Contra Conversations

"The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation..."      Excerpted from NPS's mission statement.

Our Peninsula Dance (2nd and 4th Thursdays) rekindles the cultural heritage of contra dancing in the Cuyahoga Valley. This explains why, when we were looking for an alternative to the too-hard floor of our previous location, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park most willingly collaborated to rent the main floor in the restored Boston Township School House

The National Park Service helps us to advertise this dance, to set up the facility, and provides the assistance of Park Ranger Rebecca Jones. Rebecca, in her other life, describes herself as a die-hard, not-to-be-denied dance gypsy. 

"Contra Conversations" is an on-going series of short, interactive talks on some facet of our dance experience. Ranger Jones has presented these during the breaks of occasional dances. 


Everyone dances, from the angels on down.

Rebecca Jones, Park Ranger, National Park Service
From Contra Conversations #1, March 8, 2001

Everyone dances. From time immemorial, people have danced. From the circle dances around early fires, to the long lines facing each other in community events, to squares of couples facing each other, people have danced since man discovered joy. 

Dancing once had a ceremonial function, but it also has a social function. The contra dance, as we know it today, was once a community event held throughout New England. Many of you may be aware that people from Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York, settled the Western Reserve and the Cuyahoga Valley. When they came, they brought their dances with them.

Contra dancing was country dancing. It was the dance of the common man. Rarely refined, hardly polished, but energetic, and I would say, fun. It is most directly descended from English country dancing, where the men lined up in long lines across from the women. This form of line dancing of two opposing sides has been recorded in art as far back as Neolithic times.

English country dancing has its roots in what is today known as Morris dancing, an old style of pre-Christian ritual dancing. So if you can imagine, you are doing a dance today whose roots go back to pre-Christian times, when people danced to encourage the spring planting, to celebrate the harvest, to welcome winter.

Dance was handed down from one generation to the next. You learned the country dances and their songs from your parents, your peers, your neighbors. But some of that changed in 1620. In that year, a book was published, where for the first time traditional dances were written down by a publisher named John Playford.

What do you think was the lead instrument? Care to guess what they danced to? Why the devil’s instrument, of course! The fiddle.

Now that it was published, country dancing, the dance of every man, moved from the kitchens and fields into the city. Country dancing was formalized. The dancing could now be taught by dancing masters. The longways sets, where everyone could dance were most popular, and the circle and the square fell out of favor. For the teacher, this meant more pupils and more money.

All good people dance, from angels down. The dancing fever was taken to the New World by the Puritans and early settlers. By the 18th century, not knowing how to dance in Virginia was considered a lack of good breeding.

Jumping tracks, does anyone know who first proposed a canal for Ohio? It was George Washington! Evidently, he was quite the dandy. He loved dancing to distraction. He enjoyed the minuet, popular among the social elite, but would anyone care to guess what his favorite dance was? George Washington favored Sir Roger de Coverley, which we today know as the Virginia Reel.

By the time of the revolution, everyone was dancing country dance. Most of these dances we would recognize as contra dances, some of which were old traditional dances or had been created to celebrate events. Contra dance was a universal language all dancers and dancing masters understood. It was the “in” dance, being most democratic (with liberty and justice for all). Our allies, the French, called it “contredanse” from which our word contra dance derives.

With the arrival of the French for our struggle for independence, came a “new”/old form of dance, the square, which the French called the quadrille. Squares or quadrilles had been known for some time, but their popularity rose. For a time, the two existed side by side.

But then came our second struggle with Great Britain, the War of 1812. After 1812, the English contra dance fell out of favor, providing a place for squares in American dancing. Maybe P.C. people refused to dance the English contra dances, preferring the politically correct French quadrilles!

But in New England, and in the rural areas, along the back roads, in the backcountry, in places as remote as Boston, Berea, and Independence, contra stayed alive. Rural areas do not change fast.

So quadrilles moved to the city, became more refined, moving into ballrooms and dance halls. But out in the country, dancing moved into the barn and into kitchens, places where dances had always been held for the common people. These “junkets” as they were called were unadorned, but vigorous and lively.

By 1875, traditional dances such as the Virginia Reel were touted as “un-fashionable.” The polka and the scandalous waltz had arrived. As early as 1840, writers were decrying the scandal of the “valse” where two people could dance alone, touching each other! Gone was the democracy of dancing with all, the community dance.

By the late 1800s, dancing masters, those who taught dancing and strove to keep it proper, found themselves at odds with a new trend. Dances were being led by “callers” who called out the figure. To boot, a new fashion had been invented by some anonymous New Englander. This new fashion, immediately hailed as a scandal, was the swing. Swinging changed country dancing forever. While it began as a simple, non-intimate move, it became a delicious, deliriously fast move in the hands of advanced dancers. IT WAS JUST PLAIN FUN! To the dancing master’s horror, it even invaded quadrilles.

