Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine
One of my most extraordinary folk music experiences occurred in the spring of 2012 when I journeyed from Alberta to Chicago for a blustery weekend including attendance at a most memorable Old Town School of Folk Music concert. Ably aided by (surprise, to me) guest (and personal favourite) Tracy Grammar, John McCutcheon provided a couple hours of riveting entertainment inspired by the breadth of the folk tradition.
An acknowledged master, the stoutness of that evening ensured that—moving forward—I would make myself increasingly familiar with McCutcheon’s music.
The COVID-19 lockdown and self-quarantine have caused many musicians and troubadours to retreat from performance; others have pushed forward with online events. John McCutcheon? He decided to write an album’s worth of songs, many directly inspired by the last few months.
Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine reveals no sense of having been created in isolation over a period of mere weeks. As each McCutcheon album encountered does, it contains a set of songs reflective and insightful, universally moving, affecting, light, and silly in turns. As far as I am concerned, it stands among his finest.
Several songs speak directly to the ongoing pandemic. “Front Lines,” “Six Feet Away,” and “Sheltered in Place”—one a tribute to local heroes, the next—by McCutcheon’s admission—a ‘goofy song’ of courtship, and the final a reflection on homelessness in times of isolation—are each wee modern classics. Beautiful, really.
Also related to recent events is a heartfelt remembrance, “The Night That John Prine Died.” While feelings may remain raw around the unnecessary death of a master songsmith, this sincere elegy to a friend is significant as an expression of appreciation for a peer. McCutcheon sings,
He seemed to pluck his songs
Out of thin air
They told our tiny triumphs
And lives filled with despair.
Complex in their simplicity
So honest and so true
Just what every writer
Wished that they could do.
A remarkable description of Prine’s gifts, one that equally applies to McCutcheon.
It is incredible to me—someone who has found it increasingly difficult to locate inspiration to write of late—that these songs came to fruition in the few weeks of McCutcheon’s self-quarantine after returning from an Australian tour in mid-March. “My Dog Talking Blues” (“My dog don’t know no quarantine, She’s just happy I’m around”) and “When All of This Is Over” (“We learned how to be bored again, Found the time to dream”) are not only clever, they are poignant and eloquent, evidence of artistic mastery.
A challenging song of honest opinion, “Bristol Bay” is another highlight of the set utilizing imagery of those who spend their lives on the water.
Themes of acceptance (most notably within “Control” and “That’s All”), appreciation (“Beans” and “Vespers”), and faith (“The Donkey” and “Hallelujah Morning”) reoccur throughout the album, each a beautiful performance.
A pair of songs predate this spring. “One Hundred Years” examines mortality and legacy, themes McCutcheon has oft explored. “Traveler’s Rest,” named for McCutcheon’s north Georgia cabin, is a song of an aging seaman’s memories, realization that we all—eventually—long for home.
Available only as a pay-as-you-will download at McCutcheon’s website (https://www.folkmusic.com/store/p295/CabinFever.html) Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine is no throwaway. It is an important contribution to contemporary folk, an excellent set of timely songs and perspectives.