Category: Elizabeth Mitchell

Covered In Kidfolk: WIN Elizabeth Mitchell’s new tribute to Woody Guthrie!

June 28th, 2012 — 12:43 pm

“A trailblazer in the world of gentle, truly beautiful folk interpretations of pop, rock, and classic children’s tunes for the younger set… anyone who has not purchased [Elizabeth] Mitchell’s first few albums cannot claim to have a functionally complete set of good kids music in their home.” (Cover Lay Down)

As noted above in a February 2011 feature on the local kidfolk scene, we’re huge fans of Elizabeth Mitchell here at Cover Lay Down: thanks to her pitch-perfect delivery and her penchant for coverage, the NY-based teacher-turned-performer has been a mainstay of our Covered in Kidfolk series since day one, and her delicate, lullaby-esque takes on songs both lovingly retuned and curiously transformed have peppered our tribute sets to artists from Neil Young and Gillian Welch to Lou Reed and Bob Marley. So although we were mildly critical of her last album Sunny Day, news of a new release from Mitchell – a headliner act on the kiddie circuit whose star has risen so far she now hosts the Family Stage at the Newport Folk Festival – is good news, indeed.

But having steeped in it over the last 48 hours, I’m pleased to announce that Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie is a career highlight from a well-admired artist: a full-length tribute to the kidsong canon of none other than Woody Guthrie himself, featuring eight newly-recorded tracks and five previously issued favorites, to be released on Smithsonian Folkways on July 10th in honor of what would have been Guthrie’s 100th birthday; a collection of short songs that soar like tiny birds, sure to stick in the throat and linger in the heart of parents and children alike.

Like Songs To Grow On For Mother & Child, the seminal 1947 children’s folk album from which it pulls the majority of its source materials, Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie is designed to be a family affair – not just for kids, but for adults to enjoy with kids. In this context, the tribute is apt and adept, with Guthrie’s simple tunes and often quite sparse lyrics gracefully and honestly remade, beautiful in arrangement and execution: a strong contender for kidfolk album of the year, come December.

Her inclusion of harmonies from daughter Storey, cousin Penney, friends Amy Helm and Ruth Ungar, and husband Daniel Littleton, alongside tinkly pianos, funky percussion, fiddle drones, and subtle strummed guitars, make the perfect setting for a family celebration of songs that raised a generation of folkies and rabblerousers. The universal, timeless subjects they evoke – rain, land, grass, sky; work, play, music, sleep – prove the viability of the form, and then set a new standard for it. And for those of us who grew up on the originals, the album is a delight, illuminating the child within.

While you’ll have to wait until the release date to order direct from the label, thanks to the kind curators at Smithsonian Folkways, we’ve got a copy of this amazing tribute to kidfolk and canon to give away to a lucky listener. To enter for a chance to win Little Seed: Songs For Children by Woody Guthrie, just name your favorite kidfolk tune in the comments; we’ll pick a random winner sometime on Sunday. And make sure to include your email address, so we can contact you if you win.

In the meanwhile, listen and sing along to this pair of new recordings from Little Seed, an older video of a Guthrie tune repurposed for this new collection, and a long-overdue tribute to the coverfolk of Elizabeth Mitchell. Embrace the child, inner and alongside.

  • Elizabeth Mitchell: This Land Is Your Land (orig. Woody Guthrie)

  • Elizabeth Mitchell: Bling Blang (orig. Woody Guthrie)

    [from Little Seed: Songs For Children by Woody Guthrie, 2012]

    Elizabeth Mitchell: Grassy Grass Grass (orig. Woody Guthrie)

15 comments » | Elizabeth Mitchell, Kidfolk

Covered in Kidfolk, Vol. 11: On Keeping It Local
Plus: WIN the Putumayo Kids Acoustic Dreamland CD!

February 11th, 2011 — 12:24 am

As we’ve alluded to in our recurring Covered in Kidfolk series, there’s a growing universe of family-friendly music out there that doesn’t suck, and a large portion of it seems to be centered around the American Northeast region which we call home.

Not all of it is folk, of course – increasingly, alternative music, world music, and even rap have found a niche in the hands and ears of cool moms and dads, who continue to insist on healthy yet artistically mature songs which they can enjoy alongside their offspring. But collectively, such music provides an apt antidote to the Disney, Kidz Bop and Barney crowd, filling a need for those of us who want our children to appreciate “real” music which nonetheless still contains themes and narratives which can appeal to the young.

Though surely supported, at least in part, by hip, up-to-date TV programming from Yo Gabba Gabba to Laurie Berkner to Sesame Street, it is also true that even as music listening habits move ever-closer towards the private headphone experience, global sea-changes have provided a more stable platform for family-centric music. A growing set of kidblogs and radio programs seem to be sustaining a renaissance of anti-pop, hold the cheese; “kids tent” performers continue to astound at local festivals from Clearwater to Falcon Ridge, and increasingly, concerts and festivals for kids can be found well beyond the traditional places – mostly elementary schools and libraries – to find a home in local churches, rock clubs, parks and outdoor arenas.

