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"I'm Just Musically Curious"
An Interview With John McCutcheon

by Daniel Elton Harmon

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John McCutcheon's home page on the World Wide Web has a markedly simple address: www.folkmusic.com. It's appropriate. To countless fans here and abroad, "John McCutcheon" and "folk music" are synonymous. The 43-year-old Wisconsin native, who lives today in Charlottesville, VA, granted The Hornpipe this e-mail interview while touring in late August 1996.

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DH: My first memory of John McCutcheon is of a brown-mopped, T-shirted guy tuning and noodling around on his hammer dulcimer in a removed section of woods at Fiddlers Grove, NC, circa 1973 or '74. It was the first time I'd ever seen or heard a hammer dulcimer; I'm sure it was the first time for a lot of others at that festival. How much earlier than that had you begun playing the instrument?

JOHN: I'd actually begun playing the dulcimer just the previous summer. An old girlfriend of mine, Jude Odell, had taken an instrument building class at the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshop up in Elkins, WV. I went up to visit and she had built this thing and gave it to me. This was in August of, say, 1973. By that time I played all the other string instruments I now play (fiddle, banjo, guitar, autoharp, mountain dulcimer) so I had a lot of music running around in my head. The dulcimer, with its logical setup and percussive possibilities, was immediately understandable and interesting to me. I began playing the day I got it and, in fact, performed for the first time the following night at a festival in Asheville, NC. Some gall, huh?

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DH: Who were your first hammer dulcimer influences?

JOHN: There weren't many dulcimer players at that time. The first I ever saw was Guy Carawan about a year or so earlier. But that was in a performance situation at a festival and I didn't really do much more than enjoy his playing. It never occurred to me to actually play the instrument. Other than that, Bill Spence's first album had just been released and I guess anyone who played at that time had to listen to it. I picked up the Chet Parker album, mostly to get some feed on what the traditional players were doing. Mostly, though, the few of us who were playing were exploring our own private musings. I had always been drawn to percussion instruments and found the dulcimer a perfect outlet for the drumming techniques that I'd been haunted by since my youth. That kind of percussive experimentation is what is unique about my playing, probably.

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DH: After you, Malcolm Dalglish and a couple of others paved the way, skilled hammer dulcimer players began blossoming like wildflowers. It would be fun to know who some of your own favorite players are today.

JOHN: Well, my favorite is easy: Paul Van Arsdale. He's a retired tool grinder from North Tonawanda, NY, and a third-generation dulcimer player. I met Paul in 1977 while I was playing the Buffalo Folk Festival. I went to Paul's home and was immediately taken by his playing. Everything he played sounded like it was written exactly for the hammer dulcimer. He's still my favorite.

Others? Malcolm is a beautiful player. He and I started at about the same time and were constantly bouncing our wild ideas off of one another. (An interesting fun fact: Malcolm and I were both born on the same day (same year!) within half an hour of one another. I wrote and played music for his wedding and he was my best man.) Jimmy Cooper was a fabulous player. He was a Scot who played on the streets of Glasgow. I visited him in '77 in England. He died the following year. He was a "traditional musician" in the truest sense of the word: He played exactly what he felt like without any self-consciousness. Show tunes, jigs and reels, television theme songs, Sousa, whatever. He was, like Van Arsdale, a natural.

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DH: Were you raised Catholic? Did you really take piano lessons from nuns? If so, are you still a practicing Catholic? And if so, how has church/faith impacted your music and your objectives?

JOHN: Well, this is a big question. Actually four different ones. 1) Yup, I was raised Catholic. 2) I did take piano lessons from nuns. From age 8-13. Me, not the nuns. 3) No, I'm no longer a practicing Catholic. And let me tackle the last one and illuminate the previous three.

My father was from a working class, Irish/French Canadian home in north central Wisconsin. My mother was from a German farm family from the southwestern part of the state. She was a social worker (Catholic Family Services) when she met my Dad on a blind date and they were married six months later. Nine months later out I came. We're talking good Catholic family, here. Being the oldest son I was, of course, groomed for the priesthood. In fact, I spent two years in the seminary (high school) and toyed with monastic life as late as mid-way through college.

