New England Barn Dancing - A First Fiddling Experience
by Jan Farrar-Royce
In the Northeast he is known as "The Source," and "The Last of the Old-Style Musicians." Barn dance fiddler and caller, Dudley Laufman, has become an icon of New England's musical heritage. And so I made the three-hour trip from Connecticut to New Hampshire to experience the fiddling adventure of a community barn dance for the first time.
If it weren't for the many cars parked at the entrance of his driveway and a steady flow of people disappearing down the dirt path to his home, it might have been impossible to find. Dozens of bouncing beams of light illuminated the winding quarter mile road that led through woods to the two-room cabin. The vision of a thin trail of smoke drifting from the chimney of the wooden plank house and small paned windows, bright yellow against the dark outlines of distant mountains, indicated that we had finally reached Dudley's homestead, Wind in the Timothy.
It was like having entering into the America of a hundred or more years ago.
Inside this charming and efficiently appointed home that they built, the sense of community that placed more value on each other's company than on electronic entertainment was strong. The smell of delicious homemade baking was mixed with sheep's wool, carded and dyed earthy colors for the beautiful sewing projects that the women had brought to share work on. The guests were dressed casually - or festively. They brought homemade brownies, apple cider, wine and elaborate hors d'oeuvres. They were neighbors and business associates. Talk was of their children and hobbies. They represented a variety of lifestyles, all connected by their desire to dance, to play their instruments and to mingle in this totally inclusive participatory social event.
Allowing unlimited "sit-ins" is another feature of New England Barn Dancing and the increasing influx of people barely left room for the many musicians to unpack their concertinas, fifes, flutes, guitars, banjos, mandolins and, of course, fiddles. Local professionals and amateurs greeted each other with affection and sat side by side as they gossiped, joked and prepared to play.
At Dudley's summons we assembled in the dance hall. The floors, walls and ceiling, made from various woods salvaged from former farm structures, glowed a reddish-yellow in the brighter lighting of this room and thin benches outlined its perimeter. It seemed implausible that all these couples were going to be able to move about in this modest space.
At the far end of the hall sat Dudley next to his partner in life and music, Jacqueline. Together they are known professionally as Two Fiddles. They were surrounded by musicians; all of whom strained to hear themselves tune while the dancers searched out their first partner with joyous clamor.
The first tune began with Dudley calling directions in phrases that I didn't recognize. But the dancers easily glided from step to step, creating formations that were moving art. The unique combination of instruments and their simultaneous performance of several melodic variations and harmonies created a singular timbre. The decibels of sound rose dramatically from the combination of music, pounding feet and the laughter and exclamations that pierced the air. The atmosphere was charged with heightened excitement.
Being new to fiddling, I sat near the exit, at the opposite end of the hall from the other musicians and I held my fiddle on my lap as I tried to pluck out the melody being played. I couldn't see the players through the batch of bobbing bodies between us, but I could hear them playing over the dense sound of bounding, panting, whooping and merriment. But soon my host gestured toward his partner, Jacqueline, who smiled at me with open warmth as she patted an empty chair beside her, and I was told that, "The band is on the other side of the room."
Now many patient teachers encouraged me as I struggled through the tunes. From this vantage point I could steal an occasional glance at the dancers. It was marvelous to watch the graceful way their bodies swung with the music. Each person smoothly glided in totally individual expression of the same steps. The dance truly seemed to partner those on their feet with those who held instruments. The connection between them was so complete that it was impossible to tell whether the musicians were leading or answering the dancers' movements in the way they phrased and accented the tunes. It was obvious why Dudley encourages every musician to also enjoy at least one dance from the floor, as even he and Jacqueline do, and whether I was playing or dancing it was easy to be intoxicated by the combination of music and motion.
My heart was never lighter than it was as I exchanged warm smiles with other players and dancers. Neither the tunes nor the steps of New England barn dancing are complex. The emphasis is not athletics or competition but inclusion and socialization; but by the intermission I was at once exhilarated and exhausted. It was amazing how much there was to say to these people whom I hadn't known just a few hours before. By midnight, when the dance began to wind down, it was difficult to bid farewell to my new friends and this special evening.
In the several years that have followed I have studied and played with several well-known fiddlers and played in bands of my own, but I have never forgotten the magical feeling of my first barn dance at the Wind in the Timothy. Nor have I lost any of my enthusiasm for New England barn dances. The tunes, the calls and the steps are all familiar friends now and my love for the music and this wholesome, fun loving, truly American and community-oriented activity has only increased. It has become hard to imagine life without this kind of partying or remember a time when I did not fiddle at barn dances.
Janet Farrar-Royce has recently been appointed to American String Teacher Association's National Alternate Styles Committee and writes articles, gives workshops and college courses about bringing fiddling into mainstream string instrumental music programs. You can reach the Laufmans and Janet's web page at www.laufman.org.
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