Remembering Fiddler Pete Sutherland via “The Birds’ Flight”
“The Birds’ Flight,” a Southern Appalachian-style waltz that is both very old and very new, nods to the idea that a folk song transcription is analogous to a photograph of a flying bird. Both can only capture their subject at one brief moment in its journey.
The tune was forged from an ancient Scottish pibroch from the Highland piping tradition. Its Southern styling comes courtesy of Tim Cummings on pipes, Pete Sutherland on fiddle, and myself on gourd banjo. It is the title song from our album, The Birds’ Flight (released July 2021 on Birchen Music), where it appears alongside similarly transformed Scottish tunes.
This project has taken on even greater poignancy following Pete’s passing on November 30. Working on it with Pete and Tim was a transformative experience.
My instincts told me adapting Scottish piping melodies for clawhammer banjo would be a daunting task as I don’t usually play traditional Scottish music.
As I dug deeper into the project, I realized how these melodies have a certain familiarity. Scottish piping tunes aren’t that unlike the old-time melodies rattling around in my head. Bits of the musical vocabulary overlap in fascinating ways.
“Pete and I had a particular habit of exploring the connections between Scottish and Appalachian music,” Cummings told me. “It was probably inevitable that we would eventually take it upon ourselves to deliberately convert traditional Scottish pipe tunes into authentic-sounding old-time tunes.
“The historical connection between those two genres is well-documented, but to bypass that natural musical evolution and transform the tunes on our own seemed a bit like uncharted territory.”
This song started out as an ancient Scottish pibroch from the Highland piping tradition. The original has a few different titles, including “The Desperate Battle of the Birds” and “The Birds’ Fight.”
Tim adds, “I took the first pass at converting it into a Southern-style waltz and Pete further refined it. … The tune’s title was tweaked to better reflect its new character, and it became the title track to an album dedicated to transforming Scottish tunes into old-time fare.”
When Pete Sutherland reached out asking if I would join him and Tim on this project, I jumped.
Pete was an old friend, and it was an honor to collaborate with him. I’ve aways admired his musicianship and just how passionately he commits himself to musical exploration. He has aways served as a mentor. Though we weren’t able to bring the tunes on this record to life in concert, it means the world to me knowing we will always have this record.
Stop-motion animator and videographer Myles David Jewell worked with us to create a captivatingly beautiful and highly symbolic video of “The Birds’ Flight” that pays homage to the concept of musical migration and transformation—and much more. I wanted to share it here as a tribute to our dear friend and collaborator.
In loving memory of Pete Sutherland (1951-2022)
The Birds’ Flight is available HERE.
Friends and fans of Pete Sutherland will note that this video has taken much greater poignancy following his passing—his final migration, perhaps—on Nov. 30, 2022. Learn more about Vermont Folklife’s “For the Love of Pete” fund, which honors Pete and the inspiring mission of Young Tradition Vermont, a cause to which he devoted much of his later years.
— Credits —
Stop motion animation & video: Myles David Jewell, Pennington Productions
Recorded and mixed by Jeremy Mendicino at Lane Gibson Studios
Mastered by Grey Larsen at Grey Larsen Mastering