Archive for December 2008

New Artists, NEW Songs: A Year in Versions
(aka Countdown Coverfolk: On Genre Fragmentation and the Loss of the Popular)

December 30th, 2008 — 06:22 pm

Back in the mid eighties, just before the emergence of MTV transformed the curious mutual symbiosis of pop music and pop culture, my teenage cousin would stay up late on New Year’s Eve taping Casey Kasem and, later, Shadoe Stevens as they counted down the hits on the American Top 40. I wasn’t that hardcore a collector, and anyway, as a middle school outcast, my musical tastes were only just awakening, but I tended to listen, too, if only to demonstrate that I, too, was cool enough to care what was on the radio.

Notably, most years, the bulk of the songs were familiar enough for a singalong. And why not? Back then, the reason we taped songs off the radio in the first place was that we had no other songs in mind. It was the proto-Napster, and it served us well, in part because the musical spectrum it contained was so finite that it didn’t matter if we had to stay up all night to capture it all.

A quarter of a century later, the world has changed several times over. My cousin falls asleep early, exhausted from playing with her one year old twins, and the very concept of popular music has been fragmented by micro-audiences, global reach, and a multiplicity of sources. Music has become a multi-tiered game, and the stuff that passes for Pop isn’t just easily avoidable, it’s increasingly hard to encounter by accident. The Top 40 still exists as a reflection of crossover appeal and sales, but other than as a marketing measure, the conceit of “popular” doesn’t mean much anymore. And in a century defined by an infinite number of tripartite MySpace designations, no one can claim to be a musical polymath.

Simultaneously, I’m not as connected to mainstream pop music as I once was. The beat-heavy club music my students pick up on YouTube and MTV2, and subsequently play in the hallways between classes, is more and more like the sounds of an alien culture. I have a vague sense that American Idol is driving some performers to chart-dom, but since we choose not to have television programming in my household, the voices don’t resonate. Spinning the dials on long drives to the city only exposes the vast array of what’s happening without my knowledge; getting most of my music through the blogs (and, more narrowly, through my mp3 blog RSS feed) means finding more familiarity in The Pitchfork Top 100 than on a list less than half that size on what passes for pop radio these days.

Over the past few weeks, as my fellow bloggers blanket the blogs with lists, I’ve toyed with the idea of tracking down some decent folk covers of this year’s Top 40 anyway, mostly to see if it could be done. I had in mind, I think, some grand plan to collapse the divide between pop and the rest of us, and in doing so demonstrate the continued importance of the re-creation and reclamation which has always defined folk as a cultural process, exposing the folk lens on culture as perhaps even more relevant than ever in a pastiche culture of niches and nodes.

But if the point of covers is to use the familiar as a bridge to discover new artists and new songs, and to use the new in turn to rediscover the song itself, then compiling a list of Top 40 covers of is, subjectively speaking, an inherently failed conceit. A quick glance at this year’s American Top 40 reveals a list weighted heavily with artist names and song titles that don’t ring a bell, except perhaps as cultural icons and memes, famous for being famous. And my suspicion is, playing the songs wouldn’t make them any more familiar.

Things are slightly more resonant on the Pitchfork/Paste/Stereogum/Mojo side of things. There’s real folk here, for one thing. As we’ve discussed here before, the indie world these days includes an acoustic side with delicate authenticity — though certainly, the newest songs of the “independent mainstream” trend towards punkish indiepop more and more, as if coveting the central spot in the mass media mindset which once drove popular song. And the assumption of authenticity extends to the songs themselves, which makes the reconsideration of song that drives coverage by folk musicians, at least, that much more likely in the first place.

I’m not necessarily claiming the indie charts as my own, of course — the breadth of music you see here on Cover Lay Down is, centrally, the stuff I like. But I am claiming the indieworld as the new popular, at least for those of us who live here in virtual life. Though I find myself most comforted in and by the Folk and Americana charts, or even the less country lists over at Twangville, there is little immediate coverage there. On the other hand, the inward gaze of the indie movement creates a platform for same-year covers which rivals that of pop music covers. And since the originals I am familiar with trend more towards the Pitchfork list than the American Top 40, it is to the former which we look for today’s set.

