Sunday, December 30, 2007

And A Happy New Year
(On The Turning of Time and Calendar Pages)

It's human nature to turn inward in times of timeturning. It's reassuring that we do; it bespeaks our still-close relationship with nature, and the planet. In a world long teetering on the verge of disaster, our innate need to constantly reground ourselves in history and ecology gives me more hope than anything at the future and continued existence of the human race. That it happens everywhere, regardless of country or creed, only reinforces my faith in all of us.

May your year turn joyfully. May you put to rest all the anxieties of a lifetime passed-so-far, and pass clean into the new possibility. May you live more and more in the connections between, and less and less in the margins. May you cover the world, and may the world cover you.

I resolve to continue to promote folk artists and their labels by linking to their preferred source for purchasing wherever possible, rather than supporting megastores and megalabels who really aren't interested in music, or in musicians or their audiences, except as a means to a dollar.

In addition, I resolve to continue to serve an astute listening public (that's you!) by continuing to bring you songs, singers, and songwriters in context as long as it is safe, legal, and fun for all of us...and by feeling grateful for every comment, email, and download. It's nice to feel appreciated, folks. Thanks for listening, and have a very, very happy new year.

Don't forget to come back Wednesday for another installment in our very popular Covered in Folk series. This week I'll be featuring folkcovers of Paul Simon tunes.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Covered in Kidfolk, Part 2:
Loudsongs and Dancearounds for Cool Moms and Dads

School's been out for days, and I'm already exhausted. But after a whirlwind tour of relatives and sled runs, Sturbridge Village sleigh rides and Santa stocking mornings, the kids are sugared up, full of pep and peppermint. What to do with a case of the sillies? What better time for another round of Covered in Kidfolk?

Last time on Covered in Kidfolk we brought you a sweet set of lullabies and softsongs; songs in that post are still live, just in case today's songs tire you out. If you joined Cover Lay Down in the past two months, or if you're just in the mood for something a bit quieter, head over there for a mellow dozen-or-so from the likes of Alison Krauss, Jack Johnson, The Be Good Tanyas, and Shawn Colvin, and a good overview of our Covered in Kidfolk series, and why it's meant to serve your ears, too.

But the point here is to jangle out some energy. So today, we bring you a broad set of genre-pushing folk and folk-related artists hanging out on the fast, upbeat end of the musical kidfolk spectrum. Some are traditional kids songs, sped up as far and stretched out as hard as acoustic instruments can go. Some have their origins in our own childhood favorites, from Sesame Street to Raffi. Some, like Prince's Starfish and Coffee, will be familiar as songs from your own collections, only repackaged for a kid-friendly audience. All give your kids a chance to rock out without you or they resorting to violence.

Whether you've got kids visiting for the holidays, or are just a kid at heart, I think you'll enjoy these raucous folkcovers of familiar and traditional songs for kids. Take a few minutes with your legs up on the couch and watch the kids burn off the sugar -- or, if you've got it in you, use this opportunity to dance around a bit. Just be careful running around the coffee table. Remember, it's all fun and games until someone barks a shin.

Remember, kids: whether you prefer popfolk or sleepsongs, buying local and direct from artists is the best way to ensure that the musical ecosystem remains diverse, rich, and authentic for generations to come. As always here at Cover Lay Down, artist and album links herein go directly to artists' and labels' preferred source for purchase wherever possible. Buy if you can, for the sake of your kids and theirs.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Best of the Season:
The Holiday Halfcovers of Over The Rhine

One last holiday post, though I promised otherwise. Because the holiday songs of Over The Rhine transcend the season. I saved the best for last.

I just re-discovered Over The Rhine, and they blew me away. The sweet breathy girlvocals, the moody guitar and piano, the exquisite musicianship and tonality. I'm a bit too much in awe to say much, honestly.

Post-folkers Over the Rhine have been around for fifteen years, touring with everyone from Dylan to the Cowboy Junkies. In that time, they've gone from a foursome to a married twosome, mellowed out significantly, and produced not one but two holiday albums: 1996 masterwork The Darkest Night of the Year, and last year's fan-only, absolutely mind-blowing Snow Angels, which didn't truly hit the mass market until this holiday season.

It was Snow Angels which recaptured my heart. Most of the album consists of heart-stopping originals: identifiably Christmassy, of a variety of types, all resonant with the best of the fireside yule. But it also includes two half-covers, new Christmas songs which start with or contain the kernels of traditional Christmas songs. I'm not sure what to call these, except so incredible, you just have to hear them.

For our final holiday post, then, a featurette: three Over The Rhine holiday songs -- one old, two new -- that are more than covers. Each uses the familiar as a starting point, adding lyrics, rechording the sound, twisting melodies beyond recognition. But this isn't like that tiny shard of Jingle Bells at the head and tail of Joni Mitchell's River. This is something new, on the far edge of the coversong, but still identifiably a cover. And it's gorgeous.

Look, I know it's late in the season to push holiday music. But I swear, I plan to keep Snow Angels on the turntable until February, at least. And new Over The Rhine album The Trumpet Child, too. You will too, when you hear them. Get them now.

Today's bonus coversongs are more true to their much more recently written original. But they're both sweet and sleek, just the thing for that last, late-Christmas afternoon light.

Bonus bonus (late addition): in case your Christmas isn't truly here until after the holidays, here's the best version I know of Blue Christmas, by Chaim Tannenbaum, off The McGarrigle Christmas Hour. (Do you think Chaim Tannenbaum is his real name? Translated, it means "tree of life".)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Dar Williams Covers:
Springsteen, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, The Beatles...

It took me a while to get into Dar Williams. The way she plays with the strong break between her bold lower tones and her breathy upper register is an acquired taste. Her songwriting is generally wry and poignant, but it takes more than one skim-the-surface listen to appreciate its complexity. She tends towards strong, heavy production, which attracts a younger alt-folk crowd, but can overwhelm her well-crafted, literate lyrics.

But at her best, Dar is an incredible artist. Her songwriting and her stage presence are so raw and fragile, it's like what it must have been like to see Joni Mitchell during her Blue period. She picks distinctive, powerful voices for harmony, weaves a rich, complex tapestry to tell her strum and story. Her work is the soundtrack of my soul. Her music is listenable, mature, and strong, and it bears repeating.