It was my upbringing by a Catholic, social worker mother that, more than anything else, shaped my politics. Martin Luther King Jr. was the hero of my youth. His righteous outrage at injustice and his blending social revolution and religious imagery made absolute sense to me. Still does. To me the term "liberation theology" is redundant. (Another fun fact: I remember doing a Daniel Berrigan poem for my freshman year forensics competition in high school. I won, believe it or not. The English teacher suggested I do "Casey at the Bat" for the regional competition. I respectfully declined.) When I later was exposed to many of the political thinkers of our times, it was the base of King, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Tolstoy, Berrigan and others that gave them all perspective and me passion.

Today, I am a Quaker. My life, my music, my politics (all inseparable, in my mind) are still based in that foundation. I continue to find people who inspire my growth and some of them end up populating the songs I write.

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DH: As much as you might have loathed childhood piano lessons, were they the anchor for your later musical evolution—or was your interest in stringed instruments, inspired by the Folk Revival, the real anchor?

JOHN: Piano lessons were like homework to me. I was never taught in a way that unraveled the mystery of music via the piano. I was actually an OK piano student, though I was always chomping at the bit to improvise and fool around with the music. But in our educational system, especially at that time, we are not encouraged to improvise. In most cases, in fact, we are actively discouraged. So when I started playing the guitar (I got one for my 14th birthday) it didn't have any connection for me to the piano lessons I'd ceased a mere three months earlier. In fact, when I was taking music theory classes in college, we'd have an ear training exercise each day: Professor played a series of chords and we had to write it down based solely on what we'd heard. I remember looking around at all the other students, pianists all, and watching them squeeze their eyes shut and play imaginary keyboards. I found myself playing on an imaginary guitar neck. Same process, different tool.

Now, however, I write probably 50 percent of my stuff on the piano and enjoy playing. I relearned the piano, though, because I learned about music via the guitar. Music is a common language and the instruments are mere tools to give that language voice. Once you learn the language, the tools are all the same.

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DH: Would you share with us a memory or two of your encounters with Roscoe Holcomb, the Carters and/or other "old-timers" from whom you learned during the early 1970s?

JOHN: Roscoe lived in a little coal camp called Daisy, KY, in Perry County. Southeast corner of the state. He was a real soul singer. Blues musician more than anything else. Like a lot of whites in the wake of the introduction of blacks via the building of the railroads into the region (at the start of the timber and coal industries), Roscoe, a young man at the time, was taken with this whole new approach to music. It was very different from the fiddle and banjo and unaccompanied singing traditions of his community. He learned from the workers. Played with a black fiddler. Listened to Blind Lemon Jefferson albums. But principally he learned to sing and play with an abandon and a spirituality that was unique.

I befriended Roscoe and his wife Ethel and their daughter Tommy in the early 1970s. This was after Roscoe had almost entirely ceased going to festivals and concerts outside his region. I would take a country ham up to their house every Christmas and spend a few days with them visiting, eating and, of course, playing music. I remember being invited to play at a small college not far from his home. Roscoe heard I was over there and asked me to come and get him. I did a square dance with the students that night with music supplied only by Roscoe's banjo. Best dance band I ever had.

I.D. Stamper was a retired coal miner, hospital maintenance man and the most amazing mountain dulcimer player I ever heard. He was born in Arkansas and moved to east Kentucky as a boy. Like Roscoe, he was indelibly shaped by his early exposure to the blues and his dulcimer playing was more like slide guitar than anything else. I met him at a festival in Wise, VA, in 1973. I was backstage practicing on a little homemade fretless banjo and he stuck his head around the corner and sat and listened for a while. He played a little bit for me, we exchanged addresses and I went to visit him a few days later. After he'd played the dulcimer for me for a while I very timidly asked him if I could tape record his playing. He said, "Sure!" After a few numbers he turned to me and asked, "Now can I tape you?" He did, too!