What follows, then, is a short list of my favorite new covers of new popular songs from the indie canon. I’ve allowed for covers of songs from both 2008 and 2007, just to make sure we can honor covers of songs which only hit popular consciousness at the end of the preceding year.

As expected, the list spins heavily indiefolk; both originals and covers will likely be familiar to those who, like me, make it a habit of reading a hundred hip blogs or more just to stay current. Too, as befits a list of hastily-considered songs, some of these covers are rough, and it’s hard to gauge their long-term relevance when the originals remain in the air. But all are worth consideration, whether you’re a folk fan, a blog miner, or just a cover buff. And some are even just plain old great folk music, ready to stand the test of time.

Enjoy, and as always, follow links to purchase if you like what you hear. After all, this is the next generation, both covered and covering; if we want them to be around in another quarter century themselves, they need all the support they can get.

    After the YouTube video of these two young Swedish kids in a forest glen covering practically everybody’s top ten song of the year blew bloggers away this summer, the teenage sisters who call themselves First Aid Kit were nice enough to rerecord the coversong indoors and release it to the universe. Gorgeous.

    The final fruit of our Covers Project partnership with Philly folkstar Denison Witmer back in October, and perhaps the most delicate and sparse of a wonderful set. More about the project, Denison’s new album, and a few more covers from Denison here.

    NY/NJ singer-songwriter Ian McGlynn replaces the driving beat and fuzzed out rock guitars of the original with a perfect acoustic pianopop atmosphere, turning what was once a wail of angst and noise into a deeper and more contemplative work complete with bells and lovely layered high-pitched voices. From the Memorial Day Parade EP; highly recommended.

    Harvested from the blogs within the last few weeks, this totally lo-fi take on one of this year’s biggest hits deconstructs what was a pretty simple, potent mix, turning it back into the perfect demo recording we never got to hear. “Acoustic/Melodramatic Popular Song” combo dublinStu warbles off tempo and off pitch, yet remains endearing enough to make me want to coin the term janglefolk. [UPDATE: Will from dublinStu writes to let us know that the song was actually taken from this awesomely amateur, equally lo-fi video, which just makes it that much cooler.]

    Orchestral and anthemic in turn, this fiddle-heavy cover comes from a band that considers themselves powerpop and punk; I find it ultimately more folk rock than anything, though the term is seldom used on this side of the International dateline. Mystery Jets covered this one live over the summer; it made the rounds and ended up stuck in my head.

    I keep my eyes open for every in-studio session on blogroll, hoping for good covers of one indie band by another. Like the songs above and below, this one from the combined talents of Via Audio and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, which emerged as part of a recording session hosted by It’s Hard to Find a Friend at the end of April, is typical of the subgenre: on the “MTV unplugged” side of indiefolk, and a bit out of tune by the end, but worth listening to all the same. Ironically, the session also includes a decent take on Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box.

    I’m proud to say I heard the original of this one enough to love it before I heard the cover — no mean feat, given how late in the year Okkervil River released it, but then, I was waiting for it to drop, too. The live Ola Podrida version, produced as part of Okkervil River’s YouTube-based covers project which accompanies their newest album, is more of the bedroom variety, celebratory but raw, almost solo, save for a sporadic tambourine; you can hear more Okkervil River covers from other indie artists at the project page.

    A last-minute addition to this list, artist-leaked just yesterday and technically not even due to be released until 2009, this delicate, almost freakfolk rendition of one of the oddest singles from the brand new Killers album just started making the rounds via and a YouTube release, and I couldn’t resist its charm. It’s songs like these which help me understand why one of my favorite folkbloggers also runs a sister site of Swedish music. Watch for singer-songwriter Jonna Lee to make a big splash this coming year.

Looking for more countdown covers of this year’s popular songs? Many of these songs and their companion originals are also up over at Hypeful, which has compiled a pretty amazing list of their own 25 Best Cover Songs of 2008; though not all are folk, unsurprisingly, given the modern indiefolk tendency towards stripped-down, fast turn-around covers, the vast majority are sparser than the originals, and a decent percentage of them are delicate, acoustic, or both.

