Category: Vacation Coverfolk

Vacation Coverfolk: On the Trail of Social Justice
(songs of place and protest from Montgomery to Memphis)

June 30th, 2017 — 5:10pm


Yes, it’s been a while since we turned up here, and there’s much to celebrate as we slowly return to the mailbag of the last two months, including transformative re-recordings from new artists and well-loved voices, crowdfunded campaign-driven albums promising the best of honest folk and acoustic coverage, tributes to the dearly departed, and more.

If I have been busy elsewhere, it is due in no small part to a growing mindfulness as I renew my commitment to the work of worldchanging, in my increasingly intertwined roles as a practitioner and worship leader in an engaged Unitarian Universalist congregation on one hand, and as an English teacher in a Title 1 urban high school on the other. And although the prompt to travel originally came through my spouse, who was looking for some company and an adventure on the way back from an equally transformative conference, it is this twinned sense of connection to the world around me – the vocational and the spiritual; the service and the service – that brought me to and through the last week, sustaining me deeply in mind and spirit as we traveled North from Louisiana, with stops at a series of sites and settings essential to the long struggle for all Americans to be and feel safe, free, and able to access the world-as-it-should-be.

So join us today as we dip into the experience in literary slideshow, with a set of covers tender and torn in their address of the pliancies and pilgrims of social justice work in our beloved nation. And then stay tuned, as the summer surrounds us, and the waters of music flow like the Mississippi, strengthening and serving our hearts and our minds alike.

standing-on-the-side-of-love-phoenix-768x511Lights dim and the landing gear rises on the plane to New Orleans. People all around me turn pages and flip screens, and it occurs to me that that I am both gladdened and saddened by the realization that planes represent a concentration of literacy, given how much the picture depends on affluence, and reinforces long-distance travel as a privilege unavailable to my rising 11th graders and their peers. Me, I’m reading James McBride’s The Color Of Water, in preparation for teaching it in the fall: making notes in the margins and savoring the internal dialogue of reader and text as McBride alternately confronts the nuances of growing up black with a mother who hid her history of whiteness in a veneer of standoffishness, and dances around those images, providing powerful nuance to the national dialogue of race, belief, and identity through character and connotation.

Reading slowly, savoring moment and meaning, is not all that natural to me; generally, I read for pleasure, voraciously, and am known to finish a book in an evening. But we are here, my wife and I, on a pilgrimage. Our aim is to meet up in the South to discover this dialogue together after an exhausting school year, driving slowly through the history of the social justice movement in America, with planned stops in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, Memphis, and at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati before heading homeward to recover our children. And, in the end, my reading, deeply thought-provoking and grounding, still mostly unfinished, makes a perfect metaphor for the experience that followed.

We start, fittingly, on Sunday, at the morning service for this year’s Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, which my wife has been attending in her role as Director of Religious Ed for our beloved UU congregation in Springfield, MA. The hall is vast, and the clarion call clear: ours is a spiritual path that calls us to love and action, continuing the good work of commitment and dialogue in service to attaining global justice in many areas, from ecology to economics, with race, gender, and class consciousness at the forefront. The service includes a reading of Naomi Shihab Nye’s Gate A-4, a powerful poem of hope and immigrant identity, which I taught last year; mention is made of two men whose sexuality is both irrelevant and noteworthy, IT professionals who serve the UU community, who were attacked the previous night in the French Quarter. The collection plate goes to Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, an organization working to challenge and change the school-to-prison pipeline that plagues our inner cities. We give what we can, and sing with tears in our eyes the hymns of commitment and claim amidst thousands.

From there to Montgomery, Alabama, where Maya Lin’s Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial fountain is a UU chalice in the afternoon sun at the foot of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the giant footsteps in the crosswalk which mark the approach to the statehouse steps loom large as history in front of the Baptist church where King and others led the charge for justice. It is quiet here, being Sunday, and quieter still as we drive in reverse the long march path to Selma, where much of the town is boarded up and broken, reminding us that no matter how far we have come forward since black leaders and their white allies crossed the bridge into violence and chaos, we still have a long way to go.

