Category: reposts

Covered In Folk: The Bee Gees
(Feist, Shawn Colvin, Ray LaMontagne, Chumbawumba, & 12 more!)

April 15th, 2012 — 12:50 pm

Our thoughts and prayers go out this weekend to 62 year old Australian-born pop superstar Robin Gibb, founding member and long-time lead singer of disco trailblazers the Bee Gees, who is reportedly fighting for his life in a London hospital after a long struggle with cancer. In his honor, we’re recovering a June 2008 feature which mines my origin as an audiophile and pays tribute to the seminal work of the Bee Gees through an expanded set of folk-tuned coverage.

Gibb and his brothers may have spent their careers on the far end of the musical spectrum from the folk explosion that preceded and paralleled their rise to fame, but their cultural cachet and influence is undeniable. Robin’s vibrato will forever echo in our ears. May his pain be short, and his legacy last forever.

Bee Gees Gold was the first record I ever bought.

It was a used copy, already ragged; I remember the frayed cardboard at the edges when I opened up the album. I picked it up from some older kid at our elementary school swap meet. It cost a quarter, I think.

And to be honest, I have no memory of listening to it.

What I remember is the thrill of ownership. I grew up in a house full of grown-up records, but they weren’t mine, and I wasn’t really ready for folk and blues, country and soul. Like any suburban child of post-hippie parents, I had been given a small collection of great, authentic kidsong albums, but those were my parent’s choices, and already behind me. The Bee Gees greatest hits were the first music I could hear on the radio, and then play again as many times as I wanted. Whether I played it or not wasn’t the point. Buying it, taking it home, pulling against the slight vacuum that held it inside its sleeve, making a place for it on the shelf: it was a revelation, like discovering the key that unlocked the universe.

The experience of buying Bee Gees Gold, plus the rapid-fire acquisition of a used copy of AC/DC’s Back in Black, and a few records released that year — Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, Toto IV, Michael Jackson’s Thriller — would spark a lifetime of collecting and audiophilia. A quarter century later, my closets are full of long-dormant vinyl; the attic is stuffed with milk crate collections, and archived jewel cases. I download far more than I should, and digitize everything I can. My digital collection passed the 25000 song mark just this morning.

My students have always been amazed at the sheer amount of music on my iPod. But true audiophiles know that there’s an awful lot of great music out there, and what if you have a hankering for something and you don’t have it, ready to call up in the database? I live in a world of shuffle and playlists, theme and artist retrospectives, and new albums and discoveries. I cannot drive without a soundtrack; I look forward to mowing the lawn, in part, because it means an hour of meditative activity with headphones on. I build my summer around folk festivals. I spend almost every evening writing about music in one way or another, here and at collaborative blog Star Maker Machine. Listening, collecting, owning, sharing and enjoying music have become fully intertwined.

But though my tastes have turned towards the acoustic and the authentic over the years, you never forget your first.

In tribute to the record that started it all, today we present some of my favorite folk and folk-tinged Bee Gees covers. Most are recent indie-folk — as we’ve mentioned previously in our Covered in Folk series, the tendency for artists to bring the songs of their childhood cultures into their own repertoires means that a whole new set of indiefolks in my age group have recently begun adding Bee Gees songs to their performance canon. And a few are tongue-in-cheek; it’s hard to be earnest about something which will forever be associated with sequined bell-bottoms and high-pitched discopop harmony.

But under the glitz and glitter, there’s a surprising power here. Turns out the Brothers Gibb actually knew how to write songs with meaning, after all. Not a bad choice, for a nine year old kid suddenly opened to a world of possibility.

5 comments » | Bee Gees, Covered in Folk, reposts

Snowsongs, Redux: late coverfolk in praise of snow

March 1st, 2012 — 05:31 pm

I had other plans last night – dance class chaperonage and an early fast food supper out with the kids; a long school committee meeting; a late-night blog entry that bowed to a particularly delicious crop of video-driven mailbox coverage. But Mother Nature had a different idea, and here, in a town ravaged by October blizzards and June tornadoes, we’ve learned to listen to her insistent ways.

And so, after months of startling sun and warmth, and what was surely the driest season on record, winter came at last to our little pocket of middle New England. Roads were closed, events were cancelled, and the fat, fluffy flakes covered the trees, the ground, and every inch of available landscape, leaving behind the kind of white, blurry, Ansel Adams wonderland that woodsy romantics associate with Christmas and the unexpected gift of school cancellations.

