On April 26th in Harrisburg John McCutcheon Performs the Music of Pete Seeger in Honor of the 100th Anniversary of Pete’s Birth

John McCutcheon is master of a dozen different traditional instruments and revered as one of America’s most respected and loved folksingers. He brings his celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pete Seeger to Harrisburg for an April 26 Susquehanna Folk Music Society concert at 7:30 p.m. at Market Square Presbyterian Church, 20 S. Second Street, Harrisburg.

May 3, 2019, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the legendary Pete Seeger. No one had a greater impact on American folk music than Seeger. McCutcheon was both a student and friend of Pete’s. He has released an album celebrating the Seeger century—”To Everyone in All the World: A Celebration of Pete Seeger.”

Pete Seeger once said of John McCutcheon, “John is not only one of the best musicians in the USA, but also a great singer, songwriter, and song leader. And not just incidentally, he is committed to helping hard-working people everywhere to organize and push this world in a better direction.”

Concert tickets are $25 General Admission, $21 for SFMS members and $10 for students ages 3-22. Advance tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets.com or telephone (800) 838-3006. Visit the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website at https://www.sfmsfolk.org/concerts/JohnMcCutcheon.html  for tickets and more information.

Last night I had a chance to talk to John McCutcheon about his musical background, the many instruments that he plays, and the special relationship that he had with Pete Seeger.


FOLKMAMA: Tell me about your early years. How did you decide to take a musical path?


JOHN: I was one of 10, 000 kids who played guitar back in the 1960s when folk music was available and visible—its 15 minutes of notoriety before rock music took over. I didn’t know about folk music early on because I wasn’t in any of the big hubs—I wasn’t in Boston or New York—I grew up in North Central Wisconsin.

So I didn’t know anything about this thing that was going on. But my mother who was a social worker before she became my mother in my eleventh summer made me sit down and watch the March on Washington. It was the first thing that was broadcast live on all the channels. The next thing was Kennedy’s assignation which was mere months later.

So even if I wasn’t interested in it as my mother was, I would have known that it was something of note. So me being the eldest, my mother, and thinking I was probably the closest to adult companionship that she could get, sat me down and made me watch it.

And everything about it was amazing to me. I mean, I didn’t know that there were that many people in the world, there was this preaching that resonated with me—I mean it was right out of the church—all the language, even the songs, “We Shall Overcome” sounded like a hymn to me. But it was when the only white people who were on the stage came out and sang, it was Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger—and this was my introduction to folk music.

Fast forward two or three years and my youngest brother was born. I had been in charge of all my brothers and sisters being 14 at the time and when everything was announced to be good I left my next youngest sister in charge, she was only a year younger than I was, and I biked my way down to the music store and bought an album entitled “We Should Overcome” because I had become interested in this and it was a Pete Seeger album.


“The most fantastic instrument that Pete Seeger played was the audience.”—early impressions of Pete Seeger


FOLKMAMA: What did the album come to mean to you?


JOHN: It was my introduction to live performance and to Pete Seeger. [The album had been recorded live at Carnegie Hall] I had never been to a concert and Pete made this whole thing really unusual. I knew that concerts were supposed to be somebody showing off. And this was definitely not that. And he got the whole audience involved. Every night—the most fantastic instrument that Pete Seeger played was the audience. He got them singing—he got them doing something that growing up Catholic I had no idea that humans could sing like that.

That’s when I decided to get a guitar. And my best friend got a guitar too and between us, we drove everyone in our houses crazy. And from that time the ability of music to both pull together and expand people had never let up. And I was lucky enough that there were still some of the enthusiasts of the folk music world left in the wake of the folk music revival and it was groups like you all, groups who wanted to provide a place for people who liked this kind of music to get together to play and dance and have campouts and they could put stuff in schools and just promote this stuff that they love. And then every now and again maybe a itinerate folk singer would come into town and we would rent out a Unitarian Church or a Union Hall and put on a show. But that was not the primary reason that little groups existed all over the country. So I started off traveling hither and yon playing for little folk music groups.


“I wanted to hitchhike around the Appalachian South and meet banjo players.”—exploring old-time music.


FOLKMAMA: I know that you spent a lot of time in the Appalachian South as a young man learning about folk music from the elders there and that this time was very influential in your evolution as a folk musician. How did that come about?


JOHN: One of the things that happened to me as a teenager is I started to play the banjo and growing up in Northern Wisconsin, it was a really lonely effort. I went to college at a little college in Minnesota and they started an independent majors program and I went to them with a proposal that I wanted to go where the banjo lived. I wanted to hitchhike around the Appalachian South and meet banjo players. And they granted me this three-month independent study which I’m still on 50 years later. I never went back I just fell in love with the music and the people and the land and all the stuff that was a part of that.

