Author: Cornish, Rick

Old-Time Day Dance

I’ve received and sent a remarkable number of emails in the past couple weeks devoted to the old-time-day-at-the-FDF concept. (All good, I might add.) As we stated here, we’re leaving the planning for the occasion up to Mark Hogan and Carolyn Faubel, but they’ve asked for input and judging from the cc’s I’ve gotten, they’re getting plenty of it. (Again, very good.)

While no final, final decisions have been made about our first annual Old-time Day, one thing is for absolute certain, and that is that there’ll be dancing. LOTS OF DANCING. I personally haven’t been around a whole lot of old-time dancing…..square dancing, contra dancing, the other names I don’t even know… I thought I’d share with the folks in the same boat this month’s Old-Time Rambler article which, it just so happens, is about dancing.

Playing For A Dance
From the Old-Time Rambler (Geoff Crawford)

What's it like playing old-time music for a dance? Pretty much the same as in a jam, or in a performance? Oh, no, not on your tintype. (I won't be explaining that 19th century saying, because I haven't a clue, nor do the obvious googlawiki online sources. A challenge to all y'all.) But dancing is a big reason for old-time music to have lasted so long. Well, it's also for playing and listening, but if it has a practical function, it's for dancing.

Anyway, I myself have played for a goodly number of dances, and the major watchword is, Steady! As in Hand On The Tiller. The band must keep a strong and steady beat throughout the dance, which can last a while, like even up to 15 minutes or more. Of course the melody has to be there, and there is room for some improvisation melodically, but the steady rhythm is what helps the dancers dance, and when they're dancing, they're having fun, and when they're having fun, the band is having fun.

There are different kinds of dances, some of which can accommodate a crooked tune (with extra beats beyond the usual 32 in the A part and 32 in the B part of the tune, or beats left out, or extra parts) so long as the rhythm is steady. But, and this is almost always true for a contra dance, sometimes the caller wants 32 and 32, no deviation. One reason is that in a contra dance, the caller walks the dancers through the calls before the music starts, then maybe a few more times after the music starts, but then the caller stops calling and the dancers remember the moves for the rest of the dance, taking cues from the music itself. Another frequent aspect of a contra dance is that when the A part of the tune is over and the B part begins, the tune chosen frequently has a distinctively different quality to the B part and the dancers have a distinctively different set of moves to dance then too.

Fiddling for a dance needs a lot of focus, because the fiddle melody floats above the other instruments and mistakes are pretty audible. The banjo player has to keep both melody and rhythm going, with a kind of double focus required. (The combination of fiddle and banjo have been used over time as the only accompaniment for dances, before the guitar and other instruments began to be added.) If there's a guitar, rhythm and chords are obviously vital, and it can be even more difficult in a different way--the danger of daydreaming is all too real. And the bass is a whole other story. (If you've always thought that playing the bass looks incredibly easy and mindless, just try it. Go on, try it. That smirk will wipe itself off pretty fast.)

Now let's talk medleys. Some callers want just one tune through the whole dance, some want more, some leave it up to the band. As anyone who's played for a dance can tell you, when making the transition from one tune to the other, it's crucial that the second tune start very, very strong to keep the dancers moving seamlessly. Hearing a new tune start can perk the dancers up and recharge them--IF it starts strong. Frequently at the Strawberry Music Festival dance down at Birch Lake, called by the amazing Masha Goodman Crawford (unsolicited but nevertheless biased endorsement), the band might decide to play a medley, but if wisdom is prevailing and the whiskey hasn't flowed too much yet, we actually do a quick rehearsal of the transitions. Our fearless leader of that band guards his privacy, so I'll just refer to him generically as Cactus Bob Cole. A supremely accomplished musician, he can transition from anything to anything and carry on a conversation at the same time. We mortals have to do a run-through, though, and hope that when we're going from "Over The Waterfall" into "Julianne Johnson", Bob doesn't suddenly call out, "Play it in F#!" (Sure, HE could actually play it in F#.)

Then there was the time at one of our dances in Fiddletown (yes, Fiddletown) when we were getting tuned up just before the 7:00 p.m. start, and we heard voices from out in the street. Masha went out to see, and found a group of over 30 people who had come from a memorial service for a family member who had died climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. The story seemed shocking, and the people were in the mood for some cheering up. Many of them were athletic types themselves, and it made for a really enjoyable dance. We (the band) watched as they got into the dancing more and more, which made us get into the music more and more too. It was one of the most fun conversations without words ever.

So if you're interested in sharpening your playing, find a dance where the band doesn't mind you standing in the back (even un-miked) and joining in at your own level. It is definitely hard work, but there's joy in it too. Occasionally peek at the dancers and you'll see what I mean.

Here are a couple of tunes (click below) that would definitely work for a dance. First, there's "Hell On The Wabash" from Chirps Smith's album "Midwestern Harvest". It's not 32 and 32 (see above), so it's not good for a contra, but fine for other dances. And then there's "Citigo" from Hammer And String (Rhys Jones and friends--See Old-Time Rambler #26 for more on our boy Rhys.), which is 32 and 32. And while this clip is about a minute, the track on the CD ("The Girl Who Broke My Heart") lasts 18 minutes and 27 seconds. (Remember the time of the Watergate tape gap? Coincidence?) This tune really challenges the chord players (in this case Cleek Schrey on piano) because the A major chord is all you need, except for half a beat of E if you can sneak it in once in the A part and twice in the B. Great tunes, I give them both a 10, and you can dance to them.

Hell On The Wabash

Posted:  12/7/2010

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