Category: Johnny Cash

Single Song Sunday: Ring of Fire
(A dozen folkcovers of the Carter/Cash classic)

February 27th, 2010 — 08:50 pm

According to Wikipedia, 80% of the world’s major earthquakes take place in the Ring of Fire, a volatile region of the Pacific that spans a 40,000 kilometer horseshoe of coastland and island nations from New Zealand and Japan to Alaska, Mexico, and a huge swath of the American continents. Last night, for example, an 8.8 earthquake hit Chile, killing hundreds, and leaving as many as a million people homeless. The resultant tsunami activity – earthquakes move water like a kid rising out of a bathtub – is bearing down on the Americas, and has already proved a real threat to Pacific islands from Hawaii to French Polynesia.

Why so little relative death from an earthquake as much as 100 times more powerful than the quake which recently hit Haiti? Infrastructure and population density, mostly. Chile has money; its buildings shuddered, but most did not fall. Whether the waves that follow will hit already-broken communities, adding significantly to the death toll, remains an unknown.

June Carter didn’t have the seismic activity of the Pacific in mind when she wrote of her burning love for Johnny Cash way back in the early sixties, of course – instead, as the story goes, she took her titular phrase from the line “Love is like a burning ring of fire,” which she found underlined in one of her uncle A.P. Carter’s Elizabethan poetry books.

But the consuming conceit of loving an addict and alcoholic is a complex and effective device, a metaphor of “the transformative power of love,” as Roseanne Cash puts it, that has rung true through the ages. Ring of Fire is one of Johnny Cash’s most covered tunes, and generally cited as such, despite having been recorded first by June’s sister Anita on her 1962 Mercury Records album Folk Songs Old and New, which is where Johnny first encountered the haunting lyrics. According to Cash, adding the mariachi horns came from a dream, and the south-of-the-border punctuation seems to have clicked, as it was his version that caught the ear of the culture, eventually settling in as #87 on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest songs of all time.

Johnny Cash would have been 78 this week. Other blogs have been celebrating by noting the release of his final posthumous collection of new material American VI: Ain’t No Grave, the last of the deliciously folk series of Rick Rubin-produced “American” recordings which Cash released in the final years of his life – a set of records that form the core of my own Cash collection, as, perhaps more than any of his life’s work, they serve as evidence of the true folk sensibility of the artist.

Originally, my intent today was to pay tribute to the Man in Black by offering some favorites from that series, which is chock full of poignant, perfectly broken covers of Tom Petty, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, and other songs stripped to the bone and retranslated as spiritual guideposts, a man looking back on a life spent walking the line between pain and redemption. But in the context of the most recent global disaster, there is perhaps no better way to celebrate his influence and soul than through a spectrum of folk and roots artists’ coverage of Ring of Fire – a song originally written to express a troubled love for Cash himself, ultimately redeemed by Cash and his loving partner as a dark celebration of love and its trials, and eventually grounded in the popular imagination as a song from the man’s own soul.

For to love the world’s music is to love the world. And as the walls of our safe havens shake and crumble, and disasters crash the beaches that we have built as bulwarks around us, we are reminded evermore that the world needs our love, just like Johnny needed June, to be whole.

Speaking of helping hands and natural disasters: Thanks to all who participated in our recent “pay it forward” fund drive – together, we raised over $80 for Doctors Without Borders and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts!

As a very special thank you to my readers, all those who give five dollars or more to help cover server costs at Cover Lay Down before the end of March will receive a homemade live bootleg mix of covers from this past year’s Clearwater, Grey Fox, and Falcon Ridge Folk Festivals. Click here to donate, and learn more about the project.

1,396 comments » | Johnny Cash, Single Song Sunday

Single Song Sunday: I Still Miss Someone

December 28th, 2008 — 02:16 am

It’s been a long, long time since we compiled a Single Song Sunday post. But as the year comes to a close, it is our wont to turn to the past. And tonight, as I sift through the detritus of a year heavy with transition, I find my thoughts turning to those who we will be leaving behind in 2008.

Regular readers may recall that we lost our beloved cat this year. We also lost my father’s father, the last of his generation, a genial yet emotionally closed man who grew up hard and proud of his self-sufficience, yet who was, in my eyes, nonetheless sweet and gentle to the end. Too, moving on from one teaching gig to another meant leaving behind a whole community which I had grown to love and live in comfortably. And though we have come to live with the distance between us and the friends that grow ever farther in time and space, there are those that we would call, and do not or cannot, and miss terribly every day.

