Songs of Freedom and Struggle:
The People’s Music Winter Gathering, Jan 25-27

Egyptian demonstrators sing protest songs in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011

History knows: the performance of political song is a shockingly potent vehicle for change. Lyrics which call out the flawed policies and actions of the powerful raise consciousness even as their catchy choruses help them stick in the mind, the better to turn communities towards mindful action and peaceful protest. The act of singing together creates solidarity and strength, nurturing deep feelings of belonging among the converted and bringing new voices to the fold. Combine the rally with the well-crafted social justice set list, and song becomes a call and a comfort, sustaining movements both by defining their agenda, and through giving them an active center.

The annals of pop and rock contain numerous such anthems, of course: from Lennon’s Imagine to signficiant sections of the Bruce Springsteen and U2 songbooks, on to the works of Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, and more. But although other genres have been plied for protest in the past, nowhere is the sense of song’s social significance more evident than in the folk movement, which brought gospel and truth to power to the civil rights, anti-war, and labor movements in our parent’s generations.

And proudly, from This Land Is Your Land to We Shall Overcome, many of the songs which comprise the early folk revival in America and abroad have become part of the very fabric of our nation, reminding us of how far we have come. When our children learn these songs in school, it helps lay a foundation for yet another generation of thoughtful stewardship, and those of us who sing them in our homes and churches smile, knowing that we are arming our planet for struggles yet to come.

But even for those of us with more than a passing familiarity with the songs of our fathers and daughters, the political side of folk is a broader canon than we think. From third-person singalong songs to bitter political screeds and historical lessons whose morals ring true in modernity, the crafting of new songs, and the recreation of older, more familiar standards, is an ongoing process, led today by conscientious singer-songwriters across the nation. Most recently, labor disputes at Wal-mart, anti-war and anti-violence rallies, and the occupy movement have all become loci for political folksong; listen closely, and the voices of the people ring loud in media coverage of all these occasions.

It was welcoming, indeed, to find Pete Seeger at the forefront of Obama’s first inauguration. But less commodified causes remain in need of vital restoration and sustenance. Though rallies big and small continue to bring like-minded people together in song, in today’s world, with movements widespread and sadly under-covered by media, and activists often invested in their own local geography, it can be difficult to find the political side of folk in our daily lives, let alone sustain it in our hearts as more than merely an echo of the past.

It is to this end that the People’s Music Network for Songs of Freedom and Struggle continues to serve as an especially important nexus of the work of change through folk on a national scale. Formed in the late 70s – an era when nuclear power and gender equality topped the list of social justice issues – to bring together and support musicians and malcontents who had previously felt they were working in isolation, the network remains a refuge and a feeding ground for the action-minded, and its annual gatherings are still governed by core principles of discussion and fairness, all with ear and eye towards sharing and nurturing music as a change agent.

This year, Taking Back Our Communities, The People’s Music Network’s annual Winter Gathering, is right in my backyard, and I’m proud to announce that I’ll be presenting a workshop entitled “Social Media, Social Revolutions”, aimed at helping those still invested in the movement identify the ways in which the virtual community of facebook, twitter, youtube and blogs can be leveraged to serve the spread of social justice and action through music. Friday night’s concert is open to the public, and can be attended separately from the rest of the conference; expect songs about power and privilege from Emma’s Revolution, Pamela Means, David Rovics, and more who still think of folk as a tool for community and change, and write songs to move mountains. Saturday and Sunday feature other workshops and songswaps on a variety of social issues and song, a group sing, and more.

Whether there is still a need for such gatherings is taken as a given, here: there can be no question that the world remains imperfect, its institutions oppressive in ways that seem eternally solvable. So come sing if you can, or – if you cannot join us – at least take a moment on this Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday weekend to sing a few songs, alone or with friends, in honor of all that we have done, and still have yet to do. In recognition of the work and history of the movement, we close today’s feature with a quick set of modern folksongs by and from some of our favorite artist-activists, just one small sample of the musical thread of our national discourse.

Download our whole political playlist as a zip file!

Posted by boyhowdy at 2:26 pm | 3 comments
Labels: Protest Songs, Theme Posts

Covered In Folk: Ola Belle Reed
(Countryfolk coverage from Ollabelle, Crooked Still, Uncle Earl & more!)

The Appalachian ballads of American folk singer and songwriter Ola Belle Reed echo through modernity: best remembered for penning Bluegrass standard High On A Mountain, the Smithsonian honoree is a respected songwriter and radio personality in the annals of country and traditional folk music, both for her interpretation of traditional song and for the hundreds of original tunes she wrote during her four decade career. Add a yearly festival held in her name in her native North Carolina, and note that Amy Helm and friends named their band in her honor, and it’s hard to deny her influence.

The places and pockets of modern folk are often derivative and obscure, but given the above, it is surprising to find so little information available about Ola Belle as a person or a performer in popular sources such as Wikipedia. Still, her history, once discovered, is quite typical of her times: growing up in the mountains, and of string-band parentage, Reed played old-time banjo and sang in a hillbilly band thoughout the Appalachians before switching to the country circuit with The New River Boys after her brother Alex Campbell returned from WWII – a group which would go on to success on the circuit until late into the seventies, and for which she penned over 200 songs, many of which would go on to become familiar in the setlists of her peers.

Many of Ola Belle’s songs are grounded in her Appalachian past, making them bright fruit for those looking to channel the annals of folk tradition; others, such as Only the Leading Role, which was sung by many as an anthem for Women’s Liberation Movement, are more contemporary in their setting. But the commitment to family traditions, religious values, and social justice which rings through her songbook is equally strong, and timelessly relevant, in every case. Today, we tour the folk side of her legacy with a baker’s-dozen-sized set of favorite covers heavy on the ‘grass and neo-tradfolk that tells its own story of folkways influence.

Posted by boyhowdy at 9:40 am | 0 comments
Labels: Covered in Folk, Olabelle Reed

Jack Johnson covers:
Jimmy Buffett, The White Stripes, Lennon, Dylan, Sublime & more!

Though he hasn’t released a studio album since 2010, Hawaiian “soft rock” singer-songwriter Jack Johnson has been an unquestionable darling of the last decade, topping the college charts with catchy, easy-going folkpop lullabies, and winning praise for his work organizing the jam and surf communities through music and political action. And the odds are good that you’re familiar with at least some of his work; after all, his soundtrack for the 2006 film Curious George garnered two Grammy nominations, and became the first soundtrack for an animated film to top the Billboard 200 since Pocahontas; his matter-of-fact take on Dylan’s Mama You’ve Been On My Mind alongside other luminaries from across the genre spectrum on the I’m Not There soundtrack the following year was a standout in the mix.

In the annals of popular music, Johnson is often associated with the fratrock and jamband crowds, thanks in part to his top-rate cred as an ex-competitor and documentarian of the world of professional surfing, early gigs alongside Dave Matthews and Ben Harper, and ongoing collaboration with acoustic hip-hop performer G. Love. The influences he claims run a wide gamut, from Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix to Radiohead, Neil Young, A Tribe Called Quest, and Bob Marley; echoes of their various elements permeate his songwriting even as the campfire sentiment he brings to his playing transforms that soul into intimacy.

