Autumnsongs In My Hometown

by John McCutcheon
Rounder Records, 1998 $14.99

In My Hometown
by Tom Chapin
Sony Wonder, 1998 $11.99

School mornings begin early at our house, now that school start time has changed from 8:40 a.m. to 7:40 a.m. Dad--the only morning person in the family--rises sometime between six and six-thirty and begins to do his impression of an army drill sergeant. Eventually, I guiltily drag myself out of bed to make breakfast (pour milk on cereal) and pack lunches.

It helps when we begin this whole process with the aid of some lively music. It used to be Raffi's "Rise and Shine," followed by "Walk to School." But now that our children are entering second and fifth grades, they've left Raffi far behind. How convenient that this fall one of our favorite folkies, Tom Chapin, has come to the rescue with a new release--his seventh family album since his own children started to outgrow Raffi ten years ago (which is what inspired him to start recording children's music, he writes in the liner notes).

The overall theme of In My Hometown celebrates the small town community, and it is especially pertinent to my family as we prepare to move from one Minneapolis neighborhood to another. In our search for a bigger house, we have discovered that each neighborhood in this populated city is like a small town.

The Irish-influenced melody of "Hometown" starts with the Irish whistle and drum, then leads into a very catchy chorus: "Hometown. Deedle deidle dum./Everybody needs a place to come from." Although Chapin's notes indicate that the song "could be about many of the Hudson River towns near where I live," its real genius is in the way the lyrics by John Foster capture the flavor of any town or neighborhood: "Sing a song of nosy neighbors,/Nosy but they're on your side./Sing a song of ball games,/Book fairs, yard sales,/Sing a song of hometown pride."

"Don't Miss the Bus," is sure to become our school morning theme song. Although in Chapin's version, with lyrics by frequent collaborator Michael Mark, it's mom who "bangs on the bedroom door" and says (in the chorus) "Get up get up get up get up!/She makes an awful fuss./Get up get up get up get up!/Don't miss the bus!" The tune employs a fast-paced syncopated rhythm, a folk-rock guitar riff and some punchy brass to convey its urgent message. Other songs on this album encompass a diversity of musical styles, from ska, boogie woogie, and doo wop to classical.

If Chapin doesn't get the kids up, then we'll get them moving to the irresistible rhythms of "It's Fall," the first song on John McCutcheon's newest CD, Autumnsongs, which is the third in McCutcheon's Four Seasons series (Springsongs is due in 1999). In this New Orlean's-style jazzy tune, McCutcheon celebrates his favorite season, "The world turns yellow, orange and red/At grandma's house we will all be fed/On pumpkin pie and gingerbread/It's fall, that's all."

Like Chapin, McCutcheon draws upon diverse musical traditions for a spirited and eclectic collection. He even borrows a riff from the famous Bach "Toccato and Fugue in D Minor" to open the ominous rock tune, "Halloween" (complete with screaming guitar).

McCutcheon has a way of reaching in and pulling on your emotions without straying into the saccharin. "World Series '57" is a classic example: this folk ballad recalls when "The Milwaukee Braves beat the New York Yankees for the only World Series title in Wisconsin's history," writes Wisconsinite McCutcheon in the liner notes. It also recalls the time before free agency and crass commercialism, "When a town loved a team/And a team loved a town/And you cheered for your heroes/Even when they were down."

No CD about autumn would be complete without references to school, and here McCutcheon employs angst-ridden rock to capture the pure agony of the "New Kid in School." "I'm the new kid in a new school/The first day is a hundred hours long/Please, please/Everything I do I know is wrong." As well, it seems standard for McCutcheon to incorporate a lesson about the labor movement. He always manages to do this artfully, and in this series he uses a cheerful Mexican rhythm and a synthesiser replicating the vibraphone, along with a trumpet, to convey Cesar Chavez's message "Si Se Puede (Yes We Can)."

He follows this, and closes the album, with a touching and thoughtful folk-ballad tribute, "Labor Day." A soaring mixed-voice choir honors "The ones who work behind the plow/The ones who stand and will not bow/The ones who care for home and child/ The ones who labor meek and mild / The ones who work a thousand ways/That we might celebrate this day/The ones who raise our cities tall/ For those who labor, one and all . . . To all who work this world we say/ Happy Labor Day."

Sharon Parker is a frequent reviewer of music for Minnesota Parent.

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