Category: Townes van Zandt

Single Song Sunday: If I Needed You
(18 solo, duo, & full band transformations of a Townes Van Zandt classic)

January 28th, 2012 — 05:19 pm

Apocryphally, If I Needed You came to Townes Van Zandt wholesale, in a dream, wherein he envisioned himself a famous folksinger, and the song as his biggest hit. When he awoke, he wrote the song down, changing but one line in transcription, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, Townes did indeed become famous, though partially posthumously, and surely not on the same scale as he envisioned in his nocturnal emissions. But as I’ve noted several times in these virtual pages, I discovered the work of the haunted cowboy troubadour late in life. As such, though it has been around for decades, this well-covered classic came to me first as a gift from Boston-based singer-songwriter Meg Hutchinson, who brought it to our 2009 house concert, in graceful recognition that her host was a coverfan and coverblogger.

Since then, the song has haunted me. Its apparitions include a recent live (albeit sadly unrecorded) house concert performance by Connecticut State Troubadour Chuck E. Costa’s newest duo project The Sea The Sea that folded the song into one of Costa’s originals, a found take from an Antje Duvekot live album featuring 2011 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Emerging Artist Showcase winner Chris O’Brien, several amazing studio versions from the likes of Carrie Rodriguez & Ben Kyle, Jennifer Parker, and others, and a video from a Robby Hecht and Liz Longley concert posted on YouTube just this month. And, taken together, these visitations remind me of why we bring multiple takes on the same song to the table, in our ongoing mission to understand just how much diverse beauty can be wrung from simple lyrics and melody.

That the versions I have encountered include both duets and solo takes is both atypical of coverage writ large and, in this case, unsurprising. For much like in the case of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which was comprehensively and permanently redefined by Jeff Buckley, a definitive cover early in the song’s history has created two divergent paths of versioning, bifurcating our resultant coverage collection into two primary camps: those that cover the rough, solo Townes original, and those that take on the sweet harmonies which Don Williams and Emmylou Harris brought to their definitive 1981 Country duet.

Especially interesting is the effect that this split path has on the song’s meaning. For while the lyrics and melody – three simple chords, eminently singable – speak to a simple message of love asked for and gratefully given, in the original form, so long as we accept “the lady” of the penultimate verse as a sort of embodiment of love itself, and the second verse as a bedroom metaphor for how deeply and closely this love can manifest, there is room for the audience to see themselves as the subject of the song, the “other” to the narrator’s “I”.

The duet form of the song changes this. Where the solo take is universal, the duet clarifies and personifies the object, turning the love into something both more intimate and less inclusive, making it harder to broaden the message to the listening group, closing the gap between singers even as it closes us off from direct address. Gone is the plaintive, confessional ache, given freely and universally, projected outward, which typifies versions from solo singer-songwriters such as Hutchinson, country crooner Lyle Lovett, Georgia-based fiddler Jennifer Parker, ambient Vancouver-based folk artist Lance Odegard, surprisingly adept Britfolk artist Christina Kulukundis, clear-voiced UK acoustic blues picker Dave Sutherland, Townes contemporary Guy Clark, and others, even as they make the song their own. Instead, we find Robby Hecht and Jill Andrews turning into each other from the start, Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle trading lush emotion, Alex Brumel and Janel Elizabeth warm and contemporary, Duvekot and O’Brien hushed and sparse in their duality.

And so the delivery becomes the key to this song’s meaning, in the end. And while full-band efforts, instrumentals, or full-blown genre transformations can transcend this duality – see, for example, the folk rock whisper of Dashboard Confessional’s three-part Americana, the bluegrass twang and borrowed Harris/Williams vocal trade-offs of Kasey Chambers family project The Dead Ringer Band, Enzo Garcia’s gentle banjo instrumental, Doc and Merle Watson’s madcap vinyl fingerpick, and the multiple vocal and instrumental layers down-home country stringband Swiftwater brings to their own rich take – only Swedish singer-songwriter Christian Kjellvander, by pulling the female harmonies far, far back, manages to straddle the two most typical forms of the song.