I.D. and I were closer than probably any other musician I knew at that time. We played lots of shows together and our families grew to be tight friends. That was the most rewarding thing about my decidedly nonscientific brand of folklore (and the thing that put me in great disfavor in the hardcore folklore community): I was not "in it" to be ethnographic about it all. I enjoyed the company of my musical friends, young and old. They were not subjects or sources. They were my comrades. I learned a great deal from them: about music and about community and how differences in age and origin are meant to enrich people rather than divide them. I wouldn't do it any differently today than I did it then.

Nimrod Workman lived in Chatteroy, WV, when I met him in the early '70s. He was a retired coal miner and the most ardent union man I've ever met. I consider him the father of my own unionism. He organized with John L. Lewis and Mother Jones and helped bring the United Mine Workers into West Virginia. Worked unceasingly for black lung benefits for miners and their families and had a sense of service that was second to none. He was also a great traditional singer. He wrote songs, told stories, loved to perform and to party. I took him to NYC for his first visit where he took over a restaurant called the Ponderosa at 5:30 one morning to show the Iranian cooks (all festooned in cowboy hats . . . the Ponderosa, remember?) how to make biscuits and gravy.

Finally, Janette Carter. She is one of the most remarkable people I've ever met. The daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter of the original Carter Family, she is a wonderful singer and writer on her own. She has nearly single-handedly founded and run the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, VA, offering up old-time and bluegrass music every Saturday night of the year. She also puts on the Carter Family Festival every August.

She and I met as neighbors about 20 years ago. We toured nationally together in '81 and throughout Virginia most of the 1980s. She's one of my best friends and my kids even call her "Grandma Carter." She also makes the best apple stack cake on the planet.

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DH: Where did you attend college? What major and/or original career goal? How did your music and your musical interests change during that time?

JOHN: I attended St. John's University in Minnesota, originally a double major in Spanish and Social Work. (A combination that was eerily prophetic, huh?) I dabbled with education (until I took my first education class. . .) and ended up realizing that what I really loved was music. I figured no one really becomes a performer via college so went the safe music education route until my love of the banjo overtook me and confounded the department enough that I was encouraged to seek an independent major, which is what I did. I ended up convincing my advisors that I needed to hitchhike the blue highways of Appalachia seeking out banjo players, and I left on that now-endless mission my junior year, never to return to a classroom. They were impressed enough with what I was doing (or maybe relieved that I wouldn't be around anymore to remind them how narrow their focus of studies was) to allow me to finish off my college "career" in the field. I now have the only degree in American folk studies ever given by SJU.

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DH: At what point did you decide to make music your livelihood?

JOHN: It wasn't so much a decision as a realization. I was doing my taxes about 25 years ago and realized that everything I did that earned any money that year (performing, working in a community center, giving lessons, teaching in a little alternative school) involved music. The decision to take that risk, though, came as a result of youth ("What do I have to lose?") and sitting in enough classrooms listening to music teachers wistfully wonder what a performing life would have been like. I figured I just never wanted to be in that position. I figured I'd crash and burn, like most folks, but I at least didn't want to spend my august years wondering "What if?"

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DH: What was the first Si Kahn song to attract your attention?

JOHN: It was probably "Gone Gonna Rise Again." But because Si was pretty shy and unconvinced about his own songs early on he used to tell us that these songs he was coming up with were traditional pieces he'd heard from neighbors. Eventually I knew better . . . being a better student of traditional music than he . . . and he fessed up.

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DH: How did you meet him?

JOHN: I met Si when he was hired as an organizer by the United Mine Workers for the Brookside strike (subject of the documentary Harlan County, USA), and I made regular forays over to play for the miners and their families. We recognized an immediate kinship and have been best friend for the last 25 years. (Yet another fun fact: One of the things that drew Si and I together is that he played the fiddle at that point in his life. We'd often find ourselves playing together at dances, especially in places like Harlan County.)

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DH: When did you begin your professional collaboration with him?

