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
- The Gourds, Ziggy Stardust
- M. Ward, Let's Dance
- Natalie Merchant, Space Oddity
- Alejandro Escovedo, The Man Who Sold The Earth
- Anna Ternheim, China Girl
- The Last Town Chorus, Modern Love
- Danny Michel, Young Americans
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.
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.
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.
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'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.
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.
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: