Sometimes, it comes down to expectations.
When I heard that John McCutcheon’s Storytelling Arts performance was titled Christmas in the Trenches, I expected that I would see a show that focused on stories and songs tied primarily to the holiday season. Sure, McCutcheon’s bio told me he was an accomplished folk and children’s songwriter, but I thought the bulk of the show would be focused on stories and Yuletide.
What we got was a general concert with a few stories sprinkled in. In the almost three hour show, there were three songs about Christmas, including Woody Guthrie’s “Nineteen Thirteen Massacre” which features the murder of 73 children at the hands of copper company thugs.
To be fair, McCutcheon is both an accomplished musician and a strong storyteller. Some of the best moments of the show came from purely instrumental numbers, like his whale watching-inspired “Leviathan” or a sprightly medley of Virginia fiddle tunes. He bounced between the piano, two guitars, a fiddle, an auto harp, a hammered dulcimer and a jaw harp. If, like me, you aren’t familiar with the jaw harp, imagine that little spring that stops your door from banging against the wall. That sproing sound is the jaw harp. Let’s say it’s interesting in small doses.
Stories are peppered throughout, some loosely held together with a framework about a box of old audio recordings, but all are too short to gain much traction. I would have loved to have heard more about McCutcheon’s lunch with Frank Buckles, the oldest World War I veteran, but we quickly skipped over much of that fascinating conversation. A raucous encore poem extolling the virtue of hot Krispy Kreme donuts brought the house down, but was divorced from any other piece in the show both in style and subject.
Many of the songs are stories in and of themselves, ranging from Woody Guthrie protest songs to numbers about baseball and the eponymous “Christmas in the Trenches,” which tells of a famous cease-fire between German and British soldiers during World War I. At times, I suffered tonal whiplash between songs, like when we hopped directly from a scathing political satire about the bank bailouts to a sensitive ode McCutcheon’s father that reminded me of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
McCutcheon is a popular artist; I met one gentleman who drove up from Bloomington just for the show. But for me, the lack of transitions or connective tissue meant that no story really shone. Great stories need beginnings, middles and ends. Even if a show is made up of short vignettes rather than one long-form story, there needs to be some through line that connects them all. Without that, it’s hard to connect.
Next up for the Storytelling Arts series is Hello Ricky Nelson, Goodbye Heart by Barbara McBride-Smith on Saturday, January 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Indiana History Center. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door.
My tickets were provided courtesy of Storytelling Arts of Indiana. I was in no way obligated to write about the event and received no compensation.