But it’s easy, too, to make a case for his work as central to the post-millennial elevation of indie folk rock into the mainstream. Typified by bouncy, danceable strum patters which echo the hawaiian music and culture of his early years as a surfer and beach bum, the stories which Johnson brings to life are vivid portraiture. His warm voice, centrally acoustic guitarwork, and tender, easy-going sing-song treatment of often sensitive subjects from ecology to homelessness put him squarely in the folk camp. And his promotion of other singer-songwriters via his homegrown label Brushfire Records has helped raise consciousness of several fellow-minded artists with clear folk influences, such as Matt Costa, Neil Halstead, Mason Jennings, and Zee Avi (and sure enough, we’ve got a full set of covers from those labelmates and mentees as a bonus set below to follow Johnson’s own).

In live performance, our subject is prone to further consciousness-raising through activist song, and to medleys which combine his own social justice anthem Fall Line with the songs of others – you’ll find a pair of such hybrid halfcovers here. But those familiar with Jack Johnson only as a peripheral pop radio presence and surf-culture champion will find his larger canon of coverage to be equally glorious, an apt entry into the deeper catalog of his work. He’s taken on many of his peers and influences, and with a few more playful exceptions, like his originals, his covers trend towards the gentle, almost sentimental. Personal favorites include the sweet childlike chant and tinkly piano Johnson brings to Jack White’s We’re Going To Be Friends, and his gently rocking, drone-driven take on Jimmy Buffett’s nostalgic A Pirate Looks At Forty, which I find aptly bittersweet and beautiful, a prototypical combination of oceanic theme and intimate, pensive heart that typifies the best of Jack Johnson’s work. Since I turn forty myself tomorrow, we’ll start there, adrift at sea.

As promised, our bonus tracks today comprise a full set of coverage from a few of our favorite Brushfire Records recording artists.

Posted by boyhowdy at 2:06 pm | 3 comments
Labels: Jack Johnson, Mason Jennings, Matt Costa, Rogue Wave, Zee Avi

New and (Re)Covered: Checking back on 2012
with Crooked Still, Jimmy LaFave, Miley Cyrus & more!

What’s in your ears as the holiday fare fades? Here at Cover Lay Down, we’re still catching up on 2012 after finding some prize otherwise-unknowns on the top albums lists of several trusted folkblogs, plus a hint of missed opportunities and a spate of tracks that – with one brand-new exception from Boston-based newgrass quintet The Deadly Gentlemen – turn out to have been recorded before the calendrical turn.

We’re grateful of the opportunity to clear the air before moving forward. So before we start in earnest with the next big and promising things to come in 2013, here’s some relatively recent coverage that bridges future and past. Enjoy.

When Boston-based neo-grass ensemble Crooked Still announced at the end of 2011 that it was taking a hiatus from touring “in order to keep the creative juices flowing, and to maintain the core friendship and collaboration which have underlaid their success,” fans of the group held their breath, knowing that well-intentioned announcements of a band going on temporary hiatus while its members pursue other projects often precede a dissolution.

But although the jury is still out on whether the band will come back together for more than the occasional reunion – ominously, no tour dates yet appear on the band’s page – the various members of the long-standing group have been hard at work on a vast and wonderful set of projects in the year since they released their last record, Friends of Fall.

Unsurprisingly, lead singer Aoife O’Donovan, who had already been involved in side projects from the indiefolk trio Sometymes Why to the chamberfolk ensemble Childsplay, got the lion’s share of press coverage in her journey beyond the boundaries of Crooked Still. But then, the diminutive muse lost no apparent time in re-establishing herself as a ubiquitous session player and tourmate for the year, hewing to the folk and bluegrass crowd with celebrated performances and recordings alongside Sara Watkins, Kate Rusby, and Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny, and straying beyond the boundaries of roots music, lending her sweet airy vocal precision as a guest vocalist harmonizing with Chris Thile on the experimental Goat Rodeo Sessions CD/DVD set, and coupling with Dave Douglas’ brass quintet for an entire album of originals and folk standards.

By contrast, the 5-track Peachstone EP, her first major solo work, got little coverage despite much predictive ballyhoo in major print publications before it hit the streets; the album, currently available only at tour dates, is apparently beautiful and fun in its way, but perhaps unsurprisingly, some concertgoers have reported that they still prefer the energy of live shows with her newly-formed Aoife O’Donovan Band.

Equal masters and collaborators, the other members of Crooked Still remain active, too, with noteworthy projects of several types and sizes. Banjo player Greg Liszt continues to make waves on the edge of folk and neo-trad jamband music with The Deadly Gentlemen; their chunky, funky cover of Vampire Weekend’s The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance, which dropped just this afternoon, is the warm result of a new year’s home session that promises much to come from the newgrass quintet. Double-bassist Corey Marino has been teaching fiddle camp, managing Sarah Jarosz and touring with David Wax Museum. Cellist Tristan Clarridge has been quite busy with his own neo-trad chamberfolk group The Bee Eaters, who spent much of the year touring to support a late 2011 release. And Fiddler Brittany Haas’ new all-girl trio The Fundies made a few significant waves in several end-of-year lists from the folkworld; the Skeeter Davis cover on their debut EP, which was funded by a grant from Club Passim’s Iguana Music Fund, is a darling romp that replaces the slow girl-group doo-wop harmonies of the 1963 Goffin/King-penned original with glorious fiddle chops. We still miss Crooked Still, but with this much great music to enjoy as they stretch their wings, it’s hard to begrudge them the opportunity.

  • The Deadly Gentlemen: The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance (orig. Vampire Weekend) [2013]

Those pining for the days of Crooked Still would be well advised to remember that fellow Berklee-bred band Annalivia is still going strong, with a potent 2012 release that offers rich, full traditional American folk and originals by way of the celtic fiddle traditions. We first featured the quartet in a feature on the Boston Celtic Music Fest (which takes place this coming weekend in Boston), and again in 2010; on The Same Way Down, they continue the fine tradition of beautiful vocal tones and masterful stringwork which brought them so high in our favor the first time.

This one I just plain missed: NPR, Sirius XM’s The Village, and several other major critical sources named the self-titled full-length debut from The Stray Birds in their top albums of the year, and it’s easy to see why: the combination of pulsing three part harmonies and quite tight neo-traditional appalachian sounds of upright bass, guitar, and banjo are stunning, weary, and intimate, carrying all the sweetness and dust of Gillian Welch without the burden of her weight. Check out this amazing live NERFA cover of a Townes Van Zandt standard, plus an older cover of an american tradtune from their 2010 EP that shows an early warmth, add a free-to-download live recording of original song Sparrow recorded at Berklee College over the summer of 2012, then snag the whole album to hear why we’re all raving about The Stray Birds.

