2010 Lifetime Contributor ~ Tom Kruskal

Interview • Music samplesTribute & chronology

Interviewed by Pat MacPherson

Tom has had a very full life apart from English music and dance: running a successful jewelry business Tom Kruskal Designs, working with sculptor Dimitri Hadzi, designing stone fountains for fifteen years, visiting rock quarries, singing, and cooking.

To elicit the following interview, Pat MacPherson spent a wonderful evening talking and eating dinner with Tom Kruskal and his wife Deborah, who has been his sounding board and helpmate for his many projects. Two of Tom and Deborah’s young friends, Erika Roderick and David Fleischmann-Rose, stopped by at dinner time to add their voices to the conversation. Their freeform talk ranged from Tom’s youth to the present, circling around and eventually answering the question of what drives him to create as much as he has.

Tom Kruskal
[photo by David Green]

TOM: I went to the first University of Chicago Folk Festival in 1961.

PAT: Why did you go?

TOM: That’s a good question. I was interested in folk music already. The first instrument I bought was a banjo; I used Pete Seeger’s classic banjo book. I think it was the Kingston Trio or something that inspired me. This was before I was a freshman in high school, I think.

I made a mountain dulcimer, in high school. I went to the University of Chicago Laboratory School, which is kindergarten through high school and was started by Dr. Hutchins, and he had a lot of interesting ideas about education. It was a pretty rich environment. [Traditional singer and musician] Frank Profitt visited my school and gave a concert; I didn’t actually see him. And the shop teacher decided to make a project of making a dulcimer. So he took Frank Profitt’s dulcimer and modified it; and when I was thirteen I made a copy of his dulcimer in this shop project.

PAT: Nobody in your family had played folk music?

TOM: No folkies in my family, although my mother was a very gifted amateur classical musician and was very supportive. I was in a children’s choir that was very successful, which is an interesting story all onto itself. When I started in third grade, eight years old, I went to the first meeting of this choir. We had a new assistant minister at our church and he’d been in the Harvard Glee Club and he took it as his mission to start a children’s choir. So I came to the first meeting and it became a big thing. It turned into something called the Chicago Children’s Choir and de-affiliated from the church. Jody, my younger brother, was in it too. We sang with the Lyric Opera, with the Chicago Symphony, and hosted the Vienna Choir Boys. Chris Moore, the choral director, was a visionary and he would talk to us about what we were going to do and his eyes would bulge and he would get really excited. He didn’t talk down to us. He talked to us like we were important and we were going to do these things. He didn’t get along with adults too well; my mother thought he was nuts. I would come home and say we’re going to sing with the Lyric Opera, and she didn’t believe me.

That musical experience was really important to my life and also to my working with kids, I would say, the fact that I got so much from this guy. It’s a lot of why I’ve been willing to keep doing stuff with kids when my kids were no longer doing it.

PAT: So, you were in the choir and you bought a banjo, you went to this folk festival, and you heard what?

TOM: I heard old time music and Southern American music. I loved all this authentic stuff and it just got me. Doc Watson came to the second University of Chicago Folk Festival and nobody knew anything about him; he just came up with one of the invited bands. And then my grandmother, Lillian Oppenheimer, invited me to go to Christmas Country Dance School at Berea College in Kentucky. My grandmother was the founder of the Origami Society of America. She had some small connection to CDSS people because she went to Brasstown [John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina] a bunch of years and did origami with them. She was a real personality and she was a person who sponsored and attracted odd, talented people of all kinds into her life. There was this one guy, Alfonso the Great, a friend of my grandmothers, and he came and visited us at her house in Chicago. That made a big impression on me. I didn’t see his act because he threw knives around his assistant, but he did sleight of hand and magic. I was very impressed.

DEBORAH: I think that’s a funny story of how your grandmother took you to Berea.

TOM: My parents were going to a square dance. I had done some square dances in grade school, you know, when the recreation guy came with parties for kids, with a record player. I loved it. And my parents were going to this square dance at the faculty club. My father was a professor at the University of Chicago, and I grew up around there. And I wanted to go; I was maybe twelve. And I just didn’t understand why I couldn’t go. I was really upset that I couldn’t go. And my grandmother was either there at the time or heard about it and that’s why she invited me to go to Berea the next year. I was probably thirteen. And that was in 1962 or so. I graduated from high school in 1964. At Berea that first time, I took a morris class from John Ramsay, who was a student at the University of Iowa in Ames.

