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September 4, 2013

Peter Dufault


So then. Mr. Peter Dufault has passed on. It’s not so often that a man who had expertise in so many vocations as Peter might cross our paths, especially here in Columbia and Greene Counties where Peter dug in roots after being bread and buttered in Westchester and moved his way up through Putnam and Duchess counties after serving in World War II.

If you met him and came to know him a bit you would be hard pressed to describe him. Meeting Peter briefly was another thing, you might think you could rifle off phrases like interesting guy/that poet man/that old coot/ that crazy fellow with the bagpipe…and you know what? He did seem to be crazy to a lot of us who had quick and tidy encounters with him, but I’ve never met a man who was such a sum of the products of his interests, achievements, vocations and personal philosophy. I feel compelled to try to describe how a figure such as Mr. Dufault looms over a community whether he has passed on or is still working at this sometimes difficult thing we call life. When I resolved to concoct a Peter Kane Dufault tribute piece it was out of respect, love and maybe a bit of jealousy. This guy, he was a big presence and his largeness loomed over the average human being. Peter was the kind of guy that Native Americans sometimes invented words for, words like mingo, words that, when feebly translated, turn into watered down compliments like chief/warrior/artist.

This is usually a music column, that’s why the Hudson Register-Star/Catskill Daily Mail have me write stuff down – for musical insights, explanations and recommendations. I knew of Peter (who was decades ago the editor of the same Daily Mail) as a visible and notorious musician in this area from the time I first became a Columbia County resident in 1976. He played bagpipes in a North Hillsdale field at my wedding. Heck, he played those highland pipes for a few decades and was happy to perform for any event that would allow - memorial services, processionals celebrations of the Haggis - you name it. A number of years ago Peter slowed down on his bagpipe usage deciding that the time, maintenance and use of his respiratory system would be better spent elsewhere. As the driving force behind the Kitchen Kaylie band, Peter played fiddle, called and and taught dances. He would oversee innumerable community events  and was considered a one man evangelist for the art of the country dance (both English and American versions) an avid researcher of the appropriate tunes which made those dances the happy celebratory events that they were. He would often throw together a motley crew of musicians for an impromptu dance and would lead the band on either his banjo or the fiddle, sometimes handing his instrument to another musician in order to demonstrate the proper way to balance and swing depending on the type of dance. Let me tell you folks these dances were fun, I know this because I was often there, as a player or as listener or a dancer.

So then – a lot of people knew of Peter as an occasionally cranky, dedicated, obstinate and enthusiastic musician and his contagious proclivity is evidenced by his friends, relatives and fellow musicians. But he did other stuff too. He built his own house. Could you do that? Not many of us are able to do that sort of thing - but wait. Not only was he a newspaper editor, he was a consistent social activist who ran for congress on the Liberal party tick in 1968 as a vocal critic of the country’s misguided endeavors in Vietnam and southeast Asia. He didn’t win but raised a number of issues that the districts Congressman Ned Pattison (who was elected in 1974) later embraced.

That was a long time ago, but if you look at any point in Mr. Peter Kane Dufault’s life, whatever it was he did then or before then or after then was just as interesting an important as anything else. He spent three years in Europe as a bomber pilot in World War II and would sometimes describe, with a hint of humor and wordplay, horrific and frightening instances and decisions that he -as a fresh faced just out of high school hero - had experienced. The GI Bill helped to send him to Harvard where he graduated in 1947, so by the time he ran for congress in 1968 he had lived more life than most reasonable men can expect to experience in a lifetime. That was forty five years ago.

This guy, this Peter Dufault, was a community guy, helping out with schools and literacy, organizing hockey and soccer games for Sunday afternoons, teaching music and lending his literary expertise in both poetry and essay at the Cheltenham Festival in England, in Ireland in Williamstown, Harlemville and beyond. The funny thing is, the people who knew Peter as poet are surprised that he was more than that and the people who knew him as a man who worked with his hands or as  a musician or as an activist were also often caught a little off balance when informed of the plethora of his expertise.

I remember one fellow remarking after Peter had made an appearance at my store, looking for what he called ‘a ten cent solution for a fifty dollar problem’ concerning the workings of a fifth string capo  for his banjo. “That man is the closest thing to Picasso that you or I will ever meet.”

Okay – I mentioned that Peter was a poet. His poetry was of the highest order and he was acknowledged as a master of the genre and a literary giant, but actually hearing him recite his poetry could trigger a range of emotions as well as admiration for his work, his compassion and the often crystal clear understanding of his intent. He memorized his pieces, rarely reading them, he often termed sharing his poems “recitations” and that is one of my fondest memories, Peter Kane Dufault with his hands buried in his pockets reciting a poem about autumn and observances of the transitions that can be observed during that often gray period of time. I will miss my friend Peter and I thank him for the friendship and knowledge he shared.

I wish we might do — or no,

look back and find we had done—

some unadvertised thing,

overwhelming and un-self-aware

as water streamlining a stone, or a tree’s

kindling in an empty meadow

its casual Hesperides…

From “Burden”

Notes From the Grid


Archived Columns

A bi-weekly column about the Columbia County music scene written by Rob.

It is featured occasionally in the "On the Scene" supplement of the Hudson Register Star.