By Lee Zimmerman
Seeking fortune as a folk musician is hardly the most lucrative path, especially in an era where cynicism and pessimism are all too pervasive. Unlike the ‘50s and ‘60s,when traditional music took root and was infused into the popular culture, innocence and optimism have given way to a slicker sounds that’s all but erased any hint of sentimental or sobriety.
That said, credit John McCutcheon for continuing to carry the torch for a type of music that retains its heartland roots. Over the course of 40 years and 34 albums, he’s championed a sound as old as the Appalachians and every bit as authentic. A multi-instrumental virtuoso known for his skills on guitar, dulcimer, banjo, autoharp and fiddle, he forwards a tradition that reminds us just how precious the past still remains.
Not surprisingly, throughout most of his 64 years, McCutcheon has been fixated on that particular premise The son of two social workers, he was introduced to activism at an early age. “Folk music was the soundtrack for my upbringing,” he recalls. “I remember when I was eleven, my mom made me watch coverage of the March on Washington on television. There were more people there than I had ever seen. It looked like millions of people had gathered on that lawn in Washington D.C. I also noticed the performers who were there that day — Mahalia Jackson, a young Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Marion Anderson, Peter, Paul and Mary. I knew, then and there, that was what I wanted to do.”
Little wonder then that McCutcheon found his calling at a tender age. “I was astonished,” he says while remarking about what he had heard. “It was so different from the pop music I had heard up until that point. It was vintage sounding but contemporary at the same time.”
It was that music of the flannel shirt and work boots variety, as he refers to it, that prompted him to ask his parents for a guitar and which, in turn, fostered his fascination with Woody Guthrie in particular. He sowed his seeds of future performance in local libraries, and later, while attending Saint John’s University in Minnesota, he convinced the school administration to allow him to take a sabbatical in Kentucky. There he met his future mentors, authentic auteurs like Roscoe Holcomb, Tommy Hunter and I.D. Stamper, all of whom invited him to learn their music from them firsthand.
McCutcheon eventually began teaching, first in Knoxville Tennessee and later in Virginia. However the more he immersed himself in music, the more he was determined to take it forward and share it with a public that for the most part that was either unawares or simply didn’t care. “To most people, it was as if I was making music from Mars,” he muses. “So I became determined to fight those prejudices and bring people into the fold.”
That he has. Over the course of his career, he’s taken music to audiences worldwide. He was one of the primary participants in the U.S./U.S.S.R. Friendship Tour, which spotlighted American and Russian musicians performing together during a ten week stay in the former Soviet Union. In addition, over the last several decades, McCutcheon has performed at major festivals and concert venues throughout the world, making music with people representing all different cultures — from Aborigine tribesmen to musicians from Ukraine, Cuba, Madagascar and Nicaragua.
“Folk music is the universal language, a dialogue that’s common to every culture,” he insists.
One song in particular has ensured his own indelible imprint. “Christmas in the Trenches” — a poignant narrative about the self-proclaimed temporary Christmas truce that took place in World War I, when soldiers from both sides of enemy lines emerged from their trenches to celebrate the holiday together — has rightfully become his signature song.
Nevertheless, McCutcheon’s latest album, “Trolling For Dreams,” finds him expanding his palette to a certain extent, revved up through the stirring rock ‘n’ roll refrains that ring and resonate through such songs as “Three Chords and the Truth and “New Man Now.” Still, the most affecting moments on the album are found in personal and poignant ballads like “The Dance,” “Sharecropper’s Son,” “The Bible” and “Waltz Around the Kitchen,” tender, touching tales of ordinary people coming to grips with both hope and heartbreak. Ultimately though, McCutcheon’s true sentiments are expressed best in “The Reason I’m Here,” a song that falls midway into the setlist. It finds him rejoicing in the journey that’s brought him this far and celebrating the fact he’s been able to make a love for music his mission in life. Indeed, there’s no doubt that’s the reason he’s here.
It’s also little wonder then that McCutcheon’s singular devotion to that music and the larger embrace he’s extended to the world at large have imbued him with a certain responsibility to continue to make music in much the same way he’s crafted throughout his career. And though he hasn’t always intersected the mainstream, he has made inroads all the same. Lauded by fans, academics, the press and his peers — Pete Seeger famously called him “one of the best musicians in the USA” and went on to describe him as a great singer, songwriter and song leader”…committed to helping hardworking people everywhere to organize and push this world in a better direction” — McCutcheon never tires of taking his songs to new audiences and exposing its rustic roots to those who may not have previously been aware.
“Woody Guthrie bore witness to the events that were transpiring around him, and I think that’s still the music’s mission,” he maintains. “ I write love songs, children’s songs, songs about history and political satire. What binds it all together are the stories and singular moments that need to be shared and handed down from one generation to another.”
That’s McCutcheon’s mantra and it remains his steadfast muse indeed.