The Nelson diaspora

This will be our first winter in California. I won’t miss New Hampshire’s snow and ice. But I’ll sure miss our regular Friday night gatherings with friends in Keene. And on Monday nights my thoughts will turn to the village of Nelson, eleven miles up the road. There, for longer than anyone knows, people have been playing fiddle tunes and celebrating a great contra dance tradition. On a cold winter night, when the whirling bodies of the dancers warm up the old town hall, it’s magical.

Gordon Peery, who for decades has accompanied the dancers on piano, once lent me a DVD documentary about the Nelson contra dance tradition. In a scene filmed at the Newport Folk Festival in the mid-1960s, the Nelson contra dancers appeared on the same stage as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. I had no idea!

Here’s a video of a couple of minutes during a typical Monday night dance. To most people who don’t know the building, or the village, or the people, or the tunes, or the tradition that’s stayed vibrant there for so many years, it won’t mean much to you. To a few, though, it will resonate powerfully. That’s because Nelson, NH is the origin of a contra dance diaspora that spread across the country.

Although we aren’t contra dancers, we visited from time to time just to savor the experience. Then, a few years ago, in search of musical companionship, I began attending the jam that precedes the dance. There, beginning and intermediate musicians to learn how to play the dance tunes, mainly ones collected in these two books:

The Waltz Book opens with a tune written by Bob McQuillen, who played piano at the Nelson dance decades until his death in early 2014. And the book closes with a tune by Niel Gow, the Scottish fiddler who died in 1807.

The Waltz Book also includes a couple of Jay Ungar tunes, including Ashokan Farewell. Most people think it’s a tune from the Civil War. In fact Jay Ungar wrote it in 1982, and it became famous in 1990 as the theme of Ken Burns’ documentary about the Civil War.

The New England Fiddler’s Repertoire might also have included a mix of recent and traditional tunes. Instead it restricts itself to “established tunes” — some attributed to composers from the 1700s or 1800s, others anonymous. But it’s full of reminders that people have never stopped dancing to those traditional tunes. Here’s the footnote to Little Judique:

February 12. Played for a Forestry Meet dance in a barn with a sawdust floor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. The temperature was 15 degrees below zero.

– Randy Miller, dance journal, 1978

As I page through these books now, and continue to learn to play the tunes in them, I’m grateful to have lived in a place where they were celebrated so well, and to have participated (in a small way) in that celebration. How will I continue that here? I don’t know yet, but I’m sure I’ll find a way.

5 Comments

  1. Jon, How about some references to some recorded music that represents the contents of the books? Perhaps an easy way to “keep in touch”? Jim

  2. I drove my (then high school-age) daughter to a contra dance here in Portland, Oregon a couple years ago. It looked and sounded just like that video you shared. What fun for the dancers, but also for the musicians. Playing music for dancers is unlike playing for a seated audience. It’s so much more fun.

  3. Also seeking out community a few years ago, I joined a group of people here in MN that play traditional Irish dance tunes and sing traditional songs (I sing and play mandolin). That community and the activities/sessions/concerts involved have become an important part of my life. I’d certainly miss them if I moved.

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