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Folk Revivalist Serves Slice Of Appalachia

January 06, 1987|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

ENCINITAS — Way back in 1971, John McCutcheon left his native Wisconsin for a brief sojourn to the mountain villages of western Virginia.

There, in the heart of hillbilly country, he hoped to study what he believed to be a dying art form: the traditional folk music of rural Appalachian coal miners and farmers.

"I bought into the whole notion that this music wasn't going to be around a lot longer," McCutcheon said. "But as soon as I got there, I discovered that couldn't be further from the truth.

"I found not only the opportunity to learn from some of the greats of traditional music, who had a kind of soul that you just can't get from a Pete Seeger banjo book, but also the chance to actually see the whole culture from which this music sprang.

"It was all pretty much the same as it has always been, despite the absence of the things that normally preserve music, such as recordings and videos.

"What had kept this music alive through the years were the people themselves, even though the established music industry was ignoring it."

McCutcheon immediately set about learning everything he could about Appalachian music and the culture that spawned it.

He befriended old-timers and was invited into their homes on warm summer nights to learn songs their grandfathers had passed along.

He mastered traditional acoustic instruments such as the banjo, fiddle and dulcimer.

"But most of all, I realized that music here is treated the same way I had always thought it should be treated--as a way of life," said McCutcheon, who performs here Thursday night at the Old Time Cafe in Leucadia.

"In our culture, artists are either the elite or the insignificant," he said. "Out here, however, the artist is someone who inspires and reflects on culture. Music plays an important and crucial role in everyday community life.

"When I first came here, the mine workers union was going through a series of reforms. As soon as the union organizers found out I played music, they said, 'We're having a rally and we need you there, so that miners for democracy can have a voice.'

"Music here still gets its hands dirty. That's what excited me the most."

Fifteen years later, McCutcheon, now 34, is still in Appalachia. Through the years, he has become one of America's leading revivalists of Appalachian folk music.

He has recorded 10 albums for Rounder Records, the nationally distributed folk and blues label based in Cambridge, Mass.

He has toured incessantly throughout North America and Europe, often accompanied by some of the native musicians under whom he has studied.

Much of McCutcheon's work is designed to resurrect classics like "John Henry."

"A lot of the traditional songs still make sense today," McCutcheon said. " 'John Henry,' for example, is about the struggle between man and machine.

"Originally, it was about a guy who was building tunnels by hand, with a sledgehammer, in a time when more and more people were using the steam drill.

"Today, more than 100 years later, it could just as easily be used to illustrate the problems coal miners are having with new technology making many of their jobs obsolete.

"That's the thing--this music has survived because it deals with concepts that are constant about being human. Word processors are great, but they don't help us deal with death, or falling in love, or any of the other things that haven't changed with time."

Most of the Appalachian chestnuts McCutcheon performs have never before been recorded.

"A lot of the songs I do I play for personal reasons," he said. "There was this wonderful old banjo player who taught me a tune called 'Single Girl,' which he had learned from his grandfather.

"Every time I play that song in concert, he's right there next to me--and so is his grandfather."

McCutcheon also interprets more-contemporary songs by a variety of native songwriters unknown outside Appalachia and writes his own topical songs as well.

"My perception of this region is not just nostalgia," McCutcheon said. "It's living. When I write my own songs, I try to synthesize my experiences with the old music.

"Sitting in some little log cabin in Kentucky, listening to an old banjo player mesmerize you with his artistry, is a remarkable experience.

"It's a slice of life that's real important to me, and one that I want to make vivid for my audience."

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