Riveting Riffs Logo One John McCutcheon and Tom Paxton - New Album
John McCutcheon Photo One by Eric Petersen

Sitting and interviewing one music legend is special. Having the opportunity to interview two music legends at the same time rarely happens, and yet this writer was fortunate enough to do just that recently when Tom Paxton and John McCutcheon sat down with me to discuss their new album, Together.

The most poignant song from this beautiful and heartfelt collection of songs is “Invisible Man,” and Paxton and McCutcheon would be quick to tell you that this song is also about the invisible woman and invisible child too. With words such as, “I am the invisible man / This really was not my plan / Wherever you don’t look there I am / I am the invisible man.”  The song is about the homeless, or the person you work beside that you never speak with or some other person that society has overlooked or forgotten, perhaps an elderly person. It draws attention to our need to do better.

John McCutcheon talks about his personal inspiration behind the song, “I think I had just finished reading Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man (editor’s note: not to be confused with HG Wells book of a similar title), which of course is about the black experience in the United States. During the pandemic, I remember contemplating the whole term of sheltering in place and I thought there is a whole class of people who have been sheltering in place for years in this country. Nobody knows them. They are absolutely invisible.

Tom Paxton and John McCutcheon Photo TwoAgain, it was creating that character that isn’t me and isn’t Tom and giving them a voice. I have no idea who came up with the line “wherever you don’t look there I am.” Tom and I said, God wrote that song. We aren’t that good.

It is not just the homeless down the street, it is the guy you work with in your office or who shines your shoes or who picks up the garbage. They are like accessories to most people. The guy who mows your lawn and you pay him and you have no idea what his last name is. That is a kind of invisibility. We are just looking through the other end of the telescope to give a voice to that person.

Tom Paxton joins in, “I love that line too, but how about the line that precedes it, “This was not my plan.” (In unison the three of us say “Yes.”) When you think about it, nobody plans to spend their life at an intersection begging from the cars.”

“It is a very old notion that (homeless people have addiction issues) somehow you are sick because you sinned or something happened, because you didn’t pray hard enough. It is your fault, because we have to brush this away by creating something or someone to blame and it certainly cannot be us,” says John.

To understand, if we may use these words where “the soul” of John McCutcheon and Tom Paxton’s Folk music comes from, you have to understand what informed their music in the early part of their respective careers.

Pete Seeger in many ways was a disciple of or mentored by Pete Seeger.

Tom says, “Pete one time sent me a songbook of his with a very nice inscription on the title page, so I sent him one of my songbooks, and inscribed it to Pete on whose aching shoulders I have stood for fifty years. (John chuckles)

That was the right thing to say. Pete was an enormous influence on me, as an artist and as a human being. He was a mentor. He took some of my very early songs and sang them in places like Carnegie Hall and he certainly raised my name in the Folk Music field. He got me started very nicely.

We had wonderful conversations over the years. I didn’t see him nearly often enough, but we had substantive conversations when we did meet. I was very interested in his political background and he was very frank about having joined the (communist) party as an idealist in the thirties. He was equally frank about leaving the party when, in his words they realized that Stalin had been worse than Hitler and that they had been sold a bill of goods and now they were thinking differently. He said to me I have decided to live my life as a small “c” communist. That was fine with me. It was Pete I loved and his music.”

John McCutcheon’s influences were different, but essentially arrived at the same place as Tom Paxton did.

He recalls, “I was introduced to Folk music when I was eleven and my mother made me sit on the couch next to her on an August afternoon and watch on television what turned out to be the march on Washington. It was the first thing that was broadcast live on all three channels that we had in those days. The civil rights movement was a big thing in our house. My mother had been a social worker before she became a mom. She knew there was a bigger world out there than the little Wisconsin town where we lived. I came from a very religious family and the civil rights movement, just ticked all of the boxes. It was led by clergy, they used biblical language and the songs were repurposed hymns. I was the eldest of nine kids, so I was the closest to adult company that she had.

It was something that especially should be noted for people who are planning big rallies, because we have certainly forgotten how much music there was at this event. We seem to recall it for Martin Luther King’s speech and I guess I heard it, but what attracted me and made me remember the event was all of the music. Mahalia Jackson was mind blowing, but then there was all of this Folk music. In 1963, as an eleven-year-old kid, I had no idea that Folk music existed. There was Peter, Paul and Mary, Len Chandler, Odetta, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. They were all singing relatively newly written songs, but they sounded old.