Fellow coverblogger Ray over at Cover Me did a similar post of his year’s best covers last week; it’s worth perusal, too. My Old Kentucky Blog has made many tracks available from his all-covers end-of-year radio show. And popular podcast and coverblog forerunner Coverville has been running a countdown of favorite covers from the past year through his last few shows. In these cases, not all covers emerged in 2008, and not all are folk, either, but novelty will have its influence, and a few favorites of my own from the year can be found in each.

More generally, if you like this sort of indie-bred coverfolk, Captain Obvious’ covers mixtapes are a wonderful secondary source, each well-selected and carefully orchestrated to provide a perfect atmosphere. Many of the tunes you’ll find there come from here, but I get as much back from him, if not more. Add it to your blogroll, and check back often.

1,149 comments » | New Artists Old Songs

Single Song Sunday: I Still Miss Someone

December 28th, 2008 — 02:16 am

It’s been a long, long time since we compiled a Single Song Sunday post. But as the year comes to a close, it is our wont to turn to the past. And tonight, as I sift through the detritus of a year heavy with transition, I find my thoughts turning to those who we will be leaving behind in 2008.

Regular readers may recall that we lost our beloved cat this year. We also lost my father’s father, the last of his generation, a genial yet emotionally closed man who grew up hard and proud of his self-sufficience, yet who was, in my eyes, nonetheless sweet and gentle to the end. Too, moving on from one teaching gig to another meant leaving behind a whole community which I had grown to love and live in comfortably. And though we have come to live with the distance between us and the friends that grow ever farther in time and space, there are those that we would call, and do not or cannot, and miss terribly every day.

Over the next week at Star Maker Machine, we’ll be paying tribute to those musicians who passed this year. But for all of us who have lost someone this year, be it to death or divorce or just plain old life-changing distance, here’s a set of covers of one of my favorite Johnny Cash tunes.

The song I Still Miss Someone seems to lend itself inevitably to a sort of slow countryfolk; something about the blue-eyed narrative subject, perhaps, and the metaphors of nature coupled with the image of being alone at the party, though it’s also hard to shake the ghost of Johnny Cash. As such, you’ll find but four true folkcovers below: Mae Robertson‘s sweet solo folkpop lullaby, the ragged lo-fi folkstring and vocal harmonies of prodigal Arlo and Willie folkdaughters Folk Uke, the lovely bluegrass-tinged tradfolk sound of five piece stringband Joy Kills Sorrow, and the slow singer-songwriter approach of folkfemme supergroup Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dar Williams, Shawn Colvin, and Patty Griffin (courtesy of a last-minute pass-along from fellow folkfan and Star Maker contributor Susan).

But though the nature of the song drives the pace and twang, even on the folkier side of the line between true country and hybridized countryfolk, there’s plenty of diversity here. Settings run from Robert Earl Keen‘s warm Texan twangfolk to Julie Delaney‘s slow, warm mariachi ballad; the tone ranges from Ryan Adams‘ glistening, broken alt-languid blues take to the light, sparse countryfolk duet voices of Nanci Griffith and Rodney Crowell. And with the possible exceptions of the sparse yet playful Whiskeytown cover released as a bonus track rarity earlier this year, and an oddly dirgelike yet carnivalesque take from alt-country collective Willard Grant Conspiracy, most of the set consists of tender, wistful covers, which manage — as Cash intended, I believe — to simultaneously ease the pain, and both curse and celebrate the very act of missing someone as that vital spark which keeps the past with us always.

Songs heal in so many ways: this one heals and soothes me, and I hope it heals and soothes you, too. May the ones we’ve loved and lost live in our hearts forever, and be carried forward with us into time immemorial.

Got another great folkversion of I Still Miss Someone? Send it along!! All submissions will be considered for an upcoming and long overdue edition of (Re)Covered, a regular feature here at Cover Lay Down in which we revisit old features through new and newly discovered coversongs.

1,301 comments » | Johnny Cash, Single Song Sunday

One Last Holiday Elseblog: A Thompson Family Christmas
plus Covers of Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War is Over)

December 24th, 2008 — 08:13 pm

It’s my engagement anniversary tonight. The stocking are hung by the pellet stove with care; the children may not be dreaming of sugarplums just yet, but at least they’ve stopped stirring. But before I head off to cuddle by the fire with my beloved, here’s a short last-minute post for my regular readers on this slightly rained-out Christmas Eve.

