John McCutcheon’s first award-winning song was titled The Ponderosa No-Cream-in-My-Coffee Blues, penned at the greasy spoon of the same name in his Wisconsin hometown. He was all of 15 years old and it won him his high school talent show. “My best friend claims that he still has a cassette of the song,” McCutcheon recently disclosed, “and if we ever have a serious falling out it’s going right up on YouTube.”
Since those early creative days John McCutcheon has gone on to write hundreds of songs and garnered more than his share of accolades. His eclectic catalog of ballads, historical songs, children’s songs, love songs, topical satire, fiddle and hammer dulcimer instruments, and even symphonic works are among the broadest in American folk music. His thirty-six albums have earned 6 Grammy nominations. His songwriting has been hailed by critics around the world; his song Christmas in the Trenches is considered a classic and was recently named one of the 100 Essential Folk Songs.
“What sets McCutcheon’s songs apart is that he’s actually writing about something!” observed well-known folk music DJ Bob Blackman. Whether it’s a musical snapshot of a day in the life of an Alaskan salmon fisherman, a child’s pondering the loss of her first tooth, remembering a moment that was omitted from our history books, lampooning the latest foibles on the national political scene, or celebrating the joy of old love McCutcheon’s songs are always about something small and, at the same time, something much bigger. “All big things start with little things,” he observed, “the way in which a song is able to open up the universal from the personal is one of the great joys of writing.”
In addition to his own writing, John has collaborated with some of the major songwriting talents in the folk music world including Tom Paxton, Si Kahn, Holly Near, Steve Seskin, and Tom Chapin. In 2006 he released an album of collaborations entitled Mightier than the Sword, in which he co-wrote songs with some of his favorite authors, including Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, Rita Dove, Lee Smith, and Carmen Agra Deedy. He has worked in the Woody Guthrie Archives completing some of Guthrie’s unfinished songs and has composed musical settings of poetry by Pablo Neruda and Jose Martí.
With his deep roots in American traditional music, his approach to writing reflects both a simplicity and a layered complexity that creates songs that are always more than they seem. “He is a master at the difficult craft of the ballad,” touted the Boston Globe. “Storytelling with the richness of fine literature,” added the Washington Post. “One of our country’s best songwriters,” said Pete Seeger.
Joe Hill was a songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, back in the early 20th century. He was the ultimate utilitarian songwriter, composing pieces to be used at meetings and picket lines and rallies. He wrote songs to be sung and to be used. To be useful. His songs “The Preacher & the Slave” and “Casey Jones, the Union Scab” are what some people know of his work. But veteran folk musician and longtime labor activist, John McCutcheon, has released an album bringing Joe Hill’s music to a whole new audience. With fresh arrangements, stunning musicianship, and released on a palette that makes these songs feel as though they were written today rather than a century ago, there is a life and vitality that is both rare and refreshing.
Joe Hill was executed by a Utah firing squad at dawn, November 19, 1915. This album is being released in honor of the centenary of Hill’s death.
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