Doing our Job

John McCutcheon and Tom Chapin

CD 0411

Rounder Records Corp.
One Camp Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02140

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange by Moshe Landsman (moshelea@netvision.net.il)

"I am here tonight to pass the music on."

This line from their second track is the closest I can get to summarizing the joy of this album of songs from highly diverse roots. All of the songs that Tom and John bring us in this presentation have an unmistakable folk/acoustic tradition running through their veins, and give the listener a feeling of being a real link on the golden chain.

John McCutcheon and Tom Chapin are both accomplished singer/songwriters in their own right, and began performing together on and off in 1988. Even though this their only album together, recorded live in December 1996, it gives a feeling that they work together all the time. They are joined by Bobby Read and Michael Mark who help out with woodwinds and keyboard (Bobby) and bass and concertina (Michael). The sidemen are a great addition, but John and Tom cover a wide variety of acoustic instruments with seemingly equal ability.

The album opens with a rousing rendition of Pete Seeger's Well May the World Go. John's gusty banjo picking gives a real Pete Seeger feeling that makes me feel the potential of the song without the chorus that encroaches on Pete's recording of the song in his new album. The words ("Well may the world go when I'm far away") take on a sobering meaning if we remember that Pete is pushing 80.

It takes a lot of guts to rearrange someone else's material, and with Woody Guthrie's Pastures of Plenty John makes it work. His interpretation gives a haunting pathos which was played down in the original. Bobby gives the song a slight bluesy touch that brings out a fuller innuendo with his sax. I personally feel that John and Tom give the fullest interpretation of this song that I have ever heard. By the way, the track notes say that the song is "words and music by Woody Guthrie", so I don't know who to give the credit to for this wonderful arrangement.

This combination works less well in the traditional Every Night, at least to my ear. I feel that "real" folk music goes through a refining process by natural selection and therefore is harder to improve upon. Tom's vocal is great, but the instrumentation is too heavy for my sensibilities.

Dead Man Walking , written, composed and sung by John, is a forceful expression of the ever and arbitrary presence of death ("One hand on the trigger and the other on the switch/One of 'em is innocent I can't say which") combined with deep and poignant outrage at grave injustice ("...an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind", "From the very first steps to the last of their lives/ We'll pay more to kill him than to see he survives"). The genius of the musical arrangement works wonders with the lyrics for unbelievable power.

There are also a couple of beautiful love songs: Make it Right (by Tom) and Heaven Help (by John and Tom) which, contrary to the '90's fashion, are melodious expressions of mature love between long-time partners. Suffice it to say that during Heaven Help, my wife came in from an adjoining room and put her arms around me, almost before she heard the words!

It seems to me that the test of an acoustic album is its singability: Are these songs you want to learn and sing? If this is the acid test, this fine album passes with flying colors. You will definitely catch me singing "The older I get you know the better I was" as I roar down Main Street on my tour bicycle!

Other Great Tracks:

  • Northfield (traditional)/Pass the Music On (Si Kahn and Tom Chapin)
  • Our Mothers Built This City (Tom Chapin and Si Kahn)
  • Doing My Job (John McCutcheon)
  • I Don't Care (John McCutcheon)
  • Hard Cider (John McCutcheon and Tom Chapin)
  • River Gonna Carry Me (John McCutcheon)
  • The Older I Get (John McCutcheon and Tom Chapin)
  • Starlight (John McCutcheon)
  • Welcome the Traveler Home (John McCutcheon)

Edited by Paula Gregorowicz

Copyright 1998, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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