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Folk Musician John McCutcheon

01/05/2014 11:19AM ● Published by Phil Reser

By Phil Reser
Photo by Don Shorock

For 45 years, folk musician John McCutcheon has been a student of the legendary figures of American Appalachian music, resulting in a love for homemade music and a sense of community and rootedness.

“I grew up in a working class family, and all my neighbors worked in paper mills and they were farmers, part of the national farm organization and different kinds of organizations that taught me from a very early age that people had to really work together to accomplish things. I realized as a young person, that one person at a time is not going to effect change but many people working together, as the old union song says, many drops of water turn the mill, many stones can form an arch, singly not one of them can possibly do that. My life, my music, my politics, are still based in that foundation.”

When the Wisconsin native got his first guitar, he rode his bicycle down to his local public library in search of an instruction book and stumbled upon a songbook, “Woody Guthrie Folksongs.”  

“I didn’t know who he was at 14,” he says. “I started learning songs from that book. It was Woody who introduced me to how free-flowing songs could be. It was my passport and permission for when I started writing songs. Woody paved the way for all of us.”

His commitment to grassroots political organizations has put McCutcheon on the front lines of many of the issues important to communities and workers.

“Martin Luther King Jr. was the hero of my youth,” he says. “His righteous outrage at injustice and his blending social revolution and religious imagery made absolute sense to me. Later on, I was exposed to many of the political thinkers of our times. It was the perspective of King, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Tolstoy, Daniel Berrigan and others that gave me the passion as a musician.”

Even before recording his first album and graduating summa cum laude from Minnesota’s St. John’s University, McCutcheon “headed for the hills” to seek a broader curriculum beyond the classroom, heading to eastern Kentucky coal camps, union halls, country churches and square dance halls. 

“I had discovered these old Folkways records of people like Roscoe Holcomb and Clarence Ashley, and when I realized they were still alive, I decided to search them out and mix with the hard-working people they were singing about.”

McCutcheon has produced 34 albums and received seven Grammy nominations. “Songwriting is a mysterious process,” he says. “We often don’t entirely understand the songs we’re writing. Some songs you write and others you seem to simply write down. Sounds pretty mystical, but that’s the way it is. Write down everything. Save it. Don’t judge too harshly, but be wise about what you choose to do onstage. Don’t be afraid to take great risks. Don’t be afraid to make people mad. Don’t be afraid to have faith in a song. Don’t be afraid to be plainspoken. Be proud of your work but be honored by the occasion when someone sings your songs and has no idea who wrote it; it’s the surest sign of a song’s worth.”

He is regarded as a master performer on the hammered dulcimer and plays numerous other instruments, including guitar, banjo, autoharp, fiddle, and jaw harp. He is a popular storyteller, sometimes compared to Will Rogers and Garrison Keillor.

Two years ago, McCutcheon released his CD, “This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America,” bringing into the recording studio musical guests like Willie Nelson, Tim O’Brien, Kathy Mattea and Tommy Emmanuel. The record includes some old Guthrie favorites as well as some of his lesser-known songs. McCutcheon says, “Woody Guthrie will teach you more about communicating with people than any Top 40 hit.”

In the past few years alone he has headlined more than a dozen different festivals in North America, recorded an original composition for Virginia Public Television involving more than 500 musicians, toured Chile in support of a women’s health initiative, appeared in a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in New York City, gave a featured concert at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, taught performance art skills at a North Carolina college, gave symphony pops concerts across America, served as president of the fastest-growing local in the Musicians Union and performed a special concert at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. 

His latest album, “22 Days,” began as an homage to his friend, Vedran Smailovic, the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” who, in honor of 22 people killed by a bomb in a Bosnian breadline, played for 22 days in a row at the bombing site. 

“20 years to the day of the beginning of Smailovic’s action, I sat down for the same number of days, at the same hour every day, to write. There was no goal, no album in sight. I simply wanted to write and see what happened. Over 30 new songs is what happened. With a couple of exceptions, it is songs from that intense writing session that comprise the songs of 22 Days,” says McCutcheon.

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