John McCutcheon

Storied Ground

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John McCutcheon carries on a topical songwriting tradition from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, whose righteous anger and earnest fervor he often echoes. He seems to have taken his inspiration directly from these 1940s left-wing protest singers, going around their '60s descendants such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton, who often added a hip irony to their messages; in contrast, McCutcheon is humorless and plaintive. But he also recalls Guthrie and Seeger in that his subjects -- which on this, his 24th album, include the 1947 integration of major league baseball by Jackie Robinson and the 1955 Montgomery, AL bus boycott begun by Rosa Parks -- sometimes look back to their era. Even when he refers to current-day matters, he draws his viewpoint from the "storied" past of the pre-'60s left. Especially in his story songs, which are far more effective than his more direct agitprop ones, he makes points that are Seeger-like, such as his defense of small business and attack on large corporations in "Key to the City," "Closing the Bookstore Down," and "The Abby D." He is at his angriest (and most simplistic) when confronting current concerns, such as the media fascination with celebrities ("Vultures") and the spate of high school shootings ("From Us"); the music in those songs, usually dominated by gentle finger-picked acoustic instruments, takes on an aggressive-rock edge. Some people will feel that the issues addressed are more complicated and less morally polarized than McCutcheon makes them seem, but the singer's intention is probably aimed more toward inspiring the sympathetic than toward converting the opposed.

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