I began a campaign to get a guitar and it took three years for my parents to give me a Sears Roebuck Silvertone, for my fourteenth birthday. I went down to the library to get a guitar instruction book and the only book they had for the guitar was the Woody Guthrie songbook. I didn’t know who Woody Guthrie was, but here it was sixty songs. Inevitably, it set me on that path. John McCutcheon Photo Three by Eric Petersen

I didn’t know the more collegiate type bands like The Kingston Trio or the Brothers Four. I didn’t even know they existed. From the beginning it was Woody, Pete and the rawer end of things.

Eventually, it got me playing the banjo and I convinced my college advisor to let me take a three-month independent study, while I hitchhiked around the south and met banjo players, which I did. It is an independent study, which I am still on fifty-three years later. I fell in love with the south and I have lived there ever since. I have immersed myself in Appalachian music of all sorts, the traditional stuff, the newly written stuff.

Somewhere along the line I met Tom Paxton. It’s funny, because Tom, Pete and I became friends. He mentored everybody. When you went to a Pete Seeger show you were going to school. He taught us all how to create a set list, how to engage an audience, but mostly how to be courageous. That is something that is rare to be taught. It is a blessing. I saw that in Tom too, that willingness to speak the truth. I guess it was inevitable that we were going to meet.”

Then there were the Greenwich Village days in New York City.

Tom says, “I got there in 1960 exactly. I am punctual that way,” and we offer up, that must have been the end of the Beatnik era? He recalls, “It was there before my very eyes. When I got there the Beats were still performing in the coffee houses, but by the end of 1960 it was all Folk music and the Beat generation had moved on.

The coffee house scene in Greenwich Village in the 1960s was very exciting for a young person. It was a great time and place to be young and aspiring to do great things. We had stages we could get up on with microphones and we had an audience. We got to perform almost every night. It was the greatest school you could imagine. As a matter of fact, at the Gaslight (The Gaslight Café) in the early sixties, the format was eight of us were on the bill and we would do three songs sets. Then they would turn the house over and we would do it again. When you think of three songs sets it is perfection in training. You learn how to get on stage, what to do next and how to get off. You did it seven times a night. It was great training.”

As far as those years influenced his music and life, Tom Paxton says, “They inform every part of my life. I learned about friendship. I learned how to be part of a group of soloists who nevertheless pulled together. We were friends and partners. We didn’t write together, but we played our songs for one another and we got valuable criticism. Phil Ochs was the one you wanted to sing your new song for him, because he would tell you right away exactly what he thought. Luckily, he pretty much liked what I wrote, but now and then he would point out that I had developed a stinker and I needed to get rid of it as quickly as possible (there is a hint of a chuckle in Tom’s voice). He could do that, because you trusted him. I never took offence ever of criticism from Phil.”

Now that you understand where John McCutcheon and Tom Paxton started from, let’s talk about their song “In America,” that reflects upon the America they knew early in their lives and the America through their eyes now. We pose the question if the song is about what America once was or what it still can be.

John McCutcheon begins, “I am married to a refugee. Her parents like most Cubans supported the revolution until they realized that they couldn’t. That meant they couldn’t get a job and they couldn’t get food ration cards. They didn’t have much choice but to leave the country they were born in and that they loved.

The immigrant experience in America and especially to refugees is an extraordinary experience from the rest of us who were born here.

I think I came in with this song partially written and I just didn’t know what to do with it. We built it up and put it as a Pole (as in from Poland) coming into this country in just enough time. He was here for thirty-five years from the time the Nazis invaded Poland. Like the last verse says, it cannot happen here. What do you even call it? With the Nazis it was fascism and imperialism. We wrote this when new antisemitism was starting to happen. The protagonist is Jewish. That was decided, before I brought it to the table.

The song tells a story about one guy and through his eyes. One of the things I love about writing with Tom is we let our characters be their characters. They can say what is on their minds. Every character is not an avatar for Tom or me.  I have talked enough, Tom, do you have an opinion on this?”

Tom Paxton says, “I have always used the first person almost exclusively and it is almost never actually me. It is the character that I am creating and through whom I speak. I try to draw pictures with words and music that show everything that I need people to see.

I was born in a different America than I live in today. It was almost incredibly innocent and idealistic. Things (however) weren’t actually as bucolic and idealistic as they were reported to be. I was late in developing any kind of political consciousness. I didn’t have any when I arrived (in New York). The only thing that I knew when I got to New York in 1960 was I believed in the civil rights movement and that racism is wrong. Everything else that I learned started there. I loved writing this song (In America). I loved singing it and I loved hearing it, because it is a very real kind of picture.

This fellow (in the song) came to a country where he did not speak the language and where he experienced some rough and incidental antisemitism. He played the game, he did everything right, he worked and he had a family, but then it all came crashing down on him when his homeland is raped. I just think we needed to have that kind of experience musically.  This is a song that I am very proud of.”

