A bearded man lightly plucks a deceptively simple arpeggio on his guitar. His voice carries a coat of cannon oil, carries the echo of guns set aside for one December night. The melody is vintage John McCutcheon — tight, rhythmic, with gentle curves around minor corners. The lyrics are poignant, peaceful, the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914 on the Western and Eastern fronts of World War I.
“One of John’s many gifts is story-telling,” says Pat Leahan, director of the Las Vegas Peace and Justice Center. “One of his best known songs, Christmas in the Trenches, is a true story about how soldiers on opposite sides of the war come together on Christmas Eve, transcending boundaries for that one night. It’s a powerful story told in a beautiful and poignant way by John.”
McCutcheon will play a benefit concert for the center and the Rio Gallinas School this Saturday, Jan. 12. His visit is being sponsored by the United World College through the Bartos Institute Constructive Engagement of Conflict program.
“John is a great example of an artist who brings people together,” notes program director Naomi Swinton. “We’re very proud to host his visit and wanted to share his music and message with the larger community. West Las Vegas High School was kind enough to host the concert and help with the dinner arrangements and logistics.”
McCutcheon discovered the power of music at age 14. He bought a cheap mail-order guitar but couldn’t afford lessons.
“Guthrie’s songbook was the only music book the public library had,” reminisces McCutcheon. “I sang my way through it, learning the guitar chords as I went. Because it was arranged alphabetically and not in chronological order or by theme, I would sing a love song, then a funny song, then an anti-war song. It was a real lesson in how to approach your job as a writer. Writers write about everything.”
A Grammy Nominee of seven times, McCutcheon has recorded more than 30 albums. He considers “Mightier than the Sword” one of his favorites.
“I co-wrote the album with some of my favorite authors. It was an audacious project to take on. None of the writers — from Barbara Kingsolver to Poet Laureate Rita Dove. These people are literary heroes of mine, I have read and admired them for years.” McCutcheon paused. “I was invited to finish some of Woody Guthrie’s songs as part of this project, and just holding those bits of paper in the National Archives was daunting. This was the man who started me on this path.”
McCutcheon writes tuneful pieces that appeal to both adults and children. His arrangements are often just an expert folk guitar and solo voice, highlighting the power of the words fronting the music. In addition to themes of social justice, his songs include “Happy Adoption Day” — which celebrates the day an adopted child joins his or her new family — and “The Principal” — a song that carries a positive attitude and upbeat tune, teaching children that they are strongest when they unite and work together.
“Some people think that art is reactive. There’s a quote from Bertolt Brecht that I had on my wall for 30 years that said ‘Art is not a mirror held up to society, but a hammer with which to forge it.’ I’ve always felt as though the job of the artist was to pay attention, and to tell the truth,” says McCutcheon. “When we believe something, we feel it, and we struggle with it in much the same way that true believers struggle with their faith in God. You can’t prove that God exists, you can’t prove that you love someone, but you can live it, demonstrate it. I’m convinced that people will go much further on what they feel instead of what they know.”
The concert promises to be a fun-filled community event, starting with an enchilada dinner at 5 p.m. McCutcheon considers himself an old-fashioned “regular guy,” one who works toward building community in as many ways as he can.
“I tear up at the National Anthem every time at every baseball game I attend,” laughs McCutcheon. “When I write, I know that I’m writing for a community of people. I’m not an art for art’s sake guy. I write because it’s my way of grappling with the world in all its beauty and ugliness. Whether it’s writing about my son losing his first tooth or an amazing event that happened during Christmas Eve during the first World War. And to do it as skillfully and accessibly as I can.”
John McCutcheon in concert at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 12 at West Las Vegas High School. Dinner at 5 p.m. Tickets are available for sale at Semilla Natural Foods Store, the Las Vegas Peace & Justice Center, and the Rio Gallinas School, as well as through Rio Gallinas parents.
Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under and include the enchilada dinner. For more information, please call 454-4228.