Coming out of academia, as a student, they put you in a little room for 45 minutes to an hour and they have a professional teacher who will sequentially lay out something that you have signed up for and you focus on that to the exclusion of everything else.

When I found myself sitting in someone else’s living room with a banjo in my lap, this person was not a professional teacher. I had to learn how to do a whole different kind of learning. I also found out that it wasn’t banjo playing to the exclusion of everything else in the world. This person was a farmer, or a teacher, or a mailman, or a coal miner or a retiree. And it was simply part of their lives.

And also banjo player tended to hang out with other musicians to make music. So it wasn’t long before I was messing around on the fiddle and the hammered dulcimer and autoharps and mountain dulcimers. I dusted off my piano playing from when I was a kid.

It helps to not have a job! And be young and don’t have any responsibilities like kids or spouses or anything. I just learned and played all day.  And there was also no “no” in my vocabulary. I was open to everything.


“In fact, I have a 12 string guitar that is a sister to Pete’s guitar.”—instrument John McCutcheon will be playing in Harrisburg on April 26th


FOLKMAMA: Which instruments that you learned through these experiences do you still play? What will you be playing during the Harrisburg concert on April 26th?


JOHN: I’ll have a couple of different kinds of guitars because I’m promoting my recent album “To Everyone in All the World: A Celebration of Pete Seeger.”So I will have a 12 string guitar [which Pete Seeger played] in addition to a 6 string guitar. In fact, I have a 12 string guitar that is a sister to Pete’s guitar. I’ll have a banjo of course and fiddle and autoharp. They’ll be a piano there for me and I’ll play the hammered dulcimer.


FOLKMAMA: So getting back to your time in the South for a moment, I’m curious how you were received during this odyssey that you were on to learn about southern old-time music. Others like David Holt, and certainly many folklorists and collectors have done a similar thing. Did people in the Appalachia areas that you visited look on you as an outsider? Were musicians there willing to share?


JOHN: Well, southern hospitality is no myth. It is simply because people were brought up properly to be polite and to be hospitable. I think part of it is that I had the right attitude. I didn’t go in as a missionary and I wasn’t trying to sell them anything. I wasn’t trying to rob them of anything and I realize as I look back on it now, that I was blessedly without preconceptions.

You have to understand that this is like the early 1970s. And everyone’s picture, especially in the Appalachian south, was caricatured by the Beverly Hillbillies and Deliverance and Little Abner and Hee Haw. And not only did I not watch much television, but I knew that that was all bullshit. And it was just stereotyping for the purpose of making money and making people laugh. So I didn’t come with any expectations. I didn’t expect people to be toothless rubes, and they weren’t.

And ancillary to that there had been a cultural change in the south due mainly to technology as I said the people that I spent time with had learned from their elders. But their kids were not interested. They wanted to play rock and roll. They didn’t want to play this old fashioned stuff. Many of them in their later years came back to it, as you tend to do when you get older. You tend to appreciate where you came from. I think people were flattered that I was interested in their music and wanted to learn how to do it.


“These songs that have been worn smooth and beautiful on a thousand tongues before mine taught me a lot about storytelling and my place in the world”—the influence of traditional music on John McCutcheon’s songwriting.


FOLKMAMA: When I look at your music when now consists of a very huge body of work, I see that you are very influenced by American folk music, but you are best known as a songwriter. When did you first start writing songs?


JOHN: I started writing when I started playing. And I wrote lots of stuff, lots of really horrible songs! But it was paying attention to traditional music that became my guide. This old music has endured in a way that few modern songs could ever do. And these songs that have been worn smooth and beautiful on a thousand tongues before mine taught me a lot about storytelling and my place in the world.

And I also hung out a lot with people who came out of the tradition to write songs. People like Hazel Dickens and Utah Phillips and Jean Richie and people who were thoroughly skilled in traditional music and loved and played it almost better than anybody. But who also wrote songs. And I jean Richie’s case especially, she wrote them so perfectly, that most people don’t think of her as a songwriter. They can’t tell which of her songs is an original, and which is traditional. That was my class.


“You can’t pick up an elementary school music book and probably half of the songs are in there because Pete Seeger reintroduced them into the American vocabulary.”—on Pete Seeger




FOLKMAMA: Your latest album featured the music of Pete Seeger and now you are doing a series of concerts showcasing the music of Pete Seeger. Why do you think Pete Seeger was so significant in the folk music world? What has made him so beloved?


