In the 30 or so years that Ive lived and danced in this corner of Pennsylvania, bisected by the Mason-Dixon Line, Ive often felt music and dance influences from both North and South. The Paisleys, Lundys, and Ola Belle Reed moved up from Virginia and North Carolina. Dancing Masters once taught the formal dances of the northern cities and they spread to the countryside. This is an area where new growth seems unstoppable, yet old traditions still hang on.
Ive heard about dances in Chester and Delaware counties as far back as the turn of the century, so I set out to look at some of the people who have been squaring them up these past hundred years. The Chester County Historical Society has a wealth of news clippings on Chris Sanderson and his old friend Tommy Thompson spins tales at the Sanderson Museum in Chadds Ford. Bill Hunn is still with us and was heard fiddling last month at the 71st Annual Old Fiddlers Picnic. These past 25 years, a not-so-young-anymore group of upstarts has been keeping the old-time dance tradition alive.
Chris Sanderson (1882-1966)
Dancing is the earliest of the arts. Its a primitive instinct toward happiness.
A feature article from the July 10, 1949, Philadelphia Inquirer describes how Philadelphia socialites are tuned in to the old-fashioned whine of fiddles and jubilation of banjos. They are heeding the powerful voice of the spectacled gentleman in red flannel shirt as he saws away at tunes that fall strangely on their ears. That gentleman was Chris Sanderson, historian, hitch-hiker, collector, fiddler and caller.
He lived most of his life around Chadds Ford, near the banks of the Brandywine Creek. After graduating from West Chester Normal School in 1901, he took up a career in teaching which spanned 28 years. Towards the end of that stretch, he started to feel another calling. In 1928, he co-founded the Chester County Old Fiddlers Picnic. The catalyst for his new career, though, was a radio show called Historic Rambles which aired for 10 years on WDEL, Wilmington. One night in 1932, as part of a radio script called Old Folks At Home, Chris decided to take the old folks to a square dance. He got some boys from up the creek to play for a studio dance and The Pocopson Valley Boys were born.
A few weeks later, a member of the duPont family heard them and invited them to put on a dance. One dance lead to another; by 1950, Chris claimed to have done over 3,500 engagements, averaging about four dances per week. They entertained in 29 states, played at 20 National Folk Festivals and performed for Eleanor Roosevelt in Washington, DC. Locally, they played for 15 years at the Philadelphia Center City YMCA and for troops returning from World War II at the 30th Street Railroad Station.
Jimmy Lynch, artist and former Chadds Ford resident, recalls Chris coming to his grade school to call a dance. He did his best to avoid dancing by hiding in a locker, but was discovered by Chris and hauled in by his ear. A few years later, he shocked Chris by intentionally dancing a square at the Chadds Ford Days Festival.
Over the years, more than 60 musicians tuned up as Pocopson Valley Boys (and girls). Instruments included drums, accordion, trumpet, saxophone, banjo, guitar, bass, and always Chris on fiddle. As with other local bands and callers of the era, there were several dances which usually appeared on the program. The Plain Quadrille and the Waltz Quadrille were staples. The Schottische, a couples dance of Polish origin, was popular and is still done in these parts. Chris square-dance repertoire included Take a Little Peek, Chase the Fox, Dive for the Oyster, Old Dan Tucker and some he composed himself, such as The Indian Quadrille and The Powder Mill Grind.
Chris continued to fiddle and call dances well into his 84th year. He never owned a car and was a familiar figure with his fiddle and briefcase, hitchhiking to and from his beloved Brandywine Creek home. Several times a year, I meet people who knew Chris and fondly remember him and The Pocopson Valley Boys.
Bill Hunn (b. 1908)
You dont start a truck off in high gear.
This quote leaves little doubt about Bill Hunns opinion of the buzz swing. He prefers a walkaround swing or the polka swing he danced while growing up in Morton, PA. Sitting with Bill recently on the front porch of the house where he has lived since 1909, we talked about life and dancing. Well, mostly Bill talked.
Im a hidebound traditionalist, said Bill, who turned 91 in September. While this is true to some extent, Bill is also the person who took a six-couple international folk-dance performance piece and turned it into an unusual and fun old-time dance which he named The Italian Quadrille. I found an explanation for this apparent contradiction in a letter Bill wrote to me last year. Every era had its modern times and once in a while something modern would slip into the stream of tradition and flow along with it and in time become traditional and old-timey.
Bill fell into calling in much the same way as Chris Sanderson. As part of a local theater production, he was called upon to insert a square dance. Along with a neighbor who played the fiddle, Bill managed to play guitar and call the Virginia Reel. Around that time, he had also been taking dancing classes from a Mr. McCray, who was hired by the WPA and described by Bill as one of the last of the Dancing Masters. He was taught the proper steps to the Schottische, Fox Trot, Lancers, and Mazurka.
An avid dancer, Bill regularly attended a dance on Paoli Pike at a hall called Old Orchard. Though more than 60 years past, Bill remembers the program as if it took place yesterday.
They always started with a Paul Jones, then three Fox Trots. Next was a Plain Quadrille of five figures. The hardest was the fifth, which was called the breakdown. Bill also listed the American Schottische, Heel and Toe Polka, Lucky Lady Waltz, Polka and Waltz Quadrilles as popular dances. He danced all over the area and remembers a dance in Schwenksville, Montgomery County, where the Pennsylvania Dutch caller did the same dances, but called them in German.
