John McCutcheon

15 Most Memorable John McCutcheon Storytelling Songs

Growing up in Kansas, September has always been an extraordinary time of year. It marked the coming of the Walnut Valley Festival and, with it, the arrival of various folk artists and fans worldwide.

From the age of 4, I immersed myself in the teachings of John McCutcheon, one of the most prolific folk artists of all time. As a child, his kid’s songs taught me the value of friendships and loving others.

As I grew, the music of John McCutcheon continued to shape me into the person I am today. For many fans, his storytelling songs are favorites. After all, McCutcheon is a master class in weaving a tale through song.

Over the past 50 years, he has captivated his audiences worldwide with his lyrics and accompanying instrumentals that show just how beautiful life is with music in it. Below is a list of the 15 Most Memorable John McCutcheon Storytelling Songs ranked in no particular order.

1. Christmas in the Trenches – Winter Solstice (1984)

One of John McCutcheon’s most famous songs, Christmas in the Trenches, tells the story of one Christmas morning during World War I. On this day, both sides of the war put down their weapons and met in no man’s land to play soccer, eat, dance, and sing together to celebrate the holiday.

It’s a beautiful song that shows even when you are on opposite sides of an argument, politics, or even a war, there’s a chance you have things in common. These young men came from different worlds and fought against one another, except for one day when they came together and found unity and love.

2. Medicine Game – Bucket List (2021)

On John McCutcheon’s 2021 album, the song Medicine Game stands out for its story regarding the acceptance and acknowledgment of our nation’s Indigenous tribes. By detailing what transpired in the months leading up to the 2022 World Lacrosse Games, McCutcheon shows how much Indigenous people get overlooked regarding competition regulations.

The song tells audiences about how the Iroquois team was ranked number 3 in the world. Still, World Lacrosse told them they weren’t a sovereign nation — despite that team being a combination of at least 6 Indigenous tribes. Then Ireland drops out of the championship for the Iroquois team to be allowed to play.

After all, Indigenous people are the ones who invented lacrosse, which they call Medicine Game.

3. In the Streets of Sarajevo – Stand Up! Broadsides for Our Times (2004)

During the Balkan War, there was a mortar attack on the last working bakery in Sarajevo, killing 22 people standing in a bread line. In response to this tragedy, Vedran Smailovic, cellist with the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra, would step outside at ten every morning for the next 22 mornings and play music to honor the dead.

The lyrics of this song transports listeners back to that time and the uncertainty the war brought to that city in particular. Somehow, during all the chaos, this man’s music created a beauty that could never be taken away, and In the Streets of Sarajevo truly captures that in the way only John McCutcheon can.

4. Casey Jones, the Union Scab – Joe Hill’s Last Will (2015)

In today’s climate, this story of a man who didn’t care about the strike his fellow workers were participating in is especially true. Casey Jones, the Union Scab ensures that listeners understand the complexities of unions and how the actions of one person can affect the lives of many others.

Once a scab, always a scab, even after you die, a lesson that Casey Jones learns well when he dies on the job. The song tells how he goes to heaven, but the Angels Union protests, and he’s sent down to hell instead.

This song was first penned by Joe Hill, a labor activist and songwriter part of the Industrial Workers of the World, in the early 1900s. Many folk singers have performed it over the years.

5. Cross that Line – Storied Ground (1999)

Everyone knows who Jackie Robinson is, which makes Cross that Line all the more memorable as a song. While it centers on Jackie Robinson as a player, the music is about his teammate Pee Wee Reese’s response to the hatred he saw Robinson receiving.

During a time when whites and blacks were not permitted to interact or share spaces, Reese and Robinson became a baseball duo like the game had never seen before. The lyrics detail how both of these men knew they came from different worlds, but on the baseball field, they were the same.

6. Dearest Martha – Gonna Rise Again (1987)

Once upon a time, our nation’s farmers were revered and able to make a living by working the land. In the past few decades, that reality has changed, and with it, the struggles of these men and women go unnoticed by most Americans.

Dearest Martha sets out to shine a light on the dissolving of farming as a viable occupation as our country imports more and more goods. Being unable to pay the bills and find joy every day, some of these farmers turn to the unthinkable to save their families.

The emotions of this song are palpable as McCutcheon unfolds the story of one man’s final letter to his wife.

7. Zilphia’s Piano – Bucket List (2021)

One of the most beautiful things about Zilphia’s Piano is that it gives a history lesson through the eyes of a piano. Once again, McCutcheon puts into words the importance of music and how it shapes history and culture.

