When you’re a respected, multi-talented musician like John McCutcheon, it’s easy to acknowledge your influences. You simply devote entire albums to the songs they once shared.
Likewise, if you got your start in certain places, as McCutcheon did in East Tennessee, you eagerly share your connections with those early origins.
Indeed, McCutcheon does both. His latest effort — his 40th to date — is titled “To Everyone in All the World.” A tribute to revered singer and songwriter Pete Seeger, it was released last January. It’s the latest installment in a three album cycle that previously included salutes to two other American folk legends, Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill.
“If there hadn’t been a Joe Hill, there likely wouldn’t have been a Woody Guthrie,” McCutcheon mused during a recent phone conversation. “And if there hadn’t been a Woody Guthrie, there likely wouldn’t have been a Bob Dylan, at least as we know him. That’s the brick and mortar of what I do. I didn’t want them (the albums) to be museum pieces. I wanted to infuse them with the dynamic that inspired me to do them.”
That reverence for folk tradition has been indelibly infused in McCutcheon’s mindset since childhood. He recalls his mother sharing a newscast about Martin Luther King Jr. leading the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in which King delivered his ringing “I Have a Dream” speech. During that telecast, McCutcheon first witnessed the music of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson and Peter, Paul and Mary. It was an event that forever ingrained in him his love of folk music and the power and passion it could contribute in the fight for social justice and equality. One of the first albums he bought, “We Shall Overcome,” a recording of Pete Seeger’s concert at Carnegie Hall, further affirmed his affection and admiration for those essential sounds.
In the more than half century since, McCutcheon has continued to emulate those pioneers with a purpose of his own. It’s little wonder, then, that he titled his debut album “How Can I Keep From Singing” after a song he learned from Seeger himself.
“Even though I compose the vast majority of my music, it’s all rooted in the foundation of traditional music,” McCutcheon said. “However I know that as a songwriter, I’ll never write a song as good as ‘John Henry’ or ‘Barbara Allen.’ That material was well worn, smooth and beautiful a thousand songs before mine. There are few contemporary songs that would survive that kind of gauntlet.”
Notably too, Knoxville was the first place McCutcheon visited while still a student at St. John’s University in north central Minnesota.
“I was up in Minnesota when I learned to play the banjo,” he recalls. “It was a really lonely occupation in 1970.”
An invitation to attend the Highlander Center’s 40th anniversary celebration provided his initial introduction to East Tennessee. He eventually decided to stay, taking on a variety of roles that included teaching at the Laurel School in Knoxville, becoming involved with the Jubilee Community Arts program, performing occasional concerts, and serving as the artistic director of the Epworth Ministries, which was then a resource for Knoxville’s underserved and disadvantaged population.
“I was building something from the bottom up,” McCutcheon reflects.
He remained in the area for the next three years, using East Tennessee as his base for other gigs up and down the East Coast. He would eventually move again, this time to Southwest Virginia Community College to take a teaching position. While there, he recorded that aforementioned first album and delved deeper into his studies of traditional music, seeking to separate it from the stereotypes represented in the media.
“One of the primary things I learned when I was hanging with the old guys, which is primarily what I was doing back then, was that everybody did as much as they could with all the resources available to them,” McCutcheon said. “I was a bearer of that tradition. I heard a great quote from (composer) Gustav Mahler the other day: ‘Tradition is not the worship of ashes, it’s the preservation of fire.’”
The ‘80s found him expanding his efforts, adding hammer dulcimer to a musical arsenal that already included guitar, banjo and eventually, fiddle, mandolin and autoharp. After becoming a dad, he also started recording children’s albums, garnering several Parents Choice Awards in the process. At the same time, he delved further into sounds that were roots relevant, especially as it related to the Appalachian environs. He expanded his reach by performing at a number of revered music festivals here and abroad, and also sharing bills with such major names as Pete Seeger, John Prine, Richie Havens, Doc Watson, Odetta, Tom Paxton, Loudon Wainwright, Arlo Guthrie. In 1991 he launched yet another initiative, the U.S./U.S.S.R. Friendship Tour which encouraged Russian and American musicians to play together on the same stages.
In recent years, McCutcheon’s gained even wider recognition, the result of garnering six Grammy nominations, receiving recognition from the American Library Association, gaining an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, St. John’s University, and being inducted in the North Central Wisconsin Hall of Fame. Naturally then, he’s also received all kinds of praise from the pundits.
“I just keep on doing what I’m doing,” he said. “Is it hard? No, it’s not hard. It’s just what I’ve always done. I’m in it for the long haul. I’m lucky that people will come out and sit in little dark rooms with me. I love what happens when human beings sit shoulder to shoulder and experience something together. It’s the experience of sitting together with a couple hundred other like-minded souls and being willing to see what happens.”