I was playing music with a group of friends in Chicago, because I did have my dulcimer at that point and we were playing in a little band with guitar, banjo, and dulcimer playing bluegrass, and when they heard I was going to Berea, they wanted to go too, so I had two friends with me. We came back home and I went and bought an accordion at Maxwell Street flea market for $25 bucks, because I wanted to do morris dancing. Because I was the only one who could play this thing and could play the morris tunes, my friend did Nutting Girl morris jig and we went and performed places. And I went to Berea every year through college.

The first year I was at Berea, Bicky [Beatrice] McLain was the bigwig there, and had brought back a tape recording from England that had just been made of William Kimber playing concertina and talking about meeting Cecil Sharp. I heard this and I totally fell in love with that sound. At Berea, I met May Gadd, Genny Shimer, and Chuck Ward; the New York crowd was there. Not so many Boston people.

The Pinewoods Morris Men was formed at Pinewoods Camp in 1963 when Nibs Matthews was over from England for a couple of years. And he said you guys dance fine; we should make you a team. So, PMM joined the Morris Ring and formed a team that didn’t really exist.

The first fall of my freshman year at Harvard was 1964 [class of '68], and I started going to English Wednesday nights and there was nobody my age. I started going to the morris class, which was held after country dancing, taught by Arthur Cornelius. They were very welcoming and they were glad to see someone young. And I struck up a really close friendship with Cajy [Renauld Cajolet] and we would go out drinking afterwards and stay up late talking and he would get in trouble with his wife. I was sixteen.

I went to Pinewoods for the first time on a Bolles scholarship, a full scholarship, to go to CDS- Boston’s July 4th weekend at Pinewoods Camp in 1965. It made a big impression on me, getting that scholarship. Parenthetically, that is one of the reasons why I am fixated on giving these full scholarships [New Generation Initiative scholarships] one time, to people. Not just needs-based, because there is something about getting a full scholarship to come and do something that is different.

After that first time at camp, of course, I loved it. And then I went to the CDSS weeks; I don’t know how I afforded it. There were two dance weeks and I went to both of them. I got hired on staff pretty early, probably the next year, to play accordion, and to do dulcimer for Folk Music Week. I was hired to play accordion because Phil Merrill, then CDSS’s musical director, wanted accordion players and especially wanted to encourage young musicians. I wasn’t really good. It wasn’t like it is now; now we’re lousy with great musicians. There were no musicians then; there were no young people; nobody! Well, maybe Gene Murrow.

So, I went to England that summer of 1965 with one of my friends from Chicago and Nibs gave me names and things to do. I was given an introduction to the Beaux of London City, one of the old morris teams in London, who took me around on their Thames Valley tour, with all the Thames Valley clubs. It was an epiphany for me. I said this is it! This is what morris dancing really is, clearly. It was a gas.

PAT: The thing that was a gas – what was that?

TOM: Just dancing out on the street in public, like that. The whole thing that morris dancing is; I loved it. I already liked the physicality of morris dancing and I liked the tunes, but then adding on this whole thing of the public theatre part of it was a revelation. The public theatre part of morris was totally missing in the U.S. at that point. It was done at the World’s Fair or as a performance on stage, but not out as public street theatre, where you are just out there, passing the hat.

Tom Kruskal in the 1970s
Tom Kruskal in the 1970s

When I came back to Harvard my sophomore year, that’s what I wanted to do. So I went to Art Cornelius and I said, I want to start a Harvard Morris Team and we’re going to do this tour. And he said, OK. So, I got my house, Dudley House at Harvard, to sponsor this, the Dudley House Morris Team. I had a flyer I had done and we had to get permission. It went all the way to the Harvard Board of Overseers, because this was 1965 and there were already problems with campus anti-war demonstrations; it was already an issue. So, of course, they were all Anglophiles, so I wrote about the English traditions, passing the hat, and I was told later by Archie Epps, the Dean of Students, that they all were amused by it; they gave us the permission. So we did the morris tour; it was a big success and we had a good time. The Dudley House Morris team never happened; no students were interested. I didn’t know how to organize something then. The tour itself was the Pinewoods Morris Men, who were the people from the Boston Centre class and a long time after that the Pinewoods Morris Men became a Boston-area team. It was maybe after I’d come back from California, maybe late '70s.

DEBORAH: When you came back from California you joined Black Jokers.

TOM: Pinewoods Morris team didn’t exist as a team; I joined Black Jokers in 1974. By 1975 or 1976, Pinewoods Morris Men had started trying to be a team. Other things had happened while I was in California. There was a huge folk revival and I was in California when that happened. I graduated in 1968, was in Madison, Wisconsin for a year while my first wife finished college, and then we went to California. And there may have been a folk revival in California but I wasn’t part of it. But here in Boston, there were hundreds of people coming to the English dance and whole contra dance scene, and there was lots of going on.