JOHN: His reach was incredibly broad. He was part of that New York scene back in the 1930s and 40s when Leadbelly was there and Woody Guthrie moved to town in February of 1940. There were all these people who played folk music and were also active in politics. You have to remember that this is still the Great Depression. And you’re trying to figure out, “How did this happen?”, “How can we prevent this from happening again?” and “How do we get out of here?” And you had coming in the most sweeping changes in history via the New Deal which lifted us out of the Great Depression. And you had people who thought what is considered Left Wing now was a viable alternative. So you had a lot of musicians who were going out and playing at labor rallies and anti-war rallies, and doing the kind of stuff that people still seem to be doing today. But this had never really been done before.

But simultaneously to all this and lost in the hoo-ha, was that Pete Seeger was also going into the Library of Congress Folk Music Archives what today is the American Folklife Center and unearthing what we call American Folk Songs. And making recordings of them. You can’t pick up an elementary school music book and probably half of the songs are in there because Pete Seeger reintroduced them into the American vocabulary. I realized that when I was a boy scout, that many of the songs that we sang around the campfire were reintroduced to us by Pete Seeger. He was really reintroducing us to ourselves. He was making these songs that were sitting in archives something dynamic an alive and pertinent. Now we can listen to ‘Old Dan Tucker’ ‘Froggy Went a’ Courting” as something that is just a part of our everyday vocabulary, but it didn’t used to be and it wasn’t that long ago.

Her put out the first folk music albums for children. And of course he was right there in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement, he was at the vanguard of the Environmental Movement. And he wasn’t just showing off. He went down and worked in Mississippi and Alabama.

And that was one of the interesting things about that album that I got when I was 14 years old ‘We Shall Overcome.’ It was filled with music from the Civil Rights Movement and a lot of the stuff had just been written. And now we look back and say, “Tell me the songs that you remember from the Civil Rights Movement” and a lot of them are on that album.

He just seemed to be the guy that showed up. He lived his principals, he stuck his neck out. He had great skill and great courage. And as I often tell my songwriting students, not one remembers you just because you are a great artist, people remember people with guts.

He was a very shy man. He was never very comfortable with his notoriety. He came alive when he got onstage because he got everyone involved. He really downplayed his notoriety, but he was willing to use that notoriety to mentor.


“Through the years he was a great friend and great mentor, and a great teacher to us all and a wonderful guy to play music with.” —on having Pete Seeger as a friend


FOLKMAMA: Can you describe the friendship that you had with Pete Seeger”


JOHN: He came up to me early on and gave me ideas and suggestions and warnings and through the years he was a great friend and great mentor, and great teacher to us all and a wonderful guy to play music with. He was really fun.


FOLKMAMA: How did you meet?


JOHN: I was playing at a festival somewhere and I came out on stage to do my little show and there was Pete sitting in the audience. And I think if you talked to a lot musician that was not an unusual thing to find. He was the guy who stayed in the round robins until the last dog was dead. He was always interested in hearing new people and taking the pulse of what was really going on. He was energized by young people and as he became the obvious elder he was generous with gifts. But he was also a wonderfully whacky thinker. He used to call me up and say, “John, I got this new idea “or “I saw you do something and I want you to explain it to me.”


“I realized that it was an album I’ve wanted to make for 50 plus years. They are just songs that [Pete Seeger sang} that I’ve always loved” —on John’s latest album “To Everyone in All the World: A Celebration of Pete Seeger.”



FOLKMAMA: Tell me about the album of Pete Seeger songs that you recorded.


JOHN: It’s sort of a third of a trilogy. Back in 2012, I did an album in honor of Woody Guthrie’s 100th anniversary of his birth. And in 2015 I did another album citing the anniversary of the death of Joe Hill. So when I was doing that album I thought, “Well this is getting to be kind of a pattern. The next thing is obviously going to be honoring the 100th birthday of Pete Seeger.”

I thought it would be much more daunting to pick the songs that I wanted. But they really kind of came to me in a flash. And I realized that most had been songs that had kind of marinated with me since I was a kid. In fact, there is only one song on the album that I learned as an adult.

I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a recording session with an absolutely clear idea of the arrangements. I just knew how I wanted people to understand the song.  It’s all going to be about the vocals.

So I realized that it was an album I’ve wanted to make for 50 plus years. It’s songs that I learned from him, and some are songs that he wrote.  But like songs ‘Guantanamera’ he didn’t write. But he certainly was singularly responsible for popularizing. And then there were some iconic songs that I felt that I had to do ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’ because that’s was the one that was blacklisted by CBS on the Smothers Brothers Show. Probably ones that people would know are ‘Turn, Turn,Turn’ and ‘If I had a Hammer’. They are just songs that I’ve always loved.


