Monday, February 19, 2018

Another Evening with John McCutcheon

McCutcheon with his auto harp
A John McCutcheon concert is about a lot more than music. Sure, John is an extraordinary folk singer and songwriter. And he plays a multitude of instruments, including the hammered dulcimer.

But the glue that holds it all together is his storytelling. John can weave a tale like nobody's business. By the time he gets started singing, you have a sense of time and place and people that gives the song context and meaning.  

His recent concert at Riverwood began with a story about the annual third of July party and potluck supper in Avondale States, GA. John reported that the food people bring to this event is not your typical picnic potluck fare. "And I'm a folk singer," he said with a laugh. "I know potlucks."

One year John looked down at his plate and found an exceptional assortment of cuisines. His description of the combination made the audience laugh. There was a burrito and an egg roll alongside more traditional BBQ and fried chicken. And with that image in our minds, he launched into his song "Immigrant," which goes, in part:

"She said, 'Give me your tired'
Lord you know I'm weary
When she said 'Give me your poor'
She's talking to me
One of your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free
And I have never lost sight of
What this journey has been for
See how she lifts her lamp
Beside that golden door....."


To hear John perform "Immigrant," click here.

Then there's the song "The Machine," included on his album Ghost Light that was hot off the presses the night of the concert. A transplanted Wisconsin boy, John lived in Charlottesville for a fair portion of his adult life. He raised his family there. And so the Ku Klux Klan rally held there last summer felt particularly personal.

John commented the day of the rally was the first time he was glad his father, a proud WWII veteran, was no longer alive. The song is written from the perspective of a veteran watching the marchers stride down the street in front of his home. The lyrics go, in part, "I didn't fight the Nazis to allow them in this place."

The refrain is an homage to Woody Guthrie's belief, clearly shared by John, that we all can use our own talents and skills to fight injustice. It goes, "Woody Guthrie had this guitar with the best sign that I've seen. 'This machine kills fascists.' We must be the Machine." John went on to say the Machine might be a musical instrument or a diploma or, even simpler, an outstretched hand.

To hear John sing "The Machine" with an accompanying video, click here.

You might be getting the sense that a John McCutcheon is only about politics. Au contraire. He also writes songs that will make you laugh out loud.

A lifelong baseball fan, John's Sermon on the Mound is an entire album devoted to America's favorite pastime. His "Talking Yogi Talk" is, you guessed it, a song that borrows liberally from Yogi Berra's classic statements. The audience was practically doubled over as he sang. Click here to hear it.

And then there's "The Red Corvette" -- a song John wrote about a woman selling a '94 Corvette for a mere $65. Click here to listen -- the punch line is more classic than the car. (Sadly, we didn't hear about the genesis of this song.)

With John
You've probably figured out that I've become a huge John McCutcheon fan. I've had the pleasure of talking with John twice for articles for Florida Weekly, and he is just a delight. In our recent conversation, I picked up where we'd left off last year.

John had been on his way to his grandson's pre-school to perform a gig there. "How'd it go?" I asked. I could hear a smile in his voice as he recalled his two year old grandson pulling up a stool next to him, strumming his banjo and singing along. Stiff competition.

John said his daughter is thinking of bringing his grandson to one of his concerts this year. Whoa. What will that be like for him to realize that his grandfather is famous and doesn't just sing around the house and at nursery school? 

I suggested it might be like a kid seeing their actor parent on the big screen for the first time. More modestly, John likened it more to running into a teacher in a grocery store and realizing they have a life outside of school. Or perhaps it will be like the thunderbolt that hit John when he saw a few strands of hair peeking out from a nun's wimple.

If you ever get a chance to see John perform, don't miss it. In the meantime, pick up one--or more--of his CDs. Ghost Light is a great place to start.


When she said “Give me your poor”
She's talking to me
One of your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free
And I never have lost sight of
What this journey has been for
See how she lifts her lamp
Beside that golden door

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