JOHN: We've been political coworkers for a quarter of a century now, but our musical collaboration began in 1983 when we began plotting the "Signs of the Times" tour. We actually never wrote together until '91. That began simply as an excuse to hang out together. Writing collaborations that actually produce something decent are rare. We didn't expect to be an exception. But lo and behold, we found that we complemented one another wonderfully and the union was fun and prolific. We try to have two-three sessions a year that are devoted solely to writing.

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DH: How often do you two still give joint performances?

JOHN: We actually rarely perform together. Si is a community organizer in his "real life job." That's terrifically important and intense work. So's being a musician. So Si is one of America's best songwriters in his spare time. He limits concerts to 10-20 a year tops—usually at the low end of that figure. We haven't actually done a joint concert since the AFL/CIO Convention in '93. We've got a double bill booked in Asheville, NC, this November.

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DH: Was it Kahn who initially inspired your shift in emphasis from traditional tunes to topical subjects and modern ballads? Who else?

JOHN: When I began playing music as a teen-ager it was political music that I was most interested in. What I found problematic about much of it, though, was that it was more declarative than political. By that I mean you got an idea of what the singer/writer thought, but it was usually not very persuasive, which is, of course, the point of political work. Even when I moved south in the very early '70s I was always involved in political work. In fact, there's never been a point in my life when I wasn't.

I decided to focus on developing my musicianship primarily for political reasons: I felt it was important to be skilled in all facets of your work, and what I heard largely lacking from a lot of political music (especially in the "white guy with a guitar" field) was really compelling, interesting musicianship. I agree with Mao's contention that (and I paraphrase here) "if it ain't good art it ain't good politics."

Si was helpful in encouraging me to introduce my own songs back into my repetoire . . . returning the favor, I guess. He and Holly Near were two people with whom I privately shared some of the songs I was writing in the early '80s. They both assured me they were good and I should be courageous about singing them.

The trick was integration. How do you include traditional and original music smoothly in a single performance, whether live or recorded? One of the things I've tried to maintain is that traditional music and "contemporary" (for lack of a better term) music can, do and must coexist. That's one of the things that differentiates me from most of the current singer-songwriters. Traditional music provides a perspective for me. History is a necessary lens through which I view my life and my world. But "traditional" is not synonymous with "historical." Tradition is that which serves as a foundation for our culture and our communities, but it also serves as an ongoing, evolving touchstone. I think my original songs come out of a participation in tradition and a sensibility that views the world from a more grassroots perspective.

To finish answering your question, though, I think it's both my audiences and the people who've lent their lives to me for my songs that have served as the biggest encouragement to write and perform my own music. It doesn't matter what your pals or the critics think. The final say rests with the people who hear the music. If it works there, if a farmer says, "Yeah, you got that right," if a bunch of kids take your song to the playground and mess with the words making it their own, if one of your attempts at writing an honest love song makes some old couple out there reach out for one another in the dark, then that's the Grammy you're after.

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DH: How extensive is/was your interest in shape-note hymnody (re: "Samanthra")? When/where did you discover this particular form of traditional music?

JOHN: I first discovered shape-note singing in 1972 at the Wears Cove Baptist Church in the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee. I immediately was hooked and used to travel almost every Sunday to some little country church's homecoming and hymn singing. When the "season" ended that first October and I realized it'd be May before the next singing, I started a group in Knoxville (my home at the time) that met every Sunday night to learn about what we regionally called "Old Harp Singing" and belt out 15-20 songs a night. That group is still going today, long after my departure from the town.

I've always loved shape-note singing and have written about it, taught it and recorded a lot of it, both on my own recordings (five different albums) and field recordings that I hope to gather some day soon and release. I'm planning on including a shape-note piece on my next album.

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DH: Please tell again how "Christmas in the Trenches" was born. Who was the janitor?

JOHN: The story told in my song "Christmas in the Trenches" is a true story very well known in Europe. I'd heard the story before but it was a backstage janitor, an elderly black woman, who told me the story before a concert in Birmingham, AL, in May 1984. I roughed out the song on my Walkman during the intermission that night. Like a lot of songs, I had no idea that it would become what it has. In fact, I remember performing the song up in Canada shortly after it was written and someone came up to me afterwards saying it was one of the best songs they'd ever heard and I had no idea which song they might be referring to.