Here in our local area, for example, we find a cohesive community continuing to build around Bill Childs, who along with his daughter Ella hosts Spare The Rock, Spoil The Child, a weekly “indie music for indie kids” program which first began broadcasting on a small community radio station when Ella was just a toddler. Spare the Rock was picked up by regional AAA indie-to-folk alternative station WRSI a year or so ago, and since then, Bill and now-nine-year-old Ella have leveraged the exposure into a growing empire of dad-mom-and-tot-friendly music, encompassing multiple local weekend matinee concert series, Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti – a benefit CD which kidblog Zooglobble called “the year’s best family music compilation and one of the year’s best kids music CDs, period” – and Kindiefest, a Brooklyn-based family music conference and concert scheduled for the end of April, set to feature Elizabeth Mitchell, Robbie Schaefer, Dean Jones, Laurie Berkner, Verve Pipe and more as panelists and/or performers.

More broadly, on a universal scale, the new musical models of distribution which typify the digital age seem to have leveled the playing field somewhat, making what was once a niche market better able to thrive alongside the broader spectrum which the web supports. A trip to your local library may reveal a surprising upgrade in the taste and spectrum of what’s available out there, with delightful small-label and self-released works from Trout Fishing In America, The Nields, Hullabaloo, and much, much more, their bluegrass and folk finding space in and among the Raffi, Pete Seeger, and Ella Jenkins collections which have traditionally been the mainstay of any good kids audio collection. Heck, I’ve even found myself skimming the stacks for works which will ultimately be more for me than the kids, depending on their taste, despite the children’s label.

One of the biggest drivers of this trend is Putumayo Kids, who – like their parent company before them – has carved out a place for their well-curated world and folk music collections both within and beyond the usual venues for music. Their product, found but on the shelves of trendy, upscale, and bohemian toy stores from here to California, stands along with Melissa and Doug projects, toys, and puzzles, raw cotton dolls, wooden playsets, and other such deliberately crafted delights an an antithesis to the music which lies dying and unsold alongside the plastic trinkets and popcult princesses that populate mall culture.

Putumayo Kids’ newest release, Acoustic Dreamland, which is due to drop February 22, is a particularly strong example of the increasingly great work which comes from the well-respected publishing house, and I’m quite proud to have had a hand in helping to curate the songs on this particular sampler. The selection is inspired, if I do say so myself: delightful covers and originals from Hem, Rosie Thomas, and other artists which we have touted for their more mature, adult-themed work here on these pages stand alongside surprisingly mature work from Rick Scott, Victor Johnson, and others who have dedicated their careers to making music nominally for kids, though I think you’ll find that this is a set which stands on its own as sheer music, joyful, pensive, and potent, regardless of who’s listening.

As with most Putumayo’s output, most of the songs here have appeared elsewhere – we’ve previously shared Lucy Kaplansky’s delightfully smooth, sweet take on Mary Chapin Carpenter lullaby Dreamland, for example, which appears on 2007 kidfolk lullaby collection Down At The Sea Hotel, and I’ve posted my own contribution, the atmospherically layered acoustic dreamscape William Fitzsimmons makes of James Taylor classic You Can Close Your Eyes, which originally appeared on 2008 classic popfolk covers collection and Teach For America benefit Before The Goldrush, more than once as well.

But the collection overall is seamless, making sequence and the novelty of any new discoveries well worth any duplication. As with previous Putumayo releases, too, this collection, while cohesive, is also diverse enough to pretty much ensure that many artists here will be new to you, and those that are will surely prompt futher discovery – for example, I’m determined to pursue the works of Daniel Martin Moore after his utterly amazing original The Hour Of Sleep, whispery with piano, plucked tenor guitar, brushed drums and strings, got stuck in my head on first listen, and I had totally forgotten about the late-night majesty of Mark Erelli’s lullaby rendition of Wilco deep cut My Darling. And two previously unreleased tracks, otherwise unavailable – a gorgeous sleepytime rendition of the Allman Brothers’ Blue Sky from Elizabeth Mitchell in an increasingly rare solo turn, and an original track from Frances England entitled Here With Me which I find truly charming – are almost enough, in themselves, to justify the cost.

Highly recommended, in other words – both for adults and kids. And though I hope you’ll buy copies of Acoustic Dreamland for every expectant and new parent you know, thanks to the kind folks behind the record, I’m offering two lucky readers a copy of the CD totally gratis, so you can sample the wares for yourself before you stock up for summer births and birthdays.

To enter to win a copy of Putumayo Kids Presents: Acoustic Dreamland, comment on this entry with your opinion about the songs and strategies discussed at the END of this entry, OR email me with the same information. Don’t forget to include your email, so we can notify you if you win.

In the meantime, here’s a pair of favorite covers from the new collection, plus a few other tracks from previous gems in the Putumayo Kids catalog, to listen to while you cue up to enter the contest or go off to purchase the CD for yourself. Trust me: whether you’re a parent or just a fan of good acoustic songcraft, this one will stay in the disc changer for a long while to come.

As a coda of sorts to today’s feature, let me note that although we generally stick to celebration here at Cover Lay Down, and though I truly love the Allman Brothers cover above, I have mixed feelings about Sunny Day, Elizabeth Mitchell’s newest album – partially because I think Mitchell’s voice seems weaker here, partially because there’s less of the transformed-for-kids pop and rock songs which she featured on previous releases, and partially because as her family ages, Mitchell and her performing partner and husband Daniel Littleton have begun featuring their daughter Storey’s untrained voice in an increasingly doggerel-driven canon.

