December Artist Spotlight: Swedish Songster, Ross Sutter

Hi Ross, thank you for taking the time to talk with us today! Can you tell us your art form and how you got involved in the arts?

I’m a singer. I’ve always had a nice voice though my career started out a bit rough: my music teacher in first grade asked me to sing a solo in the Christmas program and I cried on her lap. I cried on my mother’s lap when they went to her to try and convince me to do the solo. But I kept at it, singing in church and school choirs and I carried on right through college getting my degree from Luther College with a plan to be an elementary classroom music teacher. After student teaching I decided that I wasn’t organized enough to be a full time music teacher so I decided to listen to my music theory teacher and became a plumber—the advice he had always given us when we complained about how hard our theory lessons were. The fact that I also flunked my piano proficiency exam might have something to do with it too.  The music department reluctantly let me graduate but told me to remember I had flunked and not to go out and embarrass the department. (Many years later when I received the Sally Award for Arts Education I felt somewhat vindicated but I expect I’d still flunk the test if I had to take it again today. I now play guitar, dulcimer and button accordion instead.)

How did the move from Iowa to Minnesota come about?

In between mopping floors and clearing drains I developed a keen interest in traditional Irish music so I moved from Decorah to St. Paul and started learning traditional songs and even did some dancing. I landed in the middle of an Irish music and dance revival and thanks to fellow COMPAS artist, Laura MacKenzie, I was soon immersed in a scene that was very supportive.  I met many good folks in the Scottish community as well and soon I was off to study Scottish song with Jean Redpath in Scotland. While I was in Europe I also wandered over to Sweden and Germany to visit friends I had made while volunteering at a conference center in England during my college years. Soon I was adding songs from those countries to my repertoire and when I returned to Minnesota I began organizing concerts for groups touring from those countries in the United States. Later on I was fortunate to receive grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board to travel and study in Europe and I continued to add to my experience and repertoire.

How did Swedish music become your area of expertise?

Gradually I began to focus on Swedish song as my grandparents had all come to America from Sweden. In particular I added a number of Swedish song games and became somewhat of an expert at leading song games at Swedish Christmas and Midsummer celebrations. Recently I’ve been going to New York every year to lead the dancing at the Midsummer Celebration in Battery Park in New York City. It’s a real thrill to stand on stage in front of thousands of people and lead the games every year with a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty behind me. A friend of mine commented when I first got that gig, “Ross, this could be the start of something really big!” I said, “I am a singer that leads Swedish song games—it doesn’t get any bigger than this.” This past year I received a Folk Arts Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and I am currently working on creating an on-line resource where people can learn traditional Swedish song games. 

What was the work like when you were first starting out in the arts?

I first started doing residencies in Iowa back in 1977 soon after I graduated from Luther—before my years as a plumber. I wasn’t ready for the intensity of doing residencies and didn’t know how to say no to the organizers. I would teach ten classes during the day and then go sing for the Lion’s Club at lunch and do a program for the Cub Scouts after school. Though I was making good money at something I loved to do, I couldn’t keep up the pace. Five years later I was ready to try again and I signed up to do residencies for the Iowa Arts Council. Soon after that I got on the Minnesota State Arts Board roster and about 1987 I started working for COMPAS through a program called THEA: Traditional Historic and Ethnic Arts. I’ve been at it ever since. I continue to teach singing and dancing but for the past fifteen years I’ve also been building instruments with students.

Ross Sutter with Meadowview Elementary students performing a song with their handmade dulcimers

Ross Sutter with Meadowview Elementary students performing a song with their handmade dulcimers

During a lot of your school programs you make instruments with your students, can you tell us more about those?

I have three different instruments that I make in the schools: whistles, limberjacks and the most successful one, one-string dulcimers. With the surge in interest in STEM learning these instrument-building workshops have become very popular. Over half of my residencies now focus on these workshops. 

What does being a COMPAS artist mean to you?

I’ve always been very grateful to COMPAS for the support I’ve received for my career. COMPAS puts the artist first and I think that is what has made the organization successful. Other organizations have come and gone that haven’t focused on the artists, or have tried to dictate to the artist how they should teach and what they should create. COMPAS has respected the artists and trusted the artists and as a result the creative ideas have flowed from the organization to the artist and back again keeping both strong.

The future belongs to the creative and COMPAS fosters that in its artists and the work that it does in the schools and communities.

Does living in Minnesota have any influence on your work?

I don’t think my career would have been possible in any other state. I am very grateful to the people and organizations in Minnesota that support the arts. In particular the Minnesota State Arts Board and Minnesota Citizens for the Arts which organized the passing of the Legacy Amendment.