The Old-Time Herald Volume 6, Number 1

Dance Beat

A Visit With Mark Gunther of the Chicago Barn Dance Company

Edited interview by Dot Kent

Old-time music has many moods; not all of it is dance music. Some of my favorite musicians play haunting tunes and sing ballads so archaic yet grippingly immediate that I sit entranced in response. The jam session, whether one of head-to-head intense precision or a large circle blending the varying strengths of its members, joins players in a joyous fusion that has nothing to do with dancing. There is another way of playing old-time music that is intertwined with the movement of dancers: that's the kind of playing I most associate with Mark Gunther of the Chicago Barn Dance Company. Mark has been playing for dances in Chicago and elsewhere for 20 years. He is attentive to the structure and figures of the dances called and is aware, too, of the dancers' level of connection with the music his band is making. Mark watches as he plays, and listens for the sound of the dancers feet against the floor

I wanted to know more about how Mark had become so devoted to the Chicago Barn Dance Company, not only as a fiddler, but as the President of the organization who, for many years, booked the dances, wrote the flyers, got grant funding, arranged the venues, bought, stored, hauled and ran the sound system, fielded inquiries, arranged dances for private social gatherings ("hire outs") and took care of pretty much whatever needed doing. I was also interested in exploring Mark's strongly held opinions about the revival square- and contra-dance scene. I visited Mark at home, bringing with me a bunch of questions and a tape recorder, and we had a long talk about the early days of the CBDC, how he felt about the way the dances have changed over the last 20 years, and about his own history as an old-time musician and dancer.

Mark grew up listening to recorded folk music, and started playing banjo as a teenager. He went to college at Columbia where his "main music buddy" was Bill Garbus. "He played the fiddle, I played the banjo, and I haven't had so much fun playing since that time. There was a circle of friends, New Yorkers, who had an interest or obsession with old-time music; some were collectors, some were players, some were both. Going to festivals and geezerology was a big part of their trip. The main old-time music that I'd listened to prior to hanging out with these New York friends was the New Lost City Ramblers so geezerology just seemed normal to me. By geezerology I don't mean the same thing that frustrated rock and roll guys mean when they disdain dead and dying fiddlers. I mean that the whole lifeways was a subject of interest, was relevant, fun, cool, and part of the experience. We took it to extremes and tried to drink like our mentors. I don't think I'm interested in corn whiskey right now, but I was real interested in it for a long time. I chewed tobacco for a couple of years. To us, at the time, it just seemed normal. I had a borsalino kind of hat I wore all the time and together with my fiddle case it was a joke. I was really lucky when I finally lost that stupid hat.

"In 1972 or '73 I was dragged to Pinewoods [a music and dance camp in Massachusetts] by Billy Garbus. There I had my first experiences actually trying to dance and I was very lucky. I easily could have been discouraged into being the kind of guy who just sits on his ass and never dances and never tries, but there was something about the individuals who were there and the CDSS (Country Dance and Song Society) style of teaching that made it very easy and fun for me. To be encouraged at that time, to be taken step by step, really helped me. My first experiences were not only southern mountain square dancing and New England contra dancing, but also English country dancing. They taught the dance and they used the music as the cue for the dance and so the movement and the tune were extremely strongly associated in my mind."

Returning home for the University of Chicago Folk Festival, Mark met Armin Barnett. "He and I instantly hit it off. I spent the summer after college living with him on his farmlike property in Virginia, chewing tobacco, drinking whiskey, wearing a floppy hat and looking for oldsters. Armin had fallen under the influence of Frank George, West Virginia's premier fiddle and banjo player. He was Armin's personal oldster, and I adopted him as mine. At that time Frank was younger than I am now. I go over there at least once a year and spend a couple of days with Jane and Frank. We sit around and tell jokes and talk about personalities and history and try to make wise comments. We listen to music together, and we may or may not take out an instrument and just scratch out part of a tune or something. It's almost all talk.

"Jane, Frank's wife, was an extremely active dancer and dance teacher at the time they met, so the Frank and Jane trip is heavily dance oriented. Frank grew up playing for dances and was influenced by fiddlers who spent their whole lives playing for dances. He had a lot to say about the dances of his childhood, I wish I could remember it all. One thing he said was that there was no excessive speed; when he was a kid he could follow the best fiddlers very comfortably on the banjo because the pace was relaxed. The other thing I remember Frank saying about those dances was that it was not very noisy. What you heard at the dance was unamplified music, the shuffling of feet, and the caller giving instructions in a conversational tone of voice, not shouting, and you certainly didn't hear any hand or vocal noise."