Don’t get me wrong, here: I’m not suddenly turning against Mitchell and her family. We’ve long championed Mitchell’s work as a trailblazer in the world of gentle, truly beautiful folk interpretations of pop, rock, and classic children’s tunes for the younger set; I still maintain that anyone who has not purchased Mitchell’s first few albums cannot claim to have a functionally complete set of good kids music in their home. And both Putumayo and the Spare The Rock crowd respect her work as I do: Mitchell is a mainstay of Putumayo Kids canon, and she was given late-afternoon feature act status at last year’s Many Hands release concert, which was sponsored and emcee’d by Bill Childs.

But though some of the tracks on Sunny Day are sweet and light, albeit a little more ragged than her previous work, those which include her daughter are much harder for me to listen to. There’s love there, for sure, and smiles beaming through the music, but prioritizing that love over performance isn’t without its cost: music by kids doesn’t always have the same raw audiophillic tone or represent the same mastery from a purely artistic perspective, and that’s absolutely the case here. And I worry that Mitchell has sacrificed some of the music’s appeal in her attempt to continue what we surely should respect as an organic and fully celebratory evolution of the family as music-maker.

Should we listen all the same, to honor that artistic process? Should we reserve judgment, and see what the kids say? Is it simply mean to criticize a kid singing joyfully if somewhat shyly on her parents’ record, or is it acceptable to criticize the parents for asking us to lower our expectations for what their music sounds like in return for celebrating their process and family life? I’m not sure. But I will say that the goal of our Covered in Folk features has always been to find and feature music which can be shared, and I’m not sure this new path Mitchell and her family have chosen includes me or other adults as a listener. As such, if we’re talking about music for children and adults to enjoy together, I can’t recommend this one as highly as I did her previous works – and would note, as well, that at the aforementioned Many Hands release concert, neither parents nor kids seemed as engaged with Mitchell’s family music as they did with the higher-energy acts which preceded or followed them, though to be fair, that may have been the result of putting music which has always thrived on intimacy in a large, open-air space.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe, unlike her previous albums, this one isn’t for me, and I’m just missing the concept. But either way, I’d be interested in your opinion – and I’m interested enough to make it a criteria for today’s contest to win the Putumayo Kids Acoustic Dreamland CD. So here’s a covertrack or two from Sunny Day, one with Storey, and one without; let me know what you think, making sure I get your email address alongside, and I’ll enter you in the Putumayo Kids contest.

847 comments » | CONTESTS, Elizabeth Mitchell, Kidfolk

Covered in Kidfolk, Vol. 6: Movement Songs for Runners, Dancers, and Wiggleworms

October 12th, 2008 — 09:28 pm

After two years of dance class, my elder daughter decided this year to switch over to Yoga. Meanwhile, her sister is a budding musical theater fan, one who takes to preschool sing-and-dancealongs as easily as she does craft projects. Neither comes from particularly athletic genepools – my wife and I were chorus and theater geeks, not track and field stars — and given their natural tendencies, they’re not about to turn into the kind of kid who rules the schoolyard. But the common thread is clear, I think: both have a strong affinity for being in motion.

The practice of movement is healthy for kids. Studies show that kids who experience rhythm often enough are better able to recognize and work with patterns later in life; there is, it turns out, a direct correlation between Math SAT scores and the study of dance and musicmaking at a young age. I also think that kids who learn to move in time with music learn to know their bodies better, in ways which can make it easier to think of exercise as natural, and to have respect for other connections of mind and body.

I’m proud of my kids for their love of movement, and nurture it as I can. They love bluegrass music, and can be caught kicking up their heels in their carseats when it plays, so I always make sure to keep some ready wherever we go. I chase them, as good Daddies do, and try to teach them to dance as long as I’ve got the energy to do so. We walk to the dam spillway, and fish; I show them how casting, too, has its body rhythms, and how those rhythms might match the drift of the bobber as the water pulls our hooks downstream, and how the slow jerk and rest of the spinner can make the hook dance under the water.

Mommy’s approach to bedtime is to help the kids settle into slow mode, using warm bath and storytime and lullabies as a mechanism for sleepiness, but I’m a big fan of exhaustion: when it’s Daddy’s turn to put them to bed, we crank up the danceable tunes, and have a good and gleeful bodyrhythm session around and around the coffeetable.

Previously, of course, we’ve covered both high-octane and sleepytime sorts of music in our Covered in Kidfolk series, but our focus back then was on tempo and emotional tone; since then, my kids have grown just enough to be able to better attend to the explicit messages of lyric and rhythm together. Today, then, a few tunes, the vast majority of them from the public domain, which explicitly encourage movement of various sorts, from running and walking to swinging, riding, and jumping that our kids might better consider moving their bodies as a vital part of their abilities, and know the various ways that such movement can be accomplished.

  • Run Molly Run: Sweet Honey in the Rock (trad.)
    This great a capella gospel folk take on an old folksong comes from Grammy-winning African American female roots cooperative Sweet Honey in the Rock; though it’s been on plenty of compilations, the song was first released way back in 1994 on I Got Shoes. A slow start to a set of movement songs, but call it a warm up.