While I was in California, I co-started what became Bay Area folk dancing. You know that from the Chuck Ward article in the CDSS News. Chuck left Berea and got out to California a year before I did, and he got in with Madeline Green, who was the international dance leader, who then died, and Nora Hughes was her sidekick. Chuck wanted to start an English dance and he convinced Nora to help and he asked me if I would teach because I had just arrived from Boston. So, he had a deal with Stewart Smith, who was a Scottish country dance teacher, to use his studio in exchange for Chuck playing for his class. So we did an English country dance thing for a year or two there, then we danced at another spot and eventually moved to Berkeley. And when I left California in 1974 I turned it over to Brad Foster. So, Chuck and Nora did the work of getting the place to dance, and the organizing, and I taught and was the front person.

I would teach from books; pretty much just flying on my own. I’d gone to Pinewoods every year and bought the books – the Country Dance Book and Fallibroome and Apted. There was enough material, but not so much all the new stuff that there is now. I tried starting a rapper team but it didn’t ever fly. I taught some community dances at adult centers.

It wasn’t like the East coast, there wasn’t the same scene. I was also getting my jewelry business, which I started in 1969 in Madison, Wisconsin, going. I decided to do jewelry instead of getting a job. And I just went and bought a bunch of stuff.

DEBORAH: His major at Harvard was visual arts, and he was all signed up to start his Masters in Architecture.

TOM: I was about to go to the Graduate School of Design at Harvard and then I read the course catalog and I said I don’t want to do this. I dropped out before I started. I’ve always been an entrepreneur, ever since I was a little kid. When I was a really little kid, I decided I was going to have a circus, I was like five or six and so I went out in the streets and handed out tickets to people and one guy came and I did my circus. We tried raising hamsters; we got a breeding pair of hamsters and tried to raise them and sell them. These are all experiences that mold you. My grandfather’s business – Kruskal & Kruskal Furs – was the largest wholesale furrier in the '20s in New York. He was just the classic Jewish entrepreneur, starting with a pushcart and I used to love going there, see all the furs, and the business stuff.

PAT: The first thing I wrote down when I was thinking about what to ask you is “entrepreneurial spirit” and it just seems to be blasting out of everything you’ve done.

TOM: I get ideas and I like starting things; I like seeing where it will go. It’s usually nothing about making money, like the concertina lessons.

DEBORAH: Tell about the concertina lessons.

TOM: Well, it just struck me that that was a symbol of things I get myself into. For some reason, I get asked on and off if I can teach concertina. I’ve tried to give a few private lessons and I found that unsatisfactory so I’ve taken to saying no pretty much. I don’t like doing it. No one practices; they’re not serious. So I decided it was my duty, or something, that I should try to teach concertina to fill this need. People want to learn, they see the instrument, they like it, but the instruments are very expensive. So I came up with a plan: a six-lesson package deal, every two weeks, we’d meet, and I had five or six people, a class, and they would get an instrument to rent and six lessons. And then at the end, if they wanted, they could buy the instrument, or not.

DEBORAH: The concertinas were from The Button Box, in Sunderland, Massachusetts.

TOM: I put a lot of work into it, doing the lesson plan, and creating a book of tablature, and writing out tunes for people. I ended up with a CG and a GD class.

DEBORAH: Whenever Tom goes into these things, he goes in whole hog, a hundred percent. And he gets totally absorbed by the organizational part of it and his way of processing is by talking out loud, and bouncing it off people and I’m the “bouncee.” He is just intense and thorough. Lots of people have ideas but he makes them happen, which is what makes him unusual.

PAT: You have to be persistent, but you also have to have an analytical mind because you are creating a new system and you are asking, what is the system going to look like and what will make it successful.

TOM: That’s right. Organizing any of these things that we do, it is almost mathematical. You try to think of what it’s going to be like, plan it right, brainstorm ideas; there’s all the detail part which is important. There’s a lot to it.

PAT: So what happened with the concertina class?

TOM: Well, I did the two classes and they were semi-successful, but I didn’t repeat them. I was thinking I would, but I fueled most of the need of most of the people who had asked me. The classes were both full but I didn’t have a lot of people pounding on the door for more. And I didn’t find them as satisfying as I thought I would. People would skip a lesson; and it was way too good a deal, I wasn’t charging enough.

PAT: Another really good quality of an entrepreneur is knowing when to move on.

TOM: So a lot of these things don’t keep going. And in fact, things don’t have to keep going forever. A lot of things do but they don’t have to. I mean the sword workshops that I did a few years ago, those were successful. We decided not to do anymore. The third one coincided with Tony Barrand’s celebration day and so it was clear that we weren’t going to get anybody to come. And it did seem like there were no other opportune dates. And then I wanted to do DART too.