Dar is flat-out incredible live. I've seen her half a dozen times, maybe, and she just radiates good cheer and a cute, puppy-dog-awkward stage discomfort that makes you want to root for her. When she plays Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, she always asks the field to light up their cellphones and lighters all-at-once when she does "Iowa", and there's that created moment where she's just awestruck and gasping, and you cry there in the dark, for the beauty of it all.

I was hoping to find a bootlegged copy of Dar covering the Cat Stevens song Peace Train this summer on stage at FRFF with the Slambovian Circus of Dreams. Alas, we'll just have to go on without it. Happily, there's plenty of coverlove to put forth, from the sweet, poignant Pierce Pettis cover Family to the urban popfolk ride of the Kinks' Better Things -- both of which Dar makes so much her own I didn't realize they were covers when I first heard them. Plus great covers of Springsteen, The Beatles, The Band, Nick Lowe, Pink Floyd, and some bonus songs, as always: supergroup Cry, Cry, Cry, a cover of a Dar song by the very first artist we ever featured here on Cover Lay Down, and another cover of that Kinks song. And don't forget to head back to last month's archives to pick up Dar's folkrockin' cover of David Bowie's Starman after you're finished here.

Dar Williams has just come out with a new live DVD, which includes a cover of the Grateful Dead song Ripple. Her management usually frowns on pre-release, so buy Live at Bearsville, and the rest of her amazing catalog, and find out for yourself how intimate and powerful Dar Williams can be.

Today's bonus coversongs:

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Guestfolk: I'll Be Folk For Christmas
Songs from Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today's bonus coversongs:

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

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Subgenre Coverfolk: Zydeco
Covers of John Hiatt, Dylan, War, Cracker, & more!

Before radio nationalized musical types, and Dylan, Guthrie, Seeger and others involved in the american folk music revival of the fifties and sixties claimed the term to describe a particular lyrical style and approach to instrumentation, folk music was traditional music, and traditional music was regional music. Appalachian music was different from Cajun music was different from polka music was different from samba, but each in its own way was a kind of folk, literally "of the folk", and the variance in sound as one traveled through the country was rich and beautiful and vast, steeped in the ancestry of the local population, and played on the back porch or local dancehall as a way to reclaim the old country for the newer generation.

These days, of course, "folk music" usually means something entirely different. We see the term everywhere, with slashes and caveats, daily across the indie-populated blogosphere. But even as the term "folk" is being applied to a whole rising generation of acoustic indiekids, these different kinds of folk music seem to be moving back towards each other, a kind of musical genre reclamation.

Zydeco and Urban folk once used the term "folk" as if the other did not exist, but more and more often, one can find the two types played to overlapping crowds in adjacent tents at the same folk festival, if not one after another on the main stage. In my local library, Polka music rests more and more easily next to Dylan in the section labeled "folk". Some days, it is as if all popular American music is on the verge of falling into one of three broad categories: rock/pop/rap, classical, and folk/country.

The folk music tent gets larger every year. According to an unsourced statement in Wikipedia, in June of this year, the National Association of Recording Artists and Songwriters "announced a new Grammy category, Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album, in its folk music field." Though here at Cover Lay Down we have chosen not to offer a "best of" list to end the year, in anticipation of this year's awards, and as a way to bring some swampy southern warmth to our short New England winter days, we bring you our first feature in a new series, Subgenre Coverfolk, in which we focus on a specific subset of the folkmusic sound.

According to Wikipedia, Zydeco has its roots in the dual cultures and communities of the Louisiana bayou: French Creoles and African-american slaves. But Zydeco as a finite form did not truly emerge until after the Civil War, when many french-speaking creole and african-american communities of the deep swamp south moved towards Texas in the first half of the twentieth century to find work. There, the once-separatist creoles found themselves in common bond with free african-americans, and both peoples developed a need to congregate and celebrate their shared regional histories.

The music that they created to accompany themselves brought together instrumentation, lyrical elements, and other components of Creole music and african-american forms such as Jazz, Blues, and R&B. At first, just as folk music was still folk music after it lost its regionalism and began to describe a particular sound, this was just considered a new form of Creole music. But by the time Clifton Chenier and other began to introduce the sound to a generation of popular blues and R&B artists in the 1950s, they called it Zydeco.

The term "Zydeco" seems to be a corruption of african terms that mostly just means "dance", though its etymological origins are muddy as the delta -- other sources suggest it is derived from les haricots, french for "the beans", a reference to the title of what many believe is the first mainstream Zydeco song.

But the zydeco sound is clearly identifiable. In order to serve the cultural and emotional needs of its listeners, the instruments of Zydeco are typically those portable handhelds which need no amplification to be heard, and which will not wilt or lose their tone in heat and humidity: accordian as wearable piano; washboard as a drumset held close to the chest. Even the dance style of zydeco sprawls across the dancefloor, reclaiming land in a manner unlike the meeker and more static cajun waltzes and squares they evolved from. It may have absorbed some elements of rock and R&B over the years, but the Zydeco sound is still very much distinctive.

Today, some select covers from the reigning kings of modern Zydeco. You can catch these folks at the dance tent, late into the night, long after the mainstage folk or bluegrass festival acts have gone back to their hotels and song circles for the evening, and they're worth staying up for.

As always, album links above go to labels or artist homepages, not some huge and faceless conglomerate. Support niche labels, regional musicians, and small record shops, and keep the local alive.

As a nod to the continued evolution and cross-pollination of musical forms, today's bonus (re)coveredsongs come from O Cracker, Where Art Thou, "psychocajun slamgrass" group Leftover Salmon's collaboration with alt-rockers Cracker. Both songs are originally by Cracker.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Single Song Sunday: Rain and Snow
(On Traditional Folksongs as Tabula Rosa)
Plus 3 bonus Grateful Dead rainsongs

Whether stripped-down so as not to overwhelm the authenticity of the song and singer, or jazzed up to resonate with modern musical sensibilities, it is the passage of familiar song, motif, and situation between audience and performer which makes the "folk" in folk music. Songs about trains are ultimately songs about longing; songs about the road resonate with those who wander and those who long for a change, though in different ways. Such songs play broadly to universal themes, the better to leave room for such connection. In collapsing the participant/observer gap, the songs have connected folk artists and folk audiences for a century or more.

