Category: LGBT

Queer As Coverfolk:
Songs About “Alternate” Genders and Sexualities

April 15th, 2009 — 03:27 pm

via awesome GLBT blog

Cover Lay Down is hardly a political blog; first and foremost, our mission is spread the gospel of good music, in the context of its culture and community. But it is no accident that folk music has a long history as an engine of social justice and change. By its very nature, folk assumes that music is not merely inseparable from its culture, but that it speaks to and for its culture.

My own tendencies towards progressive social values, from pro-feminist parenting to the importance of preserving equity in community spaces, may not originate in folk, but they are embedded in it, just as they are embedded in the practice of my daily life as a parent and teacher. And among these values, I am proud to include a belief in the universal right of all individuals to love and commit in the ways that they see fit, regardless of sexual or gender preference.

When my children were born, we modified the traditional Jewish blessing for their naming ceremonies, dropping gender and any assumption of sexual preference from the text, rather than assume that they would someday want to have “traditional” relationships. I was grateful to have the opportunity to take my daughter to the Northampton courthouse the day gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts; I celebrate the recent moves towards further normalization of what were once considered “alternative” lifestyle practices here in the U.S.

And just as past movements in school libraries to ban books about gay parents once drove me to donate a copy of King & King to our own school library, so has the recent debacle with Amazon’s cataloging error that banished queer and feminist books to “adult” purgatory driven me to consider applying my own meager counterweight to the universe once again — this time through the compilation and distribution of a full set of folk and folk-related coversongs which present LGBT life and lifestyle choices as perfectly normal.

Folk music is hardly the only place where music has been an engine of change for queer culture; as we see in the choice of covers taken on by folk artists, glam and other alt-gender cultural movements have each had their own inroads into mass culture through popular music.

But there’s a particularly long history of LGBT folk performers. Lesbians, especially, have found a place in the modern folkworld, following dozens of gay and gay-friendly artists from Joan Armatrading to the Indigo Girls, and from Melissa Etheridge and Catie Curtis to Dar and Toshi and Ani, descending on folk festivals in droves whenever such favorite performers appear.

That said, it is surprisingly difficult to find songs which explicitly speak to same-sex relationships. Perhaps there are folk/culture/political issues at the heart of this; after all, not all queer performers have been as up front about their sexuality in their music as they are in their personal life; even musicians who present as queer in their work are generally known for just a few songs which speak explicitly to same-sex relations.

Still, our goal here today is to celebrate the universality of songs themselves, as agencies of change — to recognize, as it were, that in a world where the National Organization for Marriage still has enough money to make scary, homophobic videos “protecting” marriage, to stand up and be counted through song continues to be an act of courage and of necessity.

As such, today’s songs are NOT mere gender bender covers — that is, they are not songs of hetero attraction which have passed from a male voice to a female voice or vice versa, such as Patti Smith’s wonderful interpretation of Van Morrison’s Gloria. Neither are they songs which have been adopted by one LGBT group or another, and thus have come to represent a particular community or movement.

Rather, they are covers of original works which unabashedly celebrate what once were considered alternative lifestyles, from transexualism to the bisexual glam lifestyle, from same-sex parentage to plain old homosexual attraction.

Some of these songs, and some of the performances, come off as a bit tongue-in-cheek. Others verge on precious. But the diversity seems appropriate. And that so many are so familiar, and that all are so palatable, says much about how close we are to the day when my children, and yours, will truly have the freedom to be who they are, without shame or struggle. Here’s a setlist of hope, a soundtrack for change, to help things stay on the right track.

    There are two versions of this mythical story of mate-finding and attraction on tribute compilation Wig in a Box, which takes on songs from queer musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Jonathan Richman’s distinctively cracked vocals and acoustic strum beat Rufus Wainwright’s high pop by a landslide.

    Jose Gonzalez‘ typically rhythmic, atmospheric guitarplay and high vocals are a perfect match for the loneliness and homophobia experienced by Bronski Beat’s young protagonist as he searches for friendship and family.

    …You’ve got your mother in a whirl/ She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl… Bowie’s paean to the androgynous Glam culture takes on a gentle samba tone in the hands of Brazilian master Seu Jorge on his lovely, delicate soundtrack to The Life Aquatic.

    My father and I once attended a Joan Armatrading concert; I swear we were the only men in our section. Austin-bred acoustic roots troubadour Kris McKay turns Armatrading’s call to the unobtainable into something sweeter and more southern, yet equally mournful.

    A repost, but I still think Corin Joel‘s slow, cracked, self-conscious take on this Katy Perry song about experimenting with bisexuality beats the Max Vernon version hands down.

    Acoustic alt-fauxabilly from German country coverband The BossHoss, who we last saw taking a crack at Britney, with a tune from Russian faux-lesbians t.A.T.u.

    Old folkies Holly Near and soon-to-be-featured PP&M take on this tender tale of teaching diversity amidst a diverse neighborhood originally penned by Bitchin’ Babe Sally Fingerett. Slightly syrupy, but worth the experience.

    Canadian indie popstars Stars give Morrissey’s tale of the underground gay scene an upbeat, high-production folkpop sound, lush and modern yet reminiscent of the very electro-club scene it claims to reject.

    This typical acoustic country ballad from the wry-yet-tender Willie Nelson was the first LGBT-themed country song by a mainstream artist — and a brave step forward for a man whose audience has traditionally consisted of Red State Republicans.

    Finally, four takes on two songs about the same Warhol-era star, transsexual Candy Darling. Albert Pla‘s half-whispered worldbeat popfolk comes with bouncy acoustic guitar and organ, while Jesse Malin turns the same song into a grungy, almost anthemic folkrock tune. Meanwhile, freakfolk vocalist Antony takes cello and sparse guitar for a warbly torch song, while CLD fave Kathryn Williams turns in a mellow, ringing folk take with bells on.

Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features Wednesdays, Sundays, and the occasional otherday. Stay tuned for Sunday, when we’ll begin a week of blogging from the Outer Banks of North Carolina!

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