PAT: Do you want to talk about that process?

TOM: Well, I had been going to the English DERT, which stands for Dancing English Rapper Tournament, which has been going on for maybe twenty years now. It came out of an effort to raise the standard of rapper sword dancing and Phil Heaton was one of the main organizers. I had been going to the competition for the last four or five years, with my Great Meadows teams. They wanted to do it, so I went and helped them do it. I had to organize the trips, the plane fares, etc. which was an unbelievable task to try to get a bunch of teenagers and their parents to plan a trip and get the money, the permission slips, and all that. I like doing that kind of stuff, basically. It’s a thankless task; you just do it.

So Phil had been saying we should do DERT in America. I was saying, OK, I’ll do that. So he polled the English teams. DERT travels around a different town every time and so it would be in Boston, instead of in England. He thought he might charter planes and fly everyone over. But that wasn’t going to happen, so I just decided to do it anyway and we called it DART – Dancing America Rapper Tournament.

We started planning at least a year before the event, which just happened in October 2010. I formed a committee of a lot of Great Meadows people and representatives from every Boston area team that I could get. It was a really good committee. Deborah did the t-shirts with Rhett Krause. We had a treasurer; it was cosponsored by Great Meadows Morris and Sword and Boston Centre-CDS. CDSS gave us a grant, which we gave back because we did really well.

I was out there banging the bushes to get teams to come: we got three English teams – Thrales, Sallyport, and Mons Meg from Scotland, and altogether we had fourteen teams. There was a lot of undercurrent anti-competition feeling, although it was a competition. At DERT there are awards, prizes, judges, and stuff. We tried to really play that down; make it be a fun and supportive event, and I would say we succeeded. Everyone who came had a really great time with universally positive response from the dancers.

The English teams loved it; they thought it was much more celebratory than the one in England. We picked up on the format from DERT of dancing in pubs, so we got four pubs right close to Kendall Square [in Cambridge Massachusetts] to agree to this. So there are two judges in each pub and each team goes around and does the same dance at each of the four pubs and they’re scored. Friday night we had registration and a contra dance with Rodney Miller, and Bruce and Sue Rosen, which was nice. We had warm-up dances at MIT, dancing in pubs, and Saturday night we had a nice dinner and show dances.

DEBORAH: There was a great spirit at the pubs. The community came. People from CDS- Boston, parents, and friends would be piling through. It was a party in each pub and they would go pub hopping to see the teams. Have you seen so-and-so; they’re going to be at this pub; you should go over there and see them. It was really fun.

PAT: How did the people who normally frequented the pubs react?

TOM: We were there in the afternoon; we ended at 5-5:30 pm so it didn’t really interfere. It couldn’t have gone better. It was a great event. I was the instigator and I was the chairman of the committee. I had to crack the whip; for me too, of course. I think I’m more guilt-driven than most people.

DEBORAH: At the same time, one of the teams, Sallyport from England needed housing, so Tom said let’s host them all. So we had twelve people staying here while we were running the event.

TOM: That was a gas. They were really fun.

DEBORAH: When you told me I had to sleep twelve people here! We just had mattresses on the floor.

TOM: They were great guests. They cooked us dinner on Sunday night.

DEBORAH: You got a lot of satisfaction because it was so successful.

TOM: Almost everyone on the committee agreed to do it again next year.

DEBORAH: At our local church, where Tom first started teaching kids, he does this Revels-like ceremony; he started when Lily was ten years old, so it’s been twenty-one years. I remember that year when you did that first one; you put so much energy into it. He had little kids dancing morris and the St. George and the dragon mummer’s play, the sword dance, and Abbot’s Bromley. Every year since then he has somehow managed to get them to dance and participate. And in order for everyone to do a sword dance, he has two sword teams and makes it like a competition.

TOM: This year we had seventeen kids and we have a new play every year.

DEBORAH: He just keeps doing it. And he puts energy into taking the kids to the New York Ale, and the Marlboro Ale, and to England, and he just keeps on putting it out.

TOM: Why do I do that? I really don’t know.

DEBORAH: At the end of the year, we have this big party and we say goodbye to the kids and Tom’s saying goodbye to them and it’s the only time I’ve every seen Tom come close to tears – when he sees how the kids have grown.

TOM: A lot of times, I just feel great after the church Christmas show. I remember one time after that show, maybe ten years ago, and I had to drive to a Revels performance at Sanders Theatre right after. And I had this feeling – this may sound odd – that I could die now and I would be satisfied with my life. It was a funny thing – it was a good feeling. It came from loving the kids and how it had gone. So maybe that’s why I do it. That’s enough of a reason really, to give back to all those people who taught me – Chris Moore and others.