We might say, then, that traditional songs like Rain and Snow (also called Cold Rain and Snow in some collections) are both heart and origin of folk music. Problematically, however, these same qualities which make tradfolk accessible can make writing about traditional songs an exercise in futility.

Many tradfolk songs have loose lyrics, thin and incomplete, which drift from interpretation to interpretation, and thus invite the sort of minute lyrical analysis only a music historian could love. Today's featured song is perhaps an extreme example of the problem of interpretation. It contains only twelve lines, four of which are merely repetitions of the previous line, and its lyrics are vague, naming lifelong trouble between narrator and spouse without ascribing cause.

Similarly, since the origins of traditional american folk songs like Rain and Snow are murky at best, historical analysis is no better an approach to understanding. Even the best write-ups can end up an exercise in cover geneology, offering little more than a litany of who-sang-and-when, ad infinitum. And this is the anathema of blogging, I suppose, which seems to me most specifically a medium of anecdotal small-scale sharing and interpretation, not mere enumeration.

But this is not to say that there is nothing we can say. The best approach to traditional song interpretation, I think, begins with a simple acknowledgement of what a song is. It is the parameters of possibility which make traditional folk song unique and interesting.

Rain and Snow, for example, is a beautiful, simple, melancholy song of spousal dissatisfaction which can be interpreted as many ways as humans can express such emotion. The way the doubled-lyrics degrade from storylyric to simple image to repeated, strung-out phrase at each verse's end requires singers to howl their emotional choices open-voweled. The song's last line leaves open the possibility that the song's narrator has been the cause of his own resolution, without necessarily calling it either way.

When combined, these traits make for powerful potential in the hands of the coverartist. The unresolved narrative, coupled with the simple lyrical and chord patterns, leaves ample room for true interpretation. Indeed, it is the tonality and approach of a given coverartist which will ultimately determine whether we take these lyrics as melancholy or resigned, the narrative as sinister or merely regretful.

Rain and Snow is generally considered a traditional fiddle-and-folk appalachian folksong, though old folkies likely know it best from the works of Pentagle and the Grateful Dead; it is so much a part of the Deadhead canon, in fact, that it was included on jazz/folk/world music label Shanachie's "The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead". Rather than rehash those old familiars, here's a set of six stellar post-millenial versions, from folk to roots to celtic to true blue bluegrass, just to prove that there's always more life to be had in tradsongs, the lifeblood of folk.

As always, wherever possible, artist and album links on Cover Lay Down go directly to each artist's preferred sources for purchase -- the best way to support musicians without giving money to unecessary middlemen. Order now, and put some tradition under the tree.

Today's bonus rainsongs have all been performed by members of the Grateful Dead at one time or another, according to the Grateful Dead Lyric and Songfinder:

  • New Riders of the Purple Sage founder Dave Nelson covers the Grateful Dead's Box of Rain (live)
  • Folk supergroup Redbird do a jangly version of Dylan's Buckets of Rain
  • Neo-folkgrassers Crooked Still cover softly tradsong Wind and Rain

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Folk covers of songs of snow and winter

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Twelve Jews of Christmas:
Folk Covers of Holiday Classics by Jewish Songwriters

I was planning on posting this entry for the Sabbath, but the snow's getting deep outside, and in my rural area, that often means long-term network outages. Hope no one minds getting this "Friday" post a bit early...

Today we celebrate the holiday coversongs of Jewish-American songwriters, most notably the prolific Johnny Marks, who is best known for penning a holy host of non-canonical Christmas songs, and lesser known for being the head of ASCAP from 1957 to 1961.

Familiar carols written by Marks include Holly Jolly Christmas, which most of us imagine in the voice of Burl Ives, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is based on the story by Marks' brother-in-law, and I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day, which Marks adapted from a Longfellow poem. He also wrote Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree; I was hoping to share some folkcovers of that song, too, but for some reason, I can't find any. Wonder why?

  • Pedro the Lion, I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day (Johnny Marks)
  • John Gorka, Christmas Bells (ibid.)
  • Martin Sexton, Holly Jolly Christmas (ibid.)
  • Jack Johnson, Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer (ibid.)

    In fact, a significant percentage of "traditional" Christmas tunes turn out to have been written or co-written by "verifiably Jewish artists". Here's a few more, mostly from the country and alt-pop ends of the folk spectrum, though the list runs the gamut from urban folk to indiefolk:

  • Raul Malo, White Christmas (Irving Berlin)
  • The Roches, Sleigh Ride (Anderson/Parish)
  • Mindy Smith, I'll Be Home For Christmas (Kent/Gannon/Ram)
  • A Fine Frenzy, Let It Snow (Cahn/Styne)
  • Steve Goodman, Winter Wonderland (Bernard/Smith)
  • Liz Phair, Winter Wonderland (ibid.)
  • Aimee Mann, The Christmas Song (Torme/Wells)
  • Suzy Bogguss w/ Delbert McClinton, Baby, It's Cold Outside (Frank Loesser)

    No purchase links today, kids: many of these songs are in the public domain, and even those that aren't are hard to avoid this time of year. (Plus, how the heck do you link to a songwriter?) Just keep on buying your Christmas music from artists and labels directly, and we'll call it square, okay?

  • Wednesday, December 12, 2007

    Brooks Williams Covers:
    Toots and the Maytals, Pat Metheny, Jorma Kaukonen, more!

    I listen to Brooks Williams as if he were two accomplished artists: the instrumentalist and the more traditional singer-songwriter. This makes me an unusual listener –- because while his instrumental wizardry is rightly celebrated, for a surprisingly significant portion of his career, Williams has been hailed by most as a folk guitarist who happens to sing once in a while. Even his own website reinforces this perception of Williams as a guitarist first, defining him as a singer-songwriter but front-loading his bio with quotes about his virtuosity as a guitarist, mentions of awards for the same, and a description of the origins of his playing style.

    And that's a shame. Williams has always been both an incredible guitarist and a sweet, tuneful singer-songwriter who tends to alternate pure instrumentals with sweet-voiced tunes in recording and performance alike. It just took a change-up to prove it.

    To be fair, for most of his career, it was hard to blame those who would dismiss or forget his vocal skills and lyric-craft. His awards and recognition have been almost entirely for his slide blues, and his flat- and finger-picking style. Until the release of 2003 folkpop album Nectar, New England transplant, festival fave and "acoustic guitar god" Williams brought his voice out as just one more instrument – and if it came across as a slightly lesser one, it was only because so little could compete with his fretwork.

