written by himself, November 2014
I gained a habit early on of suspending my artistic and critical biases in the presence of someone with any amount of multi-generational musical or dance culture. I have likewise always deferred to the tradition bearers of English ritual dance when it comes to the best way to do their dances and the best way to preserve them. Customs are not modular, each aspect is interrelated, and to extricate one piece of a musical tradition without the others, from a single moment without the before or after, and give it a different function in a new place is not preserving anything.
Over the centuries popular culture has always raided traditional culture for the next thing. Traditional culture is mostly a survival of the popular culture of old. Though symbiotic in this way, popular and traditional culture serve very different functions. The popular needs change, thrives on novelty, and has a commercial intent. The traditional nurtures a physical community and accommodates all generations and inclinations. It changes as it needs to, but doesn’t change for the sake of change.
I bring up these issues at the beginning of this biographical sketch because I ruminate over these issues all the time, and I have come to realize that most people have other things to think about. I hope it helps make some sense out of the choices I have made over the years, such as the traditional fiddlers, cloggers, shape note singers that I have championed at dance camps, and teaching sword dances in their entirety with their songs, marches, other ancillary bits. Throughout a long career I have watched for and tried to preserve the part of our material that has passed through many hands, and view this as the great treasure of old music and dance. It is not a sequence of notes, a particular step, or a rousing chorus. Rather it is the spirit, intent, unique groove, and the knowledge that it has worked its magic before and will work again.
I found that there were more topics to address than there was time to write, and my initial intent of writing down what happened and why is a better topic for a book. So I describe below some of the things that happened.
I was raised in a dark hollow in the California coastal mountains, a chasm deep enough to stop the fire the day Oakland burned. When I was ten we moved to a hillside where I could race to school in under four minutes, but it took 15 to get back up. I still like vertical landscapes best.
My family had considerable musical inclination in former generations, particularly on my mother’s side. In my home there was a residual music appreciation which included going to the Oakland Symphony, my grandmother playing Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Kitten on the Keys on piano, my dad playing Benny Goodman on the phonograph. My mother and her two brothers played piano and knew the lyrics to all the songs of their day. My parents liked to dance, but left us at home when they went dancing. I have learned in later years that my great grandfather played for mining camp square dances on guitar and harmonica, and I remember him showing me his elaborately inlaid old Washburn guitar and harmonica holder.
At the same time, I started listening to unapproved music on my neighbor Jon Benner’s basement radio. Everly Brothers, Elvis, Chuck Berry were our favorites. My mother interrogated me to determine if I liked Elvis for his music or his appearance. At that time I had no idea what Elvis or any of them looked like. I took guitar lessons when I was 11 from Mr. Meecham at Montclair Music Center, who taught me classical and flamenco guitar fundamentals. He took the master classes when Segovia came to town, but also played at a strip club in San Francisco some evenings, which, when realized by my parents, brought my formal music education to a close.
For the next few years I sought out anything involving an acoustic guitar, played Hard, ain’t it Hard with friends at the Joaquin Miller Elementary School assembly to mixed reviews, learned songs from the Limelighters, Kingston Trio and Burl Ives.
Then in 1963 the 1960s finally arrived, including the Beatles, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the civil rights movement, starting high school the year Oakland integrated the schools, and especially Bob Dylan. Hearing Dylan sent me looking for more in his vein, and I found what seemed even better in the Berkeley folk scene: Merritt Herring’s guitar/singing classes at the Live Oak Center, John Lundberg’s guitar shop on Dwight, concerts at the Jabberwock, and Freight and Salvage, and especially the Berkeley Folk Festival. I heard and met many of the people that would be important to me later: Jean Ritchie, Mike Seeger, Pete Seeger, Hank Bradley, Doc Watson, Sam Hinton, Frank Warner and others.
Mississippi Fred McDowell appeared at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1965 and I was transfixed. I went to all of his sessions and performances, and later heard him at the Berkeley Blues Festival, Jabberwock, and Freight and Salvage clubs. The intensity of his performance made anything else I had heard seem tame. In hindsight, I would say that Fred McDowell’s incredible traditional blues groove was what turned me into a lifelong traditional dance music aficionado. I only tried to play blues for a few years, but kept looking for Fred’s spirit in other genres.
