Tom McDonald

I grew up and got schooled in New England, hitch-hiked on a whim to pre-Grunge-era Seattle, never left. Took to designing software for authors and publishers. Raised two kids and quite a few chickens on a island in Puget Sound. Taught myself guitar and banjo and formed a covers band. I help run a map store; here’s an issue of our newsletter. I favor British tv comedies and novels by Cormac McCarthy.

Mar 172022
 

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

I can’t judge the person who thinks that “Every Breath You Take” is a song of pure devotion, or that “Born in the USA” is a patriotic anthem. I can’t judge, because for years I insisted “Dirty Old Town” was a traditional Irish ballad. We all make mistakes.

The truth is that “Dirty Old Town” has nothing to do with Ireland, and it’s not all that old. Ewan MacColl wrote the song in 1948 about the northern England industrial town of Salford, where the songwriter was born and raised. He came up with the song as a quick fix for a play he had written about Salford—he needed a bit of filler to facilitate a costume change. A humble beginning for a song about MacColl’s own beyond-humble beginnings.

Despite his place of birth, MacColl long claimed to be Scottish. As an upcoming dramatist, he allied himself with the Scottish literary renaissance then taking place. His Scottish parents christened him James Henry Miller, but he renamed himself in honor of a nineteenth century Scottish poet.

So how did the song’s connection with Ireland take hold? It’s mainly because popular Irish trad folk band the Dubliners recorded a version in 1968. At that point the Dubliners had played and recorded traditional Irish material almost entirely. Presented in this context, it’s no wonder the song about northern England passed as Irish.

But it’s also a matter of timing: the Dubliners’ version came out the same year that “The Troubles” began in Northern Ireland—the bombings, riots, protests, and paramilitary campaigns that would last for 30 years. The violence in the song’s climax—“I’m going to make a good sharp axe […] I’ll chop you down like an old dead tree”—could not help but resonate with the political and sectarian resentments erupting in Belfast and beyond. For Ewan MacCall, an avowed Marxist, the song’s anger had to do with the brutal labor conditions in the industrial north (axe = communism, tree = capitalism, at least according to some interpretations), but this is a classic case of a song transcending its own origin story.

MacColl had another passion and pursuit: he was a key architect of the post-war folk-song revival—a sort of Celtic Alan Lomax. In fact Lomax—the champion song hunter from Texas, the man whose field recordings brought to light Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, and hundreds more—joined forces with MacColl when the American decamped to the U.K. and Spain during the 1950s. MacColl along with Lomax had everything to do with the blossoming of folk music clubs and folk recording labels on both sides of the Atlantic. In other words, it was MacColl’s efforts to give folk traditions legitimacy and popularity that created the very cultural conditions in which songs like “Dirty Old Town” could thrive.

Here’s our selection of covers, the big influential ones and the overlooked ones both.

Frank Black–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

Pixies founder and frontman Frank Black (aka Black Francis) hails from Boston, probably the most Irish city in North America. But the city we need to talk about here is Nashville. Black’s cover is so infused with southern soul music and country music influences, you might think for a second it’s Clint Black, not Frank Black. This rendition is from 2006’s Fast Man Raider Man, an album Black recorded with a bevy of Tennessee studio legends (Steve Cropper among them) and younger country notables like Marty Brown (in a vocal duet with Black). It’s a variant that shrugs off the usual associations we make with the song and with the ex-Pixie himself. After Black and Brown trade verses, the volume swells and they sail away on a wave of shouty harmonies. They bring a sharp edge back into the song, especially the part about the axe.

Steve Earle and Bap Kennedy–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

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For a native of San Antonio, Texas, Steve Earle has formed impressive connections to Ireland and Irish music. The Pogues guested on his first album. His mid-career hit “The Galway Girl” is accepted in Ireland as an Irish standard—which might remind you of another non-Irish writer of a song adopted by Ireland.

