Parts of this section are based on a four-part series of articles I wrote in the Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter, May–August 1993. I did major revision, addition and editing in Spring, 2020.
Important note: Much of the second page of this section will make more sense if read this page.
In the pages on Change & Preservation I looked at aspects of New England country dance and related traditions that changed, and aspects that remained fairly constant over a period of about 125 years, with an emphasis on what’s happened over the past 60–75 years. I covered it as a natural phenomenon (even if one in which I have been heavily involved for over 40 years) from the perspective of a behavioral psychologist, using concepts from behavioral psychology and some related evolutionary concepts.
In this section I want to look more specifically at the phenomenon of passing on the tradition from one generation to another. I use the concept of generation loosely in that I generally include instances of passing on the tradition from someone with reasonably extensive involvement in the tradition to someone who is relatively new to the tradition, even if both are roughly the same age.
I continue to use concepts like selection, variability and reinforcement, so some of it will be easier to follow if you read the Change & Preservation I page first.
In the first section of the Change & Preservation I page I gave a couple examples that are relevant here. I mentioned how when I called in Dover I would think about how 40-75 years earlier there were dances in the same hall. I knew some of the callers and musicians who did those dances, and I thought about how we did some of the same dances in the same hall to the same tunes up to 75 years later. When we do the Durham dance the connection is even stronger because many of the dances that I call I remember dancing at that dance over 40 years ago.
There was a lot going on in both settings, but one thing they shared is that in both cases the country dance tradition was being passed on from one generation to another. Let's start with the most obvious question: what does it mean to pass on a tradition? There are a number of aspects to it, and various ways of categorizing what happens. In the next section we will look at some of these issues.
Earlier I’ve used a couple examples involving the passing of traditions from one generation to another. There was a lot going on in both settings, but one thing they shared is that in both cases the country dance tradition was being passed on from one generation to another. Let's start with the most obvious question: what does it mean to pass on a tradition? There are a number of aspects to it, and various ways of categorizing what happens. To (hopefully) make this easier to read I will use a pseudo-outline form to present the material of this section.
What is being passed on? I think there are two basic classes of information being passed on, although they are probably dependent on each other. Note: There are other ways of categorizing this but as a behavioral psychologist this seems most useful for my purposes.
How is the tradition passed on? In addition to what is passed on, the details of how the transmission occurs can be important.
Degree of Change. There are certainly plenty of examples of traditions being passed on with very little change over long periods of time. Other aspects of a tradition may be passed on incompletely or with less accuracy, so that after a while there are changes that might make it nearly unrecognizable to someone of a previous generation.
In the next section we'll look at some of the variables that affect how much a tradition changes when it's passed on, and look at how they can be accounted for at least in part by the type of feedback (reinforcement and punishment) given for different aspects of the tradition and different ways of passing it on.
In this section we’ll look at some examples of the tradition being passed directly from one generation to another. I’ll try to relate it to the material in the last section which looked at what aspects of a tradition are passed on and how. I will use the behavioral approach to try to explain at least some of the differences we see in how much a tradition changes depending on what is passed on and how.
Individual, Generational & Cultural Factors. These factors can be very influential in the passing on of a tradition. For example, callers tend to be much less directive about style now than fifty years ago. Dancers may have been influenced by other, often newer, forms of music and dancing that are popular now or within the past few decades. Now musicians are more likely to learn from recordings and sheet music whereas it used to be that learning from another fiddler would have been much more common. These aren't necessarily inexplicable through behavioral principles, but the explanations would be considerably more complex and I don't think this is the place to try to do it.
The following examples vary in how directly and explicitly the tradition is being passed on, and we’ll look at differences between calling, playing music and dancing in how traditions are passed on.
The Written Tradition. Information that is written down is likely to be passed on relatively unchanged because it’s right there for reference. Thus, fiddle tunes written down a few hundred years ago are often played with only minor melodic changes over that time. For those with good reading skills there is immediate feedback available when learning from written music. A good sight reader should see that a phrase was played correctly or incorrectly. This sets up a selection process in the form of reinforcement for playing the phrase correctly or punishment for playing it incorrectly.