I asked Mark about the formation of the Chicago Barn Dance Company and the origin of that name. He told me that revival square and contra dancing were brought to Chicago by Fred Feild, who came to study violin-making in 1977 and started a one-man dance organization originally entitled "Joy of Movement." Mark expresses tremendous respect for Fred Feild's talents and insight.

"It seemed that Fred could see through the surface into the soul of an enterprise that he was interested in: as a caller, as a player, as a woodworker. When he turned his attention to something he managed to summon great powers of concentration so that he could accomplish something that was beyond what most other people could do. He was, in a quiet, humble and unassuming way, kind of a natural leader. He was interested in obscure or bygone lifeways and in homemade music and homemade entertainment. In other parts of the country he had seen the revival of once popular, now rare rural-type community dances with live acoustic string music. At that time, the closest thing in Chicago was the modern western square-dance clubs, which didn't fill the bill because of their relatively non-folk nature" [using recorded non-traditional music, nationally standardized calls and dance figures, and requiring series of lessons as a pre-requisite to participation]. When Mark and others persuaded Fred to adopt a more descriptive name than Joy of Movement, he chose Chicago Barn Dance Company to distinguish his events from the modern western square dances.

As Mark recalls, "Fred was the publicist, caller, organizer, and sometimes the musician as well. His first dances were under very modest circumstances on sidewalks with bystanders roped in to fill out a square. They were planned one at a time, publicized by telephone networking and by hand-scrawled mimeographed notices stuck up on lampposts in Uptown [a neighborhood in Chicago with a transplanted Appalachian community]. Fred was a bit evangelical and wanted to expose a lot of people to old-time music, and to traditional square and contra dances. Part of his idea was to use dance figures that were very accessible to anyone who took enough interest to look at it on the sidewalk. He didn't have to do much adaptation to traditional square dances, and the contra dances of New England, such as they were at that time, were indeed pretty easy to learn. Fred was an able caller of contras, and he was a good leader for the type of squares that we did back then, though he never did develop much of a patter. He had a few little rhymes that he used, but his self-description was ïdead-pan.'

"Compared to now, the choreography was a lot more straightforward„sort of self-explanatory to a degree, simple and broad, so that folks could learn it much more easily than at the Chicago Barn Dance Company of today. A beginner could learn the movements and not have to concentrate too much, not have to worry about it, and instead could relax and let the music affect him. And I would say that the average beginner in 1979-81 was a better dancer on her very first day than the average self-styled expert is today, because back then they naturally found themselves walking in time to the music. Whereas nowadays, there's much more emphasis on other aspects of the experience.

"One of Fred's influences was a thriving, very rustically flavored dance community in Bloomington, Indiana, and it was from that community that the Chicago Barn Dance Company core dancers derived their style in the late "70s and early '80s. Until 1979, if you wanted to go to a decent contra or square dance of the old-time type, Bloomington was the nearest place. The Bloomington dance community was related to the Folklore Program at Indiana University. People who knew a lot about a lot of aspects of traditional American culture had congregated there. Tune collecting was a big deal in Bloomington„they learned from favorite older Indiana fiddlers including Strawberry McCloud and Lotus Dickey. In Bloomington, in fact, they'd use music that didn't even fit; and the dancers were good enough that they compensated and made it better instead of worse.

"They had a wonderful way of moving. Their posture and their style of movement was both individual and regional, and was probably mostly derived from very traditional New England sources. It was kind of a stride I used to think of it as the Bloomington stride. In our dancing at that time, the basic movement was walking to music. If you can walk to music you are dancing. But it was a special walk, and everybody had their own special walk, some of it was stupid but a lot of it was really graceful. That posture and movement is now gone from Chicago.

"Other features of regional style and unique characteristics: we balanced on the left (as was done in Bloomington). They, in turn, derived it from a traditional dance community in New England„an isolated place where they balanced on the left„whereas the rest of the world balanced on the right. And we had a couple of other things that were from New England, partly directly and partly via Bloomington. For a right and left over and back, we never took hands and never gave a courtesy turn, we used an arm around the waist like casting off, each dancer putting the arm around the waist of the other symmetrically, whether it was proper or improper. We had of course the use of traditional straightforward old-fashioned contra dances, some proper dances and some triple minor dances."

I asked Mark what happened when Al Olson showed up. Al is a prolific choreographer of so-called "zesty" contra dances who moved from Boston to his native Chicago in the early '80s. Did he have an abrupt influence?