But put the versions together, and the breadth of our need, and its manifestations, become clear. Everybody hurts, sometimes; whether through invitation, participant-observation, or direct address, folk songs such as this speak to our heart’s ache, and calm us by channeling the storms of emotion that unite us in humanity. May the song serve, in every incidence, as balm and confirmation: that it is more than merely enough to ask, to stand, to give solace and shared sunrise, to receive it in turn. Indeed, it is all we have, and all we need.

Thanks to generous support and donations from readers like you, this ad-free, artist-centric folk blog celebrates artists and songs through coverage on the web every Sunday and Wednesday or thereabouts, with bonus tracks and feature previews posted on our companion site, the Cover Lay Down Facebook page, throughout the week. Got a suggestion for a song or version we missed? Leave a comment below!

3 comments » | Single Song Sunday, Townes van Zandt

Townes, (Re)Covered: Riding The Range
(plus two new tracks from Isobel Campbell and friends!)

September 4th, 2010 — 11:45 am

It’s a (Re)Covered weekend, with Townes today, and more from the wide world of coverage to come tomorrow. Happy long weekend, and enjoy the tunes!

As noted in last week’s comments, we’re just days away from the official release date for Riding The Range: the Songs of Townes van Zandt, a 20-track benefit for the QE2 Activity Centre, which “specialises in providing day activities and activity holidays for people with disabilities”. If you’re a regular reader, you’ve heard of the 20-track compilation before – we’ve been watching it closely since last winter, when the project was still in its development phase – but I’d be remiss if I didn’t take one more opportunity to celebrate the impending release of a tribute album bound for glory and our year’s end top ten.

Riding The Range is the brainchild of two men: Phil Oates, the director of the QE2 Centre, and musician Michael Weston King, a masterful songwriter and performer in his own right whose song Riding The Range, as performed by Townes himself, gives title to the tribute. And both Oates and King deserve kudos, for their combined curatorial efforts have paid off in spades. Riding the Range contains a particularly strong mix of US and UK singer-songwriters and countryfolk troubadours, including new and newly-recast recordings from Cover Lay Down favorites Devon Sproule, Boo Hewerdine, Peter Case, Danny Schmidt, and Jeffrey Foucault. And though a number of the featured players were new to me, including Johnny Dowd, The Magic Numbers, and King himself, the resulting collection is consistently excellent, even breathtaking – no mean feat, considering the album’s length and diversity.

Previous nods to Riding The Range here at Cover Lay Down have included our recent Folk Couples feature, last month’s (Re)Covered, Vol. XVII, and last week’s topical post containing songs about shoes; each contains a track from the album, and you’re welcome to head back into the archives for a few bonus cuts. But pre-orders are finally open, so place your order today, and rest easy in the knowledge that by buying Riding The Range, you’re getting a great album, and helping a great cause to boot.

Seems the cowboy troubadour is due to haunt our (Re)Covered series ad infinitum; even without Riding on the Range on the cusp of greatness, we’ve already looked back twice upon our original Covered in Folk tribute to Townes Van Zandt. But this pair of Townes covers from Hawk, Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan‘s newest release, are just stunning. Snake Song is a dark alt-countryfolk masterpiece, but don’t miss Isobel’s duet with young second-generation singer-songwriter Willy Mason on No Place To Fall, a slow country waltz which plays masterfully off the tension between Isobel’s breathy soprano and Mason’s rich, echoey campfire baritone. The album is amazing, too.

964 comments » | (Re)Covered, Townes van Zandt, Tribute Albums

Covered in Folk: Townes Van Zandt
(Jeffrey Foucault, Guy Clark, Peter Mulvey, The Lemonheads + 7 more)

October 14th, 2009 — 10:17 pm

I don’t know as much about Townes Van Zandt as I’d like to. Despite the great similarities in sound and sensibility between his work and that of Guthrie, Dylan, and other core members of the folkworld, somehow he never cropped up in a childhood balanced between a mother’s love of the Seeger classics and a father’s fandom for the singer-songwriters of his own generation.

Of course, some of that is due to Van Zandt’s relative obscurity during the bulk of his life – as my father notes, until his resurgence in popularity at the turn of the century, it was almost impossible to find any of the artist’s studio recordings. But a commitment to coversong brings with it a lifetime of scouring liner notes and copyright notices. And the more I look, the more I find that so many of the great lonesome, mournful songs of distance and alienation recorded by the artists I love best in the last fifteen years have had their start in the hands and heart of Townes Van Zandt.

