Last Night’s Fun

Some days I surprise myself at how old-fashioned I can be and how much fun I can have doing things that people have done for hundreds of years. Last night was a good example. Usually on Tuesday nights a smallish group of us get together for an old-time music jam. When the weather is nice, we play outside on the patio at Ragtag CinemaCafe; when it’s cold or wet, we play at someone’s house. Although most of us can read music, we generally play old-time fiddle tunes by ear, and we’re always excited when a new fiddler shows up in town and can teach us some new tunes. All of us dance as well as make music, and two of the musicians also call dances, so we have in the last few months talked about starting a “callers jam,” as well. Why waste all that good toe-tapping music, when people could be dancing while we’re playing?

Finally, last night various forces converged, and we were able to hold our first callers jam. Even on short notice, we were able to gather about a dozen friends to make music, call, and dance together on a dreary November evening. It was way better than getting all worked up watching the Election 2012 returns come in. We had already voted, and there was nothing more could be done about that. Might as well dance!

Lucky for us, Krishna and her husband own a house that is for sale and is currently vacant, so no one even had to clean house to host our dance party, and there was no furniture and no rugs to move out of the way. In addition, we had a beautiful hardwood floor to dance on, and miracle of miracles, the people who had recently moved out of the house had left an upright piano that was in decent condition and mostly in tune. There were a few notes that wouldn’t play, but it was great fun pounding on that old honky tonk piano, while Pippa and Will played fiddle, and the dancers kept rhythm with their feet.

Plays Well With Others

I finally did it: bought myself a portable electric keyboard that I can carry with me to jam sessions. I love playing music with friends, but since my main instrument is a piano, not having my own keyboard puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to where I can play. I obviously can’t lug my spinet everywhere I go. Most halls have either removed their pianos or don’t keep them in tune. (The hall in Ashland at one time even had the cover nailed down it was so horribly out of tune.) For a while I thought maybe I could teach myself to play fiddle, which would be a whole lot easier to carry around  than a piano, but as it turns out, the fiddle is HARD (and I already know how to play the piano).

Occasionally, if I’m lucky, one of the other keyboard players will bring their keyboard along and let others play a few tunes. Musial Wolfe is a great one for sharing, but since his wife died, he doesn’t come to the old-time jams or square dances as often as he used to. He is coming up on the first anniversary of her death, and it’s just hard for him to get out sometimes.

Several other piano players I know switched to accordions for jam sessions, but you really only need so many accordions! Besides, I don’t know how to play the “lap piano,” as they call it. The buttons are just confusing, and the whole thing with the bellows makes me feel completely uncoordinated and awkward.

Lately the members of the Two Cents String Band have been coming to my house to play music on Tuesday evenings, which has been great fun.

photo of old-time musicians playing banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and piano in the living room

Photo by Cliff White on his fancy pants new iPhone.

But when the weather turns nice again, they are going to want to go back outside to play on the patio at the Ragtag CinemaCafe/Uprise Bakery. They also play once a month at a local pub, 44 Stone Public House (supposedly named in honor of the combined weight of the owners), and the pub does not have a piano. And tonight a whole bunch of people are heading to Jefferson City for Cliff’s fortieth birthday party, and they are sure to bring instruments along.

The only thing that had held me back from getting a keyboard was the price. I knew I wanted one with weighted keys, which I assumed would cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $1000, at least. I have played Rolands, which are awesome, but those are out of my price range for now. I am not interested in all the fancy rhythms and built-in sounds and demo loops, but I had resigned myself to having to accept at least some of those in any electronic keyboard.

I already had a small Casio that has all the features that I don’t want and none of the features that I do, but it is decent and I thought maybe it would sound okay for a birthday-party jam. So yesterday during a break from work, I decided to walk a block to Crazy Music and at least buy a keyboard stand and a bench (sort of as a down-payment, a promise to myself that before winter was out, I was going to get a better keyboard).

Of course, once I got there and said what I was looking for, I was shown a Korg keyboard, which had everything I was looking for and at a price I could afford—$450 for the floor model! I tried it out and liked what I heard and liked the way the keys felt. I said I would think about it, but I knew that after work I would be back to pick it up. Now I need to save up for the rolling padded case!

Top Ten Reasons to Contra Dance

  1. It’s good aerobic exercise.
  2. The live music lifts your spirits.
  3. People look you directly in the eye and smile.
  4. You get to wear twirly skirts (yes, men too, if they choose).
  5. You don’t have to come with a partner.
  6. Newcomers are always welcome.
  7. The two parts of each dance align perfectly with the two parts of each tune.
  8. You get to spin around until you’re dizzy, like when you were a kid.
  9. You might meet your future spouse (I did).
  10. Even if you arrive feeling tired and run down at the end of a long week, you feel better after the first dance.

