New Hampshire Old-Time Country Dance Web Site

Dancing in the Seacoast Region of New Hampshire

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Lamprey River Band: Its History, Some Stories, and its Impact

This page has a pretty thorough although informal history of the Lamprey River Band, including stories about the band, some comments on its impact on Seacoast dancing, and some tnoughts on how its origins continue to affect how we do things.

Sources: There were too many sources to list here, but among the most important were histories of the band in the May 1988 and May 1996 Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter, and an essay written in preparation for an interview in 1994.


Formation & Early Days of the Band

In the early 1980's there were several of us who were playing New England fiddle tunes who were looking for a chance to play with others. I’d heard about a group in Concord who got together to play music and thought we could do the same. So several of us started to get together once each week to play dance music. After a couple years of this we had a good time, but remained a small group.

At the time the main local dance was in Newmarket. It was a nice hall and a nice dance, but attendance was rather low, which sometimes caused financial problems. One day I proposed to the Music Night group that we play a dance in Newmarket as a benefit to help out the dance series. Everyone agreed it was a good idea, and so we arranged with Claire, who was the dance organizer, to play for one of the July dances.

So in late June 1983 we started explicitly practicing for the dance. Once the word got out, musicians appeared out of the woodwork, and by July we had about a dozen or so musicians playing. This was good as we had no sound system, and was also consistent with my vision of a band modeled after the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra and the Maine Country Dance Orchestra. Somewhat inconsistent with that vision was the fact that most of the musicians were only somewhat familiar with the music and weren’t really dancers.

Our first dance was on Friday July 29, 1983. Rick Barkhuff called the dance. The dance was a tremendous success. We certainly weren’t polished, and were rather stiff in our playing. However, we had a big sound and everyone loved it. The dance was also one of the biggest we’d had in Newmarket in quite a while.

As a result we decided to keep going as a band. We played a few more times over the next several months, with Ken Wilson and Steve Zakon calling with us too. It should be noted that both of them did their first full dance with us (see later discussion of callers). The band became quite well established and quite popular; our dances tended to be the biggest ones around other than Swallowtail dances.

By 1985 Sarah Mason and I decided to learn to call. That’s a big enough topic that it gets its own web page. Once we learned to call, we started to call most of our dances, hiring outside callers only on special occasions.

The Thursday Night Dance

In turning ourselves from an informal music session into a band, we wanted to make sure not to lose track of our original purpose. Thus fairly early we started having one open practice each month where anyone could show up and play. This was quite popular. At some point I got the idea of turning it into an open dance at which anyone could play or call. So on Thursday October 2, 1986 we started a new series in the Madbury Town Hall. We advertised it as an informal dance open to guest callers and musicians. We charged only $2 admission, which was the same as the admission for the Monday night dance in Nelson which provided a loose model for our dance.

Another important influence for me was the Maine Country Dance Orchestra's dance in Bowdoinham, Maine on the first Saturday of each month; I write about it elsewhere on this website. They did the dance with no amplification. It was a pretty large and exuberant dance, but between having several people to share the calling, not doing really complicated dances, and having multiple accordions they were able to do it. We didn't have all the callers and accordions, but we didn’t use any sound system except for a small amplifier for the caller. There was no stage in Madbury, but we had a small stage for the caller, complete with two footprints to show us where to stand!

At first we barely got enough dancers to pay for the hall. But it gradually grew and for many years was the largest dance in the Seacoast area. In addition to dancers, we have attracted from only a few to sometimes as many as 20 sit-in musicians at our dances, including many excellent and even well-known musicians such as April Limber, Pete Colby and Dudley Laufman. For quite some time we averaged about 10 sit-in musicians, and we had to put a cap at three guest callers per dance. Quite a few people have gotten started at the dance; probably the most well-known at this time would be Chrissy Fowler.

The Madbury town hall was an excellent place to dance and to play. But the people who worked in the town hall never liked having us there. Eventually we got kicked out. I think there was going to be a kindergarten or day care there but it was just a matter of time before they found some reason to get rid of us.

LRB Newmarket
Lamprey River Band playing in the Newmarket Town Hall, early 1980s.
Ornament

The Lamprey River Tunebook

When we first got started many of the musicians, including all the fiddlers, had classical backgrounds and read music very well. They didn’t have strong backgrounds in traditional New England music. So for the first dance I prepared a set of sheet music. In those days before personal computers and the Internet I copied tunes from various sources to create a tunebook for the first dance. There were 16 pages with 53 tunes, plenty for the first dance.

I discovered that, although people read very well the lack of familiarity with the music led people to play exactly what was in the book. So after that I learned how to write out music, and pretty much all tunes after that I wrote out as my preferred version. That was the beginning of the Lamprey River Band Tunebook. Over the next several years I wrote out quite a number of tunes for the band, at first by hand and later using various music notation software. The LRB Tunebook grew to about 150 pages with about 315 tunes; all but a few were tunes that I wrote out.

Later on after Burt joined the band he started to bring in quite a few tunes and we moved away from having a repertoire clearly defined by the contents of the book.

