Posts Tagged ‘Pete Sutherland’

Pete Sutherland

November 27, 2011

Vintage Vermont old time string band music from the Arm and Hammer String Band in 1978, with Pete Sutherland fiddling:  “Going Uptown”/”Avalon Quickstep” 

edited from an interview with Pete Sutherland by Brendan Taafe at

Pete Sutherland: Old-time music’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.

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 Quebecois 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.

In as much as anybody tries to be multilingual and keep the styles straight, eventually you’re just going to wake up one day and you have a style that is distinct and identifiably yours. I don’t think I’d have the ability to keep the styles completely pure. I can try my damnedest to play exactly like Tommy Jarrell and probably there’ll be some Irish in there unintentionally. When I’m not in that head and not trying to be pure, and just play my way, I think it’s a hybrid of all the things that I like. To people that know Irish music I’ll play Irish and they’ll invariably say it sounds southern, and they always did, and to people that like hard-driving old-time music my playing sounds really northern. I’m sitting with my butt on the Mason Dixon line forever.

Old-time music is like this river; there’s never been that many people who play it, there’s fewer that play it well, there’s even fewer that understand it and fewer that are going to get to a position of some prominence or as a teacher where you’re going to be asked, as I am, to interpret for someone else, so that puts a lot of responsibility on you to be as savvy about the tradition as you can, and usually it boils down to a matter of listening.

We often don’t take the time to listen—we hear something and just want to play, but if you keep listening to your old scratchy tapes or whatever it was that turned you on in the first place, and really key into the subtleties of the style that you are the next generation of, then you’ll always dig something else out and deepen your respect and make you a better player.