By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
John McCutcheon came of age in the golden era of folk music listening to the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Taking songwriting cues from Guthrie and performance cues from Seeger, McCutcheon launched a career that spanned four-and-a-half decades and produced 21 albums. His repertoire includes everything from folk music to rock ballads and children’s songs.
Ahead of his performance at the Birchmere at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 22, the Times caught up with the Smoke Rise, Georgia-based artist to talk about his musical influences, his approach to songwriting and everything in between.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AE: What first got you into music?
JM: It started with growing up and listening to the radio like every other kid mid-60s. I found everything from The Beatles to Jimi Hendrix and wanted to pick up a guitar to play. There was also this folk music thing going on, which I accidentally discovered because my mother made me sit down when I was 11 years old and watch the March on Washington. A big part of it was music.
It was really a compelling thing for me. Here was this righteous movement and there was a spiritual element to this. There were these preachers and when they were delivering their message, they were delivering it in the cadence of a pastor. I’d never heard of folk music before [the march] and it was something rooted in old traditions.
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, they performed in a way that was connected to something much older and had the kind of gravitas that talking in the voice of a preacher in a speech. I was absolutely captivated by this. When I was 11 years old, I said ‘Hell, I could be a professional singer.’ I played in bands and I played folk by myself. I never developed any other marketable skills.
Who were some of your earlier musical influences?
Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. I didn’t have any money to take [guitar] lessons, so I checked out the only book that the Dewey Decimal System had under music. It was called ‘Woody Guthrie Folk Songs. … I started singing my way through the book. They were easy songs, but they were also all over the place – they were love songs and folk songs and historical songs.
When I look at my own body of work, I realize I wrote love songs and folk songs and historical songs. I realized he was teaching me how to write. Pete and Woody led me into the folk music realm. I wasn’t in the Peter, Paul and Mary market. I was looking for something that felt more rootsy, which is what led me, at 20 years old, to take a three-month independent study tracking folk singers in the Appalachian mountains. Here I am, 45 years later, still immersed in it. By that time, it was over for me – I had to play music.
What lessons did you take from Guthrie and Seeger?
Woody taught me about writing, Pete taught me about making a concert more than just a guy showing off on stage. He really sort of took the audience by the lapels and said ‘Hey, let’s go on this ride and we’re all going to be different after it.’ That was totally new for me. The people who approach live performance in that way have always fascinated me. [Bruce] Springsteen is kind of like that. You’re there to be transported.
A significant amount of your discography is devoted to children’s songs. What made you go in that direction?
Unwittingly, I was writing songs about where I was. I’m not one of these songwriters who writes in my diary. Not at all. When I look back over four-and-a-half decades of performing and recording, I realize that [in the very early 1980s] I became a father and two things happened then. I realized that I had a responsibility for two little lives and the world was a big place – that it wasn’t just enough to put a roof over their heads.
I had a microphone and I became concerned with the larger world at that point. I started writing songs for kids. From 1983 to about 1998, I wrote eight albums of kids’ songs. I call it family songs because I tried to make them palatable for more than just the kids themselves. These are not Barney the Dinosaur songs. These are songs that can settle an argument on the way to the beach. It’s for mom and dad and the kids.
Now that I’m older – I’m a grandparent now – I realize I wrote songs from the perspective of experience that I could never have written otherwise, even if it was about the same subject. I couldn’t have gone into it with the same wisdom I’ve been able to wrestle out through just gaining experience [as a parent].
What other transitions have you gone through musically?
There was a period of time I realized I could write rock n’ roll songs. I would do a lot of songs that included a full horn section and drums. But for the last five years, I’ve decided that folk music is what I do. This is my medium.
How is your approach different when you’re writing children’s songs vs. songs for a wider audience?
You decide from the beginning who the audience is. To be honest, I haven’t sat down in earnest to write kid’s songs in 20 years. I’m a grandparent now and I have a whole body of work that’s little songs I’ve made up to sing my grandchildren into submission. They’re more utilitarian. A friend of mine once described a lullaby as the ultimate propaganda. When I sit down to write a song, I write it with the listener in mind. I’m communicating something to someone. Whether that listener is a 6-year-old or a 60-year-old, the process after that is very similar.
If you’re going to write songs that fit into the pocket of family songs, it’s a little more complicated. There are a number of entry points. My youngest son lost his first tooth and it was a very big deal of him and a big deal for a family. When a kid loses a tooth, for a kid, he sees it as part of his head falling out.
