Category: Single Song Sunday

Single Song Sunday: Barbara Allen
(Meg Baird, Colin Meloy, Laura Cortese & 10 more!)

May 20th, 2012 — 12:43 pm

Traditional death ballads aren’t a dime a dozen on the modern papcharts, but they’re a recognizable form among the folkways. Most deal frankly with unrequited and/or unequal love and its aftereffects, with gruesome detail and haunted characters; most go so far as to show the callousness of humankind through ghosts and body parts transformed, though history suggests that such lascivious imagery was more commonplace in the Puritan and previous worlds, where the funerial was a family affair, life lessons were taught and learned through song, pining could kill, and death in its stark bodily form was an everpresent part of life.

The Ballad of Barbara Allen – also known by several similar names, and recorded canonically as Child Ballad 84, of Northern English or Scottish origin – isn’t a murder ballad, specifically; it is instead a warning tale of despair and rue, with a simple yet beautiful melody and virtually infinite variation in its lyrics. As such, the song makes for both a particularly beautiful example of and a potent template for the larger form.

The story is simply told: two would-be lovers die in sequence – first he, of her spurned love; then she, of a belated grief at her cruelty in his passing – thus reinforcing the lesson that acknowledging the heart’s need, and being kind in its honest expression, are fundamental to life itself. In many variants, the final verses paint a pretty picture of posthumous reconciliation, in which a briar growing from her grave, and a rose from his, entwine themselves over the lovers’ buried corpses. But regardless of whether this coda is included or no, the tonal narrative remains consistent.

The universality of Barbara Allen’s moral, and of the emotional core which it takes to reveal it, anticipate the confessional mode of the folk music revival, underscoring its presence as one of the modern folk canon’s most repeated songs. Yet just as our response to dismissal-driven death can range from outrage to sorrow, so do the various versions of this old song cover the emotional gamut.

At the extremes, Laura Cortese and Jefferson Hamer‘s saw and rage play well against the sliding melancholy of aging guitarsmith Martin Simpson, while Colin Meloy‘s pinched nasality and full band folk rock turn come in a far tonal cry from the sweet delicacy Lucy Wainright Roche brings to her take. In between, a half-century of versioning offers a breadth of potential as The Waterboys go whispery and sparse, Sunita Staneslow plucks harpstrings under instrumental pipes, The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover play a bluegrass ballad, Shirley Collins floats a nearly medieval take over hollow reeds, Deborah Packard trills thin and sweet over a low drone and haunting flute, Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton lend Aussie accents and a staggering 5/4 meter to pulsing celtic tones, Jean Ritchie sings a solo appalachian plainsong, Emmylou Harris croons contemporary, and Meg Baird remakes the song as a singer-songwriter’s lament, complete with backporch harmonies and cowboy guitar. Listen singly below, or click to download the entire set for comparison’s sake.

5 comments » | Single Song Sunday, Tradfolk

Single Song Sunday: If I Needed You
(18 solo, duo, & full band transformations of a Townes Van Zandt classic)

January 28th, 2012 — 05:19 pm

Apocryphally, If I Needed You came to Townes Van Zandt wholesale, in a dream, wherein he envisioned himself a famous folksinger, and the song as his biggest hit. When he awoke, he wrote the song down, changing but one line in transcription, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, Townes did indeed become famous, though partially posthumously, and surely not on the same scale as he envisioned in his nocturnal emissions. But as I’ve noted several times in these virtual pages, I discovered the work of the haunted cowboy troubadour late in life. As such, though it has been around for decades, this well-covered classic came to me first as a gift from Boston-based singer-songwriter Meg Hutchinson, who brought it to our 2009 house concert, in graceful recognition that her host was a coverfan and coverblogger.

Since then, the song has haunted me. Its apparitions include a recent live (albeit sadly unrecorded) house concert performance by Connecticut State Troubadour Chuck E. Costa’s newest duo project The Sea The Sea that folded the song into one of Costa’s originals, a found take from an Antje Duvekot live album featuring 2011 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Emerging Artist Showcase winner Chris O’Brien, several amazing studio versions from the likes of Carrie Rodriguez & Ben Kyle, Jennifer Parker, and others, and a video from a Robby Hecht and Liz Longley concert posted on YouTube just this month. And, taken together, these visitations remind me of why we bring multiple takes on the same song to the table, in our ongoing mission to understand just how much diverse beauty can be wrung from simple lyrics and melody.

