McCutcheon to perform music with a message at Schwartz Center

Grammy-nominated folk musician and multi-instrumentalist John McCutcheon brings songs from his long and storied career to Dover’s Schwartz Center of the Arts tonight at 7:30. (Submitted photo)

Grammy-nominated folk musician and multi-instrumentalist John McCutcheon brings songs from his long and storied career to Dover’s Schwartz Center of the Arts tonight at 7:30. (Submitted photo)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This show has been postponed for Friday night due to weather-related concerns and will be rescheduled for the spring.

DOVER — Acclaimed folk singer John McCutcheon considers his more than 40 years in the music business more than a career.

Inspired by seeing musicians such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary perform on television during the 1963 March on Washington when he was a child of 11 years old, folk music became his passion.

Upon attending St. John’s University – College of Minnesota in 1972, he convinced his adviser to let him take a three-month independent study course to travel around the Appalachian Mountains and meet banjo players.

“I was always really interested in the grittier stuff. Peter, Paul and Mary sang pretty music. But I was more in tune with the rawness of it all and looking beyond the commercial appeal,” Mr. McCutcheon said during a phone interview from his Atlanta home Tuesday afternoon.

“That let me to three months of independent study where I traveled around the Appalachians. That three months has led me to almost 45 years of independent study,” he said.

The multi-instrumental musician brings his wealth of knowledge and tunes to Dover’s Schwartz Center for the Arts at 7:30 tonight.

To this day, he thanks that adviser for letting him go into that world.

“It was more about fitting into a community and a culture. A banjo player wasn’t just a banjo player. During the day, he may have mined coal or been a farmer or built bridges and that was a part of what made how he played so distinctive and how he fit into this community of people,” Mr. McCutcheon said.

“So he would lead me to the fiddler who led me to the mandolin player who led me to the songwriter who would lead me to the Baptist church that had my head exploding every day. It was the way in which culture and community interplayed that had me so interested.”

His journey as a recording artist and live performer has led him to release 37 albums and pick up several Grammy nominations.
Johnny Cash called him “The most impressive instrumentalist I’ve ever heard” and Pete Seeger 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.”

He started the Local 1000 union for traveling musicians, which was charted in 1992. They got help from the American Federation of Musicians by explaining that hundreds of musicians make their money just playing around the country with a patchwork of gigs from town to town. He eventually served as the organization’s president for several years.

He is known as Folk Music’s Renaissance Man for good reason.

From his best-known song “Christmas in the Trenches,” detailing 1914 Christmas Truce between the British and German lines on the Western Front during World War I to a recent song about young Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafazai to a string of children’s albums to his 2008 album “Sermon on the Mound” all about baseball, Mr. McCutcheon can’t be pigeonholed into one category of songwriting.

“I’m lucky because I’m not tied to a record company where they are telling me ‘You must do an album now and it must be about this,’ ” he said.

“So if I want to sit down and do an album about baseball, I can. I’m very lucky in that way.”

He’s also known for his wide-ranging musical ability. He is a master of a dozen different traditional instruments, most notably the hammer dulcimer.

He said he got a jump on those at a young age which he thinks was helpful.

“I was anywhere from 14 to 18 when I was learning them. Imagine learning to speak different languages when you’re young and that’s your only job at that age. It’s a matter of having a skill and the coordination. The word ‘no’ was never in my vocabulary,” he said.

Although touring with so many instruments can be a problem.

“It’s all a matter of how many of them Delta Airlines will let me check. I have become very good friends with the sky cap,” he joked.

His latest album, “Joe Hill’s Last Will,” tells the story of the songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World, who composed pieces to be used at meetings, picket lines and rallies.

He was executed by a Utah firing squad in 1915 for a murder that many said he was convicted of purely because of his ties to the union. Witnesses could not identify him conclusively and the gun was never recovered.

Notables including President Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller argued for clemency. This album was released in honor of the 100th anniversary of Mr. Hill’s death.

Little, except for a Joan Baez song called “Joe Hill,” has been recorded to recognize him. Mr. McCutcheon set out to change that.

“He is very well-known among musicians but perhaps not among the listening public,” Mr. McCutcheon said.

“He didn’t seek public attention. There was no recording industry back then, no radio, no mass way of getting his music out to the public. He never did a gig in his life. He wrote songs for workers.”

Mr. McCutcheon said the response to hearing these songs more than 100 years later has been gratifying.

“The reviews have been amazing. But the best reviews come from young kids in high school and college,” he said.

“The stuff that he and people like Woody Guthrie wrote about back then are really pulled from today’s headlines. It’s war and peace, workers’ rights, immigration. We’re still struggling with these issues 100 years later and young people are connecting the dots.”

Tickets for tonight’s show are $29-$32 and can be obtained by visiting www.schwartzcenter.com, calling 678-3583 or at the door.

The Schwartz Center is at 226 S. State St., Dover.

Reach features editor Craig Horleman at chorl@newszap.com

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