It was a janitor who first told the story of the 1914 Christmas truce to singer-songwriter-instrumentalist John McCutcheon. This true tale of Christmas springs from the midst of World War I, when the opposing sides put down their weapons to sing Christmas carols, drink together, trade family pictures, and even play soccer. The event would go on to be recounted in Stanley Weintraub’s book “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce” (The Free Press, 2001) and the 2005 film “Joyeux Noel.”
McCutcheon first heard the saga more than 25 years ago, while waiting backstage before a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, trading jokes with a maintenance staffer, who shared the tale of the ceasefire. McCutcheon, whose grandfather fought in World War I, had never heard the story and was greatly moved.
“I had only been writing songs seriously for a few years,” McCutcheon says in a phone interview from his home near Atlanta, Georgia. “At the time, I was planning to do a Christmas album, and I was so struck by the way she told the story, I knew it had to be on the album. I didn’t do any research, I just sat down to write and the whole thing came to me. It really flowed out.”
As soon as he began to perform “Christmas in the Trenches,” McCutcheon was overwhelmed by the reaction of his listeners and fans. People still come up to him after a concert and say they’d read a similar story in, for example, their grandfather’s World War I diary. He says he met a German woman who remembered her father telling the tale. In Denmark, a handful of elderly men told him they had actually been at the event.
“I wrote it in first person, and the song gives an impression that this was a small, isolated happening,” he says. “But this was trench warfare, with a huge, long front. Thousands of men could have been involved.”
One of the country’s most respected folk singers, McCutcheon will perform on Saturday, December 5, at the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing in Titusville. In addition to being a prolific songwriter, the Wisconsin native is a master of numerous traditional instruments, notably the hammered dulcimer. He has released some 30 recordings, seven of which garnered Grammy nominations.
McCutcheon has also produced more than 20 albums for other artists, from traditional fiddlers to contemporary singer-songwriters. In addition, he has created educational and documentary works as well as books and instructional materials. He is also a beloved storyteller, with a style that has been compared to Will Rogers and Garrison Keillor.
McCutcheon reflects that the gift of gab might come from his father, a traveling salesman and a highly skilled teller of jokes. “He had a knack for relating things in an amusing way,” McCutcheon says. “But in addition to my father, I spent a lot of time around older people, my grandparents and one uncle in particular. Then, when I started playing music, I traveled to the Appalachian South — West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. There I met older people who were from a much more narrative and oral culture.
“I remember visiting a ballad singer and was touched by the way he talked,” he says. “I always loved language, so I was drawn to people who used language with care and respect.”
In concert, when McCutcheon shares the music of the Appalachians, he takes the time to explain how he came to learn these songs. Since the traditions of mountain life are so different from mainstream urban or suburban life, he likes to clarify the context of the songs. “I might as well be singing songs from the moon, so I need to illuminate what the songs are about,” he says. “I never wanted to be pedantic or academic, I wanted to explain things in a more conversational way, to recreate the environment in which I learned the material. That’s where my [in-concert] storytelling comes from.
“People think of storytelling as either stand-up comedy or theater, but it’s not really either of those things,” McCutcheon continues. “Yes, it can be humorous or dramatic, but to me, when I think of storytelling, I think of Garrison Keillor [the longtime host of public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion”]. I’m not talking about his skits, but the news from Lake Wobegone, where you’re being brought into this mythical place that sounds so familiar.”
In an era when folks are plugged into technology and electronics, good conversation, masterful storytelling, and heartfelt listening are treasured. McCutcheon is adamant about the latter, saying that every great storyteller is also a good listener. “Speaking is only half the art: storytelling is as much or more about listening,” he says. “You can’t go to college and get a degree in storytelling, you have to have a passion for it and be a good listener.”
The oldest of nine children, McCutcheon was born in semi-rural Wisconsin on August 14, 1952. Before leaving the work force to raise her family, McCutcheon’s mother was a social worker for Catholic Family Services, and he says his mother’s concern for the social welfare of others sparked his activism and involvement in grassroots political organizations. He is now a Quaker, but was raised Catholic, and was even being groomed for the priesthood in his youth.
For a few years, as an elementary school student, he dutifully took piano lessons, but never really enjoyed them, much preferring baseball. Then, thanks to a mail-order guitar and a used book of chords, McCutcheon found his feet musically, at age 14. “Piano lessons were like homework, but guitar was fun,” he says. “I could play music that I chose, I could get together with my best friend and play. Once I found the guitar, it was the most self-motivated I’d ever been about anything, except baseball. It seemed so natural that I knew something would come of it, but I never imagined I would spend my life playing music. I’m still amazed that I do this for a living.”
McCutcheon attended St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, graduating in 1974 with a self-styled degree in American Folk Studies. The early ’70s were a time when some colleges would allow gifted students to design their own curriculum and McCutcheon was quick to take advantage of St. John’s independent study program.
He had started to play the banjo and loved it so much that he convinced his college advisors to allow him to spend his junior year in Appalachia, to immerse himself in traditional American culture and folk instruments. McCutcheon literally headed for the hills, leaving the college campus for eastern Kentucky coal camps, union halls, country churches, and square dances. His apprenticeship with several noteworthy figures of Appalachian music embedded a love for homemade music, as well as a sense of community and rootedness.
In addition to hammered dulcimer and banjo, McCutcheon plays fiddle, autoharp, jaw harp, and guitar. His first album, “How Can I Keep From Singing” (June Appal Recordings), was released in 1975. His latest is the two-CD set, “Untold” (Appalseed Productions, 2009). It’s a switch for McCutcheon, because one CD is storytelling and was recorded live at the 2008 National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. The other CD features a combination of new songs and re-recordings of some of his most compelling earlier work.
“Christmas in the Trenches” is from McCutcheon’s 1984 release, “Winter Solstice” (Rounder Records). “I didn’t know what it was when I first wrote it, but then people started coming up to me and pouring their hearts out, saying ‘that’s a great song,’” he says. “I didn’t know which one they were talking about. Now I know, it was a gift in every sense. It was a gift to me, and the stories people have shared with me since have also been gifts.
“Although it’s a song that goes with Christmas, it’s a song that I sing at every concert,” McCutcheon adds. “It could be 110 degrees in the summer in New Mexico and I will sing it, because it’s a song that needs to be heard 365 days a year. It’s about how to be humane in a most inhumane situation.”
An Evening with John McCutcheon, Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing, 268 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville. Saturday, December 5, 8 p.m. Songwriter, historian, musician, and storyteller. $25. John McCutcheon on the Web: www.folkmusic.com. 609-510-6278 or www.concertsatthecrossing.com.