You don’t run into too many recordings by traditional musicians that include a “Ballad for Edward Thomas,” the English poet, friend to Robert Frost, casualty of the concussion of an exploding shell on a battlefield in France in 1917. But then you don’t run into too many traditional musicians with Dudley Laufman’s experiences. A 2009 National Heritage Fellow, a performer at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan went electric, a dance caller since high school, a founding figure in the New England Contra Dance scene, the ringleader of the well-recorded Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra, a self-taught performer on fiddle, melodeon, harmonica, and concertina, and author of several books of poems, Dudley Laufman is also a composer, and in his nineties, he has gathered together old friends and issued a lovely, handsomely presented, thoroughly enjoyable recording of his original tunes and songs.
This is a life well-spent in the intersection of home-made and established culture, and there’s much to learn about it from Laufman’s liner notes and from the lyrics of the songs. “Mistwold” describes a kitchen junket at the dairy farm owned by Betty and Jonathan Quimby where Laufman worked in high school. First there is food, followed by a hymn sing in the kitchen, and then the fiddle and piano begin the dancing with the family and Laufman and some local girls. (“They wore their summer dresses, / Green, blue, and yellow. Their hair bounced on their shoulders. / Caused my heart to swell.”) The music starts with Laufman unaccompanied on harmonica and voice, other singers join in the chorus, and after all the verses have been sung, the Canterbury Country Orchestra kicks in, an ensemble he describes as “rich, full, unique…uncommon in traditional New England dance music. The musical ingredients necessary to produce that great sound are piano, banjo, string bass, flute, accordion and a bevy of fiddles. No medleys, no leads, and everything takes the first time.” “Mistwold,” like several other tunes, lets us have it both ways—the rough-and-ready home-grown quality of Laufman’s voice and harmonica or fiddle is the lead-in, with the orchestra joining in with the instrumental richness that inspired Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel to say, after the Newport performance, “It’s like a Handel concerto.” The story of the Newport gig is told in the documentary film “Welcome Here Again (you can hear it about sixteen minutes into this film-about-the-film at https://vimeo.com/216769923). Like the narrative of Bob Dylan’s performance at the festival when Pete Seeger either did or didn’t intend to find an ax to cut the sound of Dylan’s electric band, the tale of the as-yet-unnamed Canterbury Dance Orchestra’s appearance that day gets retold in different versions, more astringently in Newton Tolman’s out-of-print memoir of the revival of New England dancing, Quick Tunes and Good Times. Because of the variety of instrumentation, the sound of the group is more orchestral than that of many old-time ensembles, but you wouldn’t mistake it for Handel, and that’s down to the spirit of the players, which is all for the dancers.
One of these, described in the song whose chorus gives the album its name, was a school kid, Glen Towle, who’d travel all around New Hampshire for the chance to attend a dance (“He danced in Keene / He danced in Rindge / Over the hill / In Peterborough”) and whose dying wish was that his friends would celebrate his memory with a jig. He’s remembered with a wake (“The first tune was Scollay’s Reel / For The Lady of the Lake), and the dancer and the dance are remembered in the song. Laufman’s lyrics run towards the nostalgic and the elegiac and also the particular; he names as an act of remembrance people and schools, towns and houses and hills, tunes and dances, and what isn’t named in the song is often a tale told in the liner notes. Behind the instrumental “Fallen Leaves” is the story of Arthur Hanson, a fiddler and resident of the New Hampshire State Hospital where Laufman was recreation director; they played music together, and Hanson left his watch and two fiddles to Laufman, saying, “Dudley I probably won’t be around when the leaves come down this fall.” Laufman honored the gift with the tune and with a poem. Other tunes are glasses raised to absent friends. And “Waltz Inverness,” whose title recalls a Quebec dance hall, carries that tinge of melancholy that deepens the romance of a good waltz, that hint that the dance will reach its end. Generously, the CD contains two versions of this, one with Laufman and the orchestra and another a beautiful solo take by fiddler Greg Boardman, recorded in Trinity Church in Lewiston, Maine.
Laufman’s tunes—jigs, reels, a march, a waltz, a schottische—on this recording are spirited, even when the occasions that set them off were sad ones. Contrasts (of instrumentation, of tone and subject, of influences ranging from Ian and Sylvia to Mozart and Corelli) are part of his lifelong project of bringing the pleasures of a rural past into the complexities of the present, just as he brought a crew of New Hampshire folk dancers and musicians to a Newport stage, with Joan Baez listening approvingly from the front row and Dylan about to change everything. His tunes catch easily in the mind, fall easily under the fingers. “The secret is this,” Laufman writes in the history of the Orchestra on his website, “We never rehearse. Anyone can play.” And yet his music catches the sophisticated spirit of doing an apparently simple thing well. Newt Tolman, who performed with the Canterbury orchestra at Newport, and whose flute was a mainstay of the early “Dudley Dances” that Laufman called, writes about the challenge that visiting professional musicians found in sitting in with the New England dance players; while the tunes might seem simple, the effective, enlivening playing of them is not. Still, this welcoming of sit-in players, the focus on the dancers, and the breaking down of divisions between audience and musicians, are what it takes to keep a participatory tradition alive, to bring the memory of the girls’ hair bouncing at a kitchen junket in a New Hampshire farmhouse kitchen into a world that’s both different and not.
Here’s to Every Country Dancer is available on the usual streaming services, but it’s worth seeking out the beautifully designed CD package with photographs of Laufman and the group and his detailed, witty liner notes. And there’s even more to enjoy on his website at dudleylaufman.com.