This track comes out of Earle’s collaboration with Belfast-born Bap Kennedy. Despite Kennedy’s partnerships with high-profiler like Van Morrison and Mark Knopler, the singer-songwriter flew below most people’s radar. He led a band called Energy Orchard, and released a few solo albums before passing away in 2016 at age 54. This track is particularly obscure: it is an unlisted bonus cut on Kennedy’s solo debut (produced by Steve Earle and released on Earle’s label). In fact it’s really an Easter egg, coming on after something like 25 minutes of silence on the album’s last track.

Earle later covered “Dirty Old Town” on a MacColl tribute album, but this duet with Bap Kennedy has the correct level of rough, with Jerry Douglas on dobro providing the smooth.

Bettye LaVette–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

As we’ve noted on a few occasions in the past, Bettye LaVette is a singer known to take command of a song in anyway she sees fit. If the lyric needs some rewriting, a rewriting it gets.

“Dirty Old Town” is a song that has always lent itself to renewal. Its first line originally ended with the phrase “by the Gasworks croft.” Interpreters usually change “croft” to another one-syllable word—“glow,” “door,” “walk,” “wall”—because “croft” is obscure. The original lyrics also referred to “the Salford wind,” until altered to “smoky wind.” These modest retrofits helped modernize the song and make it more relatable.

When LaVette sings “Dirty Old Town,” it’s Detroit she’s singing about. MacColl starts with the gasworks, LaVette with the Graystone—the famous dance hall that was Detroit’s citadel of jazz and Motown music. In MacColl’s original, “cats are prowling,” but in LaVette’s version “cops are prowling.” The violence that occurs in LaVette’s version may be racially motivated, but LaVette unites with MacColl in bearing witness to brutality in its varying forms. LaVette also celebrates her city, and in the climatic verse she throws us a curve she expresses pride in the fact that Detroit resisted the axe that tried to chop it down. She’s a soul survivor herself, and in her hometown’s defiance sees a reflection of her own story.

The Pogues–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

If the “Definitive Version” medal doesn’t go to The Dubliners for their cover, the award must go to The Pogues. After all, it’s got the proper lineage – the songwriter’s daughter Kirsty MacColl herself was affiliated with the Pogues (though her stint came some time after the “Dirty Old Town” recording).

Frontman Shane MacGowan pretty much presented like a bloke fresh off a shift at the gasworks–he sounded like one, too. That’s part of the charm of the Pogues’ cover. In a parallel to Ewan MacColl’s bio, the Englishman MacGowan came to identify strongly with his Irish immigrant parents’ background. After his punk incarnation, MacGowan reinvented himself musically with an Irish roots concept. Pogues-style “Dirty Old Town” borrows from the Dubliners version and from the original version. The band gives it an instrumental verse, and they do a change key on the verse, too, which boosts the song’s energy most rousingly. No wonder their cover re-ignited interest in the song.

The Dubliners–“Dirty Old Town” (Ewan MacColl cover)

We close with a (not the) definite version of the song. (It’s a split decision with The Pogues—and the split is along generational lines.) Usually we talk about cover versions bringing a fresh new angle or sound to an older, somewhat stale initial take. The Dubliners version of “Dirty Old Town” somehow feels older than MacColl’s 1952 original, more trad than the original, which after all had an early modern jazz feel to it, complete with clarinet solo.

If The Dubliners thought The Pogues somehow piggy-backed on their work or stole their thunder, they sure didn’t show any resentment about it. The two bands teamed up numerous times afterwards; they appeared on each other’s albums, and sometimes shared the same stage at the same time (with Joe Strummer joining in on at least one occasion, in case the stage wasn’t crowded enough). Both bands probably loved crossing generational divides in addition to nationalistic ones. They were all of them rakes, rebels, and rovers.

Feb 112022
 
be good tanyas covers

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

The three women in the Be Good Tanyas–Trish Klein, Samantha Parton, and Frazey Ford–are all Canadians, but Americana is stamped on their musical passports. The band formed in 1999 in Vancouver, B.C., the heart of Cascadia, and soon released some of the best Appalachian-influenced music of the past two decades. Like kindred spirit Gillian Welch, the Tanyas made the old-timey sound new.

