A Thingamabob? A Whatchamacallit?  No, It’s A Hootenanny!

David M. Lutken and Helen Jean Russell (background) in Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

If affable came in a bottle David Lutken would be selling it. And I’d probably be buying it, it’s the real stuff. That easy going charm will be on display at the Stackner Cabaret in a new show he’s created, Hootenanny: The Musicale. Ask about the ‘e’ at the end of that title and you’ll hear a tale that goes back to his childhood. It involves his two grandmothers. 

“My grandmother Erma was a classical musician… Every month we would sit and play 'musicale' for her. Ada, a little more of a free spirit — she loved to drink sherry, among other things — and my grandfather knew all kinds of old pop songs. I got things like 'The Midnight Special' from them.”

It’s no surprise then that he has one foot in the theater and the other in folk music. But folk is not Sondheim and keeping these kinds of songs from getting too slick when the bright lights shine is not easy. David knows that “... if you’re ‘authentic,’ or at least communicating a kind of authenticity, then the song will be, too.” You don’t have to try to be authentic when you are. 

From left: David Finch, David M. Lutken, Leenya Rideout and Helen Jean Russell in Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

David plays “anything with frets: guitar, banjo, mandolin and dobro.” He can be coaxed to play a little fiddle or standup bass — just don’t ask him to solo. Standing on stage in work boots, work pants, work shirt and brown leather belt, holding his beautiful Martin M-38 that’s more than a little broken in, David looks to be right out of an old WPA poster. Lanky as a scarecrow, he sings and you hear a strong hint of early years growing up in Dallas and North Carolina. Viewing clips from previous shows, I saw a guy who seems completely at home on a stage and moves around with fluid ease. In one show, The Will Rogers Follies, he was even doing rope tricks! 

Hootenanny: The Musicale, previewing at the end of March has a two-part structure. The first half features David and his group, The Seat of the Pants Band, playing songs based on one of four themes, so the shows will vary nightly. Those themes, which were settled on after winnowing through a couple hundred songs, are Immigration & Emigration, The Great Train Song Robbery, Love & Consequences, and Protests & Progress. 

The second half is the hootenanny. “We’re going to go out in the house and invite everybody to play and sing along with us and bring their musical instruments with them.” He promises it will be “as close as we can get to a real honest-to-goodness hootenanny.” If you play a little but feel funny walking around with a guitar case, there will be some instruments there, along with lyric sheets, for those who haven’t memorized thousands of folk songs. 

The word hootenanny originated in the northwest, it meant pretty much the same thing as “thingamabob” or “whatchamacallit.” Pete Seeger borrowed it to describe the casual picking parlors thrown together on the spur of the moment in the early 60’s. They weren’t hard to find back then, but they’re rare now. This show may bring them back.

L-R: Spiff Weigand & David Lutken in Mark Twain’s River of Song in 2019. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Expect a deep dive back through centuries of songs, some you’ll know and others you’ll be glad to meet. The 1842 immigrant ballad “Un Canadien Errant” has an interesting history: “There were two rebellions, one they called the Lower Rebellion, and The Upper one was in Acadia after the French and Indian War, when the English removed all the Acadians from that part of the world.” He could do that all night, but don’t look for a lecture, there’s too much singing to be done.

The calling card of a good folksinger is murder in a minor key. You’ll hear ballads like “Pretty Polly,” “Barbara Allen,” and “Shady Grove.” These weepers, usually fatal for young maidens, have been around for centuries. It won’t all be grim, look for quasi-Dixieland from Jimmy Rodgers in his beguiling “Any Old Time.” Try not to laugh out loud when you hear the lyrics to “Logger Lover,” a tall tale worthy of Paul Bunyan. And surprise! Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” is on the set list. “Is that folk?” I asked David. He answered with this memorable Satchmo quote: “All music is folk music; I don’t see no horses listening to it!” 

I doubt there will be horses at the Stackner, but you should be. Bring a guitar, a uke, a tambourine or just yourself. Then hop up like thousands before you and take part in a “real, honest-to-goodness Hootenanny.”

John Sieger is a singer and songwriter based in Milwaukee. His songs have been covered by artists like Dwight Yoakam and Flaco Jimenez. He leads the WAMI Hall Of Fame band Semi-Twang and writes about music in his blog Sieger On Songs for Urban Milwaukee. His newest release, Modern Folk Vol. II is set for release this spring.