.

Dear Balladeer’s aim, therefore, is as corrective as it is celebratory, with the Moodys taking on two curated “lost cuts” per month from his published ballad collections, by permission of Niles’ estate – a set which owes enough deliberate debt to the tradition that Niles organized them by Child Ballad equivalence in their original incidence. And, in keeping with the spirit of the project, all recordings for this project are being released free, as “we really feel like this music came from the people and should go back to them.”

The Moodys promise a debt paid in full, and they deliver: after spending a few days steeping in the comfort and craftwork of the first two tracks, it’s easy to crown the project a great success; if the remainder of the songs on Dear Balladeer are even half as good, their efforts should bring Niles’ name – and theirs – back to the forefront of the modern. I certainly expect to see this project again at the end of the year, both on the blogs, and here in our annual Best Of set, ’round the top of the Tradfolk categories. For now, best wishes and kudos to Forest Mountain Hymnal on a kickass start to an ambitious year; may their ways be smooth as they forge ahead, for we are eager, indeed, to hear the rest.



Diana-LP-High-Res-1Of similar ethnographic vein is banjoist, composer, and “instigator” Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, which pursues our chosen genre’s prototypical collector and celebrant with a multigenerational cohort of praiseworthy peers – Tom O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Margaret Glaspy, Eli West and more – that serves as high predictor of project success.

Touting the official nineteen-track album, and the deep-delving ethnographer’s dream of a 54 page booklet which accompanies it, is a bit premature, and somewhat of a tease. Though Stone’s Lomax Project has been in place for a while now as a live touring collaborative, playing sets and hosting sessions at all the right festivals and stages, and inviting in the process a continuation of the discovery and sharing process that Alan Lomax himself practically invented, the recorded collection isn’t scheduled to drop until March 3.

But the work of the talented Stone and his crowd of celebrated cronies under this particular umbrella is not unknown to us. Stone’s earlier albums interpreting the canons through originals and airs from Bach to Africa to Appalachia are themselves keystone components of a modern folklorist’s collection; that the names above all signed on to this project alongside Stone’s center shows their mutual respect. The stated goal here is renewal, not preservation, which is always a strong indicator of true craftspersonship. And even as live in-studio and stage takes from the project’s players have already cropped up on YouTube in the last few months, giving us more than a taste of what is to come, we needed little encouragement to share Lazy John, a just-released first listen from the album itself which showed up in our mailbox over the weekend, which simply sings with talent, love, and gleeful energy.

The merits of music, mandate and means make for a powerful trifecta; that the result is nearly perfect is not unexpected, but no less of a delight. The album earns our respect and admiration with hot sets that burn the barn and then some alongside other, more subtle interpretations of the Lomax collection, which themselves range from Appalachian fiddle tunes and Southern work songs to the African-American shanties and chants of the Bahaman and Georgia Sea Island cultures, finding joy and depth in the collections of a driven archivist, interpreter, and, in the case of the first song below, creator in vein, who in his single album in 1963 reworked familiar folk motifs and characters into a series of nominally original works. Listen and fall in love now, so you can say you were one of the first to know.

    Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Lazy John (orig. Alan Lomax)
    (from Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, 2015)

    Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Goodbye Old Paint (trad.)

    Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Maids When You’re Young (trad.)



Way on the other end of the folkworld, where indie and Americana cuts nestle alongside harder-edged alternatives, lies Nettwerk, a large yet still-independent Vancouver-based label and promotional house founded on electronic music that has, over three decades in the industry, provided a host of services for Canadian acts such as Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, and The Be Good Tanyas, international artists from Dido to Sinead O’Connor to Dispatch to Joshua Tillman, and – more recently – radio-ready bands and singer-songwriters like Passenger, Joshua Hyslop, and fun.

Our focus today is From Cover to Cover: 30 Years At Nettwerk, a brand-new anniversary tribute-in-coverage to the label’s own, and it’s a great one, with versions that run the gamut in selective scope and interpretive strategy. Takes on everything from Coldplay to Barenaked Ladies to Ron Sexsmith to The Be Good Tanyas call to the diversity of Nettwerk rosters past and present; the mix is solid and smooth in transition from track to track, and though only half of the album could truly be categorized under folk, the performances are consistently fine, indeed.