Too, in the same way that Big Star holds a special place in the hearts of a particular sort of blogger, there’s a high level of modern respect and celebration for the work of the soft-spoken Texas troubadour in the world of alt-country audiophiles. Pancho and Lefty, especially, seems to be well-covered and well-shared; over the years I’ve collected a full score of great covers of the song from websites hither and yon, so I’ll be going light on it today, in order not to preempt a someday Single Song Sunday feature on the song.

The combined commendations of the artists I love and the bloggers I respect came to a head back in the spring, when the buzz about Steve Earle’s tribute album was just starting to build. Suddenly, the blogosphere was full of Townes, both covers and originals. Most notable, at least for its combination of folk sources and coverage, was this fine post from astute countryfolk blog Beat Surrender, who offered an alternate version of Townes featuring a solid mixed bag of live and studio covers of the fifteen songs Earle chose to cover. The set comes highly recommended, and – as it’s still live – I’ll not repeat it here.

But there’s always more to be found. Here’s a short, mostly mellow set of my favorite covers of the Townes Van Zandt songbook, just a tip of a very large iceberg, scavenged and scoured with care – heavy on the singer-songwriter folk, and without our usual indie-to-alt diversity. Taken together, they make a great tribute to a great man and musician, lost to the lifestyle before so many of us would find him in the first place.

Townes may be long gone, a victim of the hard life which he celebrated so tenderly, but his legacy lives on in both the songs and the hard-working artists he inspired. As always, if you like what you hear, then pay your share to help the next generations survive on the road: follow the links above to pick up albums and tour dates, direct from the source wherever possible.

Cover Lay Down shares new and newfound coverfolk favorites every Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday.

1,013 comments » | Covered in Folk, Townes van Zandt

Pond Crossings: Transatlantic Coverfolk with today’s guest host: Darius

July 27th, 2008 — 11:24 am

Let me open with a warm thank you to Boyhowdy for inviting me to do this, and for helping to bring it to life.

My name is Darius. I have been an eager reader of and listener to this blog for some time now. One day, I followed a link from here and found myself at Star Maker Machine, where I am now an occasional poster. That’s where Boyhowdy found me. Life is indeed a circle.

Many great folk songs found in this country were born in the British Isles, and in some cases, went through wild transformations, both in getting to these shores, and in continuing to change once they were here. This reflects differences in the two cultures, as well as the personalities of the people who performed the songs.

In Britain, traditional songs often serve as mnemonics to teach children bits of folk wisdom. Consider the song “The Cuckoo”. In researching this post, I was unable to find a single “original” version of the song. Instead, there seem to be variations on the set of lyrics below:

The cuckoo she’s a pretty bird
She sings as she flies
She brings us glad tidings
And tells us no lies.

She sucks all sweet flowers
To make her voice clear
She never sings cuckoo
Till summer is near

She flies the hills over
She flies the world about
She flies back to the mountain
She mourns for her love

The cuckoo she’s a pretty bird
She sings as she flies
She brings us glad tidings
And tells us no lies

I found one variant given as a nursery rhyme, where the bird is male, and sucks eggs to improve his voice. The rhyme is apparently older than the music, which would be why there a several different musical settings for the words. The important piece of lore here is that the cuckoo’s song warns of the coming of summer, which marks the end of the planting season. So the song teaches children how to tell when they are running out of time to plant crops.

Nowadays, we have other ways to know when to plant. So modern performers of “The Cuckoo” have added different elements to the song, and it is all but impossible to find a British version with just the lyrics above. Here is John Renbourn’s version.

  • John Renbourn, The Cuckoo
    (from Faro Annie)

    So already “The Cuckoo” is going through changes. But watch what happens when the song comes to America! It is brought to the South by early settlers, and vanishes into the mountains. It passes down through generations of people who have a different climate and planting season, and “till summer is near” somehow becomes “til the fourth day of July”. Characters named Willie and Jack of Diamonds appear out of nowhere.

