Anne Dalin

John McCutcheon

Corrections or additions?

This feature by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 14,

1999. All rights reserved.

Small Town Summer Folk Time to Reach Out

Folk singer, songwriter, and guitarist John McCutcheon

loves people like the Edison-based Anne Dalin, who helps organize

the Summer Folk Music Series at George Street Playhouse. Last summer’s

inaugural series was so successful that Dalin has organized another

at the New Brunswick theater, which has superb acoustics and all-important

tiered seats that don’t obstruct views.

A hands-on producer, Dalin and her 1999 co-producer, Diana St. John,

took to the streets handing out flyers for their three-Thursday series

in front of McCarter Theater in June, right before the SRO appearance

there by Bela Fleck and Flecktones.

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Anne Dalin

Dalin, who worked in publishing earlier in her career, is the author

of "Creme de la Femme: The Best of Contemporary Women’s Humor,"

and an active fund-raiser for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the

Breast Cancer Resource Center of the Princeton YWCA.

"I was a regular subscriber to the George Street Playhouse when

I was struck by what a perfect location it would be for a folk series

— an intimate space, great sightlines, and the acoustics are wonderful."

She approached George Street where her idea was accepted with enthusiasm.

The 1998 inaugural season featured a five-concert series.

"With only three dates to work with this year, I wanted to make

each night a little different from the other," says Dalin, who

opens the series on Thursday, July 15, with an evening of Celtic and

Irish music by Whirligig, a New York-based group of six that play

a total of 20 instruments between them. Opening for Whirligig is Aaron

Leone, an up-and-coming guitar instrumentalist from Jackson, New Jersey.

Next come Debi Smith and Camille West, both members of the Four Bitchin’

Babes, who take the stage Thursday, July 22. "Debbi and Camille

fit in with our success last year with the hilarious Christine Lavin,

a founding and original Bitchin’ Babe." Dalin says Lavin handpicked

West as her replacement, "and she’s also one of the funniest songwriters

in the country." Dalin considers that concluding the series with

a live show by John McCutcheon is a producer’s coup: "I think

he’s spectacular" in person and on CD.

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John McCutcheon

Meanwhile, McCutcheon says grassroots concert organizers

and town recreation departments are his bread and butter. "During

the summer months I do a lot of outdoor concerts and shows put on

by parks and recreation departments," he says in a phone interview

from his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. He likes playing in small

towns, saying, "When my booking agent calls me, the smaller the

town, the more likely it is that I’ll say yes."

Why? "Because while a lot of people are coming out to hear a specific

artist, other people are coming out to hear the show just `because

this is our town’s night out.’ So you get a real cross-section of

people," McCutcheon says. He doesn’t play a lot of clubs anymore,

but primarily theaters "and what they call in the business `soft-seaters.’"

McCutcheon, a 46-year-old father of two teenage boys, has been based

in Charlottesville for the past 12 years. An influential hammer dulcimer

player who is also master of fiddle, banjo, guitar, and autoharp,

McCutcheon has 25 albums to his credit and five Grammy nominations.

His latest album, "Spring Songs," is the fourth in a series

of season theme albums on the Rounder label. Like the others in the

series, he calls "Spring Songs" a collection of songs for

"children of all ages."

"A quick listen will convince even the casual listener that is

this not Barney," says McCutcheon. "When I started doing family

albums back in 1983, I did the first album because I was a new father

and did it for my son. But over the years, the folks at Rounder have

asked me to do another and another. I didn’t really have a fixed identity

in that market, so it gave me a lot of room to play around. They were

all really fun to do."

McCutcheon says his guiding principle, from day one, with his family

and child-oriented albums, was his sense that children are now much

more musically sophisticated "than we were at their age."

"We didn’t have anything but an AM radio in the car when I was

a kid, and we didn’t have parents who went to concerts. But now kids

grow up with a world of possibilities we didn’t have," he says.

McCutcheon’s obsession with folk music began in high school in his

native Wisconsin, he says. As a student at St. John’s University in

Collegeville, Minnesota, where he graduated with a degree in American

Folk Studies, he made field trips to the Appalachian Mountains to

study the music and culture of the mountain people.

