Covered in Folk: Richard Thompson
(Kate Rusby, Buddy and Julie Miller, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and 9 more!)

I have a strong memory of being halfway up the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Hill, the sun setting, the stage small in the distance, trying to figure out what people see in Richard Thompson. The man was clearly a legend, and a draw indeed; the hill was as full as I’ve seen it. But that voice, and the signature solo electric guitar, echoed off the hills like a sour note in my ears. I wandered off to put the kids in their bunks, and tucked Thompson away in my mind for another day.

We’ve hemmed and hawed around the subject for a while here at Cover lay Down, from our early feature on son Teddy Thompson to a half-pint feature on 1952 Vincent Black Lightning way back in August. In fact, on average, covers of Richard Thompson songs have cropped up at a rate of one per month — a high percentage indeed for a blog that only posts twice a week.

But regular readers may notice that though his songs are legion here, Richard Thompson’s own voice has only shown up a few meager times, for live covers of Britney Spears and Squeeze classic Tempted, and for his Donovan cover from the Crossing Jordan soundtrack. For a guy who has had such an impact on modern folk music on both sides of the pond — both for his work with the definitive sixties British folk rock group Fairport Convention and his subsequent career as a solo artist — and who has been so prolific in both stages of his work, it’s almost an embarrassment to have stayed at arm’s length for so long.

My bias against Dylan, Michael Stipe, and other practitioners of a particular type of nasal, pinched male folk voices is well-cited here at Cover lay Down; much of my long-standing resistance to Thompson’s music, surely, is due to the peculiar grating timbre of his voice. Too, his particular sound is so distinctive, it can easily be mistaken for sameness — that loose-tempoed strum, that too-often invariant volume, that strangled, raw-pitched yelp held loud and long.

But looking back, my bias for Thompson’s songbook is so obvious, and the field so rich, I’ve given myself a few days to try on the songs themselves, figuring that if they were truly that unlistenable, the man would never have become one of the most covered folksingers living today. And you know what? After steeping myself in his vast back catalog for just a few hours, I think I’m catching a glimmer of the power already — something about the tension between the little-boy longing in his heart, the beauty of the language he finds to express himself, and the authenticity it takes on when held in tension with the sound and fury of the performance.

I suspect I’ll always favor the covers, and not just because it’s my raison d’blog. Specifically, I find his language and melodies especially well-served by tender coverage, though like the originals, versions “out there” range from rockers to ballads. And since friend FiL sent along two generally solid tribute albums a while back — one a rocker, the other a delicate collection of freakfolk and neofolk — there’s plenty of fodder, both reposted and newly-found, to select from and share.

But like once-bitter coffee or a fine IPA, the man’s finally starting to grow on me. He may not turn out to be the musical love of my life, but I’m willing to find my peace with the guttural performance of this bittersweet poet of factory and field, apt chronicler of loves lost and discovered and lost again.

While I spend a few more hours with the originals, here’s just a small sampling of the Thompson-penned covers I’ve grown to love best in a lifetime of resistance.

As always, folks, Cover Lay Down exists to spread the word about artists, not just share the tunes and thoughts. If you enjoyed one or all of today’s sampler platter, follow album links to pick up your very own copies of tribute disks and more direct from artist websites and other local, anti-corporate sources.

And if you’re interested in joining me on my aural pilgrimage to learn more about the nigh-immortal Richard Thompson, head on over to BeesWeb, Thompson’s well-designed website, for purchase links, samples and more. The lyrics are sheer poetry, too, worth reading as verse on their own merits.

More recent Richard Thompson coverage on Cover Lay Down:

Category: Covered in Folk, Richard Thompson

11 Responses to “Covered in Folk: Richard Thompson
(Kate Rusby, Buddy and Julie Miller, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and 9 more!)

  1. Owyn

    404 for The Calvary Cross(cavalry.mp3).

  2. dav

    While you’re in the back catalog, make sure you check out “Mock Tudor” (’Hard on Me’ and ‘Crawl Back’ in particular) and “Rumor and Sigh” (’Read about Love’ and Feel So Good’ in particular)…..