Now here it is, just 24 hours later, and though the school district where I teach decided to hold class regardless, the snow has continued to fall throughout the day. My own children, who hid behind the trees at driveway’s end to pelt my returning car with snowballs, steam the flush from their faces with hot chocolate and orange slices, chattering happily of snowfort adventures. Choir is cancelled, and as the snow waxes and wanes outside, it eradicates any thought of obligations.

The burdens of perpetual motion are gone, buried in inches. Lost are the urges of mere hours; fled are the clocks of have-to and should. The world, in its insistent manner, has taken our plans, and left us stasis. And though we posted a strong set of wintersongs back in December, here by the roaring fire of the pellet stove, mulled cider in hand and children nestled nearby, my heart insists on the soft solace that only songs of snow can bring.

We’ll return to our regularly scheduled artist-centric features by Sunday, to be sure. In the meantime, join us as we celebrate the return of white winter with a thematic return to songs of snow both familiar and new or newly-found, covered in folk.

Looking for more snowsongs? Our pre-Christmas 2011 Wintersongs feature includes more seasonal sentiment and snowsongs, including beautiful covers of Counting Crows’ Long December, Sara Barielles and Ingrid Michaelson’s Winter Song, Vashti Bunyan’s Winter Is Blue, and plenty more – and it’s available in a single, convenient zip file!

Comment » | reposts

RIP R.E.M: A repost, in tribute
w/ covers from Amber Rubarth, Cry Cry Cry, Rosie Thomas, Redbird & more!

September 22nd, 2011 — 11:53 am

The blogs are buzzing with yesterday’s announcement, via a terse yet sincere statement on their website, that Athens, GA hometown heroes R.E.M. are calling it quits after three decades on the road, the radio, and the cultural consciousness. We first covered the genre-defining band back in 2009, so rather than rehash their path from college radio to iconic mainstream success, we’re taking the opportunity to revisit that older post today in memoriam – with a couple of bonus covers of Losing My Religion, from more recent CLD faves Amber Rubarth and Joshua James, to bulk up our original set.

I enjoy a good challenge. So when a recent and otherwise well-written treatise on the socio-economic function of cover songs past and present declared the R.E.M. catalog “too cryptic to survive being covered”, I set out to amass a collection of songs which would prove the author wrong.

My dubious pursuit was confounded a bit by a long-time personal apathy for R.E.M.’s particularly angsty, often melodramatic performance style, as filtered through frontman Michael Stipe’s voice and phrasing, which just aren’t to taste. Sure, there’s a few songs I wouldn’t change the station for — the driving guitar of Fall On Me, for example, or the deceptively cheerful pop surface of Man on the Moon. But these are predominantly band-driven songs, where so many others of the canon are singer showcases.

It’s a personal choice: I don’t like listening to Dylan either. But as with Dylan, and so many of the popular artists whose songbooks comprise our Covered in Folk features, there’s a recognizable genius under there, couched in a palatable form. It is no accident that R.E.M. is well established and well respected; love ‘em or hate ‘em, their influence, particularly in the emergence of college alternative radio, is legion and undeniable, and their reputation deserved.

The combination of cultural cache and strong songwriting has produced a world of broad and eminently listenable covers. It’s telling that when Stereogum decided to solicit current indie darlings for their second cover tribute, it was seminal R.E.M. album Automatic for the People which they ended up reconstructing track-for-track. And, as with so many previous features, that many of my favorite cover artists have taken on the R.E.M. songbook speaks volumes to its appeal and its potential among folk musicians and fans of a certain generational outlook.

My top ten list of covers consistently includes Grant-Lee Phillips‘ incredible version of So. Central Rain; I’ve posted it twice here before, and each time it has elicited comments from the readership. There’s more familiar covers here, too, from Rosie Thomas‘ lovely version of The One I Love, which pays tribute to Sufjan’s popular bootlegs of the same tune, to well-played cuts from folk supergroups Redbird and Cry Cry Cry.

Tori Amos and The Corrs come from that same AAA and college rock region of the genre map R.E.M. helped establish. Great Big Sea trend towards the sea chanty made modern, but most folkies will know the name. Stereogum’s coverage is predominantly indie rock, but the names are recognizable to those who come via the indiefolk music blogs. In the end, there’s nothing rare here, except perhaps the live cover of REM obscurity Hairshirt from Glen Hansard‘s recent appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

But surely that familiarity proves the point. After all, if folk is in the ownership and the interpretation of song, then cryptic becomes a relative term, and coverage itself proves palatability. For in the end, is there greater foundation for love than the recognition of the soul, the spark of something sensible to the self, and the subsequent struggle to own it? And is it not this love, in the hands of the talented and thoughtful, which makes coverage great, and tributes worthy? Listen, and judge for yourself.

