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my review of John McCutcheon

May 1, 2005

A regular performer at GC, John McCutcheon returned this past Saturday night to Sauder Concert Hall. An accomplished folk musician, McCutcheon has received numerous awards, including five Grammy nominations and has produced over twenty albums. But more importantly, McCutcheon thrives on performing live at venues ranging from 5th grade Peer-Mediator graduations in Alaska to folk festivals around the world. McCutcheon’s love for children’s music comes out clearly and during his children’s concert Saturday afternoon, over 100 children took to the stage with him.

Playing to a rapt audience of adults, students and families, McCutcheon opened with “John Henry”, the folk hero who successfully worked faster than a steam drill in order to save the jobs of his fellow minors in the late 1800s. Combining story and song with his own brand of self-deprecating humor, McCutcheon told how the song had impacted him as a 9 year old and reflected on his initial inability to see John Henry’s death as a victory and his own interpretation of the song as praise for the average people who do great things. This interweaving of songs with antidotes set the theme for the evening with McCutcheon providing background information and stories for many of his songs.

Along with the classic folk songs, McCutcheon played many of his original songs inspired by childhood memories, newspaper clippings and even current events. McCutcheon makes no attempts to hide his political leanings and sang a song he wrote after watching the 9/11 hearings in which he vented his frustrations with political figures who refuse to take the blame for their actions. Born a catholic but a practicing Quaker for most of his adult life, McCutcheon also sang Guthrie’s “This Land is my land, This Land is your Land,” with the extra verses that have been left out of many more popularized versions of the song.

Each of McCutcheon’s songs blended his rich storytelling ability with his mastery in five different traditional folk instruments. Switching fluidly between banjo, guitar, autoharp, piano, and hammered dulcimer demonstrated his mastery throughout the evening. Proving especially memorable were several of McCutcheon’s hammered dulcimer pieces and his impeccable fingering on the banjo.

A practiced and engaging performer, McCutcheon also encouraged audience sing-a-longs during several of his pieces including, “The storm is over” and other well known favorites. During the second half of the concert, McCutcheon took several requests including the crowd favorite of “Christmas in the Trenches.” Throughout the evening McCutcheon proved once again his ability to entertain a range of ages and perform in a variety of genres.

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