Fiddler Harold Luce, 96, of Chelsea, Vermont, died on August 13, 2014. Adam Boyce shares the following remembrance.
Harold Luce was born in Chelsea, Vermont on October 11, 1918. His parents were of modest means. The young Luce grew up around the working landscape of a farm in the valley of the First Branch of the White River. His education was limited to what he received at the local one-room school, as well as what he picked up for himself on his own.
The first time Harold was captivated by the sounds of the fiddle was when he was about five years old, listening to the lively strains coming from a neighbor’s henhouse where a “junket” was taking place. The young Luce was instructed that he could not attend, yet he wanted to so badly. His older brother was taking lessons to play the fiddle, but was hardly as interested in the instrument as Harold was. Almost as if he knew his own destiny, young Harold would clamber onto the piano bench, reaching for his brother’s fiddle on top of the piano, only to be tattled on by his sisters and have to give up the idea—at least for that moment. Later, a hired man at the Luce farm who played the fiddle somewhat would be allowed to take down the fiddle, and he would, in turn, let young Harold hold it and try to play it. The hired man only knew how to play notes on one string, moving his hand up and down the fingerboard. Another hired man later showed Harold that he didn’t need to slide his hand, but rather use all four strings, keeping his hand in one position. Apparently Harold learned very quickly, and his parents decided that he should receive more formal training. His first lessons on the violin were about the time he was 11; later, when he was 17, he received some more lessons through a WPA program from a violinist.
Largely, Luce taught himself to play, picking up tunes he liked by ear. A neighbor gave him a small Victrola with several records, and the young fiddler would try to play along. Harold also went to dances that were in the neighborhood, most of which were “kitchen junkets”, in which the tables and chairs were moved out of the way, and a house was transformed into a ballroom for an evening. A well-known fiddler and contra dance prompter named Ed Larkin played at these dances, and Luce would listen intently to the old gent, trying on his own to play the tunes he had heard. Some of these dances were held at the Sons of Union Veterans Hall at the south end of Chelsea village. Young Harold was extremely bashful and didn’t play out in public. He would sneak into the hall early, finding a convenient hiding place behind the piano, where he could follow along with Larkin without being discovered. During the intermission, Luce could sneak out to grab a doughnut or some other goodies at the refreshment table, then hightail it back to his hiding place. Eventually Harold would come out and play with him. Harold got over his shyness, somewhat, and continued to play with Ed Larkin for dances.
When Harold Luce was 16, several important things took place. Ed Larkin formed a group of contra dancers to carry on the old-time dance tradition of the area, Harold being one of the original members chosen by Larkin, filling in as dancer or fiddler as the occasion demanded. This same year, 1934, Luce went to a kitchen junket that Ed Larkin was supposed to be at, but couldn’t make. Harold filled in on the fiddle, and during the course of the evening, when the fellow who tried to do the calling simply could not be heard or understood, Luce started calling out the changes while fiddling away, probably as he had observed Ed Larkin do himself. Quite an accomplishment for the young Harold, which would be something he would continue to do and gain much recognition for in later years. At this same junket, he met a young lady who would later become his wife, Edith Keyes. The two didn’t speak to each other until four years later, when Harold sent word with someone to ask her to go with him to the New Year’s Ball at the Chelsea Town Hall. The young couple won the prize for the best dancing pair, and about a month later, the two were married.
Harold and Edith began married life on a farm, eventually raising six children. In between chores, Harold still found time to play the fiddle. Sometimes Luce would play at someone’s home for a kitchen junket, getting as much as three dollars for the night’s fiddling, more than he might get working an entire day on the farm. As time went on, Harold found himself working two jobs at once to pay the medical expenses of his son, Clayton, who had contracted encephalitis. During this time, Luce got only about four hours of sleep a day, between the chores needing to be done on the farm and the work at the Cone-Blanchard machine shop in Windsor. Clayton eventually recovered, and the routine got somewhat easier for Harold.
