These are other people's songs, rendered or performed in varying degrees of fidelity to — or departure from — the originals. There's some thematic grouping, and then contents of each grouping are in chronological order.


This is not Eleanor.


Apologies to the Beatles.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


Just don't worry about a thing.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia


I read an article in the New York Times about how this song's originally lyrics were markedly bleaker, and looked them up, and recorded this for...you know...fun.

Image Source: BAM

Image Source: BAM


This song was first recorded in 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks. It's kind of a blues staple, and it's been recorded and performed by countless people. The words vary a lot, and so does the spirit in which it's played and sung. This is my own take on it, with a blend of attitudes that suits a lot of what I find in the song.


I was accidentally reminded of this song one day, which I'd always thought of as just a cheesy power rock ballad most notable as a karaoke fave. But then I started poking around, and found numerous interesting versions of it. Also discovered that it was written by a prolific pair of songwriters named Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who are responsible for a passle of other beautiful songs, like "All I Have To Do Is Dream", "Bye Bye Love", and so on.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


There's not much to this — just me singing a Velvet Underground song I like a lot. I wanted us to play this in the band, but nobody was up for it.


A simple rendition of this lovely Leonard Cohen song by a small choir of Noels.


This song was written in 1928 and introduced in a Broadway play. The best rendition of this, in my opinion, was by Nina Simone, where she included a semi-improvised Mozartesque piano solo in the middle of the tune.

The March 2013 version of mine, above, is very different — a kind of angry "mechanized" performance, with some qualities I like. The Cardboard City have played this live, too, in a rather different style, as you can hear, also above.

Ruth Etting. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Ruth Etting. Image source: Wikimedia Commons


Americana

A lot of things bother me about the USA. But one thing is indisputable: it's the origin for an incredible amount of amazing music. So many cultures and traditions have banged and slapped up against each other, whipping up a dizzy multi-century storm of crazy wild soundbrainlifebodymatter. I've had a long love affair with "Americana" of various sorts. Here you'll find a big bunch of it. Unless otherwise noted, the recordings here aren't really "demos" — they're as "actual" as they're likely to get. It's fun for me to spend a bit of time with one of these songs, see what's there when I get up the next morning, and send it off into the world as the nth "cover" in a wide river full of "covers" (where "cover" doesn't really make sense, since most of these songs predate recording technology and hence the notion of an "official version").

I got the texts and music for almost all the songs in this group from Carl Sandburg's classic book The American Songbag, which was first published in 1927 and offers an amazing variety of tunes and texts collected by the American poet. I bought my beat-up old copy of the book at a Salvation Army in Aurora, Illinois; you can also read the whole thing online.


This song uses the same tune as "Willy the Weeper". Here's what Carl Sandburg has to say about it (dig the Wittgenstein [er, sorry, Shakespeare] quote!):

We do not know whether Willy the Weeper and Cocaine Lil were ever introduced to each other. But they traveled the same route. Illusions, headaches, mornings after, soft fool fantasies, "and the rest is silence." Lil was one of those who say "I'll try anything once." As an utterance the song of Lil has as much validity and more brevity than "The Confessions of an Opium Eater," by Thomas De Quincy. It is a document that rises from night life places of Chicago and Detroit. Besides a document it is a song-sketch. "Snow" is slang for a white flaky dust sniffed by drug addicts. Precisely how and why a cocaine dog and a cocaine cat fight all night with a cocaine rat is hard to explain. They symbolize a snarl.

Still from The Cocaine Fiends (1935)

Still from The Cocaine Fiends (1935)


"It was once in the saddle I used to go gay."

I don't sing exactly the melody that Mr. Sandburg notates. His note:

A cowboy classic known in several tunes from the spaces patrolled by the Northwest Mounted to those where the Texas Rangers keep law and order, more or less. The air is old Irish and many of the lines are almost literally from old broadsides peddled in Dublin those years now gone.

Laredo, Texas, ca. 1907. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Laredo, Texas, ca. 1907. Image source: Wikimedia Commons


This one's a bit weirdly loud. It also has a really funny quarter tone difference in tuning between the guitar and the rest of the instruments, which I think creates a very charming effect.

I love the sarcasm in this tune. It's actually titled "The Lane County Bachelor" in Sandburg's book. I've never heard it, just found it in there. Carl has a lot of notes about this one; I won't copy them here, just mention that he calls it "a document in jig time". 

Image source: discogs

Image source: discogs


My granddad used to sit down at his organ and play this song. Just play it, not sing it. I didn't know the song at the time, but the tune was burned into my brain.