Over the next week at Star Maker Machine, we’ll be paying tribute to those musicians who passed this year. But for all of us who have lost someone this year, be it to death or divorce or just plain old life-changing distance, here’s a set of covers of one of my favorite Johnny Cash tunes.

The song I Still Miss Someone seems to lend itself inevitably to a sort of slow countryfolk; something about the blue-eyed narrative subject, perhaps, and the metaphors of nature coupled with the image of being alone at the party, though it’s also hard to shake the ghost of Johnny Cash. As such, you’ll find but four true folkcovers below: Mae Robertson‘s sweet solo folkpop lullaby, the ragged lo-fi folkstring and vocal harmonies of prodigal Arlo and Willie folkdaughters Folk Uke, the lovely bluegrass-tinged tradfolk sound of five piece stringband Joy Kills Sorrow, and the slow singer-songwriter approach of folkfemme supergroup Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dar Williams, Shawn Colvin, and Patty Griffin (courtesy of a last-minute pass-along from fellow folkfan and Star Maker contributor Susan).

But though the nature of the song drives the pace and twang, even on the folkier side of the line between true country and hybridized countryfolk, there’s plenty of diversity here. Settings run from Robert Earl Keen‘s warm Texan twangfolk to Julie Delaney‘s slow, warm mariachi ballad; the tone ranges from Ryan Adams‘ glistening, broken alt-languid blues take to the light, sparse countryfolk duet voices of Nanci Griffith and Rodney Crowell. And with the possible exceptions of the sparse yet playful Whiskeytown cover released as a bonus track rarity earlier this year, and an oddly dirgelike yet carnivalesque take from alt-country collective Willard Grant Conspiracy, most of the set consists of tender, wistful covers, which manage — as Cash intended, I believe — to simultaneously ease the pain, and both curse and celebrate the very act of missing someone as that vital spark which keeps the past with us always.

Songs heal in so many ways: this one heals and soothes me, and I hope it heals and soothes you, too. May the ones we’ve loved and lost live in our hearts forever, and be carried forward with us into time immemorial.

Got another great folkversion of I Still Miss Someone? Send it along!! All submissions will be considered for an upcoming and long overdue edition of (Re)Covered, a regular feature here at Cover Lay Down in which we revisit old features through new and newly discovered coversongs.

1,301 comments » | Johnny Cash, Single Song Sunday

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

Single Song Sunday: Bob Dylan’s Girl from the North Country

February 3rd, 2008 — 03:08 pm

I’ve been holding off on Bob Dylan here at Cover Lay Down, unsure that I had anything to add to the existing cacaphony in the blogworld. But now that the fervor for the I’m Not There soundtrack been replaced by a reckless affection for the Moldy Peaches, it’s time, I think. We begin our journey through the works of Dylan with one of his sweetest confessional ballads, Girl from the North Country.

I’ve never been a fan of Dylan the performer — something about that broken, almost tuneless wail never really touched my soul. But years of listening to coversongs make it impossible to ignore the power and poetry of Bob Dylan, songwriter. It says something that practically every folksinger I’ve ever heard plays at least one Dylan song regularly in concert. It says something more that I’m actually willing to listen to Dylan himself if it’s the only way to hear those songs.

Happily, a cover collector has plenty of Dylan songs at his disposal. There are hundreds of covers of Girl from the North Country alone; even before the Covers Project over at My Old Kentucky Blog did a feature on it a couple of summers ago, I owned a decent earful of them. Even Dylan covered this one: originally released on 1963 record The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, it was subsequently rerecorded (with Johnny Cash) for 1969′s Nashville Skyline, and then featured again on Dylan’s 1984 live album.

If the number of times Dylan recorded this song is any indication, Dylan loved this song as much as the rest of us. And it’s not hard to see why. With its timeless rural references, its simple melody, and a trope that rises and falls like wind rippling through wheat, Girl from the North Country sounds more like a traditional folksong than a work of early genius from the guy who electrified American folk music.

To be fair, the song is based on Scarborough Fair, one of the most popular of those traditional folksongs, thanks to Simon and Garfunkel. But the majority of those who cover it recognize it for what it is: something wholly Dylan, textually sweet and musically elegant, and tailormade for the sparse, yearning, softly regretful touch most artists choose to adopt when covering it.