  • The Stray Birds: Loretta (orig. Townes Van Zandt) [2012]

File this one under “new to me”, or perhaps just new to the US folk listener: British performing legend Joe Brown, who has apparently spent his early decades as a major player of UK rock, television, and film, recorded a totally pop uke-driven acoustic album in 2012, and as I had never heard of him before, I am privileged to be able to find the album on its own merits.

Brown, who grew up in the early sixties of skiffle and rockabilly, is apparently quite well respected across the pond; one of the songs here closed “The Concert For George”, staged at London’s Royal Albert Hall in tribute to George Harrison when he passed in 2005. But the star is mostly just having fun here – there’s a pair of Hawaiian string tunes that just swing, and several old tin pan alley songs, such as When I’m Cleaning Windows, sports a whimsical vaudeville tone; such whimsy, plus a darling accent, a raucous sing-a-long chorus, the most obvious title in show business (The Ukelele Album), and three separate songs titled I Like Bananas, I Like Ukeleles, and I Like You, make it hard to envision him as anything more than a loveable old britpop goofball.

But when applied to the annals of pop, the combination is surprisingly successful. Brown’s Motorhead cover sounds plinky and organic under the wail of the electric guitar; the stuttering beat and slightly slower pace he brings to Pinball Wizard takes a few minutes to get used to, but ultimately, the shift in sensibility makes for a surprisingly mature treatise on age and self-discovery. His take on ELO standard Mr. Blue Sky and 10cc’s I’m Not In Love are delightful. Call it folk rock lite, with a sense of humor.

I won’t say much about Miley Cyrus, other than to note that 2012 was the year that the Disney princess turned out to have a folksinger’s heart after all, with turns on Dylan and a trifecta of tunes recorded in her backyard making it clear that the girl who grew up a daughter of a country legend has the chops and the inclination to become a major folk player, if she chooses to keep moving in that direction. Her late-December release, the last in a series of outdoor session covers and originals taped in the warmth of summer, finds her taking on a staple from her godmother’s ample songbook with a savvy and nuanced sensitivity that tickles our fancy even as it surely soars over the heads of the pre-tween crowd who brought her fame and fortune – though a million YouTube hits suggest that plenty of more mature fans are sticking with her as she moves towards the folk.

  • Miley Cyrus: Jolene (orig. Dolly Parton) [2012]

Finally, we’re embarrassed to admit that we missed this past year’s release from Jimmy LaFave, who we featured in full just a few months ago, describing him as both one of the world’s most effective Dylan interpreters and a powerhouse of the Texan folk scene worthy of recognition and respect. Depending On The Distance is his first studio release in five years, but you’d never know it from the recording; LaFave’s newest is more of the same – consistent with the canon, his soulful rasp-and-wail layered over contemporary AAA/dustbowl instrumentation. And that’s never a bad thing; here, voice rich and weary with middle-age, LaFave takes on an old radiopop standard from John Waite and a Dylan favorite with equal aplomb.

Thanks to ongoing support from readers like you, Cover Lay Down continues into 2013 and beyond with bi-weekly artist-centered features covering covers, from new songs turned acoustic to old songs done up folk. Coming up: folk covers of Kanye West and Taylor Swift go head to head!

Posted by boyhowdy at 9:38 pm | 1 comment
Labels: (Re)Covered, Crooked Still, Jimmy LaFave

A Question of Coverage:
The Beck Song Reader As Fan-Performed Art

Beck has always been a musician on the edge: his earlier works range from full folk and anti-folk albums (2002 release Sea Change; his debut Golden Feelings) to surrealistic hip hop alt-pop (Odelay); the five albums taken on by Record Club, his ongoing collaborative foray into one-day full album coverage of other artists, are sparse and odd, with both Yanni and the Velvet Underground in the mix, but always interesting. Our once-upon-time 2007 feature on his coverage shows but a part of this range, noting that, in covering the songs of others, Beck tends towards “funereal alt-folk” – full-bore ragged folk blues and morphine folkhymns – letting the glitchy songs that ride the line between pop and electronica stand on their own merit as whole-cloth compositions.

But in a world where a band recently released their album on polymer casings that could be filled with water and frozen to create a functional ice record that degrades while you play it, playing with form is a legitimate response to the challenges of making the musical object, beyond and as compared to the easily-downloadable song, a thing of both value and beauty. So when Beck released his most recent “album” as sheet music, via the hipster-lit mag-and-more McSweeney’s, hardly anyone blinked.

But then people started playing the 20 songs in that musical collection, and recording them. And in considering these tracks as fodder for our ongoing exploration here at Cover Lay Down, I realized that in creating a work of art in potential – that is, by releasing his album as something which by definition exists both as its own artwork, and as a template designed to be played out and interpreted in order to be fully experienced – Beck presents the world of coverage with an existential crisis.

Can it be a cover if there is no original? Technically, no. By definition, covers take on songs which have been heard; it is the creative interpretation of that hearing experience which we celebrate herein as inherent in the folkways. We acknowledge the primacy of the original recording by digging deep into the history of the songs we cover where needed, in order to cite and therefore see how history has adapted a song (see, most recently, our exploration of You Are My Sunshine).

But in those cases, the first recording almost always influences the subsequent cover – almost by definition, modern coverage involves interpretation as a reactive process to the performance of another.

Beck’s new release confounds that premise. It is both anachronistic (sheet music), and a new medium (a set of sheet music meant to be understood as an album). But what it isn’t is an original recording – the prerequisite for coverage. It is a blueprint, not a performance; for now, at least, what it prompts is more properly crowdsource than coversongs. Indeed, it comes with the assurance that the author himself has never recorded his own version of his songs.

Yet in less that three weeks, dozens of recordings of the songs in Beck’s Song Reader have been produced and published – notably, something which would have been impossible to imagine in the Tin Pan Alley heyday. And, uniquely, these recordings are all interpretations of that sheet music, not other peoples’ versions or recordings. With such rapid-fire response, we are faced with a novelty: few or none of the earliest versions of this song can be counted as a “cover”, as we must assume that no “original” has yet influenced subsequent recordings…and yet, as coverbloggers, the idea of versions seems square inside our search parameters.

Whether any of these is a cover, or how and when any of these recordings begin to count as covers, is left as a brain-teaser, a thought experiment of coverage. But the diversity that has resulted / is resulting from this grand experiment is astounding – it is, as the LA Times puts it, “a thrilling bounty of recordings from a variety of musicians”.

And so, today, we feature eight of our favorite covers versions of The Wolf Is On The Hill, from sweet and sultry to rowdy and raw – just a tip of a fast-growing iceberg of sound calved by one of the great musical geniuses of his generation.

If you’d like to hear more, Portland Cello Project, whose beautiful work with Jolie Holland heads off our mixed-media set below, has recorded the whole album, and the Beck Song Reader fansite is amassing quite a collection. Oh, and Peter Mulvey’s take on Last Night You Were A Dream, as heard on NPR, which also commissioned the Winterpills and Studio 360 covers below? Perfect.

