The Old-Time Herald Volume 7, Number 1

Dance Beat

My Life and Times in Contradance Music

by Donna Hebert

This is about playing music together, playing for dancing, and the titanic energy it stirs up. There’s plenty of gossip but mostly, it’s about those jigs and reels and waltzes and what effect they have on us—musician, dancer, listener.—D.H.

When I first entered school, I remember how the teachers stopped my tapping foot, and how it would come creeping back as the music in me got too insistent to be contained by my body. My mother, Mary Margaret Belair Blair (her parents were fourth cousins), sang with me almost daily until I was five. I knew "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" as a lullaby. She favored Gene Autry and the Western Swing/Cowboy songs of the ‘30s and ‘40s and played tenor banjo in a cowgirl duet with her sister Theresa on guitar and harmony, so her vocal repertoire centered on Western songs. Then there were the tunes, from her father, who was a fine mandolin player. He’d lost an eye in 1916 in France to mustard gas. Grampa knew a lot of old-time tunes, like "Golden Slippers" and "St. Anne’s Reel," and he’d sing "Les Fraises et les Framboises," a French chanson " boi boire (drinking song), and my grandmother sang "Un Canadien Errant."

As a kid growing up in the 1950s in a Franco-American family, I recall kitchen soir"es aes at my grandparents’ home in Jericho, VT. Mom played tenor banjo, two uncles (brothers Chick & Fred Commo) fiddled, my grandfather Arthur Blair played a Gibson A-model mandolin, Uncle Ernie played piano accordion, plus there were guitars and a piano. As a young kid, I heard music at home and whenever my mother’s family gathered. When I began violin lessons in school, the music was classical and had little connection to the reels and songs I’d heard at home (except that I somehow couldn’t be coaxed out of tapping my foot!). Through junior and senior high, I was involved in school orchestra, later added viola, and started messing around on guitar.

Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra

In 1967, my classmate Doug Cox (today a fine violin maker in Brattleboro VT) had a Summer Solstice party at his family farm in Plaistow, NH. Dudley Laufman, dancing master, from Canterbury, NH came and called dances in Doug’s barn, with Alan Block fiddling. Doug got out his flute and played along, and we danced until we were exhausted. When I ran into Dudley again five years later at contradances in Concord, MA, he remembered me. At one of Dudley’s Sunday afternoon Concord Scout House dances he invited me to play the extra fiddle he had in his car, and I took up playing again, this time with a repertoire of contradance tunes.

I was hooked for sure. Right down the rabbit hole. Gone. Still there. Obsessed with the swivel-hipped lady and the music people dance to. Got my own music inside my head, always have, even as a kid, and those teachers didn’t have a hope anywhere of stoppin’ it.

I found a serviceable violin in an antique shop for $17 and strung it up. I bought my own copies of the Country Dance Manuals published by the English Country Dance & Folk Song Society, The Nelson Collection (Newt Tolman and Kay Gilbert), and M.M. Cole’s 1000 Fiddle Tunes. I threw myself into fiddle music, I played in every free moment, trying to whip my rusty chops into shape so could I bury myself in the middle of the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra and not get lost. So much better than high school orchestra ever was, this music really moved! From one bar of music to the next, there was a bounce, a jump necessary with both hands that I’d never seen or experienced before. Until then I’d also never consistently played at 120 beats/minute. Whew! Playing for dances takes music muscles. It took a while to build up to playing a whole night’s dance, no matter how much I practiced.

Dudley welcomed lead players as sit-ins. Only one bass and piano player to a band, and not many horn players showed up, an occasional flute player like Larry Delorier. Fiddlers by the dozen played with Dudley—Alan Block, Jack Perron, Ken Seigel, Nick Howe, Ted Levin, April Limber, Randy Miller, plus guitarist Arthur Bryan, whistler and flute player and tune composer Sarah Bauhan, and accordion player Dave Fuller. Some nights there were twenty musicians on stage, other nights only three or four. Those were the nights I could actually hear Alan Block instead of just watch him play, and they were a treat. He helped me a lot, was very generous with tunes, his time, and was in fact my first fiddle teacher, which is where I probably got the old-time part of my playing, that beat-pushing groove that makes everything swing when you hit it right. Alan has always had that fine swing to his playing, and I could have had no better mentor or example in my early struggle as a violinist trying to "cross over" to fiddle.