Here’s nine such tributes, each one a folk gem of a different tone and timbre, each one no less stunning than the song itself. They range from eerie lo-fi guitar-and-pianofolk (Mohave 3, Yo La Tengo) to warm, rich coffehouse folk (John Gorka, Leo Kottke), from syrupy folkpop (Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell) to a heavy concentration of weary-voiced alt-country indiefolksters (Eels w/ strings and piano, Eels w/ strings and squeezebox, a plugged-in, drunken-sounding M. Ward and friends). But it’s Jimmy LaFave’s slow, wailing Texas folk cover that really brings the song to life for me. No wonder some folks call LaFave the best living interpreter of Dylan songs.

  • John Gorka, Girl from the North Country
    (from A Nod to Bob: An Artist’s Tribute To Bob Dylan)

  • Jimmy LaFave, Girl from the North Country
    (live from Kerry’s Farm, 1993; more Jimmy LaFave here)
  • Eels, Girl from the North Country
    (live from KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, 2005)
  • Eels, Girl from the North Country
    (from Eels With Strings: Live At Town Hall)
  • Leo Kottke, Girl from the North Country
    (live at No Exit Coffeehouse, 1968; used for the film North Country)
  • Mojave 3, Girl from the North Country
    (from Return to Sender)
  • Yo La Tengo, Girl from the North Country
    (live on WFMU, 2006; more Yo La Tengo here)
  • Johnny Cash w/ Joni Mitchell, Girl from the North Country
    (live, 1970; alt. version on The Best Of The Johnny Cash TV Show)
  • M. Ward, Conor Oberst, and Jim James, Girl from the North Country
    (live; more Ward, Oberst, and James)

    As always, wherever possible, all album and artist links above take you towards wonderful, local, artist-centric places to buy albums, and as far away from faceless major-market megastores as possible. I think Dylan would appreciate the authenticity of it all, don’t you?

    One of these days I’ll have to do a whole post on the Dylan covers of Jimmy LaFave. In the meantime, pick up the original Girl from the North Country, plus a heck of a lot more covers, at My Old Kentucky Blog. It’s not all folk over there, but a lot of it’s worth hearing, especially Sam Bush, The Waterboys, and Dear Nora.

    Single Song Sunday collections previously on Cover Lay Down:

  • 645 comments » | Bob Dylan, Eels, Jim James, Jimmy LaFave, John Gorka, Johnny Cash, Leo Kottke, M. Ward, Mojave 3, Single Song Sunday, Yo La Tengo

    Shelby Lynne Covers: Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton plus covers from Allison Moorer, Steve Earle, and Cash, too!

    January 27th, 2008 — 06:19 am

    Just a few days left to win an autographed copy of Just A Little Lovin’, Shelby Lynne’s new acoustic country tribute to the songs of Dusty Springfield! To tempt you a little more, today we’re featuring a pair of older covers by this perpetually on-the-verge singer-songwriter, plus a matching set by her equally talented sister Allison Moorer.

    If Shelby Lynne was pure contemporary country, you’d not find her here on a coverblog devoted to folk music. But though she’s made her share of slick pop country albums, since the confessional turn of 1999 recording I Am Shelby Lynne, which garnered her a much-belated Grammy for Best New Artist in 2001, Shelby Lynne no longer considers herself a country music artist in the same vein as Carrie Underwood or Shanaia Twain, and it’s not hard to see – or hear – why.

    The relationship between country music and folk music is complex, especially since the advent of alt-country. In one way, it’s true, for example, that bluegrass is to country as folk and blues are to rock…but it is equally true that bluegrass, folk, and the more traditional forms of country music share more with the modern alt-country movement, and more with each other, than they do with the kind of pop country that makes the crossover to what’s left of the mainstream radio spectrum.

    It is not necessary to reconcile these parallel truths in order to enjoy Shelby Lynne’s wonderful new release Just A Little Lovin’. That’s not to say it defies categorization, necessarily; if anything, with a few powerful exceptions, this is both a sweet in-genre tribute to a seminal 60s-era pop-folk artist and a sultry pop record, in the same vein as KD Lang’s later work, or the best of Diana Krall, if a little farther South, geographically speaking. But where Lang and Krall slip too easily into softpop torch songs, Lynne’s choices on this powerful collection of Dusty Springfield covers span a wider, warmer spectrum, from the piano bar ballad to the smooth bass-and-snare jazz trio to the pulsing, driving alt-country of Lucinda Williams or Michelle Shocked.

