When I first learned to call square dances in the mid-1970s, I was living in northern New York State, where on weekend nights, traditional square dancing could still be found at local grange halls, bars, VFWs, and fire halls as well as at various community events. Not only did I have the opportunity to dance and learn the figures, but I was also able hear the calling of some great old-time callers. Some of the traditional squares and rhyming patter calls that I still use, I learned from these callers. Since that time, I have sought out and visited old-time community square dances in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina in search of local versions of dances, new figures, and inspiration from other callers.
Many dance callers use patter calls, as opposed to just prompting, as in contra dancing, which uses a minimum number of words to cue the dancers for the next figure. Patter calls include "filler" calls that are often nonsense rhymes; filling in the time while a dance figure is being done before the next call. Patter calls are part chanted, part sung, in time with the music, and pitched to the musical key. Words to calls can be learned from the numerous square dance books that were published in the 1940s and 1950s, many of which can still be found in public libraries. The calls printed in these books, though, usually sound pretty corny and outdated. Reading them from a book is not the same as hearing them brought to life by an experienced caller who can get away with all the corny stuff in the interest of fun on the dance floor.
In recent years, I have found fewer and fewer "old timers," i.e. callers older than myself, to listen to, learn from, and model my calling after. As an alternative source, I have learned much from square-dance calls that are on 78-rpm records. Musicians, who learn tunes from these recordings, often express annoyance when a callers voice covers up the notes they are trying so hard to hear. As a caller, I have found these old recordings to be a valuable resource. I listen to them on tape repeatedly when I am alone, driving in my car. From some, I may learn new dance figures, but more often I pick up rhyming patter calls and get a feel for the cadence of the calling. In the late 1920s, many of the early fiddle recordings featured square dance calls. At the time, it probably seemed natural to include the calls on the records since the callers voice was a part of the sound heard alongside the fiddling at dances. Perhaps it was thought that people could square dance in their homes, though realistically this would not have likely been possible.
While some square-dance calls were common across the country, there were, and still are, regional differences in both dance figures and calls. So it cant be assumed that dancers would be able to follow calls from outside their home region just by listening to a recording. The standardization of figures and calls that was to come with the Western Modern Square Dance movement, had not yet begun. With this in mind, the calls may have been included more for atmosphere and to create an image, or to present the music in its proper setting and add authenticity to the recordings, rather than for actual danceability. In fact, on some of these early recordings, the "caller" sounds like a person in the studio trying to make it sound like a dance by shouting out arbitrary calls at random. The length of these 78s, often under three minutes, is too short for a real square dance, but long enough for a taste of it. Another indication that these recordings were not really intended for dancing is the timing of the calls. In a southern square dance, the timing depends on the speed of the dancers, as opposed to the phrase of the music. Even an experienced caller would have a hard time delivering correctly timed danceable calls in a recording studio, without watching dancers executing the figures.
One set of recordings that I have found worth listening to was made by a caller named Ernest Legg, from Charleston, West Virginia. He recorded with the Kessinger Brothers (Clark Kessinger and his nephew Luches Kessinger) at their first recording session on February 10 and 11, 1928. Legg, who was an experienced dance caller with a repertoire of fast-paced patter calls, had worked with the Kessingers at local dances. From a genealogy search, I learned that a William Ernest Legg lived in Charleston, West Virginia from 1904-1970. Given the dates, this could likely be the same person, though I have not been able to locate any additional biographical information. Perhaps someone in the Charleston area can fill in some more details. The Kessingers recording session, which was for the Brunswick label, took place in Ashland, Kentucky, about 40 miles from Charleston. Ernest Leggs calling, featured on eight out of the fourteen sides recorded, is a cascade of rhyming patter throughout the tunes, pitched to the key of the music and alternating between the tonic and the fifth. The Kessingers, with Clark on fiddle and Luches providing guitar accompaniment, play at a lively tempo close to 140 beats per minute. Tunes include "Chicken in the Barnyard," "Forked Deer," "Patty on the Turnpike," "Devils Dream," "Wild Horse," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," "Turkey in the Straw," and a version of "Hell among the Yearlings" with a few extra beats in the A-part. (Who says a tune has to be "square" AABB for squares?)
Most of the dance figures Legg calls are versions of common four-couple visiting couple squares. They include "Birdie in the Cage," "Divide the Ring," "Lady Round the Lady and the Gent Also," and "Chase the Rabbit, Chase the Coon." He also calls a version of the "Girl I Left Behind Me," and there are a few calls for figures that I did not recognize, so I can only imagine what they would look like. Interspersed between the main figures he calls Circle left, Allemande left corner and grand right and left, Promenade, and Do-si-do. The do-si-do, similar to that described by Cecil Sharp on his visit to eastern Kentucky a decade or so earlier, is one that I have seen called in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Though there are regional variations, it usually consists of: Allemande left partner, Allemande right corner, Allemande left partner, Allemande right corner. Leggs rapid-fire calls for the do-si-do are:
Ladies do and the gents you know,
Its right by right by wrong you go,
And you cant go to heaven while you carry on so,
And its home little gal and do-si-do,
And it may be the last time, I dont know,
And oh by gosh and oh by Joe.
These are words that would spice up anyones calling. Some of my favorite patter calls from among the many on the recordings include:
Circle eight and you get straight,
And well all go east on a westbound freight,
And knock down Sal and a pick up Kate,
And well all join hands and circle eight.
Swing your partner round and round,
And turn your corner upside down.
And turn your corner like swingin on a gate,
And meet your partner for a grand chain eight,
And hurry up boys and dont be late.
Chew your tobacco and rub your snuff,
And meet your honey and strut your stuff.
Right foot up and a left foot down,
And make that big foot jar the ground,
And promenade your partner around.
Home little gal and dont you know,
I like sugar in my coffee-o,
And meet your partner and prom- enade-o,
You cant get catch a rabbit til it comes snow.
And watch that bedbug fly on the wall,
And promenade your partners all.
Although Legg is not really calling dances on these recordings, and the timing of the figures is not always accurate, one can get a good sense of his style, repertoire, and sense of humor listening to his calls. Vintage recordings from the 1920s have always been a rich source of dance tunes for musicians. The ones featuring dance calls, while they may be a nuisance to fiddlers trying to learn the tunes, can be a valuable resource to aspiring square dance callers, providing inspiration, rhyming patter calls, and role models for different calling styles.
These recordings are currently available on a CD issued by Document Records: Kessinger BrothersVolume 1 (1928-1929) DOCD-8010. n
Thanks to Bob Kessinger, Charles Wolfe, Kerry Blech, and John Lilly.
Phil Jamison is an old-time musician, dance caller, and flatfoot dancer. He is assistant director of the Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC.
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