This is, of course, a Stephen Foster song (and it's not in the Sandburg book). It may or may not have been the last song Foster wrote. In this rendition, the instruments are playing incongruous n-tuplets, if you will: something like 3-on-4-on-5-on-7, I think. I guess the idea was to give it a "dreamy" quality, get it?


Another tune from American Songbag. I love what Carl writes here:

Cowboys, loggers, pick and shovel stiffs, leathernecks, scissorbills, bootleggers, beer runners, hijackers, traveling men, plasterers, paperhangers, hogheads, tallowpots, snakes and stingers, and many men who carry gadgets and put on gaskets, have different kinds of verses about Lulu. Since the Chicago fire, the St. Louis cyclone and the Chatsworth wreck, she is the most sung about female character in American singing. We present nine of the nine hundred verses.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


Wow, what a funky little tale. Somehow this boom-cha-cha cheesy drum machine and ice-skating rink organ sound (with "Oh Susanna" as the intro?) seemed suited to the antiquated cultural context. Sandburg's got a long note on this one, which starts off:

A biography titled "Life of John Morrissey, the Irish Boy Who Fought His Way to Fame and Fortune" tells about a prize fighter, gambler, politician who became state senator and Member of Congress. His big fights were in the 1850's and he defeated Thompson, the Yankee Clipper, the Benicia boy, in the squared circle, as related in this song. ... [S]porting authorities consulted on the point fail to find that he ever planted his knuckles in a Russian sailor's face nor fought any such thirty-eight-round contest as here described.

John Morrissey. Image source: about.com

John Morrissey. Image source: about.com


In some minimal form this is a pretty familiar tune. I had no idea, though, that it had something to do with marijuana. I suppose my rendition here is pretty literal in fleshing that out. I also found the device of switching between English and Spanish, speaking and singing, somehow appropriate. I hope my Spanish pronunciation isn't too atrocious.

Sandburg devotes an entire page (289) to this song.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


I learned this song from Sandburg's book, too. The recording, which has a kind of Threepenny Opera-style drama feel to it in my humble opinion, is based entirely on what I found in the book.

Apparently the song showed up in an originally eponymous movie with Al Jolson (retitled to The Heart of New York), which I haven't seen. But it's obviously older than that.

I had a most amusing experience when I went to visit my parents once, after recording this, and attended church with them, where the whole congregation proceeded to quite solemnly sing a song called "Revive Us Again", which uses the tune that this song stole. I could hardly keep from laughing as I heard in my head the refrain "Hallelujah, I'm a bum!" each time the crowd sang something far more pious.

Here's what Sandburg says about the song:

This old song heard at the water tanks of railroads in Kansas in 1807 and from harvest hands who worked in the wheat fields of Pawnee County, was picked up later by the I. W. W.'s, who made verses of their own for it, and gave it a wide fame. The migratory workers are familiar with the Salvation Army missions, and have adopted the Army custom of occasionally abandoning all polite formalities and striking deep into the common things and ways for their music and words. A "handout" is food handed out from a back door as distinguished from "a sit down" which means an entrance into a house and a chair at a table.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


I like this song a lot. And I'm pleased with myself, if I may say so, for a few touches here — for instance, the "train whistle" at the very end. I moved the final verse to the beginning, feeling like it served better as a kind of introduction. Here are Sandburg's fascinating and extensive notes on the song:

At Dodge City, Kansas, in the Santa Fe railway station grass and flower plot, stands a plain memorial, a wooden post painted white with the reminder in black letters: Lest We Forget. Fastened to the post is an old time, cast-iron Link-and-Pin, the slaughterer, the crepe hanger, the maker of one-armed men peddling lead pencils on payday night, the predecessor of the beneficent Safety Coupler. … The laughter of the railroad man at death and mutilation runs through many of his songs. The promise of a wooden kimono, a six foot bungalow is with him on every trip whether he's on a regular run or the extra list, and no matter what his seniority.

Verses sung by railroad men were printed in that remarkably American periodical, The Railroad Man's Magazine, under the editorship of Robert Davis.… Then came the sheet music version, widely popular. Lumberjacks, college girls, aviators, and doughboys, have made versions of their own.