    It’s all good. At its best, in cuts like the dark, bluesy Willie and Laura Mae Jones, or the deep, slow jazz of the title cut, Lynne’s delivery bleeds raw at the edges, creating a nuanced, powerful, mature balance between vocal control and roots-ragged empathy. Her ability to truly reinterpret Dusty is both honorably unique and, on an emotional level, uncannily accurate. And the stripped down acoustic instrumentation, heavy on the languid piano and acoustic guitar, supports this sound exceptionally well.

    I’ve been asked not to post tracks from Just A Little Lovin’ until Tuesday, the album’s official release date; as we come to the end of our contest, I’ll able to share a few tracks to tempt you one more time. Happily, however, Shelby Lynne’s previous coverwork is diverse enough to speak to both the complicated relationship between folk and country, and the overwhelming power of this Grammy-winning vocalist at her interpretive best. Here’s two of my favorites: A truly country Johnny Cash cover, and an absolutely stunning folked-down version of Dolly Parton’s The Seeker which hints at her work-to-come.

    Interested in hearing for yourself? Hedge your bets: pre-order Just A Little Lovin’ directly from the fine folks at Filter, and enter our contest to win an autographed copy!

    Today’s bonus coversongs continue in a countrified vein, with a unique twist: I was able to find both a companion Cash cover and a companion Dolly Parton cover from Shelby Lynne’s sister, the equally wonderful, slightly more alt-country chanteuse Allison Moorer, who is also slated to release a coveralbum in the coming months:

    And, just for fun, Allison’s husband, country folk rocker Steve Earle, with his own take on a Cash tune…and Johnny Cash himself, with a cover of Earle, for the extra point:

    262 comments » | Allison Moorer, Dolly Parton, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Cash, Shelby Lynne, Steve Earle

    Covered in Folk: Simon and Garfunkel (Indigo Girls, Jonatha Brooke, Shawn Colvin, and more!)

    January 23rd, 2008 — 11:52 am

    Hope no one minds two Covered in Folk features in the same week; in my other life I’ve got student grades to process and a new term starting up Thursday, so I needed something quick. Upcoming features include the coversong repertoires of some stellar voices from across the folk spectrum; in the meantime, here’s a post I’ve been sitting on for a few weeks, ever since our feature on the solosongs of Paul Simon.

    You need me to say something about Simon and Garfunkel? THE Simon and Garfunkel? Okay, how about this: every single person I know knows the lyrics to at least one Simon and Garfunkel song. Me? I can sing Cecilia in my sleep. In harmony.

    Rolling Stone lists Simon and Garfunkel at #40 on their most influential artists ever; by “influential”, they’re talking about the effect of this American folk rock duo on the world of professional music, the stuff that garnered them a lifetime achievement award at the 2003 Grammy awards. But much more noteworthy is the fact that, three generations later, their songs have become part of the base set of popular tunes which pepper the sonic landscape for the developing ear in suburban American culture.

    It’s not just that I know all the words to a song older than me. It’s that I learned them when I was fourteen, and I still remember them. Even in an earbud age, kids still come home from summer camp with the songs of James Taylor, the Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel in their ears, because this is the canon of the acoustic guitar, passed down from older teen counselor to song circle. Now that’s folk. It’s truths like that which give us hope for the next generation, and the next beyond that, too.

    Today we present a carefully chosen, predominantly female-voiced set of Simon and Garfunkel covers, firmly grounded in the folk world but willing to veer towards alt-country (Johnny Cash), folk pop (The Indigo Girls), and indiefolk (The Purple Raiders, Emiliana Torinni) where the song warrants it. Nothing comprehensive, mind you. Just some great songs, performed and interpreted with love and guitars. And isn’t that the best kind of tribute?

  • Indigo Girls, Mrs. Robinson
    The tomboyish, politicized folk harmonies of the Indigo Girls charge every word with a gleeful yearning, create the perfect happy medium between the original song and that amazing cover by the Lemonheads.

  • The Purple Raiders, Mrs. Robinson
    …though this even more ragged demo might have more indiecred. I’d say more about alt-country upstarts The Purple Raiders, but their website is all in German.

  • Johnny Cash w/ Fiona Apple, Bridge over Troubled Water
    This one got lost among the Nine Inch Nails and U2 in the last cover-heavy years of Cash’s career. Some sappy synth-vocals in the background, but Johnny Cash‘s broken-voiced hope clears the maudlin bar.

  • Emiliana Torrini, Sound of Silence
    Folk rock at its psychadelic, Icelandic best. Once a stand-in for Bjork, Emiliana Torrini can turn a great song on its ear without straying too far from the original sound. She can also build a hell of a wall of sound.

