The Old-Time Herald Volume 7, Number 7

Dance Beat

Glenn F. Pease: Old-Time Barn Dance Caller

by Arthur Pease

Glenn F. Pease was born in his parents' bedroom on the family farm in Orford, New Hampshire on May 17, 1906. He was the first boy born to Francis and Mabel Pease, after six girls, and on his mother's birthday! No one in his family was particularly musical, but his mother and her brothers did learn several poems which they had recited at Grange meetings, and Mabel taught them to her grandchildren. Dad may have called on this habit of memorization when he began to attend dances and wanted to learn the calls.

Glenn's father died in 1925 and at 19, Glenn took over the farm at the foot of Mount Cube. He married Theda Louise Howard in 1928 and there were soon three sons and a daughter growing up on the farm. My mother says that Dad was calling for dances before they were married, although she doesn’t think he was calling on a regular basis at that time. He sometimes called for dances after Grange meetings and though the Grange Master, Charles Robinson, did not think the floor would stand the dancing, it always did. My mother does remember Dad telling her that he was at a dance in Wentworth, New Hampshire where Honest John [see Workshop, pages 35, 36] was being called. Dad sat in the back of the hall, just listening and memorizing the calls, and said that by the next dance, he could call it himself. Dad also worked for a few months as a town cop in Orford at The Hayloft, and may have picked up some calls there. His nephew, Leslie Donnelly, played saxophone for area dances and Dad often went with him, becoming a good dancer. Even in his 60s, Dad (at 5'9" and over 250 pounds) gliding around the floor doing a Viennese waltz, gave renewed meaning to “light on his feet.”

In the 1940s, Walter Horton had been giving square-dance lessons in Fairlee, Vermont just across the Connecticut River from Orford, and discovered that he couldn’t call and direct dancers from the floor at the same time. He hired Dad to help him; Walter would call changes and Dad would be down on the floor, directing those dancers who were having trouble with the figures. My brothers, Howard, Gerald, and Francis went with him and learned to square dance. Later on, Dad also gave lessons, for in 1950 or 1951 when I was four or five, I remember going with him to the Wentworth Town Hall where I was the youngest person learning to square dance.

In any event, my earliest memories of Dad and dancing involve seeing him and my sister, Irene, then a teenager, polka around our big farm kitchen to radio music from Don Messer's 'Jubilee.' This show came on in the early evening, either Friday or Saturday, over WDEV in Waterbury, Vermont, which must have picked up the feed from the Canadian Maritimes where the show originated. (An audio tape of Don Messer and His Islanders playing polkas and waltzes is available from Holborne Distr. Co., Mount Albert, Quebec.)

By the late 1940s, Dad was calling changes on Saturday nights in East Thetford, Vermont at Huntington’s Pavilion, a small quonset hut-shaped dance hall. Jimmy Packard was the bandleader and other members included Ralph Truman, who played the big bass, and Walter Smith on piano. Dad, Howard, Gerald, and Francis all piled into the cab of the farm truck and went to the dances. (My mother almost never attended dances and then rarely danced, although she and Dad would sometime waltz.) Dad was also calling in Warren during this time, as I have a photograph of him on the stage of the Warren Town Hall in 1952 with a band of Glenn Youngman playing piano, Les Donnelly on sax, Floyd 'Bud' Ray on drums, and Irv Cushing playing accordion. Bud and Irv would later play for years with Pat McIssac's band when Dad called changes with them. The Lake Tarleton Club in Piermont, New Hampshire, a summer resort, hired Dad on occasion. I have a menu/program from July 9, 1951 listing a "Champagne Dance" and "Later, Square Dancing with Caller Glenn Pease of Orford."

By the 1940s, Glenn must have achieved some repute as a caller, as he was involved in a demonstration of the traditional dance, Honest John, at the New Hampshire Folk Festival in Gilford that summer. The notice in the New Hampshire Folk Federation’s Service Bulletin, vol. 1, no. 3 is as follows:

"Orford Group to present 'Honest John'. It is with great pride that the Festival committee presents the Orford Group under the leadership of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Horton in a traditional form of 'Honest John'. Those readers who subscribe to Ralph Page's Junket are familiar with the background and history of the dance as far as he was able to trace it, for like many traditional dances, its beginnings are not too well known."

"The Festival Committee feels certain that many groups will want to include this lovely dance in their repertoires as it is danced by the Orford Group. Glenn Pease, Orford, will be the caller, R. Martin of Piermont, the fiddler, and the Walter Hortons of Lyme the head couple. Since the middle section of the music to the dance is 'tricky', Mr. Martin is coming to the Festival for the prime purpose of playing the music for 'Honest John.'"