  • Winterpills: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Song Preservation Society: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Studio 360: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Caleb McCoach: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Juston Stens and The Get Real Gang: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Jesse Noll: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Tom McLaughlin and Mike Midden: The Wolf Is On The Hill

Don’t forget to check out our two-part series on The Best Coverfolk of 2012!

Posted by boyhowdy at 10:56 am | 0 comments
Labels: Beck

The Year’s Best Coverfolk, 2012: The Singles
(b-sides, deep cuts, YouTube one-offs, & more one-shot coverage)

As we noted late last week in The Year’s Best Coverfolk, Vol. 1: Tribute Albums and Cover Compilations, it’s been a reasonably good year for full-album coverage. But although tracks from tributes continue to overwhelm singletons in my collection, as in previous years, a significant majority of the songs that lingered came from a mixed bag of borderline genre albums and single shot coverfolk releases, via the usual sources: YouTube and Soundcloud, in-studio sessions, website and bandcamp singles, full folk albums, and more.

That we continue to find so much of our favorite coverage of the year outside the album-length covers collection is an ongoing testament to our folk-first, artist-centric approach here at Cover Lay Down. After all, the point of our biweekly forays into the folkworld is to introduce you to the best of the singer-songwriter, roots, americana, bluegrass, and contemporary folk rock and folkpop canon. Our nominal focus on coverage is, in the end, merely a vehicle, to provide an entry into the craft and appreciation of those artists through the comfort zone of familiar song. And that artists, knowing this, remain prone to cover a song or two along the way, granting both a sense of their sound and an exposition of their influence, continues to lend credence to this folk-first mandate.

We eschew ranking for single songs; you’ll not find hierarchies here. But I’m not so humble as to enjoy the challenge of creating the perfect mix of coverfolk, circa 2012. And so, once again, we’re offering a two-part compromise: the short, mostly tongue-in-cheek “Best Of” which appeared on Friday…and here, today, the piece de resistance: a 29-song set of our favorite and most-played tracks from this year’s vast collection of singletons and deep cuts, designed to be downloaded and played in order for maximum emotional impact.

Like so many of the songs we posted in part one of this dual reluctance, every one of them gives me chills. Taken together, subjective though they are, they offer a challenge to 2013 and beyond.

So download the full set, or pick and choose among the singletons. Compare them against last year’s mixtape, to see how our tastes have changed. Hit the links beside each track to learn more about these amazing artists, and their output, and their journeys.

May the coming year bring us evermore joy through shared culture and communion. And may this humble offering grace your ears and raise your spirit, for now and for years to come.

The Year’s Best Singles: A 2012 Coverfolk Mix [Zip!]

Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of alternate favorites and rare 2012 covers otherwise unblogged.

Thanks, folks. May your days be merry and bright.

Posted by boyhowdy at 11:56 am | 4 comments
Labels: Compilations & Tribute Albums

The Year’s Best Coverfolk, Vol. 1:
Tribute Albums and Covers Collections (2012)

It’s coming on 2013, and for weeks, otherbloggers and tastemakers have been touting their 2012 picks, jostling to be the best and first match for your own preferences, inviting debate over position in the ranks. And once again, here I am, after weeks of archival digging and false starts, late out of the gate and still struggling with the sheer hubris of presenting my own Year In Review.

As I noted last December atop our Best Coverfolk of 2011 feature, my reluctance to pass judgement isn’t a cop-out. I’m a relatively fickle listener, but I’m also the sort of collector who takes more delight in discovery than digs. Our focus on the breadth of music often leans harder towards emergence, promise, and artist evolution than the next big thing because that’s the honest expression of how I think and hear. There’s no true hierarchy of artistic output in my disheveled aural infrastructure, just a spectrum of successes and partial successes. (And how does one compare the sublime to the sentimental? The transformation to the faithful revisioning? The sparse to the layered? Coverage comes in as many flavors and subtypes, and each one can be done well.)

As a general policy, then, I eschew the critical lens; our mandate, as we see it, is to tout and expose. While others rank and score, we celebrate and share that which we love as we find it, believing that if it weren’t among the best things you’d hear all year, it wasn’t worth posting in the first place. In that sense, the entirety of our year’s blogging is our recommendations list for the year. To winnow it down feels, on the one hand, like a dismissal of that joy we found in any of it when we found it.

And yet there is method in the madness of the recovery of the recent in the name of hierarchical organization. Just considering a Best Of post provides a useful and productive opportunity to revisit the archives. And though this year was perhaps not quite as generous as the last in some categories of coverage, a generous and precious handful of coverfolk EPs and covers albums have emerged this year; to come back to them before they fade from the memory has its uses.

More significantly, while I abhor the very idea of ranking songs, album-length collections seem easier to rate. Hitting the mark singly, in three minutes or so of song, is itself a hard standard; providing a rich, nuanced journey through multiple tracks without stumbling is nigh impossible. Self-selection becomes the primary criteria, then: in those very rare cases where an entire album of covers comes to us as a success, the end result is well worth repeating at year’s end. And here, the successes are so few and far between, we can count on our fingers the albums which deserve not just our respect, but our awe and appreciation, and our last dollars.

And so today, as the last days of the year wane into history, we bring you our wholly subjective picks: the best folk, roots, indie, and Americana coverfolk albums of 2012, arranged into categories much like those which we would use were we in the habit of ranking. Read, download, follow links to purchase, and then stay tuned later this weekend for an unordered mix of our favorite singletons and one-offs of the year.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists): Leonard Cohen: The Bard of Montreal / MOJO Magazine Presents The Songs of Leonard Cohen Covered (tie)

The year in multi-genre, multi-artist tribute albums started and ended badly, in our wholly subjective estimation: Chimes of Freedom, Amnesty’s gigantic 4-CD Dylan tribute, offered several duds and but a single disc’s worth of favorites; late-year Fleetwood Mac tributes from MOJO magazine and Starbucks in-house label Hear Music leaned heavily indiepop this year, though we’ll surely see a track from one or the other in our impending “best of” single-shot mixtape, and neither made for full-bore success. But a similarly paired set of tributes to Leonard Cohen – a freebie from Canadian folklabel Herohill, and a March release from MOJO now mostly only available to collectors willing to pay for back issues – were either centrally or exclusively indiefolk albums, as befits a new generation of singer-songwriters heavily influenced by the poetry and melodic genius of the inimitable Canadian bard, and both were so strong, we’ve decided to put them up as a twinned set.

