BRATTLEBORO—Folk singer John McCutcheon, who will be in town for an April 15 concert, remembers Windham County from the good old times when he used to play at the Chelsea Cafe House, as it was then called, in the barn of the Old Locke Farm in West Brattleboro.
“That was back in Brattleboro’s hippie era,” he says. “The town was quite a center for folk music.”
As Alan Lewis puts it, “The Chelsea House, with its concerts, contra dances, song swaps, workshops, and more, certainly made an effort to offer diversified activities to the people of Southern Vermont, Southwestern New Hampshire, and Western Massachusetts.”
“Later came the Brattleboro Folk Festival, and the barn was used as a space for both concert and studio recordings,” Lewis added.
McCutcheon says he used to play often in New England then, but he claims since those halcyon days, “the world has gotten a lot bigger.” Now, he performs not only all across the county, but all over the world.
Nonetheless, McCutcheon seems to find the time to come back to Brattleboro every few years, and he is returning on April 15 to give a concert at the First Baptist Church at 7:30 p.m.
McCutcheon said he likes the Brattleboro audiences.
“They are an educated community in this music,” he says. “Brattleboro has a long history of folk concerts. Here, you find people who play, dance, sing, and write this music.”
Since those early Brattleboro days, John McCutcheon has emerged as one of America’s most respected and loved folksingers. He is comfortable with the label “folk singer,” but such a title limits him, when he can readily lay claim to being a master instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, storyteller, activist, and author.
Pete Seeger once said, “John McCutcheon is not only one of the best musicians in the USA, but also a great singer, songwriter and song leader. And, not just incidentally, he is committed to helping hard-working people everywhere to organize and push this world in a better direction.”
McCutcheon learned much about that world first-hand. Before graduating summa cum laude from Saint John’s University in northern Minnesota, he took some time off to travel and learn from local banjo players. He said in those days, studying banjo “was considered as foreign as studying Japanese music.”
He traveled to the South for a three-month “independent study beyond university walls,” where he discovered “very quickly that learning the banjo or guitar or fiddle was more about learning the context of music than technique or tunes. It was about going into people’s homes and playing with them in their churches, at dances, or on the picket line.”
He went to Appalachia, where the banjo’s tradition was very much alive, and he learned much about regional music.
“I studied banjo with farmers, coal miners, and housewives,” he said. “I was very impressed how integrated music was in their lives. I became immersed in traditional Southern music.”
His months of this study quickly became years. After the banjo, he learned to play the autoharp, and then more instruments.
More than anything else, McCutcheon is perhaps famous for his mastery of the hammered dulcimer, a musical instrument with strings stretched over a trapezoidal sounding board. Typically, the hammered dulcimer is set on a stand, at an angle, before the musician, who holds small mallets in each hand to strike the strings. Its traditional use in folk music saw a notable revival in the late 20th Century.
“I consider myself [to be] like a carpenter with a dozen different tools,” he said.
“My concerts often perplex a new audience. They come into the concert hall and see all my musical instruments on stage,” he added. “They expect the John McCutcheon band to come out. It is only after I am out alone on stage for a while [that] they realize that I am going to play them all.”
McCutcheon had been acclaimed for his songwriting and singing. His more than 30 recordings have garnered many awards, including seven Grammy nominations. But he is committed to more than just singing his own songs. He said one of his missions is to “raise my hand to celebrate American poets and songwriters.”
In particular this year, he is championing the artistry of Woody Guthrie on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Guthrie was an important influence on McCutcheon’s own burgeoning career as a folk artist.
“When I got my first guitar, I pedaled down to the public library in search of an instruction book, and stumbled upon ‘Woody Guthrie Folksongs,’” he said.
From those songs, McCutcheon learned to play the guitar and begin to develop his voice as a song-songwriter.
“For 45 years, I have been student of and heir to the Guthrie legacy,” he added.
That lifetime of instruction comes full-circle in his 35th recording, “This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America.”
At his upcoming Brattleboro concert, he will be singing lots of Guthrie songs. He also will be singing traditional songs and many of his own compositions.
“Guthrie sang all kinds of songs. He wrote love songs, historical songs, and kids’ songs,” he said. “I also write love songs, historical songs. I would never call what I do as art for art’s sake. I do not have a singing diary. I don’t stand on stage and do navel gazing. I see a song as a rite of passage. Like Guthrie did, I may write about something in the news worth hearing again and again.”
Does he consider his art political?
“There are some who consider all art political,” he said. “But I don’t get up on stage and politically masturbate.”
“I want to bring humor and sideways stories to my audience,” he said. “The world is too divisive these days. I don’t want to marginalize my audience. The whole idea is a basic compact with your audience. This is entertainment. It is not a political rally, nor is it a church gathering. First and foremost, these days are hard times and people want to feel they get their money’s worth.”