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Hiawatha Headliners

Singer-songwriter John McCutcheon plays folk festival for first time

July 16, 2011
By RENEE PRUSI - Journal Staff Writer ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - Growing up in Wausau, Wis., John McCutcheon wasn't part of a musical family.

"No, not at all," the singer-songwriter said in a phone interview Friday. "I was one of those kids who was swept into the folk scene of the 1960s. It was a participatory phenomenon. It was all about joining in and singing along.

"Nothing in music today has that combination of pop stardom of a Peter, Paul and Mary or Kingston Trio or Simon and Garfunkel playing music based on a traditional form like we did back then."

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McCutcheon, who is known for his work with the hammered dulcimer and as a storyteller, is one of this year's headliners at the 33rd annual Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival Friday through July 24 at the Tourist Park in Marquette. He will be performing both July 23 and 24.

Now 58, McCutcheon took to music immediately when introducted to folk style.

"I picked up a guitar and started banging away," he said. "I had no other marketable skill, so I am still at it.

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"I think for me, it was something I could do on my own," McCutcheon said. "I come from a big family and (music) was a way to get attention, if I play armchair psychologist here. In the meantime, then, I went off to college where I met some kids from Arkansas. They brought dulcimers and banjos and other instruments with them, although they didn't play them. Here they were in northern Minnesota all of a sudden. It must have seemed like they were at the North Pole.

"I asked if I could borrow a banjo and that sabotaged my college career," he said. "I went south on a three-month independent study and that morphed into my life."

McCutcheon is a first-time visitor to Marquette.

"I haven't played Hiawatha before, but I am looking forward to it."

Does he have a favorite past venue?

"There are a lot of different way to answer that," McCutcheon said. "You perform at some place like the Kennedy Center in Washington... and you walk out of there thinking to yourself 'how did a kid from Wausau, Wis., end up here?'

"Then I played in the Soviet Union years ago and my kids were with me. We were walking through Red Square and I had a child on each hand and I thought about how they would have a different view of the people there than I did because they had met them," he said. "Those are the times when it's the coolest thing.

"Then there are times when I am playing in a little banana leaf hut in South America and I am explaining 'John Henry' in their language and the people say to me 'we have this, too,'" McCutcheon said. "So there's not a moment to point to. There's a series of moments convincing me how lucky I am to have stumbled on this life."

With more than 30 recordings in his discography, McCutcheon has been prolific at songwriting through the years.

"My method is all over the map," he said. "I have been commissioned to write pieces. That's when I get up at 9 a.m. and churn stuff out. But often, the muse strikes me at a moment and I have learned I have to pay attention, so I pull the car over or get up from the supper table. My latest inspiration came in my own backyard, watching the sun come down. I use what happens."

For more information on McCutcheon and his music, visit

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is



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