Archive for July 2012

Happy Birthday, Woody Guthrie: Covered In Folk, Redux

July 14th, 2012 — 10:46 am

Woody Guthrie would have been 100 today, and the folkways are imploding a bit as they celebrate the man who practically defines 21st century folk. But we’ve gone there already: a few weeks ago, in announcing the release of Little Seed, Elizabeth Mitchell’s wonderful new tribute to his children’s songs; in a comprehensive feature on the Guthrie family legacy back in 2010; in a score of other posts, as the modern inheritors of the singer-songwriter mantle have interpreted the songs of Woody Guthrie over and over again.

Indeed, the Guthrie songbook is thick on the ground in a folkblog by definition, so covered are his songs, so beloved is his work. And the man himself wouldn’t have had it any other way: as his oft-repeated anti-copyright notice, designed to encourage reuse and modification, states: This song is Copyrighted in U.S….for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.

Still, turning 100 isn’t something that happens every day. So in honor of his birthday, we’re offering a full mix-tape sized coverfolk collection, comprised of both Woody Guthrie covers that have previously appeared on this blog and a few rarer and more recently collected covers that fill out the edges quite nicely. Unusually, our set is designed to be listened to in order; if you haven’t done so already, a quick installation of the exfm browser extensions for Chrome, Safari, or Firefox will let you stream embedded links here and elsewhere while you consider which to download for posterity’s sake. Woody would have loved it.

    Thousands of Joyous Americans: This Land Is Your Land [2009]

Aching for a bit more context? Head back in time for a deeper treatise on the Guthrie legacy and a whole mess of coverfolk links of and from various members of the Guthrie clan!

1 comment » | Woody Guthrie

In Sweet Music Is Such Art:
Songs Inspired By Shakespeare, Covered In Folk

July 12th, 2012 — 12:51 pm

Teaching Romeo and Juliet to my inner-city ninth graders this past year was an uphill battle with multiple casualties, but I’m quite proud of how effective we found it to start outside the text, with a week-long exploration of pop and mass culture referents, the better to understand which elements of story and structure, character and cast we westerners are expected to retain into adulthood. Indeed, our very first day featured a side-by-side comparison of Taylor Swift’s Love Story and Dire Straits Romeo & Juliet – perhaps the two most currently recognizable songs in the canon based on the works of William Shakespeare, both of which we featured, covered in folk, a year ago today, in fact, in a feature that explored songs inspired by literature.

But Shakespeare is one of those things that sticks in the heart, and the ears. And so, when the offer to play a Shakespearean villain came along, I couldn’t say no, what with the language and trope of the Bard still echoing in my head from the end of Spring semester.

If blogging has become a bit erratic this summer, then, it’s because I’m spending my evenings and afternoons deep in the throes of blocking rehearsals and line-review for an upcoming in-the-park production of As You Like It, Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy of crossdressing and the limitations of courtly life. Treading the boards – okay, the lawn – is overwhelming, and our production is bare-bones, with each actor playing multiple roles, just as it would have been in Shakespeare’s own day, leaving us all struggling into the night to memorize lines, capture the essence of our various characters, and be ready for an audience after just a dozen rehearsals.

My cup runneth over: with iambs and courtly speech, bawd and Bard. And as my cup, so is my heart, and my ears. Of such a mindset is thematics born.

Happily, The Bard’s influence on all facets of our cultural conversation goes far beyond the story of two star-crossed lovers. From linguistic shards to touchstones of trauma and the human condition, this single playwright has functioned as muse and model for a myriad of songs from across the various genres, most especially the folk, rock, and alternative camps, which rest upon literate songsmithing. Masters of songcraft, From Elton John to Elvis Costello, from John Cale to Louden Wainwright III, from Rush to The Tragically Hip, have pulled their inspiration from the master of stagecraft.

And though not all have been covered yet – Cale and Costello’s separate treatments of Macbeth and his lady, especially, seem to have remained untouched by gentle tribute, as do Wainwright’s Prince Hal’s Dirge, and a plethora of songs which reference Lear’s daughter Cordelia – there is fertile ground enow in these works for a setlist of Shakespearean worth. As always, if you’ve got a track to add or recommend, we’d love to hear about it in the comments.