Today’s bonus coverfolk tracks give R.E.M. the chance to take on a few core folksingers, from Hall of Famer Leonard Cohen to the man whose original version of Gentle On My Mind won a Grammy for Best Folk Performance the same year Glen Campbell made it famous. After all, as the banner says, we do covers of folksong here, too:

6 comments » | R.E.M., reposts

America, The Beautiful, Redux:
Coverfolk for a Thoughtful Fourth

July 3rd, 2011 — 10:02 am

I had big plans to share some thoughts about my conflicted love for America this year on the anniversary of our birth as a nation. But looking in the archives, I see I’ve written it before: both last year, when we mused upon the complexity of patriotism in a modern age, and in our first year, at a time when our national discourse was increasingly polarized by the impending presidential election.

Our Single Song Sunday from last year remains live, and I encourage you to head back into the archives for 10 covers of Paul Simon’s American Tune, and some thoughts on the complicated times which continue to characterize our national zeitgeist. But since it’s been a while, here’s our 2008 post revisited. Its sentiment stands: may your Independence Day be thoughtful, too.

I’m not exactly the patriotic type. I’ve been to more countries than states; I prefer solitude to mall culture. Heck, we don’t even have basic cable. But all power-hungry, commercial/corporate complex, bittersweet modernity aside, I believe in the ideals which frame the constant American dialogue with itself — including first and foremost the requirement that we keep talking, lest we abdicate our role as government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

And I believe that, by definition, as music which speaks of and for a people, American folk music holds a particular place in that conversation which is America. Folk focuses that conversation, making it real and vivid, whether it is through the lens of policy critique or protest cry, the immigrant experience or the internal monologue of a singer-songwriter struggling to be free.

Checks and balances and a mechanism for self-correction; fireworks and barbecue, and the right to make dumb mistakes and have to live with ‘em. Losing love, and falling in it again. Finding hope, and being scared to dream one more time. It’s the American way, all of it — and it’s been that way since inception.

Which is to say: if I may sometimes work to change the policies of those in power, through sharing song or through town meeting politics, it is because I love this country. And I hope I never lose that fluttery feeling in my stomach when we come in for a landing at the international terminal, and I know that I am home.

So let other bloggers share patriotic song today. I’d rather take the country as it is: dialogic, complex, open about its faults and favors, and always looking for a better way. And if saying so means posting songs we have posted here before, then so be it — for these are, after all, timeless songs, with messages that bear repeating.

Happy Birthday, America. Long may your contradictions endear us to you. May you never lose hope. And may we never stop singing.

Bonus repost tracks, 2011

12 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, reposts

Love, Afraid: Coversongs to Prepare the Heart for Valentine’s Day

February 6th, 2011 — 08:37 pm

It’s been a long, busy weekend, and it’ll be a long night, too, with end-of-term grading due in the morning and a thick stack of final exams to go through first. I’ve got a great Covered in Kidfolk post half-drafted, complete with a contest give-away for Putumayo Kids’ new acoustic lullaby CD, but it will have to wait; for now, here’s a taste of Valentine’s past, originally posted in 2008, to remind you to start making plans for next Monday.

I spent all morning trying to script a post about songs which struggle with the infinite and indescribably complex mysteries of love. The idea was to celebrate this complexity, and acknowledge as valid the stuff that often holds us back from putting a name to what we feel, lest we call it wrong and mess everything up.

But every time I try to put words to love, things fall apart. Love’s like that, I think. I guess that was the point, after all.

Instead, in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, here’s a mixed bag of folk-tinged coversongs that address the myriad and multiple fears we have about love: naming it, finding it, losing it, and losing ourselves to it.

May each of us, regardless of our romantic status, find something in the words of these poets and songwriters which speaks to our secret heart – the better to withstand the oversimplified, candy-red onslaught of emotion sure to come by Thursday.

As always, all artist and album links above go to artist websites and stores, the better to show our love for the folks who speak for us when we run out of words.

Hoping for some more traditional Valentine’s Day fare? Never fear: we’ll back next Sunday with more short, sweet romantic soundtracks for the lucky ones.

1,070 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, reposts, Valentines Day Coverfolk

REPOST: Cindy Kallet Covers
Dylan, Springsteen, Dougie MacLean, James Taylor, Judy Collins & more!

