“Jon Sundell 'plays' an audience of children as well as he plays any of the instruments he brings to a concert. The pace is lively as he moves from song to instrumental to tall tale to sing-along, and the atmosphere is one of warmth and good humor where every child feels a part of the happening."
– Lynne Crocker, journalist, Arts Council of Wyndham County, VT
You would be hard pressed to find a folk performer more engaging or more versatile than Jon Sundell. Over 45 years Jon has been interpreting traditional music, tales and dance with people of all ages and backgrounds across half of the United States and several countries in Europe and Latin America - in Spanish as well as English. Jon provides more than enough variety to engage and keep any audience's interest. Accompanying himself on a variety of stringed instruments or singing acapella, he weaves together folk songs from the Southern Mountains and beyond with multicultural folk tales of all genres.
When telling stories to young children Jon sometimes adds a puppet - or creates one by twisting balloons as he narrates. After the performance he and his wife can make personal balloon figures for the children to take home. Jon provides plenty of opportunities for audience participation - through singing along, movement, playing rhythm instruments, or responding verbally in different ways - sometimes creatively by predicting outcomes or suggesting story elements. Taking participation to a higher level he can lead an interactive workshop on telling stories, playing spoons or doing singing games. Or call an exhilarating square dance that builds an enriched sense of community.
But Jon Sundell's powerful impact springs from more than having a big toolbox. Equally important is how he uses those tools. Jon connects with his audience in a manner that is both warm and dynamic, entertaining and real. He projects a deep admiration for the cultures he represents - and a passion for bringing people together to share them.
Jon's programs run the gamut from (almost) pure entertainment to various forms of edu-tainment, whether they be multimedia school programs to encourage reading and animate the curriculum; a community concert inspiring multicultural understanding; a congregational gathering that reminds us in fresh, exciting ways to love our neighbors as ourselves; or a coffee house concert weaving a patchwork journey through love, work, play and history.
Overlapping with Jon's performance experience are three decades of work as a public and school children’s librarian, helping him grow in his understanding of children, his storytelling skills and repertoire, and his ability to integrate folk songs and tales with reading and other educational curricula. Also overlapping are a variety of multicultural experiences in work, study, worship, advocacy, travel and living abroad that have enormously broadened and deepened his ability to share and interpret folk traditions.
11 minute sampler of stories & songs, all appropriate for children & families & many suitable for adults as well. 01 - Introductory slides to Jon's studio recording of "My Daddy Rides That Ship In the Sky," by Woody Guthrie - with banjo; 00:35 - Making balloon dog, singing mountain song, "I Had a Dog and His Name Was Blue;" telling tall tale of "The Split Dog" using balloon dog; 3:18 - call & response song - "We're All A Family Under One Sky," by Ruth Pelham - with guitar; 4:02 - African trickster tale - "Anansi and the Hat Shaking Dance;" 6:35 - Story-song with banjo - "Cumberland Mountain Bear Chase;" 9:08 - Irish folk tale, "Jamie O' Rourke and the Big Potato," as told by Tomie de Paola; 9:52 - Latin American folk song with motions - "En la pulga de San Jose"
- Jon draws on the rich folklore, humor and personal stories of his Russian Jewish grandparents and their immigrant experience.
- In the late 1960’s he spent a year abroad studying in France, as well as traveling, performing and recording throughout Europe.
- During college he minored in Asian Studies. Afterwards, he lived and traveled for a year in Japan, learning Japanese and absorbing the country's spiritual and cultural traditions.
- In the 1970’s he collected songs and tales 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. Several years later he returned with his own folklore students on two 3-week field trips to meet these tradition bearers and document them in the book: Stay With Us: Visiting With Old Time Singers and Storytellers in the Southern Mountains.
- In the 1980’s and 1990’s Jon made many visits abroad to Latin American communities, gaining a first hand knowledge of the people's hardships and strengths. Home in the US he assisted them by raising money and building understanding and solidarity among US residents. He expanded his performance repertoire to include Latin American songs advocating peace and justice.
- In the 1990’s and 2000’s he initiated and directed the Forsyth County Public Library's Hispanic Services Department and the Hispanic Arts Initiative, a non-profit organization. He expanded his Hispanic repertoire to feature children’s tales and songs, while developing a connection with local Spanish speaking families.
- In 2006 Jon married and began building a family with Colombian native, Vivian Dominguez and her daughter, Ana Maria.
- Jon has developed his abilities as a song leader in many settings – from library and school storytimes and concerts, to White, Black and Hispanic congregational services, to gatherings opposing strip mining of coal or supporting workers' and immigrants' rights.
All these cultural and interpersonal experiences inform and animate Jon Sundell's concerts, square dances and other activities as, in the finest tradition of folk transmission, he passes them on to the audiences who have come to see and share with him.
“Jon Sundell communicated more than the music and more than his enthusiasm for the Appalachian culture which produced it. He left the audience profoundly moved and with a sense of having shared in an aesthetic, conceptual, and musical adventure. An unforgettable evening!”
– Lisa Null, manager, Green Linnet Records & Folk Cabaret, New Canaan, Connecticut