Category: Subgenre Coverfolk

Subgenre Coverfolk: Acoustic Blues
Covers of Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash and more!

January 10th, 2010 — 06:18 pm

Mississippi John Hurt

Last night’s utterly amazing Greg Brown show started off with a short solo set from perennial sideman Bo Ramsey, who played a set of hushed alt-country blues originals and an achingly delicate cover of Lucinda Williams’ Joy, his hands barely brushing the strings. Brown, too, played mostly blues, when it comes down to it: recognizable chords in sixteen bars; low, quickspoken, plaintive lyrics that pulsed along with the bass string beat. Stunning stuff.

Which got me thinking about the acoustic blues, and its relationship to modern folk music – not necessarily just as ancestor, but as a subset of that music which one can reasonably expect to hear on any folk festival stage. And, turning to the archives, I find that many of the living artists we’ve included here in the past, from Taj Mahal and Jorma Kaukonen to Ruthie Foster and Pat Wictor, would certainly fit within a generous definition of the subgenre.

It’s been almost a year since we focused on a particular style of music here at Cover Lay Down. The links are long dead on previous Subgenre Coverfolk features on Freak Folk, Zydeco, Bluegrass, Celtic Punk and more, though this summer’s Pianofolk feature remains live. But I think we’re long overdue for a return to one of our most prodigal series, and there’s a rich vein to be mined at the intersection of country, blues and folk. Ladies and Gentlemen: the acoustic blues as folkform.

Elizabeth CottenA century ago, the acoustic or “country” blues was a distinct genre from folk, grounded in a different population, forked in its sonic ancestry. But the “discovery” of Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, Etta Baker, R. L. Burnside and other stylistically similar musicians by bourgeois ethnomusicologists like John and Alan Lomax and Mike Seeger, and the subsequent incorporation of several of these artists into the folk circuit late in life alongside such inheritors as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Odetta, and Taj Mahal, places the acoustic blues square at the roots of the folk revival.

Since then, of course, like so many other components of the rich tapestry of American music, the stylistic elements handed down from the blues have found their way into much of the mainstream, from R&B to Rock and Roll to Country music, both alt- and otherwise. As such, the acoustic blues form is hard to pin down, in part because so many components of the blues have so fluidly made their way into folk performance since the time of Lomax and Seeger. But as a subgenre, the form is generally typified by acoustic solo performance, an ear for the folklorist’s communality in lyrical delivery, and the marks of blues writ large – slippery vocal mannerisms, repetitious “call and response” lyrics, and a consistent 12 or 16 bar song structure built from power chords and a pentatonic scale.

More notable, perhaps – at least from a folk perspective – are the racial issues surrounding the subgenre. Unique among modern branches of the folk canon, the acoustic blues community is racially diverse; though there are certainly plenty of white male bluesfolk artists (and a few females, such as Rory Block and, arguably, American Primitives like Gillian Welch, whose fingerpicking style had its origin in the early country blues) still plying the coffeehouse circuit today, it would not be hyperbolic to suggest that the acoustic blues subgenre is the locus for the vast majority of black musicians on that circuit. And sure enough, our set below features numerous black artists, an accomplishment unseen in these pages since last April’s full feature on the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Piedmont blues style and an even older feature on Jazzfolk featuring KJ Denhert and Lizz Wright.

Eric BibbThough Leadbelly and Odetta are long gone, modern inheritors of the country blues label still roam the folk circuit, their audience and their self-designation as folk artists identifying them as a legitimate, staple component of the modern folkworld. But though they share the stage with singer-songwriters and traditionalists of other types and stripes, their distinct sound clearly defines them as something unique and worthy of our attention.

So here’s a sampling of coverfolk from some of our favorite living acoustic bluesmen and women to give you a sense of the subgenre. As always, if you’ve got other suggestions for me and our readership to follow, feel free to leave ‘em in the comments.

Cover Lay Down presents new coverfolk sets and features each Wednesday and Sunday, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: covers from some new 2010 folk releases, and a post-New Year’s return to our regular New Artists, Old Songs feature.

1,946 comments » | Subgenre Coverfolk

Covered in Pianofolk: The Keyboardist as Folk Musician
(Allison Crowe, Vienna Teng, Emm Gryner, Regina Spektor and more!)