Songs are like people, animals, plants. They have genealogies, pedigrees, thoroughbreds, cross-breeds, mongrels, strays, and often a strange love-child.… The Casey Jones song may stem from several earlier pieces that have the same gait, freckles, disposition, color of hair and eyes. Among such earlier pieces are Brady Why Didn't You Run?, Jay Gould's Daughter, On The Charlie So Long, Vanderbilt's Daughter, Mama Have You Heard The News? and all the earlier known songs in which figure Casey Jones, K.C. Jones, David Jones, and still other Joneses.… Two melodies are presented here. One is the traditional Casey Jones, the other (B) is the lesser known Mama Have You Heard The News? Some verses of the two songs are as interchangeable as standard box cars; others are narrow gauge and dinky. The second tune (B) is one notated in Ohio by Josephine WInston of the University of North Carolina.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


Sandburg:

This may be what polite society calls a gutter song. In a foreign language, in any lingo but that of the U.S.A., it would seem less vulgar, more bizarre. Its opening realism works on toward irony and fantasy, dropping its final lines again to blunt realism. Texts and melody are from the songs as given (A) by Henry McCarthy of the University of Alabama, and (B) by Jake Zeitlin and Jack Hagerty of Fort Worth and Los Angeles.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


This is, of course, a very well-known American folk song. I recorded this in the East Village (New York City). The woman shouting at the beginning was yelling at her boyfriend/husband/lover downstairs on the sidewalk on East 13th Street. It was a hot day, so the window was open, and so she made it into the mix in a way I quite like. This version of the lyrics is numbered 2 in Sandburg's book; here's what he has to say:

A fast train, such as "The Midnight Special," means a getaway, outside air, freedom. They sing about it in the Houston, Texas, jailhouse, and elsewhere.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


A dramatic and violent tune. Can you believe this was used as a lullaby? I think the recording/mixing matches the roughness of the whole thing. This is Sandburg's introduction:

Nancy Hanks in her old Kentucky home, sang ballads the western pioneers brought through Cumberland Gap from the uplands and mountains father east. The story of the Brown Girl stabbing Fair Eleanor, then having her head cut off by Lord Thomas, who killed himself and was buried with the two women, sounds almost like a grand opera plot. Grim and terrible though this ballad story is, the tune is even, comforting, a little like riding a slow galloping horse. It is still used in many a southern mountain home for rocking the children to sleep. Little Abe Lincoln, as a child, probably heard The Brown Girl, according to persons familiar with Kentucky backgrounds. This version is from the Reed Smith ballad group published by the University of South Carolina; it was heard by Tressie Pierce in Alexander County, North Carolina. The thirteenth verse is an interpolation from another text, to explain the killing of Lord Thomas by himself before he is buried with the two ladies who so suddenly met violent deaths. Where the singer is so inclined, the last lines of each verse are repeated.


English travelers have said it is the 17th century language of England that is spoken in certain isolated mountain and seaboard corners of America. Among these pocketed populations they say "poke" for "pocket," "my may" for "my sweetheart," and asking a kiss, "Come buss me."… The mountaineer may remark of his horse, "That mare is the loveliest runner and the sensiblest animal I ever saddled," or he may give places names such as Shoo Bird Mountain, Shake-a-rag Holler, or Huggins Hell. Once in Kentucky a wanderer inquiring the route was told he was on the right road and to go on "about two screeches and a holler."… (Sandburg)

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


Nursery Rhymes

Many of these were recorded while my son was relatively young; I got especially interested in children's song and literature and decided to try my hand at rendering a few classic nursery rhymes / songs. Naturally, they all have my own special treatment. I dug up more complete sets of verses for rhymes that I'd only known little snatches of. I rendered them in ways that were somewhat unorthodox, and that made me giggle. I also changed or made up words in a few cases. I wove these together with many of the Carl Sandburg - collected songs above into an album that I called "Sounds of the Rude World". You can hear it on Spotify if you're so inclined.


This is my attempt at an "epic" treatment of this song. I'd never heard anything but the first verse, so was pretty stoked to find the several additional ones. A moment that I find especially giggle-worthy is what sounds like (but isn't actually) a cameo appearance by Larry David — see if you can spot it.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


It turns out this classic children's song has a rather huge set of verses, telling a complete tale of the mice, including how they were blinded. Also nice to know that there's a happy ending.

Image source: archive.org

Image source: archive.org


This is an example of a nursery rhyme where I didn't find any additional verses. But I wanted it to go on for a while, and had some fun with that. The giggling at the end is my son, Benjamin.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


After the "scary" version of this song below, I decided to try for a sweeter rendition.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons


This is a song I don't know that well; somebody who does was really annoyed with my rendition and said I corrupted it. As far as I'm concerned, though, that's exactly what these songs are for (along with all folk songs) — endless corruption and mutation. In addition to the several extra verses I could find, I made my own changes and additions. So "the maid" takes off her clothes rather than hanging somebody else's out to dry, and so on.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Wikimedia Commons



I found additional verses for this rhyme, and (as in so many cases with these sorts of songs, it seems), discovered that they were quite dark. So this is a first attempt at rendering the dual nature of the song — comforting, lulling, but also foreboding. I think it works all right.