  • Dave Alvin: Walk Right In (orig. Gus Cannon; pop. The Rooftop Singers)
    Not technically a kidsong, but something I learned as a kid, and subsequently one of those movement songs I will forever associate with childhood. This relatively stately cover by Dave Alvin comes from his 2000 Grammy-winning folk recording Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land.
  • Colin Meloy: Dance to Your Daddy (trad.)
    A dark waltz from Colin Meloy‘s 2006 tour-only EP of Shirley Collins “covers”, most of which were originally traditional britfolk. The tinkly xylophone here seems to encourage slow, stately twirling in my own children, as if they were ballerinas atop a music box.
  • Elizabeth Mitchell: Skip to My Lou (trad.)
  • John McCutcheon: Skip to My Lou (ibid.)
    Two very differently-paced takes on what might just be the most famous skipping song in the kiddie canon. Cover Lay Down favorite Elizabeth Mitchell‘s typically delicate, lighthearted take comes from her breakthrough kids album You Are My Sunshine. Meanwhile, the John McCutcheon is the version that I used to swing my elderchild around to, back when it was just the two of us. McCutcheon is so old-school, his website address is actually

  • Sonny Terry : Pick a Bale O’ Cotton (trad.)
    Folk-style harmonica wizard Sonny Terry gave this old “jump down turn-around” fieldfolk worksong an authentically old-school makeover with jangly guitar, harmonica, a percussive shaker, and a couple of harmony vocalists straight out of the thirties. Found on Music for Little People collection Big Blues: Blues Music For Kids, which runs a great gamut, and is a steal at $7.99.
  • Erin McKeown: Thanks for the Boogie Ride (Buck/Mitchell)
    Given the tight-buttoned era from which retro swingfolk artist Erin McKeown pulled the source material for her pre-1950s covers album Sing You Sinners, there’s surely some sort of innuendo buried in this track, if you look deep enough. But on the surface, it’s about boogying, and riding, a high-energy celebration of travel and ride-sharing perfect for kids on the go.
  • Michelle Shocked w/ Taj Mahal: Jump Jim Crow (trad.)
    Though it has roots in the early blackface minstrel shows of the early eighteen hundreds, like the other older songs on Michelle Shocked‘s 1992 release Arkansas Traveler, this jangly song manages to recapture the song as true-blue folk while stripping out much of the racism, and recontextualizing the rest as historically truthful.
  • Plain White T’s: When I See An Elephant Fly (orig. Disney)
    Speaking of crows, this song is famous from Dumbo, where it was performed by a set of racist stereotypes that just wouldn’t fly in today’s world. Disneyfied acoustic popgroup the Plain White T’s would be perfectly legitimate folk, if the suits behind them didn’t insist on presenting them as a kind of pre-plugged radiopop act.
  • New Lost City Ramblers: Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss (trad.)
    Another song about flying, since my kids asked for that form of movement song first and repeatedly when I mentioned I was posting this entry. Old-timey folkband the New Lost City Ramblers creates a great bluegrassy energy here; in our house, this means full-speed sprint-dancing and plenty of glee, so watch out for the furniture.
  • Dan Zanes feat. Loudon Wainwright III: All Around the Kitchen (trad.)
    A movement song that coaxes kids to dance along, first collected by John and Alan Lomax in the thirties, and now one of my favorite tracks on the aptly-titled 2003 release Family Dance from ex-Del Fuegos founder and Covered in Kidfolk series favorite Dan Zanes, who has remade himself as the forefather of cool for kids and families over the last decade.

Cover Lay Down publishes new folkfeatures and coversets Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional otherday.

1,244 comments » | Colin Meloy, Dan Zanes, Dave Alvin, Elizabeth Mitchell, Erin McKeown, John McCutcheon, Kidfolk, Michelle Shocked, Plain White T's, Sonny Terry

Covered in Folk: Bob Marley (Xavier Rudd, Magnet, Luka Bloom, Kings of Convenience, 8 more!)

June 15th, 2008 — 09:30 am

A few weeks ago over at collaborative music blog Star Maker Machine I had the opportunity to share Bob Marley’s Stir It Up — a song which I maintain is one of the great summersongs of all time, in spite of its subversive political undertones. In my accompanying post, I noted that:

Bob Marley’s greatest hits release Legend may have been just a posthumous compilation, but it was a perfect, complete set; it caught fire upon its release, bringing the sound of reggae full-bore into mass culture for the first time. Some of this was surely timing — the album was released in May, and the songs rode up and down the charts like an elevator all summer long, moving virally and fluidly among those of us at summer camp, and catching fire in the schoolyard upon our return. 

But the album was also a timely signifier of authenticity for a growing dissatisfied American underclass left out of the Yuppie movement. College students bought the album in droves. The album went platinum ten times, and set what would appear to be an unbreakable benchmark as the highest selling reggae record ever. By the time I hit high school a few years years later the dreadlocked poster was perfectly familiar; so were the chunky beats, the fat bass, and the loose, rough-hewn vocal harmonies of the Wailers coming from a summer boombox.

I stand by that assessment: even today, the image of Bob Marley retains a particular young person’s mark of countercultural, slyly adversarial legitimacy in the US — whether or not those who choose to post Marley’s head upon their dormroom wall realize that there is fire there, not just smoke and rolling papers.