I realize now what a strain all us tyros must have put on the core players like Bob McQuillen, the pianist, and Alan, often the lead fiddler. They were seldom miked, and the sit-ins often far outnumbered them, yet they were unfailingly cheerful, helpful, and polite to us as we cut our teeth on tunes they’d been playing for years. On my rudimentary fiddle, I soon was able to scrape out the melody with a fair amount of accuracy and drive, with tone to come later. What really locked the groove into my head was watching Alan’s right arm, and trying to mimic his rhythms. Groove was an unknown quantity to me then, but I knew that Alan’s fiddling had lift, drive, and the rhythm, so I copied him. I remember the night I had a real playing breakthrough, playing "Maguinnis’s Delight" from Coles’ 1000 Fiddle Tunes, with one eye on the music and the other on Alan. I finally got his wrist movement accenting the offbeat with the bow, and I was so excited I never wanted to stop playing!

Sometimes we’d have Pete Colby on plectrum 5-string. A gunsmith and instrument maker who had worked for Martin Guitars, Pete made his own fine banjo and the autoharp he sometimes played. Rather than bluegrass or old-time style, Pete Colby flatpicked in a style that owed something to Irish lead tenor banjo, but was his own unique style, and his sound came ripping through those fiddles and set us a fair pace to match. He’s been gone for 10 years this December—an aneurism took him—and fiddler and lifelong friend April Limber, took her own life when Pete died. This provoked a community-wide response, as we all knew and missed them both.

Other influences

Listening to largely Northern-style fiddlers, from Canada, Ireland, Scotland, and New England, my own personal style took form. One of my first models was Aly Bain of the British group Boys of the Lough. His clean, precise, fiery, and resonant sound attracted me, as did the flourishing tone of Canadian Graham Townsend and the pyrotechnics of Irish master fiddler Sean Maguire. Then there were Louis Beaudoin of Burlington, VT, whose style was from Qu—bec,bec, and Acadian fiddler Gerry Robichaud of Waltham, MA, both wonderful friends and fiddlers who turned out to be major influences on my playing, along with Lisa Ornstein and her interpretations of Louis "Pitou" Boudreault’s music. Absorbing Lisa’s analysis of the syncopated rhythm patterns in French Canadian music was an important step for me in creating the Franco-American fiddling sound I have today. The Acadian style in which I play owes a great deal to Gerry Robichaud’s example and generosity with his music.

Duke Miller, a caller from upstate New York, called the summer dance in Fitzwilliam, NH for 20 years or so, ending in the late ’70s with his death. I played for him for three summers (’73-’75) with Bob McQuillen on accordion and later on piano. Duke, a lifelong caller and high-school football coach who’d gotten into Mainstream/Federation Square Dancing and calling, always called a few singing calls from the ’50s and early ’60s, like "Life on the Ocean Wave / First Two Ladies Cross Over, Smoke on the Water, Red River Valley," along with the classic contras like "Money Musk" (first dance after the break), "Rory O’More," "Petronella," "Hull’s Victory," and "Chorus Jig."

It was a fabulous community dance, run by Jim Kennedy and his family, held upstairs at the town hall. Families came to the dance every Saturday night during the summer, it was a tradition, and you didn’t miss it! The only drawback was that there were no screens at the windows, and owing to the plenitude of standing water in southern New Hampshire (there’s a reason they call the locals swamp yankees!), the mosquitos in Fitzwilliam are hardy, well-fed, and numerous. I once saw them pick up Bob McQuillen, four of them it took, and they just flew ‘im out the window, ‘cordion and all. Took three pints of blood to bring ‘im back when they found him in the puckabrush next doah at the fiah station. ‘Fraid they couldn’t save the ‘cordion . . . .

Boston Dancing

Multi-instrumentalist and class clown, Peter Barnes, brought his flute and his banjo to Fitzwilliam. At half time, when Bob stood up from the piano stool, Peter would sit down and we’d jam. After one session, I asked him if he was busy Tuesday nights. I’d just been asked to pull a band together for the new high octane Country Dance Society (CDS) dance. That band became Yankee Ingenuity the following year. We got our start playing for the Tuesday night dance for the Boston Centre of the CDS, with Tony Parkes and the late Ted Sannella calling. With great callers and the same band every week cookin’ it up good and hot, that dance mushroomed out of its home hall, and the dance moved to a cavernous gymnasium at the Brimmer and May School in Brookline, MA. It was hard to get the same "feeling" as we’d had at Hannum Hall (the YWCA) in Cambridge. The new place held 300 dancers easily, so even at 150 dancers it was half full/empty. The stage was 10 feet high. It was just too huge to comfortably create any intimacy or do sound reinforcement in, and after several years there, the dance shrunk and CDS went back to Hannum Hall.

