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)

34 comments:

Robin Marie said...

Loooooooove the Dar! That's going on the dear Santa list for certain.

Thanks for posting Gin 'n Juice! I've had a mislabeled version of it floating around for some time now and no idea who it was. Now I know!

I thoroughly enjoy this blog! You should also know that I made a playlist of your top songs from 2006 and I listen to it at least 4 times a week, sometimes 10 times in a day.

Shaw Israel Izikson said...

Great - but too bad you didn't post anything by Seu Jorge - who was in The Life Aquatic singing Bowie songs (in Portuguese) all throughout.

Here he is singing Queen Bitch over the end credits of the movie:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1KzENzu9sM

boyhowdy said...

Hi, Robin!

I've been holding off on a Dar covers post until I can find a recording from this summer's Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, where she covered Peace Train with Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams -- a moment which many have cited as the best moment of the fest this year, musically. Do you know of anyone who was taping? If not, I may just have to go ahead -- her covers are always great.

As for the Gin & Juice -- yeah, it somehow made its way onto Napster in the early days mislabeled as Phish, and for every one of us that heard it and said "that's NOT Phish", a hundred people passed it on unchanged. The mislabeling is a famous example of the potential pitfalls of letting the masses do the tagging without a method for correcting it -- if the Internet is good for anything, it's passing information around so fast, it can't be taken back or even mitigated if it turns out to be wrong. Speed and power have their price!

Similarly, pretty much every a capella song released to the Internet ends up mislabeled as by Rockapella. Sigh.

Shaw Israel Izikson said...

And An outake from the movie, really beautiful version of Life on Mars:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6l8zrsf4LY

boyhowdy said...

Good one, Shaw.

Anyone got a fave Seu Jorge Bowie cover? We're bound to do another edition of (Re)Covered by the new year.

Fongolia said...

I said it when I posted it, I said it when Cover Freak posted it, and I'll say it again: Danny Michel's Young Americans is in my top 5 covers ever. He simply nails it. So happy you gave it kudos!

rollerpimp said...

As soon as I saw it was about Bowie I hoped you would have the M.Ward "Let's Dance." It is beautiful.

boyhowdy said...

Glad you liked the M. Ward cover, rollerpimp -- it's one of my faves, too. And not one but TWO versions of it, at that!

Unexpectedly, the Natalie Merchant cover has recieved the most downloads. Perhaps it's the rarest of the set.

But I have to go with Fong, here -- the Danny Michel cover is still my favorite.

Karl Jones said...

Great blog! Love those covers.

Rickie Lee Jones does a funky acoustic version of "Rebel Rebel" on her "Traffic from Paradise" album. One of my favorites!

Drunk Country said...

Hi, great post, great blog but to correct a tiny mistake, Gin & Juice wasn't originally recorded especially for an Uncut CD; it was originally available on The Gourds' 1998 EP Gogityershinebox & then the expanded content, but shortened title, 2001 LP Shinebox.

DC

boyhowdy said...

DC seems to have confused two things: a claim I made about The Gourds cover of Ziggy Stardust, and the fact that I also posted their cover of Gin and Juice.

But the only claim about origin I made about Gin and Juice here is that it isn't by Phish.

That said, thanks to DC for inadventently catching me in a belated error nonetheless. Ziggy Stardust was NOT on the original Gogityershinebox EP (g&j WAS), but it does seem to have been recorded for Shinebox in 2001, which would mean it was NOT recorded for the 2003 UNCUT sampler.

Seems we're both guilty of some errors here, DC. Thanks for prompting me to do the research; let's call it a draw.

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