For the family, now we have to establish a number of things – ‘Is there going to be a tooth fairy? Do we put it in a little envelope under a pillow? How much money do we put into it?’ You’re establishing a kind of transition. The kid enters it from this portal and a parent enters it from a different portal. I’ve written songs about a kid on a train going to spend the summer with his dad, which is a real thing for a lot of kids. I wanted a song that could speak to that experience.
You have a little more responsibility with a family song. That’s what I mean when I write family songs vs. kids’ songs. Yeah, there are some silly things I write for kids that are fun. But if I’m doing something intentional, it’s a little more complicated.
Many of your songs have a political bent. Does that originate with you growing up in a very political time for folk music?
Consider the way I first came into contact with folk music. It’s an event that people would call a political event and it served the design of not only inspiring people, but informing them. The music of the civil rights movement included a lot of repurposed old hymns. These were songs and ballads people already knew. Sometimes you would do something very simple like changing a song from ‘I will overcome’ to ‘we will overcome.’ ‘I’ shows you the power of a pronoun. A very simple little change like that empowered a song for an entirely new purpose.
I’ve always felt like politics is too important to be left to the experts and the experts are screwing it up in a big way. Music reaches people in a way that speeches and newspaper articles often don’t. If it’s connected to a song that they already know, it’s even more impactful. The emotional power of a song is something I’ve always felt. To change the way things happen you not only have to change minds, but you have to change hearts.
I think in general we don’t do a very good job writing political music and it’s something I’ve been wrestling with, how to do it very well. There are some songs that are preaching to the choir. ‘We shall overcome’ often doesn’t change minds. Then there are some songs, like ‘Forgotten,’ which I wrote about Malala Yousafzi the day I read about her being shot. For a lot of people, her being shot was the first time they’d heard of Malala.
I also thought about how you can respond to a situation in ways that are kind of unexpected … At first, I was angry, but I had to think of another way of approaching this and I thought ‘wow, one of the most horrible things with people trying to get your attention is that you ignore them, is that you don’t reward them with your fear, and as the lyrics say “we will forget you.’“ What could be more horrible to some people? It was completely out of the box.
What I think a lot of people who do political music miss is that just because we have the microphone doesn’t mean we have the answers. When I’m on the receiving end, whether it’s political or not, I sort of feel like ‘give me a new idea that I can use to view the situation and the world in new ways.’ That’s something I couldn’t do as a 20-year-old, but, as a 65-year-old, I can say ‘how can we talk about this in ways that aren’t already tread?’
Is the environment for music similar now to the one you experienced in the 60s?
There’s similarities and there’s real differences. The similarities are that people feel that those in power are not addressing their needs. Whether it’s a Trump voter – and I think that’s why Trump got elected, because people felt the government wasn’t addressing their needs – or people across the spectrum who feel that ‘this is completely dysfunctional. We feel we have no access or power, so we’re going to take the streets.’ There were KKK rallies that people had to stand up to in the 60s, and a month ago, we had to do it again in Charlottesville.
What’s really different is the way we communicate. Social media has changed everything. You can connect with people that way. There’s a level of disconnection and incompetence in our current administration that is unparalleled and that’s really frightening across the spectrum. Hell, I think Republicans are more scared of Democrats. This guy is blowing it. I think there’s a tendency in some parties to delegitimize current protests by saying they’re 60s-style demonstrations when, in fact, the demonstrations are nothing like what they were.
You mentioned that Seeger taught you how to perform. What are some of the ways you make a show engaging for the audience?
One of the things is I’m a soulist, so I don’t have a given set list going into a performance. I can go wherever I want to go. I’ll usually pick a first song that I’ll open with and I’ll have a basic architecture, but it doesn’t entail knowing specific songs I’m going to sing at a different time. I’m also very conversational. It’s not like I’m having a back-and-forth with the audience, but I demand their involvement.
I’m constantly sort of mentally checking in with what’s out there. To me, right now, playing music, singing songs, that’s not difficult, that’s easy. What’s interesting for me is the tightrope walk of the show itself. We’re all on that ride and that’s the fun part every night. That’s the challenging part and it’s the rewarding part.
If you go
Venue: The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave.
Time: Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m.
For tickets: 703-549-7500; www.birchmere.com
Ticket cost: $29.50