The pandemic affected us all in funny ways. Folk music mainstay John McCutcheon found himself with more time to read the newspaper, including some sections he used to overlook.
“I don’t know if it’s only the pandemic or if it’s also due to my age, but I’m not skipping over the obituaries like I used to,” McCutcheon said.
Naturally, one of those obituaries inspired a song. It was that of Esther Cohen, a Greek Holocaust survivor who educated future generations on her ordeals.
“I thought of the people of that era, and not only Holocaust survivors, but World War II veterans, people who worked in the civil rights movement, people who endured amazing things and in some cases accomplished amazing things,” said McCutcheon. “Everything is going to be second hand as they pass on. Esther’s story really struck me. I figured she deserved at least one song.”
Memories of the dead have colored several of McCutcheon’s songs over the years, including two other standouts on Leap! “Song When You Are Dead” is a rare spinoff song. It stems from his 2020 track “The Night That John Prine Died” in that it led to another of McCutcheon’s other friends to ask him for their very own song of remembrance. Instead, the song becomes an absurd comedy that rhymes composing and decomposing. It’s corny at times, but charming.
Also funny, but much more profound, is “The Third Way,” the true story of his Cuban father in law’s experiences in a Georgia steel mill during the 1960s.
“Carlos was my father in law. He was born on a farm in Cuba and my wife was born in Havana,” McCutcheon explained. “Like most Cubans at the time, they supported the revolution until they couldn’t. They arrived here in 1964 and he took this job at a local steel mill. He certainly had never lived in a system that segregated basic services into white and colored.”
When Darnell, a black man assigned to train Carlos showed him to the bathroom, Carlos had an interesting reaction.
“There was an amusing moment of tension there when he realized he couldn’t use either bathroom. So as a matter of his own private protest, he just went out and pissed in the woods.”
It was an amazing act of protest that resonated across languages and cultures. It’s inspiring. In an age when ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ and pink knit caps qualifiy as clever political protest, it’s a reminder that certain bold acts can still make an impact.
“We are talking about a lot of non-binary things these days, but we often don’t talk about non-binary thinking,” added McCutcheon.
Speaking of our political situation, McCutcheon saw parallels between modern America and “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland after participating in a songwriting workshop in the region.
“I came home thinking that we have these things we digest from afar, where you have two groups who are essentially neighbors and these people are killing each other,” McCutcheon said. “The whole point of this song is to say it’s not just over there, it’s not just them. We have our own version of it right here.”
Elsewhere on the album, “The Ride” manages to be uplifting while sounding absolutely fantastic. On “Fuller Brush,” McCutcheon provides a vivid picture of a confident but drained door-to-door salesman and uses it to lament that entire institutions have come and gone over the course of his lifetime.
McCutcheon knows his way around a folk song. He literally owns the domain name for folkmusic.com. Leap! is a solid collection of 18 songs, most of which come along with a well-measured message of some sort. They were mostly written over the pandemic but rarely directly address it. The style is timeless and as pure folk as McCutcheon’s website would suggest, but the messages are almost all timely.
Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with John McCutcheon and the songs we discussed, starting with Second Hand, which the song about Esther Cohen. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://www.folkmusic.com for more.