October 13th, 2010 — 10:15 pm

We’re running tight against deadline this week, thanks to an increasingly hectic fall schedule; it’s ten pm and I’m still wearing a tie, if that’s any indication of how my day has gone. So although the mailbox is full to the brim of delicious new folk coverage, we’re pushing new content to Sunday, choosing instead to revive a first-year golden oldie featuring a favorite artist whose gentle way with song always soothes me when the world starts blurring by.

There’s something of the sea in the songs of Cindy Kallet: something of the honesty and intimacy of water and stones and the wild shorebirds, something of the tight-knit communities and strong, silent families of the New England coast she loves so much. It’s there in her lyrics, which speak of the small moments of hope and love and laughter that make life rich and worth celebrating. It’s there in her craft, which combines simple, heartfelt, unadorned elements — a crisp, pure alto, an almost classical guitar sound, the rich harmonies of friends – in skillful, effective ways. And it’s there in her style, which echoes the older folkways of the sea shanty, the Celtic folk ballad, and post-Puritan shape note singing.

Cindy Kallet’s music is folk in a traditional sense, unpretentious, unproduced, grounded in place and nature and community, celebrating a simpler life. It is of a particularly New England coastal school of music, of a mind with the work of Gordon Bok and a few select others who spend as much time building boats and serving community as they do performing and crafting songs of simple praise. As a product of and for that place, it contains elements of traditional rural folk ballads and sea shanties, combining them with Appalachian instruments and the trope and formal phrasing of Quaker plainsong. And it sounds older than it is, as if it skipped over the major transformation that folks like Dylan, Guthrie and Seeger brought to the table of American “modern” folk, to pull instead from a strong and uninterrupted tradition of simple music “of the folk” played earnestly and without pretense.

In a world which considers such rough-edged confessional poets as Dylan and Guthrie the forefathers of modern American folk music, the “classical sensibility” and delicate phrasing Cindy Kallet brings to her craft can seems like an anomaly. But for all its grounding in the folk sounds, imagery, and culture of the northern American coast, there is also something both more intimately familiar and more elusively original about Cindy Kallet.

Kallet is a truly talented and innovative songwriter and performer, one who brings her own uniquely skilled touch to her craft. Her first album Working on Wings to Fly, released way back in 1981, was named one of the Top 100 Folk Albums of the Millenium by Boston folk radio station WUMB. She has earned high praise and admiration from many folk musicians more typically identified with the “mainstream” singer-songwriter folk movement, such as Christine Lavin, Dar Williams, and Patty Larkin, who cites Kallet’s Dreaming Down a Quiet Line as one of her favorite albums.

In turn, Kallet cites James Taylor and Joni Mitchell among her influences, and indeed, there is something of James Taylor’s finger styling in her own, something of the phrasing of Joni’s sparser dulcimer tunes in the way Kallet pushes her pure legato voice soaring over her crisp stringwork. But the way she combines traditional and modern elements is truly her own. And the honest, intelligent eye she brings to bear on these elements is incomparable.

More than anything else, Cindy Kallet’s music is an overwhelmingly intimate and open experience. But though her music is extraordinarily unadorned, it is anything but simplistic. Kallet’s songs are simultaneously a celebration of the world, and a communion with it. Her way with language, and with emotional delivery, is deliberate and intelligent, carefully wrought to serve what comes across as an almost holy reverence for the small details that make life worth living well.

This is serious folk music, the core of the genre. It is simple, without being sparse. It is simultaneously delicate and complete. Every note counts, and seems carefully chosen. It feels like home, somewhere by the sea, on a warm Spring afternoon. I have never heard music that makes me want to listen so carefully.

Kallet’s skillful ability to bring together the elements of modern and traditional folk to revere and recreate a particular place and time is paralleled by an ability to bring together others, both as lyricists and as collaborators, to reach an equally powerful communion. As her own songwriting is celebratory, and rich in gentle purpose, the artists and songs she chooses to cover are equally authentic, in tune with the sea and the joy of life lived simply in every moment.

This has often meant reaching towards traditional songs of the Irish and British Isles, as in her most recent album Cross the Water, a collection of originals and Irish reels produced with multi-instrumentalist Grey Larsen; it has also meant covering the work of other contemporary musicians, like Gordon Bok and Dougie MacLean, who share her sense of place. And her collaborative work with compatriots Michael Cicone and Ellen Epstein, which produced two incredible albums over a decade apart and then another in the last few years, ranges farther, finding that same sensibility in the working-class community portrait of Bruce Springsteen’s My Hometown, and a gorgeous three-part a capella delivery of Dylan’s When The Ship Comes In.

