Friday, October 14, 2005

To cover or not?

Do "real" folk musicians play covers?

A cover, I'm told, is any song the performing musician did not personally write. Folk musicians in my area are discouraged from performing them. Those who do so are frequently scoffed at. Unfortunately, the romantic vision of the singer-songwriter has become prerequisite for being taken seriously as a musical artist. As a result, great songs go unheard while lessor songs are heard far too often.

Folk music is the music of the people. It's passed on from one generation to the next. It's tradition. And it's culture. Covering a song is the only way it's past on from one generation to the next. Artists often add something new to a song so it eventually takes on a different shape. You could all it musical morphing.

The House of the Rising Sun
is a perfect example. The song's roots stretch all the way back to a 17th century British folk melody. John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax, and Georgia Turner are all credited with collecting and revising it. Black bluesman Texas Alexander recorded it first in 1928 but Josh White is credited with popularizing the song. Roy Acuff covered it too on his November 3, 1938 recording. The Almanac Singers (Woody Guthrie, Lee Hayes, Millard Lampell, and Pete Seeger) also covered again in on July 7, 1941 for their album Sod-Buster Ballads. And that's not all! Other covers were done by Buster Poindexter, Charlie Byrd, David Allen Coe, Dolly Parton, Eric Burton & the Animals,John Fahey, Henry Mancini, the Highwaymen, Leadbelly, Marianne Faithful, Tim Hardin, Tracy Chapman, Waylon Jennings, the Weavers, and Peter, Paul & Mary. That's some mighty fine company to keep by my reckoning.

Some doubting Thomas is bound to argue that this particular song is an anomaly. Well. I could also point out a track on Bob Dylan's first album was a bluegrass cover of Man of Constant Sorrow, but it wouldn't matter. People do not change their prejudices easily. So, let's explore a few of the songs performed by a single seminal folk artist, Pete Seeger.

Seeger's career spans an amazing eight decades, from the 1930's until the 2000's. He began performing and collecting songs in the late 30's. He met Woody Guthrie on March 3, 1940 at the Grapes of Wrath migrant-worker benefit concert and subsequently formed the Almanac Singers. The group recorded original labor songs like The Talking Union Blues and pacifist songs such as The Ballad of October 16. They also recorded some of the traditional songs discovered along their travels. Later, he and Lee Hays founded the Weavers. Performing with this new group and surviving the assaults of red-baiters occupied his attention throughout the 50's. His cover of We Shall Overcome is cited as the official anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 60's. He is best known for singing Knee Deep in the Big Muddy on the Smothers Brothers Show in protest of the Viet Nam war. Unfortunately, the show was subsequently cancelled. Seeger continues supporting social activism and environmentalism with his music and gentle spirit still.

Pete wrote many of the songs we consider classics today but he also covered countless others from around the world. One of his biggest hits was a cover of Malvina Reynolds' Little Boxes. He is also famous for covering Woody Guthrie's Roll On, Columbia and Leadbelly's Goodnight, Irene. Even Which Side Are You On is a cover of a Florence Reece song. His list of covers goes on and on. He selected them for specific reasons. Some were chosen to highlight emerging musical genres such as Christy Moore's Viva la Quince Brigada and Jose Fernandez Diaz's Guantanamera. Others, like Darling Corey, were selected because they are part of the very roots of modern American music. Seeger often chose covers to express a point such as Aunt Molly Jackson and Jom Garland's The Death of Harry Sims and it's call for jusitice. Seeger's music illustrates several valid reasons to cover a song.

I confess to wantonly performing covers. My reasons, while not as easily defensible as Pete Seeger's, are just as valid. First, I perform to entertain people. This means I try to play the music people want to hear as long as it lies within my limited talents to do so. Second, I play songs I enjoy playing instead of just songs I wrote. Covering songs is fun and I plan to continue doing so as long as I can play the guitar and sing.

Why not enjoy a few with me?

Copyright 2003 by Mark Leon Winegar


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