  • Brobdingnagian Bards, Scarborough Faire (trad.)
    A tradsong popularized by Simon and Garfunkel, done over by faux buskers the Brobdingnagian Bards on the punnishly-titled A Faire to Remember. Our first nod to the filksong and re-creationist fairefolk movements here on Cover Lay Down.

  • Jonatha Brooke, Bleecker Street
    Musicians and music lovers of a certain age know we’re a bit too young to know Bleecker Street as it was in the heydey of the American folk revival. But we sure recognize a debt to our forefathers when we see it, and Jonatha Brooke pays hers back with interest. Absolutely stunning. From the incredible out-of-print folkscene tribute album Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village In The 60′s.

  • Shawn Colvin, The Only Living Boy in New York
    A repost from our first few weeks, but I couldn’t resist: Shawn Colvin‘s sweet, soaring, just-before-9-11 cover of this song is the archetype for the truly great Paul Simon cover. Feel the love, and own it, too.

  • Alison Brown w/ Indigo Girls, Homeward Bound
    Jazzfolk fusion bluegrass banjo wizard (and Compass Records founder) Alison Brown generally brings guest vocalists in for her coversongs; here, the sweet harmonies of the Indigo Girls bring us back full circle.

    As always, all artist links above go to artists’ preferred source for purchase; if you like what you hear, pick up the recorded works of these modern inheritors of the folk world by clicking on their names above.

    And here’s a little bonus section coverfolk from Paul Simon’s oft-forgotten partner — a man who has read one thousand twenty three books since June of 1968, and wanted to put a Bach chorale piece on Bridge Over Troubled Waters. There are others, but this Art Garfunkel stuff’s a little too lite for my ears.

  • 721 comments » | Alison Brown, Art Garfunkel, Brobdingnagian Bards, Emiliana Torrini, Indigo Girls, Johnny Cash, Jonatha Brooke, Shawn Colvin, Simon and Garfunkel, The Purple Raiders

    Guestfolk: I’ll Be Folk For ChristmasSongs from Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials

    December 22nd, 2007 — 02:23 am

    Hello folk fans! Kurtis from Covering the Mouse here, for one more guest post before the end of 2007! This time, I’m taking a break from Disney but sticking with a cartoon theme. Folk covers of cartoon Christmas songs!

    One of my favourite parts of the holiday season are the Christmas television specials. I love them. A Charlie Brown Christmas, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, A Garfield Christmas, A He-Man/She-Ra Christmas Special, I love them all!

    Pioneering the Christmas special tradition was a small animation company called Rankin/Bass who specialized in stop-motion animation. I will be focusing on these specials today.

    • Raffi, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
      Rankin/Bass’ first Christmas special was an adaptation of the famous Christmas song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1964. Originally by Johnny Marks, this cover is by the famous Canadian children’s folk singer, Raffi.

    • Johnny Cash, Little Drummer Boy
      In 1968, Rankin/Bass produced their second stop-motion animated Christmas special, this time based on the popular song, Little Drummer Boy, which was originally written by Katherine K. Davis and popularized by the Vienna Boys Choir. More recently, David Bowie and Bing Crosby sang a duet that has become a Christmas standard. This cover of the song by Johnny Cash actually came out in 1959, a decade before the TV special.

    • Fiona Apple, Frosty the Snowman
      The last special I will be covering today is Frosty the Snowman. The song was written for Gene Autry after he recorded a version of Rudolph that sold millions. In 1969, Rankin/Bass created a new story around Frosty that tied him into the Christmas holiday. The unique thing about this special is that it is done in the traditional cel animated style instead of stop-motion animation. This version comes from 2005 alt-rock compilation Christmas Calling.

    Today’s bonus coversongs:

    Along with cartoons, I’m also a big fan of the Muppets! Here are a few tracks from the Christmas album they did with Folk legend John Denver!

    [Looking for more last-minute holiday coverfolk? Click here for the full run of Cover Lay Down holiday posts, including multiple covers of Joni Mitchell's River, some non-denominational wintersongs just right for solstice, and a full set of Christmas songs penned by Jewish songwriters!]