    In 1961, towards the end of the folk revival, a banjo player and singer named Clarence Ashley was rediscovered. He had been a minstrel show performer and string band player in the thirties and early forties, and then disappeared. His story is quite interesting, and would be worth a post of its own. For now, suffice it to say that he recorded “The Cuckoo” with Doc Watson in 1961. The lyrics he used are the American version. Whereas, in Britain everyone who records the song to this day feels free to change the words as they please, in America the words have become fixed. Here they are, in a beautiful version by Townes Van Zant:

  • Townes Van Zandt, The Coo Coo
    (from Roadsongs)

    Meanwhile, Donovan is originally from England, but has lived in the US for many years. His take on “The Cuckoo” is the American version. Confused?

  • Donovan, The Cuckoo
    (from Beat Cafe)

    Returning to the British Isles, we find many traditional songs which tell stories. That Richard Thompson knows many of these is clear from the number of them he recorded with Fairport Convention. Some of these story-songs contain magical elements, and are survivals of prechristian beliefs.

    Although “Crazy Man Michael” is an original song by Thompson, its characterization of the raven is a good example of this.

    Thompson set the lyrics of “Crazy Man Michael” to a traditional melody. (I have not been able to find what song this was. If anyone knows, please leave a comment.) When Thompson brought the lyrics to his band mates in Fairport, David Swarbrick objected that the words did not fit the melody. So Thompson challenged Swarbrick to write a better melody, and he did. So a traditional song got first new words and then new music, and Fairport’s version is not so much a cover as a smother.
    Fairport Convention, Crazy Man Michael
    (live in Oxfordshire (UK), August 2007)

    When “Crazy Man Michael” came to America, it received a warm welcome from Nathalie Merchant. She changed the arrangement to suit her style, but she left the words and melody intact.

  • Natalie Merchant, Crazy Man Michael
    (from The House Carpenter’s Daughter)

    The tabloid newspaper is a creation of the industrial revolution. To make economic sense, you have to have enough people in one place to buy your newspaper. But people in pre industrial Britain still had an appetite for sensationalized versions of the news. What are now traditional songs originally filled that need. So in 1845, when Lord John Franklin and his crew vanished while seeking the Northwest Passage, a song was written to tell the tale.

  • Pentangle, Lord Franklin
    (from Cruel Sister)

    Over in America, David Wilcox obviously knew the song. “Jamie’s Secret” combines the melody with an entirely new set of lyrics. Wilcox’ tale of a woman’s disappearance gains additional resonance if you know the source of the melody. A “partial cover”, if you will.

  • David Wilcox, Jamie’s Secret
    (from How Did You Find me Here)

    Finally, just for fun, I wanted to present a pond crossing that goes in the other direction. “Pastures of Plenty” is an American song, Woody Guthrie’s evocation of the dust bowl years. In Odetta’s hands, everything becomes a spiritual, which works just fine here.

  • Odetta, Pastures of Plenty
    (from The Greatest Songs of Woody Guthrie)

    However, the song gets to Ireland, which has certainly had its share of agricultural disasters. And it rocks!

  • Solas, Pastures of Plenty
    (from The Words That Remain)

    Today’s Bonus and Sundry Coverfolk

    Boyhowdy already did a great post on the traditional British ballad House Carpenter. Here’s two jaw dropping American versions that got missed the first time.

  • Kelly Joe Phelps, House Carpenter
    (from Shine Eyed Mister Zen)

  • Rosalie Sorrels, House Carpenter
    (from Folk Songs of Utah and Idaho)

    Folk fan Darius is a regular guest contributor at blog collaborative Star Maker Machine. He has excellent taste in both blogs and music.

  • 5 comments » | David Wilcox, Donovan, Fairport Convention, Guest Posts, John Renbourne, Kelly Joe Phelps, Natalie Merchant, Odetta, Pentangle, Rosalie Sorrell, solas, Townes van Zandt

    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

    (Re)Covered V: More Covers of and from Richard Shindell, Cindy Kallet, Doc Watson, James Taylor

    May 4th, 2008 — 06:38 pm

    News, new releases, and new discoveries leave us no choice but to bring you yet another long-overdue installment of our popular (Re)Covered series, wherein we recover songs that dropped through the cracks too late to make it into the posts where they belonged.

    A huge news trifecta this week from Cover Lay Down inaugural-post favorite Richard Shindell: he’s started a blog, he’s decided to reopen sales of his recent live album as a digital download, and he’s decided to try financing his next record by offering every single one of us the chance to become a producer.