One year I had a whole group of kids from Christmas Revels join my Hop Brook group. That was a big change for me, that group. I had just done church kids and their friends up till then.

DEBORAH: This is where your entrepreneurial stuff comes out, Tom. Here we were at this Christmas Revels show and there were teenagers doing a sword dance that were just hot, you know, and Tom said here is a goldmine. So he quickly came home and made a flyer, with my help, and passed it out to all the Revels kids and their parents and they all came to Hop Brook.

TOM: Hop Brook was about to die out; I only had six kids to dance. I had had waves of church kids come through and create groups, but there was a lull in the demographic and in the church too. It got below critical mass and the kids weren’t having fun. And I said to the kids, I’m going to have to go outside and get more people to keep this going. Most of them stopped when I did that, actually, because it turned out they weren’t that into it.

The first era of the Hop Brook kids was my daughter, Lily and her friends. That was a really nice group, maybe eight to nine kids; they went through four years of doing Hop Brook together and they were great. And then I had a wave of boys that was basically David Fleischmann-Rose and his friends, and Peter [Kruskal], who was a year younger; and then I had another wave that was girls, including Erika Roderick and then I had a dry spot. With Lily’s friends, once they got to high school, one girl wanted to continue but it didn’t happen at all. They couldn’t do it on their own – they had no music; they needed an adult. So when David Fleischmann-Rose and his friends got to that age they wanted to keep dancing.

DEBORAH: He said you have to keep teaching me! You’re not allowed to just stop.

TOM: So, I decided they should do rapper because I remember doing rapper when I was that age at the CDSS weeks at Pinewoods Camp. I remember as a teenager being in a set of people and it was dancing really fast and impressing the old people. So, I said, we better do rapper. Sunday afternoon was the only time they could make it. So we had a core group of six and we would meet every week and do it no matter who came. I would dance and one of the parents would dance, even with only three kids. And we did some morris and longsword too, because they did those things and liked them. The second year was when it became Velocirapper. So we went to England, to the Sword Spectacular; we went to Cambridge Revels, the New York Sword Ale, and the Marlboro Ale in Vermont.

PAT: Was this one of the first teen teams doing rapper?

TOM: There was Greenwich Guard, of course. They were dancing back when Rhett [Krause] was in high school.

PAT: Did this really start something?

TOM: It took about ten years. When Velocirapper went to the New York Sword Ale [sponsored by Half Moon Sword in New York City] those people saw that we were doing a teen team and eventually New Moon Sword, a teen team was started. The younger siblings of the Velocirapper kids wanted to join Velocirapper, who didn’t want them on the team. And so I said, well, I’m going to start a bigger team and I want you guys to be part of it. But I want to have everybody who wants to do rapper, do it. It will be a different team; we’ll meet at the same time and I’ll be there.

DEBORAH: And the whole group was called Team X because they couldn’t come up with a name.

TOM: So Deborah did the flyer and I convinced Tim Radford to come and teach us morris and Joe Kynoch to teach us rapper. We set the time and place and we had twenty-five kids come – some I’d seen, some I hadn’t. I sent the flyer to all the morris teams, the Revels world, the folk/international, and Folk Arts Center world. I was gathering in the chits with the second generation. A lot of these kids had seen Velocirapper at NEFFA [New England Folk Festival]. I got a lot of people from that and I got a lot from the home schoolers. Great Meadows Morris and Sword [the high school group], which came out of Velocirapper, came from a need I saw which was clearly expressed by those Hop Brook siblings who wanted to keep dancing. I knew how to make it happen by that point – you do it by blanket publicity and listing everywhere, make phone calls to parents, push flyers on people; you push it.

DEBORAH: And when Candyrapper formed, the following year, that was mostly the girls. That was a really hot group which made a tremendous impression. They all went to the Sword Spectacular, Marlboro, New York Sword Ale, and Whitby [England]. We needed a huge fundraiser for that – the parents raised $8,000.

PAT: There are so many teams who don’t do that – who don’t go to England, who don’t have that experience. What effect do you think that has had on these kids, who are now adults?

TOM: Huge effect.

DEBORAH: Because Whitby was only four days, the parents said you gotta be kidding me, you want me to spend $1,000 for a long weekend and Tom kept saying, it will be a formative experience and they all agreed afterwards that it was. The parents agreed.

PAT: How did the kids talk about it?

DEBORAH: They loved being out in this huge scene.

TOM: My idea is that the kids run this; they’re in charge. I’m their mentor, not their teacher, and I’m not their policeman for better or worse. They own it. It has pretty much worked but not always.

PAT: Who’s teaching the dances?