Meanwhile, I was still a high school student, sailboat racer, rock climber, and, surprisingly, chairman of the student race relations committee. I bring this up because the one hugely successful thing our committee did was to put on soul dance lessons in a room of the Skyline High School gym. I think I got the idea then that putting on a dance was easy and that I could do it.
I left California for Dartmouth College in the fall of 1966. A string band whose name I can’t recall played in Hanover in 1967 and I invited them back to the commons room of my dorm, Cutter Hall (now El Hajj Malik El Shabazz), after the show. I had been wishing I could be in a band with a fiddle and that night somehow decided I would have to be the fiddler myself. I knocked on Fred Breunig’s door and asked if I could borrow his violin. He was asleep when I knocked, but managed to ask if I could play the violin, and then loaned it to me anyway. A few days later I borrowed another violin on a more permanent basis and secreted myself in the room the janitors used for garbage, emerging eight hours later slightly able to play Crow Black Chicken and Boil the Cabbage Down.
Later that year I walked into that same commons room and saw two tall men standing there, looking lost. They told me that a student had arranged for there to be a dance that evening. I knew the student, and knew that he had left the college at the end of the last term. Dartmouth was still all male, but I enlisted help from friends to knock on doors in both our dorm and the nearby one that housed exchange students from Mt. Holyoke. We had a good dance with eight or ten couples, I joined in on guitar, and I learned about the ongoing dance at the Nelson, NH town hall. Have you guessed? These guys were Dudley Laufman and Dave Fuller, a great accordionist who has had very little recognition due to falling off a ladder just as the contra dance scene took off in the early 70s. So I didn’t discover contra dancing; it discovered me.
Dartmouth’s Tucker Foundation started a program in 1968 that placed students as teachers in disadvantaged communities and the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC and Murphy High School hosted the pilot program. George Ainley and I were the first students. I arranged to work at the Folk School the summer ahead, and so arrived the day the June dance week began. I was looking for mountain fiddlers, and had no clue about the Folk School’s long history of dance and music programs. All at the same moment I encountered Phil Merrill, Gathering Peascods, Otto and Marguerite Wood, Genny and Jack Shimer, Totur, George and Marguerite Bidstrup, Johanna Kulbach, and tried to play the recorder. John Ramsay was both Folk School director and chief dance instructor. It was from him that I learned my first morris and sword. Standing out in the field a few evenings after my arrival I could hear a banjo ringing out across the landscape. Following the sound, I discovered that Carl Green had music sessions in his garage/service station in the middle of Brasstown, so I had begun finding mountain fiddlers too.
At the end of our residency both George Ainley and I attended Berea College’s Christmas Country Dance School. Here I met fiddler Lewis Lamb, Genny Shimer, Gene Murrow, and many others. It felt as if I had discovered a way of life formerly unknown. I wanted my life to be like Christmas school all the time. Be careful what you wish for!
Back in Hanover, NH, George and I, along with Fred Breunig and others, tried to get a morris team started (we danced Headington, made bell pads, and practiced in the basement of the fraternity on which the movie “Animal House” was based). More successful was our contra/country dance, which started in the commons room of the women’s dormitory, moved to the Catholic Student Center, and finally (under Fred’s leadership, and after I had graduated) moved to the White Church. I went to the dance in Nelson on a regular basis, meeting Allan Block, Bob McQuillen, Newt Tolman, Pete Colby, Ted Levin, and many others. We generally had a full car from Hanover, often John Wheeler’s pickup truck, and weren’t ready to go home when the dance ended, so went on to someone’s house (mostly Debbie and Loring Puffer’s, neighbors of Dudley Laufman) and stayed up all night playing and carrying on, arriving back in Hanover as the sun made an appearance in the rear window.
I graduated in the summer of 1970 without any plan whatsoever. At John Wheeler’s suggestion I spent the rest of that year as a summer camp counselor and tutor in Lynchburg, VA. We went to many fiddle contests, and also to Pinewoods Camp in Massachusetts.
New York City
Other things were going on including a war, a draft, and a lottery for the draft which I lost (#13). I applied for and received conscientious objector status, and needed to arrange for a public service job as alternative service. I remembered a conversation with May Gadd in New York when she had told me “what CDSS needs is a young person like you.” Amazingly, my draft board agreed to my working for CDSS as my public alternative service. I subsequently was determined unsuitable to serve at my physical exam, but I decided to go ahead and work for CDSS as planned anyway.