July 14th, 2009 — 11:39 pm

Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Crowe, who has made a career of covering, crafting and performing warm, lyrical songs with little more than an intensely rich, emotional voice, strong piano skills, and a heap of moxie, was recently refused entry into the UK for a music festival, a casualty of the United Kingdom’s increasingly stringent rules for touring artists, which in turn seem to be part and parcel of the insane and inappropriately panicked global response to the fear of terrorism.

We’ve covered Allison’s work here before, and her manager Adrian even offered us some temporary hosting when we got into a spot of trouble last November; as a fan and a friend, I admire her cheerful yet proactive response to this despicable predicament, and wish her the best of luck in her continued tour. If you’d like to help the cause, please join Allison and others in signing the Visiting Academics and Artists Petition.

That said: few describe Crowe or her keyboard-wielding contemporaries as folk performers; the rise of the piano as a solo instrument in the hands of folk-grounded musicians is a relatively new development. But switch out the piano for a guitar, and I think most would accept the categorization. Today, with the help of Crowe and a few fellow female singer-songwriters, we make the case for the piano-vocalist as folk.

What is it about instrumentation that flavors our categorization of music inside or outside of the folk canon? Much, I think, has to do with history, both of folk itself, and of our own personal experience with the sound and genre placement of particular instruments.

As recently as the Woodstock generation, vocalized folk music was driven by singer-songwriters and interpretive troubadours wielding instruments portable enough to move from back porch to coffeehouse to labor protest — guitars, banjos, the autoharp, the mountain dulcimer. The side of folk which evolved from the blues comes to us through an evolutionary path which eschewed barrelhouse for guitar-driven field-blues. And regional forms — from bluegrass to old-timey folk to zydeco — whose evolution has become entwined with folk music, are similarly driven by strings plucked, strummed, or bowed, along with the occasional accordion or hammered dulcimer.

Ethnomusicologists take note: we don’t often consider the technology of the instrument, and its effect on the evolution of folk’s various forms. But if form follows function, then changes in functionality open up new avenues for expression. Writ broadly, we might say that with portability and location such determinant elements of the folksinger’s choice of instrument, it took both an increased ubiquity of the piano in the spaces where folk happens, and the development of the synthesizer, to make the keyboard-playing folk musician a real possibility in the smaller, generally amateur venues which typify modern folk performance.

These factors do not arise from thin air, of course. They were driven by the genre blur between pop, rock, and folk which have brought folk-oriented singer-songwriters into larger performance spaces, many of which held pianos, the advent of folk as an increasingly “native” recorded medium in the seventies and eighties, and the full-production sound of contemporary folk, which brought keyboard players into the studio as part of the folk creation process.

Combine these, and you have a platform wide enough to contain a new generation of piano-playing singer-songwriters who stand with at least one foot in the folk process, even as they straddle genre lines in their marketing and self-identity as artists. From here, it takes but a little — the folksinger’s adoption of rock music’s synthesizers for solo performance, and the small folk venue’s inclusion of piano and drums as part of a platform of preparedness for a more diverse spectrum of music. Abracadabra: the conditions for change are met.

The effect of instrumentation on our experience of music is not trivial: our formative experience with the piano, both as listeners and musicians, is most often that of pop or classical music, and the context in which both listener and performer hear the piano informs the way we hear and make this sort of song performance. Though style and innovation matter greatly to the individualized performer, we cannot help but bring our biases along with our listening ears, and apply it to any vocalist with her hands on the keys.

The way we describe piano-based singer-songwriter music is indicative of this subjective history. Though rock influences are evident in the work of a diverse set of artists from Tori Amos to Regina Spektor to Emm Gryner, the pop vocalist label is forever bandied about; Spektor identifies with the anti-folk movement, and Gryner’s fan base is wholly indie and alt-rock, but you’ll find these performers filed under pop. Even piano-playing musicians who are embraced by the folk community first and foremost, such as Susan Werner and Vienna Teng, are described in reviews and biographies in the terminology of pop and classical music, treated as anomalies or curiosities by the very fans that claim them as their own. Meanwhile, Fiona Apple is celebrated for her vocals, but isn’t remembered for her piano work, though it got her demo tape noticed in the first place. And that all of these performers lean heavily on their vocal talents, drifting into pop vocalist mannerisms and fluidity of performance, doesn’t help our case.

