A few weeks ago over at collaborative music blog Star Maker Machine I had the opportunity to share Bob Marley's Stir It Up -- a song which I maintain is one of the great summersongs of all time, in spite of its subversive political undertones. In my accompanying post, I noted that:
Bob Marley's greatest hits release Legend may have been just a posthumous compilation, but it was a perfect, complete set; it caught fire upon its release, bringing the sound of reggae full-bore into mass culture for the first time. Some of this was surely timing -- the album was released in May, and the songs rode up and down the charts like an elevator all summer long, moving virally and fluidly among those of us at summer camp, and catching fire in the schoolyard upon our return.
But the album was also a timely signifier of authenticity for a growing dissatisfied American underclass left out of the Yuppie movement. College students bought the album in droves. The album went platinum ten times, and set what would appear to be an unbreakable benchmark as the highest selling reggae record ever. By the time I hit high school a few years years later the dreadlocked poster was perfectly familiar; so were the chunky beats, the fat bass, and the loose, rough-hewn vocal harmonies of the Wailers coming from a summer boombox.
I stand by that assessment: even today, the image of Bob Marley retains a particular young person's mark of countercultural, slyly adversarial legitimacy in the US -- whether or not those who choose to post Marley's head upon their dormroom wall realize that there is fire there, not just smoke and rolling papers.
But though the Star Maker Machine model favors the shortform, since that post, I've been looking for an opportunity to explore Marley's legacy on a larger scale. Because sifting through my folk archives in preparation for that elseblog post, I was struck by how many great Marley covers have come to us from musicians outside The States.
My own experience aside, if the unusually broad geographical diversity of today's coverfolk is any indication, Bob Marley's music and the message of peace and social justice it carries has spread to every corner of the globe. And why not? Americans may like to think that Jamaica (like everywhere else) is some sort of colony, but Marley is no more ours than anyone's. And, perhaps more significantly, Marley's truths are universal messages of hope and solidarity, relevant everywhere that people gather together as folk.
Here, then, a set which explores that broader significance. Our "genre" tags are all over the map, from the Irish singer-songwriter vibe of Luka Bloom to the upbeat indiepop sound of Norwegian folktronic solo artist Magnet. Marley classic Three Little Birds gets the lion's share of offerings, with four vastly diverse takes: the hushed, fragile lo-fi indiefolk of Birmingham, Alabama experimentalists 13ghosts, the joyous acoustic kidfolk of New Yorker and Cover Lay Down favorite Elizabeth Mitchell, the Zydeco stylings of Keith Frank and the live bossa-reggae beat of Brazilian Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil.
The mellow Australian jamfolk of Bonnaroo favorite Xavier Rudd stands in stark contrast to the traditional Okinawan folk sound that Nenes uses to flavor their stunning all-female interpretation of No Woman No Cry. Omar Sosa and Richard Bona's Afro-Cuban Jazz cover of Redemption Song is full and hopeful; late countryman Johnny Cash and UK post-punk Joe Strummer bring the weary weight of age to their own spare take on the same song.
Regular readers know I don't usually go for live covers, especially those clearly recorded from the audience, but for this amazingly mellow, sparse take on Waiting in Vain from Norwegian indiefolk darlings Kings of Convenience, recorded just two months ago in Seoul, I'll gladly make an exception. And though I was tempted to skip Scottish vocalist Annie Lennox's languid vocal pop as "not folk", I couldn't help but include it alongside, for contrast's sake.
There's other covers out there, of course. But taken as a set, today's gems fit our own "greatest hits" modality of quality over quantity, while serving as a survey of worldbeat folk from far-flung places. And I can think of no better way to show the true influence of Bob Marley, as a challenge to those who might mistake their collegiate associations for the broader impact of this musical genius. Enjoy.
- Luka Bloom, Natural Mystic
(from coveralbum Keeper of the Flame)
- Magnet, She's Gone
(from The Simple Life)
- Xavier Rudd, No Woman, No Cry
- Nenes, No Woman, No Cry
(from Putumayo's Cover the World cover collection)
- Gilberto Gil, Three Little Birds
(live 2004; from Electracustico)
- 13ghosts, Three Little Birds
- Elizabeth Mitchell, Three Little Birds
(from You Are My Little Bird)
- Keith Frank & The Soileau Zydeco Band, Three Little Birds
(from Putumayo's Caribbean Playground collection)
- Omar Sosa and Richard Bona, Redemption Song
(unknown source; via I Am Fuel, You Are Friends)
- Johnny Cash w/ Joe Strummer, Redemption Song
(from Unearthed III: Redemption Songs)
- Annie Lennox, Waiting In Vain
- Kings of Convenience, Waiting in Vain
(live from Seoul 4/08; youtube source here)
Like what you hear? As always, links above lead to artist-preferred sources wherever possible; please, support these artists and others by following links and buying their music. And, as always, if you know of other folk covers you think belong in this rarified crowd, send 'em along, either through comments or via email.
Still haven't had your fill? Today's bonus songs are halfcovers -- one a two-song medley, the other
an original a Damien Rice cover intertwined with a Bob Marley cover (thanks, Kathy!) -- from two very different ends of the American folkworld: Jack Johnson's barefoot surf folk and the delicate, experimental pianofolk of Benjamin Costello. Together, they help us see how, even within a single culture's use of Marley's songbook, there is more than meets the blurry eye.
- Jack Johnson, The News/Natural Mystic (Johnson/Marley)
- Benjamin Costello and Keiran King, Older Chests/Redemption Song (Rice/Marley)
Cover Lay Down posts regularly on Wednesdays, Sundays, and the occasional Friday and holiday; upcoming posts include folk festival previews, new album reviews, and other great songs from the coverfolk purview. I also recommend Star Maker Machine, where the gathering crowd shares over thirty songs a week on a given theme; my own recent posts include the originals and multiple coverversions of both Daniel Johnston's Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievance and Monty Python's Always Look On The Bright Side of Life.
PS: looking for some Father's Day Coverfolk? Try Covered in Kidfolk: Daddy's Little Girl for some still-live coversongs for fathers and daughters!