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John McCutcheon Concert Review

Great Music, Some Story Telling and a Memory to Cherish

Kip Tabb

At its most basic, saying John McCutcheon is a folksinger is roughly akin to describing Secretariat as a horse. Both statements are true but fall woefully short of creating a full picture of what it is like witnessing them in performance.

We’ll have to leave images of Secretariat to history, but McCutcheon is very much in the here and now as his extraordinary performance at St, Andrews by the Sea in Nags Head demonstrated on Sunday, April 22.

To be sure, his knowledge of folk music is encyclopedic but as good as the music and musicianship is, it’s McCutcheon as a raconteur that makes him stand out. It’s not just the storytelling, though; it’s how the stories interweave with the songs he brings to the audience.

His first set—he had two—began with  Woody Guthrie’s Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done, a song that included some great banjo picking and McCutcheon’s wonderfully melodic baritone/tenor voice and a heartfelt story of growing up in a small town in Minnesota. Contained in the story was his description of his first guitar, a red Sears and Roebuck Stella and the songbook that set his feet upon the path of the music of America.

“It was a book that is the reason we are here tonight. It was a tattered black and white paperback book entitled Woody Guthrie’s Folksongs,” he told the audience. And he added the Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done was the first song he learned from that book.

The story telling and song were just a tease for what was to follow.

Not all of his stories were happy, nor were all of his songs. The Night That John Prine Died is a beautiful tribute to a fellow musician that McCutcheon knew and as he wrote once “We'd spent a number of memorable evenings together, both on and off stage.”

An element that made the evening particularly enjoyable is how willing McCutcheon was to poke fun at himself. Which his rendition of Too Old to Die Young did with a real splash of humor.

But what sets McCutcheon apart from so many other performers is his ability to take his audience on a journey—a journey that is not always comfortable. Two songs in particular illustrate that.

Ukrainian Now, written with Tom Paxton last year, was performed originally by about a dozen musicians, somewhat similar to We Are the World, although not on that scale. The words, though are a reminder that we do have a responsibility to others.

When I open the paper and check out the news on TV,

It’s pictures of buildings exploding is all that I see.

But there in the midst of the horror the blood and the bone,

Are the Davids against the Goliath defending their homes.

If Ukrainian Now is a call to action and our collective consciousness, Streets of Sarajevo is heartbreaking in the story it tells, although it is ultimately it creates a sense of the triumph of beauty and art over the horrors of war.

Seated at the piano, McCutcheon told the story of Vedran Smailović, the cellist of Sarajevo. In 1992, at the height of the siege of the city during the Bosnian civil war, a mortar round landed in a ruined marketplace as people gathered for food, killing 22. For the next 22 days, Smailović, a world-class cellist, brought his cello to the marketplace and played Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor, a beautiful and evocative piece.

The courage and beauty of that act inspired In the Streets of Sarajevo, a song with a simple melody but powerful message.

A place of flame and death

This music so surprising

The whole world held its breath

And each morning he returned

To that spot and he would play

In the streets of Sarajevo every day

The creativity and range of the music McCutcheon brought to the Outer Banks was remarkable. What may have been most astonishing though were the pieces he performed on hammer dulcimer. It is difficult to even know how to describe how complex, inspiring and wonderful the music was. It was absolutely captivating and in many ways challenged preconceptions of what a hammer dulcimer can create musically.

The narrative that McCutcheon offered the audience followed more than one path. There were the stories tracing his personal history from childhood to the here and now; there were some great vignettes about time with other musicians he would meet while on tour. And finally, there were the instruments he bought with him. Except for the Tibetan singing bowl he played for an encore, they were all very much American vintage, and perhaps none more so than the fretless banjo.

That early style of banjo would have been a featured instrument of the minstrel shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The instrument he was playing was a faithful reproduction of one of the banjos. The sound was like a banjo, and yet different.

There was an ability to slide up and down the neck, creating glissandos—a sound that doesn’t exist on a modern banjo with frets. He sang a medley of three songs, Pay Day, Old Joe Clark, and I’ve Endured. It gave a feeling as though the audience had stepped back in time.

The McCutcheon performance was truly one of the reasons that the concerts the Bryan Cultural Series brings to the Outer Banks are so important. It had everything that an outstanding night of music should have—great musicianship, creativity, some storytelling and a memory to cherish.

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