Category: Bruce Cockburn

Covered in Folk: Bruce Cockburn
(Lynn Miles, Mark Erelli, Donavon Frankenreiter and more!)

August 28th, 2010 — 03:29 pm

I first discovered Ontario-based singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn via 1987 singles collection Waiting For A Miracle, a double album set whose bright aboriginal cover art called to me from my father’s record collection. Even to my untrained adolescent ears, the seventeen year songspan told a story of a potent guitarist and prolific artist who had slowly turned from sparse acoustic folk to something urban, electrified, and politicized. And though I found myself favoring the middle of the album for its contemporary, catchy pre-rock melodies and accessible yet spiritual imagery, his astute, often poignant observations on the human condition were apparent throughout.

Like fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, Cockburn started out as a performer grounded in delicate, introspective songs and rural, natural poetics before turning towards the concrete and the cultural; by 1979, this change would catch the ears of US audiences, bringing him to Saturday Night Live on the heels of his first Top 40 hit Wondering Where The Lions Are. Like Dylan, he broke the acoustic barrier early in his career, taking on an increasingly rock-oriented sound as he moved into his second decade of solo performance, prompting some critics to dismiss his 1984 release Stealing Fire as a loss to the folkworld even as it sparked his second US chart single.

But to mistake Cockburn as just another chameleonesque pretender to the popfolk throne of social justice is to underestimate both his commitment to music as a vehicle for change and his power as both songwriter and evolving craftsman. Though the Berklee college dropout originally came to music through rock and roll, in Cockburn’s case, such evolution seems to come as a function of his own personal journey, both as an agnostic turned Christian and as an artist increasingly committed to environmentalism and human rights, willing to incorporate his growing anger into his musical output.

Bruce Cockburn’s journey doesn’t end with Waiting For A Miracle, of course. While the early greatest hits compilation ranges from tender nature ballads to the biting political commentary of If I Had A Rocket Launcher – which I wrote about in more depth over at Star Maker Machine – more recent albums have incorporated atmospheric production, with moody plugged-in soundscapes that bely his roots in jazz composition and his mid-nineties work with producer T-Bone Burnett, and acknowledge the world music influences which he has picked up in an activist’s journey. Indeed, such continued evolution confounds genre categorization: our local library, for example, places his first few albums in their folk collection, but files his later works under Pop, where I suppose they rightfully belong.

Still, though Cockburn never truly found the same reception south of the border which he enjoys in his native country, after almost thirty albums and forty years on the road, it’s no surprise to find that the man has been celebrated amply through coverage, including a small handful of tribute albums, most notably 1991 in-country release Kick At The Darkness, an impossible to find multi-artist celebration which is reportedly neither good nor consistent. And with one significant well-covered exception – the weary, bittersweet Pacing The Cage, an introspective, acoustic late-career muse on the miles traveled – it is equally unsurprising to find that the majority of this coverage springs from his early work, that which best speaks to his evolution as a craftsman.

And in part because of the vast spectrum of styles and subjects which his work has taken on, the diversity of interpretation which artists have brought to Cockburn’s songs is unusually broad. From the gentle folk rock of Michigan singer-songwriter Jeff Krebs to the decidedly playful contemporary folk of Canadian songbird Lynn Miles‘ kindie cover, from the rich acoustic pop clarity of Luke Vassella to both Canadian Teresa Ennis‘ light acoustic country and Irish-born singer Ronan Quinn‘s driving alt-countryfolk twang-and-strum, from Mark Erelli live in-concert turn to the high-production jazz-and-pop-tinged folk of Steve Bell‘s tribute, from the lazy summer delicacy of nufolk favorite Donavon Frankenreiter to the bluegrass Salamander Crossing brings to Child of the Wind to the freewheeling alt-radio poprock Barenaked Ladies never fail to provide, here’s a short sampler worthy of both Cockburn’s talent and his backstory.

Looking for more? Cockburn isn’t known for heavy coverage on his own, and several of the tribute albums he has contributed to in the past are long out of print. Still, here’s a few previously-posted favorites from the more recent pages of a long career, plus a cut from Things About Comin’ My Way, last year’s tribute to The Mississippi Sheiks. Get the lot, along with Waiting For A Miracle, everywhere fine music is sold.

Cover Lay Down: posting new coverfolk features and songsets twice a week without fail since 2007.