That the versions I have encountered include both duets and solo takes is both atypical of coverage writ large and, in this case, unsurprising. For much like in the case of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which was comprehensively and permanently redefined by Jeff Buckley, a definitive cover early in the song’s history has created two divergent paths of versioning, bifurcating our resultant coverage collection into two primary camps: those that cover the rough, solo Townes original, and those that take on the sweet harmonies which Don Williams and Emmylou Harris brought to their definitive 1981 Country duet.

Especially interesting is the effect that this split path has on the song’s meaning. For while the lyrics and melody – three simple chords, eminently singable – speak to a simple message of love asked for and gratefully given, in the original form, so long as we accept “the lady” of the penultimate verse as a sort of embodiment of love itself, and the second verse as a bedroom metaphor for how deeply and closely this love can manifest, there is room for the audience to see themselves as the subject of the song, the “other” to the narrator’s “I”.

The duet form of the song changes this. Where the solo take is universal, the duet clarifies and personifies the object, turning the love into something both more intimate and less inclusive, making it harder to broaden the message to the listening group, closing the gap between singers even as it closes us off from direct address. Gone is the plaintive, confessional ache, given freely and universally, projected outward, which typifies versions from solo singer-songwriters such as Hutchinson, country crooner Lyle Lovett, Georgia-based fiddler Jennifer Parker, ambient Vancouver-based folk artist Lance Odegard, surprisingly adept Britfolk artist Christina Kulukundis, clear-voiced UK acoustic blues picker Dave Sutherland, Townes contemporary Guy Clark, and others, even as they make the song their own. Instead, we find Robby Hecht and Jill Andrews turning into each other from the start, Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle trading lush emotion, Alex Brumel and Janel Elizabeth warm and contemporary, Duvekot and O’Brien hushed and sparse in their duality.

And so the delivery becomes the key to this song’s meaning, in the end. And while full-band efforts, instrumentals, or full-blown genre transformations can transcend this duality – see, for example, the folk rock whisper of Dashboard Confessional’s three-part Americana, the bluegrass twang and borrowed Harris/Williams vocal trade-offs of Kasey Chambers family project The Dead Ringer Band, Enzo Garcia’s gentle banjo instrumental, Doc and Merle Watson’s madcap vinyl fingerpick, and the multiple vocal and instrumental layers down-home country stringband Swiftwater brings to their own rich take – only Swedish singer-songwriter Christian Kjellvander, by pulling the female harmonies far, far back, manages to straddle the two most typical forms of the song.

But put the versions together, and the breadth of our need, and its manifestations, become clear. Everybody hurts, sometimes; whether through invitation, participant-observation, or direct address, folk songs such as this speak to our heart’s ache, and calm us by channeling the storms of emotion that unite us in humanity. May the song serve, in every incidence, as balm and confirmation: that it is more than merely enough to ask, to stand, to give solace and shared sunrise, to receive it in turn. Indeed, it is all we have, and all we need.

Thanks to generous support and donations from readers like you, this ad-free, artist-centric folk blog celebrates artists and songs through coverage on the web every Sunday and Wednesday or thereabouts, with bonus tracks and feature previews posted on our companion site, the Cover Lay Down Facebook page, throughout the week. Got a suggestion for a song or version we missed? Leave a comment below!

3 comments » | Single Song Sunday, Townes van Zandt

Single Song Saturday: Auld Lang Syne
(On community, friends, folk and hope)

December 31st, 2011 — 08:20 am

It’s not a new year’s song, per se, though traditionally sung at midnight here and abroad. Rather, its message of friendship everlasting after a life well- and long-lived finds voice in, and brings hope and closure to, a multitude of celebrations throughout the English-speaking world, predominantly funerals and other ceremonies of remembrance.