For all its evident craft, Cindy Kallet’s music comes across as egoless and effortless. Even as her songs celebrate the world she loves, she delivers them as if the point of performance were to invest every bit of her energy into helping each song become that which it is trying to be. This is far rarer than many of us would like to admit. Combine this with that sweet, rich alto, a powerful sense of phrasing in service to praise, and that skilled ability to use not only guitars, but the rarer instruments — dulcimer, harmonium — to support her sound, and the end result is an artist who is worthy of the highest praise and celebration.

So let us celebrate Cindy Kallet, as she helps us to celebrate the simple things. For all of us need more laughter and joy in honest work and play, more sea and spray in our lives. And this, more than anything, is the soundtrack to that life we dream of.

If you’re interested in purchasing Cindy Kallet’s work, the AllMusic Guide recommends starting with Cindy Kallet 2, and both Patty Larkin and I highly recommend Dreaming Down a Quiet Line, though all three of her early solo albums are worthy additions to any folk collection. Parents may also be interested in Kallet’s wonderful children’s CD Leave the Cake in the Mailbox, which won a Parent Choice Gold Award in 2004.

Cindy Kallet’s collaborative work comes highly recommended, too. Kallet still tours with Grey Larsen in support of their 2007 release Cross The Water, which I have been enjoying very much. And the trio of Kallet, Epstein and Cicone released Heart Walk, their third CD, in May of 2008, which prompted the following (Re)Covered report:

…as expected, it’s a beautiful work, full of robust harmony and sincere emotion, primarily comprised of coversongs of underappreciated folk artists who share the same social and ecological sensibilities of Kallet and co. Like the trio’s previous two albums, Heart Walk is both an especially powerful musical experience, and a great and loving introduction to the work of other folk musicians you may not have heard of, but should. Kudos, all around.

Honestly, all three of the albums from the trio of Kallet, Epstein, and Cicone are chock full of coversongs, and each comes highly recommended, of course. But these two bonus covertracks from the newer album — a cover of an old Judy Collins tune, and an absolutely stunning cover of Peter Mayer’s Holy Now featuring Michael’s warm, clear lead vocals — are a great way to whet the appetite.

REPOST BONUS: Ann Percival covers Cindy Kallet’s Tide and the River Rising

Cover Lay Down posts features and coverfolk twice weekly without fail or falter. Coming soon: new work from young artists still on the rise, songs of the coming frost, and a tribute to a soulful singer-songwriter not often covered in the folkworld.

1,373 comments » | Cindy Kallet, reposts

Covering The Past, Redux:
Reposted Songs From My Father’s Record Collection

June 23rd, 2010 — 09:25 pm

I’ve been in Boston for a new literacies teacher institute for the last few days, pushing the limits of my ability to multitask and taxing my brain with theory and new possibilities; it’s intense, and though I’m loving the work and the collaboration, the sustained concentration – and the all-day, full-body headache which has resulted – has left me a bit too drained to do justice to anything up to our usual standards.

But last night before the pain kicked in Dad and I headed off to catch Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri at Club Passim, and I was reminded of how much our shared bond is based in the music he taught me to love. I’ll be back Sunday with more about the amazing Paul and Devon, and a few other married singer-songwriter couples; in the meanwhile, here’s a reposted piece which – like my relationship with my father – I’m particularly proud of.

Originally posted March, 2009

The records I treasure have been reorganized in the last few years since the move, but they still smell of my musical awakening — that particularly sweet smell of aging record sleeves, and the cherrywood cabinet they used to inhabit. They range far beyond folk, of course: this is a man whose tastes run deep and broad, from Bob Carlin country to Kool and the Gang funk, from sixties jazzpop to bluegrass, all the early masters of a dozen genres of American music.

One whole side of the collection, in fact — the blues stuff, the jazz stuff, the soul, the R&B — evolved later, and separately, as I grew, so that it never truly seems like it sprang from my childhood as clearly. But the collection in toto contains the origins of my belief that all music has merit, and that all genres have their masters; that it is the performance, the skill, and the talent which provide the platform for success, by even the most subjective measure.

My father’s records have always been organized by personal association; to follow their sequence — from Bob Dylan to Steeleye Span to James Taylor, from Little Feat to Steely Dan to Cat Stevens — is to think like my father, or at least understand the world of musical influence and genre in his terms. And I know this world well. I spent hours lying on the hardwood floor in front of that cherrywood stereo cabinet, head cocked to the right as if listening, running my fingers along these tall, thin spines, sliding precious vinyl in and out of their paper sleeves carefully, as if each album contained the family, the world, the self, the very meaning of life itself.

