John McCutcheon's 37th album introduces a necessary voice from the past with an important message for the present. A triumphant work.
It has been 25 years since Smithsonian Folkways released Don't Mourn - Organize!, featuring Pete Seeger, Hazel Dickens, Utah Phillips, and Billy Bragg among its folk-star-studded cast of performers covering the songs of labor union legend Joe Hill. That album achieved its mission of introducing a new generation to Hill's important songs, though it was hampered by inconsistencies in recording quality and sonic continuity. On Joe Hill's Last Will, John McCutcheon sets out to introduce Joe Hill to 21st century listeners, and he does so triumphantly.
Joe Hill's songs—particularly "There is Power in a Union", "Rebel Girl", and "The Preacher and the Slave", wherein he coined the popular phrase "pie in the sky,"—have been sung at labor gatherings and around campfires for over a century now, though he is hardly a household name. The songwriter and labor organizer was only 35 years old when he was executed in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1915, for the murder of a grocer and his son. As William M. Adler carefully spells out in his 2011 biography, The Man Who Never Died, Hill was almost certainly innocent of the crime, but unfortunate coincidence and his widely known identity as a Socialist and "Wobblie" (that is, a member of the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World) made him a convenient suspect. He had suffered a gunshot wound the same evening of the crime, though Adler convincingly demonstrates that his injury was the result of an unfortunate love-triangle, identifying not just his paramour and the rival for her affections, but also the probable true murderer. Nonetheless, Hill's unwillingness to speak in his own defense sealed his fate amidst the prejudiced Salt Lake City justice system. After his execution, the IWW arranged to take possession of Hill's body, which was cremated, with the ashes separated into 600 envelopes that were then mailed to union offices worldwide in remembrance of his martyrdom.
The album opens with Hill's satirical take on the Casey Jones legend, where the mythical train conductor's actions are anything but heroic. In Hill's version, Casey is behind the wheel of the ill-fated train only because he has crossed a picket line of striking workers. After driving the train into the river, he finds himself in Heaven just as the Heavenly Musician's Union has itself gone on strike. As on earth, Jones crosses that line only to end up in Hell shoveling sulpher, the proper place and job for a scab. Of a different tack, the quiet, beautiful "Joe Hill's Last Will" is based upon the lyric poem Hill wrote the evening before his death, to which McCutcheon has provided the melody. "Let the merry breezes blow my dust to where some flower grows," he sings these near final words of the man, "perhaps some fading flower then would spring to life and bloom again." Hill's songs blossom like the dust he imagined, and McCutcheon presciently places "Last Will" not at the album's end, but rather as track four, so that most of Hill's songs follow, just as, following his death, his message has continued on.
John McCutcheon is a perfect fit for these songs, a troubadour not unlike Pete Seeger in his commitment to social justice and long, distinguished career as a writer, performer, and collector of folk songs. McCutcheon's career spans over 40 years, and this is his 37th release. Joe Hill's Last Will may be the first comprehensive collection of Hill's songs to receive the full studio treatment, with McCutcheon's pickup band fleshing out the songs in true period fashion. If so, it's an added triumph. Hill composed his lyrics to popular songs and melodies of his time, and McCutcheon carefully annotates each source. Most who have experienced Hill's songs have probably done so in minimal conditions for presentation. McCutcheon's stewardship of these songs and his tasteful arrangements of the instrumental accompaniment do them proud. One can't help but feel that Joe Hill would be pleased in hearing the power of his words woven into such musical artistry.
McCutcheon shares the producer's hat with Bob Dawson and surrounds himself with a healthy union meeting's worth of guest musicians, all of whom breathe life into these old songs, reinvigorating them for new listeners. "The Preacher and the Slave" comes across as an enlightened Salvation Army band hymn with the marching band horn accompaniment of Graham Breedlove, John Jenson, and Dave Brown. "What We Want" offers McCutcheon an opportunity to show off his long-established dulcimer wizardry while Marcy Marxer's chiming guitar and Ricky Simpkins' bright accompaniments on violin and mandolin add to the song's uplifting mood. Mark Shatz provides an impish, jazz-inflected bass foundation to "Casey Jones – Union Scab". McCutcheon masterfully fuses the traditional jig "The Connaughtman's Rambles" to Hill's "Overalls and Snuff", giving Billy McComisky, Patrick McAvinue and Josh Dukes a spotlight for their lively accordion, fiddle and guitar interplay. The culmination of all, of course, comes with "There is Power in a Union", Hill's masterwork. McCutcheon's warm voice leads a growing chorus of voices joined together in song and purpose.
This, despite its centennial origins, is a necessary album for our times. Were Joe Hill to rise from his scattered ashes and walk the streets of 2015 America, there's little that he'd find here different from his own times once he got past the shock of our high-tech toys. In McCutcheon's own words: "And here we are, a century later, in the throes of yet another anti-immigrant surge. Workers' rights have eroded. Wages have stagnated. The gap between the wealthy and the rest yawns even more widely." This is an album that needs to be heard, filled with songs that need to be sung.