I posted a set of covers of Auld Lang Syne back in the waning days of 2009, too. But the Robert Burns poem and its various melodies seem particularly apt this year. For we heard its echo in the way our small community come together in the wake of a series of natural disasters – the tornado that tore our town apart, the floods that overflowed our banks, the autumnal blizzard that brought cold and powerless darkness. In the warm feeling of the ensemble, which filled my theater days and nights. In the loving family that comes back each year to build the folk festival from the field, before carefully putting it away.

Even in the virtual spaces we occupy together we live out the dream, tied heart and mind in our waking hours. Kickstarter and Indiegogo work because they double the folk equation, turning ideas into nexuses for collaboration between artist and fan, strengthening and supporting the art which speaks that love and shared understanding into our collective consciousness. And though I am especially proud of the hundreds of dollars this particular community raised to support our town when it was most in need this year, the donations that trickle in just in time to pay the bandwidth bills here at Cover Lay Down remind me that I, too, am a nexus. As are we all, in those places where our own passions find play.

Which is to say it’s been a year of community building together: plays and houses, blogs and albums, environments and experiences. And if I’ve learned anything, it is that the truism holds, even in the Internet age: to act globally, one must think locally. The occupy movement is but the beginning. If we can take what we have learned there, and occupy our own communities, perhaps this world can truly belong to our children, and theirs.

And so, as the lyric says, here’s a hand, my trusty friend, and give me a hand of thine. Our offering comprises 12 takes, to match the months that brought us here again – from pubfolk to the pristine, from celtic to the crooned, from the waltz to the quarter time, from the warm welcoming tones of the singer-songwriter to the sweet and mournful appalachian banjo. May they ring in a year full of cheer and goodwill, for you and yours. And may we meet again in strength and friendship in 2012, to raise the glass for old time’s sake, and for the times to come.

5 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Single Song Sunday

Covered In Folk: Dougie MacLean
(Caledonia, Cara Dillon, Mary Black, Brooks Williams and more!)

November 20th, 2011 — 09:12 am

As with many of our more folk-oriented Covered In Folk subjects, I discovered the work of Dougie MacLean through two primary sources: through my father, who handed me one of his albums over a decade ago, and through label-watching, after discovering the same poignant song twice over, in separate female voices, and realizing that neither of them had written it.

The song in question is Caledonia, the Latin name for Scotland, and as its matronymic title implies, though it treats its subject as an anthropomorphised object of desire, its lyrics truly speak of a love of country. As a musical poem which speaks eloquently of the calling, and the homecoming, which so many ex-patriots and lovers experience, it is unsurprising to find that Caledonia resonates with and is well-covered by those who understand what it means to long for the Scottish Isles; indeed, though the song easily made Folk Alley’s list of the 100 Most Essential Folk Songs in 2009, the vast majority of covers which one can find are from Irish and Scottish singer-songwriters, who know MacLean as a countryman whose songbook is lush with tributes and mournful hymns to his native land, and seem to prefer this particular track as a favorite.

The multi-instrumentalist, who started his career in the mid-seventies with popular tradfolk group The Tannahill Weavers, and has since produced over a score of solo works, seems much less known outside of his native region, however. Despite the strong influence of Irish and Scottish folk on the broader canon, and on American culture itself, MacLean seems to be one of those artists whose influence in name is predominantly limited to those who trace their own roots directly to the same source.

Pity, that: though the artist sometimes referred to as “the Scottish James Taylor” is yet in his mid fifties, he’s hardly a one-song wonder. His instrumental The Geal was used in the film The Last Of The Mohicans, though you probably didn’t rush home to figure out who wrote it; Turning Away, which you’ll hear covered below, was used for the soundtrack of the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Angel Eyes. He’s received the OBE, had his songs chosen as the theme for national homecoming campaigns in his native land, and toured the folk mainstage circuit extensively in the US and abroad. An exploration of his larger body of work reveals several decades worth of beauty and poetry – a collection which is as praise-worthy and praise-ful as the printed and sung works of Burns, Yeats, Tannahill, and others – and a knack for melody and arrangement which both builds on and transcends the simple, elegant folk tradition from which he springs.