May Gadd immediately promoted me as a square dance caller, an under-emphasized aspect of the organization’s purview at the time, and square dances were held in some of NYC’s most obscure locations. One public school in the East Village required a guide to find the hall. After several months I was allowed to teach morris dancing in the regular weekly classes at Metropolitan-Duane Hall, and after a year or two English country dance. In each instance I got May Gadd’s evaluation the next morning in the office. This was my primary apprenticeship in dance leadership.
I found curious things around the CDSS office, such as the recordings made of Cecil Sharp’s ballad informants, by Maud Karpeles and Evelyn Wells in 1955, tucked away in a corner and apparently never played. Or the book American Country Dances as Danced by the British Soldiers in their Winter Quarters, gift of Bessie Osgood of Cambridge, MA, likewise undisturbed. Or the 78 rpm records of Jinky Wells of Bampton playing the morris tunes.
My responsibilities in the office consisted of fulfilling orders and purchasing merchandise for the sales program. I replaced Paul Skrobela in this role. At the time I arrived (in the very last bit of 1970) our biggest seller was Irish linen tea towels with heraldic themes. Of course we also sold morris dance paraphernalia, tune and dance books, vinyl recordings, and tin whistles.
In those days there were fairly frequent public performances by New York country dancers; English country dancing was the main focus, but morris, sword and American contras were also included. We danced at street fairs and hospitals, and had particularly good receptions in mental wards. May Gadd directed these as long as she remained director. There were also the Spring and Christmas festivals that were held at Barnard College’s beautiful hall and which drew hundreds. Here there were fairly elaborate performances that were rehearsed and slightly costumed. (In the 1930s-1950s these events took place at the Armory in New York’s upper east side and drew thousands of participants and observers.)
The CDSS office at 55 Christopher Street was the whole second floor of an old brownstone next door to the Stonewall Inn. It had two rooms, front and back, a small storage closet on the stair landing where I found various treasures, and a larger back storage space that also served as kitchen. Ed Durham and Frank Edwards turned the back room into more of a proper office as the staff grew in the mid-70s. Throughout my tenure the secretary sat next to the window on the street side, and had the only view. Which was a great view of all that went through Sheridan Square, including the subway entrance. The rest of us were more or less in the back. There were two electric typewriters, a mimeograph machine, costumes, dance equipment, file drawers, and a desk for each employee. These employees numbered three in the beginning, but grew a little as the years went on. Here is a synopsis of my office mates:
Director of CDSS from its inception, inspirational dance leader, protective of territory, old when I met her but once a dynamo, she devoted her life to CDSS and asked little back. She started dancing in England as an adult, quickly becoming part of Cecil Sharp’s demonstration group and then EFDS regional coordinator based in Newcastle. She retired in 1973.
CDSS music director for life but not an employee. By far the best English country dance player I have been privileged to dance to and work with. Phil was a great dancer in his younger days, and had studied to be a concert pianist at Eastman before stage fright sent him our way. His music actually did tell you what to do.
Inspirational dance teacher and organizer. Though not an employee at first, Genny held an important leadership position even before becoming director in 1973, and was critical to many endeavors including the American Country Dance Ensemble (the Bicentennial performance wing of CDSS), family weeks, and the purchase of Pinewoods Camp. She and her husband Jack were also close friends despite our generational gap.
Became a key assistant to three directors – Genny Shimer, myself and Nancy White Kurzman and provided crucial continuity during the late 70s and early 80s. Joan, Kate Charles, Marney and I all lived in the same apartment building.
Secretary for many years, retired weeks after I started. She was followed in this position by Bob Dalsemer (1971), Joanne Childress (later Joanne Davis, 1971-1972), Jane Ross (later Jane Leibert, 1972-1973), Kate Charles (1974-1976), Jody Evans (1977-78)
Ed Durham came on staff as coordinator of the American Country Dance Ensemble in about 1975 and added many modern touches to the office including a multi-line phone system, which I viewed as a miracle of sorts.