By the turn of the last century, waltz and two step were in the cities, while squares and contras ruled the country. These squares and contras were led by callers and dominated by this new move, the swing.

In the end, country dance survived only in the most rural areas. It survived in New England, in the south, in the highlands. At its center stood the fiddler. Someone would call out the figures, sometimes in a set pattern like the contra dance, or sometimes in no set pattern. Dance was social. You came to dance, but also to be with people, talking, dancing, watching, and socializing. In the Appalachian region, the big circle dances and running sets were more popular. In the west, a hybrid thing evolved that would become western square dancing. But in New England, and spreading from its cultural hearth, the contra dance survived.

Industrialization led its inextricable march across history, but even as it steamrolled over life, an interest in all things folk began to evolve in response. Cecil Sharp began collecting notes and dances from an old form of dance known in rural England and America as Morris Dancing. In the southern highlands, settlement schools were recording, saving, reviving, and perpetuating all things traditional, including dance.

World War I exploded across the face of history and suddenly all things patriotic became fashionable. In 1918 “28 Contra Dances, Largely from New England States” was published and interest piqued in the dance. But there was another fashion in dance at the time: Jazz.

Jazz. Henry Ford hated Jazz. He sought to protect his America against these new changes (ironically which his invention spread). He hired Benjamin Lovett to promote old-style dancing, but only if it were a proper, sanitized, non-spontaneous square dancing. In Detroit he built a hall just for dancing.

But with or without Ford’s sense of propriety, country dance was surviving.

Country dance was surviving. As a child, I can remember my grandfather playing late night jigs, hornpipes, and reels. Ever try to go to sleep listening to that kind of music? It made my blood move! Years later I learned that my grandfather had been a fiddler and a caller at dances at Natural Bridge and at Renfro Valley in Kentucky during the 1930s.

At that time, there was a revival of contra dancing in New England. Consider it: It was the depth of the Depression. You couldn’t afford to go to do something fancy. But a dance at the Town Hall, or in someone’s kitchen was a different story. Here in the Valley, we know dances were held in Boston, in Everett. We know people had kitchen dances. What were they dancing? Probably some waltz, maybe some polka, some squares, and some longways sets. Concurrent with this revival, as a part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Projects, the WPA was out trying to record and save all things folk, including the dance.

In the 1940’s the popularity of square dancing began to rise. For the next twenty years, the popularity of country dancing remained steady. Then in the late 1960s through the 1970s, contra dancing was discovered by boomers and back to the land people. Here is a community dance, open to all, free for all.

In 1986, I was working at a nature preserve/organic farm/environmental education center and one Friday a month, it was my job, along with a coworker, to rake out the barn, scrape down the floor, tamp it down. That evening a barn dance was held in the largest, oldest Appalachian double crib barn west of the Alleghenies. Now if I am going to work that hard, I want to see what this is all about. I don’t know what I expected, big skirts or something. But that evening, as I approached the barn, I hear familiar strains of jigs, hornpipes, and reels. At the end of that dizzying, delirious evening, my blood was moving again. I knew this music. I was hooked.

And now, some 15 years later, I find myself in a blessed place, where I can combine two great passions of my life: contra dance and the National Park Service.

You might wonder why the park service is involved with this program. Part of the National Park Service’s mission is to preserve the natural and cultural resources, unimpaired for future generations. Contra dancing is part of the valley’s cultural history. Down in Everett, there was a dance hall. As I said, there were kitchen dances and the dance of the common man survived, influenced by current fashions, but survived. So today, we have the opportunity to participate in a living tradition here in the valley.

The dance is on. You can continue the tradition. John Bunyan said in the 17th century, “All good people dance, from the angels down.” And aren’t you good?

Author’s personal program notes, National Park Service.

Jack Larkin, “The Reshaping of Everyday Life” 1988, Harper Perennial, New York.

Richard Nevell, “A Time to Dance: American Country Dancing from Hornpipes to Hot Hash” 1977, St. Martin’s Press, New York.


Terms of the Dance

From Contra Conversations #2, May 10th, 2001

Most of us remember folk dancing with terror. Who does not have bad memories of folk dancing from middle school or gym? But those of us who contra dance have crossed that line. We come to dance, week after week, dancing a form of dance that is both very old and very new. We dance a living tradition that grows and changes with each new dance.