What do you think? What do you enjoy most about contra dancing?

Not Your Grandma’s Square Dance

Lately we have really been enjoying dancing old-time squares with a bunch of wonderful young people at their monthly dances in Columbia.  So far, we have attended three of these dances in three different locations, depending on what space is available each time.  The next one is tentatively scheduled for April 30 (location TBA).

A young woman named Laura has been holding these dances about once a month. Early on she invited friends to come play music and dance at her house, but the dances quickly grew too large for the space.  The dance in January (the first one we attended) was held in an old warehouse downtown that used to be part of the Wabash railway station and that now holds numerous art galleries in the “catacombs” downstairs but also has a large open space perfect for dancing on the first floor. The February dance was held at an art gallery, and the March dance was held in a yoga studio. Depending on how many people show up and what the space is like, the dances each have a slightly different flavor, but they always feature live music, high energy dancing, snacks to share, and lots of smiling people.

We didn’t quite know what to expect the first time  but were delighted when we arrived to find a room filled with people in their twenties or early thirties playing music and dancing a big circle dance like they dance in Appalachia, with a series of two-couple figures (birdie in the cage, duck for the oyster, right-hand across, four-leaf clover). The young caller, Jesse, was  tall and thin and definitely looked the part of an old-time square dance caller, wearing jeans, a short-sleeved shirt, a vest, cowboy hat, and boots. The women were adorable in their boots and long western-style flounced skirts and tights. All the dancers were quite lively, skipping around the room, making percussive sounds with their feet, and the wooden floor had a nice bounce to it.

We were also happy to see several people we knew and flattered to have been invited, as we were clearly the oldest people there. Jesse called several dances and then the band played a schottische and a waltz. After that, Jim and Laura and Jesse took turns calling dances, mostly squares and an occasional big circle dance. We never had fewer than two squares on the floor and sometimes as many as four. The band kept changing in size and configuration throughout the evening. At one time, there were two fiddles, a guitar, and a mandolin. Later, there were three guitars, one fiddle, an accordian, a mando-yuk, a banjo, a washboard, and a guy playing spoons.

In between squares, we danced various couple dances. Toward the end of the evening, Jesse taught everyone how to dance the Cotton Eye Joe. Then about 10:30, several of the band members began singing songs; one of the dancers laughed and said, “The dance must be over; the guitar players are singing.”

photograph of square dancers

School Dance

I love the way some children will dress up for a school dance, as though they were going to a ball or a costume party.  Little boys may wear their Sunday best, little girls may wear sparkly red shoes with their favorite pink sweatpants or shiny silver dresses, either gender may wear their Halloween costumes. Last night after work, my husband Jim called another school dance, this one at West Boulevard elementary school. You never know what to expect from these dances, but they are always entertaining.

The first time I went to a school dance with Jim was for a “Fall Festival,” where what seemed like 200 children, many of whom were dressed up as cowboys and cowgirls, were running around the gymnasium while parents sat in folding chairs around the edge and  teachers tried to impose some order. There were long tables of snacks set up at the back of the gym opposite the stage, so throughout the evening, the children would break formation and run back to grab a cookie, or they would announce (just as the dance was starting) that they needed to go to the bathroom and leave their partner standing there. From the looks of things, it appeared that more than a few parents had dropped their children off at the school and then gone elsewhere.

At one point during the evening, Jim was patiently lining children up again and teaching the next dance, although it was hard to tell if anyone was listening, because of all the extra noise and activity in the gym. After a few minutes, he turned to the band and announced that the dancers were ready to go. The look on their faces was priceless, as they mirrored what I had been thinking: “You have got to be kidding!” But Jim repeated that they were ready for some music, and sure enough, once the music started, the children reformed their lines and started moving in time to the music, skipping and bouncing and clapping to the beat, and having a very good time of it.

We have attended many children’s and family dances since then, including the “Snow Ball” at the public library, a dance for the Girl Scouts during summer camp, another camp dance for special needs children, graduation dances for home schools, wedding dances, birthday dances, church dances, and lots of dances for elementary schools. Over the years, Jim has developed quite a large repertoire of dances and has also learned to trust that the children are paying more attention than we might think. Still, every dance presents its own challenges.