Looking at these records now, I find many albums I missed then, and have since come to on my own — Loudon Wainwright III, John Prine, John Hartford among them, on the folkier side. Too, some musicians my father treasured took longer to love than others — the nasal voices of Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky, for example, only truly blossomed for me when I was old enough to come to their work with an adult’s mature understanding of memory, love, and other common themes. I’m still working on a love for Richard Thompson.

But there are whole sections that I know as well as the back of my father’s hand.

Indeed, it is not too much to say that somewhere deep in this collection was a kernel of my father himself, though I did not realize it at the time. And indeed, though I never truly saw him listen to these records, or even buy them, more than anything else, the access he gave me to these records — and through them, to him — is the beginning of the bond between us.

Our listening has long been private, done in darkness; I cannot claim that this song or that is his favorite cover of that bygone era, could not truly name his own experience with these songs if I were pressed to do so. But these are the songs handed down nonetheless, through the very nature of their presence, and the very fact of their importance, as shared artifacts in time and space.

And, though it would take years for me to hear their nuances, long before I heard the originals, these songs of my father’s are the progenitors, the soundtrack to an audiophile’s birth. That they would become form and foundation of the deep love and friendship I am privileged to share with my father today makes them all the sweeter.

Not all these albums are still in print, and few are digitized; as such, there’s much on these shelves which cannot be posted. But here’s a few coversongs from those artists and albums I remember best — from those childhood hours sunk deep into my father’s psyche, made manifest in music.

Cover Lay Down posts new features every Sunday and Wednesday, come hell or high water. Stay tuned later this weekend for a look at Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri and a few other singer-songwriter couples through coverage.

257 comments » | reposts

Memorial Day Coverfolk, Redux:
Soldier songs for the next generation, and those gone by

May 30th, 2010 — 04:54 pm

We’re off today, burning the social calendar at both ends for the long weekend. Instead of something new, here’s a repost from last year’s Memorial Day – plus a few bonus tracks for our regular readers.

For most of my life, the military has been an abstraction. Though war itself lives everpresent in our newsdriven culture, and memorial statues and parades a recurring part of community, my concept of life in the armed forces, and the risks and stresses thereof, is based on popculture parables, mostly: fictionalized movie and television portrayals fleshed out by fleeting glimpses of men and women in uniform in airports, reporting to places I cannot imagine, to carry out tasks I could not describe.

My connection with family members who have served has been long after the fact. My father spent some portion of the sixties as a clerk typist in the Coast Guard reserves, but other than a truly dorky picture which he kept in his bedside drawer, and a few well-worn tales of short-haired inspection wigs and furloughs which I have evoked over the years, I could not identify those parts of him, if any, which were forged in service to his country.

Similarly, though my grandfather’s work developing radar in the Army is an important part of the family mythos, it was long over by the time I came to consciousness. Though I carry his dog tag in my wallet, the man I knew as Grandpa was a quiet shirtsleeved man, his service so much a part of who he had become that I never really considered how his military past had made him until it was too late to ask.

Surely, both of these men, and the usual assortment of greatuncles, met men along the way who never came back. But their stories are not mine. Their losses, if any, are their own. And so, for most of my life, Memorial Day has been a secular holiday, atheistic, with no trace of sentiment.

But teaching in a school with an ROTC program means living with a daily reminder of the armed forces as peopled by real, three-dimensional human beings. Students show up in class crisp and confident in uniform; I pass them in the hallways lined up for inspection, or pacing out their cadences.

Jerome and Lori Anna, my two graduating ROTC seniors, are still just kids, off to Prom on Thursday, on the cusp of graduation. Their lives are ahead of them, but their choices are limited. For them, service is a way out of the inner city, perhaps the only one available to them. It will pay for college, and help them focus their abilities. It will give them a future.

And so they choose to lend their bodies and hearts to the protection of our shores and skies. And their very real and present future — fighting wars, combatting terrorism — lends new credence to the need for memory.

May they serve proud, like our fathers before us, and our grandfathers before them. May their service be swift, and their burden light. Rest assured; we will remember them.

Repost Bonus Tracks, Memorial Day 2010:

PS: Still got room for a few more Memorial Day covers? Cover Freak’s got you covered.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: more delicious new and new-to-you folk covers, including yet another well-worn songbook Covered In Folk. And don’t forget to stay tuned for a chance to win a pair of FREE passes to Falcon Ridge Folk Festival 2010!