McCutcheon’s mother was a social worker and his father was a traveling

salesman. And, he says, it was from his parents that he got his social

conscience. "My mother used to joke that I’ve combined their two

professions as a folksinger," he says, laughing. A lifelong political

activist, he continues to write and perform political songs.

Given the light-rock accompaniment on some of McCutcheon’s albums,

complete with electric guitars, drums, and bass, is it fair to call

him a folksinger? Yes, he says.

"There are musicians who, for whatever reasons, try to distance

themselves from the `f’ word, but it’s the most accurate description

of what I do," he says.

Asked about his long tradition as a political singer who aligned himself

early in his career with Pete Seeger, Si Kahn, Holly Near, and other

left-leaning musicians, McCutcheon says he considers his audiences

carefully before singing one of his politically-oriented songs.

"I do my political songs when I’m not just preaching to the choir,"

he says. "The art of politics is one of persuasion, and I purposely

have kept my audiences as broad as possible. It’s easy to go and sing

about things when everyone agrees with you. It’s more challenging

and fulfilling to introduce new ideas to people in ways that can be


"That’s what makes doing family albums real to me, because all

music is political music. Whether I’m doing a children’s song, a family

song, or a song about Kosovo, I’m being proactive and trying to help

create an image of the world in ways that are community-based and

progressive and imaginative," he adds.

Unlike many of the 1990s crop of contemporary singer-songwriters,

McCutcheon has spent a considerable amount of time studying folk traditions,

not only in Appalachia but around the United States and Canada. Aside

from guitar, he also plays hammer dulcimer, banjo, fiddle, autoharp,

and piano.

Growing up in the 1960s, he doesn’t deny his passion for electric

rock ‘n’ roll. But the 1960s were also a time when you could hear

a lot more folk music on the radio, he says. "Folk music related

to concerns that my mother had instilled in me. The labor movement

and the civil rights movement were big things when I was a kid. As

much as I was drawn to the music of Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and

Mary, at the same time I was listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles

and the Stones and the Doors," he recalls.

Listening to a wide range of folk music, including the blues of Muddy

Waters, Estelle "Big Mama" Yancey, and Etta Baker gave him

an appreciation for what could be done with a song.

"For my songwriting inspiration, between Pete Seeger and Woody

Guthrie and Bob Dylan, it was pretty easy to convince yourself that

ordinary people could write songs," he says. "The notion of

playing a traditional song and then following it up with a song what

you wrote seemed perfectly natural to me."

"I feel lucky I was old enough to stick my toes in the water in

the early 1970s," he says. Back then there were just coffee houses,

folk artists were not selling a lot of records, and there were many

small, independent record companies, he says. There was no gold ring

to go after on a par with recent success of folksingers like Suzanne

Vega or Tracey Chapman.

"If I was getting involved in folk music now, I’d be saying, `Look

what happened to Suzanne Vega and Tracey Chapman.’ Because there was

a time in the late 1980s and early ’90s when you could get a major

label deal as a folk singer," he says.

But for McCutcheon, whose audiences have been built from one coffee

house to another, one small festival or community concert to the next

over the last 30 years, there has never been a gold ring to grab —

just a series of grassroots shows in new towns and new names to add

to the mailing list.

So McCutcheon is cautiously encouraging to up-and-coming folksingers

of all kinds. He cautions them not to expect the gold ring, but instead,

a long road, lots of gigs, and a little money left over when you get


— Richard J. Skelly

George Street Playhouse Summer Folk Series, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $18.

Whirligig, Irish and Celtic music played by six musicians

on a total of 20 instruments. Thursday, July 15, 8 p.m.

Debi Smith & Camille West, two musicians who represent

half of the popular Four Bitchin’ Babes offer traditional and contemporary

folk, and funny original songs. Thursday, July 22, 8 p.m.

John McCutcheon, the hammer dulcimer player who is also

master of fiddle, banjo, guitar, and autoharp, Thursday, July 29,

8 p.m.

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