Elizabeth Hodgkin (membership secretary) and Frances Houghton were regular office volunteers
Changing CDSS Directorship
By the time I arrived at CDSS headquarters, May Gadd had been at the job for about 42 years, and was 79 years old. She had built up what currently existed, not just once, but again after World War II. She understood and implemented Douglas Kennedy’s populist reorientation of country dance, and had seen CDSS thrive in the new non-elitist guise. But she was uncomfortable when activities spread beyond her control, and, for example, took the formation of the Village Morris Men as a challenge to CDSS rather than as the natural outcome of a job well done. I think she recognized the need for new leadership; certainly everyone else did.
Genny Shimer took on the directorship in 1973 at a time when many things were in transition. The Conant family needed a break after decades of operating Pinewoods Camp; morris teams and contra dances were poised to spring up all over the country, as were local dance festivals. During Genny’s leadership Pinewoods Camp was purchased by the several user groups (including CDSS), the American Country Dance Ensemble was started, regional leadership conferences were started, and the Family Week at Pinewoods was inaugurated. Genny’s stature as a dance teacher and her level-headedness made the transition from May Gadd’s leadership widely acceptable within the Society, and her many years within the organization helped her navigate the various personal and group agendas existing at the time.
Genny had only agreed to a two year term and did not intend to sign up for another, so in mid-1975 I became director at the age of 27. My strengths were my direct involvement in the morris and contra scenes, my waxing dance leadership skills, an expanding understanding of how dance history fit together to create the present, enthusiasm, and wanting to do everything. My weaknesses were same list differently viewed: I took on too much, both for myself and others, I used enthusiasm to cover what I hadn’t yet thought through or understood, I made early American dance seem too fussy because I confused an evening of social dancing with historic recreation, and I was too busy calling dances, morris dancing and going to meetings to know what was going on in the office. Fortunately, I had a very good team in the office who graciously picked up the slack. Joan Carr and Kate Charles started during Genny’s tenure and already knew what to do. Joan was also an outstanding diplomat.
The purchase of Pinewoods Camp by the newly-formed Pinewoods Camp Inc. created more opportunity for CDSS and the other users. Genny had rightly put Family Week at the top of the list for CDSS expansion (the first Family Week was in August of 1975, just after I had become national director; Genny was program director of the week). But there were more weeks available in the summer, and I made American Week the next priority. The first American Week at Pinewoods was 1977, and as program director I put primary effort into bringing tradition bearers to the party. Even back then, I was more interested in the origins and local perpetuation of music and dance traditions than I was in disseminating bits and pieces of these traditions to a new audience. At the time there was an audience for both the wonderful, uninterpreted music, and also for the inter-cultural social scene created by reaching out to important tradition bearers. Perhaps that day will come again.
Marney and I were contemplating the future, and among other things thought raising a family in New York would be hard. I proposed moving the headquarters, and we looked at a number of possibilities. In the end the board decided to stay in New York and look for a new director. I still had a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, and was made Artistic Director as a half time employee for the next three years, returning monthly for meetings. In June of 1977 Marney and I moved to Charlottesville, VA and have been there ever since.
Historic Dance Performance
My own curiosity about dance history, CDSS’s proclivity for public display, and the public funding surrounding the Bicentennial of American Independence were on a collision course that would lead me into show business, musty libraries in distant cities, costume balls and dance history conferences. I applied for and received three successive grants from the NEH to study early American social dance. CDSS created the American Country Dance Ensemble of which I was made director. I published a few of the dances I had uncovered in Twenty-Four American Country Dances, 1976.
The American Country Dance Ensemble was a major effort during the mid-1970s; dozens of volunteers sewed costumes under the direction of Honey Hastings for many months. We originally planned two shows, one depicting American social dance in the second half of the 18th century and the other a retrospective of the 18th and 19th centuries. Bookings were harder to get than we had imagined, the all-18th century show proved more popular and required fewer costumes. So to consolidate our efforts and cut our losses the second show was abandoned. One thing that has stayed with me from practicing for this second show was Genny Shimer’s careful teaching of the Viennese waltz. Though the dancers were all volunteers, musicians Phil Merrill (harpsichord), Marshall Barron (violin), Julie White (flute), Iris Hiskey (soprano), and narrator Alex Blachly were paid. Margaret Ann Martin later replaced Phil Merrill, who didn’t like wearing a costume very much.
