Monkton bard shares folk music with kids

MONKTON — Sure, Pete Sutherland is busy. When the Monkton folk musician isn’t stringing together teaching gigs, concerts and artists’ residencies, there’s a good chance he’s setting up shop at a benefit barn dance, strumming away at any of the myriad string instruments he handles almost effortlessly.
The benefit dances and charity concerts come with the territory, he explained.
“If you’re going to be a community musician, you have to make time for that,” Sutherland said.
And Sutherland, 59, is nothing if not a community musician. In the 1980s he traded a job as a road musician for a 100-year-old general-store-turned-house in Monkton, and ever since he’s been putting down roots in his native Vermont, where he and his wife, Karen, have become fixtures in the region’s traditional music scene.
Recently he was recognized by the group Young Tradition Vermont for that ongoing work — particularly in bringing traditional music to schools and young musicians — with the “Older Folks Doing Stuff for Younger Folks” award.
The award honors Sutherland’s ongoing work with children and young adults to keep traditional music and dance alive. He’s helped kids pick up the fiddle and write their own ballads, and is a regular teacher at regional summer music camps and for local music students young and old.
Curiously, it wasn’t until Sutherland was well on his way to adulthood that he discovered folk music. He took piano lessons as a boy, and picked up a guitar in high school, but didn’t learn to play the fiddle until he was a student at the University of Vermont.
He graduated from school, and was what he called “underemployed,” which meant he had plenty of time to practice. Then he gravitated toward folk music, bluegrass and Irish music in quick succession. Before long he was plucking away on banjos, guitars, fiddles and mandolins.
“In a way it was happy chance, like it is for a lot of people,” Sutherland said. “You think, ‘Whoa, where’s that been all my life?’ I grew up with everything else, classical music, Broadway and jazz, everything but folk music. It was kind of a revelation.”
These days, Sutherland focuses on bringing that same revelation to students. He works with students who are drawn to the music at camps around the region, like the Northeast Heritage Music Festival and Adirondack Mountain Arts gathering. Those are chances for musicians young and old to scratch out a community for themselves among like-minded individuals — something that isn’t always possible in their own hometowns, Sutherland said.
But often his work brings him into classrooms where folk music isn’t a well-known quantity. It can be a challenge sometimes; there are always students who balk at expressing interest in something that would make them “different” than their classmates, Sutherland said.
He’s also seen what folk music can do for kids who are lonely or struggling. Much of the work Sutherland does in classrooms revolves around writing, particularly songwriting but often other forms as well. Teaching students that anything can be a story — the weather, a dream, an old family tale or town history — is an eye-opening lesson.
“It validates them as storytellers,” Sutherland said. “It’s all stories.”
When he’s not teaching, Pete and Karen throw themselves into the work of community building. They’ve rallied behind an effort to establish a community coffeehouse in Monkton, and Karen is working to revive an old one-room schoolhouse that has fallen into disrepair.
“Living here, we feel the traffic passing through here constantly,” Pete said. Monkton becomes, for many, a thoroughfare from Point A to Point B — “a nice shortcut,” he called it.
“We’re not satisfied to just be a bedroom community,” Sutherland said. “We’ve been there. It’s time to have our own thing.”
Sutherland turns his eye on issues outside of his own community, too. His songwriting these days is often inspired by outside events — take the ballad “Nothing But Wisdom” he wrote during a recent summer camp. The song deals with concerns about “peak oil” and fossil fuel consumption, and was incorporated in a homemade “crankie” movie that Karen orchestrated.
Incorporating issues like these into songwriting workshops with younger musicians is something Sutherland feels strongly about.
“It’s a way to say, ‘This is your world,’” Sutherland said. “They want to hear what’s happening. They don’t want to be coddled.”
The issues are inspiration to him, too. While he continues to take joy in historical stories, he said that picking up a newspaper can provide any number of possible songs.
“The adages about learning lessons from history will never not be true, but I think you can also cut right to the present,” Sutherland said. “It’s just the idea that you can take a huge issue that seems too huge to grasp and find an individual human camera angle … That’s the folk tradition.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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