I wasn’t planning on posting again until Sunday, but this lovely hour-long holiday special from BBC Radio 2 is only available for a few more days, and I just discovered it tonight. So quick! Click the pic of Teddy above, and head over to BBC2 to stream A Thompson Family Christmas (requires Real Player), starring previously featured Cover Lay Down favorites Teddy Thompson and Kathryn Williams, plus Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, Bert Jansch, Ed Harcourt, sister Kami Thompson, and older folkies and family progenitors Linda and Richard.

This is supposedly the first time all four performing Thompsons have played together live, so don’t miss the window of opportunity. Kathryn is a great friend and a delicate songstress, too, and I was blown away by Unthank and the Winterset a few months ago at a local show. Here’s the set list:

    Silent Night – Teddy Thompson and Katherine Williams
    Purple Snowflakes – Kami Thompson with BV’s
    Christmas Time Is Here – Ed Harcourt
    New Depression – Justin Bond
    Albert’s Ashes – Brendan Campbell
    Christmas – Teddy Thompson
    Bright Morning Stars – Katherine Williams
    Last Christmas – Kamila Thompson
    Let’s Not Fight This Christmas – Chris Difford
    Cutty Wren – Richard Thompson
    Tar Barrel in Dale – Rachel Unthank and the Winterset
    Moonshine – Bert Jansch
    Christmas Will Be Just Another Day – Jenni Muldaur and BV’s
    Blue Christmas – The Thompsons

BBC licensing being what it is, UK listeners can also access three bonus audio tracks unavailable in the US via the same link. If anyone on that side of the pond manages to capture the stream OR the bonus material, please let me know ASAP; at this point, it’s about all I want for Christmas.

While I’m here, might I tempt you with the original and two great folkcovers of John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War is Over) over at Star Maker Machine? I thought that I could.

Oh, and Happy Holidays, everybloggy. May your days be merry, fearless, and bright. I’ll be back Sunday as usual, assuming we make it back in one piece from our annual Christmas trip north to see the wife’s parents.

1,207 comments » | Uncategorized

Chanukkah Coverfolk, Redux:
On Religious Folk and New Jewish Voices

December 23rd, 2008 — 09:38 pm

from Winterlights: A Season in Poems and Quilts by Anna Grossnickle Hines

While I generally attribute my love of folk music to my father’s good taste and influence, it was my mother who introduced me to both kidfolk and, later in life, filled the house on holidays with what can only be called the Jewish equivalent of Christian Music — that branch of music which, in trying to balance between the spiritual source and the popular ear, has a high tendency toward over-earnestness.

So when Mom was the first to respond to Sunday’s call for quality folk/acoustic Chanukkah covers, I was, to be honest, a bit wary of the result.

Now let’s be fair: Chanukkah isn’t a major Jewish holiday, and Jewish music doesn’t rank too highly on the pop culture horizon. As such, much of the Chanukkah music out there is religious first, and folk second; it is, in other words, music that truly belongs in the Synagogue rec hall, rather than a popular stage. As evidence, in our modern Jewnitarian household, we have a full shelf of Chanukkah music collected over the years which is, on the whole, a bit too precious to be considered just plain good music.

But it’s not just Chanukkah, and it’s not just me. Notably, in fact, both of the genres I inherited from my mother have a reputation for being more miss than hit.

I’ll probably get clobbered in the comments for saying so, but I think that as general categories, this is because Kidfolk and Religious folk suffer from the same root ailment: both are too often produced with a conservatively projected audience in mind, which limits the ability of most performers to find the music that truly exists inside themselves. The result is transparently constructed, subject to the worst of overannunciation and false cheer, and this might be enough to explain the lack of authentic emotion which many folk fans ascribe to the vast majority of the output from such categories.

But just as there is good kidfolk to be found in the hands of those who are able to transcend the limitations and temptations of talking down to their audience, there is nothing inherently cheesy in the curious mix of religion and popular music. Though wariness is a reasonable watchword when dealing with religious music, as in any genre, gems can be found, even if the average is less than worthy to the popular ear.

And as it is in general, so it is with Chanukkah songs.