Prison-Prayer-2The next day, Birmingham, where the streets radiate out from a once-bombed church and Kelly Ingram Park, a one-time central staging ground for protest and now a well-curated space featuring statues of children huddling before firehoses and snarling dogs. We walk the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail in the morning heat, tracing the original paths of marches on power both government and retail, making our slow and pensive way through sidewalks lined with plaques and textbook-familiar photographs, experiencing the expected temporal tension as 1963 comes to us superimposed over a shaded modern reality. Back in the park, a homeless woman named Beatrice, who hugged me earlier for offering her two cigarettes instead of one, sings hymns heartily into the morning air as we take our leave.

Memphis follows, where a well-designed museum experience at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, takes us slowly and with exquisite detail through the rise of the civil rights movement and culminates starkly in the rooms where MLK was transformed from leader to martyr for the cause. The National Civil Rights Museum is a deeply powerful place, with the time and space given to the shooting itself well-separated from the main site, which focuses on the long and arduous path of the proverbial movement, and features the voices and artifacts of that path adeptly and powerfully. But it is the small moments and discoveries that stand out, in the end: the low-placed photographs, almost an afterthought, that show the white mother of five who gave her life to the march from Selma to Montgomery, shot in her car for her role in ferrying march participants through a political bottleneck that allowed only 300 marchers through a long stretch of the narrow highway; the second-paragraph text that, in showing how a careful and methodical use of non-violent tactics among police and government in one site along the path to rights and justice slowed down the charge towards equality in those areas, reminds us that the use of such strategies is neither evidence of righteousness, nor exclusive to the side of love.

I am struck, especially, by tensions between then and now: by the young black men that occupy the open stools alongside serious-faced mannequins at the sit-in exhibit, texting and playing games on their phones, seemingly oblivious to the ironic gravity of the moment; by the laughter of the young patrons who line up to catch a glimpse of the balcony, and speak through Mahalia Jackson’s powerful voice as they approach. Later, stark racial divisions among the staff at the Beale St. barbecue joint we visit on our way out of the city – the constant patter of the white waitstaff as they hop from table to table, the black men manhandling heavy platters of ribs and catfish in the open kitchen, and the Latino males that emerge infrequently from the back to check on and gather up dirty dishware – will resonate that much more deeply for our path to the table.

More sit-in statues in Nashville and Louisville, though mostly by accident; our final goal is really Cincinnati, where the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will offer both a historical look at the emancipation and suffrage of slaves, women, Native Americans, and other populations and groups in the United States, and an exploration of the various ways in which these conditions still exist today in places around the globe, through sex trafficking, indentured servitude, and forced labor, all of which plague the universe, and demand our action and our attention. I take many photographs of text: The Gettysburg Address is on our reading list for next year, as is King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail; pairing these is no accident, and although I am wary of turning class into a “what I did on my summer vacation” slideshow, I am eager to consider how to make these texts, and the others we will engage in, deeply meaningful to my students through their relevance to their own shared world.

But not just yet. Now we are here: it is summer, and the grass grows high off the porch upon our return. Our homecoming finds us renewed in spirit and determination, but we know, too, that processing such an exploration of self and society properly takes time and contemplation.

For now, then: a soundtrack of song, covers all, that covers all, from the protest music of the continuing revolution to the more modern tracks of place and time that allude to the continuing struggle to be present, productive, and free.

May we be a people so bold, and so deliberate. And if peace is not to be ours in our lifetime, may we go to the mountaintop nevertheless, and do the good work that brings us ever closer to the promised land.

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1 comment » | Mixtapes, Vacation Coverfolk

Take It Easy: California Coverfolk
with covers of The Doors, Sublime, Dawes, Jane’s Addiction & more!

April 23rd, 2017 — 9:50pm


We’re just back from Spring Break in and around Los Angeles, where the weather was fine, indeed, after months of cold rain and thaw in our chosen home New England. When we left the garden was just buds bulging on the tips of the first green stems; California, by contrast, was in full bloom, thanks to an unusually rainy winter, and we were grateful, indeed, to find the world sunny and hot in the late mornings and afternoons, and just cool enough in the evening to keep from shivering in our shirtsleeves.

