John McCutcheon

Russ Perry, one of the architects involved in designing a new home for Live Arts, the Second Street Gallery, and Light House, began the evening, a fundraising concert for those organizations, by reading an impressive list of names with which to compare folk musician and Charlottesville resident John McCutcheon: poet Carl Sandberg, author Studs Turkel, and NPR personality Garrison Keillor.

Accompanying himself on banjo, McCutcheon started his performance with “Free Little Bird,” a traditional tune he learned straight from the source: Roscoe Halcomb, a Daisy, Kentucky, musician. Though playing to the converted, McCutcheon chose the lively and evocative song (“And I’ll not build my nest in the air/I’ll build my nest in my true love’s breast”) well, setting what would be an upbeat and positive tone for the night.

Like Keillor, McCutcheon’s as much a storyteller as a musician, often dicing tales from his own experience into the meat of songs. Here, he strummed his banjo as he recalled eating in an Oak River, Minnesota, diner where a 25-year-old waitress recognized him, and, mentioning “Free Little Bird,” told him she’d grown up on his music. “And this was 20+ years ago,” he deadpanned.

Introducing a crowd-pleasing hambone number, in which he slapped percussive sounds from his own body with his hands, McCutcheon recounted, in the same homespun way, how he’d first encountered the style from a carnie. These sorts of characters– midwest waitresses, wandering carnies, Kentucky singers, coal miners/union organizers/musicians: all actors who cropped up  periodically in his play. Unlike Keillor, McCutcheon deployed them guilelessly, letting them speak through him but for themselves.

Humor, of the NPR-ish giggles-not-gut-busters variety, factored prominently in many numbers. The first of two songs concerning September 11, “Talking Pat and Jerry Blues”– the talking blues being a form popularized by Woody Guthrie, “archetypal white blues music” as McCutcheon puts it– took Virginia-based evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to task: “[They] Let us all in/On why the deed was done/It was pro-choice folks/That caused that day/Feminists, liberals/And, of course, the gays.”

McCutcheon also tackled radio giant Clear Communications’ decision to limit airplay of hundreds of “sensitive” songs, taking to the piano like PBS staple Mark Russell (minus the self-congratulatory smugness). “James Taylor, he was always scary,” he sang, before wondering why he himself didn’t make it onto the list. He coupled the laughs with righteousness, though, quoting the Youngblood’s ‘60s anthem “Get Together” (“Come on, people, now, smile on your brother/Everybody get together and love one another right now”) with nary a hint of irony.

This kind of righteousness might not have played well if it hadn’t been for McCutcheon’s D.I.Y. activism. Aside from the obvious (donating proceeds from the concert to the Wingspan fund, the fundraising arm of the CCCA), he also took his rendition of “Cut the Cake,” a more singable alternative to “Happy Birthday,” as an opportunity to give gifts (complete sets of John McCutcheon baseball cards) to birthday boys and girls in attendance. A member of Charlottesville’s Music Resource Center received a signed copy of Paul Robeson Jr.’s biography of his father in exchange for the promise to, when he finished the book, write the Center’s information in the book and pass it along to someone else, forming a sort of chain-letter/book club of volunteerism.

Known for children’s music that’s kid tested and parent approved (indeed, most of the audience looked like they either had or were themselves children), he kept away from that material for the most of the evening. Much of those in attendance, young and old, showed a familiarity with the do’s and don’ts of “Kindergarten Wall,” though, another sing-along about which he said, “More kids in Charlottesville know the words to this song than to the state song.”

It was during his performances of traditional songs that McCutcheon fused his respect for the past with his accomplished musicianship, producing a gravity that outshone his cuter moments. Using the dulcimer, a stringed instrument struck with a pair of small wooden hammers, McCutcheon crept and soared through a series of tunes, original and otherwise, that mostly kept words to the side. They simply weren’t needed. 

Watching his hands– or the blurs that were his hands– scurry over the instrument, and listening to the watery tones (like a cross between the harpsichord and the banjo), both wafer thin and deeply resonant, was a welcome respite. (And it would not come as a surprise if he had meant it to be one. With his casual banter, and comfy stage-side manner, his experience and skill as a performer and crowd manipulator were always evident.)

McCutcheon leaned on this weight toward the end of the show, following “Christmas in the Trenches” (whose story is based on true events during WWI in which German and British forces, inspired by each other’s caroling, halted fighting Christmas Day in favor of exchanging chocolate and cigarettes) with a rendition of “Amazing Grace,” again sparking a singalong. He walked backstage, strumming his autoharp, as the audience finished the song on its own.

Of course, he came back. Twice. The first time, he offered a tribute to Guano Boys’ bassist Dave Grant, who recently died in a tragic accident. Grant was “the best bass player I ever heard,” he said. “He could make any fiddle tune sound like Bob Marley.” Armed with a fiddle (his seventh instrument of the night), McCutcheon launched into a fiery traditional tune with Virginia roots. The second, “How Can I Keep From Singing,” he sang a capella: “Above the tumult and the strife/I hear the music ringing/It sounds an echo in my soul/How can I keep from singing?” Most of the evening, no one could. 


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