As an example of music which is worth a second listen, here’s two recommendations from Mom: a bluegrass cover of Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah, and a live rooftop video performance of the Texas Swing version of The Dreydl Song from the aptly named and recently disbanded Mark Rubin and his Ridgetop Syncopaters. Neither is perfect, and until it arrives in the mail, I cannot yet speak to the overall success of A Chanukkah Feast, Vol. 2, the non-profit-generated album from whence they come. But each song is worth a chance — which is more than I can say for most of the music which trickles into so many Jewish households this time of year.

Mom’s not the only source for Chanukkah music, of course. A chance encounter with Peter Yarrow’s Light One Candle in the Unitarian Universalist Hymnal at last night’s rescheduled Vespers service reminded me that there is, at least, one honestly folk Chanukkah song which seems overdue for coverage. A quick survey of the usual secret sources revealed a very new live recording from diminutive Brooklinite singer-songwriter Michelle Citrin, who has made a name for herself over the last few years for a series of surprisingly popular folk rock Jewish Holiday originals released via YouTube.

Citrin’s folkpop EP, foursongsforyou, is chock full of catchy hooks, and comes highly recommended. The recording in question appears on the soundtrack for a recent PBS special called Lights: Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert; I haven’t heard the whole thing, but the presence of both The Klezmatics (see below) and acoustic jazzfolk guitarist Laurence Juber in the cast suggest that some of it, at least, is deserving of further consideration.

And speaking of Klezmer, and other lesser-known forms of folk: reader Kevin reminds us that Texas-based group Brave Combo does a great version of Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah; it’s polka rock, but polka counts as folk at the Grammys, so who are we to say otherwise? For comparison’s sake, here’s an acoustic-with-accordion take on the same song from Barenaked Ladies.

Oh, and Klezmer counts as folk, too. One day, I expect, we’ll host an entire Subgenre Coverfolk feature on Klezmer music; in the meanwhile, here’s The Klezmatics, a band pushing the boundaries of the genre who has garnered national attention for two albums of interpretations of Woody Guthrie’s Jewish-themed songs and poems, with a surprisingly mellow folk cover of Guthrie’s Hanukah Dance, and a happy, joyous take on Hanukah Tree, both from Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah.

Looking for something a little more Christmassy? Check out the great holiday songsharing, including a live Bruce Cockburn and Jackson Browne cover of Timbuk 3 classic All I Want for Christmas (Is World Peace), over at Star Maker Machine, where this week’s theme is Peace on Earth. And don’t forget our previous Holiday Coverfolk features here on Cover Lay Down…

1,023 comments » | Hanukkah, Holiday Coverfolk

Chanukkah Coverfolk:
Marc Cohn and Ben Kweller cover Rock of Ages

December 21st, 2008 — 04:47 pm

I first shared these tunes exactly one year ago, according to the Jewish calendar; since then, I’ve kept my ears open for folk covers of other Hanukkah songs, but to no avail. Bonus points to anyone who can find one — YouTube, mp3, or otherwise — and pass it along sometime within the next eight nights.

A special post today, short and sweet, in honor of the first night of Hannukah…and because despite the recent trickle of indiebands doing Hanukkah albums, I can’t for the life of me find any folk covers of Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah or Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.

Maybe it’s fitting to feature just one song today. And maybe it’s fitting that it’s the best-known Hanukkah song, the one that’s become such a central part of the candle-lighting ritual itself.

Here, then, just in time for tonight’s candle-lighting, indiepop guitarist Ben Kweller and folkbluesman Marc Cohn interpret Rock of Ages. The song is over seven hundred years old, but it’s still powerful in the right hands.

We’ll be back later in the week with one more post of greater substance featuring the songs of the season. May your candles burn bright until then.

5 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

New Artists, Old Songs: A Holiday in My Inbox
(New takes on Joni Mitchell’s River; Joel Rakes does Xmas Classics)

December 20th, 2008 — 02:16 pm

I know, I know. You’re sick of the same old Holiday tunes, and the horrible electronic alien bleepings of this year’s newly leaked Sufjan Stevens Christmas EP are about as far from folk as it gets.  How about something new and honest instead?

Here’s a short eleventh hour set of freely-released holiday tunes from a few still-smallscale folk artists and singer-songwriters who either reached out to me directly, or came to my attention through fan recommendations.   To the best of my knowledge, with the exception of Lex Land’s take on anti-holiday folk standard River and the bonus song below, these songs haven’t hit the blogs yet.  Call it a palate cleanser, just in time for those last-minute playlists.