In the 1930s, Luce got the idea to invent a device that he could operate with his feet that would play the piano, freeing up his hands to play the fiddle, while he also played a harmonica. It was somewhat out of necessity, as piano accompaniment was sometimes unavailable. This same outfit Harold used one winter at the Brookfield Town Hall for dances, becoming a literal one-man-band, where he fiddled, played piano, and called the changes—all at the same time. He also invented a similar device that allowed him to play either guitar or banjo with his feet, along with the fiddle and harmonica. Luce enjoyed creating different “stunts” that he could do while playing the fiddle, including doing keel somersaults and rolling himself into a blanket while he played “Pop! Goes the Weasel.” He has also been known to light a cigarette while playing the fiddle, even though he never smoked a day in his life.
In 1940, Harold Luce played for the Ed Larkin Contra Dancers when they went to the New York World’s Fair folk dancing competition. Ed Larkin was originally to play and prompt, but got his thumb jammed in a car trunk door. Larkin did the prompting while Harold fiddled, and the group received the Award of Merit. After Larkin passed away in 1954, Luce was one of the mainstay fiddlers of the Ed Larkin Contra Dance Group, but also found time to dance with Edith. In 1964, Harold played for the Ed Larkin Dancers at another New York World’s Fair—this time non-competitively. In addition to playing for the Ed Larkin Dancers, Harold played on his own for square dances and other types of events. His reputation was growing, and Luce was gaining legendary status in his own area as an old-time dance fiddler who played so smoothly and effortlessly. Harold became involved with the newly-created Northeast Fiddlers’ Association in the mid 1960s, helping to preserve and promote old-time fiddling. He also joined the Southern Vermont Fiddlers and the Champlain Valley Fiddlers, enjoying the monthly meetings or jam sessions at which fiddlers young and old keep the tradition alive. Luce went to fiddle contests, usually placing very high with his truly “old” style. Even though he didn’t consider himself a competitive fiddler, he won many trophies at contests all over New England.
In the early 1980s, Harold Luce was on staff at the Pinewoods camp in Plymouth, Massachusetts, during American Dance and Music Week. He was there just for the week, returning the following year to continue his residency, teaching the dances he had learned so long ago, in addition to playing music with other artists from all over the United States. Luce also went to the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, DC, once again calling dances and playing, though this time for a much larger audience.
Tragedy struck the fiddler in 1988. While operating a mowing machine, clearing the roadside, Harold happened to sever two of his fingers on his right hand, the result of getting his hand mixed up with the power-take-off belt on the back of the tractor. Undaunted, Luce recovered through therapy, and once again resumed playing the fiddle. If it had been his left hand, his playing might have ceased, though Harold himself said that if it had been his left hand, he simply would have taught himself to play with the other hand—a truly remarkable testimony to an incredible, indomitable spirit.
Harold Luce performed in many events around New England, from dances to funerals; from folk festivals to weddings; from nursing homes, senior centers, and hospitals to prisons, barn raisings, and talent shows, as well as birthday and anniversary parties. While he preserved the traditional music of the region through his playing, he also created a tradition and style all his own. From tunes he heard Ed Larkin play, such as “Soldiers’ Joy” and “Irish Wash-Woman,” to tunes he grew up listening to, such as “Always,” “Pennsylvania Polka,” and “Back in the Saddle Again,” Harold Luce was a cultural treasure and storehouse of music. He was the example of how simple but sweet music was once the only entertainment in rural Vermont, and was as close as the neighbor’s kitchen. Harold Luce was a dance fiddler who played slowly enough so people could keep up, yet lively enough to set their toes to tapping.
Luce was also noted for his volunteering in the Grange and as a driver for the stagecoach—driving many people to various doctor appointments and such. His kind, soft-spoken manner and his humorous, almost “rascally” side made him a favorite of most anyone who met or knew him.
Harold has long been recognized as a cultural treasure by the state of Vermont, and in 2004 he was the recipient of the Governor’s Heritage Award, through the Vermont Folklife Center.
Could a five-year-old boy have ever realized the astounding level that he would attain, or the incredible influence he would have on countless others, some of whom would come to him for lessons and guidance in their own playing? Could that boy have realized the admiration and respect he would gain for his simple yet comprehensive repertoire? Could he have realized that he would make such an important contribution to the very thing he enjoyed so much? Could that young fellow begin to imagine that he would be noted and respected—just for playing music for people to dance to?
Harold Luce continued his life-long interest in fiddling until he passed away on August 13, 2014. He was an important link to a vanishing past, and we are the ones who are richer for having known him and his playing.