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John McCutcheon’s first award-winning song was titled “The Ponderosa No-Cream-in-My-Coffee Blues,” penned at the greasy spoon of the same name in his Wisconsin hometown. He was all of 15 years old and it won him his high school talent show. “My best friend claims that he still has a cassette of the song,” McCutcheon recently disclosed, “and if we ever have a serious falling out it’s going right up on YouTube.”
Since those early creative days John McCutcheon has gone on to write hundreds of songs and garnered more than his share of accolades. His eclectic catalog of ballads, historical songs, children’s songs, love songs, topical satire, fiddle and hammer dulcimer instruments, and even symphonic works are among the broadest in American folk music. His thirty-six albums have earned 6 Grammy nominations. His songwriting has been hailed by critics around the world; his song Christmas in the Trenches is considered a classic and was recently named one of the 100 Essential Folk Songs.
“What sets McCutcheon’s songs apart is that he’s actually writing about something!” observed well-known folk music DJ Bob Blackman. Whether it’s a musical snapshot of a day in the life of an Alaskan salmon fisherman, a child’s pondering the loss of her first tooth, remembering a moment that was omitted from our history books, lampooning the latest foibles on the national political scene, or celebrating the joy of old love McCutcheon’s songs are always about something small and, at the same time, something much bigger. “All big things start with little things,” he observed, “the way in which a song is able to open up the universal from the personal is one of the great joys of writing.”
In addition to his own writing, John has collaborated with some of the major songwriting talents in the folk music world including Tom Paxton, Si Kahn, Holly Near, Steve Seskin, and Tom Chapin. In 2006 he released an album of collaborations entitled Mightier than the Sword, in which he co-wrote songs with some of his favorite authors, including Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, Rita Dove, Lee Smith, and Carmen Agra Deedy. He has worked in the Woody Guthrie Archives completing some of Guthrie’s unfinished songs and has composed musical settings of poetry by Pablo Neruda and Jose Martí.
With his deep roots in American traditional music, his approach to writing reflects both a simplicity and a layered complexity that creates songs that are always more than they seem. “He is a master at the difficult craft of the ballad,” touted the Boston Globe. “Storytelling with the richness of fine literature,” added the Washington Post. “One of our country’s best songwriters,” said Pete Seeger.