Saturday, December 22, 2018

John McCutcheon: “To Everyone In All The World: A Celebration Of Pete Seeger” (2019) CD Review

There are some people I wish were around to help us make sense of what this country is going through these days. One of those people is George Carlin. I would love to hear him dissect Donald Trump and his followers. Another person I wish were still alive is Pete Seeger. What would he sing about our current troubles? Whatever he’d sing, you can be sure the song would unite us rather than further divide us, and that’s precisely why we need him. John McCutcheon’s new album, To Everyone In All The World: A Celebration Of Pete Seeger, reminds us what an important and passionate and unifying voice Pete Seeger was and is. His songs may have felt to be of a certain time, associated as they were with certain movements, but have proved themselves to be of lasting value and significance and power. We need these songs. John McCutcheon has been performing Pete Seeger’s music since his very first album, which was named after a song he heard Pete Seeger play. And now with To Everyone In All The World: A Celebration Of Pete Seeger, he gives us an album full of songs that Pete Seeger either wrote or performed. The disc’s liner notes contain some thoughts on each of the songs selected for this special album.

Speaking of celebration, this wonderful disc opens with a cheerful, sweet version of “Well May The World Go,” a track which feels like a celebration of life, of all the good things in it. Immediately my spirits are raised. There is some great playing here too, and I particularly like that guitar part halfway through. And check out that fiddle toward the end. John McCutcheon keeps our spirits up with a nice version of “If I Had A Hammer,” with a full band sound including interesting use of percussion, plus a lead on accordion. This is likely the first Pete Seeger song I ever heard, though it was the version by Peter, Paul And Mary (my parents had several Peter, Paul And Mary records in their collection, and I listened to them quite a lot in my childhood). That’s followed by “God Bless The Grass,” a song that Pete Seeger didn’t write, but one which he used as the title track to an album in the sixties. John McCutcheon delivers a powerful rendition here. “God bless the truth, the friend of the poor/The wild grass growing at the poor man’s door.” I absolutely love the work on fiddle.

When I was in my teens, I had the song “Guantanamera” on a 1960s folk compilation cassette that I listened to a lot. On that tape, it was the recording by The Sandpipers. The version here by John McCutcheon has a bright, lively island sound with some nice work on percussion. It is sung as a duet, the female vocals provided by Katia Cardenal. Plus, this version has a horn section, helping to make it one the best versions I’ve heard. That’s followed by “Sailing Down My Golden River,” this one too  performed as a duet, this time with Suzy Bogguss. What a beautiful rendition of a wonderful and moving song. I really like John’s work on hammer dulcimer. Then John McCutcheon gives us a cool jazzy rendition of “Letter To Eve,” one of Pete Seeger’s most powerful songs, and one that will likely affect anyone who listens to it now. “If you want to have great love, you’ve got to have great anger/When I see innocent folks shot down, you want me to just shake my head and frown.” There is a lot of great playing on this track, including some wonderful stuff on keys and some excellent touches on the horns.

There is more pretty work on hammer dulcimer on John McCutcheon’s version of “Living In The Country,” the only instrumental track on this CD. This tune has a pleasant, cheerful, almost magical vibe, and features some good stuff on fiddle. John then delivers a decidedly funky take on “Talking Union,” the lyrics delivered as a rap. That makes sense, right? After all, this song is one of those talking blues numbers, a form which has more than a little in common with rap. Corey Harris joins John McCutcheon on vocals. And check out that bass! That’s followed by the album’s title track, “To Everyone In All The World,” on which John plays banjo. This is one of those folk songs that we learn as a child, but the significance of which strikes us again in our adult years. It is simple and straightforward and wonderful.

“Turn, Turn, Turn” is one of Pete Seeger’s most famous songs, thanks largely to the version by The Byrds, but its lyric was mostly written hundreds of years earlier, appearing in The Book of Ecclesiastes. This version begins softly on piano, then picks up in energy and power. John shares the vocals with Trent Wagler. It’s a really good rendition. The album concludes with “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a traditional number, a hymn. John McCutcheon has recorded this one before, using it as the title track on his 1975 debut release. He’s performed it a cappella. On this new rendition, the instruments backing him are only a Tibetan singing bowl and organ. This is a perfect way to end this remarkable release.

CD Track List
  1. Well May The World Go
  2. If I Had A Hammer
  3. God Bless The Grass
  4. Die Gedanken Sind Frei
  5. Guantanamera
  6. Sailing Down My Golden River
  7. Letter To Eve
  8. Mrs. Clara Sullivan’s Letter
  9. Living In The Country
  10. Talking Union
  11. To Everyone In All The World
  12. Turn, Turn, Turn
  13. The Spider’s Web
  14. Waist Deep In The Big Muddy
  15. How Can I Keep From Singing? 
To Everyone In All The World: A Celebration Of Pete Seeger is scheduled to be released on January 11, 2019.

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