Pete Sutherland, to my mind, is the quintessential American fiddler. Unlike an Irish fiddler born into an established tradition, and more -- I suspect -- like most of us, Pete came to traditional music in his nascent adult life, and had to make conscious choices about what he wanted to do. Out of a stew of early influences, he's created a compelling and unique personal style, one that is grounded in traditions and pushes at the boundaries with improvisational leaps. Multi-instrumentalist, solo performer, band member, producer -- Pete's the renaissance man of the music world. We spoke at his home in Monkton, on a chill Vermont winter day.
How do you classify yourself as a fiddle player?
Jack of all trades, but my first language is old time. Old time's nuances are most apparent to me, and easiest to reproduce from listening. But I think if I was starting now I'd be playing more local Vermont music, which is a hybrid of Yankee, whatever that means, and Irish and French Canadian. There were some lucky accidents that made me go southern. I was living in Vermont, where I'm from, and there was hardly anybody playing anything recognizably Appalachian. This was 1972, and there were these chance encounters with the right people -- an old time banjo player named Tom Azarian, going to the Fox Hollow festival and hearing the campground jams -- that gave me a critical mass of repertoire and a jump start on the style.
What happened once you had that initial start?
Well, within a year I met some people who were at the same level I was, and we started up the Arm and Hammer String Band. And in the middle of that was David Green, who had just moved here to work for Philo Records as a producer. He had been playing with Bertram Levy in California; so he had the whole repertoire that Bertram played with Alan Jabbour, which came from Henry Reed and a lot of those older West Virginia players. David sat down one evening on his porch and played about a hundred tunes into this tape recorder, literally. So the lineage was passing along from Henry Reed to Alan Jabbour to Bertram Levy to David to me. The impact of that wasn't totally apparent, but I knew I was on to something.
So that was one thing -- I got excited about that. The other was having heard the Boys of the Lough for the first time and getting turned on by Irish music. We wore out the records we could find of those guys. And the third thing was meeting Louis Beaudoin, who lived here in Burlington. Louis was a French Canadian fiddler of great ability, and the patriarch of his family. Louis was in his early fifties and lived about a mile from me, so I'd walk there after dinner and play tunes. So I had these three worlds, all coming in different ways --- the old time from this lucky accident of meeting the right people; the French Canadian was right there in my back yard; and the Irish was this exotic thing that was turning everybody on.
Did you manage to keep them separate?
I probably didn't because I was learning the fiddle at the same time. In the beginning I was just a tune-sucker and trying to spit them all out, and David Green said to me, "You just have to pick one style and do that -- I don't care what it is, but you have to pick one. You're never going to get anywhere if you try to play all of these styles." And I'm sort of a stubborn guy and I said to myself, "No, I really want to get into all of them." But I did take to heart that I would have to be careful if I didn't want to make a hash of the whole thing. I think I was as careful as I could be, and it paid off because those first few years are so important. It's like being a kid; you set a lot of your patterns for your learning life right there. I learned to recognize the difference in bowing styles, even though I couldn't necessarily replicate them. I tried to create all these files in my brain for the different ways that people use the bow. I didn't spend as much time on the Québécois thing, but I had that front row seat in Louis' kitchen to watch. I think the visual thing is really underrated; I learned to play guitar by watching as much as listening....
When did Metamora come into the picture?
Oh, it was later. Arm and Hammer -- which was Joel Eckhaus on mandolin, Sid Blum on guitar and banjo, Hillary Dirlam on bass and piano, and myself -- played through the seventies and did some traveling down South, and got known for this blend of southern music and Vermont music. We made this package for schools of Vermont folk songs, which is still a template for me.
In looking for material, did you find a distinguishable Vermont style of playing fiddle?
I'm not sure -- now I would say its Scots-Irish without any of the ornamentation characteristically associated with that style. Occasionally someone will play a grace note, or a non-bowed triplet. I think the Yankee repertoire is half Scots/Irish and half French- or Anglo-Canadian -- and Anglo-Canadian tunes are also derivative of Scots-Irish music. Some of it was square and contra dance repertoire, when they were doing traditional contra dancing here, which died out before WWII. And as soon as they encountered it, there was a great interest in country music.
While Arm and Hammer was traveling around, was the dance scene starting to come back?
Yes. I went to my first contra dance up here, which Charles Woodard called, in 1972 -- about the same time I started playing. We started the first dances in Burlington in '73 or '74, with our band and whoever we could browbeat into learning to call. There was definitely interest in doing it, and the live music propelled the events. It took many, many years to get it going -- the modern day contra scene looks really healthy now, but we had to work really hard to make it happen. It was flourishing already down South, in southern New Hampshire and the Tri-State area, but we're a long way from there.
That went through '79 and the band disbanded, and in the summer of 1980 I took off in my Volkswagen and went south to all these fiddler conventions. During that time I met Grey Larsen, who was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We hung out a lot and had a good bond, and he called me within about a year and a half to say that he and Malcolm Dalglish were looking to expand their duo. I went out and spent a week with them in Indiana and was invited to join. We played throughout the '80s, and I moved out there in '83. That was the first time I had ever played full-time. We went for a model that included Grey and I playing pretty much every instrument that we felt competent enough to play on stage, so I wasn't just a fiddle player. Grey played fiddle too, and we both played keyboard and we both played guitar, I even played banjo some, and worked on a lot of original music. Our hallmark was taking different traditional styles and composing in them. We felt our instrumental pieces were pushing the envelope structurally and harmonically.
Structurally in terms of being crooked?
Yep, they weren't a 32 bar, AABB tune anymore. It was like a piece, a composition -- and I think it holds up when I listen to that music occasionally now. The kind reviewers would say that we were like Aaron Copeland, taking traditional bread and making our own bread pudding. We were using traditional sound as the template for composition. We really tried to work as a group, and invested a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in the studio, hashing out stuff and trying to be democratic about it.
Lately I've been wondering why people now are so interested in this old stuff? Why are these old traditions still relevant?
I think it's the honesty. The music projects honesty. Some people are into it more for the historical aspect, because they want to make a connection with something real as opposed to the cultural entropy that's going on now. It could be music, or it could be an old house, or growing chickens or potatoes or whatever. But I think for a lot of people the music sounds pure -- the emotions are easy to get, easy to latch onto, not covered up. We've become culturally conditioned by listening to anything that's mass-produced now. It's like being presented with a cake that's totally frosted and totally decorated and it's got the candle holders in and the candles are already on it and they're burning and your name is already in script and if you just want like a little piece of cake -- that's what you get. And a lot of people don't want that, they just want a piece of homemade gingerbread, so they're going to search around for that. It's a great watershed when something like "O Brother, Where Art Thou" comes along. During the course of the movie a lot of people are going to hear some pretty primitive stuff; they're going to hear some glitzy versions, too, but they're going to hear John Hartford play solo fiddle and hear some pretty archaic versions of things. For people that don't like old time music it's not necessarily going to change their mind -- they'll still see it as all "Hee Haw," but people who were on the fence or have just never thought about it at all might find something new. I've had those moments, and I bet you have, too, where you're playing out in public, somewhere accessible where people could just walk by, and every once in a while you get someone who stops and gives you this look, and you know that they're having a moment of discovery.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as a transcription of "Ocoee," a waltz by Pete Sutherland, purchase the Summer 2002 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Brendan Taaffe lives in Massachusetts, where he plays fiddle and guitar for contra dances and concerts. He holds a master’s degree in Irish music from the University of Limerick, and has toured in Europe and North America. Visit his website at www.brendantaaffe.com]