A similar effort was undertaken in Boston; my own connection with the Boston show was limited to a couple of workshops on material as yet unpublished. What was the impact of these projects? No doubt more costume balls than otherwise would have occurred. Some living history locations, including Sturbridge Village and Colonial Williamsburg, added dance to their interpretation. Certainly a few dance groups started focusing on early American dance. Probably CDSS was stretched too thin for its own good. I personally gained an ideal platform to try out reconstructed dances and dance style with good dancers in historic clothing.
November 28th,1973 (the note on my calendar says “2:30 pm at Gay’s, bring fiddle”) May Gadd invited me to her apartment on Bleeker Street to meet her longtime friend, Agnes deMille, whose ballets and Broadway musical choreography changed the course of theatrical dance in the mid-20th century. She was a ballerina as well, and danced the lead role in her best remembered ballet, Rodeo. But before she was famous, she came to morris and country dance classes sponsored by CDSS. Phil Merrill reported that her “split capers” in morris were unequaled and gravity-defying. Miss deMille often used elements of traditional social dance in her creations, and when she needed material, she came to May Gadd (or Phil Merrill in the instance of Brigadoon). So this meeting was one with a history for the two of them, of which I was naturally ignorant at the time. The first tune I played for her was June Apple, and she never wanted to hear another one.
Agnes deMille was putting together a company to perform a number of her ballets on tour, and she wanted square dance and flatfoot material for an introduction to her latest creation, Texas Fourth. But she also wanted me to be in the production as fiddler, dancer and caller. And I agreed to do it! (I later figured out how Agnes cast dancers – whether their face could be distinguished from the back of an auditorium. Apparently my cheekbones were up to the task.) The show included interludes by ballad singer Jean Ritchie and tap dance legend Honi Coles. The Agnes deMille Heritage Dance Theater started rehearsals in mid-January, worked intensely for six weeks in various venues including Carnegie Hall rehearsal studios, and then toured in the northeastern United States for the month of March in 1974. I also performed my segment of the ballet in Agnes deMille’s “Conversations on the Dance” a number of times over the next decade, and was frequently her waltz partner on these occasions. I couldn’t do a second tour later in 1974, and Fred Breunig learned my role and toured with the company. I also reprised the role in 1983 when Miss deMille was given a Broadway tribute at the Shubert Theater; we were on last, and Isaac Stern opened for us.
I went to England for the first time in July of 1971 at the invitation of Ron Smedley. Ron had seen Wayne Henderson of Brasstown buck dance one evening at the Berea Christmas dance week, and also met me. He put together a month long tour of performances and festivals for the two of us that was breathtaking. Mostly I played fiddle and Wayne danced when we performed, but when we had a fiddler who could play a mountain hoedown available I also danced and we had a routine worked up. At the Loughborough festival we saw Bampton morris, danced English celidh dances to the Rakes, listened to Steeleye Span, John Kirkpatrick, and Packy Byrne. In Sheffield both the Grenoside and Handsworth sword dancers put on performances just for us. We met Northumbrian clog dance legend Johnson Ellwood, and actually got in the set and danced with Monkseaton Rapper (in the back yard of the Browns’ house, not in public). We opened at the High Level Pub for Sean McGuire, Irish fiddle virtuoso, and I started to learn wooden shoe clog from Peter Brown. We met Pat Shaw and attended one of his Another Look at Playford sessions and taught American clogging to London Folk, EFDSS’s performance troupe directed by Ron Smedley. Our final performance was at the Royal Festival Hall at the EFDSS 60th anniversary; I played for Wayne to dance and then we both danced to Brian Jackson’s fiddle. We were in august company: Loftus Sword, Monkseaton Rapper, Headington Quarry, Bampton, the Copper Family, the Watersons. There were more, but that is enough.
Wayne returned home and I went to a weeklong dance leadership seminar led by Nibs Mathews, EFDSS director, and Ken and Sybil Clarke. It was the best course of its type I have seen; particularly effective were the evening sessions arranged for uninitiated dancers with a post mortem discussion scheduled the next morning. I got back to New York and left a few hours later for Pinewoods Camp.