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DH: You sometimes hold back an original song for a decade before releasing it on an album. You have more patience in this regard than any other singer/songwriter of whom I'm aware. Do you typically make extensive changes from the original when it comes time to record it? Can you share a nugget or two of info about to-be-released songs you're reserving at the moment?

JOHN: The reason certain songs don't appear on albums for years has more to do with the thematic nature of individual albums than with either my patience or a long process of revision. Sometimes, as in the case of, say, "Here on the Islands" (from Nothing to Lose) I knew that the song was a good one but I always felt as though the last two lines were not quite right. I'd tried rewriting the last lines a hundred times and nothing improved them. Finally, I was putting together the material for Nothing to Lose, which was intended to be an opportunity to release a lot of songs that had, for thematic reasons, not made the cut on previous albums. When I dusted off "Here on the Islands" I discovered that the ending was perfect.

Another example from the same album is "Lefty's Bar Tonight." It, too, kept being deferred because its natural setting would have been as a classic country song with weepy steel guitars and the like. I just couldn't bring myself to do that. Then the studio engineer suggested we reverse the kick/snare accents and, voila!, we had a gospel song . . . with a chorus that sported classic country lyrics. Ever the genre bender. . . .

Words of "wisdom" for aspiring writers? Be patient. Songwriting is a mysterious process. We often don't entirely understand the songs we're writing. Some songs you write and others you seem to simply write down. Sounds pretty mystical, but that's the way it is. Write down everything. Save it. Don't judge too harshly, but be wise about what you choose to do onstage.

I just last week discovered a song I wrote five years ago and left for dead only to find that it was, word for word, a remarkable song. You never know. It's not entirely your job to know and you never know how an audience it going to hear a song. In that regard, be generous and humble enough to field feedback and rewrite if necessary. Words are only symbols for ideas. The ideas are the important part of a song. If your idea is scrambled or indecipherable, don't necessarily blame the listener. Also, the meaning of songs, like the meaning of words, often change with time. Revisit these old friends with a notion of maintaining and enriching your relationship with them.

Topical songs are often pertinent long after the issue is forgotten. Highly personal songs are curious: Sometimes the most personal song resonates with an audience in unexpected ways, but you have to deal with your own angst. Confessional songs often do more for the singer than the listener; approach them with care.

Don't be afraid to take great risks. Don't be afraid to piss people off. Don't be afraid to have faith in a song. Don't be afraid to be plainspoken. Be proud of your work but be honored by the occasion when someone sings your songs and has no idea who wrote it; it's the surest sign of a song's worth.

Listen to old songs. They've been honed by lots of usage. Woody Guthrie will teach you more about communicating with people than any Top 40 hit. Take everything I, or anyone else, offers you as "words of wisdom" with a grain of salt.

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DH: Will your next album be Part 3 of the "Seasons" sessions? Spring or autumn? Tentative release date? Anticipating any major stylistic departures on this one?

JOHN: Si and I are in the process of writing the last two seasons now. We've started with autumn, but I'm not sure that that'll be released first. No firm release date right now. I have three albums that I'll be recording this fall and winter, none of which are part of the cycle. I suspect we're talking late '97/early '98. That would determine which season. It's my intention to maintain a stylistic continuity for all the seasons.

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DH: Any plans for more Celtic arrangements a la "Meteors/The Perseid?"

JOHN: I imagine I'll be revisiting more Celtic arrangements, but I have nothing firm in mind right now.

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DH: What/who have been your greatest musical influences since 1993?

JOHN: Probably my kids. These days our house is full of Pearl Jam, Presidents of the United States of America, Dave Matthews Band, etc. I'm essentially a listener. When I travel to other parts of the world I always come back with some new stuff rattling around in my head. I like a lot of the music my kids listen to (though I'm careful to share that info with them; don't want them to feel as though I'm ruining their parental-backlash fun!). I'm listening to a lot of Australian aboriginal music, a collection of Carter Family stuff, African music. I've actually been listening to a bunch of live albums lately. I continue to be a student of live performance.