My students think LA is exotic; I thought I knew better, having been several times in the past couple of decades, both times as the first stop in a meandering drive up the coast towards San Francisco and Oregon. But this time around, we came to settle in, with an Air B&B house in the canyons, on a suburban settlement down the street from my father’s first cousin, and I think we did it right by avoiding the city. Exquisite lunches on the beach and the Malibu pier; venison steak up in the hills at an authentic 150 year old stage coach stop surrounded by bikers and the warm amplified sounds of an amateur cover artist; mornings at the zoos, the Aquarium of the Pacific, the sprawling gardens of Pasadena; lunch on the beaches and piers, and a shot at the steampunk thrift shops in Ventura; Harry Potter World on a Tuesday, and a final Friday afternoon hot and high in the desert hills at the Wolf Connections sanctuary, surrounded by the scrub of an alien landscape.

At home, the mailbag bulges with promise and the hint of summer releases. Tomorrow, the workweek begins anew, with the usual stresses and strain of the impending summer; lesson plans and grading have taken me to this afternoon, providing but little respite to write here. But here on the porch in the afternoon sun, the daffodils blooming at my feet, it’s hard not to want to just soak in the sunshine, with a bank of light coverfolk as the soundtrack to our last remaining hours.

And so we return to our Vacation Coverfolk series on the eve of the ever-intruding real world with a last gasp at Los Angeles through the songs of cross-continental coverage: a whole universe of folk artists taking on a chronology of songs penned and originally performed by bands and artists born, bred, or discovered in and around the city of angels. May they bring Spring softly, planting the surf, the sand, the hills, and the boulevards in the rich new soil of your own sunshine dreams.

L.A. Coverfolk: A Cover Lay Down Mix [zip!]

Comment » | Clem Snide, Laura Cortese, Vacation Coverfolk

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 8:
More Native Sons & Daughters from Indiefolk To Bluegrass

April 24th, 2015 — 11:04am

The week winds down here in North Carolina. The family and friends begin to disperse. And so we, too, will pack the van and head North again, slowly driving away the sand and surf.

The sounds of the sound and the osprey’s call will fade, and so will the rest, as we stiffen into the wind of the life we left behind. But the music will linger, and hold within it the peace of place, and of our selves.

From old school to new, then, our final soundtrack of spring vacation, with covers of and from one more set of North Carolina’s native sons and daughters: John D. Loudermilk, Ola Belle Reed, The Red Clay Ramblers, Hiss Golden Messenger, Delta Rae, and Jim Lauderdale.

Formed during the early seventies at the epicenter of the Durham, North Carolina string band revival, Tony Award-winning band The Red Clay Ramblers have remained a staple of the scene for over four decades by bringing their pickin’ and grinnin’ to a multitude of media, from radio and records to film and musical theater. Originals abound in their canon, but so do old familiars – especially on Meeting In The Air, a full album of Carter Family tunes recorded and released on Flying Fish. Their roster has changed since their early years – Shawn Colvin was even a member for a short time in the late eighties – but their music continues to be a standard for the form. Hear why.

From the fringes of the alternative indiefolk world comes Hiss Golden Messenger, formed around core duo MC Taylor and Scott Hirsch, who previously performed together in both a hardcore punk band and an indie rock group named after a Joni Mitchell album before moving to North Carolina to begin their current project. As one might expect given their rich heritage and experience, their music is alt-country influenced yet entirely revelatory and rejuvenating.

John D. Loudermilk is generally considered one of the greats of the mid-century Nashville era, but he, too, was born in Durham, and graduated from college there in the early fifties before heading out to follow in the footsteps of his famous cousins Ira and Charlie Loudermilk, aka the Louvin Brothers. Predominantly known as a songwriter for others, including Paul Revere and The Raiders, The Everly Brothers, Glen Campbell, Chet Atkins, and Johnny Cash, his songs live on in one of the largest lists of notable compositions ever amassed on Wikipedia, as does he, at 81.

Equal parts tradition and presence, banjo player and Appalachian mainstay Ola Belle Reed was born in Lansing, NC, and went on to become a key influence in the early evolution of folk music before it split off into country, blues, and rock and roll. Her songbook is especially common in the blue- and newgrass realms; odds are you’ll recognize all of these tunes, though like most folks, you may think of them as unsourced standards – an indicator of just how deeply she impacted the modern canon.