After two years of playing for the Tuesday night CDS Square/Contra dance, Tony Parkes and I went independent with Yankee Ingenuity, establishing a Monday night contra and square dance in 1976 in Concord, still running today with Yankee Ingenuity. Tony and I also ran a Third Saturday dance and a Second Sunday dance for experienced dancers during the school year, and continued our weekly dance series through the summer. It worked out to six, and sometimes seven dances a month, plus Bicentennial dances. I’ve worked it out, and since 1972, I’ve played for more than 1,200 dances, often in the same halls. That’s a lot of hours with a fiddle under me chin. Makes for d’jà vjà vu bigtime. One night in Amherst, at the Munson Library, I swear I heard Pete Colby’s banjo when we swung into the Scots march, "Meeting of the Waters," though he’d been gone for at least five years.

About a year or two after Yankee Ingenuity left CDS and started up the Monday night dance at the Concord Scout House, Needham caller Tod Whittemore, who had been hired to call a Thursday night dance by CDS to handle the overflow from Tuesday night’s crowd, did the same thing and went independent. A yodeling caller with roots in the singing calls of Duke Miller, whose dances Tod’s family had attended regularly, Tod established a Thursday night contradance at the VFW Hall in Cambridge. Unlike our Monday Yankee Ingenuity dance, which had a "home" band and a caller and only occasionally featured other perfomers, Tod’s dance had a rotation of callers and musicians, at first from New England, and then later on from farther afield. Rodney Miller played a lot for him, with Peter Barnes, Russell Barenberg, and others, as did fiddlers Alan Block, Amy Richardson, Kerry Elkin, April Limber, and banjo player Pete Colby, with pianist Bob McQuillen. When Tod moved out to Montana, his dance was taken over by the New England Folk Festival Association’s Thursday Dance Committee, and continues year-round in the VFW with a rotation of bands and callers.

Yankee Ingenuity and the music

Yankee Ingenuity experimented a lot with the music. We took tunes from Ireland, Scotland, Qu’bec bec and New England, with various sorties into other dance traditions, returning with Swedish hambos, Southern breakdowns and rags, jazz and swing tunes. I founded the group with Tony Parkes on piano and calling, Peter Barnes on piano and flute/whistle, Jack O’Connor on tenor banjo and mandolin, and Henry Chapin on bass. Recording in 1977, Yankee Ingenuity: Kitchen Junket, was the first release on the Alcazar label.

Lots of folks, dancers, callers and musicians brought their tape recorders and left them on the stage at Yankee Ingenuity dances. We also recorded most of our dances in stereo with the band on one channel and the caller on the other directly from the sound system, which created a good quality cassette library of Yankee Ingenuity and guests from 1977Ø1984. It’s mostly Tony Parkes (calls and piano), with Peter Barnes (piano, synth, flute, whistle, harmonica), me on fiddle, Jack O’Connor (tenor banjo, mandolin), Cal Howard (bass), Joyce Desmarais Isen (hammered dulcimer/percussion), Mary Lea (fiddle), Russ Barenberg (guitar/mandolin), and Ruthie Dornfeld (fiddle). It’s great to have these cassettes now, since it helps me to remember the tunes! I gave one of these cassettes to Selma Kaplan once to have her learn some tune, and she ended up giving it to fiddler Jane Rothfield, who called me up to ask me about some tune on the tape that she really wanted to play and wanted to know the name of, and it turned out to be a tune I’d written and forgotten all about!

Guitar artist Russell Barenberg played with Yankee Ingenuity, Rodney Miller, and Peter Barnes (on several Rounder albums with Rodney and Peter) for about four years in the early ’80s. He also played with Ruthie Dornfeld and myself for the Second Sunday Concord dance with Tony Parkes. That was a great rhythm and improvisation skills apprenticeship. Russell’s great groove and fun chords just lit up his tunes. From him I learned to improvise at half speed, which made it so much easier.

Fiddler Ruthie Dornfeld of Corvallis, OR, blew into the Boston area sometime in the early ’80s, and only left recently to return to the Seattle area. Ruthie has also played and recorded with Yankee Ingenuity. Ruthie has given the contra dance world so many great old-time and Irish tunes. I still play many of the tunes I learned from Ruthie, like "Maids of Castlebar," "Fiddler’s Dream," and "Girl Who Broke My Heart." In addition to being one of the most rhythmic and exciting fiddlers around, Ruthie’s special gift for rhythms shows in the musical settings she works out for the tunes she plays. They are always interesting, with her signature groove and bounce. Many of her settings for tunes are included in the two volumes edited by Stacy Phillips for Mel Bay.

