Folk music with a message

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John McCutcheon is a multi-instrumentalist who plays the hammered dulcimer, guitar and banjo, among other instruments.

Folk musician John McCutcheon returns to the Rochester area Thursday with a Golden Link Folk Concert at the Greece Baptist Church. 

“I haven’t played in Rochester since before the pandemic. And now it turns out I have this really nice problem of having too much new music to pick from,” he says.

McCutcheon has produced over 40 albums, including “Together,” a collaboration with musician Tom Paxton out this month. Along the way he has garnered seven Grammy nominations, and accolades from music icons like the late Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger.

His roots, and awareness of the power music can have, have long guided McCutcheon.

As a child in Wausau, Wisc., his mother exposed him to the March on Washington. The blending of politics with music from a unique religious perspective had a strong impact on the young McCutcheon, who grew up with a Christian background.

“I saw on the television a quarter of a million people on the National Mall, listening to preaching like I’d never heard before,” he recalls. “The folk music, it felt old but contemporary at the same time. I love rock and roll, but it was not connected to a political movement in the same sense.

“That same year, a folk singer came to my elementary school and I thought to myself, ‘There it is again,’” he adds. “So, when I play shows, I remind myself that there might be that kid who’s watching the concert and gets inspired. I try to keep that in mind, because that’s a better reward than all the accolades in the world.”

That political messaging is still apparent even in his latest efforts. The new album, which began as writing sessions on Zoom between McCutcheon and Paxton, features “Ukrainian Now,” an anthem in support of the Ukrainian people, as the lead-off track.

Both songwriters have a specific approach when it comes to their more politically charged songs. They aim, first and foremost, to tell a story, rather than deliver a polemic.

“We’re not trying to tell people what to think, but tell them a story that makes them feel something,” says McCutcheon. “Tom and I both were following the news (of the Russian invasion of Ukraine) and felt we couldn’t ignore it. These people really are like David versus Goliath, no one expects them to last five minutes, so that’s how we wrote the song.”

“I’m married to a refugee–my wife (children’s author and storyteller Carmen Agra Deedy) is Cuban–and their sense of America is different than people born here,” he continues. “There’s this gratefulness and this respect and desire to give back to the country.”

McCutcheon says that explains the story around the track, “In America.” The song is from the perspective of a Jewish immigrant from Poland who fled to America to escape facism, only to see authoritarianism raise its head in this country as well.

McCutcheon knows that the perception of being explicitly political can turn people off of his music. But more often than not, he finds there is still an appreciation for, if not agreement with, his songs.

For example, “Everything” is McCutcheon and Paxton offering a humorous take pointing out the Bible has nothing to say about same-sex relationships. They sing: “Here’s a little song about everything Jesus ever said about being gay,” and then wordless music fills the blank space.

“I have people come up to me and say, ‘I don’t believe in what you’re saying, but I think you’re funny.’ And in 2023, if you can laugh at something together, then that’s progress,” McCutcheon says. “There’s a sense of, yeah, there’s a lot of serious crap to deal with and if we can do it in an intelligent way, great. But we’re both funny guys and like to make funny songs too.”

Indeed, many songs on “Together” have a lighter tone. “Same Old Crap” is a reflection on the classic issue of writer’s block, while “The Fan” is a celebration of cheering for baseball games.

Across it all is the musicianship, which first caused McCutcheon to fall in love with the art form. “Together” spans many genres, incorporating simple single instrumentation (or even none, like on “Letters to Joe”), but also can include banjo, organ, backing vocals and even some rock ’n’ roll-inspired guitar soloing.

“(Rochester’s) a great town,” says McCutcheon, who lives in Smoke Ridge, Ga., near Atlanta. “I’m so happy to return and share some of the new stuff I’ve been working on as well as some old favorites too,” he says.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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