Born to a minister and a church music director in the tiny town of Troutman, a distant suburb of sprawling Charlotte, and a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, Jim Lauderdale is better known in the Nashville-based industry as a session player, songwriter, and co-conspirator than a solo artist, thanks to a 2002 Grammy for a collaboration with Ralph Stanley, composer credits on songs made famous by Patty Loveless, George Strait, the Dixie Chicks, and Elvis Costello, and long-time associations with Buddy Miller and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. His participation in any project is a promise of success in my household, but as evidenced below, his solo work is quite solid, too.

Finally, we return to Durham with folk-rockers Delta Rae, who hit the scene running in 2010 with a self-titled EP that still takes its turn on our own turntable from time to time. The band on the rise tends to get more airplay on the country rock side of the dial up north, where folks don’t really know from country anyway, but after the release of their sophomore full-length After It All just a few weeks ago, they’re already crossing over into the alternative and folk charts, and we’re glad to hear it, even as they continue to turn towards a more electric, eclectic, radio-ready sound. Bonus points: it’s always a good sign to find a new band covered so well; here’s a pair of favorites from the ‘tube to complement their acoustic rock 2012 Fleetwood Mac cover.

    Delta Rae: The Chain (orig. Fleetwood Mac)

    Naked Gypsies: Bottom Of The River (orig. Delta Rae)

    Dylan Byrnes, Abby Sevcik, et. al: Holding On To Good (orig. Delta Rae)

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Carolina Coverfolk, Volumes 1-7

Comment » | Delta Rae, Hiss Golden Messenger, Jim Lauderdale, John D. Loudermilk, Ola Belle Reed, Red Clay Ramblers, Vacation Coverfolk

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 7:
Native Sons & Daughters from Indiefolk To Bluegrass

April 22nd, 2015 — 11:05am

We’ve been scouring the usual sources while on vacation, using the downtime to gather and soak in the ethnomusical history of the region. Having covered five Carolinian artists in our previous visits leaves us room and time to sample broadly from the archives, and happily, North Carolina offers especially rich soil for folk and coverage alike.

Today, then, a midweek dip into the talent pool, with covers of and from Ryan Adams, Steep Canyon Rangers, Ben Folds, Tift Merrit, David Wilcox and Acoustic Syndicate today, and still more to come later in the week from The Red Clay Ramblers, Delta Rae, Hiss Golden Messenger, and more native sons and daughters from old-timey and newgrass to cutting edge indie and alt-folk.

We shared Red Molly’s version of Oh My Sweet Carolina, a tributary Ryan Adams cover, several years ago for our very first Carolina Coverfolk feature. Today, a three-fer from the versatile artist himself, who was born and raised in Jacksonville, NC, formed alternative country band Whiskeytown out of Raleigh in 1994, and – especially in modern solo guise – has a knack for finding the aching heart in songs from a wide range of genres. His cover of Wonderwall, long a favorite, apparently transformed how the original band performs it. And don’t miss Strand Of Oaks with a bonus cover from WXPN’s 2014 Year In Review cover songs project.

Singer-songwriter Tift Merritt spent her own childhood in Raleigh, and went to college in Chapel Hill. We featured her exquisite collaboration with pianist Simone Dinnerstein back in 2013, and a whole mess of solo output besides, but they’re worth revisiting, alongside a new cover from a new Bessie Smith tribute – and proud to report that our affection for her has only grown since catching her as opening act for an acoustic show with Mary Chapin Carpenter last fall.

Steep Canyon Rangers simply shone when I first encountered them at the Boston-based Joe Val Festival way back in 2008; with humor, talent, and poise in equal and vast measure, it was clear this quintet was going places, and deservedly so. Since then, of course, the Brevard-based band has risen fast, and even coupled with Steve Martin for a Grammy-winning ride, but we still love their rendition of this old Grateful Dead standard, and we’re tickled pink to find a version played so close to home.

I first fell in love with Acoustic Syndicate at Winterhawk 2002, just days after becoming a father; it was the first time I had been away from her, and the glow I carried was warm in the sun, a perfect match for the mellow jams that followed. But the newgrass jamband bears up over the years, thanks to funky, twangy beats and rollicking, upbeat lyrics that conjure the heat of summer; here’s a soundboard-sourced live set to prove it, all from a single 2005 gig at Mills River, North Carolina festival Smilefest, hosted by the same Internet Archive that hosts our own blog’s archives from 2007-2012.