The unison playing that characterized the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra was overlaid in Yankee Ingenuity by parallel harmonies, counterpoint lines, and as Peter Barnes developed his piano playing, blues, country, and jazz riffs that sent us off in all improvisational directions. Hardly purists, we were fairly Catholic in our northern repertoire, tending toward Irish, Scots, Don Messer tunes, New England Chestnuts, and French Canadian tunes. Our goal was to "get the dancers going" so they would loosen up and holler some. We always kept the melody going, but sometimes we’d switch the groove under it a bit, move the beat around and improvise a new rhythm over the melody to go with it.

The thing about playing these tunes is that there is no real tradition of playing harmony. Then there is no real tradition of not playing harmony, either, since there were orchestras and bands playing arrangements for dancing in the cities and towns of New England in the 1880s. Now, "jazzing" the tunes up and improvising new melodies over the chords has come to be accepted. Still, we didn’t get all that far off the melody or "head" until fairly recently, and there are some, myself included, who just can’t stop tinkering with the rhythms of a tune. At our skill level 20 years ago, it was enough to find harmonies and push the groove around, maybe swing things a little more.

What is this groove thing I keep talking about? The group consensus on the beat. Usually one person is stronger, a leader who sucks everyone else along with their rhythm. In our band it was Peter Barnes, Tony, and me who probably set the groove. Peter and I experimented a lot, too, with Latin backup styles to try something new under a tune.

We also ran tunes together into medleys, unlike what Dudley or Duke wanted. Tony, a trained musician as well as an excellent caller and dance leader, saw the music from the perspective of both a musician and a caller, and basically trusted us to choose music to fit the dance. We watched the walkthrough, and if occasionally we chose a tune with a rhythm that fought the dance, we quickly changed tunes. As a caller, Tony Parkes is also a great drummer. His calls were so perfectly timed, even when they were syncopated, that they were like the drummer who was so good you only notice him when he goofs. Tony got his experience playing and calling at Farm and Wilderness Camp, a Quaker camp in Vermont that includes contra and square dancing in their summer curriculum. Tony took part in a wonderful band made up of campers and counselors. One night the outside caller didn’t show, and Tony filled in. The same sort of thing happened to Ralph Page in his youth, so I’ve heard. Tony also has a great gift for writing dances that become classics, like "Shadrack’s Delight." Tony and I also played with writing "theme" dances a bit. "Cross Country Contra" was a double progression improper dance of mine that started with "Give My Regards to Broadway" and ended in "San Francisco" (open your Golden Gate), with stops along the way in "Swannee," "San Antonio Rose," and "California, Here I Come." The band hated it after the first time we did it, but the dancers loved it. It made them laugh. The band came up with other goofy medleys that included Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy" and the themes from "All Things Considered" and "Masterpiece Theater." We had fun! Several band members in Yankee Ingenuity also wrote tunes, most notably Peter Barnes’ "Fair Jenny’s Jig" played all over contradance land, and my "Brasstown" which gets played some in old-time music circles.

The Concord dance programs

Tony Parkes always included several square sets in the evening’s program, (usually a northern, shorter square—8x32; and then later in the evening, a set of southern or western squares with longer figures). Tony still keeps a record of all the dances he’s called—by now a considerable number—including the music chosen by the musicians. Tony likes the old squares and quadrilles, some of them from Qu—bec,bec, some from the late 19th century.

Early on (1976) we started a yearly "Christmas Cotillion" a fancy dress-up ball with woodwinds and cellos added to Yankee Ingenuity, and an extended program. The Cotillion featured a pre-dance reception, a Grand March, New England dance "chestnuts" like "Rory O’More," "Chorus Jig," "Petronella," "Sackett’s Harbor," "Hull’s Victory," and "Money Musk" along with Gilbert and Sullivan’s "Patience Quadrille," "Trial by Jury Lancers," Strauss’ "Fledermaus Quadrille," and "The Black Cat Quadrille." Later on we added Strauss’ "Emperor Waltz" and Franz Lehar’s "Gold and Silver Waltz." One year I got delusions of grandeur, wanted a bigger sound, and added "ringers," classical musicians who, as it turned out, couldn’t keep a beat with or without a conductor. I was suitably humbled, and the following year, we were back to a smaller, thankfully more rhythmically homogenous group.