    Nectar represented a significant shift for Williams. Unlike previous albums, which -- with the exception of Little Lion, his surprisingly diverse instrumental release of 2000 –- tended to contain an even mix of instrumentals and more typical folkfare, Nectar contains no instrumentals at all. Instead, it comes across as a sweet, enjoyable listen grounded in the voice-forward production values of the urban folk and -- dare I say it -- Adult Alternative models.

    Nectar brought about a strong reaction from Brooks Williams’ fan base, much of it negative. But none of William's work is easy to dismiss. There's never been anything urban or even easy about his fingerpicking, even as it moves from the foreground to become one component of many in the more fleshed out songs of his produced work. His hands remain light on the strings, bright and loose, regardless of whether he’s going for a more traditional strum pattern or a wizardry that rivals true folk instrumentalist Leo Kottke.

    Among his other talents, Williams has a collector's ear for covers, and he finds them all over the musical map, from the deep roots of reggae and jazz to the most sensitive of some pretty obscure blues and folk artists. In every genre, he's rediscovered great but buried songs you haven't heard in years, if you've heard them at all, and made them his own.

    His instrumental versions are playful and rarely deep; his vocal work always sounds, to me, like he's grinning as he sings. This brings a consistent approach to his songs, but because the source material is so diverse, his covers never sound the same -- even before the relatively wide set of production modes of Nectar brought us a fulfilled potential for a greater diversity of song and performance.

    Today, some covers from Brooks Williams before-and-after. First, some lovely instrumental work on familiar covers of Toots and the Maytals, popjazzman Pat Metheny, ex-Hot Tuna bluesman Jorma Kaukonen, and a crisp and playful Beethoven classic, along with an older, lighthearted something from Sam Phillips/T-Bone Burnett in which you can hear the guitarplay overwhelm the vocal stylings and lyrics. Then, for comparison, a gorgeously atmospheric Dougie MacLean cover, and a pair of lush, melodic folkpop takes on John Martyn and Memphis Slim songs from Nectar. Plus a holiday bonus song that needs no introduction.

    Brooks Williams, the solo acoustic guitar virtuoso:

    Brooks Williams, the singer-songwriter:

    Brooks Williams' newest CD is slated to be released just after the new year. No matter what it sounds like, it will surely be another daring, crisp set of songs both familiar and innovative, full of his standard string-subtleties, worth listening to a dozen times or more. Get Nectar and Little Lion while you wait for its release, and start a love affair with a maestro as undersung and overlooked as the artists he covers here.

    Today's bonus Holiday coversong:

    Looking for more acoustic coversongs? Head over to Covering the Mouse, where later today I’ll be guestposting a sweet scatsong bossa nova version of Cinderella classic Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.

    And don't forget to come back Friday, when we'll be featuring folkcovers of popular Christmas songs written by Jews.

    Monday, December 10, 2007

    Covered In Folk: The Beatles, Part 2
    (Signature Songs and Solo Projects)

    John Lennon died 27 years ago, on December 8th, 1980; I was seven, and the event was meaningless. But since then, like every one of you, I've absorbed the Beatles canon -- which means, among other things, recognizing the loss of musical potential and statesmanship that marks Lennon's passing.

    Mostly, it's the statesmanship I recognize. Though each Beatle -- both the still-going and the dearly departed -- went on to a fruitful solo career after the band broke up, for me, the Beatles as a cultural phenomenon are as much more a sum of their parts as they are musically. I mean, I know the music blogosphere is full of powerful Lennon tributes tonight, but by definition music blogs promote that which you haven't really heard yet. Ask the average non-audiophile to sing a Beatles song, and the odds are they know dozens; ask them to sing a post-Beatles song, and they might be able to mangle their way through the first verse and chorus of a radio hit or or two.

    Of course we know Beatles songs; it's not like we have much choice. Over three centuries past their break-up, it remains a cultural rite of passage to grow familiar with the works of the Beatles. But their solo work has credibility on a smaller scale. As a member of the first post-Beatles generation, I never really took to the work of Paul or Ringo, with or without bands and mates, and my sense of the genius of Harrison and Lennon was mostly a peripheral awareness that there was more there than I was seeing from a distance, that some day I might like to listen to their work a little more closely.

    In many cases, it was covers that brought me to to appreciate the continued later-in-life talents of the Beatles boys for what they were: individual talents, still powerful without each other. Great songwriters live forever, in the coverworld. That there are so many wonderful folk covers of the songs of the Beatles boys, both pre- and post-breakup, says what it needs to about their individual talents.

    Today, in memory and in honor, over twenty coversongs from the fringes of the folkworld, our largest post ever here at Cover Lay Down. Including stellar folkversions of songs from the solo careers of Paul, George, and John, and some signature Beatles songs generally acknowledged as primarily a product of a single Beatlesboy. Plus a second set of select covers sung by a few of the boys themselves, as a little bonus.

    The Songs of John Lennon

  • Alison Crowe, Imagine (orig. Lennon)
  • Keb' Mo', Imagine (orig. Lennon)
  • Rosie Thomas, Love (orig. Lennon)
  • Damien Rice, Happy Christmas (War is Over) (orig. Lennon)
  • Harry Nilsson, You Can't Do That (Lennon; orig Beatles)
  • The Subways, You've Got To Hide Your Love Away (Lennon; orig. Beatles)

    The Songs of George Harrison
  • Girlyman, My Sweet Lord (orig. Harrison)
  • Tanya Donelly, Long, Long, Long (Harrison; orig. Beatles)
  • The Bacon Brothers, If I Needed Someone (Harrison, orig. Beatles)
  • Jake Shimabukuro, While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Harrison; orig. Beatles)
  • Nils Okland, While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Harrison, orig. Beatles)

    The Songs of Paul McCartney
  • Ron Sexsmith, Listen To What The Man Said (orig. Wings)
  • Jem, Maybe I'm Amazed (orig. McCartney)
  • Dust Poets, Veronica (orig. Costello/ McCartney)
  • Mark Erelli, I'll Follow The Sun (McCartney, orig. beatles)

    The Songs of Ringo Starr
  • George Harrison, It Don't Come Easy (orig. Starr, poss. w/ Harrison)
  • Sufjan Stevens, What Goes On (Lennon/McCartney/Starr, orig. Beatles)

    I've thought long and hard about how to direct you to purchase and support today's coverartists, but ultimately, I decided that today is about George, Ringo, Paul, and most especially John. If, after you hear these incredible covers, you want more information about the recent and universally awesome albums of the artists covering these songs, ask me about them in the comments, or head on over to good old google, type in an artist's full names in quotation marks, and hit "I feel lucky" to buy direct from any artist's website.