With or without the Ben Folds Five, which formed in Chapel Hill after his triumphant return from out of state in 1995, Winston-Salem-born native alt-rocker, pianist, and a capella fanatic Ben Folds isn’t known for folk music. But even beyond The Luckiest, which we last shared in the capable hands of Matt Ryd, his suburban angst balladry is well-covered, and well beloved, and many of his greatest hits read like contemporary narrative folksongs. Here’s a few other sweet takes from the Soundcloud cohort, plus an old, old favorite and a stellar mixed genre in-studio take on an oft-covered tune.

Though born in Ohio, contemporary folk singer songwriter David Wilcox attended college in Ashville, broke into the scene from its stages, and has lived there most of his adult life. We’ve featured Wilcox through coverage in various mixes over the years, but these songs, too, bear collecting and repeating, their gentleness and warmth a perfect match for this perfect sunset.

Looking for more coverfolk from North Carolina? Check out our compilation post from earlier this week, with links to all six of our previous Carolina Coverfolk features, with over a hundred songs of and from James Taylor, The Avett Brothers, Doc Watson, Elizabeth Cotten, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops…and then make sure to come back at the end of the week for more coverage in tribute to North Carolinians Ola Belle Reed, John D. Loudermilk, Jim Lauderdale and more!

2 comments » | Acoustic Syndicate, Ben Folds, David Wilcox, Ryan Adams, Steep Canyon Rangers, Tift Merritt, Vacation Coverfolk

Carolina Coverfolk, Redux:
James Taylor, Doc Watson, Elizabeth Cotten, The Avett Brothers & more!

April 19th, 2015 — 9:56am


Forever this will be the year we cut it almost too fine, working ourselves too close to exhaustion trying to juggle illness, worklife, the desperate hobbies of the well-intentioned. The week came and went in a blur, and suddenly there we were, just across the Chesapeake Bridge Tunnel, taking turns at the wheel despite shared exhaustion, both of us struggling to stay awake as the rain came and went in the dead miles of Virginia, past fields and factories we’ve passed a dozen times, but never seen in daylight.

We made it, of course: to the beach for sunrise, breakfast in the tiny village of Corolla, through the long tired hours before the rental property delivers the keys. Now we are in the house on the lagoon, the same one we have rented for almost a decade. The osprey wheels just yards from this porch, his spiral hypnotic and soothing; the turtles snooze in the sun; across the lagoon, something – a beaver? a fish? – splashes by the bank. The day slows. The soul lags, even as we ply the day with moments, ice cream, beach walks, the children struggle with the buzz that makes boredom of stillness. But the bright horizon brims with the peace we need, and the shared communion we crave.

Soon the others will come: my father, and his companion; my brother; two families of friends next door. Until then, the stress of the world lifts slowly, like the fog burning off the beach at dawn. Here’s a soundtrack to ease us into it: over a hundred songs in all, contained within our six previous collections of songbook coverage by, from and about The Carolinas and their rich history of artists and musicians.

Carolina Coverfolk, Volumes 1-6

Bonus track: North Carolina native Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield take on Miss Misery live on World Cafe in celebration of their new (and quite excellent) Elliott Smith tribute album.

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1 comment » | Reposts, Vacation Coverfolk

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 5: The Avett Brothers
take on Jason Molina, Jim Croce, Paul Simon, Elliott Smith & more!

April 19th, 2013 — 4:40pm

For the first four volumes of our Vacation Coverfolk series, we pulled from the archives to bring you features on the songs and coverage of Elizabeth Cotten, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Doc Watson, and a mixtape of coverfolk songs with Carolina in the title.

Today, we turn to a new subject: Concord, North Carolina natives The Avett Brothers, whose rise to fame over the past decade has represented a coalescing of neo-traditional elements from the region and beyond. Read on for a look at one of the newest bands to pay tribute to the past and present of the great state in sound and sentiment, plus a full set of covers that speaks soundly to their history and inspiration.

