April 15, 2016

John McCutcheon: A Useful Life in Music

by Jim Newsom

John McCutcheon has a hit with his latest recording, Joe Hill’s Last Will.

“I did a Kickstarter campaign,” he told me recently, “because I knew I was mounting the least commercial album of my career. None of these songs are less than a hundred years old, nobody really knows who he is—‘Oh, he was a real guy?’

“Shockingly enough, it was the number one album on folk music radio last year. I don’t know what being number one on folk music radio means. But it was amazing to me. I thought, how did that happen?”

McCutcheon, who comes to the American Theatre on April 23rd for what has become an annual visit, has been making things happen in the folk music world since the mid-1970s. He had just returned from a two-week tour of Australia when we talked, and he laughed when I noted that he was one of the big name survivors on the folk scene:

“I’m like the oldest living graduate now. You survive long enough and people say ‘he’s not dead yet?’ One of the amazing things about the Australia trip was the number of young bands. There were bands who were playing traditional music that was informed by the fact that they’d grown up listening to their parents’ expansive CD collections plus all the stuff they’re exposed to. I thought, these are the kind of guys that make me feel good about my field. I love hearing what the younger people are doing because I used to be a younger people.”

The Joe Hill album grew out of a one-man theatrical show written for him by musical theatre veteran Si Kahn. Most people know little about the union activist beyond the Joan Baez rendition of “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” at Woodstock. McCutcheon wasn’t much different.

“I had to learn a lot,” he said, “not just about this guy’s life, but about how to assume his life for the last two hours of it and what that means. Here he was, an immigrant who was caught up in the big anti-immigrant purge of a hundred years ago. Here’s a guy facing the death penalty. It’s a time of incredible income inequity. It’s like opening up today’s newspapers—a century later we’re still struggling with all these things. It was really hard and it was really new. I’m thinking, here I am in my 60s and I’ve got to learn how to act. Every thought of early onset Alzheimer’s is out the window. I just memorized a 90-minute script!

“We were invited to do it in Salt Lake City, which is where he was executed, on the hundredth anniversary of his death, sponsored by the Utah Humanities Council. There are some things in life where I think I can’t believe that I’m doing this. I just thought, what an honor and responsibility. This is my Grammy. Keep your hardware, I’ll take this.

“There was a blink of a time in the 1990s when I was putting out some albums that caught the attention of Grammy voters, five or six years in a row. I didn’t go to the ceremony every time. But in that period, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson received lifetime achievement awards. Those were the ones I went to. I thought, I need to bear witness—this is my genealogy; these are the people who shaped the world into which I stepped. So forty four years into a career, I feel like I can confidently go ahead and say this is my thing, what I want to do to honor these people.”

Knowing some of his topical songs through the years, I asked if he had any words of wisdom about this year’s election.

“That was the first question in every interview in Australia,” he replied, “but it was framed as ‘What the hell??’ So I have a song I have written about The Donald. I’m sure that once he hears my song he will drop his presidential campaign!”

With the passing in recent years of icons like Pete Seeger, Richie Havens and Mary Travers, John McCutcheon stands with Arlo Guthrie atop the pantheon of veteran folkies who have remained true to their craft and keep the torch burning.

“You know,” he said, “growing up, I learned guitar from the Woody Guthrie Songbook. He wrote about everything. From a massacre in a coal mine in Southern Colorado to kids songs, and everything in between. Everything was fodder. So I think, take notice, do your job…and here’s a song about The Donald.

“Tom Paxton calls these songs ‘short shelf-life songs.’ After you’ve written enough songs, you decide it doesn’t matter if the song is only gonna last through one gig. That’s what I learned from Joe Hill. Here’s a guy who never had a gig, was never on the radio, never made a recording. He wrote songs for the immediate moment, this picket line on this day. And some of his songs had legs; they could be used over and over. But some songs were truly just for this one event. It takes real generosity to say I’m gonna take all my skills and focus on this one thing. My only job is to be useful here.

“And if you think about it, that’s the best job we can do in this life: to be useful. Between Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill and lots of people whose names we’ll never know, that’s what I’ve learned.”

John McCutcheon
The American Theatre
Saturday, April 23 – 8:00 pm
Tickets: $35.00

copyright © 2016 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.


"A Banjo and a Backpack"
PortFolio Weekly
July 31, 2007
Jim Newsom talks with John McCutcheon in 2007.