  • Tiffany Jo Allen: Love Story (orig. Taylor Swift)
    A post-millennial companion piece to Knopfler’s dark, brooding portrayal, Taylor Swift’s first-person portrayal of Juliet white-washes the innocent 13-year-old of the original, aging her into a somewhat less naive yet hyperfeminine empower-puff, reframing her in the common misunderstandings of post-feminist pop, happy ending and all. If you can get past the Karaoke covers, the YouTube kids are all over this one.
  • Mark Erelli: Ophelia (orig. The Band)
    Because Shakespeare’s most recognizable characters come with baggage, their names make excellent framing devices for narrative players of depth and substance. The Band’s Ophelia, for example – recorded by Mark Erelli in honor of Levon Helm’s recent passage – rings of the same unspoken mysteries which cloister her namesake.
  • Alice Ripley & Jesse Harris: Ariel (orig. October Project)
    Celtic-influenced new age band October Project made an excellent choice in soliciting award-winning musicians Alice Ripley and Jesse Harris to cover this song when they released their own album of covers in 2008. Though not as well known in the pantheon of American music, this wish-fulfillment retelling of the Tempest from the perspective of its most famous airy sprite – trapped, alone, and drowning in power – remains one of the band’s greatest creations.
  • Eric Lumiere: Sigh No More (orig. Mumford & Suns)
    Perhaps the newest of our thematic originals, this recent recasting of Sigh No More, Ladies, aka Hey Nonny Nonny, a song originally included in the text of Much Ado About Nothing, seems to echo of Claudio’s development throughout the play. Eric Lumiere’s cover starts thick with harmonies and acoustic strings, so we’ll make allowances for the way it turns to pretty pop as it reaches crescendo.
  • Chris Smither: Desolation Row (orig. Bob Dylan)
    Though Dylan’s lyrics are often cryptic, his references inevitably cover the gamut: the collage of cultural touchstones here includes both Romeo and Ophelia, ensnared together in disparate verses that reverse the typical placement of male and female in the balcony scene. And doesn’t Chris Smither wear their weary sorrow well?
  • David Scott Crawford: The King Must Die (orig. Elton John)
    Elton John references the kings and princes of multiple plays in his treatise on Shakespearean inevitability, from Julius Caesar to Macbeth and Hamlet. Again, nary a studio cover to be found, despite the song’s appearance on Sir John’s self-titled, Grammy nominated 1970 debut, but this solo YouTube take is suitably majestic.
  • Glen Phillips and Chris Thile: Exit Music (For A Film)
  • Maigin Blank: Exit Music (For A Film) (orig. Radiohead)
    Written for the closing credits of Baz Luhrman’s disastrous post-modern setting of the Romeo & Juliet story (but never used there, which keeps it pure), Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke claims the song was predominantly influenced by both the original text and Zeffirelli’s much more textually resonant film adaptation. Toad The Wet Sprocket lead singer Glen Phillips and Punch Brothers centerpiece Chris Thile bring slow angst to the song in concert; Maigin Blank‘s echoey harpsichord-driven home studio cover creeps forward quite appropriately.

[Download the entire 14 song set as a zip file!]

4 comments » | Theme Posts

Covered In Folk: Steve Earle
(15 tracks, plus bonus coverage from Justin Townes Earle!)

July 6th, 2012 — 10:57 am

Steve Earle made his name early and adeptly on both sides of the singer-songwriter label, dropping out of ninth grade to study the music business, moving to the heart of country in his twentieth year after a hard-scrabble teenage musician’s life in Houston to pen mid-career hits for Carl Perkins, Patty Loveless, Johnny Lee, and others in the Nashville scene, all the while making his own path through the wilderness of rockabilly, country, and folk. Throughout, he emerged as a poet and political activist, even as he struggled as an outlaw and an addict, and Wikipedia is right to suggest that these origins are intertwined, in no small part because, as a struggling young songwriter, he was too young to play in bars and clubs, and was thus forced to find a place for himself in the liberal coffeehouse scene of the late sixties and early seventies “alongside anti-Vietnam War campaigners”.

It’s notable here that although Earle has been in the running for 14 Grammys since his first pair of nominations for Best Country Song and Best Country Male Vocalist in 1987, he has won only three, all in the Contemporary Folk category, and all since the mid-2000s, starting with Best Contemporary Folk Album for his 2004 anti-Iraq War collection The Revolution Starts Now. Though the drift from one genre category to the next speaks simultaneously to Earle’s own changing artistic sensibilities and a parallel drift in at-large genre definition, surely, even the most apolitical of scenewatchers could not deny that the increased stature which has resulted from his increasingly political work as a musician and the generally liberal pro-activist mindset of the Academy at large has also affected the voting in these categories.

But to judge Steve Earle primarily on his recent grizzled appearance as a cynical grey-bearded prophet on The Wire and Treme, or on the overtly politicized music which has won him praise and admiration in the last decade, is to miss out on the 35 year career of a broad-minded, clear-spoken musician deeply involved in the business of crafting songs that speak to the whole and various caverns of our hearts. From his early work alongside Texas troubadours Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt to mid-career collaborations with Emmylou Harris, T-Bone Walker, and other luminaries working the Americana spread, his total artistic output represents a breadth of genius easily equal to such collaborators.

Happily, his peers have not missed out, and though they sometimes find anger where it is warranted, the deeper catalog they mine contains hope and harrow enough. Which is to say: Steve Earle is well-respected for a reason, and though his politics have surely helped its spread, his songbook is not merely repeated because of any political affiliation. There’s love, here, and loss too: of the wistful, Texas country type, and of something deeper, stiller, that springs eternal even as it mourns the closeness of winter. You can hear it in the songs and performances alike, making for an apt tribute in folk.

Looking for more? Though today’s feature subject has covered plenty of songs himself in his four decade career, my lifetime dream of producing an album of second-generation musicians covering the songs of their parents is too tempting a project to ignore in these circumstances – most especially because, despite being left with his mother as a toddler in 1984, the second-gen artist in question has since shared stage, addiction, and fame with his famous father, thus proving the viability of such a project. Hence our bonus tracks today: a few choice selections from the recent work of Justin Townes Earle, whose proud continuance of the family name has sparked the indiefolk ear since his first album dropped in 2007.

3 comments » | Covered in Folk, Steve Earle