“I’m amazed at how enthusiastic audiences have been about singing along—people really have a connection to a lot of these [Pete Seeger] songs.”


FOLKMAMA: Tell me what people coming to your April 26th concert should expect.


JOHN: I’ll probably do half the album during the course of the concert and what’s really fun is the singing that happens. I mean, I’ve always done singing in my concerts, if you grow up figuratively at the knee of Pete Seeger it’s something that you cherish. What you learn from the very beginning is that the audience is very good at this—they just don’t get asked to do it very often. But it’s something really different that happens—something that I’ve been thinking about all year. I’m amazed at how enthusiastic audiences have been about singing along—people really have a connection to a lot of these songs.

And I also think in these really fractured times, that the fact that a bunch of strangers can come into a room and create something really beautiful, is so antithetical to our culture right now. It feels really good and people long for it.


An Interview with Celebrated Blues and Ragtime Musician Del Rey: “Hooked By That Sound.”


Noted blues, jazz and ragtime singer, guitarist and ukulele player Del Rey will bring her resonator guitar and ukulele stylings to the Fort Hunter Centennial Barn in Harrisburg on Saturday, April 13th at 7:30 pm.  The concert is sponsored by the Susquehanna Folk Music Society.  More information can be found on the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website. Tickets are $24 General Admission, FREE for SFMS Members, and $10 for students (ages 3-22).  Tickets will be available at the door or online.



Earlier this week, Del chatted with SFMS staff writer Peter Winter via email about her discovery of traditional blues and ragtime, her introduction to the resonator ukulele, and her passion for telling the stories of great, largely unsung, female musicians. 


You’ve mentioned how your journey to ragtime and blues really began when Lou Curtiss, proprietor of Folk Arts and artistic director of the San Diego Folk Festival got you into some older recordings when you were a teenager.  What were some of these records and what about them spoke to you?

When I stumbled into Lou Curtiss Folk Arts Records I stumbled into a several wonderful art worlds. First there were the up and coming musicians playing gigs in the tiny store: I saw inspirational early performances of Tom Waits, The Summerdog Bluegrass Band, Pop Wagoner-all playing to 30 people wedged under the record bins. Lou ran the San Diego Folk Festival too, where I saw Lydia Mendoza, Martin Bogan and Armstrong and Sam Chatmon. So I got to hear and learn from a lot of real characters. 

Then on record, there was everything from Memphis Minnie to Seven Foot Dilly, 78s to LPs, and Lou had a good way of playing you things and making cassettes that gave me a good idea of what songs I wanted to learn. 

What first called you to the ukulele?

My friend Sandy Hines from (at that time) Charleston SC was the first real ukulele fanatic I met. It rubbed off on me hanging around her and I found a cheap pineapple uke at the flea market. Then my guitar maker, Ron Phillips made a me a superior metal resonator uke and I was really hooked by that sound. 

What were some of the hurdles you experienced converting your guitar style to ukulele?

The change from guitar to ukulele made me think about chords differently and understand them better. The shapes are clarified, being only four notes. Even though I use the re-entrant string as a time-keeping note with my thumb, I’m also attracted to how that high sound inflects chords, with the sweet brightness of ukulele.

What about resonator guitars and ukuleles do you love so much?

Sparkle! Metal resonator instruments made of nickel silver like mine have a lot of sparkle. 

Who are some of the figures you touch on in your Women in American Music presentation, and why so you think projects like this are important?

Women In American Music is a project where I talk about a few of the incredible stories of women musicians often left out of standard music histories. Vahdah Olcott Bickford a classical guitarist who helped make guitar the popular instrument it is today; Memphis Minnie, one of the most influential fingerstyle blues guitarists; Carrie Jacobs Bell, songwriter and music publisher;  Lovie Austin, pianist, arranger, songwriter and bandleader; Mary Osborne, electric bebop guitarist…it’s an ever changing list of women who interest me who played great music. 

You’ve been really prolific over the last two years! What can you tell us about your last two records, Communique in 2018 and Solo in 2017?

My latest albums are Comuniqué and Solo. The latter is a response to requests for an absolutely solo cd of me singing and playing uke and guitar. It’s recorded in a very unadorned manner, “straight to tape” as they used to say. Comuniqué is a collaboration with Suzy Thompson, the great blues singer and fiddler, and bassist Matt Weiner. They are two of my favorite living musicians and we play everything from Bessie Smith to originals on that one. 



Peter Winter lives in Harrisburg where he writes, teaches music, plays in the Celtic group Seasons, and DJs. He is on instagram