John McCutcheon Photo FourJohn rejoins the conversation, “I will add this was really informed by living with my Cuban in-laws. My father-in-law was very clear eyed about what was good and what was bad about where he was living now. With Cubans it is always next year in Havana (he laughs). He died, before that even became a possibility. He was grateful to his core for what this country offered him as an immigrant and as a refugee. That is something I wasn’t even born with. It was just boom here I was. That sense of gratitude and possibility, really, informed my participation in the song.”

Then we have the song, “Ukrainian Now,” which is stark in its commentary about the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, but it is not just through the eyes of the people of Ukraine, for not forgotten are the Russians who protested in the streets and were beaten and jailed by Putin and his henchmen. “I am Ukrainian now / I am the Muscovite protesting out in the street / I am the Rabbi learning to pray with my feet / I am the soldier who used to dance in the ballet / I am the father sending my family away…”

“We shared with millions of people a visceral reaction to it. It was horrible. We knew it was coming and then it came. People began to die and it was all one man’s ruthless determination. We have a long, personal history of writing songs in reaction to international bullying or bullying here at home. It was a natural thing for us to put pen to paper and pick up the guitars and to say this cannot stand unanswered. It happened really fast. When we have our sessions, we almost never (just) start writing a song. We talk about sports and find out how we are doing and other stuff. With this song we both sensed an unusual kind of solidarity around the world. The months after the invasion you saw symphonies around the world, beginning their shows with the Ukrainian national anthem. Even today, two years into this conflict, when we play that song, (people) still cheer. It was an important song for us to write.

What was really interesting is I made a little Facebook video and we started getting comments from frontline soldiers in Ukraine. They said we are just out here doing this. We don’t know what is going on in the rest of the world and this was a great sense of solidarity to hear this song. You don’t know in this crazy digital world where your songs go. You just send them out there hoping they will pull their shift,” says Tom.

Tell us about the song “Life Before You.”

Tom says, “It started out to be a conventional love song and at some point, in the process, and I believe it was my idea, but I could be wrong I thought of this wonderful twist that would make it into another love song.

We both kind of cracked up and I guess it was because of the pleasure of creating and the ideas coming thick and fast. That makes collaborative work so much fun and so rewarding. We didn’t have that end to the song in view when we began the song. Let’s put it that way.”

The song “Complete,” is based more in truth than fiction and talks about the connection between Tom Paxton and Johnny Cash.

“I got a call from an engineer in Nashville with whom I had worked and he said he had worked on some albums with Johnny Cash. He had three of my songs. I was anxious until it came out and I finally heard them. I was blown away. When you hear somebody sounding like (He does his best Johnny Cash impersonation of Johnny singing his lyrics). I thought oh my god, that is my song that he is singing.

I had met Johnny a few times over the years, never in any great depth, but I found him to be a warm and generous hearted man. I was overwhelmed to hear him sing my song. I thought he did just a great job on it,” Tom recalls.

John says, “To me what makes this song work so well is, you write a song and then someone sings it and you realize, ohhh that’s the song. That is why we wrote the line “I thought it was finished, but now it feels complete.”

John McCutcheon remembers living for many years in Scott County, Virginia, “which is the home of the Carter family and I was close friends with Janette Carter. She had a music venue there that started off little and became big. Johnny would come over once a year and do a show to help raise money for it. I knew him as the guy at Janette’s table for Sunday dinner. He was an ordinary, friendly guy, who happened to be one of the great singers of our time. Tom is absolutely right he was generous and kind-hearted. He is also right that he wouldn’t have lived anywhere near as long if June Carter had not saved his ass.”

Shifting gears he says, “Tom and I had never recorded together, but it was such a treat listening to him do “Letters From Joe” and “Together”. It is a well-traveled world-wise voice in much the same way as you think of Johnny Cash’s voice being that way.

I remember the engineer turning to me after “Letters From Joe” and he asked do you want to do another take and I said absolutely not. There was just some magic that happened in there. At the risk of lauding our songwriting I have to say, that line in “Together,” that says, “I know we can’t go through that door together,” that gets me every time. I have heard this song more times than anyone in the world will ever hear it and I still love that line and I love that song.

It was an absolute treat to record together and we are going to do it again.”

That is the best news that all of us could hope for.  Return to Our Front Page

Top photo and third photo by Eric Petersen, protected by copyright © , All Rights Reserved

  #TomPaxton #RivetingRiffs #JohnMcCutcheon #RivetingRiffsMagazine #TomPaxtonInterview  #MusicInterview #JohnMcCutcheonMusica #EntrevistaMusica  #CompositorEntrevista This interview by Joe Montague  published August 19th, 2023 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos and artwork are the the property of  Tom Paxton / and / or John McCutcheon unless otherwise noted and all  are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine.