Posted February 8, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

John McCutcheon Still Loves What He Does

John McCutcheon
John McCutcheon

Wisconsin-born John McCutcheon was in school at St. John’s University in Minnesota when he decided to take a trip to Appalachia to spend time with some of the musicians there and learn the tricks of the trade. It was a formative experience and McCutcheon has been churning out folk albums ever since. He recently phoned in from his home to talk about his career and the way he’s been able to eke out a living making music that rarely gets commercial radio airplay.

You are generally regarded as a master of the hammered dulcimer. How’d you learn to play the instrument?
I had a girlfriend back in the early 1970s who went to a summer workshop at a West Virginia college. One of the classes was instrument building. They built a couple of different instruments. A hammered dulcimer was the first one. They started with that because it was more like cabinetry than instrument building. She was done with it. I went to visit her. She thought I could play it. She gave it to me. Probably more than any other instrument I’ve ever played, I just took to it. I saw the logic of the tuning.

You didn’t take formal lessons?
Back when I was a kid, there was no place to go to learn how to do this stuff. You had to go off and find your teachers who were, more often than not, not teachers in the true sense of the word. I came out of the academic world where you could distill the knowledge of a time period and someone who was a trained teacher would organize it in a logical manner. When I left college, I wanted to focus on the banjo. I would find players and they just said, “Here, watch this.” I had to figure it out. It was a great experience.

You took a trip to Appalachia to learn how to play traditional folk music. What inspired that decision?
I was going to college in northern Minnesota. I was learning to play the banjo. My friends were doing junior year abroad. I wanted to do my junior abroad in Appalachia. They agreed and I spent my junior year abroad in Appalachia. I’m still on that year abroad 42 years later.

It seems like that would have taken a certain amount of courage.
You do things when you’re young because you don’t know the risks. I hitchhiked probably 7,000 miles. People ask me if I’m crazy, but I was just poor and needed to get someplace. The audacity of youth is a great thing. As you get older, you know better. Plus, I was also universally met with generosity and kindness. What I discovered was that there was a big sociological change going on in the region at the time. These are all people I thought were old. Most of them were younger than me. They have learned from their elders. By the time they became the elders, their kids had experienced a big wide world of music. There were records. This stuff was old-fashioned and there was a steady diet of Li’l Abner and The Beverly Hillbillies on TV. A lot of kids didn’t want to learn the old music. They were just interested in newer music. All of a sudden, here comes this kid from a thousand miles away who wanted to learn the old music. I didn’t realize what a blessing it was for me and for the people. It wasn’t my doing. I was just a beneficiary.

You’ve put out thirtysomething albums during the course of your career. Do you get a hefty royalty check once a month?
C’mon, this is folk music. I arrived at the folk music world in the early 1970s and the halcyon days of that art form had really passed. What’s great about is that I can play music I love and somehow make a living. When I was 20 years old, making a living was a very different proposition than it is now. It was pretty great. In the folk music world, there’s a circuit of people who sit down and shut up and listen to you. That’s really remarkable. If I had played rock music or country or blues, I would have had to labor in the vineyards of the smoky nightclubs. It’s a real gift that you have this audience that pays attention. That means you have to be pretty good because people are actually listening. I make enough money to get by.

A lot of my songs have been covered by other people and get good airplay on those places that still play folk music. I can’t complain. This is part of my get rich slow plan.

What’s been your most popular tune?
This past Christmas was the hundredth anniversary of the Christmas truce of 1914 that took place during the first Christmas of World War I. British, French and German troops laid down their arms on Christmas Eve. The whole affair was started because the Germans started singing Christmas carols. The British answered back. The surprising gravity of singing the same songs in different languages connected the dots. They laid down their arms and there was a truce. It got press. I heard the story and wrote “Christmas in the Trenches” some 30 years ago. It’s been covered by The Irish Tenors and Trace Adkins. It’s a great story and having a song that tells it has turned it into my best-known song.

It’s now cool to sing kids songs, but you put out an album for children in 1983. Why?
I was a new father. I wanted to make something for my son Will’s first birthday. When I was in college, I put myself through college playing in elementary schools. They were my first steady audience. I learned how to play for young kids and for people who didn’t ask to see you. My only competition in those days was math class. I had that experience under my belt. When I wanted to make an album for my son, I listened around and there was no children’s music. There was no Raffi. There was Disney and a little bit of Sesame Street and some old Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie albums. I wanted to do something that was a little more musical. I wanted to expose the kids to Cajun music and rock ’n’ roll and ballads and all kinds of stuff. I made it with no designs on it being a trend and lo and behold it was the first in a series of eight such albums I did in the course of my kids’ growing up. Little did I know that they were influential. Dan Zanes cornered me at the Grammys one year and said Howjadoo gave him permission to do cool music for kids. I have grandkids now so I might revisit the genre.

You were on Rounder Records for many years but have recently started putting albums out on your own. What’s that process been like?
I was with Rounder for many, many years and about ten years or so ago, it became increasingly obvious to most artists that the roles of most record companies had changed. So many of the outlets were closing. How many people are lucky enough to have a local CD store, the kind where the proprietor puts something aside for you? That kind of personal service is gone. Those are the kind of places that championed independent music. Today, the largest seller of CDs is Walmart. If you have something on your album about guns, they won’t carry your album. It’s very narrow. I had wonderful relationships with all the people I recorded with. I had put out some albums of topical music on my own. It wasn’t’ the type of stuff that record companies would put out. I didn’t do any advertising and only had them at the shows. Arlo [Guthrie] had his own company and Billy Bragg was putting out his own music. Lots of my friends were doing it and I wanted to give it a whirl. I have to say that Rounder gave me complete artistic license. I put the stuff out on my own now.

Do you have something new?
I had an album called 22 Days that came out last year. I’m a week away from a new album. It’s the hundredth anniversary of the death of Joe Hill. He pioneered the whole forum of taking popular songs and rewriting the words, usually satirically to support labor unions. This was a forum that Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan picked up on. Almost every writer who writes topical stuff owes their job to Joe Hill. Virtually nobody knows about him and being that I don’t have to answer to a record company, I can put out this album that doesn’t have commercial prospect but is important to do.

Don’t you portray him on stage?
Yes, I do. My buddy Si Kahn wrote a one-man play for me called Joe Hill’s Last Will. I’m touring with that a lot. That’s a whole other arrow in my quiver. I have never done any acting. You could say every performer is in some small way a performer. But to have a script you work off of is different. It’s been really, really fun and really hard work. I have a new appreciation for all the people in theater.

You’re now sixtysomething years old. What makes you want to keep hitting the road?
I gotta pay my bills. There is that. I still love what I do. I get out of bed in the morning and I can’t wait to do my job. I’m writing as much as I have ever written. I work on my craft and I feel like I’m doing my job. Of all the things I do, working in the studio, writing, teaching workshops and public speaking and organizing the musician’s union, the thing that brings it all together is performing for people. I love doing it and will be happy in my later years to cut back. If someone said I didn’t have to step on an airplane again, I would be a happy camper. The reward for going through all the shit you have to go through to get someplace is worth it when you get to perform.

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Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].