To the new dancer though, the lexicon of the dance is bewildering. The calls are ancient sounding, yet the dancers can follow them. Combined over and over into new dances, they are a limited language capable of limitless combinations. Yet where do the terms “swing” or “allemande” come from?

150 years ago, the swing was unknown. Probably invented in the late 19th century, it became possible only when societal mores allowed (against protest) a dancer to hold a member of the opposite sex in close proximity. From the Internet, I have read that there are 28 possible positions for the swing. However, the nose to elbow swing should only be tried by trained professionals!

The “Balance” that proceeds some swings is just that, a balancing of the weight on the right foot, then the left.

The “circle” and “star” are self-explanatory. Even the hands across star and the hand to wrist star still form a four-pointed star in the middle.

“Forward and back” also needs little explaining. It is a move that is thousands of years old; universally existing wherever there are line dances. American Indians were doing a forward and back in their line dances long before contra dancers ever surged forward and back in America.

“Ladies Chain” may have started its life as “ladies change” which is exactly what the women do.

“Twirl to Swap” is perhaps purely descriptive. It may be an “invented” term to cover the “Box the Gnat”, “Swat the Flea” and “California Twirl.” Research is ongoing as to the origins of those terms.

The gypsy may be a corruption from Flamenco or Gypsy move.

Other terms show the French influence on dance. “Do Si Do” or “Dos a Dos” is French for back to back, a description of the move itself. “Promenade” is French for walkway, where you would strut or promenade your stuff. “Sashay” is from the French “Chassez”.

Some moves get their name from the dance that first used them: the “Petronella” and “Rory O’More” being the best examples.

Yet other moves remain intriguing. “Allemande” means by the hand in French. Interestingly enough, there is a dance called the “Allemand” which is a spiral dance formed by two lines of dancers that do a right and left grand move. It is descended from a ritual dance celebrated at the festival of Al-monde. Al-monde was the almond dance, a dance connected to women’s fertility. A thought to consider next time the caller calls for an Allemande.

The calls date back hundreds of years, yet are re-combined constantly into new dances. And that is part of the definition of tradition, the ability to change and adapt to new styles. You are dancing a new dance, full of old moves. Consider that next time you step into “Balance and Swing” your partner.

Richard Nevell, “A Time to Dance: American Country Dancing from Hornpipes to Hot Hash”1977, St. Martin’s Press, New York.

Internet notes


Why We Dance!

From Contra Conversations #3, July 26th, 2001

As I sat watching the swirling, twirling figures of dancers at River Rendezvous, I found myself wondering, "Why do we do this? It’s July, it’s hot, we’re all sweating, and we are having a deliriously delightful time. Why do we dance?” I can answer the question for myself, but what about others?

Upon returning home to Northeast Ohio, with the throes of Reckless Abandon and Hotpoint still driving my blood, the question remained. I decided to throw it out to the community in general. So why do we dance? The question was posted via email and the answers came back. The answers are as varied as the dancers. Many hit a chord I’ve felt before. Others left me laughing, some left me wondering, but all were a delight.

Here are the answers, edited somewhat to protect the guilty.

Why do we dance?

"I dance to loosen my brain from the front of my skull, and stir things up a bit in there. Just kidding...I have always thought that contra dancers viewed things just a bit differently from the norm.  My theory is a dancer’s view of the world is caused by energetic swinging that pushes their brain to the back of their head. If you go too long without dancing, you begin to think like everyone else again, and need a dance fix to slosh your brain around again and loosen your cerebellum. That is why I dance (plus, seriously, the contact with real people who are smiling and enjoying themselves) I have been dancing for 20 years and still love it."

"Why do I dance??? Because I can't not dance!"

"Exercise - the people are a different bag - generally nonjudgmental - they just like to dance and don't care who or what you are - if you like to dance you are accepted with open arms (generally) - don't have to get dressed up!! I started dancing because I was at a place in my life that I could afford nothing and it was a great night of entertainment for not much money. I like the fact that it is a family affair -- 5-90 and I plan to be there when I am 90! We laugh a lot!"

"In response to your request: something to do that's fun for singles or couples. I've always loved to dance - this is fairly easy and fun; many can learn after a few sessions. It's wonderful aerobic dance - English Country dance is more graceful and beautiful, but this provides great exercise."

"I feel happy when I'm dancing when the dancing is good, the music is playful and has a great beat or sound."

"I suppose I started dancing for the joy of it, and I do still enjoy it a lot. More importantly, I continue dancing for the sense of community, the connection I feel to the people there."

 "I dance for the intense personal interaction between two souls longing to be free. This is where my soul flies to heaven on the wings of song and returns only when the last waltz is done..... yeah right!"

"I do dance for the fun and enjoyment of it all. The movement to music and, of course, the other people you meet."

"Meeting new babes, oops new possible members of our community, is also on the list of why. Social contact is always a large part of why one dances. To try to explain why, is like painting a sun in a picture after you are 6 years old. It cannot be done if you have never been outside.

"So explaining the joys of dancing to one who has not done it, is difficult. Rather I would say join in. Let your feet move to the sound. Become part of the dance. A dancer is part of the dance along with the musicians and caller. The direct experience of movement to music becomes self-explanatory."

"I go dancing 'cause I really enjoy it - great company, you don't need a partner - you can always find someone to dance with, and it's a lot of fun"

"I dance because it is a form of joyful meditation. I feel something like a whirling dervish – centered in the music, centered in the movement, centered in myself. As I meet each new partner I send a message of joy with a smile on my face. I leave the dance (usually) feeling invigorated yet relaxed. I remembered feeling this way as a child."

"Why dance? I guess it just feels good…feels right for me. I’ve always marveled at dances like the jitterbug, active at touching. Contra is active, but there is interaction. It is down to earth and anyone can do it. It isn’t limited to any age group or ethnic group. You don’t even have to know the person you’re dancing with! Contra allows for people who are a bit on the shy side and yet hungry for contact. A good evening of contra has a way of putting me on even keel again. Even if I don’t dance every dance, just the music and people are good medicine." 

·"The joy of moving to music."

·"The great people who dance and make music."

"The chance to be in the arms of a person of the opposite sex every 30 seconds, with no obligations! (Very important to the mental and physical health of a single person.)"

"Swinging women is much more fun than pumping iron! I like the folks in the dance community. I’ve made a lot of friends. I love the music!"

 "I dance because I love the music and I love to move and I like interacting with the people. I especially like dances where the dancers are experienced and the band is hot, but I also enjoy dances with newcomers and less experienced bands. I guess it’s the movement that’s fun. Being a regular, I also enjoy seeing people I know."

 "I dance because there is no smoking, you meet different people, and it helps you to think. It gets me out of the house and makes me travel."

 "I dance because the music tells me to."

"The most special thing about contra dancing is the people. Wherever I go, there is a common thread among contra dancers. It seems to attract honest, bright people who I trust. The nationwide and worldwide community is open, accepting, and loves to have a good time. I have found that contra dancers…have something special."

"Contra in itself is addictive because its’ like writing a sonnet in iambic pentameter. There are a set number of times that you have to be in a certain place at a certain time, to contribute to the spirograph-Celtic-knotwork beauty of the pattern of the dance.  Every dancer does the same basic moves; *how you say them, *how you dance from point A to point B, is up to you. Each dancer can lend his or her own personal style to their adherence to the structure or framework—this structure is what make it feel similar to writing a poem with strict meter. As you further define the boundaries within which you can be creative, narrowing the focus and form, creativity takes on a new challenge.  In the same metaphor, free-form dancing can be like a free-form verse or prose….I think swing dancing would be kind of like a haiku…but its contra dancing, with its’ space-truss structure, that pushes creative dancers and partners to new, Dr.-Seuss-crazy, rhyming creativity, with puns.

"Plus, the music is great, and the musicians are some of the greatest people I know. [They] play out of sheer love of the music."

"Why do I dance? It is one of the few places where my wilder child can come out and play. I can play, flirt, cavort, spin, swing, and when the dance is over, I go home. I feel secure in this community of people, many of whom dare to think and question for themselves. On the dance floor, there is room for each and every one of us, regardless of race, creed, politics, or beliefs. I may not agree with your views, but on the dance floor, I can feel and celebrate your humanity."

"Why do I dance? I dance because no matter how broken I feel, dancing with another, although they may be broken too, together, we are whole. I dance because when the world crumbles and I cry, dancing can bring back the smile. I dance because I love."

To each and every one of you who answered, I celebrate your answers. It is a good thing to know that I am dancing with like-minded people. See you on the dance floor.

So why do you dance?


Dance in the Valley

From Contra Conversations #4, September 13th, 2001

To everything there is a season and a purpose under heaven…There is a time to dance and a time to refrain from dancing.”

Ecclesiastes 3

It is a time of great loss and greater tragedy [two days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers, Pentagon, etc.]. I did not feel much like dancing as I thought about this program. But what greater need to dance, what greater need to come together as a community than at a moment like this? Life is for the living. A song has the words: “I am the dance and I will go on.

Dance. So we come here to dance, to meet people, to be with people in an open, safe environment. We come to nurture a feeling of connection, a feeling of community. We come to dance. Motives as old as music itself.