At the “Snow Ball” last winter, for example, the average age of the children was about three years, and all were in costume: lots of fairy princesses, a few super heroes, and one fire fighter. Jim immediately threw out all of his dances that depended on knowing your right from your left or separating from your partner. He has also had to adjust his definition of “couple” over the years, to allow for “couples” consisting of a father holding the two-year old and a mother carrying the baby in a sling while holding the four-year-old by the hand. Since that first “Fall Festival,” now when Jim makes arrangements for school dances, he  always requests that the organizers encourage parents to dance with their children and save the snacks for later.

It takes a special band to play for these dances, and Nine Mile is one of our favorites (our friends John White on fiddle, David Cavins on guitar, Amber Gaddy on accordian, and Jim Ruth on banjo). Jim often starts by calling a big circle dance to teach the basic moves (do-si-do, right-hand turn, left-hand turn, forward and back, and so on), but when we arrived at the school last night, we found out that the dance had been advertised as a “line dance.” Not knowing exactly what the children or teachers expected but knowing we weren’t going to be doing the “boot scoot” anytime during the evening, Jim decided to save the circle dance for later and start with a longways set. However, it seemed to take longer than usual to line everyone up, at least in part because the gymnasium (which was carpeted) had prominent lines marked out for various sports, and the children kept lining up on those; this made for some very nice straight lines but put the children too far from their partners for dancing. The children caught on quickly, however, and formed two sets of double lines, with each dancer standing across from a partner.

With each new dance, Jim first taught the moves without music, then walked the dancers through a time or two, and then asked the band to start playing. At first the children were tentative, but after they realized that they could do everything he was asking of them and that it was all just for fun, they began to enjoy themselves. The longways sets were all variations of a few basic moves—do-si-do your partner, top couple dance down the middle and come back up, top dancers separate and lead your lines to the bottom, form an arch, lines come up through the arch and back to the top, then start over—new top couple do-si-do your partner, dance down to the bottom, and so on. Toward the end of the evening, Jim called a circle dance and then led them in a figure called “wind the ball” that always makes dancers laugh, as he dropped hands with his neighbor, warned everyone else “don’t let go, whatever you do,” and then led the long line into an inward spiral and then back out. It can be dizzying when you pass the other dancers on your way back out of the spiral.

After the dance ended and the band was putting away their instruments, I walked around the gym and tried to remember what my own school gymnasium looked like, but all I could remember was a fallout shelter sign in the stairwell and Lassie one time visiting our school.

The walls at West Boulevard are  made of large concrete blocks, with the top half painted sky blue and the bottom half painted tan. One wall is filled with windows that opened out to a rainy sky. The stage is obviously used for storage as well as for assemblies. In addition to the state and national flags, a podium, microphones, and sound system, there were racks of chairs, a towering pile of mats, ladders, dust mops, folding tables, cardboard boxes and Rubbermaid containers, plastic garbage cans filled with soccer balls, a notebook of physical activities, and another notebook labeled “Walking School Bus.”

The walls were filled with signs and posters: letters of the alphabet with words about sports or exercise (A for archery, B for basketball, C for catcher, D for dance);  the school pledge (“I am safe, I try hard, I achieve, I am respectful, I am responsible—I am a STARR”); a chart with stickers next to  children’s names; a poster shaped like a big yellow star with children’s names written in various colors of magic marker; a poster of the Food Pyramid; a white board with a reminder to “wash, wash, wash your hands.”

There were also many, many instructions about the proper way to line up, complete with rules about “lining up on your P.E. Number” and photos of good lines, which showed children and teachers facing forward, keeping their hands to themselves and their feet still, standing quietly ready to leave the gym, and it suddenly made perfect sense why they had at first had trouble with Jim’s instructions to “line up for a dance.” The lines for dancing were totally different from the lines they had been practicing at school. When I saw the “P.E. Numbers” marked with masking tape on one of the lines near the exit, I was even more impressed at the children’s flexibility in learning something so far removed from their experiences and the skillful way they navigated between all these conflicting rules imposed by parents, teachers, and guests.

Someday in the future, when these children grow up, I hope they will look back on this evening, when old and young, black and brown and white,  came together on a rainy Friday night, and had fun listening to traditional American fiddle tunes and dancing the way people have been dancing for hundreds of years. Perhaps at some point, some of them will pick up an instrument or seek out an old-time square dance or contra dance, ensuring that the traditions don’t die out.

Big Muddy Folk Festival

Every spring for the past nineteen years, usually on the first weekend of April, people from all around gather in Boonville, Missouri, for the Big Muddy Folk Festival, organized by Dave Para and Cathy Barton. The format generally consists of a full evening of concerts on Friday and Saturday evening, a dance following the concerts on Friday, workshops during the day on Saturday, and barbeque throughout the weekend.