Philly folkster Joel Rakes sent me an email a few weeks ago announcing his third annual free Christmas EP; I finally caught up on the inbox last night, and was pleasantly surprised to find an honest, versatile singer-songwriter with an ear towards the new indiefolk crowd’s preference for bedroom production and subtly computer-assisted sound. His well-crafted banjo-and-guitar interpretations of familiar holiday tunes bring just the right amount of ragged innovation to old chestnuts, adding light but interesting rhythmic changes and just a hint of modern instrumentation to what, at heart, remain earnest carols played and sung with love; I hate to say it, but this is exactly what I hoped for from Sufjan this year.

Rakes releases his holiday EPs gradually; there’s a new tune coming out Sunday night, and the last of the 2008 set will drop on Christmas Eve. If you enjoy the samples below as much as I did, head over for the rest of the sets and a few streaming tracks from his new album, and don’t forget to bookmark the site for Wednesday’s stocking stuffer.

Last year I posted a bunch of covers of Joni Mitchell’s depressed holiday classic River; the files are down on that original post, though I’d encourage those unfamiliar with the backstory on the song to read all about it. But the songs are largely still available, thanks to She’ll Grow Back, who has reposted the best of the bunch; I highly recommend heading over there for the Angus Stone version, if nothing else. 

Still, the covers of this true Christmas Folksong keep coming. Rosie Thomas takes on the song with aplomb on her new release; I’d share it here, but since we’ve already shared so much of her album (here, here and here), I’ll trust you all to head back to those entries for purchase links. Instead, here’s two favorite covers released this year from two very young female artists who came highly recommended: a lovely clear-toned vocal-and-pianopop version from Gilmore Girls folksinger Amy Kuney, and a quiet, subtly orchestrated double-guitar take from new indie voice Lex Land, who swept my favorite folk blogs this year with her stunning debut album Orange Days on Lemon Street.

As a bonus, in case you missed it when it first came out, here’s a lovely holiday coversong that was making the rounds in November: Laura Gibson‘s gorgeous, broken, timeless take on It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, off of the excellent charity album Peace on Earth, Vol II. If you’re still looking for something nice to give the indiefolk audiophile in your life this year, I highly recommend this holiday album from It’s Hard to Find a Friend. The mix is huge and wonderful, the price is right, and all sales benefit The Children of Uganda Fund. And don’t forget: downloads make great last minute gifts!

Cover Lay Down posts new features every Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional holiday or otherday; I know today is Saturday, but I finished early, and couldn’t wait for you to open these presents. Head over to Womenfolk for more wonderful holiday coverfolk, and don’t forget to stop by tomorrow for our annual Hanukkah folksong repost!

1,236 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, New Artists Old Songs

RIP Davy Graham, 1940 – 2008

December 16th, 2008 — 09:46 pm

It’s hard to overstate the influence of multiracial and multitalented guitarist Davy Graham on modern folk music. A seminal figure in the 1960s British folk revolution, Graham’s broad interest in pushing the boundaries of folk music to include jazz, blues, middle eastern, and other global musical forms opened up the genre to a world of new possibility, enriching the very foundation of folk while making it accessible to a much wider folk audience. And his distinctive use of D modal or “Celtic” tuning, which allowed artists to easily maintain an open-string harmony while noodling around in the treble strings, became a “second standard” for picked and acoustic guitarists throughout the genre spectrum, making possible the very conceit of the “folk instrumental”.

As separate elements, Graham’s genre-play and his popular transformation of technical possibility each revolutionized what folk could be; taken together, the two make a case for Graham’s fifty-year body of work as definitive in driving both the body and soul of what we now consider the essence of folk. Certainly, by their own admission, his impact on peers and subsequent folk luminaries such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Fairport Convention, and Martin Carthy was unparalleled; farther from the center of the British folk scene, Paul Simon and Jimmy Page, among others, cite him as a major source of inspiration.