    Shindell’s blog is already proving to be a vibrant space for thoughtful, well-written treatises on the world and how it is changing, though we’d expect nothing less from this articulate singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter; the first two entries offer a short journalistic report from his adopted homeland of Argentina, and an artist’s-eye reflection on how changes in the music industry have altered the relationship between musicians and fans, primarily for the better. And the news that others will soon be able to order his well-produced and wonderfully organic live album, which I wrote about in our six-month anniversary post, is just plain great.

    But I’m especially excited to see Shindell join the growing ranks of folk artists who are not only embracing the new, digital world, but tapping into its fullest potential. Album microfinancing through the fanbase is a gutsy move, but it is a viable one, as singer-songwriters Kris Delmhorst and Jill Sobule have successfully demonstrated; the multi-tiered approach Shindell is using to finance his new work seems creative, and offers real return for investors: at the entry level, you’re basically buying the album in advance; from there, investment return climbs all the way up to house concerts and housepainting.

    As Richard points out in his most recent blog entry, working with “big music” and the RIAA has its costs, and often require that artists work in ways which are not consistent with their own value systems. But the file-sharing landscape offers new opportunities which greatly improve the potential for the relationship between artists and fans. Fan financing is just one example of this; a second is Shindell’s creation of an open guitar case, where those who have downloaded his work for free, or just appreciate it, can choose to stop by and support Shindell directly. Here’s hoping that this is only the tip of a very big iceberg.

    Please join me in supporting the creation of Richard’s new album, and celebrating yet one more musician who has decided to leave behind the crumbling, artist-unfriendly industry. Even if you aren’t interested in purchasing a full album, or participating in microfinancing at this time, if you like the songs I’ve included here, or enjoyed previously-posted covers from Richard Shindell, including songs by Springsteen and Ritter, Leonard Cohen, and Jeffrey Foucault and Dar Williams, please consider donating to Shindell via his open guitar case.

    In other (Re)Covered-worthy news, I just recieved my review copy of Heart Walk, the new album from the trio of Cindy Kallet, Ellen Epstein, and Michael Cicone. As expected, it’s a beautful 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, which I wrote about in our previous feature on Cindy Kallet, 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.

    Order Heart Walk and hear samples here; if you live in the Boston area, come join me at First Parish Church in Watertown on May 17th for the Kallet, Epstein, and Cicone CD release party, a rare opportunity to see the trio (and friends) perform live. In the meantime, these two covertracks from the new 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.

    • Kallet, Epstein, Cicone, Holy Now (orig. Peter Mayer)
    • Kallet, Epstein, Cicone, Since You Asked (orig. Judy Collins)

    Our recent vacation to North Carolina was lots of fun, but being without the bulk of my music collection meant a relative dearth of music availability for the posts I produced while on the road. Happily, since my return, my continued search for songs from fathers to daughters and more old folk song covers from Doc Watson led me to Daddies Sing Good Night, a decade-old compilation from bluegrass label Sugar Hill records. This great coveralbum, which turned up in my daughter’s vanity, was the source for the Seldom Scene cover of Sweet Baby James I included in our recent James Taylor coversongs megapost; it also includes these two great father-to-son cuts from Doc Watson.

    And finally, speaking of ol’ JT: thanks to all my readers, especially long-time reader and fan Carol, for the many songs and suggestions that poured in after the aforementioned James Taylor megapost. Though I’m saving most of my newly-embiggened collection of Taylor covers ever-hopefully for a future post on other members of the mightily talented Taylor Family, here’s that Alison Krauss and James Taylor cover of the Louvin Brothers I’d been looking for — it’s even better than I hoped it would be.

    801 comments » | (Re)Covered, Alison Krauss, Cindy Kallet, Doc Watson, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, Pete Seeger, Peter Gabriel, Peter Mayer, richard shindell, Townes van Zandt

    John Gorka Covers: Townes Van Zandt, Kate Wolf, Pete Seeger, Stan Rogers

    March 23rd, 2008 — 02:51 am

    I’ve strayed from the folkfold a bit over the past weeks, testing the limits of folk subgenres and hybridization, trying to feel out just how far one can throw the modern conceit in which everything is a slash-folk hyphenate. I make no apologies for this — folk is a big tent, with many murky corners worthy of exploration. It is also, by definition, tied to the listening culture in intimate, cyclical ways which make it natural for folk to be in a state of constant interaction and integration with…well, everything. Including other forms of music.