Regular readers have already heard from this collection; though we were holding off on celebrating it in full until now, we couldn’t help but sneak label stalwart William Fitzsimmons’ cover of Sarah McLachlan’s Ice Cream into our artist feature a few weeks ago. But we’ve been sitting on other greatness therein, from Great Lake Swimmers to Caroline Pennell, from Lily Kershaw’s strong take on modern standard Wagon Wheel to Joshua Hyslop’s stunning take on Weepies favorite The World Spins Madly On. Now, just a day before it drops officially, here’s the whole shebang. Enjoy.



Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down shares new coverfolk features and songsets regularly here on the blog, with ongoing bonus tracks and streaming coverage on our Facebook page. And you can help! Donate now to support our continuing mission and receive our grateful praise…plus a select mix of over 30 otherwise-unblogged acoustic, roots, and Americana covers from 2014!

Comment » | Alan Lomax, Forest Mountain Hymnal, Jayme Stone, Tradfolk, Tributes and Cover Compilations

These Our Hymns Of Grateful Praise:
A Cover Lay Down Thanksgiving Mix

November 27th, 2014 — 1:00pm



It’s Thanksgiving, and just in time, too: breakneck momentum takes over this time of year, until routines long established begin to fray around the edges; maybe we need a few days off to rethink our priorities.

We’re already grateful as we slowly settle into an unexpected off-day, here at home with our festival feast delayed by weather. Outside, the Christmas radio stations have already kicked into gear, and the world is tense with race and ruin, capitalism and the cold hard stand of conviction, but the snow-blurred landscape blocks everything out. And now the music is low, the lights are soft; children in flannel nightgowns pad barefoot in and out of the kitchen, dropping sleepy kisses in their wake; the pellet stove whirs and warms the neighbor’s borrowed dogs until they fall asleep in our laps.

The Thanksgiving hymnal is sparser than most, but we are quiet, today, and the mixed-marriage Jewnitarian tradition we practice digs deep into all corners of the earth. And oh, we have have so much to be thankful for: the world bright with promise, and ourselves with strength and love enough to work and play in it together. A collection of praise, then, from modern to mostly traditional, that we might skip the tinsel, and stick to the hope and the holy, the gravy and the grace this Thanksgiving season.

These Our Hymns Of Grateful Praise
A Thanksgiving Coverfolk Mix [download!]

Cover Lay Down shares new features and coversets here and on Facebook throughout the year thanks to the support of donors like you. Coming soon: new holiday releases, and our annual guide to shopping local in a digital world!

2 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes, Tradfolk

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

August 10th, 2014 — 6:50pm

grim-reaper-woods

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.

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


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

4 comments » | Reposts, Single Song Sunday, Tradfolk

Coverfolk Traditions: Child Ballads in the 21st Century, pt.1
(w/ Brand New Balladry from Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer!)

February 8th, 2013 — 8:10am



A highly anticipated new release from Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer is starting to make the rounds, and though it’s only early February, we’re going to go out on a limb and declare Child Ballads an early contender for best tradfolk album of the year. And we’re not going to be alone, either: with 6 weeks left to its March 19th US release date, the seven track album has already garnered high and well-deserved praise from Pitchfork, and a full-page feature in today’s edition of The Sun seems a harbinger of loud and voluminious praise to come in the major media on the cusp of a February 11th UK release.

Child Ballads being what they are, its tempting to call this one an LP; five of the tracks come in at between five and seven minutes long, and it’s easy to imagine the sequence filling both sides of a vinyl package. But however we categorize its size, for culture vultures of a particularly coverfolk bent, the meeting of these two modern indiefolk sirens and their centuries-old subject comes as especially wonderful news. Indeed, the viability of folk as an eternal and looping thread is proved so well and so warmly here, as much as the album cements the stature of Hamer and Mitchell, it reminds us of the import of the Child Ballads themselves.