Zilphia Horton was the first cultural director of the Highlander Folk School from 1935 to 1956, and her piano played a central role in the school long after she was gone. The lyrics tell tales of how her influence changed the music world in small ways, significantly impacting all the musicians who came through The Highlander.

8. Front Line – Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine (2020)

The height of the COVID-19 pandemic saw many artists and entertainers scrambling to create art that would raise people’s spirits or show those on the front lines that they weren’t alone. This song is McCutcheon’s answer to that particular call.

Front Line calls attention to all the sacrifices first responders made during that difficult and often scary part of our recent history. However, it remains timeless in recognizing the selfless acts people on the front lines perform daily — regardless of a worldwide virus.

9. Harriet Tubman – Gonna Rise Again (1987)

The element that makes Harriet Tubman stand out isn’t that it’s about the difference made by Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. It’s that the lyrics paint a picture of what it felt like to be someone escaping persecution and slavery in the dark of night.

McCutcheon’s way of verbal imagery makes this tune timeless and relatable to causes beyond slavery. Anyone who has had to escape their home and all they’ve known under a veil of shadow knows the emotions behind this song.

It teaches us to be more understanding of each other and help our fellow man whenever possible.

10. I Am Here – Hail to the Chief (2003)

Sure, I Am Here was written for a concert at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown 2001. But, at its core, this song provides a more universal message than simply being “about baseball.”

There is an anthem element to it that begs the song to be declared loudly, not just sung. The lyrics tell us that we are all here to exist for the success of those who come after us.

Our success means they’ll feel brave enough to follow our paths and create their dreams and ambitions.

11. Le Chambon-sur-Lignon – Bucket List (2021)

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon - John McCutcheon

This beautiful song about community and looking out for others starts with the narrator standing up and saying, “I’ll take them.” It’s a phrase that evokes many emotions in anyone who’s ever known struggle or the need for a helping hand.

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, on the surface, is about a small town in France known for sheltering those in need and providing them with love, homes, and food. However, digging a little deeper, you’ll find no geography at the heart of this song.

Human connection and compassion are universal, after all.

12. Sermon on the Mound – Sermon on the Mound (2008)

Sermon on the Mound - John McCutcheon

One of John McCutcheon’s more autobiographical songs, Sermon on the Mound, regales the summer his uncle came to stay with his family. He learned many things that summer from this man who used to do many great and wonderful things.

The song’s message rings out loud and true — we must always live each day like it will be our last. Everything we do will be remembered by the ones we love — terrible and great — so be sure to choose your path wisely.

It’s a truth we all need to hear, even if we don’t always want to listen.

13. Sara Tucholsky – Untold (2009)

Sara Tucholsky - John McCutcheon

Pulling from real-world events once more, McCutcheon spins the tale of good sportsmanship during a summer game of softball. Sara Tucholsky is about a player from one team getting injured while rounding the bases after a homerun and being supported the rest of the way by opposing team members.

It’s one thing to be a team player, but something else entirely to help the competition win the game. Sometimes, a moment comes for you to put aside your victories and instead help your fellow man achieve their own success.

That is the heartwarming and meaningful story of Sara Tucholsky.

14. The Room at the Top of the Stair – Supper’s On the Table…Everyone Come In! (2001)

The Room at the Top of the Stair - John McCutcheon

John McCutcheon wrote this song in honor of his son, Will. The Room at the Top of the Stair is the perfect ode to parenthood in all its seasons.

At the start, the excitement comes with the anticipation of your first child and filling up a previously empty room. Then, as the story progresses through the child’s life occupying the space, the imagery changes through thoughtful lyrics.

By ending the song with a full circle moment about his son leaving for college, McCutcheon draws people in with the many emotions and nuances of being a parent during a season of change.

15. Water from Another Time – Water from Another Time (1989)

Water from Another Time - John McCutcheon

From the perspective of grandkids spending time at their grandparents’ place, Water from Another Time tells how everything we have is connected to the past.

McCutcheon’s voice takes us on our journeys back in time to when we would visit our family elders and learn lessons from them. It speaks to the cyclical way that cultures and families pass down their histories through stories, traditions, and songs.

We all could use the reminder that everything we know comes to us from another time.

What John McCutcheon songs do you remember the most? Let us know in the comments below!

John McCutcheon’s music can be found on Amazon, Apple Music, or Spotify. You can also order his album’s here.

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Mads is a part-time entertainment journalist and full-time marketing content creator. They love reading the latest in Queer novels -- especially romance ones and watching the latest dramas, sci-fi/fantasy, Star Wars, and romcom films/TV shows. You can join the conversation by following them on Twitter: @dorothynyc89.

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