Oh Michael, Look What You’ve Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman, a little-blogged under-the-radar release from Tompkins Square Records which came to my attention via a reader just last month, deserves second-place recognition for a comprehensively strong set of folk-and-more tracks that reveal surprising nuance from the catalog of a sadly undersung jazzfolk hero of the Cornish circuit with over 30 albums to his name; check it out for slow, dreamy interpretations from Meg Baird, Two Wings, Maddy Prior, William Tyler, Hiss Golden Messenger, the ubiquitous Lucinda Williams and others who shared his stage. Strong runners-up included the decidedly twangy Nick Lowe tribute Lowe Country, and Long Distance Salvation, a double-disk tribute to Springsteen’s Nebraska, which contains at least a single album’s worth of excellence, and plenty of good besides.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist): Rory Block, I Belong To The Band: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis

Though last year there was strong competition in this category, the reciprocal single-folk-artist tribute was much rarer this year – indeed, as noted below, since the EP category contains but a single entry, we almost abolished it entirely. In part, this is because many of the best one-artist tribute albums of 2012 lean too far away from folk to count: Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s tribute to the Nina Simone songbook, for example, is quite powerful, but far too R&B for a folkblog; indie rock duo The Rosebuds’ same-name 20-year anniversary tribute to Sade album Love Deluxe, while excellent in its own right, is truly a soul album, though it has enough elements of folk to legitimize an honorable mention. Happily, country blues counts as folk on most radio playlists, and on ours. And so despite its own issues of over-consistency, Rory Block’s otherwise excellent Rev. Gary Davis tribute, with its masterfully authentic guitarwork and more than a hint of gospel harmonies, gets the prize by default.

Also problematic, for technical reasons: David Crossland’s tribute to mentor and Kingston Trio co-founder John Stewart remains on the cusp of release as of presstime and thus will likely count as a 2013 contender. And though Love Canon’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 and Treatment Bound: A Ukulele Tribute To The Replacements got plenty of play in my car and my house this year, both get honorable mention but no awards: the former tribute to the songs of my 80′s childhood is hugely fun and eminently sunny but, despite a strong and perfectly earnest take on Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing, ultimately lacks depth (and is probably supposed to, given the tongue-in-cheek band name, Tron-parody album cover, the laughter that ends many tracks, and a playlist that includes slyly gleeful bluegrass versions of both Olivia Newton John hit Physical and Devo’s Whip It); similarly, and much less successfully, though the MTV unplugged consistency of the Replacements tribute is fun for a while, the one-take two-uke retread approach wears thin by album’s end, leaving it with little staying power.

The Year’s Best Tribute EP: Hyacinth House, A Tribute to Bob

As above. This foreign-born folk-slash-indierock throwdown – technically recorded over a sequence of years, possibly not released in 2012 in the first place, and impossible to track or label otherwise with any definitive assurance – was the only EP-length reciprocal single-artist tribute we found this year. Luckily, it’s quite good enough to stand on its own.

Honorable mention goes to the four songs of Jurado Covers, which – quite unusually, for an EP-length format – has four different yet equally strong indie singer-songwriters paying tribute to the same artist, in honor of the release of Damien Jurado’s “zenlike” 2012 release Maraqopa. Download it for free at the link below.

The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist): Barrett Smith and Shannon Whitworth, Bring It On Home

By contrast, we find a huge and varied set of contenders in this category this year, many of which deserve respect and admiration at year’s end, from Pesky J. Nixon’s alternately intimate and raucous living-room-recorded Red Ducks to The Chieftains’ guest-heavy collaboration Voice Of Ages, which made the rounds of many blogs upon release, thanks to guest spots from Bon Iver, The Low Anthem, et al. But if we’re looking for album-length perfection with staying power, three strong contenders shoot to the top of the list: Peter Mulvey’s ancient, raw, ragged The Good Stuff, Rickie Lee Jones’ stunningly hushed and deconstructed The Devil You Know, which was produced by Ben Harper and sounds like it, and Shannon Whitworth and Barrett Smith’s amazingly heartfelt Bring It On Home. Of these, the half-acoustic soul, half-folk Bring It On Home gets the nod for top honors by a razor’s edge, because we’re suckers for both masterfully produced layers of stringwork and sweet harmonies here at Cover Lay Down, and this album has got ‘em in spades.

The Year’s Best Covers Album (multiple artists): Mason Jar Music and Friends, The Storm Is Passing Over

An incredible eleventh hour collection of songs thematically joined by the narratives of flood and storm evoked by Hurricane Sandy, The Storm Is Passing Over easily leapfrogs over all previous contenders in an otherwise lightly-populated category to make its first appearance here on Cover Lay Down atop our year’s end list, leaving us with nary a runner-up in sight. The predominantly sparse songs lean heavily towards the public domain, of both the traditional and the old-school folk, gospel, and blues canons; though Bela Fleck and Roseanne Cash make an appearance, generally speaking, the artists here, most of whom share a connection to the hard-hit borough of Brooklyn and its strong new folk scene, represent a veritable cross-section of the new folk revival, from Emily Elbert, Michael Daves, and Aoife O’Donovan to Dawn Landes, Abigail Washburn, Piers Faccini, The Gundersen Family and Tift Merritt.

A project like this, with all songs recorded in the last few weeks, could have come off as hastily contrived. But the first-rate artists here, many of whom we have been following for years, come together mightily, bringing a smooth collection of songs that range from tender to triumphant, heavy on the solo singer-songwriter and country blues – which is to say the three samples below are a true indictor; it all sounds this good from start to finish. Bonus points: it’s available on the cheap by name-your-own-donation, with all proceeds going to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, so head over to the website to stream and download now and support both scene and sorrow.

The Year’s Best Covers EP: Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, Old Gold

The short-set challengers in this category for 2012 run an especially broad gamut – so much so that it was tempting to create a hybrid-genre category just for Leftover Cuties and Lake Street Dive, both of which incorporate acoustic, big band, and indie elements in ways that truly defy genre. Other challenges, different in scope but similar in scale, face us with the Deschutes River Recordings series, which at three tracks, seems too light to compete, though each is a gem on its own, and with Laura Cortese‘s five-track Kickstarter Covers album, which, as we noted upon receipt, is technically not available to any but a handful of us who gave to last year’s Poison Oaks project crowdfunding campaign, though we have assurance from Laura herself that a slow track-by-track release over time is perfectly acceptable, allowing for our inclusion of a second track herein.

But although Ahoy!, the late-year half-pint release from newgrass pioneers the Punch Brothers, is an energetic delight of talent and folk hybridization, and although You Gotta Roll, the 5 song all-covers EP from Woody Pines, has a hopped-up ragtime-stringband-meets-rockabilly energy that evokes an era when blues, folk, jazz, and country were still intermingled on dustbowl radio, it’s the sheer warmth of Seattle countryfolk singer-songwriter Zoe Muth’s Old Gold that stands out among near-equals, with sweet, twangy vocals and a heady set of songs from her influences reimagined with richly-arranged abandon making for a true powerhouse of a coverset. Kudos to Signature Sounds, to producer Rob Mitchell, and to Muth herself, for their collaborative work in getting this tiny, precious Americana gem into the world.