POOR FOLK

In January of 2008, I recorded these twelve songs in a small studio in St. Petersburg, Russia. Everything was one take, and the post-production was minimal, so they're quite "raw". (There are a few choices about EQ and stereo panning, and one overdubbed extra voice (also me), but that's about it.)

The theme here was, loosely, "the songs of poor folk". The title is also a bit of a wry double entendre, as I'm quite sure that some people (including myself on any given day) might find these to be rather impoverished renditions. These are all American songs, or songs that became American songs in one way or another. The selection of verses is mine, and as with any folk music, both the words and the melodies have been adapted to suit my taste. I pressed a bunch of CDs of this, which I'm happy to give to anyone who still uses CDs. You can also listen to this on Spotify.


A classic murder ballad! Lawman vs. miscreant! The tragedy of justice applied indiscriminately! The useless doctor who can only state the obvious! The devil in glee at the folly of humanity! It's all there. The story comes from real events. And the official account is not free from controversy.

It was Dave Van Ronk's version of this song that turned me on to it. I was pleased to find some additional verses


 A Woody Guthrie ballad about greed and murder. An awful story, and a true one. Bob Dylan used the tune for one of the only two original songs on his first album. I have to say that I like the original song better. Poignant, righteous anger — fresh out of the oven.


A very old, traditional song about a wise bird and a murderous lover. The American Songbag lists it as "Little Scotch-ee". It also goes by "Love Henry", "Earl Richard", and "The Proud Girl".


A Carter Family original, recorded in 1929. Although I'd heard the original on the famous Anthology of American Folk Music, I'll admit that the song didn't really click with me until I heard some live recordings of Bob Dylan doing it in the 90s.

I found some additional verses, and changed a word or two here or there.


This song may date back to the 1880s, but it was popularized by Hank Williams, which is how I heard it. Another lovely entry in the long list of tragic warnings.


An old Appalachian song. I fell in love with this from Dave Van Ronk's version. Mine is not nearly as sweet. I guess the emphasis for me is more on the exhortative aspects of the song, at least in how it launches off. It feels so much like that to me that I used it a few verses of it as the opening for the debut concert of The Cardboard City — you can hear that recording above, too. It was quite a cool feeling to start out with a noisy, buzzing room, and grab everybody's attention by belting this out without a microphone.


A wistful traditional song about traveling and mourning a lost love. Never gets old.


This song dates back to 1635. Here's a bit of Wikipedia's entry on it:

A captain of a ship (the Sweet Trinity or Golden Vanity or Golden Willow Tree of the title) laments the danger it is in; Sir Walter Raleigh complains that it was captured by a galley, but the more common complaint is that it is in danger from another ship, which may be French, Turkish, Spanish, or (especially in American variants) British. A cabin boy offers to solve the problem. The captain promises him rich rewards, which vary enormously between versions. The boy swims to the enemy ship, bores holes in its hull, and sinks it.

He swims back. Usually, the captain declares he will not take him up, let alone reward him; in some variants, he extorts the rescue and reward by sinking, or threatening to sink, his ship as well, but usually, he drowns (sometimes after saying he would sink the ship if it weren't for the crew). Occasionally, the crew rescue him, but he dies on the deck. In the variant with Raleigh, Raleigh is willing to keep some of his promises, but not to marry him to his daughter, and the cabin boy scorns him. In the New England version recorded by John Roberts...he sinks both ships but is rescued by another one, thus explaining how the story could have been passed on.



Ghosts! Coffins! Castles! Tower windows! Portentous dreams! One of those tragic love tales (maybe from 1611?) in which a rose and a briar grow from the dead lovers' graves. I kind of flubbed the end of the song; sorry.



Arguably a feminist song. Seems to date back to 1907. There's definitely some fun to be had with respect to wagons that need greasing and whips that need mending.


Bob Dylan

I've admitted to being a Bob Dylan wannabe. I've spent plenty of time playing and playing with his songs. Most of these are from years gone by, and reflect varying degrees of "experimentalism" with the songs.


This song is from Street-Legal (1978). Somehow the impression I get listening to this 4-track special from 1994 is of somebody humming/singing the song very faintly to themselves under the covers late at night. I really like some qualities of the original version of this song, but there's something fun to me about the contrast of the "under the covers" mumbling of this recording and the grandiosity of the lyrics.


A lo-fi, muffled rendition of a beautiful song (from 1974's Blood on the Tracks). I wouldn't call this rendition beautiful, and it hardly does any justice to the lyric, but I do like the overall sonic quality of this.


You're brave if you listen to all eight minutes of this. There's obviously some "concept" at play here — some sort of slow/sloppy burn aesthetic — but it's mostly protoplasm at this point.