Friday, March 28, 2014

John McCutcheon's Concert at Nighttown

John McCutcheon, America's great folksinger, had an intimate concert for between 80 and 100 people last night at the Nighttown Tavern in Cleveland Heights. John has played many huge venues (Wolf Trap, for example), so it was a treat to be about 20 feet away from him in this warm and cozy tavern.

I was lucky to talk to him briefly right before he went on stage. I told him how we saw him in concert near the beginning of his career, in Pippa Passes, Kentucky (a tiny town in a county that didn't have a single stoplight!). John smiled broadly and said, "Alice Lloyd College!" Then he bounded out to the stage. He began the concert with the first song he ever learned on the banjo--an "Old-Timey" banjo tune written by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground." John met Bascom when Bascom was about 90 years old--and still playing his music. John's old-timey style was simple, old-timey plunky.

John weaves stories in and out of his music. The stories are wonderful and often hilarious. One great story was set in his Wisconsin home in 1963 when John was 11 years old. In the middle of the day his mother invited him to sit next to her on the couch as they watched the 1963 March on Washington, that featured great music (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary) and the amazing "I Have a Dream" speech of Martin Luther King Jr. John's mother was deeply sympathetic to this--and you can clearly see the love John still holds for her and how profoundly he was affected by her. [John's song about this can be seen below.]

John played for 2 hours, his own songs (like "Christmas in the Trenches"), and songs by his masters like Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn!" (accompanied by a hilarious story) and Woody Guthrie's "Joe Hill" and "This Land Is Your Land." A very short video clip from "Turn, Turn, Turn":

My favorite song all night was a beautiful one he did about his mother, "One in a Million."  Here are the lyrics:
I remember that August
A half million gathered
On our small TV
The moment was magic
With dreams in the air
My Mom watched in wonder
And said, “I wish I was there”
But there were babies to diaper
And a whole house to clean
So she watched the world change
On that black-and-white screen
She was one in a million
Who did her small part
And she carried that banner
Held high in her heart
She taught me the Bible
Each chapter and verse
How the meek shall inherit
And the last shall be first
She said, “God leaves God’s work
“To me and to you
“When you’re meek and you’re ready
“What will you do?”
Though she seldom traveled
Far from her front door
She watched the world change
In the children she bore
You are one in a million
You each have a part
Always carry that banner
Held high in your heart
Those children now scattered
Like ships on the sea
Mounting adventures
That she’d never see
I never once doubted
What she said was true
I saw miracles mounting
And small victories counting
And it’s all worth recounting
This work that we do
Each Mother’s Day sadly
I look to the chair
Now fifteen years empty
And wish she were there
So this year I traveled
As her eldest son
To a Washington March
Just as she would have done
I marched for the future
In a million mom sea
I was marching for her
I was marching for me
I was one in a million
Just doing my part
And I carried her banner
Held high in my heart
©2000 John McCutcheon/Appalsongs (ASCAP).

During the concert John played 8 instruments: 5-string banjo; 6-string guitar; 12-string guitar; hammer dulcimer; autoharp; piano; fiddle; and jaw's harp. The jaw's harps, which he had gotten from Pete Seeger's brother Mike, were incredible. John also has a beautiful voice. But most of all, he has this wonderful humanity and passion. He lets his music and storytelling serve both beauty and justice. He stands up for what is right, just like his friend Pete Seeger and his mentor Woodie Guthrie.

John McCutcheon is a national treasure, and I'm so glad Linda and I could see him play in the wonderful, intimate venue of Nighttown.

Linda, at Nighttown.

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