    But he who would claim to run a folk music blog cannot spend all his time at the periphery of the genre. It’s time to get back to the core of modern folk music, where the artists who made their name performing intimate acoustic songs to tiny bohemian audiences still lug their backseat guitars from city to city on the coffeehouse circuit. And I can think of no more worthy subject for such a triumphant return to the core of modern American folk music than John Gorka.

    I’ve seen John Gorka perform live more than any other musician, and I haven’t had to work too hard at it. Since his early days in the Fast Folk songwriter/performer cooperative, Gorka has been one of the hardest working singer-songwriters in the folk business, an anchor for folk festival lineups and a crowd-pleaser at struggling coffeehouses. One year I saw him six times — twice indoors, four times outdoors — and by the end of the season, we were nodding recognition to each other as we passed among the folk fest food vendors.

    John Gorka came up through the ranks the hard way, opening for Bill Morrisey and Nanci Griffith before taking first place at the 1984 Kerrville Folk Festival at the age of 26. Three years later, upon the release his first album I Know, Rolling Stone named him “the voice of ‘new folk’”. Since then, he has released ten albums, five of which I listened all the way through this evening, trying to put words to Gorka’s greatness.

    And let me tell you, I’ve had a hell of a time trying to pin down what it is about John Gorka that makes his work so powerful.

    It’s not his humor, though Gorka can write light, wry, self-effacing and funny better than most. It is not his elder-statesman status among the post-Fast Folk generation, though it’s always good to listen to those folks who the folks you love are listening to. It is not anything especially adept about his technique, though that rich, clear baritone and gentle way with a guitar comprise a powerful instrument. And it is not his infamous kindness, though I have never seen a performer take more genuine grateful pleasure, more sincere and untainted glee, in being given the gift of sharing his songs…and though there is nothing more folk than the way Gorka grins that infectious crooked grin, like Dennis Quaid without the mischief, in the face of applause.

    For many listeners and critics, the above is more than anough to secure Gorka’s place in the pantheon of folk gods. But for once, I’m not going to try to speak to what makes Gorka good in any objective sense. Because, to me, what makes Gorka the epitome of folk is that he has the ability to truly speak to a part of me that, once realized through his music, turns out to be exactly what I have always felt.

    Gorka is the only songwriter I know that, so often and so well, speaks for the secret, sensitive part of me that rails against the trappings of what our overcommericalized, testosterone-laden culture says a man should be. His ability to capture and express deep love and commitment as brave, honorable, and bittersweet, through deceptively simple guitarwork and an unusually rich, pure voice, is both uncanny and perfectly expressed.

    And Gorka does this better, and more often, than any musician I know. He gives voice to a particularly sincere, masculine ownership of self as fragile and human which I have heard in other artists, and he applies this sensibility to more aspects of who I am – father, son, lover, laborer, wanderer – than any other musician I have heard.

    Perhaps this subjectivity is not so subjective. Perhaps, though it is our commonality of white male experience which makes this work on one level, it is also true that, like with Joni’s longing for Canada or Josh Ritter’s unfinished adolescence, anyone can find their own emotional story in Gorka’s tales of blue collar labor, parenthood, and love. If so, then this is the kind of folk artist that makes you feel things you didn’t know you felt, in ways that are clearer than you knew possible.

    The intimate connection I feel with Gorka’s music may affect my ability to judge the path of his career more objectively. Though all his albums have topped the folk charts — his 2006 release Writing in the Margins won numerous “best of” awards in the folkworld — in my opinion, some of Gorka’s recent work has been a bit erratic. His newer political songs are weaker; tracks on his recent albums suffer from overproduction which drags them out past their power. Though his later work speaks brilliantly to the bittersweetness of fatherhood, his cover of Marc Cohn’s Things We’ve Handed Down on a recent kidfolk compilation is an unfortunate trainwreck, pitched far too high for his voice. And though Gorka brings life to Stan Rogers’ poignant The Lockkeeper on Writing in the Margins, his older live version is far better.