Rather than fill the shelves with a Single Song Sunday, then, I’ve chosen to split the bill down the middle this week. So here’s a half-dozen covers of Caledonia which ring true and traditional even as they swing through the vast ground that encompasses folk, from Euan Morton’s softly lilting piano ballad to several heartfelt contemporary Irish/Scottish singer-songwriter takes right up to Frankie Miller’s smashing Celtic folkrock anthem, and a paired eight-track set of coverage from the rest of MacLean’s body of work. Taken together, they provide ample evidence for his unsung worthiness on this side of the pond.

2 comments » | Covered in Folk, Dougie MacLean, Single Song Sunday

Single Song Sunday: Cat Stevens’ Trouble
(w/ Eef Barzelay, Marissa Nadler, Kristen Hersh & more!)

September 24th, 2011 — 10:15 pm

It’s been a tough few weeks, for body and spirit. Our inner city school is badly overstocked this year, with classes too full to manage, and hallways that ripple with energy we can barely control; the stress among the faculty is sky-high, and we’re hard pressed not to take it out on each other. Limping into such an environment every morning puts me at a severe disadvantage, but limp I must: I seem to have torn something in my knee, trying to compensate for a flared disk in my lower back, and have grow accustomed to a constant haze of low-grade pain.

If I was a more soulful man, I suppose, I’d be singing the blues. But I’m a folkfan, at heart; turning to the darker, sparser branches of the singer-songwriter movement soothes my breast better than anything else. I’ve been steeping in Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and other thin outsider voices, trying to find the perfect representative to speak my pain into being, and calm it through the communion of folk.

And then the playlist skipped, and I remembered Cat Stevens.

We first covered the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens way back in 2007 here at Cover Lay Down, citing his uncanny ability to put words and melody to peace, love, and a connection to the earth as ample evidence for continued consideration of the soft-spoken singer-songwriter as one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. But Stevens does loss and loneliness too, as evidenced by the bitterness of Wild World. And I will ever be floored by Trouble, this week’s Single Song Sunday subject: a majestic piece, elementally simple, surprisingly soaring, an apt and adept personification of the fickle fates that beset the universal everyman, written when the artist was 19, during a year of convalescence following a near-fatal bout of tuberculosis

The newest addition to this canon of coverage comes courtesy of Eef Barzelay (recently featured here), whose recent foray into Kickstarter promotion produced not only the intended EP of Journey covers, but a bonus disk of songs selected by generous patrons, who shelled out $150 for the right to select songs for Eef to take on. Barzelay’s torn, mournful take on Trouble is both a perfect sampler for that LP-length collection and a powerful reminder of the potency of the song itself.

Pair it with Lisa Haley’s Zydeco-Cajun country, the Holmes Brothers’ sweet blues harmonies, Bruce Robison’s sparse country ballad, a summery jam from Widespread Panic, crashing indie waves from Kristen Hersh, electric guitar folk from Eddie Vedder, a mellow, as-yet unattributed folkrock cover once thought to be by Oasis, and delicate takes from Marissa Nadler and Elliot Smith, and you’ve got a set that once again proves the flexibility of great songwriting.

8 comments » | Cat Stevens, Single Song Sunday

Single Song Sunday: The Water Is Wide
(A Valentine’s Day tribute to the song which brought us together)

February 13th, 2011 — 09:36 pm

Twenty years ago this fall my wife-to-be and I broke into a deserted chapel at our college to sit by the piano and make this song our own, staking our claim for the future and for each other through natural harmony and a shared sense of adventure. And now, if we have a song, it is this: a traditional English ballad which we knew before we met, that jumped out at us from the page that sunny afternoon, and, in doing so, guided us to forge ourselves as something more than the sum of our parts.

It’s an unusual choice, despite common inclusion as a tender love song in the broad canon of modern culture. Though the first verses of The Water Is Wide stake a claim for love as the only way across the deep waters of our lives, its subsequent narrative moves on from romanticism to disillusion, becoming a litany of potential pitfalls: faithlessness, and the waxing of love, until love falls away like a sapling, or fades like summer dew.

And yet, and yet. The history of this song in modern culture is such that most of its many performances return to that first verse as a coda. Depending on its mood, the repeated stanza becomes either a wistful reminder of the false promise of love at its inception, or a renewed commitment to the work that we must undertake if we are to live deep inside our love forever. And though the third and fourth verses are couched in absolute terms, clearly, those of us who take this song to be our own together have made our choice to see them as a warning, not an inevitability.

