John McCutcheon

Mightier Than the Sword

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For his 29th album, John McCutcheon, always a voracious reader, exercises the literary side of his music by collaborating (either directly or through inspiration) with various contemporary authors, including Barbara Kingsolver, Lee Smith, Wendell Berry, Rita Dove, Carmen Agra Deedy, and Sister Helen Prejean, to create this quiet, reflective, and occasionally powerful suite of songs. McCutcheon rounds things out by setting to music poems by Pablo Neruda and Jose Marti, and also adds melodies to two Woody Guthrie lyrics in which the original music was lost. The end result is a concept album of sorts, one that outlines the ability of good literature to inspire music, but it really moves better as an album if one forgets that construct entirely, for a song's genesis and pedigree is a good deal less important than its ability to work in the world as a memorable moment in time, and a good song is one that moves the listener to want to repeat that moment in time over and over again. How many of the literary hybrids here actually do that? Well, enough, actually, to make this thing work more often than it doesn't. The opener, "Our Flag Was Still There," written by McCutcheon with Barbara Kingsolver and drawn from one of her essays, is a powerful indictment of the perversion of patriotism for political aims, and if the melody is a bit pedestrian and the message a tad pedantic, it really has to be in order for the song to work, and it does work. "Good Ol' Girls," inspired by the novels of Lee Smith, is a loose-limbed string band reel about those girls who smoke, drink, live life to the fullest, and refuse to be fenced in by cultural gender rules. It works because you can dance to it, and because everyone knows that good ol' boys have had more than their day in the sun. Woody Guthrie's "Harness Up the Day" lyric, believed to be from the '40s, is given a suitable folk melody by McCutcheon, and the end result is a simply beautiful song that is arguably the best thing on Mightier Than the Sword. The two pieces inspired by poet and novelist Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow are also highly effective as songs. Berry's poem "Jayber Crow's Silly Song About Jesus," which muses over what kind of car Jesus might drive, emerges as a gentle, sly song here, with smart, telling lines. A second piece inspired by Berry's Jayber Crow novel is the odd, experimental "It's the Economy, Stupid," which is really more of a jazzy spoken word jaunt than a song, but it is quite effective, and ultimately intelligently assembled and executed. The literary connection on Mightier Than the Sword gives this set a starting point, but in the end these songs have to stand on their own musical merits. One reads with the eyes and listens with the ears, and it isn't an easy task to translate one to the other. When McCutcheon manages to find that sweet spot between them, this album really takes off, and when he misses, it sputters a bit in its own careful intelligence, and as the poet Robinson Jeffers once said, it's hard to set fire to too much thought.

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