From that first trip to England I had developed many good friends, a revised impression of English folk customs, and a near desperate passion for morris dancing. I returned to England almost every summer for the next decade, then more infrequently after the children started to arrive. Back in New York I collaborated with John Dexter, Karl Rodgers and Howard Seidel, all former Village Morris Men (1968-69), in trying to start a new New York morris group, which, however, never really got very far.
John left NYC to join a string quartet in Ithaca and quickly succeeded in starting Binghamton Morris, whom he brought to a Greenwich Village morris tour sponsored by the Pinewoods Morris Men in the Spring of 1974. Some of the Cooper Union students who had been holding square dance weekends with me as caller were inspired by the morris generally and the spirit and quick progress of Binghampton, and wanted to morris dance themselves. This finally provided critical mass to start the Greenwich Morris Men, who first danced in public in June of 1974.
Karl Rodgers was our only Village Morris alumnus, and he very quickly left us due to the choices I was making for the group. Single tradition (we danced Fieldtown) and a more expansive style of movement were the main contentions, but I also think Karl and I were on opposite sides of a dichotomy created by Cecil Sharp many years before. Sharp presented morris to refined society in a form that could be accepted, though it made it into a cricket match in appearance. He also admired the regularity of the Headington Quarry dancers and tended to “Headingtonize” the other traditions. I had recently been to both Headington and Bampton for Spring Bank Holiday and was completely enchanted with both, and disillusioned with the Morris Ring style of dance. Now I am sad that we didn’t find a way to compromise. And I am glad that Greenwich had the fine run that it did.
Greenwich Rapper started about a year later when Tony Poile moved from London to Connecticut. Tony had a burning passion for rapper, having danced with Chingford Lads and London Folk, and soon also started Greenwich Guard rapper at the high school near his home in Connecticut. Everyone in Greenwich rapper was also a Greenwich Morris Man, but we had different practice nights and worked very hard on our stepping. Greenwich Rapper folded about the time I moved to Virginia in 1977, but Greenwich Morris continued and thrived.
The Greenwich Morris Men rented a Winnebago and traveled to Knoxville, TN for the first Knoxville Dance Festival in February of 1978, stopping in Charlottesville on the way. Local dancers saw them dance and liked it, and we were able to start the Albemarle Morris Men a few months later. Excepting Ralph Compton, a former Berea dancer, no one had danced morris before so they danced what I told them to without complaint. Workshops with Roy Dommett over the next few years modified our style considerably, and for the better. And we are still going strong today, many of the men being in the their fourth and best decade of dancing.
Collecting Dances and Music
Since my time as a student in Brasstown, NC, I have tried to attend as many traditional community dances as I could. The majority of these events were in the southeastern states of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, but also included dances in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. I also interviewed people who had been callers and dancers about what they remembered from times past.
My method at a dance was to be as innocuous as possible, aware from folklore classes of the danger of changing what one hopes to observe unchanged. I wrote down what had happened at the event as soon as possible afterwards, including both dance and non-dance details. When I could I described the figures and calls, and in one case transcribed a tape recording of a whole dance, all 50 pages worth. When I had a tape recorder I would carry it in small bag and just leave it running under a bench or in a corner so as not to draw attention. Today these are some of my most cherished recordings.
After my second child arrived I did much less traveling to collect dances, but playing in local country bands brought me in contact with lots of local culture, including dance culture. I mostly stopped notating what happened by this time. Virtually all of the teaching I do of American traditional dance comes from the material gleaned in these years.
Since I plan to publish the original notations with some explanation I will only add here that the dancing at the best of the traditional community dances was by far the best dancing that I have encountered. The fire hall at New Creek, WV, the Woodhill Community Center in Union County, TN, the monthly dances of the Ed Larkin Dancers near Sharon, VT, Bill’s Roller Rink in Blairsville, GA, the Stella, VA Ruritan Club in my mind epitomize what the local dance can be.
What was different from the average revival contra or country dance? At interest-based events we dance with other dance enthusiasts, while traditional dance communities dance with the neighborhood. Another major difference in traditional dance communities is the educational content, of which there is none; there is no teaching, and it is not missed or needed, the dance is a party, the dances are the same every week or month, as are the caller and band in most cases, and variety is not a virtue. Which leaves room for good dancing in a social setting with the same folks who cut your hair, service your tractor, or teach your kids.
