Playing music, creating community: John McCutcheon celebrates Pete Seeger centennial with new album, tour
Folksinger, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist John McCutcheon is known for his warm voice, instrumental prowess, song selection and ability to connect with audiences.
Called “the most impressive instrumentalist I’ve ever heard” by Johnny Cash, McCutcheon moves between six instruments (guitar, fiddle, banjo, piano, autoharp, hammer dulcimer) as well as vocals on stage. He’s received seven Grammy nominations, and was nominated for Folk Alliance International’s 2017 Artist of the Year.
McCutcheon released his 40th album, “To Everybody in All the World: A Celebration of Pete Seeger,” on Jan. 11, just in time for his annual West Coast tour including two sold-out shows at The Palms Playhouse in Winters, Calif. today.
“After doing a 100th birthday album for Woody Guthrie and an album of Joe Hill songs on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death, it seemed natural to do one for Pete Seeger” on the centennial of his birth, McCutcheon explained. “He was the North Star of the American folk music revival, plus his activism holds special meaning at this time in our nation’s history.”
“I met Pete early on in my work life,” he said. “He was immediately interested in me and treated me like a peer, despite the fact that he was my elder in every imaginable way.”
Although they never recorded together, McCutcheon and Seeger performed together numerous times.
“And, yes, I became friends with both Pete and his amazing wife, Toshi,” he continued. “My friendship with them absolutely informed how I approached this project. ‘The Spider’s Web,’ for instance, is an homage to Toshi.”
Some of the songs on the album (“Well May the World Go,” “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”) are well known to McCutcheon’s audiences from his repertoire, some (“Turn, Turn, Turn,” “If I Had a Hammer”) are deeply engrained in popular culture, and some are less well known. How did he select which of Seeger’s many songs to include?
McCutcheon replied, “Almost all the songs I chose are songs I fell in love with as a teenager. In fact, ‘The Spider’s Web’ is the only one I learned as an adult.
“I didn’t intend this to be a definitive survey of Pete’s music. I’ll leave that to the scholars. I just wanted to give a good representation of his work (kids’ songs, topical stuff, the anthemic songs, songs in different languages).
“These are all songs I love. That was the bottom line.”
Like Seeger before him, McCutcheon is a gifted interpreter of other writers’ songs in addition to penning his own. And Seeger didn’t write all the songs on this album. So what makes a song enough of a “Pete Seeger song” to warrant inclusion?
“Well, first, the fact that he chose the songs made them his,” McCutcheon replied. “But, more important, each of the songs have a point and fit into his larger vision of creating music that moves people and creates a sense of community. It’s one of the great lessons he taught me and it’s how I approach my own music and choice of songs.”
Each song on the album has a distinct feel, and the arrangements range from acoustic folk to a sultry jazz version of “Letter to Eve.”
“I felt a lot of freedom in approaching the arrangements,” said McCutcheon. “Pete was always interested in new approaches to folk music. His reference to talking blues as an early version of rap music influenced the way I arranged ‘Talking Union’ with Corey Harris.”
Harris isn’t the only featured guest.
“All the musicians I included are old friends of mine,” said McCutcheon, “most of whom I’ve recorded with. When I wanted to do ‘Well May the World Go’ as a bluegrass song, Hot Rize was the obvious choice for me. Likewise with BeauSoleil in doing “If I Had a Hammer” as a Cajun song. Suzy Bogguss and I have duetted a couple of times before. Stuart Duncan has been a fixture on my albums for years. The Steel Wheels is a young band I’ve known for awhile. I love their music and we’ve played together at festivals, though we’ve never recorded together.
“Believe me, it was an easy call to make asking people if they wanted to be on an album honoring Pete Seeger.”
McCutcheon also gives a lot of credit to his core recording band (Jon Carroll, JT Brown, “Jos” Jospé and Pete Kennedy) for “breathing life into” the arrangements McCutcheon brought them, adding that, “they were especially motivated on this project.”
“They’re not only musicians, they’re magicians.”
In David King Dunaway’s biography of Pete Seeger (“How Can I Keep From Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger”), McCutcheon said the “most striking” aspect of Seeger’s live “We Shall Overcome” album “was that here was this whole audience that surrendered to this experience.” A similar sense of concert community is a hallmark of McCutcheon’s own shows. Is that in emulation of Seeger?
“Pete was a teacher to all of us,” McCutcheon replied. “He showed us that concerts can and should be more than a guy simply showing off on stage. A concert as a transformative, community-building event? Pete taught us how it could be. It’s something I do for me as much as for the audience. I’d much rather have the listener be moved than be impressed.”
Looking ahead to the record release tour including today’s pair of shows at The Palms, McCutcheon described how the performances stay unique.
“I don’t ever work with a setlist, though a ‘show’ tends to develop when I play everyday on a tour like this,” he said. “I’m sure there’ll be lots of songs from the new album, but, as my audiences know, I invite requests during the intermission, as I want to make sure people feel they can hear the songs they’ve come to hear.”
For more information, visit folkmusic.com and the venues’ websites.
John McCutcheon’s upcoming tour dates include:
Sunday, Jan. 20: The Palms Playhouse, Winters, Calif. (two shows)
Monday, Jan. 21: St. James Episcopal Church, Fremont, Calif.
Tuesday, Jan. 22: Resource Center for Non-Violence, Santa Cruz, Calif.
Saturday, Jan. 26: John’s Annual Celebration of the Craddock Center, Cherry Log, Ga.
Friday, Feb. 8: Eddie’s Attic, Decatur, Ga.
Saturday, Feb. 9: Gandhi’s 150th Birthday Celebration, Unity of Nashville, Nashville, Tenn.
Friday, Feb. 15: Unitarian Church North, Mequon, Wis.
Saturday, Feb. 16: Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, Ill.
Sunday, Feb. 17: Fredric March Play Circle Theater, Wisconsin Union Theater, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis.
Thursday, Feb. 28: Kirkland Performance Center, Kirkland, Wash.
Friday, March 1: Alberta Rose Theater, Portland, Ore.
Saturday, March 2: First Presbyterian Church of Corvallis, Corvallis, Ore.
Sunday, March 3: Nova Middle School, Olympia, Wash.