Tom Paxton and John McCutcheon
This collaboration between two giants of folk music, Tom Paxton and John McCutcheon, seems predestined but still may not have happened if it weren’t for the intervention of the pandemic. Though a series of conversation via ZOOM, the reminiscing and sports talk soon turned to songwriting, resulting in one hundred or so, the first batch (presumably) available here on Together, which marks the first time the two have appeared on an album as a songwriting team. McCutcheon has been steadily prolific with 44 albums to his credit and, of course, Paxton is a legend, having received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement honor. Essentially two generations are represented here in this wide-ranging array of tunes. McCutcheon recruited his usual collaborators for support, tapping fiddler Stuart Duncan, keyboardist Jon Carroll, bassist JT Brown, drummer Steve Fidyk, guitarist Pete Kennedy and Jim Roberts, as well as country harmonica legend Charlie McCoy.
Most of the tunes have both on vocals but there are a few that feature one or the other. In the tradition of great folk music, let’s start with the socially conscious tunes. The leadoff track is “Ukrainian Now,” written about a month after the Russian invasion and calls attention to both Ukrainians and the Russians who protested in the streets – “I am Ukrainian now…I am the Rabbi learning to pray with my feet…I am the soldier who used to dance in the ballet/I am the father sending my family away…” The tune “Invisible Man” was inspired by McCutcheon reading Ralph Ellison’s book of the same title, but it is not about racism, but about shining light on invisible people, the homeless. “In America” reflects on both the country both grew up and its modern-day version. McCutcheon is married to a Cuban refugee and can relate to both he freedom this country affords and the suffering that minorities endure. Paxton of course has long been an advocate for the oppressed. They tell the story through the protagonist who is a Polish immigrant, having escaped fascism and antisemitism in his native land, only to see it emerge here again under Trumpism. The salient line is “It can’t happen here.” Still, there’s plenty of gratitude expressed in the song and hope for what the country can become. This kind of song is where the two shine best, evoking McCutcheon’s “The Machine” about the neo-Nazi demonstrations in his hometown of Charlottesville.
Other highlights include Paxton’s unaccompanied, emotional reading of letters found when John was remodeling an old farmhouse that date back to World War II where the writer, Joe, pines for his lover in “Letters from Joe.” “The Fan” is the amusing diatribe of a a diehard baseball fan who can’t rationalize paying the steep price for World Series tickets. There are other songs that are just pure fun too. “Do the Work” is the succinct statement about writers’ tendency to procrastinate. As John says in the liners: “Rule #1: ass in chair.” There’s the hilarious ditty on a songwriter who can’t come up with any ides to write about in “Same Old Crap” and for the heck of it, a cowboy song in “This Campfire” with Duncan shifting to mandolin and McCoy in one of his two appearances.
Four others should not be overlooked. ”Complete” speaks to the connection between Tom Paxton and Johnny Cash, composed after an engineer in Nashville informed Paxton that Johnny Cash had three of his songs and his surprise at hearing one that Cash did sing. Of course, this is the ideal spot for McCoy’s harmonica. “Life Before You” starts off as a conventional love song but ends as the man bids his love goodbye in a surprising twist. “Prairie Star’ is described as a simple tune, but it hits hard at nostalgic feelings, imbued beautifully by Duncan’s fiddle. The title track is an ode to two lovers in their elderly years. Rhymes don’t get much better than this to describe the situation – “Two old lovers, two old chairs Not too fond of flights of stairs.” It’s sincere and bittersweet at the same time, with a nod to poet Jack Frost in the in the line “For we have promises to keep.”
Let’s hope this batch of terrific songs is just the first installment. If you thought traditional sounding folk music was dead, this will quickly right that opinion.
- Jim Hynes
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