As a teen, John McCutcheon had never heard of Woody Guthrie. Now he practically is Woody Guthrie.
Both folk music heroes are storytellers with a passion for social justice and political issues, from California to the New York Island.
McCutcheon’s awakening came in his senior year of high school.
In his youth, the Wausau, Wis., Catholic schoolboy didn’t like practicing the piano.
“It was really like homework,” McCutcheon, 65, said by phone en route from a recent gig in east Tennessee to his home east of Atlanta. “I just wanted to play music. They wanted to give me exercises, and I understand that, and it’s one way to learn, but when I got a guitar for my 14th birthday, and I didn’t have the money to take lessons, I was just sort of left on my own.
“That’s when I finally started to figure out music,” he said. “Then my best friend got a guitar, and that was all she wrote.”
But when he headed to the public library to find a guitar instruction book, the only thing he found under the Dewey Decimal number for “guitar” was a Woody Guthrie songbook. He checked it out, literally and figuratively, and started to find a new path away from the rock radio of the 1960s.
“In school, we sang his songs, but they never tell you who writes the songs when you’re in elementary school,” he said. “But this songbook had all kinds of songs — kids’ songs and love songs and historical songs and topical songs — and they were all written by this one guy. Because I couldn’t find recordings of him, I found recordings of Pete Seeger.”
McCutcheon liked Seeger’s sound, which was “a little rawer and felt more real” than the pop-friendly polish of Peter, Paul and Mary.
“I liked them and they were good,” McCutcheon said, but it was the music of Seeger, Guthrie and Bob Dylan that resonated with him.
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“I guess it’s because I couldn’t possibly be polished like Peter, Paul and Mary or Simon and Garfunkel or all those guys,” he said. “This felt like just a guy in his bedroom in his family’s house, playing the guitar. OK, this is my language.”
It was a language and a yearning that would take him from a small college in Minnesota to the southern Appalachian Mountains during his junior year in college to learn traditional instruments from traditional musicians. And he never looked back.
Rock music made an indelible impression on him, as well.
“I loved the Animals and the Stones and the Beatles — and Jimi Hendrix BLEW my mind,” he exclaimed. “I remember the first time I heard ‘Purple Haze.’ I was walking through some kind of common area and it was on the jukebox or radio. And I remember it like you remember where you were when Kennedy was assassinated or when you heard about 9/11. You remember where you were, what you thought, what you felt. I was enough of a guitar player to listen to that song, and think, ‘OK.’
“This was 1967 — that was the year ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ came out, it was the year (British band) Traffic came out. ... It was the first time I heard Clapton. Every time I turned around, it was ‘Oh, everything’s different now.’ That was the real seminal year for me in terms of pop music. But all the while, I would listen to Jimi Hendrix and then go back and pull out my Pete Seeger albums.”
He became fascinated with the banjo. “I was a third-party observer of another culture, but I fell in love with it,” he said.
And when he discovered field recordings made outside of studios and Folkways and Smithsonian albums, “going to Appalachia seemed to make sense,” he said, so during his junior year of college, he embarked on an independent study program in the south.
“I had to plow my way through the music business to get back to the wellspring. I wanted to sit in somebody’s house who played the banjo, because I had never done that.”
He became a prolific songwriter and master of many traditional instruments, from acoustic guitar and banjo to autoharp, hammered dulcimer, fiddle and jawharp. He wraps those instrumentals around his hundreds of ballads, love songs, historical works and children’s songs, all finding beauty in the simplicity or power of a moment, like watching his toddler granddaughter dancing with abandon or watching his son pack up his room and move out — only to return in a boomerang move.
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He’ll be sharing glimpses into his life and artistry Sunday night (9/24) when he returns to the CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids. He’s played there numerous times, and said he now considers it a regular part of his touring schedule.
His latest album, titled “Trolling for Dreams,” was released in February, but he’s constantly writing new music, so his concert most likely will be a mix of old and new. He said he generally begins with a traditional song, since that genre has been the bedrock of his career.
He continues to write whenever and wherever the muse hits.
“The more I write, the more I realize I don’t know,” he said. “This whole idea of process — there are some songs that just come out and they’re written as fast as you can write them down, then you just say ‘thank you.’ And then there’s sometimes you just have to wrestle with the angel, and it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and it might take ears to finish a piece of music. And you’re grateful for both, actually.”
WHAT: John McCutcheon
WHERE: CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday (9/24)
TICKETS: $19 advance, $23 door
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Folkmusic.com
l Comments: (319) 368-8508; email@example.com