But it’s worth remembering that I first saw new radiopop phenomenon Sara Bareilles in a folk club, just a girl and her electric keyboard in front of a few dozen appreciative folk fans, an opening act for a performer long forgotten. I saw Nellie McKay, who has gone on to make a name for herself in the indie world as a quirky, playful post-pop lounge deconstructionist, in the same venue, again as an opener, and on a battered baby grand, long before she made her name beyond her native New York City.

In both cases, no one blinked — and that says it all. Take away the production, suspend the disbelief that a hundred years of string instruments have wrought, betray your biases towards the black and white, and this is, in the end, a form of singer-songwriter folk, accepted by the community, and well within the range of folk festival feature performance. Here’s just a few favorites from what may well be one of folk music’s newest genre-stretching branches.

As always, Cover Lay Down encourages you to click on artist links above to learn more about tours, merchandise, and downloads direct from the source, the better to support the next generation of artists pushing the boundaries and biases of folk. After all, pianos may be made of wood, but this sort of craftsmanship doesn’t grow on trees.

12 comments » | Subgenre Coverfolk

Subgenre Coverfolk: Freak Folk (Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Animal Collective, Vetiver)

May 28th, 2008 — 08:20 am

copyright lauren dukoff; borrowed from

In a MySpace age of hypenated multiple genre designation, the term “folk” is increasingly used by artists and promoters as a call to a specific approach to musicmaking – usually characterized by acoustic instrumentation, and/or a sort of lo-fi confessional sensibility.

If we were cynics, we might suspect that the term is used primarily not to signify genre identity at all, but instead to call to a kind of authenticity or legitimacy, as if being “folk” was a good, organic, indie thing to be. Certainly, the sounds produced by these slash-folk-slash-other bands do sometimes contain hints of tradition, and of intimacy, and of storytelling. And sometimes, they have acoustic guitars. But the hybrid forms which this phenomenon creates are too fragmented to be true subgenres. And for most folks, they’re not folk, either.

That said, there is a high potential for subgenre to appear at the intersection of one musical form and another. Previously on Cover Lay Down, we’ve taken a look at some other subgenres from the fringes of folk, a diverse set spanning Celtic Punk, Bluegrass, and Zydeco. Today, we look at one of the boundaries where the folk world meets something else entirely. Its nominal figurehead and unspoken leader Devendra Banhart calls it Naturalismo. Most people call it Freak Folk. And let me warn you in advance, folks: it’s kind of weird.

Joanna NewsomSee, it’s pretty much a given in folk music that the prevalence of singer-songwriter folk forms at the core of modern folk music traces its lineage to the folk revival of the sixties. Go to any folk festival; few are stretching the boundaries. Instead, there’s something definitively sixties-esque about the ways in which, like Bob Dylan and Joni Michell before them, new artists continue to connect with an entire generation, via the intimate nature of folk music, that they might question their values and structures through lyrics which applied the personal to the political.

But though it is easy to misremember the connections between such ultimately mainstream artists and the hippie movements as if they were synonymous, it is also important to remember that the act of questioning power led the hippies to some very strange journeys and new values – which celebrated experimentation over structure, and a rejection of the trappings of coopted mainstream success which came so quickly for our beloved sixties icons.

The hippie drug culture which grew up and dropped out to embrace such values also brought forth folk forms of its own which lived outside the mainstream folkways, strange in instrumentation and intonation. They called it Freak Folk — folk to freak out to, and folk for freaks — and its champions included Donovan, the Incredible String Band, and even early Jefferson Airplane.

Animal CollectiveIf Josh Ritter and Ani DiFranco’s latest protege are the new mainstream folk, then despite a primary fan base in the indie community, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Vetiver and Animal Collective have a legitimate claim to the Freak Folk throne. And, just as in the sixties, the mainstream camps of the folkworld haven’t really noticed. And maybe it’s all for the better. Call it what you will – freak folk, Nu-folk, or a particular brand of psych folk – the modern inheritors of the strange, delicate, visionary music of Donovan and Vashti Bunyan by way of Nick Drake produce a music heavy with experience and ecstasy which would, I fear, both bore and frustrate many stolid folk fans.

