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John McCutcheon: Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine
by George Graham
(Appalsongs Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/10/2020)
One of the long-running traditions of folk music is the topical song – a composition written to make a commentary about a contemporary event. Topical songs in American popular music go back to the colonial days. Woody Guthrie really popularized topical songs in folk music, some of them protest songs, some of them humorous. In the 1960s, the late Phil Ochs wrote many songs about the news of the day, in fact one of his classic albums was called All The News That’s Fit to Sing.
Of course, by their nature, many topical songs have a short shelf-life. There are plenty of songs about long-forgotten or ephemeral news or trends. The beauty of a great topical song is that it can still have relevance after the news event that inspired it has passed. Many of Ochs’ songs take on that kind of timeless quality, and in some cases are eerily relevant addressing issues that persist more than 50 years on.
This week, we have a new collection of mostly topical songs by one of today’s finest folksingers, John McCutcheon. It’s called Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine.
McCutcheon has been on the scene since the 1970s, and has released some 45 albums so far. One of his best-known songs is Christmas in the Trenches set in World War I, but he has had a wide ranging career, including being one of the first to popularize the hammered dulcimer widely. He is also known for children’s songs, and created a one-man play. Over the years he has penned a remarkable number of songs that are deep and poignant lyrically, performed in his rich baritone. His last album was a tribute to a fellow durable folksinger Pete Seeger.
Cabin Fever was not the album McCutcheon was planning to do, he says. He had already written nearly 30 songs for a new album, but in March he returned from a tour in Australia just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to spread. So he self-quarantined in his cabin in North Georgia, reading writing, thinking about the consequences of the sheltering in place, and getting on a songwriting tear, composing a new song just about every day during the three weeks he was isolated in the cabin. Once he emerged, he went to work in his home studio by himself, then sent the tracks to long-time engineer and co-producer Bob Dawson, who also worked by himself in isolation mixing the tracks. So less than two months from the time McCutcheon decided to start writing songs in his cabin, the album was complete.
Though McCutcheon has dealt with weighty subjects that have been in the news, there have not been many outright topical songs. So this album is something of a departure in that way. But Cabin Fever delves right into social distancing and front line workers putting their lives on the line during the pandemic, along with a goofy tune about his dog, a heartfelt song about the death of fellow folksinger John Prine from the coronavirus, and one about what the earth thinks of what people are doing to it. But like the best folksingers, McCutcheon manages to make some profound observations while including some very contemporary details. In a time of social isolation, as mentioned, McCutcheon recorded the songs by himself, so there are no added players, and for the most part, McCutcheon relies just on his guitars, rather than other instruments. And that makes it all the more intimate.
McCutcheon’s writing streak was a prolific one. The album contains 17 new songs, and they are fully up to his standards. There is nothing that sounds rushed or thrown together or compromised in quality like so much that is currently being produced by, for example, TV hosts working at home.
The album starts with a figurative bang, an outstanding musical tribute to the front-line workers who are out and exposed in the pandemic doing their jobs of serving others. It called Front Line. <<>>
Also very much in the moment is The Night that John Prine Died, a heartfelt musical tribute to a fellow songwriter and friend whose death was caused by COVID-19. <<>>
Like the best songwriters McCutcheon takes a look at a situation and considers it from a different angle. Sheltered in Place is written from the standpoint of a homeless person, for whom that kind of restriction is an everyday fact of life. <<>>
There are other songs that though not directly about the coronavirus situation, were no doubt inspired by it. A song called Control is a charming piece about learning to cope with what the world deals you. <<>>
There is one track on which McCutcheon performs on the piano. One Hundred Years takes a long-term look at our actions today, in a song that can span generations. <<>>
Perhaps as a contrast to that is Hallelulah Morning played on resonator guitar which celebrates the milestones of life. <<>>
The album also shows McCutcheon’s generous sense of wit. Six Feet Away is a fun love song abut falling in love in a time of social distancing. <<>>
A proper folksinger should have a Woody Guthrie-style talking blues. McCutcheon obliges with My Dog Talking Blues, which is pure, simple and fun. <<>>
And the songwriter puts it all into a very long-term context in the song called Earth in which our planet basically says, “I’ve seen it all before.” As usual, McCutcheon is brilliant. <<>>
It’s ultimately the passage of time that will determine whether topical songs created for specific events will have staying power. John McCutcheon is, I think, one of our finest living folksinger-songwriters, and over his 45 year career, a he has created many songs that have indeed stood the test of time, even with some of them inspired by events of the day or by history. And it also remains to be seen how profound and long-lasting the effects of the coronavirus pandemic will be as history is written. But great topical songs can illuminate the current situation, and McCutcheon has created an outstanding set, from the humorous to the poignant, on his new album Cabin Fever.
Our grade for sound quality is an “A.” McCutcheon’s home-studio recording, with a professional mix job comes across as warm, inviting and intimate.
Perhaps aware of what might be the ephemeral nature of these songs, this album is only available as a download, and McCutcheon has decided to issue it on a “pay what you can” basis. If there is anyone today who can create topical songs that can have staying power, it’s John McCutcheon and Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine is another great example of his work.
(c) Copyright 2020 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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