There's a line from the song "Mistaken" off John McCutcheon's latest release "Leap!" that is simply stunning in its philosophical implications: "Most of what I love mistakes itself for nothing."
That line comes from the poem "Transubstantiation" by Molly McCully Brown, from her 2017 book of collected poetry "The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded."
"I said, 'God, that's a great line,' and I wrote a song around it," McCutcheon recounted via phone interview from his home in Georgia.
"I contacted her and I said, 'I love your work. I love this one poem and I want to use this line and I'm willing to give you co-writing (credit). Whatever you're willing to do."
"She said, 'Oh, my gosh, my parents raised me on your music!' and she said, 'No, please take it.'"
That kind of serendipitous familiarity and openness to the random connections and change in the universe are right at the heart of "Leap!" and its 18 songs. McCutcheon will perform in support of it Friday at World Records.
"I love (World Records' owner) Pat (Evans)," McCutcheon said. "The first time I ever met him, I just said (to myself), 'You know, if I lived here, this guy would be one of my best friends.' That he's willing to do something as outrageous as building a performance venue, it makes no sense at all. And people like that in the world I will support."
"I love his whole attitude toward what he's trying to do and what he is doing, and to be invited to be a part of that is a joy and an honor. So, whenever I get to come back to Bakersfield, it's like, 'Yes, please! More of that!'"
One of McCutcheon's last Bakersfield appearance was in January 2020, just a few months shy of the whole world sheltering in place for the COVID pandemic.
"Like every solo musician I know, I learned how to do online concerts," McCutcheon said. "I think it's a testimony to how much we missed being able to gather together and share an evening of music that people were willing to watch live music on their telephones and musicians were willing to sing to camera lenses."
"There were some really elemental things that were not there but we were still willing to do it because we needed it (seeing live music) so much."
McCutcheon took the pandemic downtime to immerse himself in his songwriting — something he could not do as effectively with his busy schedule — and recorded and released three albums: "Cabin Fever: Songs From the Quarantine" (2020), "Bucket List" (2021) and "Leap!" (2022). They were all recorded remotely by each of the musicians involved.
McCutcheon is currently in the process of writing another album with acclaimed folk music songwriter Tom Paxton who has worked with the likes of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and more.
Speaking of Cash, he was also a fan of McCutcheon, calling him "the most impressive instrumentalist I've ever heard." He wasn't kidding. Expect the 70-year-old McCutcheon to switch through a variety of instruments — especially the dulcimer — in his upcoming performance that will include material spanning his almost-five-decade career and 41 albums.
A highlight of his early career is the ethereal 1977 release "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" (highly recommended).
After becoming a father in the 1980s, McCutcheon found the children's music of the time to be condescending. He channeled that distaste and successfully released his first children's album, "Howjadoo," in 1983. This led to a string of children’s album releases that led to multiple Grammy Award nominations.
He also received a Grammy nomination for his 1984 song "Christmas in the Trenches."
The song, arguably his best known, tells the true story of the 1914 Christmas truce between British and German forces on the Western Front in France during the First World War. It's told from the point of view of a fictional character, British soldier Francis Toliver.
It all starts with soldiers mingling their German and English voices to sing "Silent Night" with each other from opposite sides of the battlefield and a lone German soldier crossing no-man's-land holding a truce flag that shone on that plain so bright "like a Christmas star."
Soon, one by one, the soldiers meet each other "hand to hand," trading cigarettes and chocolates, drinking secret brandy and sharing photographs of their loved ones. One of them plays the violin, another a squeezebox and even had a flare-lit game of soccer.
All of that ends once the sun comes up and the soldiers go back to their respective sides. The song ends with Toliver's realization that the ones calling the shots are rarely the ones that get shot and, regardless of which side of the rifle you're on, we're all more alike than not.
The song captures our capacity for humor, harmony, considerate goodwill and bravery in that very remarkable moment.
On "Leap!,” McCutcheon tells a variety of stories that focus on a particular place in time that many of us know very well: the moment of great realization. Each song is a little picture of a little scene illuminating the minor miracles in the mundane.
Those reverberate in the stories he tells, from the one of the immigrant worker deciding which segregated bathroom to use in the 1960s ("The Third Way,” a true story about his Cuban father-in-law, Carlos Agra) to a fictional musing about what it would be like to see someone wearing the clothes you donated ("Nobody Knows"), McCutcheon's lyrics are crisp, honest and vivid.
Some of the tracks are just straightforward observations on the challenges and injustices we currently face (the aptly titled "The Troubles," the crushing "Second Hand" and the environmental protest song "Sorry Land") and hopeful meditations of gratitude and purpose ("Everyday," and the title track).
By the way, huge props to the witty and touching "The Song When You Are Dead" for the line, "Rest in peace, knowing I'll be composing / As the same time you are decomposing."
"A lot of what we (songwriters) traffic in is, 'How do we get through this world and how do we make it worth it when we do,'" McCutcheon said. "That's one thing that folk music did for me right from the start."
However, the most transcendent moment on "Leap!" is its closing track, "Kora in the Subway."
The kora of the title refers to a West African harplike stringed instrument, most recently spotlighted in a "60 Minutes" report on musician Sona Jobarteh.
In the song, a commuter, on the way to see his son, comes across a musician playing the kora in a New York subway. The listener becomes so transfixed he sits on the subway floor to listen.
At first, the music evokes regional images brought out by the sound of the instrument — visions of Senegal, the "Veldt found to the south," a bustling marketplace and lone acacia trees — but those images soon intermingle with personal memories of the listener and of his family and hometown. It becomes a shared communal experience between two individuals intertwined and transported from the hectic din of the "weary, hot and crowded" subway by a shared solace of sound.
"Songs and stories are how we learned about ourselves," McCutcheon said. "About our ancestors, our place in the world, going back millennia. The early storytellers used the constellations as their storybook."
In the song, the listener tries to pay the musician who — much like poet Molly McCully Brown at the start of this story — refuses, illuminating that the moments that change us don't necessarily have a cost but they will forever have value. We're all stars in our respective movies, we're all in this together and we all have something to work toward in this, our intertwined tapestry.