Cathryn McGill “Unmasked”: An Elbow Room NM Interview by Bill Nevins
Cathryn McGill “Unmasked”: An Elbow Room NM Interview
by Bill Nevins
Cathryn McGill, the beloved Albuquerque African-American former government and nonprofit social services administrator and present event- organizer, singer and poet, will be doing a concert at The Outpost Performance Space on Thursday night, March 16, 2017. She took the time to chat by phone with us on March 14. For concert information and tickets, visit www.outpostspace.org
BN— Hi Cathryn. What will be special and exciting about your Outpost show this Thursday March 16?
CM— Well, I’ve been away from the performing scene myself for a while, organizing some big shows and doing some other things. And I realized that I really missed my music, and that performing is a catharsis for me. And then it just so happened that the stars got in line and Tom Guralnick called me, actually in a very busy time for me as we do a festival every year, and he asked me if I would do this concert. And I said yes, and then I said to myself, “What could I have been thinking?” (Laughs)
But then after the dust settled I realized that I really did want to do it, and it is an opportunity to collaborate with guitarist Reed Easterwood and other musicians around town, all of whom I love to work with.
We will be working Thursday with spoken word and poetry, in particular the work of the great early twentieth century African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and his poem “Beware the Mask”. The imagery in that poem fits our present time when people are in survival and protection mode and some of us may be wearing “masks” just trying to survive, really.
So, what I always like to do with my music is have it be a sort of catharsis for both me and my audience. Where we try to say, why don’t we try something different? If we’ve been wearing a mask, why don’t we just try to being UN-masked.
The poster for the show is of me when I was a young girl growing up in Muskogee, Oklahoma where there were a lot of things going on, but I was pretty much insulated from most of it by the love of my parents and my grandparents which made every thing okay. We were poor but we didn’t know that, and somehow we were happy.
And so in my mind I wanted to sort of go back to exploring that time and some things that have happened since then until now, via music and spoken word.
I am going to do a short story that I wrote about when I was eight years old. And we will do some poetry and selected cover tunes.
BN—That’s wonderful. You grew up in Muskogee, and I know it is a lovely town but I always associate it with that famous tongue- in- cheek Merle Haggard song, “Okie from Muskogee”.
CM—Oh yes everybody does that, and people often think its a fictional place, but I really am from Muskogee. We never locked the doors then. It was a different time and space. Merle Haggard used to come there all the time. He was friends with a judge in town and I was friends with the judges daughter, and I got to meet Merle when I was very young. Everybody in town loved that song because it put little Muskogee on the map!
BN—Now, you have made Albuquerque your home for quite some time.
CM—I got here January 7, 1984 from Chicago. I had intended to stay just a couple of years and then move on to New York. But, which surprises many people, I got a job right away, the first one I applied for, and it was with the Albuquerque City Government. And I decided I would stay just a little bit longer, and now some thirty plus years, here I still am.
BN—That’s how it works here, doesn’t it? Land of Entrapment! It’s hard to leave—I am twenty odd years here myself! Its so beautiful here.
CM—Oh yes it is so beautiful and I am proud to be here in New Mexico and to have been able to do the things that I have done here. I don’t know if I would have done them in Los Angeles or New York or any other bigger city, but I do know that working in the public sector here I was able to go and make a difference in changing policies and in shaping and creating community here. That was very important to me. And then when I was done with that when I decided to work in the nonprofit sector building and strengthening community here, I was able to do that based on the connections that I had made when I worked for city government.
So, I am not sure that I would have been able to do that anywhere else. And this has been my home for now thirty plus years.
BN—We are so glad you stayed here, Cathryn. How did you become involved in music?
CM—My mother had a very beautiful voice and she sang in the choir,and it was expected that everyone who could sing would be in the Sunshine Choir at church. It wasn’t about whether you were the best, but it was about helping folks sit through a three hour church service. And you know I did enjoy it, although up until the early 1990s I thought of myself as primarily an actor.
But then I started writing poems and songs and I discovered that I am really a griot in the West African tradition. I just love that role and I am humbled by it.
BN—What musicians do you admire.
CM—Oh, Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James. They were both uniquely themselves in their approach to songs and their phrasing. I aspire to reach to the levels they achieved in their singing.
In terms of my own song writing, I went through a period of beginning to write songs and singing as i travelled and performed them in large churches. And people liked my songs! I think my best song is “The End of Forever” which I wrote with John Rangell. I am very proud of that song.
BN—That’s a wonderful song,and we so look forward to your concert this Thursday. Thanks, Cathryn.