I have most always been in dance bands, and rarely other kinds.
Cottey Light Orchestra might have begun the day in the early 70s that Tom Kruskal and I came across a band stand on the shore of Oakland’s Lake Merritt where we gave a concert for ducks. Or perhaps it started the night that Tom, Tony Barrand, myself and maybe another culprit decided that a midnight strolling serenade was needed by folks at Pinewoods Camp. The band was named at Pinewoods a few years later when John Dexter, John Roberts, Tom and myself were housed for the week at Cottey House. Several nights, Tom, John Roberts and I went back to Cottey House to play lumpy English traditional tunes, morris tunes, historic tunes, anything that could be slow and emphatic. John Dexter, single at the time, came in later, Coleman lantern in hand, and announced “the search goes on.” The he joined in the music. Soon we heard the Old Swan Band and realized we weren’t the only ones who thought this kind of band was a good idea. Tom and I did a number of dances and short tours and together with Tony recorded Round Pond Relics in 1980. A second album, Over the Water, was made in 1994 and featured John Dexter, Tom and myself.
In New York I played old time music with groups made up for the moment, drawing from Bill Garbus, Pete Lissman, Jerry Schieber, David Spilkia, Jim Miller, Paul Brown, Jeff Woodring, and others. We also had a contra and square dance band named Urban Felicity that consisted of myself on fiddle and calling, Margaret Ann Martin (piano), Karl Rodgers (accordion, calling) and Betsy Blachly (percussion).
After moving to Charlottesville I had a few years when I played with Freyda Epstein (fiddle), Sue Read (piano and guitar) and me playing steel guitar and fiddle. Starting in the mid 80s, and continuing for more than a decade, we had a band named UFO consisting of Laura Light (fiddle), Pete Vigour (guitar and fiddle), Kim Cary (bass), and Jimbo Cary (drums), and myself playing steel, fiddle, guitar and calling. We played some western swing and country along with the jigs and reels.
In the mid-1990s our local middle school had a good band program. My oldest son Will played drums in the concert and marching bands, while Owen, who had taken seven years of violin and then quit, didn’t participate in band at all. But he did take an introductory guitar class the Winter he turned 14. He took off with the guitar, playing his black Fender Stratocaster or my Gibson J-45 non-stop, day and night, in bed, on the telephone, all the time.
I needed allies with whom to play dances, and it soon was apparent my sons could be them. For the boys, the chance to make $50 or $60 in an evening seemed great, but I think they liked playing, too. The instrumentation was already chosen for us. The sound was sparse and rhythm heavy. As Owen’s prowess as a lead player burgeoned, I started putting down the fiddle and picking up the guitar to add rhythm behind Owen’s leads.
The name of the band, Morrison Brothers, was sort of a joke, as I was obviously not a brother to anyone else in the band, but was sort of not a joke, in that I hoped from the start that the brothers would have the major input into the direction the band took. This is still my favorite playing experience.
I now also have a band with T. J. Crow (aka T. J. Johnson, mandolin) and Sue Read (piano) in a band that is local by design and called “In Wildness…”
In the mid-1980s I was thinking about ways to stay closer to home with my young and growing family (which now included my daughter Claire), still heard the siren call of the steel guitar from my youth, and learned that one of the great players, Buddy Charlton, was living nearby and giving lessons. I found a used steel for sale (a ShoBud double neck with hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs marking the frets) and started lessons. I eventually upgraded to an Emmons La Grande model and played with several local country bands. I also tried to incorporate the steel into contra and square dance bands, notably in UFO. I ultimately found bars and fraternity parties too loud, degrading, and hard on gear (but not Moose, Elk, and VFW clubs—I liked playing at them) and rededicated myself to traditional fiddle. I also was frustrated with my own progress on the steel and realized that I loved the sound of the instrument a lot more when it was being played by one of the leading geniuses but not so much when played by lesser practitioners, myself included.
I acquired my first fiddle at Dartmouth, but I don’t remember how. I went into Israel Young’s Folklore Center in New York on my way to Brasstown the very first time. There I met a fiddler who offered to set up my fiddle and find me a better bow, and I just gave it to him there and then with a forwarding address of John C. Campbell Folk School. This was risky, in hindsight, but my trust was validated when the fiddle came three months later, much improved, and with a nice Otto Hoyer bow I wish I still had.
