John McCutcheon comes from the Pete Seeger school of folk music. As a young man he travel throughout Appalachia to learn from the masters of mountain music. He’s a master of the hammered dulcimer and plays a mean guitar and banjo too. He’s been a guardian of the folk tradition, a pioneer of children’s music that treats kids with respect and, of course a composer of original folk tunes. Like Seeger and the Canadian master, Stan Rogers, McCutcheon is a storyteller. He’s a fine spinner of tales and his stories often are political and moral sermons. McCutcheon’s songs often pull at the heartstrings in a way that dares listeners not to tear up a little.
Ghost Light, it McCutcheon’s 39th album and there is a sense of mortality hanging in the air. The title track is a story about a stage manager tending his theater. The ghost light of the album’s title is the lone light left burning on stage overnight. The character telling us the story muses that soon the ghost light will be for him. “Story of Abe” tells of a holocaust survivor reminiscing about loss and finally getting his camp tattoo removed. These are stories that celebrate the spirited folks who have made it to advanced age.
McCutcheon has something to say about the way big money messes up the American dream. “Burley Coulter at the Bank” is a critic of financial institutions reducing people to zeros and ones when in the old days local banks bet on the person. It’s a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life without the happy ending. “Dark Side of Town” personalizes the opioid epidemic with the story of a small town boy who gets lost to the pills and bottles. The song begins with lamenting that that Billy didn’t come home last night and wonders if he’ll ever be found again.
The emotional heart of Ghost Light is “The Machine”. In the song, a World War II veteran living in Charlottesville, Virginia reacts to seeing neo-Nazis marching though his town. Our narrator tells of the beaches of Normandy and liberating Birkenau and how he “didn’t fight the Nazis to them in this place”. He reminisces that “Woody Guthrie had this guitar, with the best sign I have seen. This Machine Kills Fascists” and concludes that “we must be the machine” In a rare moment, McCutcheon breaks from his calm, almost resigned delivery to spit out the line, “either stand up and be counted, or get the hell out of the way.” I’d really like it if John had unleashed a little more of this passion. Considering the seriousness of what he’s singing about, he’s being way too polite.
Now, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Ghost Light is all gloom and despair. The trio of songs that open the album are fairly jubilant. “A Perfect Day” is an ode to just that. “The Road” celebrates the freedom to travel and the automobile. “She Just Dances” share the joy of watching a baby getting into music for the first time; She doesn’t know and doesn’t care, she just dances.