    Today's Bonus coversongs: The Beatles Boys Cover...

  • George Harrison, Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (orig. Arlen/Koehler)
  • Ringo Starr and Stevie Nicks, Lay Down Your Arms (orig. Harry Nilsson)
  • Harry Nilsson w/ John Lennon, Many Rivers to Cross (orig. Jimmy Cliff)

  • previously: Covered In Folk: The Beatles, Part 1.

  • Thursday, December 6, 2007

    Unplugged Alt-rock at Audiography

    Just put up a post of substance over at long-standing "collaborative music blog" Audiography, where this week's theme is "unplugged". Head on over for some powerful acoustic versions of pop songs performed solo (or almost-solo) by their original lead singers, plus a growing list of this week's contributions from others in the community.

    Want a teaser or two? Here's a song that's worth posting twice, by unplugged alt-grunge leader of the Lemonheads. It's not folk, but it sure sounds like it.

    Other unplugged re-cuts over at Audiography? Jeff Tweedy's live version of I'm The Man Who Loves You, Neil Finn's stripped down recovery of Don't Dream It's Over, Depeche Mode covering Johnny Cash covering Depeche Mode, and the boys of Death Cab For Cutie with a great acoustic Crooked Teeth.

    Today's bonus folkcoversong & unplugged version (not available at Audiography):

    Back Sunday for another massive paean to the best covers of the folkworld. Enjoy the weekend!

    Wednesday, December 5, 2007

    Folkcovers For A Winter's Night:
    Snowsongs, sleigh rides, and other nondenominational carols

    Raising Jewnitarian children means working hard to balance the outer culture's overabundance of Christmas music with alternative seasonal sounds. This is sometimes harder than it sounds, especially when it comes to covers. Though there have been a few originals over the years that would fit the category, most notably a recent spate of Hannukah music from the fringes of the indierock world, it's harder for these songs to enter the canon, driven as it is by the tick and tinsel of gift-giving and public holiday display in a predominantly Christian culture.

    In some ways, it's surprising, given the national push towards multiculturalism over the past decades, that there aren't more songs of not-just-Christmas. There are plenty of modern, entirely secular songs about Christmastime, it's true -- common themes here might include "I miss you more this time of year", "I want stuff", and, more recently, "crass commercialism is getting kind of evil, isn't it?" But ultimately, these songs are still about Christmas. After all, it's not like I miss people more this time of year just because it's cold.

    Still, there's a small, stellar selection of nonedenominational songs that have crept into the songbook over the years, many lying unnoticed among paeans to Christmas trees, Jesus, and holiday celebration. And a few great, well-covered songs out there which are appropriate for a snowy December day, even if they'd never make it on a holiday sampler.

    Today, as an antidote to the already-overfamiliar Christmasmusic that fills ears and airwaves this time of year, a few select songs of solstice, snow, winter, and other alt-seasonal delights from the world of folk covermusic. Plus the usual bonus covers, just for kicks.

  • Erica Wheeler, Song For A Winter's Night (orig. Gordon Lightfoot)
  • Quartette, Song For A Winter's Night (ibid.)
      Gordon Lightfoot's mellow Song For A Winter's Night fits the folk mindset perfectly: the hearth, the snow, the story of us in a house. A spare cover from Erica Wheeler and the rich harmonies of Canadian folk supergroup Quartette do it justice, twice over.

  • Robert Earl Keen, Snowin' On Raton (orig. Townes Van Zandt)
  • Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem, Snowbird (orig. Gene McLellan)
      The cover of snow becomes a metaphor of darkness and loss in Robert Earl Keen's latenight honkytonk cover of Snowin' on Raton, and a mantle in Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem's light, swinging version of Elvis/Anne Murray classic Snowbird.

  • Elizabeth Mitchell, Jingle Bells
  • Sufjan Stevens, Jingle Bells
  • The Roches, Jingle Bells

    As always, all artist links above go to artist/label storefronts -- the best way to give artists the most bang for their buck. And remember, kids: music is a present that fits any occasion, any season, any connection between you and your family and friends, no matter what you celebrate.

    Today's bonus coversongs:

  • Jill Sobule, Merry Christmas From The Family (orig. Robert Earl Keen)
      Okay, so it's not nondenominational. Folkpopstar (and Jew) Jill Sobule covers this drunken anti-spiritual paean to dysfunction with such aplomb, it transcends the holiday setting.

  • Nanci Griffith, Ten Degrees and Getting Colder (orig. Gordon Lightfoot)
      This one's not technically about winter, just cold. Lightfoot was Canadian. I guess it gets chilly up there. From coveralbum Other Voices, Other Rooms.

  • The Roches, Winter Wonderland
  • The Roches, Frosty The Snowman
      Two more familiar, playful, tongue-in-cheek "traditional" songs of snow from The Roches' mostly-Christmas album We Three Kings.

    Haven't had enough of Christmas coverfolk? Never fear! Stay tuned over the next few weeks for a plethora of acoustic holiday cheer still to come!

  • Tuesday, December 4, 2007

    Rock of Ages:
    Holiday Coverfolk, Part Gimel

    A special post today, short and sweet, in honor of the first night of a very early Hannukah...and because despite the recent trickle of indiebands doing Hanukkah albums, I can't for the life of me find any folk covers of Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah or Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.

    Maybe it's fitting to feature just one song today. And maybe it's fitting that it's the best-known Hanukkah song, the one that's become such a central part of the candle-lighting ritual itself.

    Here, then, just in time for tonight's candle-lighting, indieguitarist Ben Kweller and folkbluesman Marc Cohn interpret Rock of Ages. The song is over seven hundred years old, but it's still powerful in the right hands.

    We'll be back tomorrow for a post of greater substance featuring some secular songs of the season. May your candles burn bright until then.

    Sunday, December 2, 2007

    Covered in Folk: David Bowie
    (Dar Williams, The Gourds, M. Ward, Natalie Merchant and more!)