Early harbingers of the same modern tendency towards mixing tradfolk elements into acoustic singer-songwriter almost-rock that brought a Grammy to British-Americana band Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers – currently a five-piece formed around banjo-wielding elder brother Scott, guitar-picking younger brother Seth, and their constant third man, bass player Bob Crawford – have risen through the ranks of the indiefolk world by making intimate, self-effacing music that tears into the soul. Honest hipsters who enact the tensions between the cultural expectations of strong, silent masculinity and the deep urge to feel, their appropriately broad songbook ranges from ballads to full-blown raucous romps, each one a tip of the hat to the myriad of guises and gazes that modern men must straddle to remain whole.

Which is a big part of why fans of their more acoustic sound, with its obvious bluegrass, country, Americana and folk elements, are often startled to find that the brothers, who have been playing together since childhood, got their start in “thrashing” rock bands, which merged in the late nineties when Seth was in high school and Scott was in college, and released three albums together under the name Nemo before breaking up to pursue more traditional American musical forms, allowing what had started as a back-porch side project exploring the potential in acoustic music to become their primary outlet.

The deconstruction reveals roots that reflect their Piedmont origins, with the exploratory paths and soundscapes of hybridized forebears from proto-country banjoist Charlie Poole to early bluesman Blind Boy Fuller echoing throughout, though their own admitted influences run wider still – incorporating, as one 2007 critic put it, “the heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, [and] the raw energy of the Ramones.” And although their subsequent rise to fame has seen them shift back and forth from subtle folk-Americana to a more country rock sound, and from rougher, homespun acoustic studio origins to a recorded and highly produced modality more recently refined by inimitable producer Rick Rubin and distributed by in-house kingmaker Starbucks, their common narrative themes, and their preference for the organic, collaborative one-mic performance that supports their grounded and well-populated narratives, have been strong threads throughout a still-growing career.

In the studio, The Avett Brothers reserve their time for sensitive originals – seven albums, four EPs, and twelve years past their 2000 EP debut, not a single cover appears in their major studio release catalog. But the North Carolina natives appreciate good coverage, and clearly recognize its value as a driver of attention and affection in the post-millennial world of viral pass-along; as a promotion for their last album The Carpenter, they asked fans to take on single Live And Die via YouTube, and the result was exactly as one might expect: a series of amateur takes on the song which contained several nice interpretations and a glut of also-rans which took fairly straightforward shots at what turned out to be an almost prototypical track from the brother-led band.

More significantly, at least for our own purposes today, The Avett Brothers’ coverage of the songs of others is both legendary and equally diverse, transcending their songbook. A survey of YouTube reveals hundreds of wryly and well-chosen full-band and solo takes from radio stations, home studios, and live shows, including a large collection of tender solo living room and green room covers from Seth and Scott paying tribute to a broad set of influences – from country classics to rock and Americana standards to touching songs written and originally performed by their peers in and beyond the indiefolk borderlands.

Stripping these songs from their visual component flattens them out a bit, so in addition to a small set of too-good-to-resist favorites, we’ve included a “selected best” playlist as well, with HUGE thanks to visual artist Mike Beyer, aka Crackerfarm, who has been photographing and videorecording Avett Brothers coverage backstage, on stage, and in small on-site sessions since at least 2007; it is Crackerfarm who provides the vast bulk of our live coverage today, and there’s scores more covers and originals where that came from over at the Crackerfarm YouTube page. Also well worth sharing: The Avett’s contribution to the 2010 Starbucks Valentine compilation, a track or two from the Avett’s earliest live album, The Avett Brothers covering Dylan on Jimmy Fallon, the boys taking on a John Prine cover for 2010 tribute Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, and Scott & Seth’s appearance as both producers and sidemen on folk-hopster G Love’s 2011 release Fixin’ To Die that boils both an old Paul Simon talkie and a Velvet Underground classic into ragged Americana glory.

Stay tuned for a weekend feature on James Taylor, who – like us – moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina and back again…followed by a return home, and a feature on new and impending EP-length coverage sure to knock your proverbial socks off!