    323 comments » | Fiona Apple, Guest Posts, Holiday Coverfolk, John Denver, Johnny Cash, Muppets, Raffi

    Covered In Folk: Cat Stevens / Yusuf Islam (Jack Johnson, Kristen Hersh, Gary Jules, Johnny Cash)

    November 21st, 2007 — 08:33 am

    I shouldn’t have to tell you about the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. Though his albums haven’t sold much since his conversion to Islam in the late seventies, his songs remain firmly in the popular psyche, both as soft-oldies radio standards and as fodder for the interpretive skills of newer generations. Of the latter, the best cuts include those from the popworld, and they tend to hit the charts about once a decade; depending on who you ask, these might include 10,000 Maniacs rockin’ cover of Peace Train, and Sheryl Crow’s recent chartbusting re-remake of The First Cut Is The Deepest.

    Though I saw 10,000 Maniacs in the right era to have seen their Peace Train live, I was born too late, and came to folk rock too late in life, to be a true Cat Stevens fan. With a few exceptions — most notably his 2006 pop album An Other Cup, his first mainstream release since 1978, which includes a gorgeous, brooding, poignantly yearning cover of Nina Simone’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood — the music he’s produced since a near-death experience caused him to change his name to Yusuf Islam, while beautiful in its own way, is truly designed for less Western ears than my own.

    And though his back catalog continues to garner recognition, the Western world hasn’t been kind to Yusuf Islam the man. His chance for a triumphant return to the global stage was stolen when he was bumped from Live Aid in 1985 after Elton John went long. He made the news in the late eighties for comments which were perceived at the time as support for the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, and again in 2004 when the US refused to pull him from their no-fly list, which tainted this icon of non-violence with an unproven association with terrorist causes.

    But the more I encounter his older songs through the performance of talented others, the more I appreciate his skills as a songwriter — and the more it becomes evident that an uncanny ability to put words and melody to peace, love, and a connection to the earth has always existed in Cat Stevens.

    Such is the lot of the great cover: while it stands on its own as a performance, it also reminds us of the genius and truth of those that pen and first perform those songs. And such is the lot of the coverblog, too, for as long as there are still folks out there who think Sheryl Crow was covering Rod Stewart, it falls to us to set the record straight. What better way to do so than to celebrate those who, like Stevens himself, eschew the electric guitar wail, preferring instead to find the simple, melodic core of these songs, that quiet, spiritual peace which made them beautiful and memorable in the first place?

    Today, then, the folkworld’s best stripped-down Cat Stevens covers, which expose the heart of song and songwriter through the acoustic and the slow. And bonus songs: the aforementioned Cat-as-Yusuf cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which serves as a powerful response to a Western world from an Islamic ambassador of peace who has himself been misunderstood, and a sweet solo acoustic cover of Where Do The Children Play from Jack Johnson woven skillfully into one of his own. You won’t hear these songs on the radio, but you’ll be glad you heard them.

    • Kristen Hersh, Trouble
    • Gary Jules, How Can I Tell You
    • Eli, Morning Has Broken
    • Johnny Cash w/ Fiona Apple, Father and Son
    • Liz Durrett, How Can I Tell You
    • The Holmes Brothers, Trouble

    Yusuf Islam‘s 2006 An Other Cup is a stellar return to pop and circumstance well worth owning; keep reading to hear a choice cut, and get his entire catalog here.

    Throwing Muse Kristen Hersh‘s majestic Trouble lends a modern indie sensibility to an old standard; find it on soloproject Sunny Border Blue.

    Gary Jules brings his subtle orchestration and an uncanny Stevens-esque vocalization to How Can I Tell You on out-of-print all-cover Valentines Day compilation Sweetheart 2005: Love Songs.

    Christian folksinger Eli bends Morning Has Broken — a hymn made famous by Stevens — just barely enough to sweeten it; thanks to Tim for promoting song and singer.

    Johnny Cash and Fiona Apple collaborate to bring us a memorable, raw Father and Son retold through the haze of time. From Cash outtake collection Unearthed.

    Liz Durrett‘s breathy-soft, tinkly How Can I Tell You is available from her website; pick up her three solo albums while you’re there.

    Today’s genre-appropriate take on Trouble from rootsy folk/bluesmen The Holmes Brothers is available on the previously mentioned Crossing Jordan soundtrack, but you can and should buy their 2007 release State of Grace from Aligator Records.

    Today’s bonus coversongs:

    • Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam covers Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (orig. Nina Simone)
    • Jack Johnson’s Fall Line segues into Where Do The Children Play

    272 comments » | Cat Stevens, Covered in Folk, Eli, Fiona Apple, Gary Jules, Jack Johnson, Johnny Cash, Kristen Hersh, Nina Simone, The Holmes Brothers