He keeps contra dancing moving
Wednesday, November 24, 1999
By AARON BOWDEN Monitor staff
PETERBOROUGH - The popularity of traditional New England dance music has waxed and waned during the last century, but like the steady piano beat he's sent out across dance floors for more than 50 years, 76-year-old Bob McQuillen has been a constant.
A former high school shop teacher, weight-lifting coach and bus driver, McQuillen has composed more than 1,000 contra dance tunes and has single-handedly preserved a deceptively simple style of traditional piano playing.
McQuillen is the crucial link between Ralph Page, the legendary contra dance caller from Nelson who brought New England social dancing back from obscurity in the 1930s, and Dudley Laufman, a caller and fiddler who oversaw a revival of the music that began in the 1970s and continues today. McQuillen played his special brand of piano for both.
"But he's even more critical than that, in a way,'' said Laurie Andres, a Seattle-based contra dance accordion player, who recorded an album almost entirely of McQuillen tunes. "He's the pivotal figure in the music. There was this gigantic revival in the 1960s and 1970s, and Mac was the musician who brought the traditional music into the revival. . . . He was the genuine article.''
Brought to New Hampshire by the earliest colonial settlers, contra dancing is at least 400 years old. A contra dance is very much like a square dance, with the dancers arranged in two lines rather than a square.
You can hear the dancer's stomps and the caller's singsong cadence even outside the town halls which have served as the primary contra dance venues for 200 years. Inside, dancers do-si-do, swing, and whirl, faces ecstatic, from partner to partner, the smell of their sweat overwhelming the room.
Contra dance music has roots in English, Scottish, Irish, and French-Canadian traditions. Screeching fiddles usually take the melody, with pianos, flutes and accordions providing a festive accompaniment. Saturday night dances in places like Peterborough were a preferred social forum for late-19th century farmers.
But in the beginning of the 20th century, new, urban forms like jazz and ragtime threatened the popularity of the old folk dances. Square dancing was able to find a niche in the West, but contra dance would remain mostly forgotten until the 1930s.
Today though, thanks mostly to Page, Laufman and McQuillen, nearly 100 people crowd the Peterborough Town Hall every Saturday night for contra dancing. Last year Peterborough honored McQuillen for 50 years of playing dance music on the town hall stage.
"As a musician, he's right on," said Dudley Laufman, who lives in Canterbury. "He has the best rhythm of any piano player around. He doesn't jazz it up or play it English style. He plays straight New England dance music."
McQuillen is known as "Mac" by old friends and "Mr. Mac," by former students. There are a lot of both.
And the names of McQuillen's songs are inspired by these people - friends, dancers, musicians and old students who've become a kind of extended family: "Scotty O'Neil," "Mikey's Reel," "Russell's Reel," "Francis's Hornpipe." For anyone who's come into McQuillen's life and made an impression, he's written a song. He calls these people "sweet," and crowds his piano top with their portraits.
"He's one of those angels that just floats around making a difference in everyone's life," said Leslie Jose, a Sandwich contra dancer, whose son Mike inspired "Mikey's Reel." "There's no way you could even put into words the magic that Bob McQuillen has."
He's got a sly smile, a firm handshake, and a penchant for profanity-laced language left over from a stint in the Marines. But the gruff front belies a sensitivity that emerges when he talks about Page and the old musicians, or about his life's tragedies, the deaths: his wife Priscilla, a favorite student, two-thirds of his band New England Tradition. His eyes soften in fond remembrance.
"I love to remember,'' McQuillen said, "because they're all good memories. Yeah, there were the occasional glitches, but life always has its glitches.''
Two wars intervene
Bob McQuillen was born in Newton, Mass., and spent his teenage years on a farm in New Boston. Even though his father was a longtime ragtime piano player ("a real screecher," McQuillen says), the younger McQuillen's music education got off to a rocky start.
"My mom made me take piano lessons when I was 7, but I just wasn't hot for it," he said.
But music was seeking out Mac, and at 14, it would make a better impression.
"A man who was working for my stepfather's farm one summer had this old accordion with him," McQuillen said. "I don't know where he got the box from, but he let me take it. The thing only had 12 basses, so any idiot could figure out how it worked. I played around with it a little - understand there was no tube back then - and pretty soon I could play."
That year McQuillen took his Christmas money to Manchester and bought a new accordion for $40.
"I came home with it just happy as hell," he said.
But before the dance hall, there would be the theater of the Pacific.
McQuillen signed up for the Marines when he graduated high school and ended up overseas during World War II. The music was still looking for him though, even in Guadalcanal.
