By George Dornbach
The first fiddle John McCutcheon learned to play was salvaged from a trashcan on campus in 1970. He’s since rebuilt it, been a yearly headliner at the university’s former Swayed Pines Folk Festival, recorded 36 albums and has six
Grammy nominations. He’ll have the chance to share the fiddle’s sound and his
other musical talents when he returns to campus for a performance at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 30 in the Escher Auditorium at CSB.
Born and raised in Wausau, Wisconsin, McCutcheon came to St. John’s by luck. It was the only school he applied to and after receiving a scholarship, McCutcheon thought he’d give it a shot.
While on campus, he took his wide-ranging idea of his liberal arts education to the next level. He wanted to create his own individualized major focused on folk music, but since there was no formal coursework on campus to help him hone his craft, he approached Fr. Hillary Thimmesh, who then headed the individualized major program. McCutcheon proposed the idea of learning through lived experience.
“It’s amazing what people will let you do if you just ask,” McCutcheon said.
In the fall of his junior year, he headed into the Appalachian Mountains where he spent the rest of his time as a Johnnie immersing himself into a community of musicians, storytellers and keepers of American folk-music history.
McCutcheon will showcase his studies, stories and talents when he comes back to play a show this Saturday. In addition, he tries to come back yearly to visit good friend and artist in residence Richard Bresnahan.
“Coming back to campus is always exciting for me,” McCutcheon said. “St. John’s taught me how to begin learning and introduced me to the rest of my life; my life as an eternal student.”
For six songs on his set list, he’ll be accompanied by students in the CSB/SJU
Orchestra, Chamber Choir and his former director, Axel Theimer. Theimer, a professor of music at CSB/SJU began teaching in 1969 and directed McCutcheon when he joined the Chamber Choir in 1970. He remembers John as “very much an individualist” and a “phenomenal musician” while he was in school.
When Theimer was approached by orchestra director Dr. David Arnott three weeks ago about the possibility of working with McCutcheon, he couldn’t pass up theopportunity.
“Having the chance to collaborate with John is a wonderful way to create a
different sense of community,” Themier said, who used to perform Peter, Paul and Mary tunes with John McCutcheon in the middle of choir concerts back in the day. “By making music together and learning from someone like John, the choir gets the chance to perform music that traditionally isn’t apart of our repertoire.”
McCutcheon is also looking forward to further defining and creating community by collaborating with students.
“One of the great things about music is that you’re not segregated by generation,” McCutchen said. “You always have the elders who are there who have paved the way, and you have the young people who bring the enthusiasm and energy that’s so vital to making guys like me be a life long learner.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN MCCUTCHEN • John McCutcheon, an SJU alumnus, will be playing at Escher Auditorium this Saturday, Sept. 30. After elevating himself in music, he still makes time to visit home at CSB/SJU.