1,053 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, reposts

Under the Weather: Folk Covers for A Stormy Night, Redux

April 28th, 2010 — 09:00 pm

I’m a bit under the weather, and so is the sky, dropping branches and rain on the newly-cleared lawn and wreaking havoc on our ‘net connection. I’ve got some great new music to share, and it’s burning me up not to be able to bring it out this evening…but under the circumstances, I’m thinking something a little less strenuous might be more apropos.

Hope no one minds a repost, from the aftermath of a similar storm two summers ago, with a promise of something more substantive to follow later in the week…

They say April showers bring May flowers, but I’m not so sure. This evening’s thunderstorm was a big one, and in our end-of-the-wire rural existence, even when the power stays on, thunder knocks our ‘net connectivity for a loop. Meanwhile, now that the trees have finally filled in, our newly-terraformed backyard doesn’t seem to be getting more than a few hours of sun each day; as a consequence, we’re having trouble getting flowers to do much of anything back there.

I’ve got dozens of posts half-formed and half-written, in my mind and on the screen: new and beloved artists to feature, a long-overdue return to our Covered In Kidfolk series, a few great songwriters to rediscover through folk covers. But writing this with a waning battery and no ‘net access means being shut off from my usual research materials. And in the darkness, the sounds of rain pattering against the leaves, punctuated by the intermittent gutterball of thunder, are sweeter than any music I could play – so sweet, it’s hard to think about anything but the world outside.

Instead, I spent the last hour watching the flowerbeds all but wash away, and the muddy water wash the fill from between the flagstones. The rain against the windows turned the yard beyond into an everchanging pointilist dream. And I lost the thread of anything but the present.

Some rainstorms disrupt; some destroy; others help things grow. All involve chaos, in their own way; even if it is only because rain challenges our default image of the world outside as inherently sunny and easily navigable. Here’s a playlist compiled quickly, in the dark, and researched only afterwards: a set of coversong, from the usual wide variety of folk artists and singer-songwriters, that celebrates storms both real and metaphoric.

    I’ve always liked this song –- the way the the storm gets entangled with the emotional distance in the lyric, the repeated cry of I’m sorry that serves as the chorus — but the original comes off like a maudlin torch song in my ears. On his 2006 cover album nineteeneighties Grant Lee Phillips plays the song out straight, holding his emotion in check, letting the way the words trail off reveal the true heart of the damaged, emotionally tongue-tied narrator. The song is transformed.

    Despite her powerful interpretive voice, Cassandra Wilson is usually billed as smooth late night Jazz. But this song is something sparse and jangled from the eye of a storm: tense, frenetic blues from a single slide guitar, a tapping foot like rain on the roof, Wilson’s alto floating above it all like a howl of wind. From the surprisingly good collection The Best Smooth Jazz…Ever.

    I posted Redbird’s excellent version of this song at the bottom of a post on Grateful Dead rainsongs a while back [update: and here it is again]. Of the three versions here, Jimmy LaFave’s is loose bar-room folkrock americana, with a bit of dustbowl mixed in; Orton and Ward are lo-fi and spare, like a living room cover; Neko Case is sweetest, and oh so perfectly countrified.

    More Dylan. A very young Joan Baez released this surprisingly tender version of his condemnation of society and its lack of commitment to social justice in 1965 on her Dylan tribute album Farewell, Angelina. Almost forty years later, Edie and the boys bang it out like a poprock anthem.

    Newgrass pioneers Northern Lights worked with master fiddler Vassar Clements on and off for over a decade; I especially like their 2000 live album Three August Nights. This high-energy live cut is a five minute bluegrass festival, the perfect jam for a sunny summer afternoon.

    Mandolin and piano, robust harmonies in little-girl voices, and a story of love lost to the sky make this one of the strongest cuts on Nanci Griffith’s excellent cover album Other Voices, Other Rooms.

    Previously featured artists Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem turn this over-covered 1929 country and blues chestnut into a cheerful stroll of a song, a tight gem of acoustic folk swing music with a little sultry swagger built right in. From Cocktail Swing, which is all like that.

    Played as a tender, ragged waltz, a Creedence classic becomes pensive and atmospheric. This bright psychadelic indiefolk from newcomer Juju Stulbach, the Brazilian frontwoman of NYC band Mosquitos [update: and now half of new duo Undersea Poem], keeps growing on me. Bonus points: it’s the soundtrack to this subject-appropriate commercial for GE.

    This lighthearted romp with double-uke and doubled girlvoices from Japanese duo Petty Booka is bright like a rainbow at storm’s end. Because, in the end, what better way to meet chaos than to smile and dance within it?

