How Folk Icons Seeger, Phillips Have Influenced John McCutcheon's Many Shows Here

Steve Baker

There are two late folk icons who have roles in bringing folksinger/multi-instrumentalist John McCutcheon back here once again for the twenty fourth or so time with a solo concert this Saturday 7:30 p.m. at the Don Baggett Theater, Nevada Union High School on Ridge Road, Grass Valley. 

One, of course, is Nevada County's  revered U. Utah Phillips, who, back in 1997,  received the third ever lifetime achievement award from the prestigious Folk Alliance International following two guys named Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. 

"It was Utah who first convinced me to come to Nevada City and do a concert for KVMR (89.5 FM)," recalls McCutcheon. "He knew I thought I was just coming up to see him, but he also knew I'd fall in love with KVMR, and I have. Proof is Utah's no longer with us, but KVMR is, and, so am I, and we're going to celebrate together with you." 

Seeger is the other icon, as John will be celebrating the release of his long-anticipated and folk artist-laden album, "To Everyone In All The World: A Celebration of Pete Seeger" the day before his appearance here, honoring Seeger's 100th birthday this year. Duh, it will be on sale at the concert. 

"While it was a Frankenstein of an album to get done," goofs McCutcheon, "there was this opportunity to have a real community event with this recording and Pete was the guy who taught us all that."


More on that later, but the fact that hundreds of people come every year to his local appearances -- plus first timers join the gang annually -- makes you wonder: how does he do it?

"Year after year, as they go away after shows like these," says McCutcheon,  "they feel a lot more hopeful, and so do I."

"Some people come because I play the hammer dulcimer, others because they raised their kids on my music, still more people hear it as me being one of the few people still playing old time fiddle and banjo music...or banjo at all, " he says with a laugh. 

"Or there are those who say  this guy wrote 'Not In My Name' or 'Machine", saying 'that's just I wanted to say.'"

"And they all just sit next to each other in the dark and they discover why everybody else came, and that's refreshing to me," the Wisconsin native says. "I don't want to dispel any of those images because they're all a part of what I do." 



And McCutcheon, with the Seeger album being number 40 in his multiple Grammy-nominated recording career, has a story about how he "met" Seeger on the very day John's youngest brother was born.

"Feeling in a celebratory mood, I Schwinned my way down to Wright's Music Store and bought the first LP I ever purchased on my own, 'We Shall Overcome' by Pete Seeger."

"It was love at first listen. A live concert recording, songs old and worn smooth, others torn from the day's headlines. Seeger was, as always, accompanied not only by banjo and 12-string guitar, but also by the audience, singing passionate and full-throated", according to McCutcheon.

"I'd never heard anything like it. I'd never thought of a concert as being more than a performer simply showing off. That day, that recording changed everything in my music's life," he recalls.

According to McCutcheon, Seeger was transforming and creating what people "in all the world" would think of American music. 

"Kids in schools and summer camps owe their repertoire to him, singers from concert halls to picket lines still use songs from him, and audiences around the globe have discovered the rich harmonies they were urged to explore from him," muses McCutcheon.


The Seeger tribute album includes the legendary bluegrass band Hot Rize joining him for "Well May the World Go", Cajun luminaries Beausoliel helping him make "If I Had A Hammer" into a dance tune, blues artist Corey Harris joining John to turn talking blues into a hip hop take of "Talking Union". Plus there's a duet with Suzzy Bogguss on Seeger's classic love song to the Hudson, "Sailing Down My Golden River".

Says McCutcheon, "It's like Pete's music, a love song to everyone in all the world." 

And that's the spirit John brings to his audience. 

"Many people feel as though they are unmoored from the people and institutions that have always grounded them" he told a KVMR radio audience last month. "'Why does it feel so foreign and so wrong?' they wonder."

"To be able to come out to a public event that also supports community radio -- the source we've all come to depend on for connection, information and non-alternative facts," he added, "I find there's a lot of people who want to be with other human beings in a hopeful and celebratory place, and I take that very seriously."  

Now he's back again. 




WHO:  Strings Concerts Presents

WHAT: Folksinger/storyteller/multi-instrumentalist John McCutcheon in a solo concert and KVMR 89.5 FM fundraiser

WHEN:  This Saturday, January 12 at 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Don Baggett Theater at Nevada Union High School, 11645 Ridge Road, Grass Valley.

TICKETS: Reserved seating, $20-35, tickets available at and at BriarPatch Food Coop, Grass Valley, phone 530/272-5333