While gospel spirituals and hobo songs fired their imaginations at the outset, the Tanyas didn’t only look backwards to traditional sources. They looked across to their peers–Geoff Berner and JT Nero are two contemporary artists they’ve covered–and to the work of their parents’ generation (Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Neil Young). They even covered Prince, a musician pretty far from the folk/country music provinces (see our write-up of their Prince cover here). The Tanyas also wrote compelling original material, songs absorbed by urban concerns while sounding rural in origin, songs both light-hearted and dark-minded in turn.

Along with their feathery vocal harmonies, the key ingredients of the Tanyas sound are mellow mandolin, gritty banjo, and acoustic guitar. Fiddles and harmonicas make an occasional appearance, and a cornet slipped in through a side door at least once. Bass and drums they leave to hired hands, but not as after-thoughts: the band’s rhythmic groove is integral to their unique slant on traditional material, lets them make a distinctive statement on classics like “Rain and Snow.”

One complaint about their music is that there’s not more of it. Chalk it up, in part, to bad luck and medical emergencies, and partly to “creative differences.” But then again, we can be thankful that each of the Tanyas have explored their own solo projects, and this has helped keep the Tanyas albums so pure in essence. Frazey Ford recorded an album with Al Green’s former band (it’s more soul-influenced than country-influenced); Trish Klein formed Po’ Girl with Allison Russell; and Sam Parton, long side-lined with serious medical challenges, found a way to record and tour with Jolie Holland. (Holland co-founded the Tanyas in 1999, but departed during the making of their first record, Blue Horse.) All these extracurricular projects are worth seeking out.

The Tanyas may be over as a group, but it’s a good bet that covers of their originals will continue to emerge, and that their own covers will continue to find new listeners.
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Feb 042022
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

Countdown to Ecstasy

Any artist who scores a major success with their debut–as Steely Dan accomplished with Can’t Buy a Thrill–just might lose some sleep while working on their follow-up. Will it be any good compared to the first?

But Steely Dan co-founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen seemingly had no such worries about their sophomore release, Countdown to Ecstasy. In fact, they were cavalier about it to the point of self-sabotage. One example: they selected “Show Biz Kids” as the album’s first single. This is a song in which Fagen drops what we now call an f-bomb (unheard of in 1973); it’s a song that mocks the band’s own (very modest) fanbase.

The prematurely-jaded transplants from New York City adopted a fuck-all stance about show bidness [sic]and the LA lifestyle in general. In their darker moments they took aim at Western civilization itself. Even the album title is cynical, a jab at our collective eagerness to traffic in quick fixes–spiritual, political, and musical ones included.

At least the band toured steadily to promote their music. But even there they did nothing to dress it up–no light shows or stage antics. They simply played the music. In fact, for Countdown, they fired the only band member with any interest in being on stage (singer David Palmer). They shunned press interviews, never smiled for the camera. Looking back at this period decades later, Becker and Fagen blamed the punishing tour schedule for the shortcomings of their studio work.

Countdown did in fact fall short of their first album, if the metric is hit singles and Billboard chart positions. Countdown had no hits to match “Do It Again” or “Reelin’ in the Years” from the album before, and it had no staying power in the charts. What the album did have was a fresh fusion of jazz and rock, remixed within a Brill Building songwriting context. Its tracks featured horn arrangements, Hendrix-inspired guitar pyrotechnics, and flashes of Zappa-level musical mayhem. Lyrically, you have Dylan, Philip K. Dick, and Chuck Berry influences. There’s plenty of polish and precision, but the album makes room for the ramshackle too (the best instance coming from guest guitarist Rick Derringer). Romantic ballads sit beside funkathons. You have “Show Biz Kids”–basically a one-chord song–followed by “My Old School,” with its ornate horn charts, backing vocals galore, and at least a dozen chords. Plus some cowbell to keep it real.
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Jan 112022
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

Anyone who followed Tom Waits’ career through the ’70s probably didn’t like the odds of Waits staying relevant–or even staying alive–into the ’80s. In his personal life Waits courted ruin, and artistically he was stuck. His beatnik schtick was played out; the booze-hound tropes were tired. Waits had become the sort of lost soul he’d always pretended to be in his act. When his Elektra/Asylum label dropped him in 1982, the setback looked to be self-inflicted–a sad but unsurprising turn in a once-promising career.