    The recent penchant towards folk interpretations of songs from the popworld is really nothing new. After all, though modern folk music has turned its eye towards confessional songwriting and urban poetry, and quite often away from its agrarian roots, traditionally, folk music is not so much about the rural as it is populated by the music of the folk, which quite literally means whatever is popular in the eyes and ears of the people.

    Instead, we might suggest that it was inevitable that folk music change its tone once radio and the recording studio changed forever the hum lingering in the ears of the populace. As a result, we have urban and anti-folk, folk rock and folkpop, subgenres of folk music which often share the same production values as pop music of today. And we also get a heck of a lot of songs from the radio entering the cover repertoires of folk musicians themselves.

    How else can we explain the prevalence of David Bowie covers "out there"? Certainly Bowie is nothing like folk -- his stylistic pose and chameleon-like personality are antithetical to the authentic and direct relationship between artist and audience that characterises folk music. Neither is his broken-glass poetic imagery and trope terribly folk, though I suppose one could make a case for the odd science-fiction motif as resonant with the same audience as modern folk music, and surely some of today's choice cuts reveal some storysong structures and cultural journey motifs common to much folk music.

    A few years ago, when Dar Williams asked her fan base to vote on which song she should record, Bowie's Starman won by a landslide. I suppose it goes to show us: part of what has always made folk music folk music is the way it tries to connect with the audience. And if this means a reflection of the classic rock radio that permeates our culture, or a shared recall of that late-seventies or mid-eighties childhood, ears glued to the shimmery radio glamstars of those last pre-MTV days, then who are we to question the origin of the ultimately authentic, earnest songs and reinterpretations that result?

    Today, a few choice covers from the surprisingly vast spectrum of David Bowie songs performed by folk musicians. Play 'em in public to watch two generation of cool kids smile as the songs in their heads come back to life, stripped down and stretched out, in spades, in style, and in beauty.

    • Dar Williams, Starman
      This Bowie-esque popfolk cover from urban folk goddess Dar Williams was produced and distributed via Dar Williams' fanbase; they own her albums, and so should you.

    • The Gourds, Ziggy Stardust
      Alt-country bluegrass boys The Gourds bring their signature hoot and holler, swagger and twang to this cover, originally recorded for a March 2003 CD insert in Uncut magazine and now available on french-produced Bowie coveralbum Bowiemania.

    • M. Ward, Let's Dance
      Though I usually prefer the stripped down nature of in-studio covers, the slow atmospheric layers of this produced version, off Transfiguration of Vincent, really set off M. Ward's rough-hewn vocal style.

    • Natalie Merchant, Space Oddity
      A dreamy post-pop tour de force from the cusp of her turn towards alt-folk, though the bass and electric guitar slide into the chorus are a blast from the past. Live, from New York, it's Natalie Merchant.

    • Alejandro Escovedo, The Man Who Sold The Earth
      Alejandro Escovedo's live roots-rock recording is admittedly rough around the edges. But like all his recorded work, it's got a rhythmic playfulness and energy out the wazoo.

    • Anna Ternheim, China Girl
    • The Last Town Chorus, Modern Love
      Indiefolk darlings Anna Ternheim and Megan Hickey's alter-ego The Last Town Chorus make surprisingly similar production choices on two very different originals, create sultry, rich environments that bring the lyrics out.

    • Danny Michel, Young Americans
      A slowbuild backporch slackstring folk-blues; the storysong of an American awakening. My absolute favorite Bowie cover. Ladies and Gentlemen, Danny Michel, from Loving The Alien.

    As always, all performer and purchase links go to the artist's preferred source for music purchase wherever possible. Buy music, spread the word: support the artists you love, so the next generation might cover them in turn.

    Today's bonus coversongs need no introduction:

    • M. Ward's live in-studio Let's Dance
    • The Gourds do Gin 'n Juice (orig. Snoop Dogg)

    Friday, November 30, 2007

    (Re)Covered: More of and from...
    Cat Stevens, Neil Finn, The Wainwright Family, and Bill Morrissey

    I certainly wasn't planning to post four times this week. But I've unearthed some great-but-late cuts that just begged to be passed along. And this past holiday weekend left me feeling thankful for all those who write and say such nice things about Cover Lay Down. Guess the urge to keep giving was just too much to bear.

    Today, the second installment in our (Re)Covered series, wherein we recover songs that dropped through the cracks too late to make it into the posts where they belonged. Enjoy!

    I've had several requests for the popcovers I mentioned in last week's Cat Stevens post -- they're not folk, but Stevens is, and both Natalie Merchant and Sheryl Crow have folk cred (the former from her recent solo work, the latter from her early pre-stardom days). So here are Peace Train and The First Cut Is The Deepest. Along with a sweet, ragged, just-unearthed version of Wild World by antipopsters The Format. Plus Australian indiefolkers New Buffalo's slow, grungy acoustic take on that Nina Simone song that Yusuf covers, just for comparison's sake. Oh, and a wonderful, sparse, sleepytime Here Comes My Baby cover from previously featured kidfolk songstress Elizabeth Mitchell. Ask, and ye shall receive, and then some.

    • 10,000 Maniacs, Peace Train
    • Sheryl Crow, The First Cut Is The Deepest
    • The Format, Wild World
    • Elizabeth Mitchell, Here Comes My Baby
    • New Buffalo, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (orig. Nina Simone)

    I also picked up a few wonderful solo acoustic covers from Neil Finn last week that I couldn't resist passing along; they would have been great bonus songs from our October feature on the songs of Neil and Tim Finn, if I'd had 'em, but that's what our (Re)Covered feature is for. He's not folk, and neither are the original artists of these two pop songs, but the brightly optimistic singer-songwriter treatment Finn gives these two pop songs would be perfectly appropriate on any folk festival stage in the country.

    • Neil Finn, Billie Jean (orig. Michael Jackson)
    • Neil Finn, Sexual Healing (orig. Marvin Gaye)

    Lest we lose sight of our core mission, here's some folk covering folk: a wonderful Bill Morrissey and Greg Brown cover of Hang Me, Oh Hang Me I rediscovered just after posting Bill Morrissey's tribute to Mississippi John Hurt. It's a traditional folksong you might recognize as covered by the Grateful Dead under the alternate title Been All Around This World; I'm saving that for a long-overdue Garcia and Grisman feature, but in the meantime, here's another sweet version of the same song by new neotraditionalist Canadian alt-folkies The Deep Dark Woods.