When settlers first arrived here from New England, they brought with them their culture and their dance. A type of dancing now very familiar to you: contra dancing. 200 years ago, doubtless, whenever families and neighbors gathered together to raise a barn, hold a corn shucking, the aftermath was invariably a dance. Clearing the new barn floor, or the kitchen itself, people lined up across from their partners to do dances like the ancestor of the Virginia Reel.

 This type of dance survived in the backwoods and rural areas for years. If you know the history of the Cuyahoga Valley, this was a rural area, despite the thriving industries in Peninsula and Boston. So doubtless, against the invasion of the quadrille, the valse, and later dances like the polka and schottische, the country dancing hung on. It even incorporated other forms of dancing, so an evening might feature a cultural smorgasbord of many types of dances.

The Everett Covered Bridge Dance (held each July) is not a new form or sound to the valley. When you are dancing in Everett, you are dancing in forms that have echoed there for at least a hundred years. Today in the little crossroads hamlet of Everett, one of the buildings has a long history of dance. Before the turn of the century, Stewart and Stull had a hotel in the hamlet. Stewart built a barn to house the horses of the travelers. Around the turn of the century, Rinaldo Chamberlain and his wife purchased the barn and converted the lower level into living quarters and the upper level into: a dance hall. This dance hall had, what Mrs. Lab called, “the most beautiful hardwood dance floor you ever saw.” The floor was built up on springs. Soon the dances proved so popular, braces had to be added to accommodate the additional weight. Dances were held every other Saturday throughout the winter months. They dances squares, a few “old-fashioned” contras, waltzes, polkas, and others such as foxtrot. Today that same building still exists: but as the Everett Ranger Station.

EverettSm.jpg (34014 bytes)[click on this picture, or the 3 that follow, for a larger version]


I recently spoke with Nina Stanford, a lifelong resident of Boston. At 92 years young, she still remembers going a time or two to dances held in Everett on the second floor of what is now the ranger station. Music was live and homegrown with a caller.

Of course she remembers the dances. Once she got a new dress, at least new to her in the beginning of the 1920s, a hand-me-down from someone’s fashionable dress from 10 years prior. Anyone familiar with fashion may remember ladies’ skirts from the time of World War I, hobble skirts. Designed to keep us walking lady-like in the face of the rising Suffragette movement, these skirts were very narrow. Ms. Stanford was to go to the dance with her older brother and the Bender boy. You can imagine how excited two teenage boys were to have their kid sister with them. So they decided to walk the train tracks from Ira to Everett. Poor Ms. Stanford, they must have fussed at her for not keeping up, until finally she hitched up the skirt and caught up. She didn’t go to the dances often, being too young, but she remembered they would bring children and babies to the dances. When they got sleepy and fell asleep, children and babies were tucked into the piles of coats on beds in rooms in the boarding part of the house.

Everett2Sm.jpg (35989 bytes)


Dance didn’t stop. After World War II, dances were held in the street at Everett. Now they truly reflected the cultural melting pot of the valley’s heritage. Dancing mazurka, quadrilles, round dances and contras, the street dances were held with a piano player, fiddle player and drums playing from a farm wagon, while the caller kept the dancers in line. Interestingly enough, notice that the swing is featured in one picture. I thought it intriguing that everyone seems to be doing a walking step.

Dances here in the Boston Township Hall are not a new idea. This was a school for years, and doubtless when it was a high school, some of Henry Ford’s proper square dances were held here. But sometime prior to World War II, the high school moved out of the hall. After the war, the grange obtained the building.

You may be doing new dances. You may be dancing to new tunes. But the tradition you are keeping nothing new. The grange, beginning in the 1950s hosted dances here.

BTSDanceSm.jpg (34226 bytes)BTSRestoreSm.jpg (29389 bytes)


Old New England was not the only place that saw a revival in interest in square dancing.

As dancers, I think we need to speak with our bands. Judging from the pictures, our bands are seriously underdressed. Where are their suits, coats and ties? Traditions, by their nature change, but still live on.

And that is why the National Park Service is involved today. Many of you have heard me say that the park service is charged with preserving the cultural and natural resources unimpaired for future generations. This is the heritage of the valley, the very tradition you are participating in today.

In the song, the “Lord of the Dance”, the words go:

They cut me down,

I leapt up high

I am the light that will never, never die,

I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me,

I am the Lord of the Dance said he.

Dance, dance, wherever you may be.


Interview, Nina Stanford, September 5, 2001, Boston Mills, Ohio.

Everett Reference folder, Cuyahoga Valley National Park Archives.

Many thanks to Randy Bergdorf and the Peninsula Historical Society for providing information and the great pictures.

