In This Section & On This Page
Experiencing History: Looking at People Passing on & Modifying the Dance Traditions
For more than 25 years the Lamprey River Band did a monthly dance in the Dover City Hall. I would often look out at the dance floor and think about how if we could go back to the dance hall of about 1945 to 1955 we might have seen musicians playing many of the same tunes that we played there, dancers dancing many of the dances we still dance today to callers using very similar calls and very similar calling styles; and in some cases people would be dancing dances to the same tunes we use for them today.
One reason I have always enjoyed contra and square dancing is the way it gives us a direct connection with our history. It’s not something you read about in a book; rather, it’s something we experience personally on a regular basis. It’s a living tradition: we can look at how it’s changed over the years, as well as aspects that have remained fairly constant. We can also watch it continue to develop.
This is especially true dancing in New Hampshire, where there is such a long tradition of country dance. In Nelson the sense of history can be even greater; there is a largely unbroken dance tradition in the Nelson Town Hall going back over 200 years.
It’s certainly been more popular at some times than at others, and has had periods of fading out to the point where there are discontinuities in the tradition. But these breaks have never been complete; there are always people who used to be actively involved who stopped doing it due to lack of public interest. But when interest picks up again they’re still here, and they give us continuity with the past.
Newt Tolman was a flute player from Nelson, and he used to play for town dances in the early 1900s. There was a period in which the dancing was considerably less popular in the mid 1900s. I remember reading a comment by Newt Tolman to the effect that he never thought he’d hear the old fiddle tunes played by a country dance orchestra again until he became part of the revival led by Dudley Laufman and the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra in the 1970s.
Newt was far from the only one to experience that. Don Roy is an outstanding fiddler from Gorham Maine who has been on staff at Maine Fiddle Camp for years. He learned from his uncle Lucien Mathieu, and they used to play together as part of the Maine French Fiddlers. One year Don tried to get Lucien to go to Fiddle Camp. Lucien was skeptical — he didn’t think anyone would be interested in hearing him play. Well, he got to camp, and there were over 300 fiddlers there of all ages, and he was received with great enthusiasm. After that he didn’t miss a year of camp as long as his health allowed him to go.
I didn’t know Newt, but I was lucky enough to get to know Lucien, to play with him in jam sessions, and even to take some classes from him at Fiddle Camp. It was an amazing experience to be learning from the person who taught Don so much, and who had played for dances and soirées since before I was born.
I’ve been lucky enough to know, dance to, play music with and learn from several others who helped bring continuity to the tradition. There’s Bob McQuillen, Milt Appleby, Marcel Robidas, Phil Johnson, George Hodgson, Ralph Page, Harold Luce and Dudley Laufman (who is still very much alive and active in the dance), and undoubtedly others. In this section we’ll look in more detail at a couple of the old-time musicians and callers who helped to pass on the older traditions, and we’ll look at how they may have changed the traditions as they passed them on.