Folk music and leaky eyes

My reactions to John McCutcheon's annual Santa Cruz concerts have been mixed; sometimes I've loved them, sometimes they haven't done much for me (usually when he focuses on songs mocking the current administration and/or light rock songs).

Last night's was one of the good ones.

(Note: my links to individual songs below are to the iTunes Store, but McCutcheon's songs and albums are also available, in DRM-free MP3 format, for the same price, at DigStation, "the leading site dedicated to providing downloads by independent musicians." There are links to the DigStation versions on his website, along with lyrics for all his songs.)

Over the course of the evening he played six instruments (not unusual for one of his concerts): banjo, guitar, piano, hammer dulcimer, autoharp, and fiddle. He also spent much more time than used to be usual telling stories and introducing songs; that seems to be a trend in his concerts in recent years. Fortunately, he's a good storyteller.

I think I was in a particularly emotional mood; my eyes kept leaking, even at songs and introductions I had heard before.

There were two moments in particular that caught me by surprise, in a good way:

Early in the concert, he talked about his neighborhood's Third of July party, the night before the Fourth every year ('cause, as he put it, nobody but the police and firefighters work on the Fourth, so the Third is like a Friday night). They have lots of tables filled with food, and after filling up his plate, he looked down at what was on it, which included ravioli and Polish sausage and sushi and several other items I'm blanking on. I've had several meals lately that consisted of a similarly eclectic mix of origins, so I figured he was going to comment explicitly on how international a meal it was; instead, he said something like: "And I looked down at that plate, and I thought: Happy birthday, America." Which somehow took my breath away, and then he swung into his song "Immigrant," which has never been one of my favorites of his, but which was lovely in this rendition and context.

The other moment came much later in the concert, in a newish song I hadn't heard, "Forgive Us," which started out as an interesting meditation on the Lord's Prayer and the idea of forgiveness, and then in the third verse suddenly brought up an event from late 2006 that cast the whole song in a different light and made me cry again.

Forgiveness was sort of an occasional theme of that last quarter of the concert, woven in and out; I liked how that worked. He worked it into his introduction to "Amazing Grace," too, in a nice way.

Some other high points:

"Minnesota Boogie," a fun and funny song about Sen. Larry Craig and airport restroom hookups. "You put your left foot out / And you bring it on back / Put your right foot out / And then tap-tap-tap..." You can download the MP3 for free and read the lyrics on McCutcheon's MP3s page (for songs that "have an immediacy that makes the usual route of recording, CD production, etc. antithetical to their purpose"). I'm normally not a big fan of these super-topical songs (McCutcheon said that Tom Paxton calls this kind of thing "short shelf-life songs"), but I enjoyed this one.

He talked a little about his mother, as an introduction to a song about her and about marches on Washington, "One in a Million." Another case where I've heard the song plenty of times but it really worked for me this time.

His introduction to "Joe Hill." I've several times heard him tell the story of how he started singing that song; the story's even on one of his live albums, and though it's a great story, I sort of rolled my eyes that he was going to tell it yet again. But there were a lot of new details this time, and it really is a great story--among other things, it involves a retired electrician, the Sydney Opera House, and Paul Robeson.

I liked his song about SuAnne Big Crow, but I didn't quite understand the story it told. I had heard of her, but hadn't heard about how she reacted to racist heckling at one particular basketball game her freshman year, so I went and looked it up after the concert. Good story.

Singing along with various songs. It wasn't quite as magical as that can sometimes be; only a few of the people in my immediate vicinity were singing along, so I was a little shy about it. But the woman next to me was singing, which made me much more willing to do so, and I think that she got confidence from me as well because when I didn't sing along, she usually didn't either. At the end, as she was getting up to leave, we smiled at each other, and she said "Thank you" before I could.

The second and last song in his encore was another one he learned indirectly from Robeson via Australia: "All Men Are Brothers," to the tune of "Ode to Joy." I'm having a hard time finding lyrics online, but I liked it.

During the intermission, they played a mix CD of "walk-in music"; there was some good stuff on it that I'd heard before (especially Pat Humphries's "Swimming to the Other Side," though I like Lui Collins's version slightly better, and Jackson Brown's "I Am a Patriot"), but there was one song in particular that I really liked and hadn't heard before: "Torn Screen Door," by David Francey, a Scottish-Canadian folksinger who I'd never heard of. Pretty tunes, lovely harmonies, great accent; I've now bought the album.

There were a few aspects of the concert that didn't thrill me so much. I'm still not a fan of "Christmas in the Trenches," but at least this time he didn't do the full several-minute intro to it. He made slight changes to the part I like best in the tune of "Calling All the Children Home." His comments about the audience and the fact that he's been coming to Santa Cruz to perform for 25 years made me notice the age of the audience (there were a few teens, but I would guess the average age was at least mid-forties), which indirectly made me a little sad about how few of my friends like folk music. In the singalong parts, I tried singing down in the bass part of my range a few times, but it wasn't coming out right, and the woman next to me seemed to be relying on my singing in the higher part of my range, so I stuck with that even though it's a little less comfortable. And so on.

But those were really all minor things; overall, I enjoyed the concert quite a bit.

Join the Conversation