Hallmark would have it that love is made of candy hearts, and a thousand other gifts that mimic thoughtfulness: lingerie and chocolates, bright cards and flowers, diamonds and chains. But love has no shortcuts. To be honest with love is a prerequisite for its success and its permanence. As I’ve written about in previous Valentine’s Day posts, flowers are nice, but if we are to make love stay, time and attention and respect must be a daily absolution.

So here is your oar, my darling, my love. Here is mine, beside. Come, row with me into the setting sun, to the eternal shoreline. May we never stop singing our way home.

Looking for something a bit more romantic? We’ve had six Valentine’s Day posts in four years here at Cover Lay Down, and all remain relevant and live – so whether you’re looking for a dozen songs about roses or one of several sets of sweet songs about love, don’t forget to head back in time for the following previously posted tributes to the ones we love.

955 comments » | Single Song Sunday, Valentines Day Coverfolk

Single Song Saturday: True Love Will Find You In The End
(A birthday tribute to outsider musician Daniel Johnston)

January 22nd, 2011 — 12:01 am

Yes, we’re posting our Single Song Sunday feature a bit early this week. But infamously bipolar songwriter Daniel Johnston turns 50 today, and I can’t think of a better way to honor his impact on the music world than with this collection of covers of his best-known composition. The hope and pain inherent in the brilliantly simple lyric and melody of this piece and many others have touched a nerve in many artists both well-known and obscure since Johnston’s first cassette hit the streets in 1981, prompting a multitude of covers, and seven full-length tribute albums – making ours a long overdue tribute, indeed.

It’s not necessary to be familiar with Daniel Johnston’s history as a fringe artist and mentally unstable personality to make sense of his songbook and its influence, but it helps. As I noted two years ago over at Star Maker Machine, where I posted the original and two covers of Johnston’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances:

If a severe manic depressive with an unhealthy appetite for Mountain Dew, who is known for such manic episodes as throwing an airplane ignition key out the window while the plane was still in the air, gives you advice, should you take it?

Oft-hospitalized indie musician Daniel Johnston is known for being a serious oddball, an outsider in a world of outsiders, but his lyrics and songcraft are celebrated by a significant slice of music world and beyond – from David Bowie to Kurt Cobain to Simpsons creator Matt Groening, themselves a fairly untrustworthy group of advice-givers. His lo-fi production and wavery falsetto first hit the world through a series of self-released cassette tapes recorded on a $59 boombox; according to Wikipedia, common themes in his music throughout his career have included “unrequited love, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and comic book superheroes…a propensity to proselytize for his conception of Christianity, warning about the devil, and a fixation on the number 9.”

Johnston himself, in other words, is one of a kind: a childlike, weird, and damaged soul whose hallucinatory relationship to the world around him has produced a wisdom which has touched numerous artists who see themselves on the fringes of society, or even sanity. And indeed, many artists who cover Johnston’s best works choose to channel the thick haze which surrounds both his incredibly lo-fi production method and his chemical imbalanced personality, resulting in a surprisingly varied set of portraits unified nonetheless by more than just the words and music which make the song what it is.

As with Johnston’s original take on Grievances, it’s hard to listen to the original of this piece: Johnston’s pain is wide open, and it comes through powerfully in his wavering, thin tenor voice and his often arrhythmic performance. But as much as we feel for Johnston’s innate discomfort with a universe that doesn’t always make sense to his fractured, scattered brain, there is something vibrant, enthusiastic, even loving in the way we see his engagement with the world, in the way he paints the foggy glimpses of hope he sees through his cracked mirror, in how both his craft and his very continued existence acknowledge the pain as a necessary condition for appreciating the benefits of life, when they finally arrive.

