Last weekend I had the pleasure of playing the piano for a Square Dance in Arlington, MA. The caller was Woody Lane, from the Portland, OR area. It’s always great to meet folks from far away, and to see what is unique about their styles. Woody presents a cheerful and casual demeanor which allows him to teach incredibly complicated figures with an air of simplicity. I thought of a master post and beam builder, who painstakingly creates well-thought-out joinery behind the scenes for a house or barn which is then flawlessly raised.
I don’t believe that complexity is Woody’s goal for most of his dances, but he was working with some interesting material on this evening: not only were most of the attendees experienced dancers , but there was also definitely a high geek factor (engineering and computer types). Having sat at the contra piano bench for over 30 years now, I can’t help but have noticed that certain dancers relate to contra choreography as an engineering problem, and they get a sort of gleam in their eye as they work their way through the solution. The proximity to MIT and other bastions of intellect must have something to do with this. There is something amusing about seeing a flirtation executed with algorithmic glee.
Up here in Nelson the dancing tends to be more primitive, more down to earth (or this time of year, mud). Sure there are some dancers who think a bit too much about what they are doing, but the primary MO still seems to be about fun. The satisfied smiles of completing a challenging figure are replaced by broad grins and laughter. The figures are executed with varying degrees of finesse, but ultimately the dance seems more about the social value.
But the great thing about contra dancing is that it can successfully be different things to different people, and it brings people together who might otherwise never have reason to communicate with each other. In this way it builds and strengthens community. And while it provides a safe haven for flirtation without greater intent, there are often romantic undertones, some of which actually take root. The perspective from the piano (a “key” observation post, if you will) is somewhat unique in this regard!
It’s a little weird, when you think about it, that a tiny little town (population around 660) without a post office or store, would be such a haven for dance and music. It’s as much chance as anything. If the Town Hall had been maintained in fancier style over the years, perhaps it would have lent itself to other purposes. If folks like Newt Tolman, Ralph Page, Albert Quigley, and, later, Dudley Laufman and others had lived in Winchester instead of Nelson, the raw materials would have been different. Back in the late 1970’s Alouette Iselin ran a monthly coffeehouse in the Old Brick Schoolhouse, back when the main floor was just a social gathering place. She also brought Gordon Bok to Nelson for several concerts at the Town Hall, which certainly helped to lay the ground work for Nelson becoming the default home of concerts for the Monadnock Folklore Society. David Pyles of Nelson has also produced a number of concerts in the Town Hall, and his enthusiasm for folk music is currently expressed in AcousticMusic.com, a web site where he features regular reviews of recordings, and extensive listings of folk music resources.
Making the music happen is a combination of things. The “raw materials” – the performers – are the starting point, and indeed our region is rich with local talent. The venue is important as well – anyone who remembers the Folkway can certainly still visualize the cozy dining room with the round tables made from electric wire spools. The Nelson Town Hall might be a little more stark, but it has wonderful acoustic properties facilitated by the wooden walls and ceiling. It takes some organization to make it happen, and that’s where the MFS Board comes in – booking musicians, reserving the hall, promotion, and so forth. But the most important thing is the audience (that would be you!). We’ve been told over and over again what appreciative, educated audiences there are in the Monadnock area, and at MFS events. Which is why we’re able to draw such wonderful performers to this remote and obscure little village.
Looking at the 25th of April, we are so pleased to have Bob Franke coming up from the Boston area. Bob is a consummate songwriter: he was the Artistic Director of the Singer-Songwriter Project of 1999’s Bethlehem Steel Festival. In August of 1990 Bob wrote a set of songs for a ballet of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” commissioned by the ODC Dance Company of San Francisco. He has composed three cantatas and a number of hymns for the Church of St. Andrew in Marblehead, MA. The Songs of Bob Franke, a songbook produced by the the Folk Project, was released in 1992. He wrote a Harvest Cantata for the Marblehead Eco-Farm in 1996. The song “Hard Love” figures prominently in Ellen Wittlinger’s young adult novel of the same name (Simon & Schuster, 1999). He is also a warm and entertaining performer.
Nelson’s strong ties with Cape Breton have been nourished by several performers from Cape Breton. Fiddler Jerry Holland has been a frequent performer in Nelson, and at his last concert he brought in Kimberley Fraser, who mostly played piano, but who is a stellar fiddler in her own right. She comes to Nelson on May 16th.
Those who were in this area in the late 1970’s will remember the early days of the Folkway, and the concerts of a young up-coming singer named Lui Collins. Like the Folkway itself, Lui grew to become a central figure in the New England folk music scene. We are extremely excited that she is coming to Nelson on Thursday, July 2nd, in an evening that will evoke some wonderful remembrances of the old Folkway days – she will be joined by Horace Williams, Guy Wolff, Julie Snow (Osherson), and Folkway co-founder Jonathan Hall.
We look forward to seeing you at one or more of these events. And of course, don’t forget to come dancing – any Monday night, and on the first Saturdays in Peterborough (excluding July and August) and second Saturdays in Nelson.