The performances are held in the historic Thespian Hall, beginning around 7:00 p.m. and ending around 11:30 p.m. Between acts, Masters of Ceremony Dave Para and Meredith Ludwig entertain the audience, make announcements, and thank volunteers and sponsors, while the stage hands set up microphones and monitors for the next set. This is the only concert series I know of with an intermission long enough that people have time to wander across the street to Turner Hall to partake of barbeque or purchase CDs and books, or handmade dulcimers, rag rugs, wooden toys, or silver jewelry. This year you could also purchase raffle tickets for a colorful afghan (which were not, as Dave Para explained, “despite what you may have read in previous communications,” one dollar per ticket or four tickets for five dollars, but were actually six tickets for five dollars.

I missed the early years of the festival, but in the past twelve years, I have had the privilege of hearing many fine performers play a wide variety of roots music: old-time string music; Appalachian ballads; Missouri fiddle tunes; Irish fiddle tunes; Cajun; Texas swing; ragtime; minstrel tunes; blues; German polkas; klezmer music; straight-up folk songs both traditional and contemporary; gospel; some Carter family songs; and what you would probably have to call variety acts (one year an eighty-year-old woman played the fiddle while holding it on top of her head; another time a man from the conservation department made bird calls). These kinds of acts have become less common at the festival over the years, but Dave will still occasionally do an ironic performance in which he plays a serious and  wide-ranging tune such as Autumn Leaves, while an equally accomplished and funny musician will accompany him on piano, with exaggerated arpeggios and dramatic pauses between phrases. The audience always gets a kick out of this.

Often there is dancing as well as music. For the past few years,  Cathy and Dave have invited a small group from the Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers to come on stage and dance an old-time square at the beginning of their set; this year they also invited us to come back on stage at the end of their set to dance a waltz and do a little clogging. The audience seems to enjoy watching us dance, even if they don’t join us later at the open dance at Turner Hall after the concert.

Many of the tunes and songs have a river theme, as you might have guessed from the name of the festival. In addition to growing up along the Missouri River, Cathy and Dave spent seventeen summers on the Mississippi River, playing music on the Delta Queen riverboat. Consequently, many of the songs and tunes they have collected and written over the years are about life on the river. Frogs and turtles and water birds often appear in the designs for the backdrop at Thespian Hall and for festival t-shirts. Behind the small stage at Turner Hall where the musicians play for the Friday night dance is a painting of a riverscape.

Another equally strong theme of the festival is loss: loss of a way of living, loss of place, and loss of friends and family who have passed on, including Cathy and Dave’s dear friend Bob Dyer, who was a big part of this festival from the beginning and who also wrote and performed many songs and stories about the river.  Often I find myself weeping during the performances, when I think about all who have gone ahead or hear about people or places I wish I had known: an old woman named Hazel whose belongings are up for auction, a fiddler who lost his fingers in a logging accident, or the residents of a town named Ellenton, SC, which was taken over by the government for the purpose of producing materials for the H-bomb. This year both themes were particularly strong, because the Delta Queen riverboat has recently been put in dry dock due to financial problems, and Cathy and Dave and many others are mourning the loss of a grand tradition. The large ceramic frog that serves as the festival mascot these days crouched stage left throughout the festival, sporting Bob Dyer’s straw hat.

The spirit and basic format of the festival has not changed much over the years, as far as I can tell, although the schedule has been tightened up a bit and the performances don’t tend to run over as often as they used to. Also, I think there may be fewer acts each night and fewer surprise appearances by performers not listed on the program, so each individual or group gets to perform longer. In recent years, there have been four or five performers scheduled each evening. I believe there may have been more workshops this year, but unfortunately I was not able to attend during the day on Saturday. By the time we arrived for barbeque before the evening performance, a group of musicians was jamming on the front porch of Turner Hall, making me wonder what a good time I had missed.

(Photos  and video from the Big Muddy Folk Festival website.)

Traditional Family Gathering

On a snowy day in early February, my husband Jim and I took off work to drive four hours west and a little ways north to Rossville, Kansas, for a traditional family gathering. It was snowing and foggy when we left, and the fields were covered with snow the whole drive, but the roads were clear. When we arrived a little before 6:00 at the Potowatamie Nations Community Center just outside of town, the band—Fox on the Run—was already there unloading their instruments. Young girls were carrying evening gowns and fancy dresses out of their cars. Inside, the hall was decorated with blue and silver balls and large sparkly snowflakes hanging by single lines from the ceiling tiles. A food table with a bright blue table cloth was set up along the back wall. To the left of the food table a crucifix was hanging on the wall. The hall was divided in two, with chairs set up on the side nearest the door and a large space for dancing on the other side of the hall. Over the center of the dance hall was a large blue and silver bow draped from the ceiling, with wide ribbons leading out in all directions toward the walls. A small stage was set up on the side of the hall, where the sound man was setting up speakers and talking to the band members. At the far end of the dance hall were several large lighted snowpeople and bare branches that looked like small trees with twinkling white lights.