TOM: They teach each other now. But I’ve also had people come in. For a couple of years, I had Rick Mohr come in for rapper. They learn a lot of figures at CDSS weeks at Pinewoods Camp, and from when they were in England. Margaret Keller came and taught us a bunch of figures. I can’t teach what they’re doing now. It’s gone beyond me. It worries me a little about losing the new figures so I’m trying to videotape what they’ve come up with or popularized or used a lot, then you can run it slow motion and you can see what’s happening easily enough.

I’ve had this in mind for two or three years as a critical project. I convinced [local Boston dancer] John Browne to video it for me and we had one session with Candyrapper. It’s a project I want to do, but I just haven’t had the time to do all the follow-through it takes to get it down.

DEBORAH: And then there was that wonderful fool dance. It was Velocirapper that did this dance at the New York Sword Ale and they had Jim Klimek, a very talented kid, who was in Revels from the time he was a baby, who is a clown and juggler and is in Los Angeles now trying to make it. He worked on the Ellen DeGeneres show. He and Aidin [Carey] worked up this fooling skit that was just the cleverest and funniest that I’ve ever seen in my whole life. I said, we’ve got to video this and we tried, but getting the kids together in the summer was impossible. Everyone went off to college, so it wasn’t possible.

TOM: Half Moon has a video of it.

PAT: So a lot of kids have graduated and moved on to other things.

DEBORAH: Or try to start teams at their colleges.

TOM: Muddy River and Newtowne have taken all these kids from my group, Great Meadows, which is great for those teams. It’s gotten to the point now where I get the credit for any kid’s team. Everyone thinks they’re mine – it’s pretty funny. Once Great Meadows really started going, we would go to NEFFA and we would have twenty-five kids up morris dancing. I had nothing to do with that other than showing them it could be done. But then the kids see other kids doing it and then they want to do it. It’s about getting a critical mass.

PAT: What are the other teams?

TOM: Snicker Snack, Pocket Flyers, Candyrapper, Rapport D’Or, which doesn’t mean anything, but it sounds like rapper – rapport.

DEBORAH: Other teams retired – Fresh Blood, Slightly Green, Beside the Point (that was a really good team), and Scrambled Six.

Erika Roderick, a longtime dancer and participant in Tom’s teams, arrived and we sat and talked.

PAT: Erika, tell me your story.

ERIKA: Both my parents were involved with folk dancing in Boston since they were in college; my father is Steve and my mom is Michelle. They met on [Boston international folk dance ensemble] Mandala. My dad found morris dancing and was on Black Jokers and then joined Pinewoods Morris Men, and my mom was also on [Northwest team] Rose Galliard for a time when I was little.

TOM: Steve started to teach Hop Brook with me when Erika was around six. He came and played and helped with it.

PAT: Was joining the team your idea or what it because of your dad?

ERIKA: I knew I was going to. We turned into Unitarians [the church where the Great Meadow Morris practices are held], partly because of belief things, but also because we’d been doing the morris. I wanted to do it; I had watched my dad. I had been one of the morris kids of all the Pinewoods Morris Men for years. I was friends with [Tom’s children] Peter and Lily and knew about the Hop Brook kids’ team. And Daffodil Weekend [in the spring] was a huge part of the friend/morris kid/feeling group.

DEBORAH: When we bought our house in Nantucket in 1979, it didn’t take Tom long before he decided that we should have the Pinewoods Morris Men out to Nantucket. So that started in 1982; I did everything with Peter on my hip. So, we had the team and all their families, and there were a lot of kids. It was a family event. Succeeding generations of kids took care of the younger ones.

TOM: It’s one of the things which have kept the Pinewoods Morris Men together all these years.

ERIKA: It’s a tradition and it brings the kids back. All the things that happen are fun. It was this band of kids that you could go off with on your own. It was the first time that I was able to say, “OK, I’m going off with Peter and Lily, Mom!!” It’s the feeling you can run free like at Pinewoods.

PAT: Did the children’s teams dance during Daffodil Weekend?

DEBORAH: No just PMM. If it gets more than thirty-five to forty people, it gets hard to manage. And we would have to house everyone.

TOM: On Nantucket, there are thousands of people on the island and it’s the ultimate morris tour; there are tons of kids and families watching. We would dance and we would attract these mobs of people. It’s great.

ERIKA: I went to Daffodil Weekend every year and started morris with my best friend Emma [Kynoch] and of course we wanted to do that together. We danced on Hop Brook from 1994 when I was in fourth grade until 1998. I had known Tom since I was a baby. My younger sister insisted on joining the team too, her name is Molly, so she was on it too. In my generation, there was a bunch of boys from the church too, who were younger brothers of the first generation of boys who had been on it. There was an interesting grouping of people who were morris kids and people who were church kids. I joined Great Meadows in high school and it was Team X and Velocirapper.