    • Bill Morrissey w/ Greg Brown, Hang Me, Oh Hang Me
    • The Deep Dark Woods, Hang Me, Oh Hang Me

    And finally, not one but two beautiful songs which really speak to the whole twisted family dynamic of the Wainwrights, who we featured in our first Folk Family Friday. First, in a burst of typical irony, Rufus and Martha cover father Loudon Wainwright III's One Man Guy, then -- just to show there's no hard feelings -- Kate and Anna McGarrigle once again bring together family friend Emmylou Harris and ex-spouse Loudon for a jangly take on the traditional Green, Green Rocky Road.

    • Rufus Wainwright w/ Martha Wainwright, One Man Guy
    • The McGarrigles, Green, Green Rocky Road

    As always, all artist links here on Cover Lay Down go directly to the artists' preferred source for purchasing music. Please, folks: if you like what you hear, both here and out there in the wild world, buy the music, and support the continued production of incredible sound from those who eschew the easy top 40 route to fame and fortune.

    Wednesday, November 28, 2007

    Rani Arbo Covers:
    The Beatles, Springsteen, Holiday Songs and more!

    Rani Arbo knows good music. As sole female member of New England's premier folkgrass roots combo Salamander Crossing, she was the stunning, crystal-clear voice behind some of my absolute favorite originals and interpretations of songs from the traditional to the popular. She was also founding member of honkytonk act Girl Howdy, where she lent her crisp fiddle-playing to a fun, authentic group of women that moved on without her before recording a lick. And, since the turn of the century, as the leader of Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, she's been consistently blowing the minds of those who thought folk-tinged bluegrass was nothing more than country music in disguise.

    I've been lucky enough to have seen this amazing artist in small venues in all three of her musical incarnations. Over that time, I've seen Arbo -- who originally presented herself as just one vocalist/instrumentalist among several in Salamander Crossing's first release -- grow into a powerful vocalist, arranger, and bandleader, first tentatively, and then with the kind of easy, grinning confidence and control that brings her name to the front of the marquee.

    There's a reason why reviewers compared Salamander Crossing's later work favorably to that of Alison Krauss and Union Station. But since then, as leader of Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem -- a band which also features fellow ex-Salamander Crossing member Andrew Kinsey and Arbo's husband, percussionist Scott Kessel -- Rani and her cohorts have gone far beyond the simple genre-work of Krauss. From their first release, each Daisy Mayhem album has spanned an incredibly broad spectrum of style, from honkytonk to folk to blues to bluegrass to swing -- and with the support of her powerful bandmates, each of whom contributes to authorship, arrangement, and leadership, Rani makes it all work exquisitely.

    Rani Arbo's life hit a snag a few years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer just around the time she and Kessel became parents. During that time, Rani stopped touring much, and we moved away from the Northern Massachusetts region that Rani calls home; I haven't seen her live in a while, with or without her incredible band of musical cohorts. But now, after a four year gap between albums, Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem are back in swing. Critics love their newest release Big Old Life, which like their previous ventures, is a solid mix of up- and down-tempo traditional songs, originals, and just plain fun. (It also includes some sweet covers of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs.) I think you'll love it, too.

    Today, a history in covers -- both in the hopes that you'll support Rani and the rest by picking up their catalog, and in celebration of an artist that, like the beautiful and ever-changing musical phoenix that she is, keeps rising from the ashes to shine once again. Listen for a range of musical styles, the playful stretching of a still-evolving musician comfortable in every mode from slow ballad to acoustic swing to the familiar bluegrass style made popular by Alison Krauss. Then listen again. Then buy. And repeat, ad infinitum.

    One note before we get to the tuneage. There's a lot of music here today, but only because it was damn hard to keep from posting every song on every album. Instead of just going for the "popular" covers, why not try 'em all for once? I promise your ears will thank you.

    • Salamander Crossing, Things We Said Today (orig. The Beatles)
      (from Salamander Crossing)

    • Salamander Crossing, Two Faces Have I (orig. Bruce Springsteen)
      (from Passion Train)

    • Salamander Crossing, Five Days in May (orig. Blue Rodeo)
    • Salamander Crossing, Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow (trad.)
      (from Bottleneck Dreams)

    • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Limo To Memphis (orig. Guy Clark)
    • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, I Do My Cryin' At Night (orig. Lefty Frizzel)
      (from Cocktail Swing)

    • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, O, Death (trad. / Bessie Jones)
    • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Turtle Dove (trad.)
      (from Gambling Eden)

    • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Oil in My Vessel (trad.)
      (from Big Old Life)

    • Rani Arbo, I Saw Three Ships (trad.)
    • Waters, Moore, and Arbo, Nowell Sing We (trad.)
      (from Wonderland: A Winter's Solstice Celebration)

    Still wavering? To make purchasing easy, I've linked each album mentioned above directly to a purchase page at long-time Pioneer Valley folklabel Signature Sounds, which is currently offering their yearly artist sampler free with any purchase. This years sampler includes Winterpills, Crooked Still, new work from previously featured folkartist Peter Mulvey, unreleased Erin McKeown and more!

    Today's bonus coversongs:

    • Electric bar-blues band the Tarbox Ramblers cover O, Death
    • Mountain music pioneer Ralph Stanley covers O, Death, too

    Yesterday's bonus coversongs:

    Monday, November 26, 2007

    Covered in Fluff...I Mean, Folk:
    Songs from Disney's Winnie the Pooh

    This is Kurtis from Covering the Mouse sharing a little bit of my Disney collection with all of you folk lovers! Boyhowdy has been a guest poster on my site a few times and now he has asked me to be one for his site! And I am more than happy to help him out! And if you're looking for Boyhowdy, then you'd better head on over to Fong Songs where he is today's guest poster!

    I have chosen a trio of Winnie the Pooh songs for today's post by three very different acts. But first let me bring everyone who has been living under a rock up to speed about Winnie the Pooh:

    Winnie the Pooh is a book series by A.A. Milne from the 20s. The bear in the book is based on a stuffed bear owned by his son, Christopher Robin Milne. The stuffed bear is based on Winnipeg, a bear from the London Zoo originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Christopher named his bear Winnie and asked his dad to write some stories about him.