1,071 comments » | Bruce Cockburn, Covered in Folk

Covered in Folk: Pete Seeger (On Folk as an Engine of Social Change)

September 24th, 2008 — 08:37 pm

Though I believe that folk, most especially in the way it functions as a channel of engagement and public discourse, is by definition an agency of cultural change, I have been reluctant to use this blog as a forum for advocating explicit change of any one type. Perpetuating the relevance of folk as an agenda in and of itself, it seems to me, precludes taking sides for any particular agenda which might be carried by folk, lest we alienate opposing values, and in doing so, diminish the potential of folk to remain dialogic.

But it’s pledge drive time at our local radio station, and the Nobel Prize selection committee does seem to have a set criteria for signatories and public outcry as an establishing principle for prize consideration. And it’s hard to imagine anyone genuinely untouched by the compassionate, tireless work in the name of human dignity, empowerment, and awareness which Pete Seeger continues to consider his life’s work after over sixty years as a recording artist and activist.

So when my mother, who once used Seeger’s songs as a vehicle for planting the seeds of peace and justice in both myself and in the inner city classrooms of New York City, became the most recent in a long series of folks to remind me of the recent petition to recognize Pete’s long-standing contribution to social, environmental, and political change, it seemed like the right time to use the soapbox to do some particular good.

Though there are parallels to be made between the community ownership of song upon which this blog is predicated, and the ways in which Pete Seeger‘s work has bridged time and space to touch and affect the rest of us, one one level, honoring this particular life’s work is made more challenging by our focus on coversong. For, though there are certainly tunes that one can point to as written by Seeger during his long career, the question of coverage and song origin is complex and unclear in much of Seeger’s catalog.

Which is to say: the son of an ethnomusicologist and a true believer in folk as a mechanism for tying past to future, perhaps more than any artist in history, Seeger has lived folk song as if it truly did belong to the community for which it speaks. As such, Seeger’s contribution to folk was one of popularization as much as songcraft; many of the songs he is best known for have their origin in the past, and much of his better-known works, like Turn, Turn, Turn, use older components to create new works. Even Seeger’s own greatest hits album combines songs written by Pete Seeger with songs popularized by Seeger. And even the better tribute albums out there mix songs which Seeger actually wrote with songs which he made his own.

None of this precludes consideration from the Nobel folks, of course; indeed, it is Seeger’s deep sense of the social and folk environment as both purposeful and shared by all of us which is perhaps the most powerful case for his recognition. As such, first and foremost, the aim of today’s post is to ask all of you to take a moment and — in the name of folk itself — sign your name to the petition asking the Nobel Prize Committee to consider Pete Seeger for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his tireless work sowing the seeds of peace.

But of course, you also come here for the music. And there are some great tributes out there, most notably the three sets which the activist-founded, socially conscious folklabel Appleseed Recordings has released in a scant decade of existence; I’m especially enamored of double-disk first release Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs Of Pete Seeger, which in addition to the Ani DiFranco and Bruce Cockburn covers below includes a veritable who’s who of big-name inheritors of the activist folkmantle, from Richie Havens and Odetta to Springsteen and Billy Bragg.

Someday, I aspire to the time and energy it would take to approach a proper post on the central influence Pete Seeger and his family — from father Charles (the ethnomusicologist) to half-siblings Peggy and Mike to half-nephew Neill MacColl and grandson Tao Rodriguez of the Mammals — have had in defining and continuing to define folk music as a social and political engine of change for almost a century. In the meanwhile, here’s a set of personal favorites with a much simpler organizing principle: songs which other folk artists of a certain political bent have learned from or associate with Pete Seeger himself, regardless of authorship, and have recorded in deliberate tribute to this long-standing folk icon.

*removed at artist/label request.

Folk and social consciousness go hand in hand; to support one is to support the other. If you have ever been moved by folksong, sign the petition — technically, a petition “to persuade [the] American Friends Service Committee to enter Pete Seeger as their nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008 ” — and in doing so help make the case for both Seeger and the folk process itself as an agency of peace. Then, head on over to Appleseed Recordings for the opportunity to purchase Seeger’s work, the aforementioned cover albums, and a whole host of other folksongs from a growing stable of socially aware artists actively engaged in using folk music to change the world for the better.