"That's really when I got my start in folk music," McQuillen said. "In my outfit there was a bunch of Southern boys, guys from the Ozarks and the Appalachians. These guys had a tradition handed down from their folks. It was hillbilly music - that's what they called it, and that's what they played."
And they played it with guitars, so McQuillen got his hands on a guitar. He remembers just jamming in the tent - sometimes for three hours at a time.
McQuillen returned to the New Boston farm when he was 23. He worked different jobs during the week and started looking forward to weekends when he and a gang of friends would drive to either Francestown or Peterborough for the contra dances.
"Eventually it got to where I was going to three dances a week," McQuillen said. "I was having the time of my life."
At a Peterborough dance in 1946, McQuillen met Priscilla Scribner. They danced together that night and were married a year later.
The newlyweds still frequented the dances. Led by a cigar-chomping caller named Ralph Page and a steady piano player named Johnny Tromblay, the band performing in Peterborough every weekend had already developed a reputation throughout New England.
"This was the beginning of the building up of the thing - right there in Peterborough," McQuillen said. "Page was the king of the whole scene. And Johnny Tromblay, man, we'd troop all the way down there to Pittsburgh if we found out Johnny Tromblay was going to be playing piano there."
McQuillen was starting to get recognized as a regular at the dances, and when Page's five-piece band lost a member, Mac was offered a chance to bring his box and sit in some nights. McQuillen seized the opportunity and joined the Ralph Page Orchestra.
"It was pretty serendipitous," McQuillen said. "I'm a lousy accordion player as they go, but we had two fiddle players playing melody, so all I really had to do was play texture and accompaniment."
The lineup for the Ralph Page Orchestra now reads like a who's who in contra dance music: Russ Allen and Dick Richardson were the fiddlers, Junior Richardson played bass, Johnny Tromblay was on piano, Bob McQuillen played accordion and Ralph Page called the dances.
"That old band was a bunch of sweet guys," McQuillen said.
They traveled all over New England playing to packed dance halls. The experience was invaluable to McQuillen's musical education. At one dance, Tromblay spotted McQuillen tinkering around on the piano between sets, and decided to offer a brief lesson.
"He came over and said, 'No, do it this way Bob,' " McQuillen said.
Tromblay showed McQuillen how to flesh out the sound by adding a minor chord to what McQuillen was doing with his right hand. Today McQuillen calls the technique, "Johnny's Move," and credits it as the mainstay of his piano playing style.
"This little thing adds so much to the texture of the sound," McQuillen said. "Nobody else did that, and nobody does it today."
"Bob kept that style of piano playing alive," said former Peterborough dance caller Jack Perron. "And the dancers love it, because he's very energetic . . . a link to the past. Even the younger dancers can see that."
But McQuillen was just beginning to learn the piano, making around $8 a gig, when he got called back to war.
The scene he'd left for Korea wasn't the scene he returned to.
"When I came back, I'd found out that Johnny'd died and the band had broken up," McQuillen said. "Johnny was 53 at the time, I think . . . a sweet, sweet man. He was the mainstay of that band, and when he died it all stopped."
It was a time of change for McQuillen. He now had two sons and a daughter, and the family had moved to Dublin. Mac had always been content before to go from job to job, but his second war settled him down a little. He decided to go back to school, graduating in 1959 from Keene Teachers College.
Mr. Mac became a shop teacher at Peterborough High School, where he would work for 30 years.
McQuillen also received a phone call from Duke Miller shortly after his return from Korea. Miller was another well-known caller, and offered McQuillen a spot in his traveling band.
"Well it was never the same musicians in that band for very long," McQuillen said. "Eventually I ended up on piano, when Duke ran out of piano players. I told him I thought I could do it - I knew "Johnny's Move," and I used to mess with it some, so I figured no sweat."
Over the next 20 years or so, playing piano for Duke Miller, McQuillen developed a style he derisively calls "boom chucking."
"It's sort of like the word hillbilly," McQuillen said. "It has a negative connotation, as in you're not a good piano player if all you know how to do is boom chuck."
To create the boom in the style, McQuillen's left hand comes down heavy on the bass. The "chuck" is essentially a chord augmented by "Johnny's Move." The rhythm of the playing bounces back and forth between the two. It's simple, but unflinchingly steady.
Sources of inspiration
McQuillen had been a shop teacher for a little more than 10 years when one of his favorite students inspired him to write his first contra dance tune. The boy's name was Scotty O'Neil.
O'Neil, who'd drop by the house occasionally to chat with Mr. Mac, or to visit his daughter, died in a Keene motorcycle accident.
"He was such a sweet kid, just welcome anytime," McQuillen said. "The biggest funeral I'd ever seen in my life was in Peterborough in that fall of 1972, when they put him down."
