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The Late Movies: Daniel Johnston, Covered

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I wrote about Daniel Johnston in a Late Movies post two weeks ago, pointing to some of my favorite performances by him. One of the tricky things about Johnston is that his voice isn't the best, and it can be hard to get past that for many listeners. So in this post, let's listen to ten covers of his songs by other artists. A lot of these can be found on the album The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered (available on MP3 and remastered CD). Enjoy.

Beck - "True Love Will Find You in the End"

"Don't be sad; I know you will. Don't give up until true love finds you in the end."

M. Ward - "Story of an Artist"

"Some would try for fame and glory; others aren't so bold." By my hometown hero, M. Ward.

Bright Eyes - "Devil Town"

"All my friends were vampires. I didn't know they were vampires. Turns out I was a vampire myself, in the Devil Town." Stick around for the shredding.

Sparklehorse & Flaming Lips - "Go"

As the YouTube poster says: "I dare you to find a more beautiful song."

TV on the Radio - "Walking the Cow"

"I am walking the cow. Really don't know how I came here. Really don't know why I'm staying here."

Eels - "Livin' Life" (Live, 1997)

See also: the studio version.

Mercury Rev - "Blue Clouds"

Live in Rel Aviv.

Jad Fair & Teenage Fanclub - "My Life is Starting Over Again"

Okay, Jad Fair is an acquired taste, perhaps as much as Johnston. But I think this is pretty awesome -- plus there's a video.

Starlight Mints - "Dead Lover's Twisted Heart"

"Though the wind is blowing free, and the sun's shining happy, a million faces show no sympathy. But buried deep beneath the shopping mart, mmm, the dead lover's twisted heart!"

Yo La Tengo & Daniel Johnston - "Speeding Motorcycle"

Johnston calls up a radio program to sing lead over the phone. A bit awkward and wonderful. I love the very end. I love the record this comes from, Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo. "Speeding motorcycle, let's speed some more." (See also: the Yo La Tengo-only version from Fakebook.)

What Have I Left Out?

Post your favorite Johnston covers in the comments!

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

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Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]


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