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(Appalsongs 2013 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/13/2013)
Two weeks ago on this series, we featured an album by Intended Immigration that was a fun, danceable record of novelty songs. I commented that while it was very clever, it was not the sort of thing that would change your life with its lyrics. This week we have the opposite counterpart to that, a record that revolves around insightful and poetic lyrics that often do make keep observations. And musically, it's also almost the opposite -- acoustic instrumentation in arrangements that are appropriate for a folksinger. The CD is by veteran singer-songwriter John McCutcheon, called 22 Days.
John McCutcheon is the epitome of the articulate folksinger, with songs that deal with history, politics -- including some classic-style protest songs, plus different views of love, and a few amusing story songs. Though McCutcheon may not be not quite as well-known as others who arose in his generation, he has an impressive track record. This is his 36th album in a more than 40-year career. McCutcheon is probably best known for his song Christmas in the Trenches about an incident during World War I when soldiers on both sides had an informal truce and celebrated Christmas together. He has written labor songs, songs about the environment, as well as some distinctive love songs.
The new album and its title were inspired by the 20th anniversary of another war-related event. In the Balkan War in May 1992, after an attack that killed 22 mostly civilians, a cellist went to the site in the city of Sarajevo and played a piece by Albinoni each day for 22 days at the hour of the attack, with the fighting still going on around him. So last year, in May 2012, McCutcheon was inspired to start writing for 22 days to see what he could come up with. There were songs that were inspired by the news of the day, with the conflict moving to the Middle East, plus a songs about an illegal immigrant, a couple of songs about love, each taken from a rather untypical perspective, one about coal-mining and even one about the pleasures of high-fat food.
The recording is acoustic with an understated folk-style accompaniment that ranges from classic strumming folkie guitar to some fiddle played by Stuart Duncan and some guitar by rock legend Duane Eddy. There's some bluegrass and old-timey treatments of songs, but it's all quite tasteful and does not call much attention to the accompaniment, with the focus on McCutcheon's words and his classic baritone folksinger's voice.
The fairly generous 14-song CD begins with something out of current news. The track is called Forgotten and it's about the young Pakistani girl Mulala Yousafzai, who was brutally attacked by the Taliban for attending school. She survived and has become a worldwide spokesperson for the education of girls. <<>>
More lighthearted is Of an Age which considers the passage of time and the effects of aging. <<>>
One of the love songs is called Morning, written from the perspective a couple together for 35 years, after he either retired or lost his job. <<>>
Nothing Like You takes up the perennial subject of immigration -- something that Woody Guthrie wrote about some 60 years ago. In this case, it's an undocumented day laborer trying to get some work and feed his family. <<>>
There are a couple of songs about food. Heaven's Kitchen is in praise of Southern cooking and all its culinary excess. <<>>
One of the more interesting and clever perspectives on the album is another food song, Dry Land Fish, about hunting for morel mushrooms, expressed as a kind of sea shanty. <<>>
A song that touches on both labor and the environment is called Tonight the story of a coal miner who not only lost his job, but saw his beloved landscape destroyed by strip mining. <<>>
One of the little gems on the album is a piano waltz called The Man Walking His Dog, which considers who is walking whom. <<>>
The CD ends with a folk-styled version of the Albinoni Adagio in A Minor that cellist Verdan Smailovic played every day in the war torn streets of Sarajevo, inspiring McCutcheon for the album's title.
Veteran folksinger-songwriter John McCutcheon has created yet another fine recording of thoughtful, lyrically insightful songs. This is your classic, unapologetic folk album and McCutcheon is still one of the best, and most consistently high quality artists in the field. It's music to make you think, and often to sing along. The almost-entirely acoustic accompaniment is also in classic form and very tasteful and understated. And of course, McCutcheon has the perfect voice for the music, a rich baritone that can be plaintive when it's called for, and also able to deliver the more lighthearted songs appropriately.
We'll give this CD an "A" for sound quality. The acoustic instruments and McCutcheon's voice were well-captured with good clarity and warmth. And it was not excessively compressed, so there is a fairly decent dynamic range.
When you consider the current state of commercial pop music it's a reminder of how many light years apart it is from music like this. But folk music continues to attract fans, not only old folkie fogies but a good number of young fans who are discovering music that you can think about. And as commercially successful as current pop is, how many of the artists will be around for 40 years and 36 albums like John McCutcheon?
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