Like many folk fans, while I recognize the Graham’s influence on song and structure when I hear it, I don’t know enough of his original work as I’d like to, though I plan to rectify this post-haste. But oh, how fitting to celebrate his life’s work in covers, given his history. In a wordless tribute to a man who brought such breadth and potential to a fledgling form, then, here’s a few versions of the work which made him most famous…followed by a pair of great and traditional jazz covers, and two vocalized songs of upbeat albeit bluesy comfort, from the man himself.

Rest in peace, Davy. Long may your songs and sound reside in our strings and our voices, our ears and our hearts.

1,169 comments » | RIP

Bonus Holiday Coverfolk: Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
With Rose Polenzani and Rose Cousins

December 15th, 2008 — 12:34 am

When I first posted about Johnny Marks last year, I noted that there weren’t any folkcovers of his fourth and final classic Christmas song, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. Last week, when I reposted the same entry, I still hadn’t found a good one.

But timing is everything in the world of blogging. Tonight, in a moment of serendipity, I stumbled upon Rose Polenzani’s blog, and discovered this delightfully cute kitchen table duet, first posted just five days ago.

Gorgeous, eh? Head over to Polenzani’s place for a blooper reel, plus a great group cover of the old Bobby Darin/Johnny Mathis tune Lonesome Polecat. Oh, and buy her new album while you’re at it.

6 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

Covered In Kidfolk: Christmas Specials
(Seasonal TV Tunes For Folk Fans and Families)

December 14th, 2008 — 01:11 am

To suggest that all true Christmas music is kidsong is only a slight oversimplification. Put aside the tales of holiday romance and heartbreak, allow for the minor exception of a few overly religious holiday hymns, and a surprisingly large percentage of the melodies in the frosty air this time of year is kidmusic.

And why not? We are, after all, products of a culture which weans its adults on a steady diet of commodification fetish through childhood tv. Religious or secular, Christian or otherwise, the way we come to Christmas springs — at least in part — from our childhood experiences with holiday specials and familiar figures of the season. It says what it should that I, who grew up Jewish in the midst of suburban Christmas culture, know more verses of the standard Christmas songbook than my wife, who grew up in a churchfaring but televisionless household.

And if things have changed at all since our own younger days, it is in scale, not substance. Our American childhoods were framed as much or more by a months worth of christmas specials as they were that one night of caroling; even the most conscious moms and dads cannot truly escape the common motifs of the season, from Frosty to Rudolph, from Emmett Otter to Charlie Brown. The wry voice of Burl Ives and the distinctively lush tinkle of Vince Guaraldi’s piano find their way onto the radio playlists regardless of station format these days, if only for the kitsch factor.

Familiary breeds contentment, of course, and some comfort in culture is never a bad thing. But I’m not advocating for letting the culture have its way with us. Today’s commodification culture is more insidious than ours was, and a hell of a lot more desperate; working against that, and laying groundwork instead for the remixing, copyfighting culture we hope to engender, is our duty as thoughtful moms and dads. Reclaiming those songs isn’t just the folk way, it’s the best way to help raise healthy children, who — even if they cannot appreciate our attempt to find authentic and ever-new — can at least benefit from growing up in a household where music is not always seen as soundtrack, but celebrated for itself, both as something to listen to, and something to play with.

I’ve posted a few kid-friendly, popculture coverfolk tunes in the past few weeks, most notably Jack Johnson’s lovely beachfolk cover of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and Rosie Thomas’ wonderfully delicate reworking of classic Alvin and the Chipmunks tune Christmas Don’t Be Late, which, along with a very different updated version of the kick-off tune below, appears on her wonderful new holiday album A Very Rosie Christmas. But we’re overdue for a full set for the little ones. Today, in a very special edition of our Covered in Kidfolk series, we offer a covered songbook from Christmas Specials past — to share with your inner child, and to gift to your children of the present. May we find and plant the true spirit of the season in our own.

