Before I listened to Mightier Than the Sword, my experience with John McCutcheon’s music consisted of one track from his 1987 Step by Step, which featured the hammer dulcimer. The song is “Babylon is Fallen,” which is an old Sacred Harp tune, and one of my favorites to sing. When I bought that CD some years ago, I was singing with a shape note group in Kentucky. Now I’m in Washington, surprised to discover that this hammer dulcimer player is also a guitar-playing contemporary singer/songwriter of repute.
Mightier Than the Sword first attracted my attention because of its theme. McCutcheon has been a voracious reader for most of his life, and the themes from the books he read found their ways into his songs. For this recording, he took that a step further and collaborated with willing authors to write a collection of songs inspired by a particular book or poem of each author. I haven’t read any of the works that inspired this recording, but after having listened to it, I feel like I know the essences of them.
The song that kicked off the project is “Our Flag Was Still There,” which he co-wrote with Barbara Kingsolver, inspired by her book Small Wonders. On the surface it’s a hard one for me to swallow after having the flag shoved down my throat in blind patriotism over the past few years, but once I got past that I could see the message that no matter who we are or what we believe, we citizens of the United States of America are still connected by our past and our future. “I’ve seen it used as a weapon / To brand some as wrong / No one has the right, I’ll stand up and fight / To say I belong.”
The arrangement of the songs fits the themes, from the acoustic Latin folk tinged “Para Mí Corazón Basta Tú Pecho” (Pablo Neruda) to the sparse piano driven poem “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work” (Rita Dove) to the banjo and fiddle dance tune “Good Ol’ Girls” (Lee Smith). Without the literary theme, Mightier Than the Sword as a whole would seem disjointed and confused, but the theme brings it together like the books on your night stand. It’s well worth giving the CD a spin, particularly if you spend an equal amount of time in the music section of Barnes & Noble as in the book section.
- Our Flag Was Still There – Barbara Kingsolver & John McCutcheon
- La Mujer de Don Miguel – Carmen Agra Deedy & John McCutcheon
- Claudette Colvin Goes to Work – Rita Dove & John McCutcheon
- Good Old Girls – John McCutcheon, inspired by Lee Smith
- Dead Man Walking – John McCutcheon, inspired by Sr. Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking
- Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca – Jose Martí & John McCutcheon
- Harness Up the Day – Woody Guthrie & John McCutcheon
- Single Girl – Lee Smith & John McCutcheon
- Sail Away – John McCutcheon, inspired by Carmen Agra Deedy’s Yellow Star
- Old Cap Moore – Woody Guthrie & John McCutcheon
- Para Mí Corazón Basta Tú Pecho – Pablo Neruda & John McCutcheon
- It’s the Economy, Stupid – John McCutcheon, inspired by Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow
- Jaber Crow’s Silly Song – Wendell Berry & John McCutcheon
- Ode to Common Things – John McCutcheon, inspired by Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Common Things