PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
July 31, 2007

A Banjo and a Backpack

by Jim Newsom

Many of John McCutcheon’s generational peers decided to play guitar after seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964. But McCutcheon had his musical epiphany a year earlier.

"I remember in 1963, that summer," he told me recently, "my mom was supposed to take me to Little League practice. We lived out in the country and I was looking all over the farmhouse for my mom. She was watching something on TV, which was really a decidedly unmotherly pose for her. I said, ‘Mom, we gotta go to practice!’

"And without ever taking her eyes off the screen, she kind of patted the sofa and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll be done in a minute. Just sit down on the sofa and watch this with me.’

"Now the only thing more unmotherly than my mother watching television was her encouraging me to sit down and watch it. So I was intrigued by this. What she was watching was the first thing that was ever broadcast live on all three networks—it was the march on Washington.

"My mother was a social worker before she had children and she was really interested in this. Now this was up in northern Wisconsin where the only black person that any of us knew was Henry Aaron. So I sat and watched it with great fascination—this was obviously an event that was staged by, dominated by and presided over by blacks, which was totally new for me. There were preachers preaching unlike anything I’d ever heard in church. And there was this music that was old and urgent at the same time. I was just fascinated by the whole scene. That was my introduction to folk music.

"My best friend was going through the same little thing at his house. We got together the next day and we talked about all this—we didn’t know it was the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech—what we talked about was the music. It was so cool. Then we started playing guitars and singing songs; I played in rock-n-roll bands, but when you play rock-n-roll you need somebody else. This was something I could do by myself up in my bedroom. It was a way to unravel what the world was about and have it be musical at the same time. That’s how I got involved in playing music. Now I find I have no other marketable skills!"

John McCutcheon hasn’t needed many other marketable skills. As he nears his 55th birthday, he has been carrying the folk music torch professionally for over 30 years. He brings his rich repertoire of original and borrowed material to the American Theatre for a concert Friday night. He has a brand new album, This Fire, that includes a bouncy little song called "Dick Cheney."

"We live in a very inspiring time from a political standpoint, if you’re a satirist as I am," he said. "It’s served up on a silver platter on a daily basis! This new album is what some people consider a strange combination of politics and love songs. I don’t understand why people think this is incompatible: What’s really going to be necessary is a suspension of your cynicism. And if anything will suspend your cynicism, love will do that.

"The people that I enjoy writing about are ordinary people who find themselves doing extraordinary things, who work and sleep and have kids, who struggle and love. What I learned as a kid singing my way through the Woody Guthrie Songbook is that the job of the artist is to pay attention, and this is all the stuff I pay attention to."

He’s been paying attention to all kinds of stuff for a long time. When he was a student at St. John’s University in Minnesota in the early ’70s, he spent his "junior year abroad" not in Europe, but in the hardscrabble mountain hollers of Appalachia.

"I was living in Wisconsin, going to college in Minnesota," he explained, "learning to play the banjo, which is like the ultimate in cultural denial. I really got worn out being the only one who was into the life I was living. I started finding these albums on Folkways, records that had extensive booklets with little anecdotes and maps to people’s houses. And I thought, OK, I’ve got to do this; I believed all the talk that these people were dying off. I had the audacity of youth and the curiosity and freedom, so I just stuck out my thumb, which was my preferred and only mode of transport at that point in my life.

"And I’ll tell you, a banjo and a backpack were like a free bus ticket throughout Appalachia. People would pick you up right away and say, ‘play me something.’ So I’d play something and they’d say, ‘You play that old style like my Uncle So-and-So.’ And I’d say, ‘Where’s your Uncle So- and-So live?’ And from Uncle So-and-So I’d find five more people who played this kind of music. It was the easiest kind of research.

"What I found was a generation of people who were in their 60s and 70s at that time, who had grown up learning how to play this kind of music from their elders and their relatives, and their kids had grown up listening to the radio and wanted to play Lynyrd Skynrd; they didn’t want to play banjo. Their kids weren’t interested in learning what they’d waited their whole lives to teach. So I was like this kid who had dropped out of the sky, and they were prepared to be generous. I was just the lucky recipient of that.

"I thought I was going there to find out where to put my fingers at the right time. But what I learned was how music functions in society, what it’s for, who does it and why they do it, and how communities depend on musicians to do their job. That was really the most important lesson."

He graduated with a degree in the self-created field of "American Folk Studies," and taught for a year at Clinch Valley College out in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia. But as the gigs increased and the demand for his music spread, he headed out on the folksinging trail and has never looked back since, recording 31 albums and garnering five Grammy nominations along the way. Ironically, he is best known to many for his eight children’s albums.

"That was entirely accidental," he said. "I was just a dad who wrote songs. Every musician I know, when they become parents, it’s what they start doing. I’m still writing songs about my kids, but those songs sound suspiciously like adult songs now. I’m waiting for the next big hit, which will be grandparents’ songs!"

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.