Sunday, June 15, 2008

Covered in Folk: Bob Marley
(Xavier Rudd, Magnet, Luka Bloom, Kings of Convenience, 8 more!)



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.



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.



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!

34 comments:

Javejavor said...

I guess Bob Marley is an artist who is extremely hard to cover in a good way. While those tracks are certainly alright and good in their own way, I believe there is simply no or little comparison possible with the original Marley tracks. The energy and the passion displayed, especially on the live recordings, is something which is really hard to duplicate. Also, I´d love to see some other tracks beside the lighter Marley songs being covered. "Three Little Birds" , and "Stir It Up" are alright, and "No Woman No Cry" is a classic. But where are the covers of "Lively up yourself", "The Heathen", "Exodus", "Concrete Jungle", "War/No More Trouble" or any other songs found on the "Live" or "Babylon By Bus" albums. If you are talking about Bob Marley songs being covered, I´d definitely talk about Eric Clapton and his famous take on "I shot the sheriff". I guess for many people both in the US and in Europe, Clapton´s version enabled them to discover that new and wild music called (roots) reggae. Monty Alexander´s jazz/reggae piano work on Bob Marley also needs to be featured. I obviously know that both those artits fall outside of the traditional "folk music" spectrum. Nevertheless, I wanted to point them out. For a more traditional folk feeling, Jahstix, http://www.jahstix.com is an interesting artist. I discovered him in a subway station in NYC. He plays Marley as well as trad. rock songs on an acoustic guitar. The 5-dollar-CD I bought there on the spot features "Could You Be Loved?" as well as "Stir It Up". If you want to download them: Stir It Up: http://www.divshare.com/download/4749076-f96 and Could You Be Loved? http://www.divshare.com/download/4749077-a48
Have fun listening to it.

Charles C Stirk Jr said...

This post was so beyond fun

Thanks

boyhowdy said...

The Clapton, The Alexander, even Charlie Hunter's absolutely amazing sparse jazz/bluespiano versions of No Woman No Cry and Lively Up Yourself...I considered them all, but they're just not folk. (Also, of course, if the point is to look at Legend's influence, then that Clapton cover is a decade too early to count.)

That said, your mention of some of Marley's"darker" tracks is duly noted, Javejavor...though I would argue that those which I have included -- those which tend to get folk coverage, as opposed to those you name, which tend to get more coverage within the reggae world -- are not necessarily that much lighter, just possibly less heavy-handed about it, and thus more universal (and possibly more acessible to coverage). Listen to the lyrics of No Woman No Cry or Redemption song -- less angry, yet, but no less sinister a world lurks beneath these songs than Marley's others. And that's a very common folk approach, in fact -- the sparse, acoustic surface, with a darker world just visible below.

As for the caliber of these covers as just plan good song, I think we'll have to agree to disagree about that, Javejavor. While the expression of passion comes in many flavors, especially given the above, I think the vast majority of them show plenty of it.

boyhowdy said...

PS, javelavor: thanks for sending the music -- I'm eager to hear it, but I'm having trouble listening. I try to hit play, but it redirects me to a page that says the password is invalid.

Javejavor said...

sorry about the problems. divshare does seem to have a bad day. tell me if the problem continues.

Kathy said...

"Older Chests" is actually a cover of a Damien Rice song, so you've got a double cover there. It's beautiful how those two songs intertwine and complement each other. Thanks!
--Kathy

boyhowdy said...

Nice call, Kathy -- I've only very recently started listening to Rice in earnest, but I wondered why the lyrics had that hint of familiarity. I've adapted the original entry accordingly.

Anonymous said...

I got to say that Strummer/Cash cover is one of my all time all time favs. Two great guys paying tribute to a hero.

ekko said...

How the hell did you do that? I've been planning a Marley cover post for about two weeks now, and you beat me to it!

boyhowdy said...

ekko: just lucky, I guess. Though to be fair, you've done the same to me at least once...

That said, Berkeley Place isn't all folk...and as I've said before, blogging isn't a competition, it's a community. Duplicate efforts reach more ears! I'm sure you can do the post anyway; if you decide to include one or two of the ones I've got, you're welcome to mention my own post on the subject, of course! :-)

Missy said...

Thanks for another lovely Elizabeth Mitchell cover -- I discovered her through your blog and love her stuff.

Once I heard Amy Ray sing Redemption Song at an Indigo Girls concert and have always hoped I'd come across a recording -- are you familiar with her version?

Sara said...

There's also a stellar version of "Three Little Birds" by the Postmarks; v. atmospheric and creepy.

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