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September 11th, 2012
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‘Everything is Worth Writing About’: John McCutcheon Honors Woody Guthrie

John McCutcheon: ‘…there are still children to put to sleep, lovers to serenade, outrageous boasts to shout, heroes to celebrate. And there is still a country…made for you and me…to grow.’

It’s only fitting that a folk veteran of John McCutcheon’s stature should honor Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday with a new album of Woody songs, This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America. McCutcheon, whose first album was released in 1975, studied with some of the folk music greats in his formative years as a musician; deeply influenced by Woody Guthrie, he also became an ace storyteller and has also released several children’s albums.

In his liner essay published with This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America, McCutcheon tells of his introduction to Woody’s music and its influence on his own art:

I discovered Woody Guthrie the same way most American kids of my time did: by singing his songs in school. ‘Cept they never bothered to tell us who wrote the songs. Back then, songs were like air: just breathe in, breathe out. 

 

 

John McCutcheon, at the Institute of Musical Traditions, Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, D.C., September 18, 2011, performs Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’

When I got my first guitar for my fourteenth birthday, I checked out the one folk song book our public library had: Woody Guthrie Folksongs. Between its tattered pages I sang my way through love songs and kids songs and historical songs and angry songs and silly songs and songs about the day’s news. The lesson I gleaned was this: everything is worth writing about, everyone is worth writing for; pay attention, tell the truth. Now, forty-five years to the day I checked out that book, I understand what a profound effect that little paperback had on me. My preceding thirty-four recordings are made up of love songs and kids songs and historical songs and…you get the idea.

This one, though, celebrates what would have been Woody’s 100th birthday, July 14, 2012. Though he hasn’t written a song in nearly 60 years, we’re still finding new ways to think about This Land, thanks to his wide-ranging explorations. It is a place, as Woody states, where “I’ve seen the pretty and I’ve seen the ugly…” Immigration and injustice, workers’ rights and plundering scoundrels still dominate the day’s news. But there are still children to put to sleep, lovers to serenade, outrageous boasts to shout, heroes to celebrate. And there is still a country…made for you and me…to grow.

John McCutcheon, at the Institute of Musical Traditions, Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, D.C., September 18, 2011, performs Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’

Of the many reviews of McCutcheon’s album–all laudatory as far as we’ve been able to determine–the appraisal of veteran Canadian music journalist and broadcast Mike Regenstreif stands out for its insight. In part Regenstreif observes:

This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America is an apt title for this collection. Woody’s writing is deeply patriotic. But Woody’s is not a blind “My country right or wrong” or “America: Love it or leave it” kind of patriotism. No, his kind of patriotism, as seen in many of the songs in this collection including “Pastures of Plenty,” “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Deportees,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Ludlow Massacre,” “1913 Massacre,” and, perhaps most significantly, in “This Land is Your Land,” is a patriotism centered on compassion and justice, on righting the wrongs that make America less than it could be, as well as love of country.

Woody Guthrie, ‘Ludlow Massacre,’ abouto the violent deaths of 20 people, 11 of them children, during an attack by the Colorado National Guard on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families inLudlow, Colorado on April 20, 1914. John McCutcheon includes the song on his album This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America.

While these songs date from 60 and more years ago, it’s amazing how relevant most of them still are to contemporary society. Woody was writing back then about how migrant workers are anonymously imported and deported; about the way the economic system creates an underclass; about how the rich exploit the poor for profit with no regard for human dignity–issues that are still with us today. While the event documented in “Deportees” took place in 1948, it could just as easily have been 2012.

But, as John notes in his liner essay, Woody Guthrie’s America was/is also a place with “children to put to sleep, lovers to serenade, outrageous boasts to shout, heroes to celebrate,” so the collection includes songs for those things too.

I’ll call special attention to the two songs from the Woody Guthrie Archives set to music by John. “Harness Up the Day” is a beautiful, poetic love song–a precursor by 20-something years to Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time; and “Old Cap Moore,” a delightful tribute to a neighborhood hero.

John uses a wide range of musical settings on this album from his solo vocal and banjo version of “Pretty Boy Floyd,” to the rootsy band setting of “Biggest Thing That Man has Ever Done,” to the chamber-folk arrangement of “I Ain’t Got No Home.”

The most elaborate arrangement is certainly the stirring rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” in which John trades verses with Maria Muldaur, Tom Paxton and Willie Nelson. The spoken recitation with concertina accompaniment to “This is Our Country Here” is a perfect lead-in to “This Land.”

Among the other musicians featured on various tracks are Tim O’Brien, Tommy Emmanuel, Bryn Davies and Stuart Duncan.

From beginning to end–the album ends with Goebel Reeves’ “Hobo’s Lullaby,” often cited as Woody’s favorite song–This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America is a terrific collection.

My only quibble is that there’s no acknowledgement that some of the songs have been taken from previously released albums. The all-star version of “This Land is Your Land” is from a various artists collection for children called This Land is Your Land (Songs of Unity). “Pastures of Plenty” is from a duo album John did with Tom Chapin, and the versions of “Mail Myself to You,” “Harness Up the Day,” “Howjadoo” and “Old Cap Moore” are from John McCutcheon albums dating as far back as 1988. I certainly don’t have a problem with the inclusion of the older recordings; I just think it should be made clear that the album includes both new recordings and previously released material.

Quibble aside, I have no hesitation in offering this album my highest recommendation.

Mike Regenstreif is an editor, writer and broadcaster now based in Ottawa who has written about folk and roots music since the 1970s for Sing Out! Magazine and the Montreal Gazette and many other Canadian newspapers. His radio show, Folk Roots/Folk Branches was heard on CKUT in Montreal from 1994-2007 and since then he has occasionally guest-hosted shows there. In the 1970s and ’80s Ihe ran a folk club, the Golem, and produced most of Montreal’s folk-oriented concerts. He also booked tours for such artists as Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Priscilla Herdman, Rosalie Sorrels, Bill Staines, Guy Van Duser & Billy Novick and Dakota Dave Hull & Sean Blackburn. His invaluable website, Folk Roots/Folk Branches with Mike Regenstreif, is a go-to source for exactly what its subtitle describes: “folk-rooted and folk-branched reviews, commentaries, radio playlists and suggestions from veteran music journalist and broadcaster Mike Regenstreif.



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