Mandan News

From prairie to glaciers: Suchy puts a song in Icelandic students’ hearts

Chuck Suchy shares his stories and songs with a class of sixth- and seventh-graders at Laugalandsskoli School in Iceland. Dave Geck, Prairie Public Television, photo

By Ken Rogers

“It looked like big thunderhead on top of Little Heart Butte,” said Chuck Suchy, describing Eyjofjallajkull, the Icelandic volcano raising havoc with European air traffic in late April.

The Mandan musician was in Iceland for 10 days teaching songwriting to students at the rural Laugalandsskoli School. The volcano continues to chug away, and Suchy has returned to the farm south of Mandan, within sight of the aforementioned butte.

North Dakota and Iceland have developed an alternating exchange of artists going back to 2003. So far, four Icelandic artists have come here, and four North Dakota artists, including Suchy, have gone to Iceland. It’s a program sponsored by the North Dakota Council on the Arts, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Accompanying Suchy to Iceland were Prairie Public Broadcasting producer Kim Stenehjem and cameraman Dave Geck. They are preparing a documentary that’s scheduled for release in February.

Ninty-two students in grades one through 10 attend Laugalandsskoli School. Suchy worked with four core groups of students, writing songs for a public performance at the end of his stay.

It seems young people are the same everywhere. “The eye roll is the eye roll,” Suchy said.

The Icelandic people are well-educated, he said.

“In conversations with the staff and teachers – I’m not a dummy, not culturally elite – I was pushed,” Suchy said.

While in Iceland, Suchy stayed in the home of the principal, Sigurjon Bjarnason, and his wife, who’s a Lutheran minister. The family also has a hotel and a herd of 80 Icelandic horses. People come from Europe to go on trail rides up into the glaciers.

“I just fell in love with the horses,” Suchy said. “I got to ride twice. They’re like big Shetland pones – stocky like a 4-wheel drive ATV.”

The Icelandic horses know where to put their feet, an important skill in a land covered with sharp volcanic rock.

The first- through third-graders did not speak English, so their teacher translated. Suchy taught them two of his songs: “Molly’s Field” and “Simply Fly.”

The fourth- and fifth-graders, one of the core groups, were “delightful’ and “high energy.”

They kept after Suchy about country music. “So, we wrote a country song,” he said, about a cowboy riding across lava fields, eating popcorn and sleeping in a cave. It’s called, “I’m an Iceland Cowboy.”

Volcanoes were the preferred topic of the sixth- and seventh- graders. Their song is “Burning Ground.”

Suchy also worked with 27 eighth- and ninth-graders – “lots of black T-shirts.” When he asked what kind of music they like, the answer was “heavy metal.” With them he created a sort of tribal chant, titled “O’ Volcano.”

The final group, 10th-graders, wrote a farewell song. They will leave Laugalandsskoli at the end of the school year and continue their educations at other schools. It was “enchanting … very, elemental,” Suchy said.

Now, several weeks later, “The songs are still living with me,” Suchy said.

Chuck Suchy described the songwriting effort by this eighth-grade class as "tribal rap."

A plume of ash rises from volcano erupting under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on May 5. The volcano first erupted during Chuck Suchy's visit to Iceland. Associated Press photo