Several months ago, RUST Magazine had the extreme pleasure of talking at length with John McCutcheon about his upcoming 37th album Joe Hill’s Last Will, and it was fascinating. There are stories upon stories connecting here. On the one hand you have an artist with a lifelong passion for folk music, and on the other you have the centennial of the death of the one person who has possibly the most impact on what folk music is. Beyond the factual lineage of subsequent artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, what most interested us about this story was the personal motivation of John McCutcheon. Doing this album was possibly – for him – the completing motion of the circle of life.
We filmed the interview, which is on our YouTube channel, at John’s home studio where he talked about getting his first guitar at age 14, then finding a book at his local library (The Nearly Complete Collection of Woody Guthrie Folk Songs) that first educated him on Joe Hill. The rest, as they say is history. Since then he has been delighting audiences for over 40 years with his inventive folk music and exceptional storytelling abilities, and (among other accolades and praise) he has been nominated for a Grammy™ 6 times.
What makes the release of Joe Hill’s Last Will even more significant is the personal investment John had in doing this album. It probably won’t be a commercial success. But that’s not the ‘why’ behind the ‘what.’ The why is the passion, the intellect and the perseverance of one artist to refresh, and re-introduce the works of a genius whose music is a part of who we are, and more importantly, this music is a part of who John is. Talking at length about the book which he still owns today, you cannot escape the feeling that this new album is his “book” and he’s giving it to the world with the patient expectation that other young people will find inspiration in it just as he has.
During our interview session, John played some songs for us on a 100 year old guitar, and the sound that came through was of a person fully educated and aware of what they were doing. It was clearly a moment of one-ness with himself as the colors of his life path change seasons. He believes in what he’s doing. He has a lifetime of knowledge that tells him what matters and why. He’s doing this album because it’s who he is as an artist at this moment, and he knows that what he does today will affect people for at least another hundred years.
Joe Hill’s Last Will is an essential album on many, many levels. It is the work of an artist with exceptional knowledge and dedication. It is also a faithful expression of music that has inspired millions of people for over a hundred years. By playing these venerable songs with the skills gathered over his own lifetime, John McCutcheon expresses the same wonder he had as a child, and he makes a definitive statement, both about himself and Joe Hill. The student has become the master here, and has come to the front of the class to teach a new generation.
Whether you consider yourself a folk music fan or not, Joe Hill’s Last Will is a fascinating album that will certainly enlighten, educate and entertain you. There’s a story behind this album. More importantly there’s an artist behind it that is doing more than making music, he’s making a statement that matters to him – perhaps more now than at any other time in his life. This is music made by both a seasoned musician and intellectual, just as it is music made by a 14 year old boy filled with wonder and curiosity.