[pictures are presented here by permission of the Peninsula Historical Society, text by permission of Rebecca Jones]


Name That Tune

From Contra Conversations #5, October 25, 2001         

Stories can haunt you, hunt you down, and find you at odd moments. One evening while contra dancing, the band began playing a tune I had not heard since I moved out of Chicago eight years before. Dancing happily to the tune, humming along the harmony line, I wondered about the tune title. Have you ever stopped to consider where the tunes come from that dancers dance to? What are the stories behind these tunes? Surely there is a story to the tune I was hearing, “Nail that Catfish to the Tree.”

The ability to play music, or better yet the ability to write tunes, amazes me. Where do they come from? One tunesmith said that tunes just come. He just takes a part of a tune and jumbles it up and it comes out new. The definition of a traditional artist is one who can break down an art form to its most basic components and reassemble them in new, yet still traditional ways. According to the musician Larry Unger, the hardest part may be naming the tune.

That familiar tune, “Nail that Catfish to the Tree” is a new traditional style tune, written by Chicago native Steve Rosen. According to the story I have heard, he was fishing in the south and caught a catfish. Some older man told him the only way to skin a catfish was to “Nail that Catfish to the Tree” and skin him out. Thus, we have the title to a very danceable tune.

So what are the stories behind the tunes? Many tunes now considered American traditional tunes have roots in the blackface minstrelsy tradition of the early 19th century. One such tune “Arkansas Traveler” is as old as the state itself, but was popularized by minstrels in the early 1800s.

Like “Arkansas Traveler”, “Soldier’s Joy” was also popularized by minstrelsy. But the tune is much older than that; it was known in Europe by other names. “Soldier’s Joy” may be a reference to opium and/or drug addiction, a problem soldiers encountered after the Civil War. Many soldiers had been given opium or drugs after being wounded and found themselves addicted to the very drugs that may life tolerable. We may never be able to trace what the “Soldiers Joy” was, or the story behind it. The tune is also well known in Scandinavia and the British Isles. The Amish who live throughout the counties in north central Ohio know this tune as "Two Rattle," and if no instrument is available, they pat out the rhythms of the tune with their hands as a play party game.

Other occupations left their marks on tunes’ names. Some boatman at some time must have written the tune “Boatin’ Up Sandy.” It is a reference to boating through the breaks (rough waters) of the Sandy River at the meeting of Kentucky, Virginia, and Ohio.

Even seaman named tunes that found their way inland. “Billy and the Low Ground” may be a reference to the Lowlands, the toughest job on a clipper ship: manning the pumps to pump out the bilge water. The title may have been borrowed from “Edwin in the Lowlands Low,” which became the “Lowlands,” a sea chantey. Again, this tune is so old and widespread, its exact story may not be traceable. This tune appears in Knauff’s Virginia Reels (1839), called "Billy in the Low Grounds: A Virginia Reel," reflecting a Southside Virginia tradition in the earlier nineteenth century. The tune has the feel of an old British-American tune, but it cannot be tracked clearly beyond the American Upper South.

Many tunes crossed over the water following seaman and settlers. “Over the Waterfall” is a tune that is also known in Great Britain, but by other names. There is a 19th century print of this tune, but it is probably much older. While the story behind the tune may not be known, it does have a tale. The Library of Congress collected this tune in association with “Egg and Marrow Bones,” a story of domestic problems that led a wife to attempt to kill her husband. Unfortunately she wound up being drowned through his counter plot. Doubtless other tunes have equally macabre stories, such as “Hangman’s Reel.” One British name for “Over the Waterfall” is the “Job of Journeywork”. By the way, some musicians are so sick of playing “Over the Waterfall” that it is called the tune that wouldn't go away.

“Oklahoma Rooster” was collected from the playing of Uncle Dick Hutchinson of Disney, Oklahoma. It doesn't especially sound like an imitation of a rooster although there are a lot of tunes that imitate chickens. In fact someone once told a fiddle player quite seriously that if you want to play old time fiddle right, you have to make it imitate the rhythm of a chicken with walking and squawking. So he spent about a half-hour following around the chickens in the neighbors' yard playing the fiddle.

But what about other tunes? Some are recent, others of Irish descent, some of English descent, and some are mongrels. But one tune’s alternate name is haunting.

"Bonaparte's Retreat" is a well-known march among fiddlers of the Upper South, and by now it has moved into general circulation as a specialty fiddle tune. The tune is a scion of an old Irish air, "The Eagle's Whistle." There are good Irish examples of this song, so clearly the tune was associated with Bonaparte in the British Isles as well as in the American South. The Stepp recording of the tune has a special niche in American musical history, since it became the basis for the "Hoedown" in Aaron Copland's music for Rodeo.

While all these tunes are played in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, this is not the only park with stories. A number of stories can be learned at other parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

War is never a good thing, except for the gun makers and the generals. War is especially hell when it comes between one people. The Civil War was not civil at all: for the Smokies, it was hell on earth. Brother fought brother and son fought father. Some of you may not be aware, but East Tennessee and Western North Carolina had a strong Unionist tendency­—so strong that Tennessee was unable to secede from the Union. And within the coves and hollows of the mountains, Union sympathy still ran high. One such sympathizer was Henry Grooms of Cataloochee, Tennessee. A locally well-known fiddle player, his services were much in demand. At the onset of the war, he was conscripted into the Confederate Army. But he managed to escape at some point and went home to hiding places in the Smokies. In the final days of the war, he was caught and arrested by Officer Albert Teague. Grooms was to be marched from Cataloochee, along with his brother and another man, to Cosby, Tennessee to stand trial for desertion. But along the way, Officer Teague decided there were more expedient ways to justice. He forced the three men to dig holes. Realizing what was happening, Grooms asked for a last request, which Teague granted.

Why Grooms had his fiddle with him, we may never know. But what he did next was an act of defiance. Knowing the Confederate cause was lost, Grooms chose to play a very popular tune, “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” named after Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Bonaparte retreated, and the South would too. [A recorded rendition of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” started playing in the background.]

This blatant slap in the face of Teague only infuriated him. Today, there are gravesites for the three men who dared defy the Confederate cause. And in some parts of Cosby, Tennessee and Haywood County, North Carolina, you can still hear “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” but you must ask for “Grooms Tune.”

John & Alan Lomax. “Folksong U.S.A.” 1947, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, New York.
Michelle Shocked, “Arkansas Traveler” Liner notes.
Doug Phillips & Roger Howell, “Blue Ridge Mountain Music” Liner notes, 1991, Ivy Creek Publications.
Larry Unger, 2001, Personal Correspondence.


History of Traditional Instruments

From Contra Conversations #6, January 10th, 2002

 <to be supplied>


Stitching Together the Dance: Quilts and Dance Names

From Contra Conversations #7, March 14th, 2002

 Follow THIS LINK and click on the projection screen icon on the lower right of the web page to run the slide show. This is best viewed on a fast connection (cable, DSL, T1, etc.) at a time when the internet is less busy.


Fiddling Around

When settlers first traveled to the New World, the fiddle was both an instrument of high art and an instrument of folk music. The fiddle had evolved, or devolved from the violin, which itself had evolved from an earlier bowed instrument: the medieval fiddle. These earliest violins, of course, played both popular music and for dances. The violin was absorbed upward into art music or classical music, but it has always remembered its folk roots as its alter ego: the fiddle.

For the frontier here in Cuyahoga Valley in the early 19th century, the fiddle was music itself. Often the only portable instrument available before the arrival of the Ohio and Erie Canal, it was played butt against the fiddler’s chest, rather than up against the chin as dancers see Strings and Things musician Dave Rice playing it today. Its wail and screel sounding the Irish reels and English songs called the early settlers to husking bees, house and barn raisings, weddings, and funerals.

The only ingredient necessary at a frontier frolic was the fiddle. Its rosined scream could cut through the sound of any rowdy crowd and call all to a dance. Many folks already know that George Washington loved dancing to distraction. But how many are aware that our third president was known to be a fine fiddler? Not only was he busy inventing, but Thomas Jefferson was known for fiddling around as well.

There was magic in the fiddle for some settlers here in the valley. Jonathan Hale of Hale Farm was a well-known fiddler. There is an old folk-belief that the fiddle is Old Nick’s instrument. This belief was strengthened by many "men of the cloth."

The fiddle was not a respectable instrument. Many a preacher has wagged his finger at his congregation, promising eternal damnation for the "fiddling and dancing crowd" if they did not give up fooling with Satan’s business (Lomax, p.74). The fiddle was considered the devil’s instrument, and to learn to play it was to sell your soul to Old Nick himself. The fiddle might have been the devil’s instrument, preachers may have showered hellfire and brimstone on the dancers, and communities may have been devastated by the brawls that erupted at late night breakdown dances, but people still flocked to the dance. As one young man said, " Thunder and lightening, a man has to have a chance to git to the gals sometimes!"

So what is it that makes this a fiddle and not a violin? What is a fiddle exactly?

The major differences are in how they are learned to play and how they are played. One learns to play the violin from trained teachers. The fiddle is learned from neighbors, peers, dances, from anyone or anyplace with a new tune. The violin is typically played a note at a time, while multiple strings and harmonies may be called into play on a fiddle. Or maybe it’s just the spirit of the instrument itself. The same instrument played for different audiences with different purposes.