Want more? Today’s bonus coversongs offer a tiny, tiny taste of Seeger as political song interpreter, just in case you’re still young enough to have never really encountered his own continued celebration of his folkpeers and ancestors:

Cover Lay Down publishes new materials Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional otherday. Join us this weekend as we celebrate one year of coverfolk blogging.

1,112 comments » | ani difranco, Bruce Cockburn, Eric Bibb, Holly Near, Joan Baez, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Marlene Dietrich, Natalie Merchant, Pete Seeger, richard shindell, The Mammals, Tony Trischka

Strawberry Sunday: Berry Coversongs from Michelle Shocked, Bruce Cockburn, Sarah Harmer & more!

June 22nd, 2008 — 10:40 am

The world was ripe after weeks of waiting, so we ushered in the solstice with a trip to the U-Pick farm just up the hill. One hour and seventeen pounds of sweet, deep red berries later, we staggered home bearing summer’s first bounty, our fingers stained, our knees dirty, our mouths sweet with the first fruit of summer.

Since then, we’ve eaten more than we could count, and given away a good quart or two more. My wife cut half a flat and set it in the deep freeze, sprinkled with sugar, ready for a midsummer jam session; the kids helped make a strawberry Bavarian cream pie with a shortcake crust. The rhubarb that grows wild in the front yard is looking more and more tempting by the minute. I ate a hundred strawberries, says the younger one, and though she cannot count, she’s not far off.

Around here, summer means many things: birthdays, barbecue, summer wheat beers, hot afternoon car rides to out favorite local state park swimming holes. And music festivals, of course: last week’s feature on Falcon Ridge Folk Fest (July 24-27) was the first of several; stay tuned this week for a preview of fave local bluegrass fest Grey Fox.

But the wheat beers are overeager, arriving in Spring to help us train our tastebuds for June. Music happens year-round, but like birthdays, the festivals come and go throughout. And we’re the kind of folks who take out the grill the moment the last snow fades from the earth.

Fresh local strawberries, on the other hand, mean summer is finally here. Ripe, juicy, and delicious. Dripping down our chins, staining our shirts. Summer itself, plucked fresh from the vine.

And since the pickings are slim for strawberry covers, here’s some bonus berry/tinyfruit coversongs from the folkworld, while we’re at it:

First and foremost, the purpose of Cover Lay Down is to spread the word about amazing artists, that we might support the future of folk music. As always, if you like what you hear, follow the links above to artist and label preferred webstores for samples, bios, tour schedules, and online options for purchase. Remember, folks: buying music from local and artist-direct sources supports diversity in the garden.

PS: If anyone knows of a good folk cover of Raspberry Beret, I’d love to hear it. (No, Hindu Love Gods is emphatically NOT folk music.)

905 comments » | Ben Harper, Bluehouse, Bruce Cockburn, Colin Meloy, Deana Carter, Holly Kirby, Lawrence Juber, Mary McCaslin, Michelle Shocked, Sarah Harmer

And A Happy New Year (On The Turning of Time and Calendar Pages)

December 30th, 2007 — 04:04 am

It’s human nature to turn inward in times of timeturning. It’s reassuring that we do; it bespeaks our still-close relationship with nature, and the planet. In a world long teetering on the verge of disaster, our innate need to constantly reground ourselves in history and ecology gives me more hope than anything at the future and continued existence of the human race. That it happens everywhere, regardless of country or creed, only reinforces my faith in all of us.

May your year turn joyfully. May you put to rest all the anxieties of a lifetime passed-so-far, and pass clean into the new possibility. May you live more and more in the connections between, and less and less in the margins. May you cover the world, and may the world cover you.

I resolve to continue to promote folk artists and their labels by linking to their preferred source for purchasing wherever possible, rather than supporting megastores and megalabels who really aren’t interested in music, or in musicians or their audiences, except as a means to a dollar.

In addition, I resolve to continue to serve an astute listening public (that’s you!) by continuing to bring you songs, singers, and songwriters in context as long as it is safe, legal, and fun for all of us…and by feeling grateful for every comment, email, and download. It’s nice to feel appreciated, folks. Thanks for listening, and have a very, very happy new year.

Don’t forget to come back Wednesday for another installment in our very popular Covered in Folk series. This week I’ll be featuring folkcovers of Paul Simon tunes.

808 comments » | Ben Taylor Band, Bruce Cockburn, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Mindy Smith, Pablo, Rufus Wainwright, Shawn Colvin, Tony Trischka