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.
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.
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,
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
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $18.
on a total of 20 instruments. Thursday, July 15, 8 p.m.
half of the popular Four Bitchin’ Babes offer traditional and contemporary
folk, and funny original songs. Thursday, July 22, 8 p.m.
master of fiddle, banjo, guitar, and autoharp, Thursday, July 29,
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