But though the Star Maker Machine model favors the shortform, since that post, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to explore Marley’s legacy on a larger scale. Because sifting through my folk archives in preparation for that elseblog post, I was struck by how many great Marley covers have come to us from musicians outside The States.

My own experience aside, if the unusually broad geographical diversity of today’s coverfolk is any indication, Bob Marley’s music and the message of peace and social justice it carries has spread to every corner of the globe. And why not? Americans may like to think that Jamaica (like everywhere else) is some sort of colony, but Marley is no more ours than anyone’s. And, perhaps more significantly, Marley’s truths are universal messages of hope and solidarity, relevant everywhere that people gather together as folk.

Here, then, a set which explores that broader significance. Our “genre” tags are all over the map, from the Irish singer-songwriter vibe of Luka Bloom to the upbeat indiepop sound of Norwegian folktronic solo artist Magnet. Marley classic Three Little Birds gets the lion’s share of offerings, with four vastly diverse takes: the hushed, fragile lo-fi indiefolk of Birmingham, Alabama experimentalists 13ghosts, the joyous acoustic kidfolk of New Yorker and Cover Lay Down favorite Elizabeth Mitchell, the Zydeco stylings of Keith Frank and the live bossa-reggae beat of Brazilian Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil.

The mellow Australian jamfolk of Bonnaroo favorite Xavier Rudd stands in stark contrast to the traditional Okinawan folk sound that Nenes uses to flavor their stunning all-female interpretation of No Woman No Cry. Omar Sosa and Richard Bona‘s Afro-Cuban Jazz cover of Redemption Song is full and hopeful; late countryman Johnny Cash and UK post-punk Joe Strummer bring the weary weight of age to their own spare take on the same song.

Regular readers know I don’t usually go for live covers, especially those clearly recorded from the audience, but for this amazingly mellow, sparse take on Waiting in Vain from Norwegian indiefolk darlings Kings of Convenience, recorded just two months ago in Seoul, I’ll gladly make an exception. And though I was tempted to skip Scottish vocalist Annie Lennox’s languid vocal pop as “not folk”, I couldn’t help but include it alongside, for contrast’s sake.

There’s other covers out there, of course. But taken as a set, today’s gems fit our own “greatest hits” modality of quality over quantity, while serving as a survey of worldbeat folk from far-flung places. And I can think of no better way to show the true influence of Bob Marley, as a challenge to those who might mistake their collegiate associations for the broader impact of this musical genius. Enjoy.

Like what you hear? As always, links above lead to artist-preferred sources wherever possible; please, support these artists and others by following links and buying their music. And, as always, if you know of other folk covers you think belong in this rarified crowd, send ‘em along, either through comments or via email.

Still haven’t had your fill? Today’s bonus songs are halfcovers — one a two-song medley, the other an original a Damien Rice cover intertwined with a Bob Marley cover (thanks, Kathy!) — from two very different ends of the American folkworld: Jack Johnson’s barefoot surf folk and the delicate, experimental pianofolk of Benjamin Costello. Together, they help us see how, even within a single culture’s use of Marley’s songbook, there is more than meets the blurry eye.

Cover Lay Down posts regularly on Wednesdays, Sundays, and the occasional Friday and holiday; upcoming posts include folk festival previews, new album reviews, and other great songs from the coverfolk purview. I also recommend Star Maker Machine, where the gathering crowd shares over thirty songs a week on a given theme; my own recent posts include the originals and multiple coverversions of both Daniel Johnston’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievance and Monty Python’s Always Look On The Bright Side of Life.

PS: looking for some Father’s Day Coverfolk? Try Covered in Kidfolk: Daddy’s Little Girl for some still-live coversongs for fathers and daughters!

1,085 comments » | 13ghosts, Bob Marley, Elizabeth Mitchell, Gilberto Gil, Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash, Kings of Convenience, Luka Bloom, Magnet, Nenes, Omar Sosa, Richard Bona, Xavier Rudd

Covered in Kidfolk, Vol. 5: Barnyard Tunes and Critter Songs for Cool Moms and Dads

June 11th, 2008 — 09:01 am

I grew up in the suburbs, where wildlife was scarce, though we had our share of squirrels and birds, and the occasional rabbit sighting in the backyard. When we wanted to see larger animals, we generally headed out to Drumlin Farm, a working farm run by the Audubon Society, where caged birds of prey lined the path to the chick hatchery, the pigs and sheep gave birth every spring, and you could always spot the queen in the glass-lined, thin-sliced beehive, if you looked long enough. There was a pond, too, for crawdad spotting. Well worth the membership, and the half hour drive.

These days, we live in the country, where turkeys congregate around corners year round, and the neighborhood dogs roam aimlessly throughout our lives. Round these rural parts, Spring brings a whole mess of animals into the yard, from the new baby robins that nest in our holly bush to the frogs, toads, and salamanders that scatter when the kids run through the tall grass and hollows. On weekends, it’s a five minute jaunt through the woods to the dam and its shady, overgrown waterways, where turtles, ducks, and beavers play in the water, and the fish practically jump on the hooks the moment we throw our lines in.

On hot days, we head up the hill to Westview Farm, where the new baby goats skitter up and down the concrete barriers, butting heads and bleating; in the evenings, the mother cow in the grazing field across from our driveway lows to her new calf. This year, the neighborhood has even been graced by a family of foxes; we haven’t seen the mother and her kits yet, but the father runs past our windows and down into the growing darkness just about every day towards suppertime.