Another major influence on Bills calling was Ralph Page, who came south to call at Swarthmore College. Bill also credits Mr. and Mrs. Henry Fords dance revival book, Good Morning and a set of recordings which go along with it. For 12 years, Bill called for a popular dance in nearby Wallingford. I met Bill in the mid-1970s, shortly after he had started doing dances at the Newlin Mill Cabin with a group of younger musicians including Doug Linton, Dave Arnold, and Gerry Milnes. Phipp and Ginny Cressman walked over from their home just across the park. A few floorboard-shaking dances there convinced me that calling might be some kind of fun.
Bill is almost blind now, so he talked right along into darkness on his porch last week. He broke into the singing calls to Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight and quizzed me on my allemandes. Allemande A? Right and left, then half sashay. Though were different callers in many ways, I feel proud to be carrying on that stream of tradition that is so much a part of Bills life.
More Recent Days
Ill be right with you after this dance, officer.
The State Police trooper just wanted some parked cars moved that were blocking the road. Another post-Brandywine party was in full swing and I just wanted to finish the dance I was calling. The year was probably 1976 and we had recently installed a wooden floor in the barn at the old rented farm in Pocopson. Outside, a large group of revelers had been playing Hangmans Reel for about 45 minutes. Refreshments were well-stocked and there were no nearby neighbors to lodge complaints. In retrospect, that trooper probably could have harvested much more than parking infractions, had he been so inclined.
A few years earlier, I fell into the scene through the efforts of fiddler Kevin OBrien, who hauled me out to the Old Fiddlers Picnic at Lenape Park. This classic old-time amusement park had a rickety roller coaster, a carousel with hand-carved animals, and an arched-roof bandshell. It had been the perfect setting for old-time music for over 50 years. Lenape Park is gone now, but the Fiddlers Picnic is still going strong on the second Saturday in August at Hibernia Park, near Coatesville.
The International House on the University of Pennsylvania campus in West Philadelphia has a main hall capable of holding over 25 squares. On many a Tuesday night from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, I saw it overflowing with dancers. Started by caller Stretch Pyott, this weekly dance evolved over time into a cooperative effort of many musicians, callers, and dancers. With apologies to those Ive omitted, some of the early organizers included Mike Gallagher, John Krumm, Hoagie Seibert, Peter Taney, Ernie Tedino, Woody Woodring, Ann Tegnell, Ira Bernstein, Beverly Smith, Tom and Fran Schaeffer, Carl Baron, Bonnie Blair OConnor, Jim Rymsza, and Karen Levy. A few of my highlights from Tuesday Night include seeing the garden-clad Green Grass Cloggers do the Vegetable Dance and meeting three brothers of the family Stefanini, newly arrived from Bologna, Italy. Through the efforts of Bill Masi and a few others, the Tuesday Night Dance continues today as a smaller monthly dance in St. Marys Hall.
Looking for a larger venue to hold our Chester County dances, the old Unionville Town Hall was obtained and used for monthly dances for a few years. Eventually, though, the halls owner joined a religious cult, moved away and closed the hall. By this time, I had moved to Cochranville in southern Chester County and was able to rent the Community Center for $40 per night. This former school has a wonderful hardwood floor for dancing and red brick walls, not noted for their acoustical qualities. Nonetheless, for 16 seasons, weve held a monthly dance which has grown into a fun all-ages community function. Nothing difficult, just simple squares, reels and big circles. Over the years, some of the best square dance callers and old-time bands have been nice enough to play Cochranville for tens of dollars.
Tonight, we move again. This time, its to the Russellville Grange, just down the road from Cochranville. This hall also hosts a group which is a direct descendent of the style of dancing described earlier in this article. With Joe Voke playing drums and calling, the Oxford Rhythm Boys still do the old schottisches, fox trots and quadrilles. If youre in our area, please come out to the grange for either dance, or both.
It seems like theres always something funny happening at a square dance. Several years ago at a dance, I recognized a big, burly gent to be former Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro linebacker, Bill Bergey. He danced pretty much the way he played linebacker, bowling over whoever was in his way. Therefore, I was a bit concerned when he started to make his way over to me after the dance. Not to worry, Bill said hed had a great time and had taken six credits of square dancing while at Arkansas State. (That almost qualifies as a major! I hope he doesnt read the OTH.) Another time, we got lost and arrived about an hour late to do a wedding reception for a couple who were Civil War re-enactors. The bride was outside smoking a cigarette, alone. Bad omen. Inside, there was a fully outfitted regiment, who appeared ready to use their bayonets on us. We needed someone to take the focus off us and fortunately the best man came through. He appeared a bit tipsy as leaned over to examine the nearby three-tiered wedding cake. Crash! He fell into the cake, destroyed it and emerged covered with icing. Whew. We were off the hook.
For all the time Ive been involved in this music and dance, The Brandywine Friends of Old-Time Music have provided major support for it. For many years at Brandywine and elsewhere, they hired me and the Rural Rhythm Boys to give our slant on square dancing. Today, the Delaware Valley has a plethora of great old-time bands that Im lucky enough to work with. Cacklin Hens and Roosters Too, Hobo Pie, County 502, Bow Rockers, and Run of the Mill are just a few. So at least for the near future Ill be able to call:
Swing the one who looks so fine,
Promenade down by the Brandywine.
Pete LaBerge is usually the tallest one on stage unless Bill Schmidt is playing. He likes to call West Virginia Squares, New England Quadrilles and Tennessee Big Circles. Pete lives in Homeville, PA with his wife Debbie and daughter Beth Ann. You can contact him at email@example.com.