Over a period of a couple years (2017–2018) I reviewed and revised the music, wrote out some other tunes and updated some tunes from a previous version of the website. The revised LRB tunebook along with the other tunes are all now online in the Fiddle Tunes branch of this website. The tunes are all marked as being from the LRB Tunebook but are integrated with a number of other tunes.

Working With Callers & Musicians

I mentioned that a couple of our early dances were with Rick Barkhuff, Ken Wilson and Steve Zakon. Rick was a local caller who was fun to play for but only called now and then. Ken and Steve are still calling dances, and both got to be well known. Together with Mary DesRosiers they got started sharing the calling for the Nelson Monday Night Dance in the early 1980s (plus or minus a few years). Both did their first full dance with us.

Ken was rather informal and had no real interest in becoming known nationally. He later went through a nasty divorce and left the area; I lost track of him after that. He showed up at the celebration/service for Bob McQuilllen after he died, but I didn’t really get to talk to him so I still don’t know anything about what happened later on. According to the Contradance Links website he calls regularly for a dance in Chagrin Falls Ohio.

Steve became one of the top contradance callers nationally for a while. He has called in Peterborough regularly for years. Although Sarah Mason and I learned to call in 1985 and we called most Lamprey River Band dances since, we have played for a number of callers. I believe we played for Mary at least once or twice. We also played for Dudley Laufman and Tod Whittemore and at least a couple others.

We’ve also had quite a few callers show up from all over the place at the Thursday night dance. One year we played for the well-known California caller Charlie Fenton at NEFFA. For several years after that he showed up at the dance on his way to NEFFA. One time Roger Diggle from Wisconsin (well known as a caller and for writing the dance Roll in the Hey which Sarah Mason calls fairly frequently) showed up and called a couple dances.

Steve and Ken are known for starting in Nelson even if their first full dances were with us. But some people explicitly got started calling as guest callers at our Thursday night dance. One is Chrissy Fowler. I remember her expressing interest in the idea of calling and thinking that she was a combination of outgoing and friendly that would work well for a caller. I encouraged her to do it, and it didn’t take too much before she started calling in Dover. She has become a well-known caller as well, and calls in Maine regularly as well as elsewhere. Gale Wood is another regular at our dance who got his start calling there, and there were others as well.

We also have had quite a few excellent musicians sit in with us. Most notably, April Limber and Pete Colby used to play with Bob McQuillen as New England Tradition. April was one of the best (and in my opinion defining) fiddlers in the New England tradition and Pete really defined New England banjo style so the name was justified. On occasion Sarah and I had to miss a dance. The band often hired April and sometimes Pete to replace us. But they often showed up at the Thursday night dance as sit-in musicians. Unfortunately they died not too long after that. Dudley is the caller who kept the tradition alive when virtually no one else was doing this kind of dancing to live music. For various reasons dating back to the 1970s Pete and April didn’t get along with Dudley. But on at least one occasion we had all of them playing together on in Madbury. That was an amazing experience!

LRB Newmarket
Lamprey River Band playing in the Newmarket Town Hall, early 1980s.
Ornament

Burt Feintuch's Influence

In 1988 Burt Feintuch came to UNH to be the Director of the Center For Humanities. Shortly thereafter I was introduced to him. He was talking to someone I knew right outside of Conant Hall (the Psychology building at that time, where I worked), and I was introduced to him as a new fiddler in the area. I told him about the Lamprey River Band and he expressed interest. Sometime not long after he joined the band.

Burt had a tremendous effect on the band. He first came to New Hampshire from Kentucky, and he was an excellent old-time Southern fiddler with minimal knowledge of New England music. He gradually learned at least some of our repertoire, but rather selectively. There were some tunes he enjoyed playing, but some that he didn’t. Sadly, many of the chestnut contra tunes and most square dance tunes were in that category. As a Southern fiddler he had never played in the flat keys, as that’s not part of most old-time Southern repertoire. He learned to eventually, but that ruled out tunes like Hull’s Victory.

It must be said that he did much better at learning our repertoire than we did at learning his. We learned a few tunes from his Southern repertoire, but he must have cringed when he heard us play them. Most of the band had little background in that style and played the tunes like New England tunes.

Before Burt joined the band we may have been one of the only bands where the bass player took the lead in choosing tunes. He did so in consultation with other band members, but really Dave was the one who made sure we chose tunes and were ready with a set when the caller was ready to call the next dance. After Burt joined the band he took a much more active role in coming up with sets.

Quite a bit of our repertoire dropped out at that time because Burt didn’t play the tunes. But lacking people to play Southern tunes with, he started getting interested in Cape Breton and Irish music, and brought in quite a large range of tunes over the years. In addition to repertoire, Burt was a very strong fiddler and his style had a major effect on the band sound. Regardless of what he was playing, Burt was an old-time Southern fiddler. His bowing and timing remained strongly Southern-influenced even when he played other types of music. I always enjoyed hearing him play Cape Breton tunes with a Southern accent — although not what some people wanted to hear I always thought it was a great combination. Likewise his New England tunes had somewhat of a Southern accent.

Overall I think it’s fair to say that between repertoire changes, stylistic changes, the strength of his playing and the degree to which he took on a leadership role, it’s reasonable to consider his joining the band a major dividing point in the band’s history, and I think he had a major positive effect on our playing and our overall sound.

The First Thursday Dance in Dover