  3. Bruce Morgen

    RT’s voice “grating?” Surely you jest! Categorized with Dylan and Stipe as one those “nasal, pinched male folk voices?” Oh, well, can’t win ‘em all — perhaps if you go back to “Henry The Human Fly,” when he was still echoing the British folk-rockers with whom he launched his long career, you might have a leg to stand on, but for the last thirty years or so he’s been as evocative and profoundly musical a vocalist as one could ever hope for.

    Check out the classic concert video from the mid-’80s (you’ll *love* the fashion statements) “Across A Crowded Room” tour, where he sings toe-to-toe with Clive Gregson and Christine Collister, two of the most powerfully effective vocalists ever to walk British soil, and the recent DVD of a “1000 Years of Popular Music” show leads and blends with the formidable Judith Owen and Debra Dobkin. The guy’s a musician’s musician as player, writer, AND singer — imo you simply can’t do better than his distinctive, heartfelt vocals, you can only do differently.

  4. john

    Thank you for these covers! While it’s available on the Beat the Retreat tribute, I have to say that Bob Mould’s version of Turning of the Tide is just amazing!
    Thanks again!


  5. Zach Maxwell

    I for some reason have never heard of Richard Thompson but am dying to check him out now. You’re writing is impecable and I truly appreciate this blog.

  6. FiL

    BH, I love the fact that you continue to explore Thompson’s music, even though you don’t feel it (yet) the way some of us do. Sometimes it just takes the right song (or even the right mood) to make an artist’s music “click”.

    My introduction to RT was “Rumor and Sigh”, one of his classic solo albums (though mostly more alt-pop than folk, thanks to [over-]producer Mitchell Froom). I bought it, listened to it once or twice, didn’t get it, and let it sit for about six months. Then I put it back on one day and for whatever reason it suddenly all made sense to me, and I went out and bought everything else I could find from him.

    I’ll grant you that his voice isn’t for everyone, but I do think it’s one of the few voices from that generation that has actually gotten (much) stronger with age. Contrast his vocal development with the declines of Robert Plant’s, Ian Anderson’s, and Bob Dylan’s voices, to name just three.

    Anyway, even if you never get much past enjoying covers of his music, you’re still well ahead of the game. And so are the rest of us, thanks to your blog.

  7. Nosila

    I love Richard’s voice, the ex’s (Linda Thompson) voice and now the kid’s (Teddy) voice. I find them all very compelling. This is one of my very favorites:

    A Heart Needs A Home - Richard and Linda Thompson

  8. frumped

    I used to feel exactly the same way about Richard Thompson,
    but I’m also slowly coming around. Seeing him on the black cab sessions helped
    The first song there is nice enough, but him trying to remember the words to an old Fats Waller song is the real gem.

    Great blog, thanks.

  9. Owyn

    Red hair and black leather….

    Great line. Great memories. I just checked and I have 7 different versions of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. 4 of them by Richard Thompson. He never seems to play it the same way twice.

  10. Rufor

    Thank you! I would now go on this blog every day!

  11. boyhowdy

    Thanks to all for the suggestions. I continue to maintain that Thompson’s voice is a barbaric yawp, but I appreciate both the dissent and the support for my continued journey — one could argue, in fact, that it is the dissent that caused me to reconsider in the first place, so it clearly has its value AS support.

    @Bruce: point taken, but the subjective interpretation of voice is reinforced by the content of your comment, I think. 1000 Years of Popular Song is an extreme case of that vocal tonality, especially hard for me to listen to, in fact — a pity, given the coverage content.

    @ Nosilla: I’m a BIG fan of Teddy and Linda, too. And a Heart Needs a Home is one of my favorites — we’ve posted a cover of it earlier.

    @ Owyn: ONLY 7 versions of Vincent Black Lightning? and only three of those are covers? Let me know which covers you have, and I’ll send along a bunch more.

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