"Al Olson helped to provide some of the technology for the changes in contra dance choreography and associated changes in the whole way of having fun," Mark responded. "But I think it would have happened without Al. It's inherent in the contra dance form. You add traditional contra dances and television together and you come up with modern contra dances. By television, I mean rapid editing, fast moving, constant stimulation, ever faster and faster and more and more exciting and loud and gaudy, and superficial and artificial."

I asked Mark about the music and the musicians who played for the dances. "In the very beginning, the musicians were mostly people who had a slight background in old-time music," he said, "including some of the guys from the violin school who could play a little bit and knew a couple of dance tunes. Most of their exposure had been to southern style old-time music, and there is a subset of regular tunes that is structurally very similar to New England contra dance music, with similar rhythm and phrasing, that served quite well for contra dances." Because of the uncertain instrumentation and playing abilities of those who would show up, Mark chose to dance more often than play. Later he was able to persuade Fred to allow him to organize a band and pre-program the playing and calling for the whole dance.

At the early dances the live music was unamplified and informal, no admission was charged, and the dancers, musicians and callers created mutual entertainment for one another. From a sidewalk at Truman College and the Jane Addams Center (also in Chicago), the dances moved to the basement of a Quaker church in nearby Evanston in 1978, and then to the wooden floor of the cafeteria/auditorium of the Esperanza School west of downtown Chicago in the spring of 1979. By late 1979 Mark was booking core bands with designated callers. That winter a sound system and a $1 charge for dancers were added. Around this time dances in the far west and far north reaches of the metropolitan area, at Fermilab near Batavia and in Libertyville, were initiated with Fred and Mark providing calling, music, and inspiration. By late 1980, the Saturday night Esperanza attendance of up to 100 crowded the floor, and a bi-weekly Tuesday night dance was added. Fred began to withdraw from these dances, and was replaced by Masha Goodman as the main caller.

By 1981, Fred and Mark, as Artists in Residence, were bringing traditional dance, song, tunes and clogging to Chicago public schools and community centers, and they were hired by social and corporate groups to provide entertainment under the Chicago Barn Dance Company name. Grant support from the Illinois Arts Council and from the National Endowment for the Arts provided stable payment for musicians and callers and later enabled a "fishnet" dance series for fledgling musicians and callers.

The weekly Monday night series was initiated at Holstein's Pub in Chicago in March 1981, with Mark Gunther leading the bands and Masha Goodman doing most of the calling. She left town the next year, at which time Eric Zorn became the main caller for the Chicago dances. The Monday night dance moved to larger quarters at the Old Town School of Folk Music in 1983 (the year Fred Feild moved away), and saw a gradually growing cadre of callers. Mark played with a variety of musical back-up: old-time string band (most notably The Polecats with Fred Campeau on banjo, John Terr on guitar, Chirps Smith on mandolin and Tony Scarimbolo on bass), a New England style band (Mole in the Ground), and also a traditional midwestern combination of fiddle and piano with Patt Plunkett.

At Chicago dances, musicians, not callers, determined the selection of tune and tempo for a particular dance. I believe this reflects Mark's influence and I asked him how it came about.

"I remember the first dance Fred Feild ever called--he wanted to play the ïCincinnati Hornpipe' for a dance of that name, but the band didn't know the tune. He tried to teach it to them on the spot and that was very boring for everyone involved, especially the dancers. I could tell that it would have been much better had he asked the band to play a tune that they could handle and let the dancers begin to dance the dance he had just spent half an hour teaching them. Many times when a caller has requested a tune from me, he's requested a tune that the band could not bring off as well as they could a familiar tune.

"When I'm picking a tune for a dance, tempo comes first. The type of dance movement we have for square and contra dancing is a walking step, so the tempo of the music is the tempo of walking. The situations from which our early dance repertoire was derived were traditional dance communities mostly in Appalachia and New England, and to a lesser extent Missouri and other places. These communities normally just did one kind of dance, so they had the same type of figure and the same tempo of music all night long. Here in Chicago and in other places with ïrevival' scenes, we had a variety of sources and did a variety of dances, and, in my opinion, those were best served by some variety in tempo as well. For instance, we had some very simple southern squares structured on the visit, and those are best served by a quick tempo, a brisk walk that borders on even breaking into a little trot. One couple visits the others for good portions of the dance and the other two couples are resting; so it's like a burst of speed and then a rest (to me that's light and shadow, and that's good, as contrasted with never-ending, super-fast, constant hyperactivity).

