Through five decades as a professional folksinger, storyteller and square dance caller, Jon Sundell has proven himself to be an outstanding interpreter of folk tradition. In nearly half of the United States, as well as several countries of Europe and Latin America, he has performed for people of all ages and backgrounds, in Spanish as well as English. Accompanying himself on guitar, banjo, autoharp, mountain dulcimer, harmonica, and spoons, as well as singing unaccompanied, and interweaving songs with folk tales of different cultures, he creates a varied program that easily maintains the interest of any group. His warm, personal style and frequent use of singalongs quickly puts an audience at ease and draws them in to participate in a sense of shared adventure.
Although he is an engaging and dynamic performer, Jon seeks to do more than impress or entertain his audience. He especially wants to connect with them – and in that connection to share his admiration of folk tradition and those who have carried it on. As well as the immediacy of individual songs or tales, he communicates a deep respect for the cultures that have born them. Over many years of performing he has learned to weave his material together in ways that make each concert more than the sum of its parts. His introductions are full of history and insight, as well as personal anecdotes that are alternately amusing and enlightening. His thoughtful combinations and juxtapositions of songs and tales on varying themes enable them to reflect on each other in unexpected ways. Mixed in with a broad range of traditional songs and tales there are a few recent songs by such traditionally oriented song writers as Hazel Dickens, Utah Phillips, Norman Blake, John McCutcheon, or Si Kahn that complement and illuminate the older material and their themes.
In a day when most of what we see performed as “folk music,” is actually the work of singer songwriters presenting reflections on their own individual lives, Jon Sundell still focuses on our common heritage and experiences, as it has been passed down through many years and many people. One of the most satistifying aspects of that focus is that it creates a sense of community among performer and audience members. This sense of community comes in part from the folk process which has carried the material, as well as from the issues that many of the songs deal with, and from Jon’s personal warmth and broad perspective. It also comes from a whole array of related experiences that underpin his role as a folksinger, storyteller and dance caller and shape the way he goes about it. Some of these experiences include:
- In the 1970’s he collected songs from older Appalachian singers and storytellers, organized community festivals where they could perform, and personally shared their music and tales with young people in rural mountain schools and community centers. Later, as he taught folklore and music in an alternative school in Atlanta, he took his city-bred students on month-long field trips to visit with and learn from these people. He and his students created a book entitled, Stay With Us: Visiting With Old Time Singers and Storytellers of the Southern Mountains, which you can read in the publications tab of Jon’s web site.
- In the 1990’s and 2000’s, he honed a repertoire of Hispanic tales and songs and developed a deep connection with Spanish speaking families as director of the public library’s Hispanic Services Department and the Hispanic Arts Initiative, a non-profit organization he founded. In 2006 he married and began building a family with Colombian native, Vivian Dominguez and her daughter, Ana Maria. Through many visits to Latin American communities and solidarity work at home to assist them he gained a first hand understanding of their strengths and hardships. And he expanded his repertoire to support their struggles for peace and justice and interpret them for non-Hispanics in the US.
- He has developed his abilities as a song leader in many settings – from library and school storytimes and concerts, to white, black and Hispanic church services, to gatherings in opposition to surface coal mining or in support of Central American rights.
- He has drawn on the rich folklore, humor and personal stories of his Russian Jewish grandparents and their immigrant experience, as well as the wonderful stories and spiritual traditions of Asian countries, which he began to know and understand through study as a college minor in Asian Studies and through a year’s residence in Japan.
All these people, cultures, and experiences inhabit Jon Sundell and his concerts as, in the finest tradition of folk transmission, he passes them on to the audiences who have come to see and share with him.