It took me awhile, too. Certainly, I came to freak folk slowly. I never really got into the original freak folk movement. When Joanna Newsom was all over the blogs a year or two back, I eagerly sampled, but found her grasshopper-warble voice and classical discordant harp playing kind of alienating. Now that the dust has started to settle a bit on the newest wave of the freak folk movement, I find I like it.

Even if I’m still not sure what to make of it.

It’s surreal, and strange, and I guess that’s part of the point. Musically, freak folk and the related genre designations Psych folk and nu-folk fall well within the “folk idiom” as one astute wikipedian puts it. But unless he was a serious hippie, this is not your father’s folk record collection. Freak Folk leans heavily on the drone, combining it with an almost elizabethan sound and instrumentation, as if the players on stage in a production of As You Like It got heavy into the acid before the curtain went up on the second act.

But there’s also something wonderfully delicate about the music that gets put into this category, especially in the vocalization. The voices are creaky and strange, focused on delivery more than beauty, and yet somehow, a strange and alien beauty can emerge nonetheless from the trancelike product.

VetiverIs Freak Folk folk in more than just name? Yes, I think so. The tendency toward stripped-down, acoustic performance is there; more, the music may sound like an alien’s confession, but it is still confessional in its own way, strange metaphors and all.

Yet as it was in its original incarnation, Freak Folk remains a challenge to the very mainstream listening habits of the coopted folkworld. In the end, I think, this is a form of folk which is notable for how introspective it is for the performer — and how isolated the performer is, in pose and persona and performance, from the audience itself. Where both the traditional folkforms which emerge from cultures and the confessional singer-songwriter forms which still typify the core group of performers at folk festivals work as folk because the lyrics and the simple structures of the music allow for an easy connection between listener and player, Freak Folk plays with a kind of alienating tension which reverses the traditional stance between music and masses.

Sometimes it fails — I know plenty of folk fans who cannot listen comfortably to this music. And if this sort of folk succeeds at all for the audience, it is only by proxy, at least until we get fully drawn into the psychadelic tranceworld of the performer. But when it works, Freak Folk goes beyond connecting performers and audiences to engender shared ecstacies which can dissolve all boundaries between the music and the core emotional beings of both listener and performer. This is the psychadelic experience, after all.

Today, some cover songs from the Freak Folk scene, plus a few especially comparable songs from artists whose names keep coming up in the research. The covers approach serves us especially well today, I think: this is a form of music which is difficult in some ways, so having an entry point in the commonality of familiar lyric and melody may be a necessary component to bring some of us in far enough to even attempt the ecstatic experience. But listen deeply. There is an immense, fragile beauty here that can make you shiver.

Like most of the artists in today’s feature, we here at Cover Lay Down eschew corporate culture, but these folks gotta eat, and you gotta hear ‘em. Each of the artists herein produces albums; all are worth the investment, both emotionally speaking and as purchases. Click artist links above to buy work the organic, countercultural way: direct from the places where the artists best benefit.

Today’s bonus coversong: though most of the Freak Folk movement is too new to have been covered, Joanna Newsom has charmed more than a few fans in the world of indie music. Here, two very different covers totally transform her original sound, while still retaining the marginal essence of freak and the delicate, deliberate approach of folk.

702 comments » | Devendra Banhart, Final Fantasy, Iron and Wine, Joanna Newsome, Subgenre Coverfolk, Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists, Twinsistermoon, Vetiver

Subgenre Coverfolk: Celtic Punk from The Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, Black 47 and more!

March 12th, 2008 — 09:15 am

Now with added Pogues goodness!

Here’s a tiny St. Paddy’s Day subgenre for you: Celtic punk, a genre arguably invented by The Pogues, though surely influenced by both the “British” folkrock invasion and the early punk music of The Clash.

To truly explore the broader implications of this musical form requires deep understanding of many factors: the Irish diaspora, the evolution of fusion forms in music, the confluence of post-punk folk and the adolescent mindset, the modern commercialism of St. Patrick’s Day. Such scope is beyond the purview of any blog. But considering the genre as a form of folk sheds new light on what is increasingly a sound recognizable from Galway to Graceland.

