More on McCutcheon

When I tell people about John McCutcheon, I always forget to mention the one song that people who aren't parents and aren't into folk music are likely to have heard of: "Christmas in the Trenches" (lyrics), the song about the World War I Christmas truce. See also the following books:

But I think the reason I always forget to mention that song is that, honestly, I don't like it that much. Partly the song itself just doesn't appeal to me as much as a lot of his others; partly it's that I've heard it a lot, 'cause he performs it at nearly every concert (and I've been to a bunch of his concerts), and it's on three of his albums that I own.

And partly it's that the song makes me feel sad and angry and frustrated and helpless. Because it's about a wonderful, amazing, hopeful event that happened in the trenches--in 1914. And the song suggests that we can learn a lesson from that event. But as far as I can tell, in the last 91 years, we haven't really come any closer to learning that lesson.

I dunno. There are a lot of historical events that I find inspiring even though we still have a long way to go on various fronts, and a lot of songs that I find inspiring even though humanity doesn't seem to have learned from them. But somehow this one makes me despair. If the Christmas truce in 1914 wasn't enough to change how people think about war, what would be? And if knowledge of the event itself hasn't had much effect in over 90 years, how much effect can a song about it have? McCutcheon first recorded this song over twenty years ago, and he's still delighting liberal and/or pacifist audiences with it--and we're still having stupid bloody pointless fucking wars, still training people to hate and dehumanize the people at the other end of the rifle, still not noticing that "the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame."

I can intellectually recognize the value in the song; obviously a lot of people do find it inspiring, and I wouldn't want to take that away. But it upsets me to listen to it.

Anyway. While I'm here, I may as well talk about the concert tonight:

Left work at 6:30, in the midst of rush hour. Wouldn't have had a chance of getting to Santa Cruz in time for the 7:30 concert, except that I have stickers on my Prius that let me drive solo in the carpool lane. I'm still dubious about whether it was a good idea for the state to provide those stickers to Prius owners, but I'm not above taking advantage of it on special occasions. It was a little tension-provoking, though, to zip along at 50+ mph next to lots of cars that were inching down the road; I focused most of my attention on making sure none of the slow-to-stopped cars were going to decide to pull into the carpool lane in front of me.

Made it to the church where the concert's always held in about 45 minutes, about as much time as it would've taken with no traffic; I was impressed and pleased.

Opening act was Mary McCaslin, whom I've heard good things about but who, unfortunately, turned out to be not quite my cup of tea.

Then McCutcheon came on. He mentioned that there are lots of love songs written for the banjo, "being as how it's known as the instrument of love." Then, more seriously, he noted that he actually knew only one banjo love song: "Who'll Rock the Cradle," which he proceeded to play. I wouldn't have thought of it as a love song, but I like it. On a much more serious note, in memory of the miners who died recently, he sang "The L&M Don't Stop Here Any More."

Then (switching to guitar, I think) a couple of political songs, one about Cheney and one about politicos failing to take responsibility for things; I was kind of tense about the kind and degree of leftist rhetoric I was expecting (given a bunch of recent current-events songs that he's released online lately), but it turned out that all the political songs he sang tonight were of the funny variety rather than the bitterly sarcastic variety.

A couple songs from his new album Mightier than the Sword, a collection of "collaborations" with various writers (some of them dead), including Barbara Kingsolver, former US poet laureate Rita Dove, Sister Helen Prejean, Jose "Guantanamera" Martí, Woody Guthrie, Pablo Neruda, and Wendell Berry. I ended up buying the album, mostly for "Sail Away," a pretty and melancholy song loosely inspired by a book about the Danish resistance during WWII. More or less.

Argh. Due to an incredibly stupid bit of UI in Safari (I pressed the key to switch to a different window, and it went Back instead, and then I closed the window 'cause I thought it was a different window--when am I going to learn to never close a window while composing an entry?), I just lost about ten or fifteen paragraphs here. Fuck. There was a whole lot I wanted to say, but I'm too sleepy to reconstruct all that. For now, suffice it to say the rest of the concert was mixed; I enjoyed some of it a lot, other bits less so. I may write more about this (and especially about the singalong parts) sometime in the next couple days, or I may not. We'll see. For now, it's way past time I went to sleep.

One Response to “More on McCutcheon”

  1. Debby

    I’ve been out of the folk music scene for awhile, so it’s nice to be reminded why I like it so much. I think Fred Small may have similar themes. His song, December 1943, is about Denmark saving the Jews. And he has another one about a Christmas eve truce in the middle of WWII. I don’t know how to link, but I find them both very powerful. He has others that are just too sappy for me.


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