John McCutcheon
at the Carrboro Arts Center,
Carrboro, N.C. (24 February 2012)

John McCutcheon brought his respect and affection for Woody Guthrie to Carrboro, N.C., on Saturday night. He opened his show at the Carrboro Arts Center with a thoroughly entertaining and sweet story about his first guitar (from Sears, made from "American plywood"). He charmed us with stories of his subsequent trips to his local public library to check out the only book he could find that would help him learn to play his new instrument: a paperback copy of Woody Guthrie folk songs. He asked us to sing along when he launched into the first Guthrie song of the evening, "Biggest Thing."

McCutcheon talked about being afforded the privilege of accessing Woody's handwritten work and notes. Details about Woody's life peppered McCutcheon's introductions to Guthrie songs. He informed us that Woody wrote "This Land is Your Land" in 1940 as an angry response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."

He interspersed Woody's work with his own, reminding us that he left Wisconsin as a teenager to find little-known musicians. He told us stories about his children growing up and returning to live at home because of the times we live in. He sang the most poignant song I have ever heard about an aging parent: "Hello, Pop. I'm in Iowa. Iowa, Pop...." He spoke of the upcoming presidential election and referred with humor to the wealth of material both political parties provide songwriters these days. He sang snippets of songs on the subject, ending with the sung suggestion that Obama "grow a pair," advising him to consult Hillary on the subject. That's as caustic a comment as he delivered Saturday night, although he referenced the state of the economy several times throughout the evening.

I have been a McCutcheon fan for several decades now. I was thrilled to see and hear him again. He is talented, he works hard at his craft and he is a beloved storyteller. He played more instruments in a two-hour visit with us than most of us can name. He is practically perfect in every way.

But Saturday night was more like a visit with an old friend than a revelation from an artist whose work I respect. I was left to wonder what he really thinks these days, because I don't find political prattle amusing. I think someone who has played Woody Guthrie songs since he was 14 years old should sound as angry now as Woody sounded in 1940. Some songs should be spat out, not sung sweetly.

I hope that as McCutcheon continues to travel our country during this election season that he will "grow a pair" himself, honor the intent of Woody's work and take more risks with his audience. We don't have much time to laugh.

by Erin Kalbarczyk
3 March 2012