(Note: The concert has been relocated to the Burford Theater in Arkansas City.)
Folk music legend Pete Seeger would have turned 100 years old on May 3.
For his friend and fellow musician John McCutcheon, it was important to mark the elder performer’s legacy. The result is the album To Everyone in All the World: A Celebration of Pete Seeger.
Joining McCutcheon on this release are The Steel Wheels, Hot Rize, Suzy Bogguss and other roots and folk music titans.
McCutcheon will appear in Winfield at the Burford Theater in Arkansas City on Saturday, April 13, and will also return for the Walnut Valley Festival in September.
McCutcheon recently spoke with KMUW about his friendship with Seeger, this new album and mentoring younger musicians.
How did you first encounter Pete Seeger’s music?
I was 13 years old. My youngest brother was born on July 1, 1966. I had been left in charge of my other brothers and sisters while my mom and dad were at the hospital. When the word came in that everything was fine I left my sister, who was only a year younger than I, in charge and, heady with joy, I Schwinned my way down to the music store in our town and blew all my paper route money on the first LP I ever bought, which was a Pete Seeger album.
I didn’t know who Pete Seeger was. I just knew that the title cut, “We Shall Overcome,” was a song that was in the news a lot those days. It was always just little snippets of this song, and I wanted to hear the whole thing. I bought the album and brought it home. It was a live concert recording. I had never been to a concert before.
It was really fascinating to hear all this music and hear the way in which it was done, hear the audience participating. It was nothing like I had ever heard or even thought of before. I started playing guitar six weeks later. Years later, I saw him in concert. A few years after that, when I was launching my own infant career, I ran into him at a festival. He had heard of me and came and saw my set. I thought that was pretty remarkable and nerve-wracking.
He came backstage afterward and talked to me. We began a relationship that lasted until his death. We played a lot together. We visited each other at home. He would call with ideas that he wanted to bounce off of me or about things I had written or he had heard me talk about. It was a surprisingly normal relationship with a fella who was an iconic figure in American history.
I think there’s something really special about that music that we hear at a formative time. For me, my older brother left me alone with The Beatles’ White Album.
At some point, I thought I’d get sick of hearing “Martha My Dear” or “Rocky Racoon.”
It really is the soundtrack of your life. You’re a writer. You connect with the public. Imagine if John Lennon started corresponding with you and started giving you insights about that album. Imagine you became true friends, no longer idol and fan. That’s what happened with me and Pete.
Did his mentoring of you encourage you to do the same with other musicians?
Absolutely. I’m doing that a lot these days. I’m in my mid-sixties. You look at the world through your own little lenses. You get up in the morning and you shave and you look at your dad in the mirror and say, “How did I get this old?”
With that comes a lot of great things. There’s some hard-won wisdom. Hopefully. There is an opportunity to share what you know. You’ve made every mistake there is to make twice. If you have the humility to admit that, you can say to somebody, “You might want to think about how you’re doing this,” or, “I know what you’re trying to do but I don’t think you’re connecting in the way that you’d like.”
For a lot of performers, having someone that they trust and respect to give them truly constructive criticism [is important]. It doesn’t happen enough in a world in which you’re applauded every five minutes. It’s really easy to be seduced by that applause. In my field, I think it’s especially important that mentoring happen.
I’ve talked to so many people over the years who say, “I wish there had been someone there to tell me what do.”
In some fields of music and at a certain echelon that’s the job of management. The difference is that my livelihood is not tied to The Steel Wheels’ success like their management’s is. To have another peer, but a peer who has got some miles on him, to say, “Look over the contract. Are you keeping your publishing?” or “You could make the transition from one song to another a lot smoother by providing context. Here’s an example.” You’re living your own advice, so they can look at you and this stuff can happen with a formal sit-down.
At what point did you know you were going to make this album, To Everyone in All the World: A Celebration Of Pete Seeger?
In 2015. In some ways, I’ve been waiting over 50 years to make it. With all the songs, except one, I’ve known about that long. In 2012, it was Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, I did an album. In 2015, it was the 100th anniversary or the death of the labor songwriter Joe Hill. As soon as I did that one, I thought, “OK. I’ve got a couple of commemorations going on here. The next obvious one is Pete.” It’s probably the most artistically full-formed album I’ve ever released.
It impresses me the life that the songs all three of those performers wrote have to this day. They’re still relevant.
With all three of these albums I wanted to showcase the fact that the concerns that all three of these men had, what they spent their lives struggling with and fighting and trying to change and trying to advocate for, they’re still going on. When I did the Joe Hill album, none of those songs were less than a year old. But, especially when younger people would hear them, college students, they’d come up and say, “You mean immigration was an issue 100 years ago? You mean a few people making all the money and most people not making a lot of money was around 100 years ago?” I made a point of not presenting anything as a museum piece. I wanted it to be dynamic and pertinent and informative and inspiration for our lives today.
That’s what Pete taught me. That’s what music can do. You’re not a sentimentalist. You’re not a nostalgist. You’re telling real stories. You want you listeners to be moved and changed.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.