The organizer, wearing a long dark green gown, welcomed us and asked how the roads were. She told us that a family of ten was driving up from Springfield, Missouri, for the weekend, but another large family from Joplin, Missouri, had decided not to come because of the weather. She explained that the traditional family gathering is held twice a year and always starts with a dance on Friday evening. She expected as many as two hundred people to show up. One year they had a square dance, and the caller brought  records, but she didn’t think the children enjoyed that so much. Another time they hired a contra dance caller and a band, but she thought the caller took too much time teaching and not enough time dancing. She asked Jim about the kinds of dances he planned to call. She wondered if the band could play some swing at some point during the evening, because some of the kids liked swing dancing.

While the band did their sound check, a young boy about six years old, wearing a suit and tie, walked up to a little girl about five, who was wearing a fancy red dress, and held his arms out to her in ballroom position. She placed her left hand on his shoulder and he placed his right hand on her back, and they began to polka around the hall. I whispered to Jim that I hoped he had some harder dances picked out, because it looked like this crowd knew what they were doing. Three girls about ten years old, all wearing long dresses, put their arms around each other’s shoulders and skipped around the hall in time to the music. By that time, more people were coming in, and the level of conversation increased in the hall, as people greeted one another. All the men and boys were wearing suits or nice slacks and ties. A few had on tuxedos. The girls were wearing somewhat old-fashioned formals and evening gowns and had their hair up; a few had ringlets. Only a handful of the girls had short hair. One of the women, a kindergarten teacher, later commented on how proud she was of the girls for having found such modest dresses. “That’s not easy these days,” she said, “with all the spaghetti straps and the plunging necklines.” Several of the dresses looked hand made. There were lots of children and babies and many teenagers, but few old people.

Shortly after 6:30, the band finished with their sound check, and Jim invited the dancers to “find a partner and form a big circle” for the first dance. The dancers were somewhat subdued at first, as though they weren’t convinced this was going to be much fun and were reluctant to leave the conversations on the brightly lit side of the hall, but as the evening went on, more dancers joined in each time, until by the end of the evening, over one hundred people of all ages were dancing together, clapping their hands, skipping around during the longways sets, whooping when the squares went “into the middle and back.” Jim called several longways sets, a couple circle dances, an English country dance, and a couple of old-time squares. During breaks, the band played swing dances and waltzes. One young teen requested “Cotton Eyed Joe.” Jim ended the evening with the Virginia Reel, as he often does when he calls for home-school groups or church groups or reenactment dances. For some reason, this dance is always more popular than any of the other similar reels.

After he completed the walk-through but before the band started playing, the young people began clapping a very fast rhythm. Although the band had not intended to play the tune that fast, they decided to go with it, and Jim started the dancers off with “long lines forward and back” and continued calling through the right-hand turns, the left-hand turns, the do-si-dos, until he got to everyone’s favorite part, where the top couple “reels the set,” and the rest of the dancers clap their hands as the couple works their way down the set and then “sashays” back to the top. The top girl then leads the line of girls around the outside and back to the bottom of the set, while the top boy leads the line of boys in the opposite direction. At the bottom of the set, the lead couple forms an arch and the other couples then duck through the arch and come back to the top of the hall, where the whole thing begins again with a new top couple. There were six or seven sets of dancers at that time; each set had ten or twelve couples; one set had all elementary-age children, others had all teenagers, some had a mix, a few sets included adults.

After a few times through the dance, the sets usually get off from each other, depending on how many couples are dancing, how fast the top couples are able to reel the set, how quickly the lines skip down to the bottom and back up through the arch. Usually Jim will stop calling at that point, and the dancers will continue on their own until everyone has had a chance to reel the set at least once, which often takes twenty minutes or more, depending on how many dancers are in each set. Several of the sets were flying through the dance (the set I was watching had about eight or ten very tall and handsome young men, probably all brothers, who were doing high kicks during portions of the dance and “high fives” as they passed the other men in the line), and the energy in the room was contagious. After twenty minutes or so, when the music stopped and the dance ended, everyone applauded loud and long. Jim thanked the band and quoted Mark Twain who once said that “any fiddler who can fiddle all through one of those Virginia Reels without losing his grip can be counted on in any situation.”