Folk musician Pete Sutherland dies at 71 

  • Pete Sutherland Arthur Hynes photograph

Published: 12/4/2022 8:47:49 PM
Modified: 12/4/2022 8:47:51 PM

Musicians from across Vermont and even Canada traveled to play their instruments by the bedside of Vermont folk musician and mentor Pete Sutherland before he died on Wednesday.

Others recorded themselves playing Sutherland’s music, uploading the videos as online tributes.

Sutherland was known throughout Vermont and beyond as a multi-faceted singer, songwriter and musician who mastered the fiddle but also knew how to play the piano, banjo, the melodeon and guitar.

He died from prostate cancer, making use of the state’s medical aid in dying law, which allows terminally ill adults to use a prescribed medication to hasten their own death.

Sutherland was a member of multiple bands, including Pete’s Posse, The Clayfoot Strutters, Arm and Hammer String Band and Metamora. He played locally at venues such as Montpelier’s contra dance night, which happens twice a month at the Capital City Grange. He also taught and performed at Young Tradition Vermont, a program affiliated with Vermont Folklife Center which teaches music and dance to youth.

Musicians across the country were in “awe” of Sutherland’s musical abilities, especially with the fiddle, according to Patti Casey, a friend of Sutherland since the 1980s and fellow musician who performed and arranged music with him.

Casey described Sutherland as someone with a “very, very sharp brain” who always wanted to learn and explore new types of music.

When Sutherland moved into a hospice care program in Montpelier about a month before he died, Casey frequently visited him. In one of her last visits she was surprised to learn that Sutherland had begun listening to Indian raga music.

Casey said that he had a “huge influence” on her music and “probably hundreds of other people really around the country.”

Sutherland’s son, Calum Sutherland, 32, recalled that, throughout his childhood, adults he didn’t recognize would come up to him to tell him how wonderful his father’s music was.

Joe Newberry, a musician based in North Carolina who met Sutherland in the 1990s, said Sutherland’s “reach went so many places and he was a fiddler who could play in so many different styles.”

Sutherland was also a mentor to many young musicians.

“Our conversations centered a lot on how he loved mentoring young musicians,” Newberry said. “He taught them (his students) something about how to approach a tune, about how to be good to people.”

Oliver Scanlon, 27, was one of the young musicians that Sutherland mentored. He was in fourth grade when his mother made him join an after-school fiddle group led by Sutherland.

“I was really a very shy kid and tried to hide behind (my viola) the whole time,” Scanlon said. Even so, he was inspired by the music and in fifth grade, he got a fiddle and began playing with Sutherland during private music lessons.

“Over the years, the music really brought me out of my shy shell,” Scanlon said.

Sutherland quickly became a mentor for Scanlon, who created Pete’s Posse with Sutherland and Tristan Henderson while still in high school. After graduating, Scanlon took a gap year and went on a 12,000-mile tour across the United States with the band. Scanlon never ended up going to college and continued playing with the band.

“He taught me empathy,” Scanlon said. “He was much more than just a musical colleague to me. He was a father figure. He was a colleague, but also a deep friend.”

Scanlon said he thinks Sutherland’s prostate cancer diagnosis brought Sutherland “clarity” as to what “really mattered to him,” which included empowering and teaching young musicians.

Sutherland’s interests extended beyond music. Calum said that although he rarely ever played music with his father, the two shared a passion for poetry and would share their poems with each other.

Sutherland had been battling prostate cancer for over a decade but, according to friends, became weaker and was in more pain in the last couple months.

“His body was very frail and giving out but his spirit and his mind and everything was just as sharp and solid and funny as ever,” Casey said.

In the days leading up to his death, Calum said his father had a “very busy schedule” with a “constant stream of visitors.”

Sutherland died in Montpelier surrounded by his family.

Calum said that he is thankful for Act 39, the state law passed in 2013 that allows for medical aid in dying, because he viewed it as a more “humane” way to die by allowing people to “choose the moment, be around family rather than passing in the middle of some random miserable lonely night.”

Sutherland was described as a deep thinker with a wry sense of humor who wasn’t afraid of discussing his impending death. In fact, he spoke to many of his close friends about it, having philosophical discussions about what he viewed to be the afterlife.

“I think every time people gather to play his tunes or tunes that he taught, he’ll be remembered,” Newberry said.

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