Then Waits re-emerged in 1983 and unveiled Swordfishtrombones. The chaotic gem of an album that Elektra/Asylum couldn’t deal with changed everything. Its surreal title and curious photography told you in an instant that Waits had a brand new bag.

Still, the new Waits was the same as the old Waits in some ways. His voice was still ravaged, the piano still needed tuning. His lyrics dealt with the usual fixations in the same old vocabulary: car parts and pawn shops and a greasy breakfast. Waits world. But musically and conceptually, Waits was stepping out–far out. “Field recordings and Caruso and tribal music and Lithuanian language records and Leadbelly,” he said. “There’s a place where all these things overlap.”

Waits now took his characters into outlandish emotional extremes; weird raw cinematic sounds evoked their fevered ruminations. He adopted bothersome instruments no one else else wanted: marimbas, calliopes, glass harmonicas; bagpipes, banjos, and brake drums. Musical orphans. All the while his peers were getting busy with MIDI (born 1983) and synth-pop possibilities–even Neil Young, with Trans. Not Waits.

The follow-up album dropped two years later: Rain Dogs. The project doubled down on the eccentricity and experimentalism, revealing Swordfishtrombones as an opening move in a larger game. Rain Dogs may stand as peak Waits; it is certainly the crowning centerpiece of the trilogy that concluded with Franks Wild Years in 1987. Right in the center of the centerpiece is where you find “Hang Down Your Head.”

The song is not a standout track on the album–not in terms of popularity or creativity. It competes for attention with eighteen (!) other tracks, all of which are keepers, many of which are more developed both lyrically and musically than “Hang Down Your Head.” It’s the album’s most conventional and safe song (probably why Island selected it for the first single). Its only cutting edge is the stabbing guitar-work of Marc Ribot.

But “Hang Down Your Head” does stand out in this way: it’s the only song on Rain Dogs or Swordfishtrombones not solely written by Tom Waits. The credits go to Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits. Kathleen is the inspiration for Waits’ “Jersey Girl” (one of Waits’ best sellers, thanks in large part to Bruce Springsteen’s cover) and for “Johnsburg, Illinois.” The couple would go on to co-write many more songs on the albums to follow, but “Hang Down Your Head” is their first effort.

Waits himself credits Brennan for his ’80s resurgence, considers her the catalyst for his brave new approach to sound and songcraft. It’s curious that their first song together is not about starting over, but about loss, the train that takes you away from the unrequited love, the end of the affair.

In terms of covers, the musical world has somewhat overlooked “Hang Down Your Head.” But our three choices leap out from the pack, and we rank them as follows…
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Nov 102021
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted songwriter and keyboardist Billy Preston into its ranks last month for Musical Excellence, the other inductees seemed to get all the attention. That’s fair (after all, Preston passed away back in 2006), but it’s also in keeping with Preston’s long and sometimes overshadowed career. Despite writing hit records that blended soul, gospel, funk, and R&B with rock, he tends to be pegged not as a star, but as a stellar session player supporting the actual stars.

That’s valid, too. From the ‘50s through to the early 2000s, Preston does seem to have played with all the greats, from Mahalia Jackson to Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles to Sly Stone; in the rock world, he partnered with the Beatles and the Stones, The Band, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name just a few. But we will lean on Billy’s original songs, and on Billy as leader, in our collection of Preston covers.
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Oct 022021
 
They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
gillian welch covers

Happy Birthday to Gillian Welch! She deserves an extra slice of cake this year, her 54th, because the past twelve months have been so surprisingly busy.

For one thing, she won a Grammy in the Best Folk Album category this year, for her all-covers collection All the Good Timesmade with her ever-present partner David Rawlings. (We reviewed the album here.) The couple also collaborated with Barry Gibb, the Bee Gee with a taste for the kind of Americana and country music that Welch and Rawlings have helped to popularize. But most importantly, the duo spent the year releasing the 48-song, three volume Lost Songs project, rare bits of good news in those hard and uncertain times. Continue reading »