The world of kidsong is chock full of songs about animals, and for obvious reasons. A healthy child’s life is full of nature, and nature is full of life. Too, the developing awareness of what it means to be alive, and be part of a world full of other things that are alive, is an important part of child development; songs which portray the various relationships we have with animals — both wild and domesticated — help prepare us to think deliberately about our world, and our place in it, as we grow up to become parents of our own.

Today, in service to this aspect of development, we present a sprawling collection of animal coversongs from my growing kidfolk cache. Most predate the phenomenon of song authorship. And with artists such as Tim O’Brien, Nickel Creek, Garcia/Grisman, and Seldom Scene lead singer Phil Rosenthal on the list, the set skews towards the bluegrass, but I make no apologies for this; it is only very recently, with the advent of the NYC indie bluegrass scene, that bluegrass has begun to leave behind it’s associations with rural community and farmlife, and this makes it good solid folk music in my book.

But regardless of origin, as with all previous entries in our Covered in Kidfolk series, the point here is to provide a respite from the cheesy, cloying pap that passes for mainstream children’s music, that we might — as cool moms and dads — stay true to ourselves while providing our children with music that befits their age, and their emotional and developmental needs. I think this particular set hits the mark admirably. Whether these songs speak of the swamp or the barnyard, the woods or the stream, each is wonderful, in both the usual sense and in the older sense of the word: full of the wonder which we should nurture in every child, and in ourselves.

As always, folks, links above go to label- and artist-preferred sources for purchase, not some faceless and inorganic megastore. If you like what you hear, buy, and buy local, to help preserve the little spaces, for the little people you love.

295 comments » | Buckwheat Zydeco, David Grisman, Elizabeth Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, John McCutcheon, Kidfolk, Laurie Berkner, Nickel Creek, Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn, Taj Mahal, Tim O'Brien, Townes van Zandt

Covered In Folk: (Not) The Grateful Dead (on Borrowed Tradsongs and the Dead as a Vehicle of Renewal)

June 6th, 2008 — 10:01 am

Naturalismo, which I discovered when researching last week’s post on Freak Folk, seems to be one of very few music bloggers to note the passing of Alton Kelley — the sixties poster artist whose most popular work was probably the above skeleton-with-rose-garland poster, originally created for a 1966 Grateful Dead show at the Avalon Ballroom. You may not have seen the poster before, but you’ve seen the graphic it inspired on a hundred Volkswagen bumpers; the image, which Kelley and his long-time partner Stanley Mouse adapted from a nineteenth century illustration for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was the source from which the Grateful Dead took their early, longstanding, most recognizable iconography.

The relative dearth of recognition in the blogworld at Kelley’s passing, coupled with the evolutionary story of the iconography of the skeleton in that poster, got me thinking about the similarly under-covered relationship between the Dead themselves and the folk tradition. I’m particularly interested in the way the Dead, like Kelley and Mouse’s skeleton itself, served as a bridge between the images and objects of the past and the ongoing recognition of those objects in the present. If the skeleton reframed the imagery, the Dead reframed the tradition. And that’s pretty folk, right there, folks.

I’m not claiming that the Grateful Dead are folk music, necessarily, though their credibility in the folkworld is pretty strong. The combination of their use of traditional appalachian folksong as source material and their pre-history as jug band artists align them closely with the bluegrass that preceded them, and the newgrass movements which would follow. And their tendency towards acoustic sideprojects, their use of acoustic instrumentation and folk instruments, their connection with the same hippie movement which brought forth and nurtured the second wave of the new folk revival post-Guthrie and Dylan, and their not-so-occasional stripped down performance makes a strong case for their inclusion in the folk canon.

Jerry Garcia’s solo work and influence, especially, are a major component of this; by most accounts, though others in the band co-wrote their share of originals, it was Garcia who learned the majority of these traditional ballads and jams, on train rides and on back porch sessions, and brought them in for the band to arrange. And while his bandmates went on to play music across the genre map, both on hiatus and in the more recent aftermath of his death — it’s hard to argue that the solo output of, say, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, or Bruce Hornsby count as folk in any shape or form — it was Garcia who would become almost as well know for his more delicate acoustic mandolin and guitar work with compatriots such as David Grisman.

One day, it is my intention to give that Garcia and Grisman folkwork the full attention it deserves. And previously, I’ve posted several sets of songs more properly characterized as bluegrass which follow the Grateful Dead take on tradition: two wonderful newgrass takes on Deep Elem Blues; a Single Song Sunday collection of covers of Rain and Snow; a great high-energy version of Grateful Dead “standard” Don’t Ease Me In. But it’s never to late to do more, especially in tribute. Today, a few traditional songs played by others from the less countrified side of the folkworld, post-popularization by the Grateful Dead, and in most cases, surely influenced by same.

I considered adding a few more traditional songs of and from the Grateful Dead playbook here as a bonus, but it’s Friday, and we only do short posts here at Cover Lay Down on “off” days. Luckily, several recent and especially relevant posts on other (better) blogs are still live and worth the visit. So quick, before they’re gone:

PS: Much credit goes to the Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder as a general resource for today’s post. As the plethora of links here and elsewhere remind us, the folkworld would be a much poorer place were it not for the obsessive pursuits of others.