    But even on an objective level, this is minor quibbling; Gorka’s output has been so strong for decades, it is easy to excuse an occasional lapse in concentration. In live performance, and in recent tracks like Townes Van Zandt’s Snow Don’t Fall, Gorka can still call up an absolutely stunning power. And happily for cover fans, over three decades of performing and recording at the center of the folkworld, Gorka has contributed songs to many folk cover compilations and tribute albums, where, invariably, his song choices and his performance stand out from the crowd.

    Today, a select few songs Gorka has chosen to make his own over the years.* All are good, and many are great; take them with my blessing, and be prepared to be spoken to. I cannot claim that you will feel what I feel, but by all accounts, this is what folk is supposed to be.

    Everyone who reads this blog should have at least one John Gorka album in their collection. There are many, including Pure John Gorka, a “best of” compilation of the five albums Gorka released on the Windham Hill label between 1990 and 1996, but if you’re just starting your collection, I absolutely recommend Gorka’s second, his major label debut Land of the Bottom Line. From there, pick up his debut, and his last four CDs, at Red House Records, which celebrates 25 years in the folk business this year. Even better, pick up Gorka’s in-print albums directly through John Gorka’s website, where autographs come with every CD at no additional charge.

    Today’s bonus coversongs include two Gorka originals covered with care and beauty; David Wilcox, especially, captures the best of Gorka’s emotive power in a song originally cobbled from an old prayer written by a soldier in wartime. Plus a fun, familiar song with Gorka on backup, just to show off that voice a little more:

    Previously on Cover Lay Down:

  • John Gorka covers Girl of the North Country
  • John Gorka covers one of many Christmas Songs Written By Jews

    *I am also desperately seeking a recording of John Gorka covering Dylan’s Love Minus Zero/No Limit, which appeared on the out of print A Tribute to Bob Dylan, Vol. II (Sister Ruby Records: 1994).

  • 745 comments » | David Wilcox, John Gorka, Kate Wolf, Maura O'Connell, Phil Ochs, Stan Rogers, Townes van Zandt

    Jeffrey Foucault Covers: Neil Young, Tom Petty, van Zandt, Chuck Berry, CCR, R.E.M.

    February 6th, 2008 — 02:39 pm

    The best seat at the Green River Festival is in the shade along the ridge by the side stage, watching the motionless kiteflyers staring at the outfield sky. Because every year, there’s that one sidestage artist that comes out of nowhere, a voice and style fully formed, and — where did HE come from? — blows you away. You have no idea who you just missed at the main stage, and you don’t care.

    Such was the year I discovered Jeffrey Foucault.

    Foucault (pronounced foo-kalt) is a scruffy, shy, self-effacing country boy between songs. But once the guitar strum starts, in just a few notes he transforms into a bluesfolk singer songwriter with a mean slide hand and a voice like the weight of a thousand years. Seeing him live is like being present at a field recording. Even in electric form, as in his jangling juke joint blues cover of Chuck Berry classic Tulane, he has an authenticity that you just don’t hear more than a couple of times a generation.

    As a musician, Foucault is also an intuitive partner. Foucault had come to the Green River Festival that summer as part of Redbird — a coverfolk trio, with previously-featured Peter Mulvey and coffeehouse folkstar (and eventual Foucault spouse) Kris Delmhorst. The way he used his scratchy Wisconsin blues voice to push and pull his partner’s voices like taffy, making something torn and beautiful, sweet and bitter both, out of the three artists’ disparate and distinctive styles, was truly extraordinary. Happily, this comes across in recording, too.

    A sparse harmony-centered set, then, mostly B-sides and alternate takes, featuring Foucault solo, with Redbird, and with fellow alt-country folkster Mark Erelli: folks my age, all voices on the verge, part of a particular school of third wave coffeehouse folk that’s just now hitting their stride.

    Pick up all of Jeffrey Foucault’s work since and including his stellar 2001 debut Miles From the Lightning. Redbird, too. And start booking those folk festivals now, folks: the groundhog may have seen his shadow, but summer’s always just around the corner somewhere.

    Today’s bonus coversongs:

    337 comments » | Chuck Berry, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jeffrey Foucault, Neil Young, Peter Case, R.E.M., Redbird, Tom Petty, Townes van Zandt