True Love Will Find You In The End is simultaneously a perfect prototype for this duality, and a manifesto for taking charge of our destiny: True love will find you in the end, he says, but how can it recognize you unless you step into the light? Don’t be sad – you know you will – but don’t give up until true love finds you in the end. And though there are many ways to find the right balance between pleasure and pain – from A Whisper In The Noise‘s drowsy shoegaze opium dream to Alela Diane‘s aetherial voice floating on the heady electro-Americana pulse of one-shot coverband Headless Heroes, from the cheerfully emphatic grungy handclap harmonies of 20 year old identical twins Taxi Taxi! to the ache of Richard Walters‘ gentle guitarplay and tender vocals, with their sudden build into soft acoustic indie-folk in the second verse, from Matthew Good‘s sparse, raspy Americana to the playful, almost carnival-esque atmosphere which Boise, Idaho indie-pop band The Very Most bring us by setting the song at a rapid pace, and using a toy piano as their primary instrument – the genius of Johnston shines through every version, from simple and sparse to rich and atmospheric, reminding us that no matter how slow or muddy or psychedelic the interpretation, under all the syrup and insanity, there is hope aplenty.

So Happy Birthday, Daniel. May you live on, in body and spirit, through your songs and your visions.

We don’t usually include bonus tracks in our Single Song Sunday features, but since the songs up at the Star Maker Machine post mentioned above were long since gone, in the interest of letting you follow the threads of his world, I’ve put ‘em back up. Head on over to June, 2008, to listen to covers of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances from Clem Snide and Dot Allison, and to experience the broken, beautiful original for yourself.

[UPDATE - 1/22/11 12:14 PM: Daniel Johnston is soliciting birthday messages for his afternoon podcast. If you've been inspired by Daniel, tell him. Sing a song, leave a msg or say Happy 50th Birthday! Call (936)-463-4688!]

1,005 comments » | Daniel Johnston, Single Song Sunday

Single Song Sunday: Long Black Veil
(Vandaveer, Rosanne Cash, David Grey, Jerry Garcia, Tim O’Brien & more!)

November 7th, 2010 — 11:51 pm

This well-covered ballad, originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell just over fifty years ago yet so timeless it’s often erroneously cited as a traditional tune, is not as simple as it seems. Where the vast majority of both traditional and modern folksongs range from simple verse to simple chorus and back again – if indeed they use chorus structure at all – here, the doubled chorus makes for a tripartite pattern, a heart-stutter that well suits the Saki tale of the story, twisted and self-sacrificing, with its well-timed reveal at the end of the second verse, and its grounding in the simple, monosyllabic imagery of cold, darkness, and death.

And yet – in part because the original recording represented Frizzell’s deliberate move away from honky-tonk and towards a more folk/Nashville sound – there’s room for a surprisingly broad variation in the narrative voice, a range of angst and honor available to those who take on the role of the falsely-accused man ready to take his secret to the grave to protect those he loves. As a consequence, the song entered the coverstream early as a standard in several genres, thanks in part to mid-century coverage by Johnny Cash, The Band, Fred Neil, Burl Ives, The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, and outlaw country musician Sammi Smith, who gave the tune it’s biggest charting record in ’74.

As with many well-covered songs, there’s plenty of hit-or-miss to be found in the archives here. The Mick Jagger and the Chieftains version, for example, which serves as title track for the Irish band’s 1995 collaborative release, is just about as awful as that combination promises, a dragging poptune with piercing Irish whistle that manages to be both maudlin and syrupy. Baez’ work is not to my taste, either, though to be fair, that’s more of a universal sentiment than a comment on either of the takes she recorded. The infamous Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash duet is, sadly, drowned in strings. The pre-revival folk-hootenanny style which Neil, Ives, and The Kingston Trio adopt is a bit much for me this evening. And much of the best work out there is far too country for a folkblog, leaving Don Williams, Bobby Bare, Smith, and others off our plate for good reason, though you’re welcome to pursue ‘em if your ears bend that way, too.

Still, like all our Single Song Sunday feature songs, Long Black Veil is more than folk enough to have spawned a strong set of eminently listenable covers, from the classic folkrock of Dylan, Dave Matthews Band, and a country-rock-ified David Gray to vastly different yet equally comprehensive rhythmic, melodic, and structural breakdowns from true folk artists Caroline Herring and Kate McDonnell. Roots/bluesman Spencer Bohren turns in a dark, lap-steel driven piece, while the bluegrass balladry of Tim O’Brien and Garcia and Grisman demonstrate a wide range within the form, too. And even more slow, tender, and stripped down alt-folk versions from Vandaveer, The Proclaimers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Rosanne Cash call more to the country origins of the song without straying beyond a core folk sound.