TOM: Velocirapper didn’t really accept you guys.

ERIKA: We were siblings, and younger. They were all about, this is our thing and we’re teenagers and we don’t want you to do it. And now we’re all fine; we’re all dancing with [Boston longsword team] Orion. We were doing morris all together and we formed Candyrapper, in the second year, in the spring. The first year of Team X was 1999. And we were in Appalachian Revels in 2000, as Candyrapper.

TOM: Do you remember driving back in the car from Lilac Sunday and we were having the idea of a team; we were talking and Deborah came up with the name.

ERIKA: I do remember that. We went to the Ginger Ale.

TOM: That’s another thing we started – the Ginger Ale.

At this point, David Fleischmann-Rose arrived at Tom and Deborah’s and joined the conversation.

TOM: David has learned the concertina without any help from me at all, other than being a role model.

DAVID: A big inspiration.

TOM: But he’s been teaching a couple of my kids, which is great. David and his family were in the church when Deborah and I joined.

DAVID: We joined the church in 1987 or 1988 and at that point I was six. I thought Hop Brook was really cool, because I was a little kid and didn’t know any better... and it is cool. I started dancing through church and I remember really wanting to start dancing in fourth grade, but at course I couldn’t because Tom wouldn’t let people dance until fifth grade. So, I started with fifth grade when I was eleven and the thing that really made it, I think, stick for me was that there were a few of us that were about the same age that all did morris dancing together and we were also all in the same school, and the same church, and we became good friends.

PAT: Boys that age don’t usually dance.

DAVID: But you’re jumping onto a stage...

ERIKA: You’re hitting sticks together...

DAVID: It was fun, exciting, and energetic and it was all boys. I did a little tap earlier and that was all girls and they drove me out of that. But this was very different. But also if you have a critical mass of peers that are all doing it, you want to be where your friends are, so that really brings you in. And that’s how I got to know Tom, because he was running Hop Brook with Steve [Roderick]. I remember looking up to the whole older group dancing.

One thing that I will mention is that we were crazy enough, and didn’t really think about the social implications, but we decided that we should do sword dancing at the middle school talent show when we were in seventh grade.

ERIKA: I was on that too and I did an Irish step dance.

PAT: How’d that go?

DAVID: I think it was actually OK. We just did simple Ampleforth and our principal was cool enough to say OK, I’ll dress up as St. George and you can kill me. But of course we didn’t have the time to do the whole play, so people didn’t understand it. So he just came out dressed in the crusader outfit...

TOM: They had a cafeteria tray, with a cross on it.

DAVID: ..and we killed him on the first night and there were huge complaints. Six swords happened to make a star that looked the Star of David. And he just came out in this crusader outfit, with the cross on it. So, someone complained that what we were saying was that the Jews killed Christ. Nothing at all to do with it!

TOM: Interestingly enough, Christmas Revels has had this problem already and they had something written up about this issue, all ready to go. I was able to hand this over, and explain the sword dance, and say we’re sorry.

DAVID: It was quite a political stir.

PAT: David, maybe you want to talk about the role that Tom has played in your life. Tom, you can go in the other room.

ERIKA: Tom, get used to it; on your celebration day there’s going to be a whole night of this.

DAVID: Well, that’s a big question because Tom been an integral part of my life for a long, long time. He got me started in morris dancing, introduced me to the folk community in general, from Marlboro to Pinewoods Morris Men. It started with Hop Brook, then to Velocirapper, then Pinewoods, and now I’m dancing with Orion as well. So really all of the sword and morris dancing I do, is really all Tom’s fault.

If you hadn’t happened to have started a team for Lily, and we hadn’t happened to have moved to Sudbury, and go to the same church, my life would be totally different and I would say that it would not be as good because I really enjoy all the things that I do and all the people that I’ve met. It’s such a wonderfully supportive community. I certainly wouldn’t have picked up the concertina, which I’ve been playing now for about twelve years, which is kind of embarrassing because I should really be a lot better after twelve years of playing the concertina, but it’s really something I enjoy and something that’s a pretty big part of my identity and I think, um, when I look at Tom, it’s not that he’s necessarily the best dancer, I’ve really haven’t seen Tom dance all that much...

TOM: I used to dance...