Though genre originators The Pogues came at Celtic punk from the streetpunk movement of our parents’ generation, Celtic punk is also legitimately a subset of folk punk, a category which also includes folk rockers The Weakerthans and the early work of Billy Bragg, and is characterized by a sneering, often politicized attitude, high-energy performance, and electrified speed, even in unplugged mode. To this, Celtic punk adds the traditional instruments of Celtic rock music — guitar, pipes, fiddle, bodhran, and the occasional squeezebox — and the song structure and lyrical trope of the traditional Irish folk form.

The result is as diverse as it is distinctive. The definable sonic sector that is Celtic punk includes everything from slightly lilted folk rock ballads to traditional jigs at moshpit speed. Yet despite the differences, the realm is still definable for its lyrical ground in the plight of the working class, and — perhaps more obvious to the layperson — its worldbeat sound, full of high pipes and the unmistakable trope of the Irish pubsong.

As a fusion of multiple small-scale subgenres itself, it is no surprise that it is hard to find pure examples of the form. But the small number of pure Celtic punk bands is balanced by the large number of musicians who combine the basic elements of the subgenre. These essential elements are, after all, indigenous to everywhere from Halifax to Boston to the Emerald Isle herself. Where you find political dissatisfaction, post-rock young folks, venues that serve Guinness, and a critical mass of Irish musicians, inevitably, you’re going to get something a lot like Celtic punk.

Today, a short set of tunes from a few bands who define the genre cluster, capture the Celtic punk style, and display a folkpunk political sensibility. Those expecting thrashpunk may be surprised — though some Celtic punk retains the hard edge of its forefathers, it is sensibility, not hardcore sound, that ultimately lends the punk moniker to the majority of the musical form in a post-Pogues world. Nonetheless, those who come to Cover Lay Down for mellow tradfolk might prefer to skip down to today’s bonus song section, which includes a few sparser, slower covers of songs originally written and performed by The Pogues.

Today’s bonus coversongs, for the more mellow among us:

We’ll be back Sunday with more music appropriate for a folk coverblog on St. Patrick’s Day. In the meanwhile, click on links above to purchase the works of these artists direct from the source.

Folkfans looking for more Irish drinking songs should also head on over to the always-excellent Setting the Woods on Fire for more from The Pogues, The Dubliners, and The Clancy Brothers, plus some great tradfolk from the Emerald Isle!

Previous Subgenre Coverfolk Features:

  • Bluegrass
  • Zydeco

  • 1,309 comments » | Black 47, Dropkick Murphys, Great Big Sea, June Tabor, Subgenre Coverfolk, The Pogues, The Tami Show, Young Dubliners

    Bluegrass Coverfolk: The Joe Val Festival (Covers of Elvis, Waylon Jennings, The Grateful Dead, Steve Goodman, Gospel and more!)

    February 18th, 2008 — 12:49 am

    By most popular definitions, bluegrass isn’t folk music. Where modern singer-songwriter folk teeters on the edge of pop, rock, and blues, today’s bluegrass bands find radioplay on the country end of the dial, if at all. And though there are certainly plenty of crossover alt-country and Americana musicians out there who are welcome at both bluegrass and folk festivals, most music festivals tend to be firmly either/or.

    But as I’ve noted previously, folk and bluegrass have much in common. Both stem from the same early American folk tree; both depend heavily on the acoustic guitar; both use traditional forms of rhyme, verse structure, trope and storytelling in their lyrics and song structure. Wikipedia lists bluegrass as a form of country music, it’s true, but it also refers to it as a form of American roots music, or Americana – the category which encompasses the “folk” forms of American music.

    Which is to say: we’re bluegrass fans here at Cover Lay Down. And though owning up to this has probably already lost me some hardcore folkies over the months since we started, I make no apologies for the bluegrass among the folk. The acoustic nature of the two forms, and their shared roots in African-American blues, British folk ballads, and appalachian music, makes for a clear commonality, even if the sounds are clearly different.