479 comments » | Abigail Washburn, Bill Morrissey, Bill Staines, Elizabeth Mitchell, Grateful Dead, Greg Brown, Zak Smith

Carolina Coverfolk, Vol. 2: The Songs of Elizabeth Cotten

April 22nd, 2008 — 02:57 am

North Carolina is rich in history and broad in geography, stretching from warm beachfront majesty to the base of Appalachia. That it holds a dominant place in the history of folk music is due in part to its cultural diversity, and in part to its situation midway up the coast, along the route that folk strands might have once traveled from North to South and back again. This combination of factors has made it an influential locus and crossroads for several southern folk movements of the last century, including branches of the blues, appalachian music, and strains of bluegrass, and other early rural folk forms.

Rather than give the musicians and musical forms of this diverse region shorter shrift than they deserve, instead of our typical biweekly megaposts, this week we offer several shorter features on the coversongs of and from a few North Carolinan songwriters who made their mark on folk music long before the sixties transformed American folk from cultural phenomenon to a true genre. It is a tribute to their indelible influence and stellar songwriting that that these songs are still treasured in performance today.

Today, we begin our journey with the songs of Elizabeth Cotten (1896? – 1987; born Carrboro, North Carolina).

Like many early folk musicians born at the turn of the century, Elizabeth Cotten had two careers: one in her early years, as a self-taught blues folk prodigy, and one later in life, when the folk revival of the fifties and sixties drove a desperate effort to recover and record the authentic sounds of early American folk forms before they could be lost to the ages. Cotten’s story of rediscovery is especially notable for its serendipity: though a few of her songs had taken on a life of their own in the hands of other blues and folk musicians during the forties, Cotten herself had quit making music for twenty five years, only to be rediscovered in the sixties while working as a housekeeper for the Seeger family.

Cotten’s strong songwriting and original upside-down “Cotten picking” guitar style, with its signature banjo-like low-string drone and alternating fingerpicking bass, would eventually result in a star turn on seminal disks and collections from the Smithsonian Folkways label, many culled from home recordings made under the reel-to-reel direction of Mike Seeger in the nineteen fifties. The support of the Seegers and others, and the subsequent success of her first album, the 1957 release Folksongs and Instrumentals, brought her onto the folk circuit, where her unique sound influenced the burgeoning folk movement, and where her songs would be heard, recorded, and passed along by the likes of Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Peter, Paul and Mary.

In the end, though only four albums of her original material were ever released, Cotten remained a celebrated member of the folk touring scene into her late eighties, winning a Grammy in 1985 for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for Elizabeth Cotten Live! a year after being named a “living treasure” by the Smithsonian. Her music continues to be celebrated today for its timeless and distinctive qualities, and for the way it speaks to a childhood among the simple folkways of the rural North Carolina south. And her influence as a songwriter, a guitarist, and an artist echoes in the work of generations.

Today, a few covers each of two of Cotten’s most familiar songs: two fragile kidfolk versions of Freight Train, which was written when Cotten was eleven, and a full set of folkvariants on the timeless Shake Sugaree, from the hearty tones of folk blues legends Chris Smither and Taj Mahal to the delicate second-wave folk field recordings of indie newcomer Laura Gibson and the previously-featured grunge-folk goddess Mary Lou Lord.

As always, artist and album links above lead to the most authentic, the most honest, and the most local places to buy music: from the artists and labels themselves. The Elizabeth Cotten originals, especially, are core must-haves for any true tradfolk collector; pick up her three solo albums at Smithsonian Folkways.

Assuming the weather doesn’t keep knocking out the network, stay tuned throughout the week for a short half-feature on Bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, and a piece on the work of Doc Watson, yet another North Carolina fingerpicker. Meanwhile, I’l be sitting on the back porch, local brew in hand, watching the sun set over the sound and the North Carolina mainland, while the wild deer and the goslings root for grub in the low grass below. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

[UPDATE 4/27: Great minds think alike: head on over to For The Sake of the Song for an almost-simultaneous post on Shake Sugaree that includes the seminal Fred Neil cover and the Elizabeth Cotten original!]

1,022 comments » | Chris Smither, David Grisman, Elizabeth Cotten, Elizabeth Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, Laura Gibson, Mary Lou Lord, Taj Mahal

Spring Has Sprung: Soft Coversongs of Hope and Renewal

March 19th, 2008 — 07:31 am

Tomorrow is the first day of Spring, and someone forgot to tell the sky.

In the morning, says the weatherman, the world will turn to slush. And if we are truly blessed, all our sins will be washed away.

Outside the snow sulks in great mounds where the plows have pushed it aside. Hard ice falls on three-inch shoots and tufts of new grass. We stay up late, and sit by the window together, and wait for the rains that do not come.

Send rain, O Lord. For it has been a hard Winter, and we are ready for Spring.

Happy Spring, everyone. May the darkness turn, and the world turn green and alive for each of us.

