Phil Johnson, Square Dance Caller & More
Trying to write an introduction to Phil Johnson is difficult because there were so many facets to him. So far I've been unable to locate a good photo of him. Phil had somewhat long hair and a very substantial beard. But he didn't look like a hippie or anything like that; to me he always looked more like he was from an earlier time period when men wore beards. Phil had many interests and was knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics. I'll touch on a few of them here.
Philip E Johnson was born on May 29, 1910 in Toledo Ohio. He moved to New Hampshire in the mid 1940s. He bought a 1774 water-powered mill in Lebanon, Maine, which he restored over a period of many years. He remained interested in mills for the rest of his life. He gave talks on small water-powered mills around the area, and I believe became an authority on the topic. I remember that when he was in his early 90s he would go to Ohio and other places in his RV, and give talks on mills to historical societies.
Phil was also a dancer and a square dance caller. He loved the music and the dance. He called square dances for much of his life, stopping only because he had hearing loss (from working in the mill) that was particularly bad in the frequency range of the music, so he couldn’t hear it well enough to call.
This was unfortunate as he was such a good caller. But at his 90th birthday party his grandson Luke put some headphones on him and played the band through the headphones. Marcel and a bunch of other excellent musicians were playing, and Luke turned up the music in the headphones until Phil could hear it, and Phil called a bunch of his favorite squares. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to the party, and we all got to dance to Phil calling with that great music. Luke told me afterwards that if it had been anyone else the headphones would have been loud enough to deafen them! In addition to calling, Phil also danced a couple waltzes and polkas. The party continued an hour longer than planned, and at the end Phil was ready to continue. He commented that he was feeling better than he had since he was 40!
Phil remained in surprisingly good health otherwise until shortly before he died just seven days shy of 94 years old. In fact, when he was 91 he informed us that he had a new job driving old people around. He commented that old people didn’t get out enough; and it was unclear whether he considered himself to be one of the old people.
Sources for the section on Phil Johnson:
- Email correspondence with John Saucier. John had family connections. Some of the basic biographical information came from John.
- Report on Barrington Historical Society Annual Meeting, 1950s. Some of the information on his interest in water-driven mills came from here. From one of Milt Appleby's scrapbooks, now prserved in the NH Library of Traditional Music & Dance. See the full footer on any section header page for full details.
- Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter. A number of issues contained mention or even fairly extensive articles about Phil. The 90th birthday party was described in the June 2000 issue. The Visit story is from the June 1994 issue.
Phil Johnson on Dancing in the 1940s & 1950s.
Long-time Seacoast area contradancers may have run into Phil Johnson in a few different contexts. In the 1980s he called now and then at the Kittery Grange Hall as part of the regular series of contradances that occurred there monthly. Later on he would sometimes come to the Lamprey River Band's First Thursday contradance in Madbury and call a couple squares (or occasionally a contra) as a guest caller. And of course for a number of years he had his series of squares in the Lebanon, ME Grange which a few contradancers attended. In fact Rick McAulay of the Lamprey River Band used to play accompaniment for him at some of his dances.
Sometime in the early 1990s I started going to the Wednesday Night Soirées at Marcel Robidas' barn in Dover. Every Wednesday night a bunch of musicians and many of Marcel's family and friends would show up at the barn and we'd have a soirée as many French Canadian families have for many years. There was lots of music: in the earlier years led by Marcel; after his hearing deteriorated he tended to let others play most of the time. There could be up to a dozen or more fiddlers, guitar players, a button accordion, bass and of couirse piano. We played some of the most fun music I can remember playing. There would be step dancing, and every now and then a couple square dances. One day I went there and Phil Johnson was there. I ended up having a great conversation with him..I wrote a story about it for the Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter which I am reproducing below with a few minor edits.
A Visit with Phil Johnson
I went to a jam session at Marcel’s last week and had a great time playing lots of French Canadian tunes and some others of various sorts. The big surprise was to see Phil Johnson. Some of you know Phil from Kittery and Madbury dances, and some of you may have been to his Lebanon dance; but he’s been away for a couple years so the newer dancers won’t remember him. He just spent a couple years travelling around the country with his wife visiting friends and folk events all over the place. At some point during the evening we got Phil to call a set of squares. He called My Little Girl and Marching Through Georgia.
