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Homegrown Plus: John McCutcheon Takes the Archive Challenge!

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John McCutcheon plays fiddle in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, for the American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series. September 12, 2018. Photo by Stephen Winick.

NOTE: This post was edited in 2021 to include a second concert by John McCutcheon!

In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) We’re continuing the series with John McCutcheon, an American folksinger, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist.

John McCutcheon played for us in the Coolidge Auditorium on September 12, 2018. On the same day, he sat down with me for a wide-ranging interview. Then, during our first pandemic season, Homegrown 2020: Homegrown at Home, John self-recorded another great concert for us. All three videos are presented here!

John McCutcheon is regarded as a master of the hammered dulcimer, and in the 2018 concert displayed jaw-dropping proficiency on guitar, banjo, autoharp, mountain dulcimer, fiddle, jawharp, piano, body percussion, and other instruments. (He played so many instruments that I published a separate blog just of photos I captured of him playing them all–find it here!)

For his 2018 concert, John McCutcheon did something else that was very special to us: he took the Archive Challenge! By that, I mean that he played mostly material from American Folklife Center collections. We have been asking musicians to interpret materials from the archive for several years, creating an online collection of Archive Challenge videos, which you can see here.  We’ve even created a way for you, or anyone you know, to get involved in the Archive Challenge–find out how at this link.

To be clear, McCutcheon’s repertoire is vast, and goes far beyond the AFC archive. His eclectic catalog of traditional material includes ballads, historical songs, spirituals, children’s songs, love songs, topical and satirical ditties, as well as instrumentals on fiddle, banjo, and hammered dulcimer. His own songwriting has been hailed by critics around the world; his song “Christmas in the Trenches” is considered a classic and was recently named one of the 100 Essential Folk Songs by NPR, alongside “John Henry,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He has also composed songs for musical theater and even symphonic works. His vast repertoire also includes songs from many other contemporary writers, making it among the broadest in American folk music. For all these reasons, his 36 albums have earned 6 Grammy nominations. Visit John McCutcheon on the web here.

John McCutcheon sings and plays hammered dulcimer in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, for the American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series. September 12, 2018. Photo by Stephen Winick.


McCutcheon’s version of the Challenge was particularly extensive and personal. While in his 20s, the budding musician traveled to Appalachia, collected folklore, and learned from some of the legendary greats of traditional music, such as Roscoe Holcomb, I.D. Stamper, and Tommy Hunter. In addition to his own fieldwork, McCutcheon also traveled and collected with traditional musician and folklorist Mike Seeger. Most of this fieldwork is part of the permanent collections of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, and gives McCutcheon a unique perspective on the archive and its unparalleled collections. So in this very special evening concert, McCutcheon played music exclusively from the AFC’s collections, including material from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger’s collections, as well as his own.

Watch the video in the player below!

John McCutcheon records an oral history with Stephen Winick of the American Folklife Center, September 12, 2018. Photo by Shawn Miller.

In addition to the concert, John allowed us to record a wide ranging discussion of his life as a musician and especially as a fieldworker. He told me how a kid from northern Wisconsin got interested in traditional folk music, especially from the American south. He recounted stories about the musicians he met and recorded, including Dellie Norton, Dillard Chandler, Cas Wallin, Will Keys, and traditional hammered dulcimer players like Billy Bennington and Jimmy Cooper in Britain and Peanut Cantrell and Paul van Arsdale in the U.S. We also talked about songwriting and some of the writers who influenced him, including Woody Guthrie, Si Kahn, Utah Phillips, Jean Ritchie, Bernice Johnson-Reagon, and his wife, Carmen Agra Deedy. John was an engaging storyteller throughout our conversation, and he even talks about gaining recognition as a storyteller later in his career.

Watch the oral history in the player below!

When we learned that the COVID-19 pandemic would require us to cancel our 2020 season of concerts in the Coolidge, we immediately began to think of alternatives. Our team came up with the “Homegrown at Home” model, in which musicians worked alone or in their quarantine groups to self-record their concerts and submit the videos to us for editing and presentation online. One of the first people we thought of for this new venture was John McCutcheon: with his musical mastery, technical knowhow, and flexibility, we knew he’d shine. Not only did John sing and play several more great gems of traditional music from our beloved archive, he also sang a new song he composed during the pandemic, “One Hundred Years.”  Find John’s Homegrown at Home concert in the player below.

You can find all of these videos with more bibliographic information on the Library of Congress website, with the Homegrown 2018 concert here at this link, the oral history at this link, and the 2020 Homegrown at Home concert at this link.

John McCutcheon plays banjo in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, for the American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series. September 12, 2018. Photo by Stephen Winick

The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress.  For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress. For past concerts, including links to webcasts and other information, visit the Homegrown Concerts Online Archive.

Comments (2)

  1. I just listened to your 2018 interview with John McCutcheon. John noted: BEGIN TEXT: Many years ago, the Morris Brothers from West Virginia, John and David Morris, got a grant from the Ford Foundation to put on some community festivals around the Appalachian south, and one of them was in Sodom, and I heard about it. END TEXT. Please allow me to point out that in 1972 and 1973, the two brothers, Dave and John, organized old time music festivals – twice in Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia and once in Kentucky – with support from a Rockefeller Foundation grant; Dwight Diller took primary responsibility for setting up the event in Kentucky. V/R, Lew Stern

  2. nice article

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