John McCutcheon pays homage to Pete Seeger on 40th LP
John McCutcheon is driving down Interstate Highway 74, on his way to Nashville. He’s heading to another one-night stand, one of the hundreds he’ll be doing in the next few months.
McCutcheon’s been one of the nation’s best-known singers and songwriters since he appeared on the scene in 1972, but his interest in folk music goes back to his youth. “I discovered folk when I was 11,” he recalls. “I got a guitar for my birthday and started playing. When I went to college in Minnesota, there were kids from Arkansas and other Southern states rooming together in a dorm. They had dulcimers and banjos. I’d heard of these things, but I’d never been in the presence of one. I said, ‘Hey, do you play?’ They said they didn’t; they were just things they’d brought from home to feel less homesick. I rented a banjo from one of them. A year later, all I was doing was playing banjo. When everyone in my class went off to Europe for a semester abroad, I convinced my advisor to let me go to the southern Appalachians to meet other banjo players and collect songs. I never went back to college.
“I learned to play, but that was the tip of the iceberg. What really interested me was how music and culture function in a community. Folk music was not a product, like pop music. It was part of their lives. As a participator in the folk revival, I was getting the songs third hand. When I got down there and met the people, I knew it first hand. I loved the people and the food and the country and the way music was seen as important. They were musicians, not entertainers; they were part of the community. They’d stop my lessons and say, ‘I gotta go play at a church benefit.’ ‘I gotta go play a picket line.’ I saw all the ways music was useful.”
That was the beginning of McCutcheon’s life as a folklorist, songwriter, performer and multi-instrumentalist. His expertise on the hammered dulcimer helped bring the instrument out of the shadows and into the mainstream and his songwriting propelled him to the first rank of folk performers. He started making records in 1975, and just released his 40th album, To Everyone in All the World: A Celebration of Pete Seeger.
‘The first album I ever bought was a live recording of the 1963 March on Washington. I heard Pete Seeger getting the audience to sing along, like a thousand voice choir. He’d just come back from visiting with the freedom riders and had all those songs from the Civil Rights movement. Some of them were newly written, but they felt, and sounded, old and were relevant to what was happening in the world. I knew I wanted to play music and have experiences like that. Nothing moved me in the same way that Pete did when he played and got people singing. He allowed us to discover the part of ourselves that was brave and had us sing harmonies and exploit the differences in our voices, the same way we needed to use the differences in our lives and backgrounds to come together. The songs were connected to things happening in the world, and in our lives, not just cotton candy for the ears.
“Eventually, I met him and got to know him. At a concert, late in his life, he lamented the fact that he couldn’t sing properly anymore. He’d lost control of his vibrato. I was sitting backstage with him and he said, ‘You need to lead the songs. I can’t sing lead anymore. I told him to go out and line it out. Sing it twice, once alone, once with the people joining in, the way he used to do. I said, ‘People don’t come to concerts because you’re a fabulous singer. You move them and they want that and expect that.’ I know it wasn’t a revelation to him, but it was important for me to say it.
“He understood that he was part of a broad social movement, helping to change the world, and that the world changes a little at a time. As Americans, we think we can do everything all at once, but we just have to do our little part. Pete was generous in that way. He was a link in the chain and I was a link too. I know I’m an old guy in the folk music world today, so I have to pay attention. He taught me how to do that elder work. You only learn it by watching your elders. He never talked about it. He just did it.”
The songs McCutcheon chose for his Seeger tribute are balanced between the hits and lesser-known tunes, all reinvented with the help of his friends. “If I Had a Hammer” gets a Cajun lilt with the help of Michael Doucet and Beausoleil. “Die Gedanken Sind Frie” features the Canadian folk trio Finest Kind and “Sailing Down My Golden River” is given a country arrangement with the help of Suzy Bogguss.
“I wanted to showcase Pete’s wide ranging interest in music, while treating the songs in a way they’d never been treated by Pete. I did ‘Guantanamera’ as a full on Cuban groove and ‘Talking Union’ as a hip hip song. They’re all songs I fell in love with as a teenager, when I got my first guitar. I approached the selection and arrangements to show how relevant these songs and these writers still are.”