I was talking to Phil for a while, and he told me some interesting stories about Seacoast dancing when he was young. He and his wife used to be among the main organizers of the Seacoast dances in those days. He talked about dancing in the Nottingham Town Hall and the Lee Grange Hall back in the 1930’s (which had the same crooked stovepipe they’ve got now). [2020 Note: That may have been 1940s; I am not sure he moved east until then.] He said that in the 1940’s and 1950’s they used to fill up the Dover City Hall quite regularly. Mal Hayden was one of the callers, Phil used to call there, and there were others. Marcel was perhaps the first fiddler for the Dover dances Phil remembers, before he was in the military. While he was away, Milt Appleby took over, and there was also another French fiddler (Al something) who used to play in those days. [2020 Note: Probably Al Ruggero; Milt Appleby used to talk about him.] Marcel came back and rejoined the Dover dance scene. Al apparently learned to play on a homemade fiddle, and because he taught himself, he learned to play with only two fingers! Even trained violinists couldn’t tell from listening to him that he played that way because he was so good. At the old Dover dances, just as we do it now on Thursday nights, the music wasn’t amplified. There would be a mike for the caller (necessary for the singing squares they were doing then), and that was it.
I asked him what sorts of dances they did in those days. He said there was a regular pattern. They’d do a set of three squares, then a contra, then three more squares, then a contra. As it got time for intermission they’d do a couple folk dances such as Road to the Isles, the Boston Two-Step or a Varsouvienne. The pattern after the break would be similar. For contras they would do Lady Walpole’s Reel, Lady of the Lake, Beaux of Albany, Sackett’s Harbor, Petronella, Hull’s Victory, Money Musk and a number of others. The squares included the popular singing squares (My Little Girl, Marching Through Georgia, Crooked Stovepipe, Darling Nelly Grey, etc.), some prompted squares and some with patter calls. Later on they started doing some squares that had some western influence; while not too different from the New England squares they had been doing, we now know where that led.
From Phil’s description, it sounds like the Seacoast dances combined an older local tradition with a strong Ralph Page influence (seen in the triple minor dances he mentioned). The music seems to have been strongly influenced by the French tradition, as all the fiddlers he mentioned were from the French-Canadian musical tradition.
Source: Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter, June 1994.
Phil Johnson & the Music
Phil absolutely loved the music. Even when he had major hearing deficiency in the frequency range of the music it was obvious that he loved it. He was also quite knowledgeable about the music. As I mentioned in the previous section, Phil used to show up at Marcel Robidas’ soirées now and then; it was always fun when he did. A couple times he called a square dance or two. If Marcel or any of the rest of us would play a singing square dance tune, he would sing along with it. Sometimes he sang the square dance calls, but more often he sang the original words. That was always interesting because I mostly know the square dance calls, and not the original words to most of the songs. Of course many square dance songs fall into the category I refer to as the “dysfunctional family squares”, and probably I’d rather not know the original words in many cases.
But some were interesting, even filled with commentary on the culture and society of the day. It was through Phil that I learned that Darling Nelly Gray was actually a very sad song written from the point of view of a slave whose wife had been sold to someone far away so that they'd never see each other again.
Phil knew a lot about all sorts of things and it was always interesting to talk to him. Even after he was gone I continued to learn from him. For several years until he died we visited Milt Appleby every Sunday afternoon. Milt was an excellent fiddler from Rochester, NH, and used to play for Phil’s square dances. We’d play tunes, and often Milt would have stories to tell us. One time we were playing the square dance tune Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight. It’s a fun tune, but it only has one part, and except for one measure it stays on the same chord the whole time, so it’s not hard to imagine someone getting tired of playing it.
Well, after we’d played it for a while, Milt pointed out that there was another part to the tune. I was quite surprised as I’d heard it many times and never heard of a second part. Milt said that one day he was playing for Phil, and Phil taught him the second part. It’s actually the A part; what we usually play (and what people are most likely to have heard) is the B part. From a piano player’s perspective, it's nice that it has somewhat more varied chords.
After I got home I looked it up, and found a copy of the original manuscript online. Sure enough, there was the other part, nearly exactly as Milt taught it to me which I imagine was nearly as Phil had taught it to Milt years before.