    In the sixties, the Walt Disney company adapted the stories into a trio of animated shorts. It is here that we are introduced to the characters as we now know them as well as the classic theme song.

    The theme song was written by Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman for the 1966 short Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. It is one of the most recognized of all Disney songs and is heard in almost every Pooh production ever made by Disney.

    But enough about history, let's get to the covers!

    • Carly Simon, Winnie the Pooh
      While Simon's main body of work filled the rock world in the 70s and 80s, she has really mellowed out having released albums of standard, lullabies and two soundtracks for Winnie the Pooh movies. This cover was written for the 2003 feature film Piglet's Big Movie and was heard again in Pooh's Heffalump Movie in 2005. She adds a really nice folk touch to the song and the only part that I really don't like is when it breaks into the string bridge. Otherwise, it's a great cover! The track can be found on both soundtrack albums.

    • The Chieftains, Winnie the Pooh
      Boyhowdy wrote up a review of this cover on my site and reviewed it better than I could so I encourage you to visit that post by clicking here.

    • Tommy and Amanda Emmanuel, Pooh Bear Medley
      It is said that Tommy Emmanuel is the best guitar player in Australia. He started playing when he was four and never stopped learning and practicing. He has had several albums since the seventies and if you listen to them you will hear that they he is an excellent guitarist. In the cover, off the sadly out-of-print Disney Duets: A Family Celebration, he plays a medley of two songs: The classic Winnie the Pooh theme as well as his version of the theme song from The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh television series from 1988. Interspersed throughout the track are readings from the book by Tommy's daughter Amanda. The father/daughter team up is very touching and really captures the essence of the silly old bear.

    Today's bonus coversongs:

    I've included two Jungle Book tunes for you to hear. Please check out my site for more information about these artists.

    • Michelle Shocked, Bare Necessities
    • Gabriel Rios, I Wanna Be Like You

    Sunday, November 25, 2007

    Single Song Sunday: Joni Mitchell's River
    (Holiday Coverfolk, Part 1)

    Though each year brings a few wonderful additions to the caroling songbook, eventually, every truly great holiday song gets covered and recovered in a multitude of genres and styles. Which is to say: there's plenty of folk covermusic for the holidays. As we slide towards December, stay tuned for a cornucopia of features on Christmas albums, folk musicians, and folksinger favorites, from the Roches We Three Kings to the very best label-driven holiday compilations.

    Today we begin our foray into the holiday coverfolk spirit with a focus on perhaps the first truly modern folk song to be brought into the cycle of once-a-year covers that is the Christmas Canon: Joni Mitchell's River.

    For a Christmas standard, Joni Mitchell's River is extraordinarily complex. The subtle piano instrumentation and tongue-in-cheek intro lend itself to holiday ballad; even in the original, the way the sharp chords of Jingle Bells segue into a flowing, languid piano and Joni's soaring vocals calls up images of drinks by the fireside, snow falling outside frosted glass. But below the surface, this song reveals its songwriter's mental state. And Joni's not feeling very Christmassy.

    Like the rest of Joni's 1971 album Blue, River bears the bitter mark of Joni post-relationship, struggling to put words to a feeling of defenseless fragility. The lyrics are explicit: though it helps to know that Joni was in sunny California at the time she wrote this song, far from the Christmas cold of her native Canada, the litany of faults and life failures which causes Joni to long for a river to "skate away on" certainly transcends mere geographical dissatisfaction.

    Has River become a Christmas standard in denial of its wistful, cynical core? Or is Christmas, in our modern, overcommercialized world world, becoming something from which we long to escape? It's hard to say. Certainly the song has been disproportionately covered in the last decade: according to one authority, there are over 130 recorded versions floating out there in the ether. But most are saccharine sweet holiday pap, and many change neither instrumentation or voice much beyond adding a few layers of this era's production. Only a tiny few truly reinterpret this simple hymn of longing and regret.

    But those few are treasures. For despite how easily it slides into the repertoire of the pop balladeer, and regardless of what it says about our changing feelings toward Christmas, River is eminently a song worth saving.

    Today -- in a reluctant nod to the fact that half of our local radio stations have already switched over to holiday music -- we offer a short list of the best and folkiest.

    Each manages to make the familiar meaningful again -- whether it is Peter Mulvey's low, broken voice bringing out the true core of Joni's longing and sadness, or just James Taylor being James Taylor, bright and full of hope even in acknowledgement of the deepest depression.

    Each truly brings new light to an aging standard. Most notably, Angus Stone's re-rhythming of the song into a light, bouncy, fully orchestrated work of strings and guitar casts the work as a product of the modern mellow indie-folk movement without losing a drop of poignancy. Allison Crowe's solo piano version and Rachael Yamagata's piano-with-bass cover may not sound so different from the original at first, but listen again and the subtleties stand out: Yamagata's slurred, cracked breathiness lends tears to the sadness, while Crowe's majestic tonal read turns the song on its ear.

    And each is eminently listenable. Listen to the way the waterfall tinkle of the harpsichord compliments the string-and-piano (and jingle bell) poppiness of Aimee Mann's version. And, sure, Sarah McLachlan is hardly folk, but this fellow Canadian still manages to bring the fireside feel of winter to her electrified popversion.

    Enjoy today's covers, the first of many gifts from us to you as we celebrate the holiday season here at Cover Lay Down. And remember: without the bittersweet world for context, we could not so love our songs of comfort, joy, and peace.

    We'll host a full Joni Mitchell edition of Covered in Folk sometime in 2008, but if you just can't wait for your coverfix, buy Blue, and start catching up on one of the truly seminal artists of American folk music.

    Or head over to Coverville to download The Joni Mitchell Cover Story II, which ends with the incredible title cut from Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters.

    Or visit The Late Greats for an incredible 30-song post of songs with the word river in them, including both Joni's original and an amazing version from Madeleine Peyroux and kd lang.

    Or, whet your appetite with today's bonus coversongs:

    Come back Monday for a very special feature on folk covers of Disney's Winnie The Pooh, guest hosted by Kurtis of Disney coverblog Covering the Mouse! Meanwhile, I'll be over at eclectic coverblog Fong Songs analysing covers and original of The Smiths' Girlfriend In A Coma, while Fong closes the loop with a sweet write-up of yet another Winnie the Pooh cover over at Covering the Mouse. It's coverblog musical chairs!