Songs Based on World Literature


John McCutcheon

Destination: Everywhere

Music: John McCutcheon’s album Mightier Than the Sword (Appalsongs Records)

A GUEST POST by Kerry Dexter

John McCutcheon a musician who has written songs for children and adults,  has released more than thirty albums, and  is respected as a teacher and player on hammered dulcimer, banjo, and many other instruments.

McCutcheon is also a reader. One afternoon while on tour with his music he was browsing in a bookstore and came across Barbara Kingsolver’s book Small Wonders. Reading one of her essays, he heard the words of a song. The idea for the album Mightier Than the Sword was born.

Across fourteen tracks on the album McCutcheon collaborates, in varied ways, with writers ranging from Kingsolver to Pablo Neruda to Rita Dove. McCutcheon’s  hand is distinct in the songs — this isn’t setting prose or poetry to music — and so is the voice of the author with whom he works. If you’re familiar with Lee Smith’s southern novels, Neruda’s vivid images in poetry, or Kingsolver’s forthright essays, you’ll have no trouble figuring out which songs come from whose work without referring to the liner notes. In some cases songs were simply inspired by McCutcheon’s reading; in some cases he collaborated with living authors; and in others he drew from the works of those who have passed on.

Though some songs work better than others, one commonality they share is McCutcheon’s respect for story. With that, he’s able to translate the ideas in these diverse written works into the spare and poetic forms required by song. Sail Away, for example, was inspired by Carmen Agra Deedy’s story The Yellow Star, about Denmark during World War II. McCutcheon sings, in a section connecting verses about a couple separated by the conflict

I number the stars
In the heavens each night
Across these seas that divide us
We are guided by their light

In the liner notes, McCutcheon offers lyrics and often, a bit of back story about how each song came to be. There’s also a section with short biographies of the authors, who in addition to Kingsolver, Smith, Dove, Deedy, and Neruda, include Wendell Berry, Woody Guthrie, and Sister Helen Prejean.


Album Cover

Leave it to Kerry to find an album that fits so well in the Traveler’s Library. I love to see the arts mix and mingle like this. Thanks, Kerry, for this lovely find. Kerry is our partner in the Great American Road Trip, and each Wednesday you can click over to Music Road for her suggestions to accompany our road trip stops in individual states.

Kerry Dexter

About Kerry Dexter

Kerry Dexter is a regular contributor to A Traveler’s Library, bringing her knowledge of music and musicians who share a sense of place and travel. Her work also appears in Journey to Scotland and the Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, among other places. Check out her bio on the contributor’s page to learn more and see her site at Music Road.

8 thoughts on “Songs Based on World Literature

  1. Fantastic! The husband and I love to make mixes/playlists/whatever the kids call them these days based on the places we’re visiting – adding this to the “to buy” list right now.

    And PS, did you know that Nick Hornby and Ben Folds are collaborating on an album? Eagerly anticipated in this house!

  2. Thanks for introducing me to McCutheon. I have a fascination with dulcimer’s since one of my favorite, favorite poems, “Kubla Khan” has a line about a “damsel with a dulcimer.”

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