My mother remembers Dad saying that at a dance in Fairlee he wanted to call Honest John but the band couldn’t get it just right. Remembrance “Mem” Martin said that if he could borrow a fiddle he thought he could play the tune the way Dad wanted it. They were glad to let him try—he did play what Dad wanted, and this was how he came to accompany the Orford group at the Folk Festival. The demonstration at Gilford was well received, and the group was asked to demonstrate the dance at the New England Folk Festival that fall or winter in Boston. Dudley Laufman, dean of the barn dance callers in New England today, remembers seeing them perform when he attended the Boston Festival as a teenager. Dad also called Honest John at the Orford Bicentennial Ball in 1964 with Walter and Ethel Horton, George and Leona Smith, Chet Pierce and Ruth Prescott, and Norman Woodward and Gertrude Prescott demonstrating the dance. I don’t ever remember hearing Dad call Honest John but did enjoy dancing it at the Wentworth Town Hall a few years ago, with Dudley and Jacqui Laufman playing and Dudley calling.

Ralph Page, perhaps the premier caller and popularizer of old-time dancing (squares and contras) in New England after World War II, wrote in his Junket sometime in the late '40s or early '50s:

In Orford, N.H. we found an extremely interesting variant of this second part of Honest John. Everybody up that way, on both sides of the Connecticut River say that only the Orford dancers do it this way. It is very very slow. The set that we saw dance were excellent dancers, and it was ceremonial in character. It was solemn and stately and we caught a breath of sadness about the dance. It was truly ‘out of this world’ and like no other American dance we have ever seen. You have a beautiful variant, Orford. Please keep it. Don't yield to the blandishments from across the river to speed it up. there is plenty of room in the square dance world for both variants of Honest John; especially yours."

Page included the music as danced by the Orford group and lists the calls. I also have an article from Vermont Life magazine, Winter '53-'54, which includes a picture of the group of dancers who performed Honest John [see workshop].

From the mid-'50s on, most Saturday nights saw Dad out calling changes. I have a picture of him from this time, calling from the stage at the Orford Town Hall with Glenn Youngman on piano, Less Donnelly on sax, 'Bud' Ray on drums, and Pat McIssac on sax. Also, at about this time, Dad began to work regularly with Pat, who organized the band and secured playing dates. 'McIssac's Band, Glenn Pease calling' was a familiar poster for the next three decades in the Baker River Valley of central New Hampshire. Regular members of the band included Pat, who played sax (and piano for square dances), Edna Simpson on piano, 'Bud' Ray on drums, and Earl 'Joe' Libby on fiddle, with Irv Cushing on accordion for some of those years. Winters often found the band playing at the Warren Town Hall, a typical small New Hampshire hall, with room for about four sets of square dancers at a time. We sometimes squeezed in more, but four was comfortable. They sometimes played here in the summer as well, as I remember stopping at the Viking Cabins in Wentworth on the way home for an ice cream. Dad would also buy a pint of ice cream for Ma, who would get up at 12:30 when we got home and eat it all. They also played at Stinson Lake in Rumney, Hew Hampshire on Friday nights during the summer where Dad remembered some couples rushing to get there from the Boston area, stopping at the dance first, and checking into their cabins later. Ma says that just recently a person came up to her at a Senior Dinner and spoke about how he loved to watch Dad and Irene dance together at the Stinson Lake dances. Ma says that Dad received two dollars a dance at first (good money for those days) and was earning twenty-five per evening when he got done.

My most vivid memories of Dad calling, however, focus around the Painted Barn in Wentworth. Now demolished, this old barn was located just west of the stream, which runs along the south Wentworth road where it branches off from Route 25. Once, I’m sure, the working barn of a prosperous farmer, by the late 1950s Dorothy Brown had made it the perfect site for a quintessential New England barn dance. Its big barn doors were wide open on warm summer nights, allowing music from the band on the stage at the far end of the hall to stream out to the passing cars. Bench seats lined both long walls and a snack counter had been built into the former stable on the east side. There were still six or eight twelve-inch-square floor-to-ceiling beams left in the barn, arranged symmetrically around the floor. The square spaces between these beams made just the right space for one set of dancers, and the beams even gave a post from which to push off in order to get a promenade going right along. I think there was room for three sets wide and four the length of the barn. There was a fine floor, with the little dance wax that Dad scattered around each night adding to its danceability.

Dances at the Painted Barn were from 9 to 12 on summer Saturday nights. Many people have fond memories of arriving a little past 9 and hearing the fox trot or polka (perhaps 'Red Wing' or the 'Beer Barrel Polka') as they got out of the car and started for the door. These dances were almost scripted, with many of the same tunes and dances played in much the same order each week, although I doubt that anything was written down. The first few dances were round dances, waltzes, polkas, fox trots, etc., and then about 9:30 Pat would move to the piano. Dad would go to center stage, and “choose your partners” would ring out. He didn’t use a microphone much until the 1960s, but there was never any problem hearing him. As teenagers we liked to get four couples our age in a set, so we could swing fast and promenade twice around while the other set were going once around. There were many “regulars” at these dances and they often danced in the same sets week after week. Sometimes groups of counselors from area summer camps would attend the dances and we locals liked to laugh at them trying to dance and swing in sneakers no less! On these occasions, it was not uncommon for Dad to come down onto the dance floor, directing the befuddled couples through the dance, all the while calling the changes.