"Another kind of square that we do is drawn on New England squares, another is drawn on the early Western squares. The New England and Western squares are similar and they call for a more relaxed tempo. For the connection between sound and movement to be fullest with that figure, the symmetrical square, you've got to phrase it phrase your figure and phrase your music and that calls for a slower tempo, like the normal tempo of walking. New England contra dances, the way I grew up with them, were done at a walk, a special walk, but a walk, it wasn't a run. A current Chicago pronouncement on tempo is that it should be as fast as possible without missing your step. I have a completely different view of it.

"The callers that I played with in the formative, and to me the most fun, years of the Chicago Barn Dance Company were people who had much less experience doing what they were doing than I had doing what I was doing; much less background. I gave them guidance; I told them what to call, I even told them how to call; I told them how to teach; they learned at my feet, to some extent . . . eventually various callers and musicians rebelled against that."

Mark talked about George Lowrey, an Urbana, Illinois caller and dance leader who had started calling in Texas in the 1950s. "I was ready and willing to do anything for him because he knew what he was doing. George was broad-minded and very patient, he was the first adult I ever played for. He came up to Chicago perhaps half a dozen times, and The Polecats did a road trip with him when he was dying of cancer in 1985.

"I've done road trips of various dimensions. In '82 and '83, I spent each summer on the road playing square dances and a few other jobs. That was during a five or six year period when I was attempting to make my living as a musician. I was in my element at that time. I don't think I would enjoy them so much now, but at that time I loved sleeping on couches; I would as soon sleep on a couch as on a bed."

We talked about how the dances have changed, but also how we've changed with the passing of time, how what was relished as a "physically vigorous style" in the '80s seems transformed to "physical insensitivity on the dance floor." How much of the change is real and how much is a change in perspective? Mark readily admits that he "only began to appreciate the destructiveness of elitism in dancing when the demographic changes occurred and they were no longer my friends and I was outside and could see it." The importance of simple straightforward dances has become clearer over time, and their loss more distressing. According to Mark, "with the shift in focus from the community to the individual has come a hidden reduction in the role of music. Physical response to music has been mostly replaced by lip service. Of course there's nothing wrong with writing new dances. Fred Feild's ïSymmetrical Force' and Tony Parkes' ïShadrack's Delight' are far better than the majority of contra dances new and old. The problem rests in how and to whom the choreography is applied. The Midwest now boasts many a caller who knows little and cares less about dancers' physical response to music, whose entire background and perspective fit in a box of index cards."

For the past 10 years or so Mark has practiced medicine and has gradually transferred much of the work of running the Chicago Barn Dance Company to a committee of volunteers. In 1995, Mark developed cancer which accelerated his withdrawal from organizational tasks. People are always asking me about Mark's health, and I'm happy to report that his latest tests show no detectable tumor.

Mark still runs the Esperanza dances and plays at the Fermilab dances near Batavia as well. The Monday night dance has moved several times and is now held at The Abbey Pub in Chicago. The Libertyville dances continue and there is a monthly dance in Evanston. A related, but non-CBDC dance is held monthly at Jerry Ronneau's converted horse barn in Valparaiso, Indiana. Constantly emerging new combinations of musicians play for the dances, sometimes integrating local stars of Irish and Bluegrass genres. Rhys Jones, who grew up attending Chicago Barn Dances with his parents, now plays fiddle with other fine younger players as well as with his aging mentors, and he has been calling dances as well.

Musicians and callers continue to provide entertainment for hire to community and private groups. The house party at Mark Ritchie's family home in rural Kane County in November 1978, dubbed "Breaking Up Thanksgiving" has grown to an annual gathering of old-time dancers, musicians and callers from throughout the Midwest and beyond, now held at a camp north of Chicago, near Volo.

The Chicago Barn Dance Company still strives to present old-fashioned traditional (and not so traditional), fun and sociable dancing to live music with no costume, partner or experience necessary to participate. Contras, squares, circle mixers and running sets are combined in an evening, with a waltz to conclude. So, if you find yourself in Chicagoland, get yourself a partner, and come out on the floor. For more information, see the Chicago Barn Dance Company website at or call me at (847)223-6993.

Mark's fiddling can be heard on the Rush McAllister's CD Bar Clogging in St. Louis Rivertown Records, PO Box 31546, St. Louis, MO 63133; 314-721-6168. Reviewed in OTH vol. 5 no. 5.

<<<Return to 6-1 Index

The Old Time Herald PO Box 61679• Durham, NC • 27715-1679
Phone (919) 286-2041