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Homegrown Plus: John McCutcheon Takes the Archive Challenge!

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.

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. McCutcheon is regarded as a master of the hammered dulcimer, and in the 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 this 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.

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!

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

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