album reviews

John McCutcheon
Mightier Than the Sword
Appalsongs (2006)

Folk singer John McCutcheon must value the pen as much as he implies with his title, "Mightier Than the Sword": Every song on his latest album is either co-written with or inspired by a literary author. Most striking, and perhaps most predictable, are two posthumous collaborations with Woody Guthrie, the tender "Harness Up the Day" and the Robin Hood-esque "Old Cap Moore." But McCutcheon doesn't just stick to traditional American folk, setting a stunning accordion and hammered dulcimer melody to the poem "Cultivo una Rosa Blanca," by the 19th-century Cuban poet Jose Marti.

Regardless of the inspiration, each track shines with McCutcheon's ability to make words and notes intertwine. Although he is most celebrated for his children's albums, he addresses some heavy themes on the long, spoken "It's the Economy, Stupid." Fueled by a freewheeling trumpet, his voice resonates with lyrical rhythm as he laments the loss of jobs and local businesses.

Elsewhere, McCutcheon addresses politics with more conventional music. The moving "Our Flag Was Still There," inspired by an essay by novelist Barbara Kingsolver, comments on the misappropriation of the American flag with a passionate melody and pacifist lyrics ("I see it passing on cars/I see it passing for war"). But he doesn't dwell on heavy politics too long: The sensual "Para Mi Corazon Basta Tu Pecho" (written by Pablo Neruda) shows the captivating breadth of McCutcheon's diverse cast of collaborators. -- Catherine P. Lewis

.: Originally published: The Washington Post: 14 April 2006, Page WE10
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