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John McCutcheon is happy to be an old folkie
John McCutcheon says he "can't remember not doing" music in his life, especially the folk music that he learned while growing up in Wisconsin and then traveling to Appalachia during his 20s, where he studied with the likes of Roscoe Holcomb and Tommy Hunter, among others.
But the fact is it`s been 40 years since McCutcheon -- who performs Friday, Feb. 13, at the Ark in Ann Arbor -- released his first album, the aptly titled "How Can I Keep From Singing?," a span of time that seems to surprise him as he talks about it.
"There is the whole cliche of 'It just seems like yesterday,' " notes McCutcheon, 62, "but it has certainly come home to me this year as I look around and almost all the mentors that took me under there wing are gone now -- most recently Pete Seeger, who was a tremendous friend and mentor from the very earliest years. He would just call me and give me advice and talk to me about things in ways that don't happen now.
"But Pete saw himself as part of a continuum, and he taught me to look at things that way, too."
In that regard, McCutcheon notes that "the most fun now is having younger performers who come up to me and say, 'Oh, man, I used to come see you when I was a kid. You got me started playing the banjo.' So it really is part of a process. I still, in a way, feel like that 20-year-old, but now people talk about me like I'm one of the old lions, which is...an adjustment."
Being a senior statesman in the field doesn't mean McCutcheon is resting on his laurels, however. He's still creating original work, most recently a continuing one-man play "Joe Hill's Last Will" about the songwriter and International Workers of the World organizer. McCutcheon is also finishing a new album of Joe Hill songs that will be released on May 1, aka International Workers Day, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Hill's death.
"Joe Hill really created the template that Woody Guthrie used for a lot of his music, taking well-known popular songs and writing new words, often satirical words that spoke to specific issues and times and places," McCutcheon says. "He was really writing songs to be used; he was the ultimate utilitarian, anti-art for art's sake writer. And because his stuff was so specific he, by his own admission, was not writing for the ages.
"But a lot of broader themes he was writing about still apply, so it's fun to update some of the lyrics and put some really cool music with it, everything from swing to rock 'n' roll, and make it a lot more dynamic for a listener today. I'm not treating these things as historical pieces but finding a way for them to live in the world we're in today."
8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 13.
The Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor.
Tickets are $20.
Call 734-761-1452 or visit www.theark.org.
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