A little history, for the uninitiated: as an enthomuscologist and archivist, Francis James Child provides the protogenesis of more recent folk collectors from Seeger to Lomax, collecting and publishing 305 ballads in ten volumes between 1882 and 1898 under the title Popular English and Scottish Ballads, and in the process single-handedly creating the concordance which would serve as guide and touchstone for the folk revolutions that would follow throughout the 20th century. And though it is the comprehensive nature of his collection which is generally cited as so significant, Child’s timing should not be denied: though the ballads were, as their title implies, already at the core of popular English-language folk music, the advent of recording technology would speed and solidify their spread, canonizing their narratives and their collector alike, and fueling further exploration of their potential.

Variants abound, even in Child’s collection: as differentiated from more modern coverage, where lyrics are often treated as sacred text, the treatment of the popular ballad is heavily influenced by regionalism, and Child duly noted significant shifts where he found them. The result is a canon which, while definitive, is one nonetheless accurately dubbed “fluid and almost endlessly mutable” by the Guardian. In our sample set below, for example – neither comprehensive nor cautious, but merely a set of favorites from ballads 1-100 released by relative youngsters in the last decade – Jim Moray’s Lord Douglas bears clear but vastly shifted ground in Child Ballad 7, more typically called Earl Brand; Annalivia’s lively False Sir John counts as a variant of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, also known in some regionalisms as May Colvin, while Shady Grove represents an Americanized take on Matty Groves, in which the violence of the original has been boiled out for the more puritanical audience which typifies much of the Appalachian traditions.

Similar shifts and reformations abound in the American folkways. Leadbelly’s 1939 recording of The Gallis Pole, which would later be picked up by Judy Collins, Dylan, and Led Zeppelin under similar nomenclature, traces its ancestry to Child Ballad 95; here, it finds voice in a brand new version from husband and wife tradfolk duo The Quiet American. Wind & Rain, which Crooken Still revives so achingly, is but one of almost two dozen “standard” variants of a ballad whose recorded nomenclature includes multiple versions called either Two Sisters or Cruel Sister. And Sam Amidon’s How Come That Blood, erroneously attributed to Bessie Smith upon its release, is in fact an Irish variant of Child Ballad 17, which Child simply lists as Edward.

As the above list suggests, though my father’s American generation met most of these songs through the britfolk revival of Steeleye Span, Martin Carthy, Pentangle, and Fairport Convention (and such later popular folk rock hybridizers as Traffic and Jethro Tull), the ballads which Child collected remain vibrant in the hands of a new generation on both sides of the proverbial pond. As such, today’s mix aims solely to address the first hundred of ballads from the Child collection, with the assumption that other albums yet-to-be will prompt further exploration of House Carpenter, The Golden Vanity, The Raggle Taggle Gypsy, The Great Silkie, Mary Hamilton, and other favorites from the later parts of the multi-volume set.

Though our own collection of post-millennial takers of the tradition trends towards greatness even before now, the addition of Mitchell and Hamer’s Child Ballads to the vast and varied is an apt kick-off to such a survey, and a special delight to boot. Fluid, engaging, clear as the running streams and lakes of its myriad stanzas, and equally adept in mournful darkness and moral tale, in its exquisite treatment of both the easily recognizable (Tam Lin) and several unusually obscure and under-covered selections, this new collection is rightfully on its way to being regarded as masterpiece, a showpiece for how modern solo and duet forms can still find life in the sourcebook.

As Timber & Steel noted earlier this week, a pair of Mitchell and Hamer’s seven tracks had already hit the web in one form or another; we’ve shared Child 100 below in streaming form to kick off an otherwise-sequential set. But our recent acquisition of the EP in full assures us that the real joy here is in the scope and sequence; this is one for the ages, and we highly recommend pre-order via Mitchell’s website. And we note, too: though the Mitchell’s grand classical folk opus Hadestown made her appropriately name-brand enough to make her the central addressee of most early reviews, and though her voice throughout is achingly sweet and tender, Hamer’s contribution here is equal to hers, and equally essential; for example, though we’ve taken it down at label request, their take on Riddles Wildly Expounded (Child #1), which represents but one of the two tracks on this incredibly perfect EP which feature his voice first, brings his lead vocals into the public mix, lending a new chord of credence to all arguments for why and how this simply produced, stunningly clear duo recording sets the sterling standard for folk music in the modern era.

Child Ballads in the 21st Century, Volume 1 [zip!]

  • Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer: Willie of Winsbury (Child #100)

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