Utne Reader, Jan/Feb 1989
John McCutcheon (Gonna Rise Again, Rounder Records) is another singer who is no stranger to picket lines and protest rallies. But he is also and outstanding exponent of traditional Appalachian music, who can coax deep emotions out of a hammered dulcimer and autoharp. By marrying this deeply rooted tradition with contemporary rock and country influences, he forges a musical style well-suited to his message about the amazing endurance of what’s best in American culture - songs about abolitionists and old union victories as well as people’s fights today to save their communities and environment. But rather than political sermons, McCutcheon’s songs are more likely to concern an old-timer telling stories or three generations working the land together.
Daily Record, Morristown, ND February 14, 1988
Folksinger John McCutcheon has devoted much of his recent career to special projects - children’s recordings, instrumental recordings featuring his hammer dulcimer, a splendid Christmas album. Perhaps as a result, no single release has conveyed the full range of his talents - until now.
McCutcheon’s songs address social and political issues to the tune of simple, lovely folk melodies. He sings them in understated, quietly masculine tones, backed by a sophisticated mix of acoustic and electric instruments.
Much of Gonna Rise Again concerns farmers and farming. In "Water From Another Time," the singer finds mystical sustenance in the memory of childhood days on Grandpa’s farm. The farmer in "Long Way Back to Georgia" can’t understand the son who moved to the city because he "just couldn’t stand being poor." "The Farmer is a Woman" moves from a nursery rhyme to an inspirational number with a beat worthy of Bo Diddley. The heartbreaking "Dearest Martha" is a beleaguered farmer’s suicide note.
Other songs turn their sights elsewhere. An old miner laments the younger generation’s indifference to union struggles in "The Young Ones Don’t Remember." "Caught in the Crossfire " portrays the innocent victims of war in Nicaragua. "Harriet Tubman" celebrates the heroine of the Underground railroad; McCutcheon appends a verse about Latin American refugees.
These songs don’t browbeat you with their messages; instead they draw convincing characters and let them speak for themselves. Indeed, McCutcheon treats serious issues more artfully than a lot of better-known songwriters who get plenty of credit for their social consciousness.
The accompaniment ranges from chiming dulcimer to somber cello to screaming electric guitar and full-fledged rock arrangements. Leah Kunkel, sister of the late Mama Cass Elliott, stands out among the backup vocalists.
Sweet Potato (Maine Seacoast-NH Edit.) May 18, 1988
Musical fashions are absurd and fascinating. During the late ‘60s and early’70s, a pop music performer was judged as much by his message as by his medium. then, come the following decade or so, a mere hint of sociopolitical content was met with "Gimme a break, let’s boogie." Now, somewhere around 20 years after the summer of love, it is once again fashionable, and financially rewarding, to sing "We can change the world" at loud volume. such fashion swings are responsible for countless 18-month pop music careers, but they also afford a moment in the sun for the few rare performers who toil years in a musical sub-genre regardless of the vagaries of fashion. One such performer is John McCutcheon, and his latest album, Gonna Rise Again, should herald more than a moment of glory.
John McCutcheon’s background is in traditional Appalachian string-band music, as evidenced by the instruments he has chosen to master (hammered dulcimer, guitar, fiddle). However, his strong emotional ties to left-wing politics have never been for beneath the surface in his music, whether in the powerful WWI ballad "Christmas in the Trenches" on an otherwise cheery seasonal LP Winter Solstice, or his collaboration with Si Kahn on the politically motivated concept tour/album Sign of the Times. Whereas my reviewer’s pen has been quick (a little too quick at times) to skewer those "protest" singers whose motivations seem more mercenary than moral, I have found John McCutcheon’s music to be honest and straight both musically and socially. Gonna Rise Again achieves a rare balance of style and content that maintains absolute integrity on both hands.
The album opener, McCutcheon’s own "Water From Another Time," sets the tone with a rich and cheerful country/folk melody supporting lyrics that gently remind us of our obligation to provide a social context for our offspring as our forebears have provided for us. The historical perspective is revisited in a soulful rock arrangement of Walter Robinson’s "Harriet Tubman," with McCutcheon’s added verse drawing comparisons between escaped slaves of pre-Civil War America and today’s Latin American refugees. Then "Long Way Back to Georgia" and "Dearest Martha" (vignettes illuminating the plight of the American farmer) and "Caught in the Crossfire" (a latino/reggae rhythm building in intensity with ) cover current themes. "The Young One’s Don’t Remember" seeks to rekindle workers’ union fervor with a rousing rock anthem, whereas "Satisfied Mind" is an autoharp dirge (though you don’t mind). "The Farmer is a Woman" is a clever celebration of a woman’s love of the land, with a Cajun kick, hot country guitar, and a let’s hear it for all of us" attitude that goes a long way toward alleviating the divisiveness that characterizes too much of the music of the woman’s movement. Finally, Si Kahn’s "Gonna Rise Again," one of this decade’s most elegant and literary songs, is given a powerful reading that builds from a hammered dulcimer riff to a screaming rock bridge.
One cannot come away from a listening of this record without a strong impression of John McCutcheon’s genuine feeling of kinship with all members of the human race and his outrage at the suffering many of us must endure. Nevertheless, it is the urgency in his singing and the drive of his playing and arranging rather than the lyrics themselves that communicate, that cause me to turn the record back over for another listening.