Here, take a listen, and hear what I mean.

Cover Lay Down posts your favorite coverfolk each Wednesday and Sunday.

1,302 comments » | Single Song Sunday

Single Song Sunday: Everybody’s Talkin’
(secondhand coverage from the folkworld & beyond)

September 12th, 2010 — 06:45 am

Though recorded by a man who spent his early years as a Brill Building songwriter, Everybody’s Talkin’ was a folk song first and foremost. Apocryphally, it was a throw-away track, laid down in a single take by an anxious artist eager to get out of the studio and back to his Miami home, but there’s a seasoned depth in the lyric, a universal sentiment of alienation, escapism and desire for the hermitage which rings true in everyman. Fred Neil‘s original may touch upon cowboy country and pop, but that only helps it wring wistful into raw, his deep, clear voice like the ocean he yearns for.

It’s fitting, in the end, that the song’s success allowed Neil to retire from the musician’s life, to live out the last thirty years of his life as a dolphin activist in his beloved Florida. It may not have been his swan song, but taken as a confessional narrative, the song speaks volumes about the distance between Neil’s heart and his career in the mid sixties, when he recorded it.

Many modern listeners have never heard Fred Neil’s original, of course. In fact, Harry Nilsson’s chart-topping cover, recorded just four years afterwards, is so undeniably definitive, thanks to prominent placement in the 1969 critic’s darling Midnight Cowboy, that even artists who cover the song often attribute it to Nilsson himself.

As such, it is unsurprising to find that the vast majority of the covers out there – there’s nearly 100 of them, from techno to pop vocalist – lean heavily on the driving beat and note pattern Nilsson brought to his Grammy-winning take. Though they come from opposite ends of the indie spectrum, for example, Luna and Jesse Malin alike take on Nilsson’s brushstrokes, his eminently distinct up-and-down-the-chord melodic undercurrent, and his vocal flourishes. Crowded House go full-on unplugged, but they, too, undeniably have the later version in their tongues and hands.

Sandro Perri brings us a nufolk atmosphere so much his own, it’s hard to claim influence of any sort, but the samba drumbeat buried beneath seems to have Nilsson’s pattern, as does the soaring vocals; same goes for the bluesy, broken-up take Paul Curreri goes for, which uses Nilsson’s melodic structure as a platform for deconstruction. Megan Washington goes back and forth, with piano and guitar each taking on a distinct version before the song dissolves into free jazz. Singer-songwriters, jazz vocalists, new age bands, and folk-slash-americana performers from Patty Larkin to Madeleine Peyroux to The Jazz Butcher may filter their songs through their own inimitable styles, but put ‘em next to the original, and there’s no question of influence.

You’d think those few who trace their versions back to Neil himself would aim for the profound isolation which defines the lyric, but even here, popular coverage taints the take. Stephen Stills‘ live version is gentle and light, and though it’s tempting to attribute that emotive choice to Stills himself, that lightness echoes Nilsson, not Neil. The bluegrass team of Alison Brown and Tim O’Brien start slow, but pick up Nilsson’s beat and tempo by the chorus. Corinne West‘s soft ballad comes closest to Neil’s swaying rhythm, but the soaring, bittersweet beauty isn’t his. Only Susan Werner truly trades the tick-tock urgency and driving melody of Nilsson’s for the original despair, losing the noteplay, slowing down the tune, layering it in crashing waves of sound until it recaptures the darkness.

Like what you hear? Found a favorite? Click on artist names above to pursue and purchase, and don’t forget to come back for more: Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets every Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday.

1,376 comments » | Fred Neil, Single Song Sunday

Single Song Sunday: Paul Simon’s American Tune
(on being an American on Independence Day)

July 4th, 2010 — 11:28 am

American flag recovered amid World Trade Center debris

We live in complicated times, in a complicated country. Oil gushes into our waters, and each day, I watch the hurricane news, waiting for the perfect storm that will lead to the destruction of the East Coast beaches in whose warm waves and on whose clinging sand I have spent so many summers. The New Orleans project which won our hearts in the months following Katrina is out of money, though it shimmers with hope on the new series from the folks who brought you The Wire. My inner city students dwell in poverty, living lives of hardship with no obvious way out, and so do many of my neighbors, in our tiny rural town where next year, due to budget cuts, there will be no more music in the schools.

Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be America without all this trouble and strife. Though as a teacher, a school board member, a community hellraiser, a Unitarian Universalist, and a parent, I work for a better day with every minute of my being, I recognize that the Constitution is far from a utopian document; rather, the independent spirit on which we were founded contains the tensions of our continued successes and frustrations.

Still, I am dismayed by the way we have learned to think of ourselves as King George III, with our own politics and politicians as the enemy. Trust in government “of the people” is gone, as is trust in the citizenry, if the news is to be believed. On forums and facebook, through picket lines and protests and policymaking, my fellow Americans act as if they have abdicated their ownership of the dream, coming out in proud and unlistening opposition to a nation that is supposed to be their own. Thinking about the future here can be bleak, sometimes, and though I put on a happy face and promise them love eternal, I struggle to answer my children’s questions about what will be, when they are grown.

But yesterday we spent the morning in the bearded crowds at the Brattleboro Farmer’s Market, munching lumpen sugar donuts made in some hippie kitchen, marveling at the freshest of uberlocal basil and lamb and flowers, and the easy mix of tourists and organic farmfolk with which we shared the open air. After lunch we took to the Connecticut River, sharing the tiny midriver island with comfortable strangers, picking raspberries and watching as my father-in-law at the helm pulled a series of children – ours, and our new friends – gleefully shrieking through the water behind him. As night fell, we drove home through the green hills of Vermont and Massachusetts, and the girls exclaimed with sleepy delight as through the interstate treelines came flashes of light and sparks from a dozen or more fireworks shows and backyard barbecues, their temporary light fading into stars.

And though I had planned another post for this morning, my mind turned to this country, unbidden. And in my breast stirred hope.

You don’t need to go looking for America, as Paul Simon wrote in some other, earlier American tune. It’s all around us, its best and its worst. And though it’s hard to be bright and bon vivant when we are so weary from this American life, it’s all right, what with tomorrow ever another day.

I’ve spent several long car rides steeped in various versions of Simon’s American Tune, most especially Eva Cassidy’s posthumous release; it’s a masterful soundtrack for sorrow, with an undercurrent of hope that lifts the spirit. And certainly, though Cassidy brings the beauty and pain for which she has become famous, much of the success of this song can be found in 1973 original: the soaring melodies, the lyrical back-and-forth between the deeply personal and the despairingly political, which have attracted so many to it, both as fans and cover artists.

But the way the song becomes grounded in the various folkstyles of American music holds special interest to us today, as America celebrates itself. In the space among and between Darrell Scott‘s gentle fiddle-and-mandolin driven bluegrass take, Storyhill‘s ragged SXSW backstage singer-songwriter campfire duo, the rise and fall of Glen Phillips‘ live and unreleased electrified solo performance, Mark Erelli‘s chunky, slippery, deceptively optimistic home demo recording, Willie Nelson‘s typically cowboy tenor, Charlie Wood‘s majestic piano blues, Mae Robertson‘s sea chanty-inspired, gospel-voiced plainsong, the broken harmonies of the Indigo Girls live at the Newport Folk Festival, and more, these visions of America capture all the mystery and madness, the love and longing, the frustration and the uplifting determination, the quintessential spirit of the American love for country, in all its bittersweet forms.

Want to support the continued production and performance of American tunes? Then remember: though the sharing ways of folk and the political change that it so often embodies are embedded in the form, downloading is just the beginning of a lifelong process. Click on artist names above to pursue and purchase the works of the icons and icons-to-be that we celebrate here.

Coverfans interested in more tributes to America The Beautiful, including Willie Nelson’s take on our “other” national anthem and a decidedly odd cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s America from UK progrockers Yes, will enjoy this morning’s five-song set from Cover Freak. I’m also particularly proud of America The Beautiful: Coverfolk For A Thoughtful Fourth, a post we put up for Independence Day 2008 whose sentiment is worth revisiting, though the songs are no longer live.

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1,028 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Paul Simon, Single Song Sunday

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