But written notation doesn’t give us all that much information (feedback) about the style of playing, ornamentation, melodic variation and many other aspects of the music that affect the overall sound. So a fiddler from as recently as fifty years ago might find the way a tune is played now to be quite foreign. Also important, not all fiddlers read music, and many fiddlers who do prefer to learn in part or entirely by ear. That can result in changes being introduced to a tune that's widely available in written form. And finally, even those who learn from written music may play a tune differently out of personal preference.
Direct & Planned Passing of Traditions. Direct passing of information from one person to another gives lots of opportunity for feedback, so it’s likely that aspects of the tradition will be passed on with relatively little change. This is most true if done on a one-to-one basis but is also true in many group settings.
Let’s start with some examples of very direct, deliberate transmission of aspects of the tradition from one generation to another. Note that some of them involve transfer between people of the same generation with differing degrees of expertise/experience. For most purposes there’s no important difference here other than issues related to generational differences.
The Music & Dance Camp Setting. One of the most structured and well-planned examples of passing on a tradition is what happens at music and dance camps. Besides the obvious purpose of going to have fun, there will generally be classes during the day, and campers often play for the evening dance as part (or even most) of the band.
Classes often involve teaching tunes, technique and ornamentation. During the class the teacher generally listens carefully to what campers are doing, and even in a fairly large class a good teacher can hear that someone is making a mistake or not quite getting an ornament, even if it’s not clear who. That allows an opportunity to clarify the problem area. There are plenty of opportunities to ask questions which again allows for correcting errors and misunderstandings. From a behavioral perspective this means there is fairly extensive feedback which acts as reinforcement (selects) for doing what was taught and sometimes as punishment for doing something different. The tradition is probably passed on fairly accurately here due to the feedback, but with a few possible exceptions which have mostly been mentioned previously. The personal style of the individual will affect one’s playing. How well the teacher knows the tradition and knows how to teach will have an effect. What aspect of the music gets the attention of the instructor has an effect; if the teacher provides feedback mainly with respect to melody, stylistic aspects of playing won’t be learned very much.
The Camp vs. the Town Hall Dance. One final issue applies in particular to the camp environment. It can be rather different from a regular dance setting so what is taught sometimes doesn’t reflect real-world music and dance all that well. A potential result of this is changing and even distorting a tradition. For example, if many people learn to call in a camp setting where people often like, expect and can dance very complex dances, that could lead to an influx of callers who prefer to call more than usually complex dances. On the musical side of things, especially in advanced classes many teachers take advantage of campers' abilities to teach very complex and difficult tunes. While many campers like to learn these tunes, they're often not tunes that are optimal as dance tunes, but that's not always made clear.
One interesting change over the years has been in how we describe the dances we attend. Dudley talks about how when he started dancing, people would just say they were “going to the dance”. There weren’t many other kinds of dancing in existence yet, especially in rural New Hampshire, so there was no need to be specific. There was a dance in the local town hall or grange hall. Chances are pretty good that in New Hampshire they danced a mixture of squares, contras, the Virginia Reel, waltzes, polkas and other round dances.
Later on other kinds of dancing came into existence or became more popular, and it was necessary to make a distinction. Now you would have said you were going to a square dance, as opposed to a rock and roll dance or whatever else. They still danced contras, squares and couples dances, although the balance between them varying with location and over time. In Maine they generally danced contras whereas in western Massachusetts they dance a lot of singing squares.
More recently people have been saying they were going to the contradance. In correspondence with David Millstone I learned that the use of the word “contradance” to describe an evening of dancing appears to have originated with Larry Jennings in connection with dances leading up to the start of the NEFFA Contra series from 1973 to 1975. It’s certainly possible that it was used informally in that context before that. When I started dancing in the late 1970s people were emphatic that they were doing contradancing because square dancing brought up associations with Western square dancing and their dress styles. Nevertheless, we still danced contras, squares, waltzes, polkas and other round dances (now called couples dances). Overall it appears the name of the dance has changed more than the composition of the dances.
The previous section looked at situations in which the passing of traditions was done directly and often in a planned fashion. Here we look at settings in which traditions are passed on less directly and in a less planned fashion. We also consider the issue ow important it is to pass on the tradition accurately (unchanged). And finally we look at how the dancing is passed on.
