There is only one John McCutcheon, Virginia's rustic renaissance man and one of the finest hammer dulcimer players in the country. But this weekend, it will seem like Clan McCutcheon. On Saturday afternoon he'll be giving two hammer dulcimer workshops at the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park. In the evening he joins his longtime friends, the members of Trapezoid, in concert at the Department of Commerce's Hoover Auditorium.
On Sunday he'll perform a children's concert at Green Acres School in Rockville, and that evening he'll fiddle and call a dance (with Trapezoid playing) at the National Cathedral School. And on Tuesday, from 6 to 9 p.m., McCutcheon will sign copies of his new album, a seasonal delight called "Winter Solstice" (recorded with Trapezoid and others) at Alexandria's Record and Tape Ltd. (106 S. Union Street). His brother-in-law Charles Monogan will be signing his new book, "The Reluctant Naturalist." There will be some live music there, as well.
McCutcheon, who has lived in the southwestern tip of Virginia for the last 15 years, points out that his extraordinary working relationship with Trapezoid predates their becoming one of the finest, and most elegantly eclectic, folk ensembles in the country. "I was actually present in the very room when the original Trapezoid got started," he says, adding that he was "involved in trying to pick the name back in Elkins, W. Va., 10 years ago when we were all teaching at the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshop.
"I had just started playing hammer dulcimer the year before, and in fact had gotten mine as a gift from a friend who had taken Trapezoid member Paul Reisler's instrument-building class. I'd learned a lot of the old dances from going around to Kentucky and East Tennessee, so in the parking lot after the classes, we'd throw together impromptu square dances just to blow off steam. And future members of Trapezoid frequently ended up being the core of the band."
Although Trapezoid has changed some personnel over the years, the friendship has been cemented by frequent encounters around the country. "My fantasy of five John McCutcheons, each playing a different instrument, being better than one sort of came to life when we would get together," says McCutcheon. "Especially the current lineup, who are such phenomenal musicians with such different voices in their music. On 'Solstice,' we've been able to do everything from string band music to shaped note music to classical music to Hebrew music. It just seemed that whatever idea I could come up with, they could give voice to."
Doing both concerts and dances is another shared experience, though McCutcheon does fewer dances now than a decade ago. There has been a major dance revival in recent years, but "10 years ago, there were very few callers, and in many parts of the country I was known as a dance caller long before I was known as a musician. Now there's lots more callers, so I don't call as much."
McCutcheon, who grew up in northern Wisconsin, has become a major force in the traditional music revival, touring the country as a one-man folk festival (he's also a master fiddler and banjo player) and releasing a half-dozen outstanding albums celebrating the musical traditions of the rural Southeast. As a child, he points out that "at a county fair or at a polka festival or in church, whenever there was good music being made, it always caught my ear. When I moved south about 15 years ago, I came down to learn music, and rather than simply approach it from a musicological standpoint, I went into the community to find out how the music functioned in people's lives, how music and culture bonded those communities together, whether it just be to have a good time on Saturday night or to meld that community together in action."
It was a period of increased union activity, anti-strip mining and land issues, and concern with black-lung disease, he says, and "music was something that was called on all the time to bring people together. Folk music has always focused on people who are on the edges, who are normal human beings involved in extraordinary circumstances. It's the kind of music that takes you as a listener out of your own life and transports you into someone else's . . .Traditional music is like that all over the world -- it tells you things about people that you would never find out in any other way in vivid, humanistic terms."
McCutcheon also points out that the traditional music revival of the '80s is quite different from the folk revival of the '60s. The latter, he believes, was "more inclusive because it was so homemade and unsophisticated. Now the caliber of musicianship across the board is so much more sophisticated. I apprenticed myself -- and continue to do so -- to every good traditional musician in my region that I can find, because I realize that the real soul of the music comes from the people who grew up with it."
As for the hammer dulcimer, McCutcheon first noticed it being played by a small handful of traditional musicians at various festivals. "It was a magnetic instrument, the sound itself so wondrous," he says. He'd been a banjo nut apprenticed to the likes of Roscoe Holcomb and Tommy Jarrell, until a friend gave him a hammer dulcimer as a birthday present. "I played it at a festival the next day -- you can imagine the gall. It's absolutely the most logical instrument I've ever picked up, and the most resonant one. It seemed like the instrument I was destined to play."