John McCutcheon,
Supper's on the Table
... Everybody Come In

(Rounder, 2001)

This recording in the Rounder Heritage collection is intended to be a cross-section of John McCutcheon's work in order to present the artist as a person worthy of legend status. As such, there's little point in reviewing each tune, since all but two have appeared on previous recordings. The real question is, does this collection truly represent John McCutcheon?

There's certainly an even selection with John playing most of the instruments for which he's known -- acoustic and slide guitars, hammered dulcimer, autoharp, mandolin, banjo and didgeridoo, although there is no fiddle. There's also a fair representation of accompanists -- with internationally recognized folks like Michael Aharon on piano and organ, Pete Kennedy on guitar, John D'Earth on trumpet and Seamus Egan on Irish whistle, flutes and uilleann pipes. And given that the list of internationally known folk musicians with whom McCutcheon has played is probably longer than your arm, this is really a short list. On the other hand, when you've only got room for 17 selections, you can't have it all, and these musicians represent McCutcheon's "inner core" of accompanists.

McCutcheon's subject areas are not limited to one genre, either, and several of these are represented as well. There are family-oriented songs, such as "Calling All the Children Home" (from Live at Wolf Trap), "Happy Adoption Day" (from Family Garden), "The Principle" (from Bigger Than Yourself), "Soup" (from Wintersongs) and "Starlight" (from Doing Our Job). There are political action songs, including "Labor Day" (from Autumnsongs), "Dead Man Walking" (from Doing Our Job) and "Jericho" and "Closing the Bookstore" (both from Storied Ground). There are also everyday folk songs, including "Who'll Rock the Cradle" (from Sprout Wings & Fly), "Mending Fences" (from Between the Eclipse), "Snow in April" (from Springsongs) and "The Memory of Old Jack" (from Nothing to Lose). And, there are two hammered dulcimer instrumentals, "Leviathan" (from What's It Like) and "The Perseids" (from Summersongs). Missing are any of McCutcheon's interpretations of traditional folk songs, since all of the selections included were written by McCutcheon.

The previously unreleased songs are "Immigrant" and "Room at the Top of the Stair." While the sentiment in the former tune is admirable, there is noticeable difficulty fitting the meter of the words to the beat of the melody. And the latter is a somewhat maudlin tune about babies growing up and leaving home. But it's these sorts of everyday subjects that are the inspiration for folk songs and for which McCutcheon is well-known and well-received.

If you're wondering why this particular artist was chosen for the Rounder Heritage collection, and unfortunately, it seems that only hard-core folkies, dulcimer players or parents of young children have ever heard of McCutcheon, there's a hefty booklet included (calling them liner notes is an understatement -- it's a tome compared to most CD inclusion documentation.) There are more than 12 pages of information about McCutcheon explaining his impact in the folk music community in addition to the words and credits for all the songs on the CD.

McCutcheon has been around since the '70s, and although he currently has 25 recordings to his name, this compendium selects only from his 13 recordings in the 1990s. Thus, considering the author's extensive body of work, this selection is rather limited. The liner notes even admit that several of his better songs didn't even make the cut, but don't explain why the songs chosen were included or why the missing songs were excluded. Are they McCutcheon's favorites? Are they the editor's favorites? No explanation is given.

While this is certainly an interesting cross-section of McCutcheon's work and worthwhile to keep from an historical perspective, it doesn't make for an interesting CD to toss on the player for listening. Two of the categories for which John is known -- political songs and children's songs -- just don't seem to fit well on the same recording, lending an almost inharmonious, disorientated feel to the CD. If you like folk music, and especially if you like John McCutcheon, you're better off spending your money on the original recordings.

[ by Alanna Berger ]
Rambles: 30 March 2002

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