The Year’s Best Kidfolk Covers Album: Renee & Jeremy, A Little Love

This was the year I truly fell in love with California singer-songwriter duo Renee & Jeremy; indeed, I’ve probably blogged about their work more times than anyone this year, and who can blame me? A Little Love is a tidy, gleeful gem of modern kindie music, apt and ample for family fare, chock full of soft-yet-infectiously reimagined songs from R.E.M., Coldplay, Queen, Supertramp, and others that celebrate the gift that is the generous and well-lived life.

Two new albums from perennial kidfolk favorite and Smithsonian songstress Elizabeth Mitchell tie for second place: both her Grammy-nominated Woody Guthrie covers album Little Seed and her more recent release Blue Clouds are excellent additions to a growing body of work, further cementing her place at the core of the modern kidfolk canon. Bonus points to Jumpin’ Through Hoops, whose Rockin’ to the Fiddle is a tiny, joyous tradfolk set of fiddle tunes and kidfolk classics from Kristen Andreassen and friends which was released too late in 2011 for consideration in last year’s tongue-in-cheek awards.

The Year’s Best Tradfolk Covers Album: Charlie Parr, Keep Your Hands On The Plow

Last year, this category existed almost exclusively to acknowledge the highly-anticipated duo release from Michael Daves and Chris Thile; this year, we keep it in the mix in order to call back to Charlie Parr’s early 2012 treatment of old gospel blues songs, which has had quite solid staying power in our home and our ears as the year has progressed. As we noted way back in January, Parr’s hoarse voice and honest workmanship make for an especially strong and consistent album, sparse and heartfelt, with the right balance of ragged gospel blues harmonies and well-crafted hill-and-holler fiddle and fingerpicking bound to tempt those who find their heart in the modern neo-trad work of Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Low Anthem while still touching a nerve in lovers of the Louvin Brothers, Dave Van Ronk, Leo Kottke, and more.

A strong second-place showing from Portland’s well-respected, internationally-known Foghorn Stringband, whose 21-track 2012 release Outshine The Sun is a perfect exemplar of a classic old-timey sound, lends credence to our category even as their recent forays into Cajun and other broad roots sounds and sources adeptly widen the lens of the traditional. Though the inclusion of songs from Hazel Dickens, the Carter Family, and the Stanley Brothers in the mix of fiddle tunes, pre-WWII country, and early bluegrass technically transcends the limitations of the public domain canon, the unified sound of fiddle, guitar, mandolin, stand-up bass, and vocal harmonies around a single microphone has a warmth and an organic authenticity that is both loving and truly timeless, making the album well worth revisiting here.

The Year’s Best Rereleased Cover or Tribute Album: Lotte Kestner, Extra Covers Collection

We created this category last year as a one-shot in order to feature They Will Have Their Way, a nominally “new” release cobbled from two previous one-shot tribute albums of male and female covers of Neil and Tim Finn songs. But while technically there is some great new coverage in Trespasser’s William co-founder Lotte Kestner’s aptly if unimaginatively titled Extra Covers Collection, the majority of the slowcore collection is forged from the two 2011 EPs we discovered and touted too late to make it into last year’s “best of” feature. Both new and older tracks combine to hold up eminently well as a late night lullaby set, though we continue to wish Kestner, who trends towards covering the obscure, would include more detail in her track listing; the Billy Idol cover below is a retread, while the Gotye cover is, naturally, new, but both remain favorites.

The Year’s Best Mostly Covers Album: Rayna Gellert, Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds

A kind of catch-all last year, which allowed for a nod to those albums which lean heavily on coverage, but include enough originals in the mix to knock them out of consideration as “true” covers albums. This year, consideration of such cover-heavy releases allows us to celebrate the work of several artists: a new solo outing from Uncle Earl fiddle-player Rayna Gellert, New York tradfolker Jan Bell’s well-balanced thematic soiree Dream of the Miner’s Child, bluegrass banjo wizard Bill Evans’ In Good Company, a guest-heavy album which includes a delightfully fun 4-song sequence of instrumental Beatles tunes plus coverage of John Martyn and Sarah Siskind, and Canadian crooner Reid Jamieson’s tribute to the songs of winter, which, while it garnered treatment as a covers album upon release in November, truly belongs in this category thanks to three solid original tunes.

Of these, Rayna Gellert’s Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds edges out to the top, if only because of how effectively Gellert packages and presents a perfectly-balanced mix of the traditional and the newly-penned in her triple-threat role as arranger, lead performer, and producer – indeed, the album, which finds the artist shifting from old-timey fiddle tunes to vocal-driven singer-songwriter fare, is so unified in its timelessness, it’s often hard to tell which are the old tunes, and which the new. NPR’s Bob Williams called it “an exquisite slice of Americana”, and we’re inclined to agree, recommending it to the No Depression and indiefolk crowds alike for its morphine-drip drones and atmospheres. And with its strong phrasing, Gellert’s deep alto voice, risen to new-found prominence, reminds us of none so much as Cindy Kallett’s, which is high praise indeed from this long-time fan.

The Year’s Best YouTube Covers Series: ortoPilot, 2012 YouTube Advent Calendar

Finally, our sole new category this year, and one long-overdue, as the trend towards YouTube coverage sets and series seems to reached critical mass a while ago. Old Ideas with New Friends, a previously-blogged early 2012 Vimeo project designed to raise awareness of Leonard Cohen’s then-new release Old Ideas, had a diverse set of tracks but several with staying power, while Antje Dukekot’s monthly six-song-so-far Antje Sings Covers! solo set may lack the rich instrumentation and depth of her nuanced studio albums, but her lighthearted overdubbed takes on favorite songs from Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, The Wailin’ Jennys, and others make for a fine if cutesy introduction to her live performance. But in the end, appropriately enough, it’s the native YouTuber who wins out: ortoPilot’s advent calendars are always stellar, but this year’s is nearly perfect, with masterful predominantly solo guitar-and-voice driven takes on a diverse set of modern pop and indie radio tunes from Seahorses, Kings of Convenience and Foster The People to TLC, Green Day, Stevie Wonder and Smashmouth.

  • ortoPilot: You’ve Got A Friend In Me (orig. Randy Newman)

  • Antje Duvekot: Ford Econoline (orig. Nanci Griffith)

Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’ end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of favorite 2012 covers otherwise unblogged.

Thanks, folks. May your days be merry and bright.

Posted by boyhowdy at 6:16 pm | 2 comments
Labels: Compilations & Tribute Albums

Christmas Coverfolk, 2012:
New Tracks from Old Friends

It’s been a hectic season, broken up by shock and awe and rumors of an apocalypse that never came. But the last day of school has finally passed, and now, suddenly, it’s Christmas in earnest: time for the tree, and the warmth of family and friends; for church carols and pageantry; for hot cocoa by the fire, the kitten in our lap and the old dog at our feet, and the laughter of children. And we are grateful, and glad, in our bittersweet joy.

Previously this year, we came to you with a cross-comparison of new Christmas Kidfolk, Reid Jamieson’s wonderfully lighthearted, mostly-acoustic, mostly-covers Winter-themed album, a set of seasonals about drinking at the holidays, and the best of a mixed bag of new seasonal compilations. Now, as a final installment of our holiday joy, here’s this year’s greatest Christmas singles, to complete the soundtrack for your season – in long form below, or in zip form, for easy listening while you read.