1 comment » | Featured Artists, The Avett Brothers, Vacation Coverfolk

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

April 17th, 2013 — 4:57pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment » | Doc Watson, Reposts, Vacation Coverfolk

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

April 15th, 2013 — 9:53pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 2:
The Songs of Elizabeth Cotten

April 14th, 2013 — 4:56pm


North Carolina is rich in history and broad in geography, stretching from warm beachfront majesty to the base of Appalachia. That it holds a dominant place in the history of folk music is due in part to its cultural diversity, and in part to its situation midway up the coast, along the route that folk strands might have once traveled from North to South and back again. This combination of factors has made it an influential locus and crossroads for several southern folk movements of the last century, including branches of the blues, appalachian music, strains of bluegrass, and other early rural folk forms.

Rather than give the musicians and musical forms of this diverse region shorter shrift than they deserve, instead of our typical biweekly megaposts, this week we offer a host of Carolina Coverfolk sets, starting with yesterday’s exploration of songs that use the Carolinas as a setting, and moving on to several features on the songs of North Carolinan songwriters from James Taylor to The Avett Brothers.

Today, we continue our journey with the songs of Elizabeth Cotten, born in Carrboro, North Carolina in 1895, who made her mark on folk music long before the sixties transformed American folk from cultural phenomenon to a true genre. It is a tribute to her indelible influence and stellar songwriting that these songs are still treasured in performance today.

Like many early folk musicians born at the turn of the century, Elizabeth Cotten had two careers: one in her early years, as a self-taught blues folk prodigy, and one later in life, when the folk revival of the fifties and sixties drove a desperate effort to recover and record the authentic sounds of early American folk forms before they could be lost to the ages. Cotten’s story of rediscovery is especially notable for its serendipity: though a few of her songs had taken on a life of their own in the hands of other blues and folk musicians during the forties, Cotten herself had quit making music for twenty five years, only to be rediscovered in the sixties while working as a housekeeper for the Seeger family.

Cotten’s strong songwriting and original upside-down “Cotten picking” guitar style, with its signature banjo-like low-string drone and alternating fingerpicking bass, would eventually result in a star turn on seminal disks and collections from the Smithsonian Folkways label, many culled from home recordings made under the reel-to-reel direction of Mike Seeger in the nineteen fifties. The support of the Seegers and others, and the subsequent success of her first album, 1957 release Folksongs and Instrumentals, brought her onto the folk circuit, where her unique sound influenced the burgeoning folk movement, and where her songs would be heard, recorded, and passed along by the likes of Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Peter, Paul and Mary.

In the end, though only four albums of her original and traditional material were ever released, Cotten remained a celebrated member of the folk touring scene into her late eighties, winning a Grammy in 1985 for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for Elizabeth Cotten Live! a year after being named a “living treasure” by the Smithsonian. Her music continues to be celebrated today for its timeless and distinctive qualities, and for the way it speaks to a childhood among the simple folkways of the rural North Carolina south. And her influence as a songwriter, a guitarist, and an artist echoes in the work of generations.

Our original post on Elizabeth Cotten way back in 2008 featured a few covers each of two of her most familiar songs: two fragile kidfolk versions of Freight Train, which was written when Cotten was eleven, and a full set of folkvariants on the timeless Shake Sugaree, from the hearty tones of folk blues legends Chris Smither and Taj Mahal to the delicate second-wave folk field recordings of Laura Gibson and grunge-folk goddess Mary Lou Lord. To that set, we add a number of other covers of the former, and of Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie, a distinctive Cotten arrangement often mistakenly identified as traditional, made famous by Davy Graham, The Grateful Dead, and others.

As always, artist and album links above lead to the most authentic, honest, and local places to buy music: from the artists and labels themselves, wherever possible. The Elizabeth Cotten originals, especially, are core must-haves for any true tradfolk collector; pick up her solo albums at Smithsonian Folkways.

Stay tuned throughout the week for a lengthy treatise on James Taylor coverage, a brand-new feature on The Avett Brothers, and a piece on the work of Doc Watson, yet another North Carolina fingerpicker. Meanwhile, I’ll be sitting on the back porch, local brew in hand, watching the sun set over the sound and the North Carolina mainland, while the wild deer and the goslings root for grub in the low grass below. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

4 comments » | Elizabeth Cotten, Vacation Coverfolk

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

April 13th, 2013 — 3:26pm


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

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

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

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

3 comments » | Reposts, Vacation Coverfolk

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