References: Lomax, John A. and Alan. Folk Song: U.S.A. Duell, Sloan and Pearce: New York. 1947.


The Sort Of History of the Dulcimer

We are blessed to hear Tina Bergman and Bill Brennan playing their hammered dulcimers at the Boston Township Hall Contra Dance every second and fourth Thursday of the month. Did you ever wonder where this industrial cheese slicer comes from? The hammered dulcimer has been considered somewhat of a “fotched” revivalist instrument from the Appalachian Mountains.

 In researching the history of the hammered dulcimer, one of the funniest articles I came across had a title to the effect of “the history of the hammered dulcimer finally not fully explained.” As with all things folk, sometimes the story is hard to trace, handed down from one generation to the next.

 There seems to be some agreement that the hammered dulcimer as we know it is probably about 500 years old, originating in the near east. From there it traveled east to India and China and west, perhaps being carried by Moors to Spain and from there on to Europe. In the late middle ages, early Renaissance period, pictures of either the dulcimer or its cousin, the psalter, are found.

 Dulcimers have many names in many lands: “dulcymore, salterio, tsimbal, tsimbaly, santour, yang q'in, hackbrett, and cymbalom.” The name “dulcimer” is derived from Latin, meaning “sweet sound,” “sweet tune,” or “sweet melody.” Hammered dulcimers were popular in England during the reign of James I, when the Bible was translated into English as the King James Bible. The dulcimer was mentioned in the Book of Daniel, 3:5, among other instruments, “…the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick....” The word in the original Hebrew text is now known to mean something other than “dulcimer”; and it is believed the King James translators were doing the best they could with knowledge available to them at the time. Or else they were contra dancing on the side.

The dulcimer provided much of the inspiration for the piano. The dulcimer is capable of considerable dynamic nuance; a wide range of effects from loud to soft can be achieved, depending on the manner in which the player strikes the strings. Harpsichords were quite limited in their quality of expressiveness and the clavichord was severely limited in volume. The pianoforte was the result of attempts to overcome these restraints, and the solution was to excite the strings with leather or felt hammers as on the dulcimer.

Dulcimers were reasonably common domestic and concert instruments in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. No doubt they were first brought to the colonies from England. Portability and simplicity made the dulcimer much more practical than the piano for many settlers as they moved west. The areas composing the American frontier from 1810 to 1840 were western New York, Ohio, West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. It’s no coincidence that these frontier locations were the areas where the dulcimer had its greatest popularity, and where the strongest remnants of its use survive today. Records exist of the dulcimer being used not only at dances and parties, but in church services as well. Thousands were produced in homes, small wood-working shops, and factories. In the latter part of the century, they could even be obtained through mail-order from Sears, Roebuck, and Company and Montgomery Ward catalogs.

Several dulcimer factories were thriving in western New York during the 1850s and 1860s. They employed salesmen who played and sold their instruments as far away as Missouri and into the southern states.

The extreme portability of the dulcimer led to an association with the lumber camps of Maine and Michigan. Michigan continued to nourish a persistent tradition of dulcimer hammering well into the 20th century. It is still referred to as a "lumberjack's piano" in the North. As names for the dulcimer go, however, the American appellation "whamadiddle" must be ranked as most colorful, with a close second in the German term "hackbrett," literally "chopping board"!

The dulcimer remained most popular with the common people, and never quite reached the same level of social prestige as the piano. With the construction of the railroads in the mid 1800s, transportation concerns were no longer an issue, and the piano once again became accessible in even the remotest regions of the country. Music educators at the time believed that studies of European classical music would be the best way to promote taste and refinement on the new frontier, so studies of the violin and piano were encouraged, while indigenous folk music was frowned upon. All of these factors contributed to the decline in popularity of the dulcimer. Skills were not passed down to succeeding generations, and the instrument survived only in isolated pockets.

In the 1920s and 1930s there was a brief resurgence of the hammered dulcimer, fueled (pardon the pun) by automobile producer Henry Ford. Ford believed that old-fashioned music and dancing promoted old-fashioned morality, and formed the Henry Ford Early American Orchestra in 1924. Among other instruments, the group contained a fiddle, double bass, and hammered dulcimer. They played on several radio shows and regularly performed at square dances at the company’s headquarters.

But folk instruments die hard. The instrument was once again revived in the 1970s by folks like Sam Rizzetta, John McCutcheon, and the entire '70s folkie movement. And even today we continue to dance to an instrument that once rung throughout the Cuyahoga Valley.


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