First out of the gate comes Hey, It’s Christmas! Vol. 3, a compilation we overlooked in our previous feature. The free-if-you-want-it-to-be album is quite eclectic, featuring a set of everything from dear folk and jazz tracks to punky grungerock and poppy electronic numbers – but it’s hard not to admire the underdog premise of showcasing relatively unknown artists, the set makes for solid background music all the way through, and I’ve grown quite fond of Danny Leggett’s ironically folk take on Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, which comes complete with rocking chair creaks to set the mood. Download all three volumes at the website to expand your holiday cheer, too.

This one popped up just today, but it’s been on repeat all afternoon, thanks to sparse and gently ringing guitar picking under a warm familiar melody sung in delicious octaves from favorite singer-songwriter Rose Cousins and fellow Canadian Don Brownrigg. It’s clearly Shawn Colvin’s arrangement, but the subtle, tiny harmonies and piano moments, and the simple ooohs added between verses of this old carol sing of firesides and the stillness of winter so exquisitely, it’s hard to imagine a more centering folksong for the season. Rose’s award-winning We Have Made A Spark, which we featured way back at the beginning of the year, remains one of our favorite releases of 2012, hands down: listen, and you can hear why.

Chameleonesque indie god Bonnie “Prince” Billy continues to blow us away with his collaborative efforts: most recently, we featured his take on Fleetwood Mac’s Storms alongside Matt Sweeney; here, he partners with “songteller” Dawn McCarthy, aka Faun Fables, and the effect is grand indeed. I’m by no means the first to post this new single-shot track, which was originally released via YouTube way back in October, but it bears repeating – both for the contrapuntal harmony voices of male gravel and female soar as above, and for the general indiefolk beauty of this sad, resurrected Everly Brothers tune.

We’re huge fans of fiddling Prairie Home Companion tradfolk favorites Jay Ungar and Molly Mason here at Cover Lay Down – and of Mike and Ruthy, his daughter and son-in-law, who will be performing at our house concert series in April. So to find the four of them releasing a holiday album this year was a true delight, and I’m happy to report that A Fiddler’s Holiday is exactly what one would have hoped: lighthearted, airy, warm, and bright, with a solid mix of originals, carols, and traditional appalachian folk tunes for the holidays, and a live setting and a full orchestra bringing forth love so thick on the ground, you can hear it through the speakers. Their Silent Night rivals the best I’ve heard, and that’s saying something, indeed.

Several of our most beloved tracks from Christmasses past are joined this year by new releases from artists who make a ritual out of their holiday releases, and we couldn’t be happier to find such familiarity in the mix. North Carolinans Beta Radio return with The Songs The Season Brings, Vol. II, a free 3-track release to rival last year’s, with a favorite carol or two done delicately in the mix. Long-time seasonal favorites Jim Hanft and Samantha Yonack are back with their 4th annual YouTube holiday single, a sweet Winter Wonderland that hangs like snowflakes in the air, and we’re pleased to be releasing it in mp3 form. Versatile homegrown artist Sam Billen releases Merry Christmas, a family-and-friend recorded set of 7 chillingly slow old instrumentals this year – an interesting change, though no less moving than his previous holiday works. And Boston-based singer-songwriter Catie Curtis, whose eleventh-hour EP release of songs played and rehearsed for what is now fast becoming an annual visit to the White House was a potent last-minute addition to our seasonal feature set last year, expands her holiday recording to a full-length album this year, making us twice as grateful.

Juliana Richer Daily popped onto our radar just this year, while we were looking for covers for October’s 50-track Radiohead covers megafeature; her cover of Fake Plastic Trees, which we clipped from a YouTube video, bears the mark of an amateur with soul and a need for slightly better recording equipment, but her warm voice and delicacy still stood on their own against other covers of the same from Lori McKenna, KT Tunstall, and Duncan Sheik. Champagne Year, her streamable Christmas EP, is delightfully imperfect, with a fine mix of modern classics and old chestnuts; it’s hard not to like her takes on new winter canon additions from Laura Marling and Fleet Foxes, but it’s her Blue Christmas which truly shows an artist on the cusp of transcendence, soaring even as she finds her wings.

Regular readers of the Cover Lay Down Facebook page will have noted this unusual mash-up already. But sweet harmony duo The Sea The Sea, who honored us as guests for our house concert series this Autumn, are always worth reposting – and their combination of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and What A Wonderful World, originally released via YouTube, is shivery, with surprisingly complex interplay between two songs that don’t quite fit making for a song of great depth and beauty. Keep an eye open for a full album debut from Mira Stanley and Chuck E Costa sometime this Spring.

I’m sneaking this one in on a technicality: Folk Angel have released three previous bandcamp Christmas albums, and though I’d heard of their work, I’ve never posted them here, mostly because – despite their name – increasingly, the band trends towards a quite raucous yet indie-friendly Christian Gospel poprock. But while their earlier Christmas releases sport tracks that both better fit our oeuvre and bear repeating, their Joy To The World, from this year’s fully EP-sized Glad Tidings: Christmas Songs Vol. 4, is a total delight: happy, bouncy guilty pleasure with more than a hint of radiopop, handclaps, and a totally indierock beat that totally transforms the song, making us all want to sing along. And their equally transformative take on What Child Is This is its equal: a gleeful epitome of what modern indie folk rock can truly be. Call it a guilty pleasure, but listen regardless – and then compare it to the 2009 bonus track to see just how folk these guys used to be.

Finally, if I had to recommend further listening, it would be Heather’s mostly-indiefolk and stunning-as-always Fuel/Friends 2012 Holiday Mixtape. Heather’s mixes are always a joy, but this year’s is especially precious: though a few of the tracks are originals, and several are from previous years, the majority are new, amazing covers, soaring and dark and gentle in turns, and with universally heartbreaking takes from Denison Witmer, The Gundersen Family, Oh Starling, Ben Kyle, Eef Barzelay, The Wood Brothers, and more, the whole collection comes together as the best damn CD-like-thing I’ve heard for the season – so much so that it was quite tempting to just skip my own playlist and repost the whole thing here.

As always, Heather provides plenty of threads to pull, too: I found Branches’ O Holy Night, for example, and followed it to Songs For Christmas, an equally stunning new EP, which is worth every moment you can devote to it. Recorded two-by-two over the last three years, the collection of traditional tracks is a tiny tour de force, a microcosm of the state of indiefolk itself, full of ragged glory and hollow bells. Thanks to Heather, Branches, and all the bloggers and artists who bring us light and love throughout the year for setting the bar high, and continuing to raise it. And God bless us, every one.

Coming soon: Cover Lay Down presents our selections for the best coverfolk of 2012!