    One significant distinction between bluegrass and modern folk music is the vastly different ways in which the two forms approach harmony. Where folk music performance tends to prioritize the singer-songwriter, both as vocalist and instrumentalist, the best bluegrass is about balance – between instruments, and among voices. The bluegrass sound is thus typified by close harmonies that span the range from high male tenor to bass, and a wide range of acoustic stringed instruments – typically bass, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle – which echo that vocal range, and, through alternating-beat use of bass and percussive high-stringed chords, provide an equally rich, full sound.

    Bluegrass gets a bad rap in the world of covers — all those anonymous session musicians cutting albums of Phish and Nine Inch Nails and Led Zeppelin covers just to pay the rent doesn’t help. But bluegrass music is much more than country music’s poor country cousin. The covers you’ll find featured in today’s post are the real deal, performed with love and respect. Even if you’re not usually the bluegrass type, I highly recommend giving them a try.

    To those unschooled in the history of bluegrass music, the Framingham, MA, Sheraton might seem an especially odd choice for the International Bluegrass Music Association‘s 2006 Event of the Year. But the popular stereotype which casts bluegrass music as a form of southern music belies a rich and long-standing tradition of New England bluegrass. And remembering that Scots-Irish dance tunes and English ballads are but one of several primary influences on the bluegrass form does help one come to terms with the fact that the Sheraton is built like a giant Irish castle, and thus looks more like a venue for a jousting tournament than a site for a bluegrass festival.

    Once you get over the strange dissonance between the snow-capped castle turrets outside and the sound of a thousand banjos, basses, high tenors and mandolins inside, The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival is a great gig. Incredibly, festival sponsor the Boston Bluegrass Association manages to successfully reproduce the feel of a great outdoor festival indoors in the dead of winter. The atmosphere is infectiously fun, from the ubiquitous hallway jam sessions to the ballroom mainstage to the conference rooms stuffed with product demos and instrumental workshops.

    And the musical talent is out of this world. The Joe Val Festival, which celebrates the life of seminal 1960′s New England bluegrass mandolin player Joe Val, attracts a significant share of IBMA award winners, both old and new. As such, it’s a good way to whet one’s appetite for the cornucopia of summer festivals which pepper New England in the warmer months. And it’s a great vehicle for us to consider the place of bluegrass in the spectrum of American folk forms.

    Today, we feature a select set of covers from the artists I’ve been lucky enough to see at Joe Val in the past two years. Together, they explore the surprisingly vast potential of the bluegrass sound, running the gamut from country singer-songwriter (Claire Lynch, Miller’s Crossing) to gospel (The Bluegrass Gospel Project, David Parmley), from old-school (Seldom Scene) to new school (The Grascals, Steep Canyon Rangers). It was a genuine pleasure to see them all, and it’s a genuine pleasure to share their work with you. (PS: I’ve saved the best of the bunch for the bonus song, so don’t forget to read all the way through.)

    As always, all album and artist links lead directly to band and artist websites, where albums can be purchased, tours can be charted, and fan appetites can be whetted. If you live in New England, you might also be interested in knowing that the Boston Bluegrass Union, which sponsors the Joe Val Festival, puts on great shows throughout the year.

    Today’s bonus bluegrass artists stand alone, because they deserve it:

  • The SteelDrivers, Higher Than The Wall (orig. Patty Loveless)
      Though this song was first recorded by Patty Loveless on Your Way Home, Higher Than The Wall was written by Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton of roots/blues bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, so it’s not technically a cover. But discovering this band at this year’s festival was by far the most incredible musical experience I have had in months, and I just couldn’t resist sharing this live track. I cannot recommend any music higher than the new self-titled album from The SteelDrivers. Heck, I’m so impressed, I’m going to totally break the cover mold: here’s a second original song of theirs from that same live session.

  • The SteelDrivers, If It Hadn’t Been For Love (original; live 11/2006)

    Coming soon on Cover Lay Down: fuzzfolkie Mary Lou Lord, covers of Donovan songs, and a review of SXSW 2002 Best New Artist Caroline Herring‘s new album Lantana. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

  • 989 comments » | Bluegrass Gospel Project, Claire Lynch, David Parmley, Dolly Parton, Miller's Crossing, originals, Seldom Scene, Steep Canyon Rangers, Subgenre Coverfolk, The Grascals, The SteelDrivers

    Subgenre Coverfolk: Zydeco Covers of John Hiatt, Dylan, War, Cracker, & more!