The Cotillion was delightful to watch from the stage—the decorations, all the beautiful costumes, the way they danced together. The women in big dresses from the Colonial era on (don’t forget, we started this in 1976, which was the height of the Bicentennial in Boston), and the guys always dressed up as well—we saw a lot of knee pants and poet shirts. It was very interesting to see how differently people danced from their usually fairly athletic style (running shorts and three changes of a T-shirt was the usual men’s dance garb). People were more polite to each other, more courtly. The men handled the women differently, a little more gently, even reverently. The women didn’t get hauled around or twirled as much at the Cotillion. Older mores seemed to be in vogue for the evening, as though the atmosphere were scented with air from 1890.

We broke at midnight for refreshments, and then went on till about 2 am. At the end of the evening, people took home a different ornament from the one they had brought for the tree at the beginning of the evening. We had dance cards for about five years, then people began to complain that they filled up too fast and didn’t have room for later arrivals, so we dropped them. My last cotillion was in 1985, and Yankee Ingenuity continues to sponsor it as their Christmas party.

Post-Yankee Ingenuity

For several years in the ’80s I played concerts and dances with Rude Girls Lyn Hardy, Selma Kaplan, and Debbie Saperstone, winning an Indie Award for Best String Band in 1988 for Rude Girls: Rude Awakening on Flying Fish. I’ve been raising my daughter Molly since 1988, and working on a degree in "Music for Sociopolitical Change" from the University of Massachusetts. I often do school residencies with the Franco-American group Chanterelle that focus on immigration stories and songs (we focus on French immigration from Canada to the U.S.) as a way to teach tolerance.

I teach violin and fiddle at my Amherst studio and at workshops around the country, and play in the Northeast for concerts, school residencies and dances, solo and with Chanterelle (Liza Constable, Alan Bradbury, Jos"e Vae Vachon). In 1999 I released my first solo CD of original songs and fiddle music, Big Boned Beauty.

What’s such a big deal about contradancing?

So, how did this contradance thing become such a phenomenon? I believe there are several levels of answers to that question. First off, Keene, NH caller Ralph Page kept it going from the ’30s, long enough for folk music to become popular again in the ’60s. I think Dudley Laufman was responsible in the late ’60s and early ’70s for getting younger people interested, both as dancers and as musicians, with his open stage policy, his charismatic stage presence, and the accessibility of the tunes he chose for the band. That was the spark that really ignited a movement.

Then there were large numbers of other musicians who came to New England dances or Pinewoods or Ashokan and played along with us or recorded our dances. New England has more colleges in a smaller area than any other part of the country, and contradancing remains popular with college students. The Boston and Western Massachusetts scene became a magnet for dancers and musicians, and when they graduated from their New England schools, they took their talents and memories and started their own dance wherever they landed. More than 400 places in the country now have their own contradances, which means that they probably have their own cadre of dance musicians as well, since the most exciting thing about contradancing is that it’s done to live music, and acoustic live music at that. Look in any college town or major urban area and you’ll probably find a contradance. Check the Country Dance and Song Society’s Web site at to locate dances in your area.

Then there’s the dancing itself, fairly athletic, repetitive, often trance-like, where the ideal is to have everyone, dancers and musicians, adopt the same rhythmic groove. In its own musical way, this gets people "together." It’s called "entrainment" and it’s a powerful glue for our relationships. While you’re doing the dance, you also get to meet everyone else in the line and say hello. If you dance all night, by the end of the night, you’ve greeted and held hands with everyone in the hall.

And don’t forget, you’re actually touching them while you’re dancing. And they’re touching you. This in a world devoid in many ways of human touch. This is actually safe, enjoyable touching, overwhelmingly wholesome, benign, and probably healing as well. All this energy of dancing with smiling people, and being guided throughout by the music and caller creates a community that makes you want to come back for more. I think this community is why it’s grown so fast, and it’s what really keeps people coming, that and their endorphin rush from the exercise, and the bliss of hitting the floor in time with 200 other feet. Where shall I stop? It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on!

Donna Hebertbert, a founding mother of the New England contradance renaissance, is an award-winning Franco-American fiddler from Western Massachusetts. Donna teaches "fiddling in the groove" at workshops and residencies nationwide, as well as performing for dance, school, community and festival audiences solo and with Franco-American heritage group Chanterelle. In addition to the discography on page 13 she has published a collection of New England dance tunes plus a learning cassette titled The Grumbling Old Woman.She can be contacted at PO Box 2632, Amherst, MA 01004-2632;;

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