    Guaraldi’s seminal work with the Charlie Brown holiday specials made the joy of the season come alive for a generation; highly memetic Peanuts instrumental Linus and Lucy debuted in this one, too, but it’s Christmas Time Is Here which has become the holiday classic. Perennial cover girl Shawn Colvin’s entire Holiday Songs and Lullabies album comes highly recommended; her pure girlish voice on this take rings out like churchbells on a snowy morning. Meanwhile, Rosie Thomas’s quieter version is lovely and still, like the snow itself.
    My youngest daughter has a snowman fetish; she pulls the old Rankin-Bass animated classic off the library shelf whenever she sees it, regardless of the season, and I’ve caught her dancing to the credits more than once. Fiona Apple isn’t usually this folk, but her solo acoustic guitar version of the tune which started it all, via 2005 alt-rock compilation Christmas Calling, comes off as perfect lusty singer-songwriter fare; thanks to Kurtis for first bringing it to our attention. A nice compliment to the Roches’ working-class Brooklynite version, too.
    If this Paul Williams-penned tune wasn’t familiar from two of Jim Henson’s most magical Christmas specials ever, it would fit perfectly in the gospelfolk canon.  Here, on a live radio cover posted on her own blog a while back, singer-songwriter Rose Polenzani comes on sweet and rough, delivering a gorgeously balanced in-studio cover which manages to let the faintest hint of the season creep in through a sparse, bell-like hand on the piano. Pick up 2008 release Where The River Meets The Sea to hear a produced version of the title track.
    Solo indie darling and occasional Grizzly Bear cohort Robin Allender takes on the theme to the poignantly silent British holiday classic The Snowman with aplomb. Worth seeing and worth hearing, lest we forget that not all children grow up American.
    A short Celticfolk banjo set. Canadian Celtic jamband The Clumsy Lovers offer a riotous folkgrass romp through a beloved Whoville tune on their newest Christmas EP. And Compass Records label cofounder and master of the banjo jazzgrass jam Alison Brown turns in an Evergreen two-fer: a stellar acoustic instrumental Celtic harp tune and a wonderfully lighthearted cover of the Who’s Christmas celebration song complete with children’s chorus.
    There’s a few versions of this one out there. My favorite: novelist Pete Nelson‘s exquisitely greasy, faux-latinesque take, a hairy-chested grinch missing the machismo mark from Wonderland, a well-worn Signature Sounds holiday sampler released a few years back. Folkpoppers Aimee Mann and Grant Lee Phillips come in a close second with high-production beatpoet gusto and a hint of esquivel. And the Asylum Street Spankers are tight, hilarious, and unpredictable as hell — not bad for a bunch of drunk ragtime alt-folkies.


Kids still full of the Christmas Spirit? As always, if you like what you hear, click on artist and album names above to pick up the best family-friendly holidayfolk around. Each one of these tunes comes from a stellar artist whose work will grow with you and your own. And it’s not too late to order one last disk or three for the tiny folkfan on your holiday shopping list.

1,424 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Kidfolk

Jewish You A Merry Christmas:
Elseblog @ Breakthrough Radio

December 12th, 2008 — 06:04 am

My week at Breakthrough Radio ends with today’s entry, and as promised, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a little thanks and good cheer for the season. What follows is a repost, originally shared last year on Cover Lay Down under the title The Twelve Jews of Christmas: Folk Covers of Holiday Classics by Jewish Songwriters; though for obvious reasons its interest is seasonal, it remains one of my most popular posts ever, and I’m happy to share it here today. Enjoy!

Today we celebrate the holiday coversongs of Jewish-American songwriters, most notably the prolific Johnny Marks, who is best known for penning a holy host of non-canonical Christmas songs, and lesser known for being the head of ASCAP from 1957 to 1961.

Familiar carols written by Marks include Holly Jolly Christmas, which most of us imagine in the voice of Burl Ives, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is based on the story by Marks’ brother-in-law, and I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day, which Marks adapted from a Longfellow poem. He also wrote Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree; I was hoping to share some folkcovers of that song, too, but for some reason, I can’t find any.* Wonder why?
*[UPDATE 12/15: Rose Polenzani and Rose Cousins to the rescue!!]

In fact, a significant percentage of “traditional” Christmas tunes turn out to have been written or co-written by “verifiably Jewish artists”. Here’s a few more, mostly from the country and alt-pop ends of the folk spectrum, though the list runs the gamut from urban folk to indiefolk:

No purchase links today, kids: many of these songs are in the public domain, and even those that aren’t are hard to avoid this time of year. (Plus, how the heck do you link to a songwriter?) Just keep on buying your Christmas music from artists and labels directly, and we’ll call it square, okay?

2,379 comments » | Elseblog, Holiday Coverfolk

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