Album Review of
Mightier Than The Sword

Written by Joe Ross
July 18, 2014 - 12:00am EDT
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On "Mightier Than The Sword," McCutheon's focus is powerful messages. For inspiration, he collaborates with Barbara Kingsolver, Lee Smith, Wendell Berry, Carmen Agra Deedy, and Rita Dove, as well as posthumously with Woody Guthrie. Multiple Grammy nominee McCutcheon's 29th album is a voracious reader who spent many hours at his local public library. He considered books as his "refuge and launching pad," and he had found "a horizon of unending pleasure and passion." It was inevitable that the imagery and themes he encountered in books would eventually show up in his songs. "Dead Man Walking," for example, was written in 1994 immediately after being inspired by Sr. Helen Prejean's book of the same name. McCutheon composed the melody and a chorus for Guthrie's "Old Cap Moore," a vignette originally written in 1949 when Guthrie and family were living on Coney Island. Guthrie's lyrics for "Harness Up The Day" were found in the Guthrie Archives in 2005. 

Songs are also literary works, and the challenge was to put to music the words or inspirations of celebrated authors, a former U.S. Poet Laureate (Rita Dove), children's author (Carmen Agra Deedy), folk singer (Woody Guthrie), Nobel Laureate (Pablo Neruda), and Cuba's national poet (Jose Marti). The 14 songs are mostly given intimate settings, and their messages call for contemplation and deliberation. Such reflective material is often slower-tempo'ed, and it might have enhanced this project to pen a few more up-tempo pieces for additional contrast. Lyrics (including English translation for "Para Mi Corazon Basta Tu Pecho") are included in the CD's jacket. The words for "It's the Economy, Stupid," cover 4 pages in the booklet, and the song is an interesting, almost free-form kind of profound statement.

The album's closer holds one of his wisest statements as McCutheon sings an ode to common things … simple, small and good. As he states, "I might forget them if I would not pause each day and thus attest, I am a man uncommonly blest." Books and music could also be viewed as common things, but they hold great joy for those who explore them, capture their soul, and document their more uncommon intellectual depth of feelings or meanings. 

Track Listing for the 56-minute CD: 1. Our Flag Was Still There (Barbara Kingsolver & John McCutcheon), 2. La Mujer de Don Miguel (Carmen Agra Deedy & John McCutcheon), 3. Claudette Colvin Goes To Work (Rita Dove & John McCutcheon), 4. Good Ol' Girls (John McCutcheon, inspired by Lee Smith), 5. Dead Man Walking (John McCutcheon, inspired by the book by Sr. Helen Prejean, 6. Cultivo una Rosa Blanca (Jose Marti & John McCutcheon), 7. Harness Up the Day (Woody Guthrie & John McCutcheon), 8. Single Girl (Lee Smith & John McCutcheon), 9. Sail Away (John McCutcheon, inspired by Carmen Agra Deedy's "Yellow Star"), 10. Old Cap Moore (Woody Guthrie & John McCutcheon), 11. Para Mi Corazon Basta Tu Pecho (Pablo Neruda & John McCutcheon), 12. It's the Economy, Stupid (John McCutcheon, inspired by Wendell Berry's "Jayber Crow"), 13. Jaber Crow's Silly Song About Jesus (Wendell Berry & John McCutcheon), 14. Ode to Common Things (John McCutcheon, inspired by Pablo Neruda's "Ode To Common Things")