Less Direct Transfer. My own experience learning to call and much of my experience learning to play involved less direct and less explicit teaching. I learned a lot about calling from Phil Johnson, Dudley Laufman and Tod Whittemore. Let’s look at how I learned from Phil. Most of it came from listening to him call and dancing to his calling years before I started calling, and later trying to call the dance myself. I was never a student of his and he rarely explicitly tried to teach me. As I describe in the page about Phil (Dancing in the 1940s and 1950s), I learned a lot from him in a couple conversations about dancing. But those weren’t explicitly teaching sessions.
Here there was much less opportunity for reinforcement. There were others around who had danced to Phil more than I had and could give me feedback, but again it was indirect and less accurate than if I’d received feedback from Phil. So there was much more room for error in transmission. Having heard recordings of him calling, I know that my calling of the two dances I learned the most about from dancing to Phil (My Little Girl and Crooked Stovepipe) bears at least a recognizable resemblance to how he called it.
Sitting in With the Band. Another situation with relatively little feedback which is important is playing for a dance as a sit-in musician. This could be at a public dance if the band allows sit-in musicians, or it could be at a music and dance camp where the band for the evening dance often allows sit-in musicians. For example, at Maine Fiddle Camp there are often more sit-in musicians than there are staff musicians. Playing at a jam session is often similarly useful. Generally at a dance the band/staff musicians are busy playing for the dance and don't have much opportunity to give feedback on how a sit-in musician is doing. There's lots of other feedback inherent in the situation. We can get some feedback about how we’re doing by listening to ourselves play and by whether or not we’re able to keep up with the music; but it’s pretty crude.
Learning tunes in such settings often results in not getting all the details of a tune, and possibly in making up something to fill in the gaps. On the other hand, the experience of playing in that setting helps musicians learn many aspects of what it means to be a dance musician. In addition to the playing aspect there are things like choosing tunes, being ready when the caller wants the band to start playing, and more.
This raises the issue that there may be many things to be learned in a particular setting. Some of them may produce feedback which facilitates effective or accurate learning, whereas other skills my be learned less effectively or accurately in the same setting. Thus, the sit-in experience is likely to be very useful for learning general dance musicianship skills, but much less so for accurate learning of a tune. Depending on what an individual values, this could result in some people saying that sitting in with the band is a very useful experience while others might say it's less useful.
Reinforcement for Accuracy of Transmission. Passing on a tradition unchanged matters for some aspects of the tradition more than for others. As it's a living tradition, it's beneficial to allow for changes to occur in many settings. There is likely to be more reinforcement for learning accurately when it matters to the people passing it on. For example, if a caller were to teach a figure as half rights and lefts when it's supposed to be half ladies chain, that would leave the gents on the wrong side of the set for the next figure. In cases like that, depending on the details the error is likely to be discovered either during the walkthrough or as soon as dancing starts when the dance just doesn’t work. The feedback is immediate and fairly strong, and the caller is likely to correct the problem before calling the dance again.
Other errors are less critical and may not be discovered for years. The dance Broken Sixpence starts with three do-si-dos: with the one below, two gents, and two ladies. I learned it from someone who reversed the two gents do-si-do and the two ladies do-si-do. That has no significant effect on the dance, and it was years before I realized what was going on. In a musical example, if you learn the ornamentation to a tune incorrectly/differently, or don’t learn it at all, it makes some difference to the way your fiddling sounds, but it’s still going to work just fine. If a story is told in a music class there’s very little consequence to remembering or forgetting it, so it often isn’t remembered, or is remembered partially or even incorrectly.
Passing on the Dancing. The passing on of actual dancing is interesting because it always involves some explicit teaching by the caller, but also a lot of learning by observation of other dancers who aren’t trying to teach, and sometimes teaching by other dancers. New dancers have to learn the figures of a dance and how they fit together. They have to learn some basic technique (e.g. how to swing, how not to bounce), and they have to learn something about dance style in order to dance well and not stick out as beginners. So a lot of the teaching is fairly informal and less systematic than with learning to call or play music. Therefore it's perhaps not surprising that dance styles change substantially over time, and also vary considerably from one community to another. Dudley Laufman has commented that in the days when people didn't get around quite as much you could tell what town people were from by observing their dance styles. That's much less true now, but there are still very pronounced regional differences in dance style.
In the next section we’ll look at some of the changes that have occurred in dancing and dance culture over the years, and at some of the variables responsible for those changes.
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