Veteran folk singer John McCutcheon wanted to honor the courage of a cellist in the Bosnian war so he wrote a collection of songs for him.
McCutcheon’s songs are in his latest album “22 Days.” The CD title comes from what the cellist, Vedran Smailovic, had done more than 20 years ago in Sarajevo: Smailovic played the cello for 22 days straight on the spot where 22 people had been killed in a bread line.
“I pay a lot of attention to history,” McCutcheon said in a phone interview. “When there are significant historical events, I make notes in my calendar and memorialize them.”
Those events often spark songwriting projects; “22 Days” was one such project. McCutcheon ended up with 30 songs, serious and humorous and on many subjects, over a 22-day period.
The project started slowly but by the time the project concluded, he had a better awareness of what Smailovic had done.
“It was a remarkable act of generosity,” he said. “In the middle of brutality and senseless death, this fellow shows up in this very dangerous place. There was sniper fire.”
McCutcheon met Smailovic and remembers the cellist telling him of a conversation he had with enemy soldiers.
“The soldiers asked him, ‘Why are you playing where we’re bombing?’ He asked back, ‘Why are you bombing where I’m playing?’ I’ve always loved that kind of audacity,” McCutcheon said.
After he completed the album, McCutcheon sent Smailovic copies of the songs.
“I wanted his permission in a very public way,” he said. “He was very happy with the whole project. That was gratifying.”
Long before McCutcheon embarked on the “22 Days” project, he had composed a stand-alone song about Smailovic’s vigil. Through a mutual friend, he was able to get the song, “The Streets of Sarajevo,” to Smailovic, who wrote back that he thought McCutcheon understood his motivation.