698 comments » | Ann Percival, Cassandra Wilson, Damien Rice, Dolly Parton, Elizabeth Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Erin McKeown, Gillian Welch, Greg Brown, Mary Chapin Carpenter

Covered in Folk: Neil Young (Of Tribute Albums and Female Indiefolk)

March 2nd, 2008 — 11:00 am

I have a love/hate relationship with Neil Young. While I’ve always loved his early work, both solo and with CSNY, as my ears and his voice age, I find it harder to listen to that infamous whine for more than a few minutes at a time. But ever since I wore a used copy of his incredible, confessional album Harvest down to the groove one mopey adolescent summer, I have had nothing but admiration for Neil Young’s ability to pen poetic yet straightforward songs which give voice to the plight of the powerless and the disaffected in modern American culture.

Young gets his share of covers, though next to Dylan, Paul Simon, and Bruce Springfield, the prolific folk-rocker’s songbook is hardly what we could call well-represented. And given his lyrical bent, it’s unsurprising to find that most of the best covers have emerged from the indie and folk worlds, where musicians and audiences generally share both Young’s socio-political dissatisfaction and his fluid fondness for making music in both acoustic and electric forms. It’s not like my life has been a series of Neil Young-related disappointments.

However, where it’s easy to find strong tribute albums of Springfield or Dylan, as albums, the few Neil Young tributes I’ve encountered have been less than memorable. Last year’s Uncut (UK) magazine freebie Like A Hurricane had some excellent folk artists on the roster, but all but three of those songs had been previously released, and back issues are hard to come by. Other, older tributes, like late eighties alt-rock release The Bridge, had a few good cuts, but with a few exceptions (Sonic Youth, The Pixies), The Bridge is generally considered a set of tepid work from some otherwise incredible artists.

Which makes Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young for Charity a long-overdue splash of vibrant life in an ocean of mediocrity. This new two-disc set features well-crafted Neil Young covers lovingly recorded by women who, like the previously featured Mary Lou Lord, live and play at the intersection of folk and alternative rock. The songs run the gamut from acoustic folkpop to indiefolk to electrified alternative, and unlike most multi-artist tribute albums, they fit together smoothly, making for a great and well-balanced listen from cover to cover. This is the tribute album Neil Young has deserved for most of his long and prolific career.

The proof is in the posting: I had originally planned to post this entry earlier, but the nice folks at American Laundromat let me take my pick of the collection, and I spent the first week trying to winnow down a two-CD set of great tracks to something manageable. Even after skimming off amazing songs like Luff’s great grungy Tell Me Why, Eurotrash’s alt-pop title cut, and Veruca Salt’s post-punk Burned — all of which, while amazing examples of indiegirl altrock in their own right, fall outside even a liberal interpretation of folk — I had to make some hard choices in selecting which songs to share.

You’ll have to buy the album for Lori McKenna’s countryfolk version of The Needle and the Damage Done, a dreamy rock anthem from Kristen Hirsh, a balanced, edgy cover of Heart of Gold from Tanya Donelly, the sweet indiefolk harmonies of the Watson Twins and Elk City, and more. But ultimately, I think I’ve selected a short set of streams which represent the breadth and excellence that is Cinnamon Girl.

No downloads here, folks, though I’ve dropped a few in the bonus section below. But don’t skip ahead. Press play below to hear Jill Sobule’s banjo-tinged folkrock, Kate York’s breathy alt-country jam on Comes A Time, the fragile Aimee Mann-like voice-and-piano folkpop of Amilia K Spicer, and my favorite track of many, Dala’s subtle, sultry cover of A Man Need a Maid.

Kate York, Comes A Time

Jill Sobule w/ John Doe, Down By The River

Dala, A Man Needs A Maid

Note: song has a long fade-in…

Amilia K Spicer, Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Told you so. Now head over to American Laundromat to pick up your copy of Cinnamon Girl today. All proceeds go to Casting for Recovery, which provides fly fishing retreats for breast cancer survivors.

While you’re there, take a look around. American Laundromat is an excellent label which specializes in pretty much all the things I like: tribute albums, the music and culture of the late eighties, and some of the best indie voices in the business. If nothing else, take a few minutes to listen to “American Laundromat radio”, where you can hear Lori McKenna’s cover of Peter Gabriel’s classic In Your Eyes, among other tracks from their great and growing stable of tribute albums.

Today’s bonus coversongs offer up some more Neil Young tributes from the acoustic singer-songwriter branch of the femfolk world:

Still need more Neil Young coversongs? Cover Me’s cover-by-cover reconstruction of Neil Young’s On The Beach includes some great cuts from across the musical spectrum, including Jeff Tweedy and The Be Good Tanyas. Act quick, because the links are due to go down in the next week or two.

493 comments » | Amilia K. Spicer, Carrie Rodriguez, Covered in Folk, Dala, Elizabeth Mitchell, Emily Haines, Emmylou Harris, Jill Sobule, Kate York, Marissa Nadler, Neil Young, Wailin' Jennys

I Have A Dream: Coversongs of the Civil Rights Movement

January 21st, 2008 — 10:48 am

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

It saddens me how much Dr. King’s I Have A Dream speech continues to resonate today. Sad, too, that so much of the rising generation thinks of today as just another day off.

May these few still, small, unsatisfied voices in the wilderness remind us of how far we have come — and how far we have yet to go.

341 comments » | Andrew Bird, Bruce Springsteen, Elizabeth Mitchell, Gordon Downie, James Taylor, Protest Songs

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