The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts March 3, 2006

McCutcheon’s Cool Croonings
Folk Singer Dazzles Finney

Last Friday night, I was completely overwhelmed as my childhood memories were swept out from under the carpet where they had lain dormant for ages. John McCutcheon, while performing at Finney Chapel, managed to gather every bit of the dusty years and pile them heavily upon me. By the time he had finished his third encore, I was yearning to be five and uncomplicated again. It was a little ridiculous.

I had not spoken to my family on the phone for at least a week. What was I thinking? These were the same parents that sang me bedtime songs when I was convinced I could not breathe because some invisible monster was sitting on my chest. The very same who played John McCutcheon tapes while we drove the grueling four hours to visit Grandma. Clearly, I had my priorities out of line.

I sat, busy feeling the distance between myself and my childhood. Why did I come to this concert alone? Bad idea. I was riding an emotional spiral like those tube water slides that just keep going, allowing you little foresight.

McCutcheon picked up a six-string guitar and encouraged everyone to sing along.

“I know you’re all thinking, ‘everyone around me’s doing fine, what’s my problem?’” he said, telling the audience not to be self-conscious. “The great thing about harmony is that you have three chances to be right – and if you miss, it’s jazz.”

He finished an old favorite that everyone — including me — knows, but does not know the name of, then chatted with the audience a bit more.

“Junior year [in college] I studied abroad. In Kentucky,” said McCutcheon.

He described his time there as a “three month independent project that I’m still working on... My classrooms became regular Baptist churches, picket lines.”

After this charming quip, he played the greatest song not known to man, “Hazard Holler,” and I realized how personal the concert had become for me.

I then made an attempt to refocus by listing the number of instruments McCutcheon had sitting on stage with him. Two guitars (six and twelve-string), a banjo, a piano, an autoharp and of course, the famous hammer dulcimer. Not bad.

McCutcheon performs at many fundraising concerts, often for causes such as education. He sought to teach children a lesson in responsibility in the lyrics of this song: “Not me, not me, it’s somebody else’s fault, can’t you see/In the present atmosphere it’s absolutely clear that the buck stops miles from here.” Refreshing.

In the next, completely unrelated song, “La Mujer de Don Miguel,” McCutcheon sang partially in Spanish. The piece is from his latest album, which he co-wrote with several different authors. Cuban children’s book writer Carmen Agra Deedy’s words were mixed with his in this song, apparent in the frequent language switches.

Then came the point where the nostalgia and time machine fantasies exploded all over me and I assume, a good portion of the audience as well. Someone’s mother was visiting from California and had requested “The Room at the Top of the Stair.”

There is just no turning back from that. As often happens, McCutcheon’s son had gone off to college. The first Christmas he came back, McCutcheon had written a song for him.

“The dog got excited/The day that you came/I guess he thought you smelled weird/And I thought the same,” sang McCutcheon.

I landed face down in a puddle of time passed. I was convinced that McCutcheon was now trying to reduce me to a dilapidated shell of myself. Is it cool to be thinking, “I want my mommy” during a Friday night show?

Probably not.

Like a distracted little kid, my tears were dried when McCutcheon turned to the hammer dulcimer for “Leviathan,” an aptly named piece he had written after going on a whale watch. He pressed down on one of the strings with a finger to imitate a whale call.

The hammer dulcimer was one of the stranger instruments. Literally, it involves hammering on the strings with a special mallet. But it does not sound like hammering — rather, it sounds like someone working with a really pretty hammer — perhaps one that is pink and made of feathers fallen from angels’ wings. Or something. In reality, the hammer dulcimer was an ancient classical instrument of the Middle East and a precursor to the piano. The early American settlement of Jamestown owned at least one.

Stranger yet was the instrument I had failed to list before. McCutcheon’s own body. He sat down on a bench in front of a microphone and told a story of his first musical discovery. When he was eight years old, the circus was in town and he went to see the sideshow. There, a man played the drums using only his own body parts.

“It was the weirdest thing I’d seen a grown man do in front of a group of people,” said McCutcheon.

I would have to agree. He then commenced to play himself. It was an impressive bit of percussion involving full bodily participation.

McCutcheon wrapped up the show with the original version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which was titled “God Blessed America for You and Me,” in response to famous hymn, “God Bless America.” McCutcheon has been going through Guthrie’s archives at the asking of Guthrie’s daughter, Nora Guthrie. A few of the songs on his most recent album are lyrics written by Guthrie, now put to music by McCutcheon. The old, “This Land is Your Land,” included many unreleased verses that Guthrie had considered too controversial at the time and taken out.

McCutcheon topped off a pleasurably long two hour show with three encores demanded by the audience. His rendition of Chris Gaines’s “Get Together” took me away from my childhood and into the pasts of others of a generation that McCutcheon seems to represent.

I noticed that Finney was filled not with students, but mostly with the middle-aged. Why don’t we, the nameless generation (who knows when they will decide what to call us), recognize the emotion, effort and style that seems to oddly combine parental love with love for humanity in general? Even I feel like the messages of McCutcheon are somewhat lost to me.

Maybe this explains my nostalgia. Perhaps I was missing not only specific people, but aching in the absence of a generation as well.


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