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DH: Your comment on the term "hard folk" as it's been applied to folkies who employ electrification and heavy percussion.

JOHN: You mean like me? I'd not heard the term "hard folk" before. I think, to be honest, once you take music out of people's homes and communities and put it on a stage or in a recording studio it is no longer "folk music." It becomes a part of commerce and is, hence, commerical, however unprofitable or unappreciated.

For me, I use whatever arrangements and instrumentation illuminates a song. The determining factor beyond that is whether it's well done. The Big Noise does not sell more albums or garner more airplay for folkies. Ask anyone who's tried. The biggest mistake I hear folkies-who-plug-in make is that they enter into a genre with which they have little knowledge and usually no experience. You have to write differently. You have to sing very differently. And, more than anything else, you have to have a lot of confidence in who you are, what you're doing and why you're doing it. Because you're gonna get grief and you're also going to lose a uniqueness in favor of entering a very large pool of people who sound a lot like what you're trying to do.

I don't mean to sound discouraging and I certainly don't mean to sound disparaging. I love rock and roll; it's where I started. But at the risk of naming names, look at Paul Brady. He was, without question, one of the most innovative and breathtaking traditional-style musicians ever. When he sang/recorded a song it became the benchmark version. He also happens to be a great songwriter. He made the leap into pop music and, for all his uniqueness, became part of a homogenized pool of pop singers. Had a few songs that were hits (Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt) but, as a performer, was never as highly regarded as he was in the folk world. . . . For what that's worth, huh? People "make the leap" for lots of reasons: hopes for wider audiences, bigger paychecks, they're bored or, as I believe is the case with many singer-songwriters today, they never felt that the folk music world was their home - rather, a stepping stone to pop success.

For me, I'm just musically curious. I like lots of music and can, with help, play lots of music. But I certainly don't look at my career in linear terms. I've done what you call "hard folk" albums and will do more. But my next album Where the Heart Is, is all acoustic, mostly traditional material. It's all a part of what I do. Luckily, I have a record company and an audience who cut me lots of slack and musical comrades who can help me give voice to my musical schizophrenia.

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DH: How do you manage being a successful husband and father with a pro music career? The divorce rate among touring musicians has to be above 95 percent.

JOHN: You'd have to check with my wife and kids to see whether I've been successful. It's the most creative part of this work, maintaining a traveling career and a family. Over the years I've discovered that I can survive on less, that I don't have to be onstage every night to remind myself I'm an OK human being, that I enjoy my kids and that they won't be around for much longer. It takes a special partner, too, to withstand the rigors of loneliness and, sometime, extended single parenthood.

Over the last five years I've radically limited my international travel and confined most of my stateside touring to weekends. I also work with a strict cap of 80 days per year, which includes all travel days.

But that's only part of it. That only covers how you regulate your work life, and I imagine teachers and salesmen and autoworkers and farmers have to do the same things. The rest has to come from within the individual. Marriage and parenthood are hard jobs and it takes lots of help to make them work. My wife and kids have been supportive, but more than that, they have been lovingly critical. They make me live up to the things that I claim to believe in and want.

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DH: Why does John McCutcheon do what he does?

JOHN: I have no choice. I've been blessed with wonderful teachers, great inspiration, an insatiable curiosity, loads of energy and a good measure of luck. My mother instilled in me a sense of service, which helps make my job more than an exercise in egomania. I mean, let's face it, how many people go to work and have hundreds of people affirm them every five minutes? So you remind yourself of your work, not just your job. You take direction from the elders in our field, strength from your coworkers (organizers and musicians alike), and hope from your children.

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DH: Your greatest joy in life?

JOHN: Having kids I'm constantly excited by, a partner that's always challenging and loving, comrades who make me proud to be their peer, and a job I'm lucky to love doing.

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