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One of the most respected children's artists, John McCutcheon has consistently produced highly regarded albums for young people and folk albums since the early 1970s. During the '60s, McCutcheon taught himself to play a mail-order guitar and joined the local folk scene in his native Wisconsin. He is adept at a number of instruments and is an acknowledged master of the hammered dulcimer. He is appearing with his wife, writer and storyteller Carmen Agra Deedy, in a storytelling performance

Previous National Book Festival Appearances

The Scoop

Start typing in thCan you tell us about your career as a musician. How did you get started? What are your goals for the future?

I got started like a lot of kids in the 1960's: banging away on a mail-order guitar and singing with my friends. That was when I was 14. By the time I was 18 I'd discovered the banjo and went around the Appalachian Mountains trying to learn how to play from older folks. There I was exposed to lots of other instruments (fiddle, autoharp. mountain dulcimer, hammer dulcimer, etc.). But it was the situations in which music was used that was most interesting to me. Churches, square dance halls, picket lines, town meetings, family gatherings, and just singing for yourself late at night. I loved it all and wanted to learn as much as I could. Along the way I started to try to write songs that told stories and sounded like they might fit in with the amazing traditional music I loved. I guess people liked it because I've been asked to sing and play all over the world for the past forty years.

What is it like to perform with a family member?

I have a younger sister who is a sign language interpreter, and I've performed with her a lot. But to play with my wife, Carmen, is both challenging and wonderful. She's such a great performer on her own that for each of us to make room for the other on stage is fun.

You have also written books for children. What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?

I've written songs for children for many years...I have 8 albums of family music out, you know. But to take a song or a story that lives in a 3-4 minute song (that is completely aural) and try to make it come alive in a 32-page book (which is completely visual)...well, I had to learn how to do that. Luckily, I live with one of the best and most hardworking children's authors in the world. I've learned about allowing the illustrations to tell some of the story, to employ the drama of the page turn, to distill the language down to its essence. Of course, being a poet and a songwriter, I'm used to that, but a book is different from a poem or a song. But, like everyone learning a new skill, I read a lot, ask questions, seek advice, and experiment.

What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to get started in the world of music? Or writing?

Play music that you love. When I took piano lessons as a young boy it felt like homework. I hated to practice...I wanted to be out playing baseball. When I started playing the guitar I just played and played and played, all day, every day. My mother once remarked, "You certainly are practicing a lot!" And I thought, I'm not practicing...I'm just playing.

So, you've got to do the work. You can make it fun, but you have to put in the time.

Start out imitating playing/writing you really like. It'll help you figure out the instrument, how to "deconstruct" a song, how to make the mechanics of music understandable...and useable!

Play with other people, especially your friends. You'll make sounds you never imagined, learn from them, and find that you have to answer questions about your own playing that will help you understand music better. Plus, it'll push you to try things you don't think up yourself.

Don't be afraid to make a mistake. Real art, real music is not about control, it is about abandon. Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Try something every day that frightens you." Take risks, you'll amazed at what you find out...especially about yourself.

All the above goes for writing, too.

Can you suggest a fun writing/music topic to get them started?

I like to set goals or projects for myself. For instance, write a little song for a family gathering or reunion. Talk to the oldest person in your family and find out what their earliest memories are. First, you'll be amazed at what you find. Second, you'll be surprised how eager a lot of older people are to talk about their lives, especially to young people.

Talk to other people that person mentions. Pick a theme from the stories you've heard and make it a repeating line. For instance,

"And then the roof caved in" Pick a line that rhymes with that line. For instance, "It was cold as sin" You can then create a template like this

  • first line
  • It was cold as sin
  • third line
  • And then the roof caved in

Then you can take the stories, create and 1st and 3rd line that don't have to rhyme and, bingo!, you've got a story/song. Here's an example of a couple of such verses

  • The winter I was four years old
  • It was cold as sin
  • It snowed and snowed for 7 days
  • And then the roof caved in

  • My father came in from outdoors, said

  • "It is cold as sin"
  • He laughed, "At least it's warm in here"
  • And then the roof caved in

This is just a silly example, but creating a template is an old, traditional tool, creates the rhyme structure for a song, and also means you've also got half the song already written!

That's just one little trick to make songwriting easier.

What is your list of favorite children or teen books?

Wow, that's a tough one. Here's a list off the top of my head that I remember loving as a kid:

  • Charlotte's Web
  • The Paperbag Princess
  • Winnie the Pooh
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • Tom Sawyer
  • Treasure Island
  • Best Loved Poems of the American People and, of course,
  • The Cheshire Cheese Cat

How do you decide on themes for your books/songs/albums?

For my songs, I'll either hear or make up a story that I'd like more people to hear. Think of it, many people hear a story on the news one day and then they never hear it again. Or they'll read a book once and that's it. You can hear a song over and over and be reminded of the story again and again. When I hear a story like that, I'm often inspired to write a song that tells the story.

For my albums, sometimes they are simply collections of songs that I've written in a given period of time. Other times, they will be based on a given theme. I just finished an album of songs by Woody Guthrie, the fellow who wrote "This Land Is Your Land" and lots of other great songs. 2012 is the 100th anniversary of his birth and I wanted to do something special for that. I've done albums of baseball songs. I did an album where I co-wrote songs with some of my favorite authors. I did an album about families...all the different kinds and crazy things that happens to families. An album is like a storybook...it can tell one grand story by using lots of smaller stories and putting them in a certain order.

For my books, my wife, Carmen Agra Deedy, often says to me, "That song would be a great picture book!" We're talking about books and writing all the time. Every night we sit out on our front porch and talk and talk and talk. We come up with ideas for books and songs all the time. I wish I was as good as she is at following through and finishing them. But I'm pretty busy writing music.

How important is research in the development of your work? Can you explain the process as well?

When I'm telling a story I want it to sound right, to get the facts and the terminology correct, to get the feel of a place and a time. I want to create an environment for the reader/listener in which they can surrender and lose themselves in the story/song. I'll do the research on my own, using books and articles and the Internet, these days. But the most important research is trying out the song or story on people that live the life I'm trying to talk about. If I'm writing about being a salmon fisherman, for instance, in Alaska, I'll do a show up there for a community that has a lot of fishing families. I'll talk to them and say, "Did I get that right? How can I make it better?" You have to humble enough to give us things you really love in favor of things that are really right. Listening is often the most undervalued research of all.

What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?

If you want your children to read, you have to read, too. Children who regularly see parents read for their own enjoyment get a clear message that reading is a normal and enjoyable part of life. Let children read what they love. Don't over-manage their reading. Then it becomes homework, not something they see as an enjoyable pastime. But nothing encourages children reading like seeing a parent read.

Can you tell us about any new projects that you will be working on during the coming year?

Well, I just finished the Woody Guthrie project and that will involve a lot of concert touring through 2012. I'm finishing up work on a new picture book for Peachtree Publishers entitled, "The Flowers of Sarajevo." It's the story of my friend, Vedran Smailovic, "The Cellist of Sarajevo," who played his cello in the streets during the bombing for Sarajevo back in 1992. He played in honor of those killed in the fighting. When the soldiers asked him "Why are you playing where we're bombing?" he replied, "Why are you bombing where I'm playing??!!"

I'm also doing a one-man theater show about an American labor icon, Joe Hill. It's called "Joe Hill's Last Will" and will debut in California in October. So right now I'm memorizing, memorizing, memorizing.

Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?

Yup. My site is: www.folkmusic.com.

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