    December 19th, 2007 — 02:15 am

    Before radio nationalized musical types, and Dylan, Guthrie, Seeger and others involved in the american folk music revival of the fifties and sixties claimed the term to describe a particular lyrical style and approach to instrumentation, folk music was traditional music, and traditional music was regional music. Appalachian music was different from Cajun music was different from polka music was different from samba, but each in its own way was a kind of folk, literally “of the folk”, and the variance in sound as one traveled through the country was rich and beautiful and vast, steeped in the ancestry of the local population, and played on the back porch or local dancehall as a way to reclaim the old country for the newer generation.

    These days, of course, “folk music” usually means something entirely different. We see the term everywhere, with slashes and caveats, daily across the indie-populated blogosphere. But even as the term “folk” is being applied to a whole rising generation of acoustic indiekids, these different kinds of folk music seem to be moving back towards each other, a kind of musical genre reclamation.

    Zydeco and Urban folk once used the term “folk” as if the other did not exist, but more and more often, one can find the two types played to overlapping crowds in adjacent tents at the same folk festival, if not one after another on the main stage. In my local library, Polka music rests more and more easily next to Dylan in the section labeled “folk”. Some days, it is as if all popular American music is on the verge of falling into one of three broad categories: rock/pop/rap, classical, and folk/country.

    The folk music tent gets larger every year. According to an unsourced statement in Wikipedia, in June of this year, the National Association of Recording Artists and Songwriters “announced a new Grammy category, Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album, in its folk music field.” Though here at Cover Lay Down we have chosen not to offer a “best of” list to end the year, in anticipation of this year’s awards, and as a way to bring some swampy southern warmth to our short New England winter days, we bring you our first feature in a new series, Subgenre Coverfolk, in which we focus on a specific subset of the folkmusic sound.

    According to Wikipedia, Zydeco has its roots in the dual cultures and communities of the Louisiana bayou: French Creoles and African-american slaves. But Zydeco as a finite form did not truly emerge until after the Civil War, when many french-speaking creole and african-american communities of the deep swamp south moved towards Texas in the first half of the twentieth century to find work. There, the once-separatist creoles found themselves in common bond with free african-americans, and both peoples developed a need to congregate and celebrate their shared regional histories.

    The music that they created to accompany themselves brought together instrumentation, lyrical elements, and other components of Creole music and african-american forms such as Jazz, Blues, and R&B. At first, just as folk music was still folk music after it lost its regionalism and began to describe a particular sound, this was just considered a new form of Creole music. But by the time Clifton Chenier and other began to introduce the sound to a generation of popular blues and R&B artists in the 1950s, they called it Zydeco.

    The term “Zydeco” seems to be a corruption of african terms that mostly just means “dance”, though its etymological origins are muddy as the delta — other sources suggest it is derived from les haricots, french for “the beans”, a reference to the title of what many believe is the first mainstream Zydeco song.

    But the zydeco sound is clearly identifiable. In order to serve the cultural and emotional needs of its listeners, the instruments of Zydeco are typically those portable handhelds which need no amplification to be heard, and which will not wilt or lose their tone in heat and humidity: accordian as wearable piano; washboard as a drumset held close to the chest. Even the dance style of zydeco sprawls across the dancefloor, reclaiming land in a manner unlike the meeker and more static cajun waltzes and squares they evolved from. It may have absorbed some elements of rock and R&B over the years, but the Zydeco sound is still very much distinctive.

    Today, some select covers from the reigning kings of modern Zydeco. You can catch these folks at the dance tent, late into the night, long after the mainstage folk or bluegrass festival acts have gone back to their hotels and song circles for the evening, and they’re worth staying up for.

    As always, album links above go to labels or artist homepages, not some huge and faceless conglomerate. Support niche labels, regional musicians, and small record shops, and keep the local alive.

    As a nod to the continued evolution and cross-pollination of musical forms, today’s bonus (re)coveredsongs come from O Cracker, Where Art Thou, “psychocajun slamgrass” group Leftover Salmon’s collaboration with alt-rockers Cracker. Both songs are originally by Cracker.

    760 comments » | Bob Dylan, Cracker, John Hiatt, Leftover Salmon, Subgenre Coverfolk, War, Zydeco