Posted by boyhowdy at 10:28 pm | 4 comments
Labels: Holiday Coverfolk

Griefsongs: A Prayer For Newtown

…because sometimes there are no words.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

Posted by boyhowdy at 6:37 pm | 2 comments
Labels: Theme Posts

Chanukah Coverfolk, 2012:
with songs by Woody Guthrie, South Park, Peter Paul & Mary, & more!

from Winterlights: A Season in Poems and Quilts by Anna Grossnickle Hines

It’s the first day of Hanukkah, aka Chanukah, and though the candles have long since burned down, as in past years, my holiday playlist didn’t even last as long as the light it was designed to accompany. Thanks to a small selection of new covers, however, this year was closer than ever, giving me hope that one day soon we’ll have more than a single set to offer over these eight nights.

In the meantime, here’s our annual rehashed set: our 2008 post rewritten yet again, some older tunes from years past, and a few relatively recent additions to the canon. May these songs bring light to your darkened days, regardless of your practice.

While I generally attribute my love of folk music to my father’s good taste and influence, it was my mother who introduced me to both kidfolk and, later in life, filled the house on holidays with what can only be called the Jewish equivalent of Christian Music — that branch of music which, in trying to balance between the spiritual source and the popular ear, has a high tendency toward over-earnestness.

So when Mom was the first to respond to our 2008 call for quality folk/acoustic Chanukkah covers, I was, to be honest, a bit wary of the result.

Now let’s be fair: Chanukkah isn’t a major Jewish holiday, and Jewish music doesn’t rank too highly on the pop culture horizon. As such, much of the Chanukkah music out there is religious first, and folk second; it is, in other words, music that truly belongs in the Synagogue rec hall, rather than a popular stage. As evidence, in our modern Jewnitarian household, we have a full shelf of Chanukkah music collected over the years which is, on the whole, a bit too precious to be considered just plain good music.

But it’s not just Chanukkah, and it’s not just me. Notably, in fact, both of the genres I inherited from my mother have a reputation for being more miss than hit.

I’ll probably get clobbered in the comments for saying so, but I think that as general categories, this is because Kidfolk and Religious folk suffer from the same root ailment: both are too often produced with a conservatively projected audience in mind, which limits the ability of most performers to find the music that truly exists inside themselves. The result is transparently constructed, subject to the worst of overannunciation and false cheer, and this might be enough to explain the lack of authentic emotion which many folk fans ascribe to the vast majority of the output from such categories.

But just as there is good kidfolk to be found in the hands of those who are able to transcend the limitations and temptations of talking down to their audience, there is nothing inherently cheesy in the curious mix of religion and popular music. Though wariness is a reasonable watchword when dealing with religious music, as in any genre, gems can be found, even if the average is less than worthy to the popular ear.

And as it is in general, so it is with Chanukkah songs.

As an example of music which is worth a second listen, here’s two recommendations from Mom: a bluegrass cover of Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah, and a live rooftop video performance of the Texas Swing version of The Dreydl Song from the aptly named and recently disbanded Mark Rubin and his Ridgetop Syncopaters. Neither is perfect, and the overall success of A Chanukkah Feast, Vol. 2, the non-profit-generated album from whence they come, is a bit hit-or-miss. But each song is worth a chance — which is more than I can say for most of the music which trickles into so many Jewish households this time of year.

Mom’s not the only source for Chanukkah music, of course. A chance encounter with Peter Yarrow’s Light One Candle in the Unitarian Universalist Hymnal at our rescheduled 2010 Vespers service reminded me that there is, at least, one honestly folk Chanukkah song which seems overdue for coverage. A quick survey of the usual secret sources revealed a live recording from diminutive Brooklinite singer-songwriter Michelle Citrin, who has made a name for herself over the last few years for a series of surprisingly popular folk rock Jewish Holiday originals released via YouTube.

Citrin’s folkpop EP, foursongsforyou, is chock full of catchy hooks, and comes highly recommended. The recording in question appears on the soundtrack for a recent PBS special called Lights: Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert; I haven’t heard the whole thing, but the presence of both The Klezmatics (see below) and acoustic jazzfolk guitarist Laurence Juber in the cast suggest that some of it, at least, is deserving of further consideration.

And speaking of Klezmer, and other lesser-known forms of folk: reader Kevin reminds us that Texas-based group Brave Combo does a great version of Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah; it’s polka rock, but polka counts as folk at the Grammys, so who are we to say otherwise? For comparison’s sake, here’s an acoustic-with-accordion take on the same song from Barenaked Ladies.

Oh, and Klezmer counts as folk, too – even the Indigo Girls got into the act, with their dobro-fueled Klezmergrass cover of Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah hiding among the Xmas seasonals on 2010 release Holly Happy Days. One day, I expect, we’ll host an entire Subgenre Coverfolk feature on Klezmer music; in the meanwhile, here’s The Indigo Girls, and The Klezmatics, a band pushing the boundaries of the genre who has garnered national attention for two albums of interpretations of Guthrie’s Jewish-themed songs and poems, with a surprisingly mellow folk cover of Guthrie’s Hanukah Dance, and a happy, joyous take on Hanukah Tree, both from Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah. Good on you, Guthrie, for helping bring the folk to the days of lights.

We featured singer-songwriter Robby Hecht back in February in our New Artists, Old Songs series, and included this tender take on South Park standard Lonely Jew (On Christmas) among the mix, but it easily bears repeating here: Hecht, who has recently been touring with Angel Snow and others, remains an artist on the rise, and though it is primarily his YouTube canon which we celebrated earlier, this tiny track – supposedly from an out-of-print 2010 collection called AllDay Radio Christmas, and performed by collaborative AllDay Radio, which was co-founded in San Francisco by Hecht and songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jason Jurzak but now claims to be from Nashville – reminds us quite aptly that honest beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places, even the dark nights of Comedy Central.

Of course, there’s no getting away from the best-known Hanukkah song, the one that’s become such a central part of the candle-lighting ritual itself. Here, indieguitarist Ben Kweller and folkbluesman Marc Cohn interpret Rock of Ages, also known in its Hebrew form as Maoz Tsur. The song is over seven hundred years old, but it’s still powerful in the right hands.

And finally, here’s an indiefolk tune and a half, courtesy of avid blog suppliers and indie champions XO Publicity, who have for five years running turned out a wonderful holiday sampler series aptly titled XO For The Holidays. The 2010 sampler includes a raw and atmospheric acoustic indie-rock-americana-folk transformation of the Dreidel Song courtesy of Campfire OK, which tips the scales enough to include LA-based duo Bumtech‘s surprisingly successful electroacoustic Hanukah/Christmas mashup medley from the previous year’s sampler as a bonus. Good work, XO folks. Happy Holidays to you, too.

Looking for something a little more Christmassy? Check out our first Christmas post of the year, plus our short Xmas Drinking Songs mix, and stay tuned for more of the same later this week. And don’t forget our previous Holiday Coverfolk features here on Cover Lay Down…

Posted by boyhowdy at 9:52 am | 0 comments
Labels: Hanukkah, Holiday Coverfolk

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