Cover Lay Down posts features and coverfolk sets every Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: new work from nufolk, and more!

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Schoolday Coverfolk, Take 2:
A revisited post in recognition of teachers and students

November 11th, 2009 — 02:03 pm

Yes, it’s Veterans Day, a “bank holiday”, as the brits like to say; like so many other bloggers, I should be posting songs on the topic. But a recent bout of the dreaded H1N1 flu has left me late for end-of-term grading, perhaps one of the biggest sins a teacher can commit. As such, instead of taking advantage of the fine fall day outside, I find myself hunkered down over the dining room table, slowly making my way through a huge pile of previously-unseen papers and midterm exams.

The post below was originally featured in May of 2008, in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week, though I’ve modified it a bit to reflect a relatively recent move back to a high school environment. Folks interested in taking a moment to recognize the men and women who serve our countries in other, more dangerous ways are encouraged to head back in time for a still-live set of Soldier Songs, just as relevant on Veterans Day as it was on Memorial Day.

In my other life, I’m a teacher in an inner city high school; I spend most of my days surrounded by fourteen year olds, trying to balance entertainment with mentorship, and curriculum with life lessons. I spent three years in a suburban middle school to get there, alternating teacher instructional support with classroom teaching; before that, I taught in a boarding high school, tutored gifted and talented kids in a tiny rural elementary school, ran a before-school program, and did public demonstrations at a science museum.

And before that, I was a dropout. And before that, I was a goofball, who needed a little good advice now and then, but couldn’t really sit still long enough in the classroom to make any teacher want to defend me.

But Mrs. Carter liked me, though I don’t know why. The way she looked at me – like I had something worth watching for – made up for the fact that I was always the understudy when we were picked for the school play, always the alternate for work with the poet in residence. I learned to rise to the occasion, and to focus on doing things well, instead of doing things best; I gained confidence in my abilities. And though after that year, I turned back into the goofball for a good long time, I never forgot Mrs. Carter. And I never forgot that look.

It’s a well-kept secret in educational circles that it isn’t just the good kids, or the smart kids who get voted “most likely to be a teacher”, who come back to school to sit on the other side of the desk (or in my case, to stand atop the desk and gesticulate wildly to make a point). We come from all the cliques, from the woodshop wannabes to the cheerleading squad, from the lit mag proto-hipsters to the band geeks. But I can’t think of any teacher I have ever spoken with who is not honored and thrilled and genuinely surprised when that rare student comes out of the woodwork to say “you mattered, and now I matter.”

A few years back, at a five year reunion, this kid came up to me, and thanked me. He said I was the one who changed his life; that now he was doing what I had taught him to do, and hardly a week went by where he didn’t think about what I had taught him.

And I looked at him, and smiled, and was secretly joyous. But all I could think about was that this kid was the goofball. The one who was always pushing the envelope. The one who messed around in film class, though he always came through with something pretty cool when the work was due. The one who spliced thirty second of a shower scene from a Penthouse video into his remade music video for Van Halen’s Hot For Teacher. And showed it on the day the Academic Dean came to observe me in my first year of teaching.

And then I remembered Mrs. Carter. And I thought about calling her up, and thanking her. But Mrs. Carter isn’t around anymore.

If Jeffrey Foucault was a teacher, he'd look like thisThere are surprisingly few songs about the teaching profession which portray it in a positive light (though there are a couple of other memorable songs out there about teachers as sex objects, such as Police classic Don’t Stand So Close To Me and Rufus Wainwright’s The Art Teacher); of these, fewer still have been covered by folk artists. More common are songs about school as a part of adolescent or childhood experience — songs where the teachers are there, unmentioned, just hovering in the background. But as a teacher myself, I know that no classroom feels safe unless the teacher has set a tone that makes it safe. Even without mention, as long as curriculum and classroom exist, a teacher is always there.

Today, then, in celebration of teachers, we bring you a set of quirky covers of teachersongs, and some schoolsongs which touch lightly and broadly on our experience of the classroom, that childhood stew of fear and freedom where our personalities were transformed.

Together, the songs make a perfect soundtrack to a google search for that one special teacher who reached out and changed your life. Write the letter, send the email, make the call: let them know they made a difference today. You don’t even have to say thanks — just letting them know that you remember them, and that you turned out okay, is a rare and precious reward.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features every Sunday and Wednesday, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: features on new and (re)covered artists, plus an interview with Cover Lay Down fave Caroline Herring, whose new cover-laden disk Golden Apples of the Sun continues to garner high praise.

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