A year later, O'Neil was still on McQuillen's mind.
"In the beginning of 1973, I got this idea for a tune - I'd never had the inclination to do that before," McQuillen said. "And after I sat down and wrote it out, I thought, there's only one name for this tune . . . I called it 'Scotty O'Neil.' "
The moment was groundbreaking in several respects. It launched McQuillen on a prolific path that would eventually yield 1,003 tunes and 10 "Bob's Notebooks" of contra dance music, but it was also revolutionary in that most of the contra dance musicians at the time didn't see the need to compose new tunes.
"It never occurred to me to write tunes, because there were already so many great old ones lying around," said Laufman, who since has written contra and square dance tunes. "There are a lot of people doing it now, writing tunes - but nobody to the extent that Bob has."
Once he'd tapped it, McQuillen realized his creative well was quite deep. He started carrying around brown notebooks and a mandolin with him everywhere, writing tunes whenever he felt the impulse, and fingering them on the mandolin to figure out the right key.
His living room is littered with the old notebooks, scribbled full of musical notation, now falling apart and held together by rubber bands.
"I write 'em any damn place," McQuillen said. "I've pulled over on the side of the road to write a tune, gotten 10 miles, and pulled over to write another one. I forget who was with me that time, but they said something like, 'Bob, we're never going to get where we're trying to go.' I told him, 'You're probably right.' "
After a while, McQuillen was writing tunes because he felt a sense of responsibility toward the people who lent him inspiration.
"Eighty or 90 were for people, some of them were for cats or doggies . . . When somebody touches me somewhere down the line, it's just something I do. I don't know, man, I just feel like it's incumbent on me to get them out there," he said.
And at the time, McQuillen had use of the best contra dance musicians in the world to test his tunes on a live audience of dancers.
Mac was swept up along the tide of the 1970s contra dance revival, playing in festivals and traveling New England as a member of the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra. Led by Laufman, that band recorded the first long-playing record of contra dance music. In the liner notes of the eponymous record, Laufman wrote that Mac had inspired him to play the accordion.
"In the very beginning, I was just a kid," Laufman said. "He was my hero and it was really a thrill to play alongside him . . . . He was just the epitome of the music back then."
In the late '70s he hooked up with a fiddler named April Limber and a banjo player named Pete Colby. The new band was called New England Tradition, and put together a successful decade-long run culminating in a 1988 recording.
"The album didn't exactly set the world on fire," McQuillen said, "but it definitely received approval in the dance scene."
McQuillen and the band wouldn't have long to bask in their success. An aneurysm of the aorta killed Colby in December 1988. Within the week, Limber, Colby's partner, took her life.
"We had about a month-and-a-half to enjoy this record we'd made and then they were gone," McQuillen said.
McQuillen dealt with a lot of loss at the end of the 1980s. His wife left him, came back, and then died of Alzheimer's disease in 1985. Somehow Mac made it through, finding a rebirth of his spirit - where else, but in the music.
Echoes of the past
Today, though McQuillen is retired from the school, he may never retire from the music.
Old New England, his current band, put out a compact disc in 1996, and was part of New Hampshire's delegation at this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival. They also appear on the new Smithsonian-sponsored album of contra dancing called Choose Your Own Partners.
McQuillen has been the subject of several tribute albums and a documentary film and should soon be nominated for a National Heritage Award. But more importantly, perhaps, he's influenced an entire generation of contra dance musicians.
"My feeling of the music came directly from Bob, from listening to the way he negotiated the spaces in the music," said Andres, the accordionist who has recorded McQuillen's tunes. "The other thing I've learned from him is to be accepting of any musician who plays this music. I just really admire him."
The last surviving member of Ralph Page's band, McQuillen has been around so long he's just beginning to make an impact on a second generation of contra dance piano players. McQuillen's hard blue eyes light up when he talks about the progress of his child disciples, Frances Orzechowski and Connor Sleithe.
He's bringing these kids into an extended musical family that's sustained him for years, a huge family of dancers, players and "sweet" people. McQuillen has seven phones just to make sure he doesn't miss a single one of their calls. "Mac Shack," he answers every time.
Sitting in a living room cluttered with brown notebooks, pictures, phones, and accordions - the trappings of his life - Bob McQuillen has mostly good memories.
"I was playing accordion the other night with Connor up there on the piano," McQuillen said. "I closed my eyes for just a second, and I was back 30 years . . . with Ralph Page calling, and Johnny Tromblay on the piano . . . It was f - - - - - perfect. You have no idea how good it was . . . one of the great joys of my life.
"I looked at Connor and said, 'Son, that wasn't you playing, that was Johnny Tromblay.' "
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