I traded that fiddle later in the year to Randall Collins who had a music store in Murphy, NC. I don’t know anything about that fiddle, but it is the one I played for the next ten years. It was stolen from my car during a CDSS executive committee meeting along with the Hoyer bow. Randall Collins left Murphy a few years later to join the Pinnacle Boys of Knoxville, TN, a bluegrass band with a great twin and triple fiddle sound. Today he is back in the music store business in Blairsville, GA.
To replace it I bought a good German factory instrument from Tom Hosmer (who wrote a regular violin column for Strings Magazine) in Rochester, NY and a strong Pfretzschner workshop bow. After a violin maintenance and repair session he led at Buffalo Gap Family Week in 1991, I asked Rodney Miller to make me a violin. That is the 1993 instrument that I have played ever since. Violin and bow geekdom have gradually permeated my consciousness.
Though I almost always play my Miller violin in public, I have also have:
A 19th century factory fiddle with painted grain that belonged to Pug Allen, fiddle and banjo player from Stuarts Draft, VA that I mostly play cross-tuned. It is the one on the cover photo of Round Pond Relics and I recorded Betty Anne with it on the Morrison Brothers Band’s second album;
A 1910 violin by Ole Bryant of Boston that has the remarkable quality of sounding better in the presence of an accordion or concertina;
And my other lifetime achievement award—a nice German Guarneri copy from about 1900 that was John Ashby’s main instrument in the 1940s and 1950s. It was first bought by an Olinger, neighbors to the Ashbys, given (or sold?) to John Ashby by Charlie Olinger, and given to me by John’s son Skip Ashby in 2012.
Irish Set Dancing
At one early Charlottesville Dance Festival a session in Kerry set dancing was offered by Michael Denny and Linda Hickman. The dance taught was the North Kerry Set and we had great music from members of the Washington, DC band Celtic Thunder. I soon learned a modest repertoire of polkas and slides, listened to recordings of several Cork and Kerry musicians, and taught the North Kerry set at late night sessions at dance camps, morris ales, and parties. I had no awareness of any other sets, and basically thought this one dance was “the” Kerry Set. The dance worked great in the right social situation. A style of dancing emerged that was exuberant, heavy footed—just right for the occasion, but not close to the tradition. On one occasion I was asked to call with the Boys of the Lough at the Washington Folk Festival at Glen Echo Park. The ballroom was packed beyond capacity, around 600 people, and the Boys of the Lough were great players but so used to speeding up in their stage performances that I was struggling to make the contra dances work. So I called different dances, first a southern square dance to jigs, which was better. Then I remembered the North Kerry set and taught it, hornpipe figure and all. Finally the Boys, the dancers and I were all happy, me in particular because Michael Denny was there to watch the whole thing and see what he had started.
Decades and hundreds of North Kerry sets later (about 2002), Timmy “the Brit” McCarthy was brought to Charlottesville by the Blue Ridge Irish Music School to teach the sets of Cork and Kerry, at which he is a master. He came back for the next five or six years, and I went to his weekend of dance in Ballyvourny. I was captivated by both the music and the dances and have been increasingly asked to present them at workshops and festivals. I have limited myself to the sets of Cork and Kerry because this is what Timmy does, and because life is short.
Having written far more than I had ever intended, I will not say anything about the following:
Pinewoods, Mendocino and Buffalo Gap dance camps, Albemarle Morris Men’s week resident in Bledington, Gigs from hell, Fiddlers who have changed me, Gibson Guitars, the first American Dance Week, Douglas Kennedy, Pat Shaw, Shetland in 1976, sound reinforcement for dances, clogging lessons, Steve Hickman, what happened after the curtain fell at the Shubert Theater, Chuck Ward, Laurie Andres, workshops for various morris and sword groups, the Free State Ramblers, the Virginia Vagabonds, Brad Foster, Napoleon Bonaparte Chisholm, Cecil Sharp in central Virginia, dance history research, Minstrelsy, the minuet or Jimi Hendrix. And definitely nothing about the night I was licked by a skunk.
The Lifetime Contribution Award was presented to Jim Morrison on November 22, 2014, in Charlottesville, VA.