The Storytelling Experience
Featuring John McCutcheon
The following article was written by Barry
Miller, Director of Communications and External Relations
for the University Libraries at UNC, Greensboro.
an uncanny ability to breathe new life into the familiar.
His storytelling has the richness of fine literature.” — Washington
one remembers when their neighbors started calling the McCutcheons
to complain about the loud singing from young John’s
bedroom. It didn’t seem to do much good, though, because
after a shaky, lopsided battle between piano lessons and
baseball (he was a mediocre pianist and an all-star catcher),
he had “found his voice” thanks to a cheap mail-order
guitar and a used book of chords.
From such inauspicious beginnings, John
McCutcheon has emerged as one of our most respected and loved
folksingers and storytellers. As an instrumentalist, he is
a master of a dozen different traditional instruments, most
notably the hammer dulcimer. His songwriting has been hailed
by critics and singers around the globe. His thirty recordings
have garnered numerous honors including seven Grammy nominations.
He has produced over twenty albums of other artists, from
traditional fiddlers to contemporary singer-songwriters to
educational and documentary works. His books and instructional
materials have introduced budding players to the joys of
their own musicality, and children to tales of adoption and
respite from battle in World War I. And his commitment to
grassroots political organizations has put him on the front
lines of many of the issues important to communities and
before graduating summa cum laude from Minnesota’s
St. John’s University, this Wisconsin native literally “headed
for the hills,” foregoing a college lecture hall for
the classroom of the eastern Kentucky coal camps, union halls,
country churches, and square dance halls. His apprenticeship
to many of the legendary figures of Appalachian music imbedded
a love of not only home-made music, but a sense of community
and rootedness. The result is music . . . whether traditional
or from his huge catalog of original songs . . .with the
profound mark of place, family, and strength. It also created
a storytelling style that has been compared to Will Rogers
and Garrison Keillor.
The Washington Post described John
as folk music’s “Rustic Renaissance Man. Besides
his usual circuit of major concert halls and theaters, John
is equally at home in an elementary school auditorium, a
festival stage or at a farm rally. In the past few years
alone he has headlined over a dozen different festivals in
North America (including repeated performances at the National
Storytelling Festival), recorded an original composition
for Virginia Public Television involving over 500 musicians,
toured Australia for the sixth time, toured Chile in support
of a women's health initiative, appeared in a Woody Guthrie
tribute concert in New York City, given a featured concert
at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, taught performance
art skills at a North Carolina college, given symphony pops
concerts across America, served as President of the fastest-growing
Local in the Musicians Union and performed a special concert
at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. This is all in his “spare
time.” His “real job,” he's quick to point
out, is father to two grown sons and husband to fellow storyteller
Carmen Agra Deedy.
it is in live performance that John feels most at home.
It is what has brought his music and stories into the lives
and homes of a broad audience. People of every generation
and background seem to feel at home when John McCutcheon
takes the stage, with what critics describe as “little
feats of magic,” “breathtaking in their ease
and grace . . .,” and “like a conversation with
an illuminating old friend.” "I was raised on
the straightforward folk music of Woody Guthrie and the plain-spoken
stories of my midwestern family,” John says. “These
have led me to a career (if that's what I can call it) in
composing songs and stories about real people for real people.
It is nothing fancy. Some people call my work political.
That's okay, I guess. I just keep writing and singing
and talking--and learning, as I did from Woody, not to forget
what you stand for or who you stand with. That can happen
in a children's song or a fiddle tune or a song from the
day's headlines. It is like a little slice of life."
Whether in print, on record, or on stage,
few people communicate with the versatility, charm, wit or
pure talent of John McCutcheon.