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December 6, 2009

John McCutcheon - 2 albums

And, just to show you that I don't have anything against nice, pleasant music (so long as it's done well and not too sappy), here's some fine heart-warming strings and things. Usually the separating question is: have they gone deep enough into the traditional music to understand its subtle depth, or have they merely skimmed its harmonious overtones? In McCutcheon's case, I believe the former is true. Even when making children's music, he stands apart from the crowd in making music that doesn't belittle the innate intelligence of children. But these two albums come before his childrens phase, when he was just making lovely glistening bits of folk.

Biography by P.J. Swift
One of the most prolific and respected children's artists, John McCutcheon has consistently produced quality children's albums (and folk albums) since the early '70s. McCutcheon is first and foremost an instrumentalist. Like thousands of others in the '60s, McCutcheon, a Wisconsin native, taught himself how to play a mail-order guitar and joined the local folk scene. His interest became more serious, however, when he sought to find the roots of this music. McCutcheon headed for Appalachia and learned from some of the legendary greats of traditional folk music. Along the way, he became adept at a multitude of instruments, including fiddle, banjo, guitar, autoharp, jaw harp, and especially the hammered dulcimer. McCutcheon is considered one of the undisputed masters on the hammered dulcimer and adapts much of his music around the instrument. 

By the time of his first album, How Can I Keep from Singing in 1974, McCutcheon as a young man had already drunk deep from America’s well. Born in Wisconsin, he enrolled at St. John’s University in Minnesota and almost immediately felt the call to seek a broader curriculum beyond the classroom walls. “I had discovered these old Folkways records of people like Roscoe Holcomb and Clarence Ashley,” he remembers, noting just two of the many American folk artists who piqued his imagination. “And when I realized that they were still alive, I decided I wanted to learn all I could about them. From them.”

This meant, he continues, “walking out to the end of the college drive as a 19-year-old kid and sticking out my thumb. I thought I was going off on a three-month, independent study to find banjo players. Even then, I knew it was the ultimate in cultural denial to play banjo in Minnesota,” he remembers, laughing. “What I didn’t realize was that this music needed to be learned in its context. After all, I’d come out of academia, where they compartmentalize life into boxes like Biology 101. But you learn about this music by going into people’s homes and going with them when they play at dances, in churches or on the picket line. And the more I did this, the more I understood that this music isn’t just about putting your finger on the right part of your instrument, singing the right note or writing the right word.”

John McCutcheon - Wind That Shakes the Barley

Year: 1977
Label: Rounder

Review by Matt Fink

Originally released in 1977, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, McCutcheon's second release, was a groundbreaking recording for hammer dulcimer music. Having established himself in folk circles for his instrumental prowess, McCutcheon, having only himself picked up the instrument two years prior, broadened the horizon of the hammer dulcimer as a popular folk instrument. The innovation he brought to traditional jigs, reels, rags, as well as American folk and bluegrass, was, and still is, truly breathtaking. Joined by a cast of friends on guitar, concertina, fiddle, mandolin, and banjo, these songs fill out amazingly well, providing a perfectly adorned stage for McCutcheon's mesmerizing playing, as well as providing excellent harmony vocals on Carter Stanley's "Who Will Sing For Me?" Following up a swinging "Dallas Rag" with Bach's "Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring" certainly isn't common pairing, but McCutcheon expertly blurred boundaries on this release. Overall, for fans of hammer dulcimer music, and most fans of traditional folk music in general, this is an absolute must.

1 Wind That Shakes the Barley, Morpeth's Rant, Saten Island - Traditional - 3:30
2 Planxty George Brabazon, Si Bheag Si Mhor - OCarolan - 5:47
3 Every Bush and Tree - Pierce - 2:57
4 Dallas Rag - Traditional - 2:53
5 Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring - Bach - 2:14
6 Carter Store Medley: Wildwood Flower/Red Wing/Wake up Susan/Temperance - Traditional - 3:56
7 Sculley's Reel, Morrison's Jig - Traditional - 3:56
8 If I Were a Featherbed - McCutcheon - 2:44
9 St. Anne's Reel/Cricket on the Hearth/Kitchen Girl/Mississippi Sawyer - Traditional - 4:06
10 Sally in the Garden/Wild Rose of the Mountain - Traditional - 4:10
11 Who Will Sing for Me? - Stanley - 3:18
12 Hangman's Reel/Campbell's Farewell to Red Gap - Traditional - 4:51
13 Greensleeves - Traditional - 1:56

nmr | mp3 160kbps | w/o cover | 52mb

John McCutcheon - Fine Times at our House

Year: 1982
Label: Greenhays

Review by Steve Leggett
John McCutcheon's love for traditional Appalachian music is apparent on all of his many albums, but Fine Times at Our House, recorded for Jean Ritchie and George Pickow's Greenhays label, is particularly neo-Appalachian in feel, featuring several fiddle medleys and McCutcheon's own bright and airy hammer dulcimer playing. Among the many highlights here are the opener, "Wild Rose of the Mountain," a fiddle reel that makes the heart soar, and a wonderful segue that puts two traditional melodies, "Lonesome John" and "Fine Times at Our House," together in one basket. Most of the tracks are instrumentals, but McCutcheon's appropriately creaky singing on the haunting dirge "Times Are Not What They Used to Be" is particularly moving. A bright joy seems to permeate every inch of this record, and its offhand, easy flow makes it a wonderful introduction to McCutcheon's considerable body of work.

1. Wild Rose of the Mountain/Wild Rose of the Mountain
2. Hale's Rag
3. Nancy Ann/Hey, John D., Where'd You Get Your Britches?
4. Lonesome John/Fine Times at Our House
5. Amelia's
6. Samanthra
7. I Am the Bravest Cowboy/Cowboy's Dream
8. Times Are Not What They Used to Be
9. Grandpa's Waltz/Clarinet Polka
10. Sally Ann
11. Back Side of Albany/Cooley's Reel
12. Carolan's Farewell to Music

fine and dandy.
mr | vinyl, cleaned | mp3 >256kbps

and you can also download mp3s from his website (not sure how he got to have "" but he must have got in early...)


Manila said...

Thank you so much for 'Fine Times at Our House.' I only really started listening to this kind of music a couple of years ago. Now I can't get enough!

All the best

Time2 said...

Great post! It reminds me of Derek Bell's playing Timpán (his version of Hammered Dulcimer) with the Chieftains' "#5-8" Albums.
On the Chieftains "5" LP/CD there is even a tune dedicated to the instrument.