Three squares would be called, usually coming from the following selections: 'Honolulu Baby,' 'Just Because,' 'Hinky Dinky Parlez Vous,' 'Wearing of the Green,' 'Comin' Round the Mountain,' 'Jingle Bells,' 'My Little Gal,' 'The Fairest Gal in Town,' or 'First Two Ladies Cross Over.'  These were the old-time dances with simple repetitive calls, each couple proceeding around the set in turn, repeating the same figures. If one knew how to swing, do-si-do, allemande left, allemande right, lady's change and grand right and left, a person would get along fine. If there was a particularly enthusiastic crowd, and if we just stayed on the floor in our sets after the third dance, we could sometimes get Dad to call one more dance, but three was the norm.

After the first squares were over, a few round dances followed, with tunes such as 'Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy,' 'You Are My Sunshine,' 'She Wore A Tulip,' 'The One Who Has My Heart,' 'Release Me,' 'My Blue Heaven,' 'Side by Side,' 'McNamara's Band,' and 'Pennsylvania Polka.'  At about 10:15-10:30, Dad would call for the line dance, 'Lady of the Lake.' This usually stretched the length of the hall, with 25 or 30 couples participating. After “Lady of the Lake” came intermission. Dad, Pat, and the boys retired outside, while many of the dancers did the same. Some folks also listened on their car radios to the Country Music Jamboree from WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia.

By 10:45 or 11:00, after a few more round dances, the second set of three squares was called. The dancing might be a little more ragged or 'fluid,' depending on the “fluid” of choice during intermission. I don’t remember a problem with drunkenness at these dances, at least not on the floor. There was certainly drinking outside, but there was a cop on duty and Dot Brown, owner of the Painted Barn and organizer of the dances, was clearly in charge. Much of this behavior would not (and should not) be tolerated today, but that was a different era, and drinking a few beers during the Saturday night dance was common. Finally, just a few minutes before 12, Dad or Pat would announce the last waltz, and so the dance ended at midnight, usually with 'One Who Has My Heart,' which Pat speeded up to polka pace for the last few bars. Dad would typically dance one or two polkas or foxtrots during the night, and if he spied a particularly good dancer in the hall, would prevail on Pat to play a Viennese Waltz. He and his partner and a few other couples would dance in a setting which couldn't have been less like the salons of Strauss's Vienna, but with a skill and pleasure that was fun to watch.

One particularly poignant dance at the Painted Barn was a benefit dance for our family in the fall of 1957. Our house had burned to the ground and this was one of many ways in which the whole community helped us to rebuild. The Barn is gone now, torn down when Route 25 was upgraded in that area.

In the mid-'70s, Dad was still calling with Pat’s band and I have an audiotape of a dance in Warren in late June of 1974 or '75 taped by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Regan of Lyme, with their reel-to-reel recorder set on the corner of the stage. The Regans were regulars at any dance with Glenn and Pat’s band, and theirs is the only recording we have of these dances. It is somewhat difficult to hear the calls, but they can be made out if one is familiar with them. A copy of this tape is archived in the Traditional Music and Dance section of Lamson Library at the University of New Hampshire.

Dad began to experience a series of small strokes in the late 1970s and had to give up calling as well as his position as an Orford Selectman, a position he had served for 39 consecutive years. He did call one last set of changes in Feb. 1980 in the Town Hall in Orford at a retirement party for himself and Hazel Huckins, a long-time Town Clerk. The Vermont Old-Time Fiddlers played and Dad called one set of squares, while his four sons and their wives danced together in one set. Dad died on Oct. 12, 1989.

For almost 20 years there was no one in the area calling the old dances that Dad had called, and Pat’s band rarely played. However, in the mid-1990s, Don Towle, pastor of the Wentworth Congregational Church, organized a series of dances to raise money for the town recreation fund. Dudley and Jacqui Laufman began to play for dances on the first Friday of each month from October to June. Dudley learned some of the old square -dance calls, mixing them in with more common contras and reels ('Paul Jones,' 'Portland Fancy,' etc.). Pat McIssac and Joe Libby also play at these dances and Pat even brings his sax on occasion. Lester Bradley from Campton also plays and calls on some first Fridays, sometimes calling the old changes.

Traditional folk music and dance was a major feature at the 1999 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, DC. Dudley and Jacqui, and Lester and Dave Bradley were among several groups of New Hampshire bands and callers who somehow got people to dance reels, contras, and squares on a plywood floor under a tent in 100-degree weather! The Festival was restaged at the Hopkinton Fairgrounds last summer, so that even more New Hampshire folks could see the fun of the old barn dances, and the Baker River Valley once again rang with “do-si-do” and “swing your partner” on warm summer Saturday nights.

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