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John McCutcheon

John McCutcheon at the Ark

A sacredness of everyday experience

by James M. Manheim

From the April, 2009 issue

In a fine new John McCutcheon Live DVD recording issued by Ann Arbor's Bamboo Concerts, the musician diverges almost immediately from his opening numbers into monologues recounting episodes in his education as a folk performer. Some are flat-out hilarious, such as the time he referred to "the late Bascom Lamar Lunsford" when that 92-year-old legend of Southern folklore was standing just to one side on a North Carolina stage. But others reflect more deeply on the tradition of folk music McCutcheon inherited. Growing up in Wisconsin, he went to the Marathon County Public Library in search of folk songbooks and found only one, a collection of Woody Guthrie songs.

At the time he didn't know who Guthrie was. The songs were in alphabetical order, so it wasn't until three-quarters of the way through that he realized he was dealing with the creator of "This Land Is Your Land." But he was impressed by the way Guthrie's songs covered life's entire spectrum: "What was most curious is here was a love song, followed by a kids' song, followed by a historical song, followed by a nonsense song, followed by an angry song. So I guess when I started writing my own songs-about a day later-I just realized you write about everything."

McCutcheon's hundreds of songs have lived up to that aim. He has a cheerful way of dealing with family matters that has led him into a second career as a performer of children's music, and he can pack the slow turning of the gears of generations into spare images. His various antiwar numbers have the knack of seeming rooted in a sacredness of everyday experience-a quality that has made him one of the few performers who has often sung antiwar songs for groups of veterans.

McCutcheon appears alone on stage, accompanying himself with a variety of instruments including banjo, fiddle, and sometimes piano. He's most famous, perhaps, for his mastery of the hammered dulcimer, which he uses to add

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an incantatory quality to traditional American tunes. The Washington Post dubbed him "Virginia's rustic Renaissance man" for his all-around talents, his troubadour's bag of tricks. But there's more to his durability than multiple talents, or even than an unusually deep marriage of text and music in his songs: his shows embody an elegant and profound representation of the folk genre. The DVD concludes with a McCutcheon original called "Ode to Common Things," inspired by a Pablo Neruda poem he found in a used bookstore in 1972 (again without knowing who the author was). The song is an apotheosis of the musical beliefs defined at the beginning and embodied over the course of the show. The DVD was recorded last spring at the Ark, to which McCutcheon returns on Sunday, April 26 (see Nightspots).     (end of article)

[Originally published in April, 2009.]

 

 
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