DAVID: That was before my time, but it’s really just his ability to create warm and welcoming and nurturing environments, whether it be for very small kids who need one approach, or high school who need another approach. At this point, I think what enabled a lot of that is not just who Tom is, and how Tom is, but how he approached life in general – ninety-nine percent of the time, friendly, happy, cheerful, willing to work with a wide range of people to get things done, but also pulling people together and buckling down when things really need to happen. And I think one of the things that has really enabled a lot of this is simply his musical ability. I mean, he has such amazing musicianship – if you can find a group of people who are willing to dance, the biggest issue is finding someone who is able to teach and someone who is able to play and Tom can do both of those things at such a high level that he’s sort of a walking folkdance tutorial! [laughter]

ERIKA: You should make a Wii thing.

DAVID: So that’s really what it is. If he were lacking either as a teacher or musician, a lot of this wouldn’t have been possible. But he’s also got a really good approach for kids... I think it’s tough, especially for/with high schoolers, because you have a lot of different personalities, people at very difficult times in their lives, and you somehow make it work that they do a lot of self-direction yet you are still the sun around which they all orbit. They all know that you are the authority, and the person that they go to if they have any questions or issues or things that they can’t resolve themselves. But because you set the tone and the stage for it, people can come into that and make it work, by and large.

TOM: Aw, David. (hugs)

PAT: You met David when he was little and now he’s here able to say that to you. That’s incredible.

TOM: Erika has been helping this year with Great Meadows. You’ve seen some of it from my side this year.

ERIKA: It has been very interesting, now I can be this person who has been in Hop Brook and Candyrapper and now I can help Tom.

PAT: You’re behind the curtain.

ERIKA: And kind of stepping through. They don’t see me like Tom, but I’m kind of the person who’s helping. I think I always had a window into what you did, Tom, even when I was on the team. I had talked to you about some things and found out what you thought about them. And definitely it is true, what David said, Tom does a lot of behind the scenes thinking about teams before they’ve even been formed, thinking about new kids before they’re even there, where they would be good, etc. Getting opinions and respecting their opinions, but yet he is deciding and helping them have the best outcome that they could without seeming like deciding everything as the dance teacher and you are my class. It doesn’t feel like that at all.

PAT: Especially with high school students who want to develop their own things and you don’t want this person saying, you have to do this or that.

ERIKA: And that’s exactly why it works. And I don’t think half of them would be there if it was just a dance class, or someone telling you exactly what to do. And that’s why they love it and they’re given an art form that they think is neat and start to get the coolness of it because they go to events and they see the world of it, which is a very neat world, and then they are given a lot of freedom in what they can do. Here’s a team, doing some kind of weird stuff, and here’s Tom going “that’s interesting.” You let them do things, but also suggest things, slightly on the side and sometimes those things make it in.

DEBORAH: Like Candyrapper’s first kit.

ERIKA: So Candyrapper formed in the fall of 2000 and took a few new members and started practicing every week and we had to come up with a kit for our first gig. So two of our members went to the mall and called everyone, we have the best outfit and they came on Sunday, back from the mall, and they had bought these powder blue, pleated mini-skirts, cheerleaderish-style, and these purple, tank-toppy things that had low, low back ties. We went, oh, that’s kind of cute. It was kind of nice from a girl standpoint, but we were having some mixed feelings. Then they tried on the outfit for us and Tom was saying, no. That was one of those times when he laid down the law and then afterward, we were like, oh no, Tom doesn’t like it.

TOM: I didn’t say it on the spot; I wrote an email...

ERIKA: And then we were all really embarrassed and felt bad. And I’m still embarrassed. He was totally right.

TOM: I didn’t want men to see you dancing in them. I probably agonized about that email; I made Deborah read it a million times. I didn’t want to dampen your enthusiasm.

DAVID: As much as credit Tom should get, I do think we have to get a little bit of credit for starting the whole thing, because really after eighth grade, at that time, there was nothing. Mike, Mark, and I were the same age and we wanted to keep dancing and we went to Tom and said, Tom! We really want to keep dancing and he said, oh, alright. I’m kind of tired of morris though, why don’t you try rapper, and we said, what’s rapper? Because we had no idea! So, then we said, alright, we’ll try this rapper thing, whatever it is and when I first starting talking about it, we only had three people and that’s not enough for a rapper set, and went up to friend and I said, do you want to do rapper dancing with us, and he said, no, I’m not interested in rap, because that’s what he thought it was. But that first year, the only reason it even worked was because I knew another kid, Andrew Marcus, through German school and we find out his family also goes to UU Church in Newton where they also do morris dancing for some strange reason [Banbury Cross Morris and Sword]; so then I said, well, do you guys want to do rapper dancing. And he brought in Miranda Egelston, so those were the first five and we barely had enough to practice, starting in 1996.

TOM: We would make the parents dance.

ERIKA: And that got us all doing rapper.

DAVID: Then other young people in Banbury Cross saw us and said, let’s do that next. And I also, in a negative way, am responsible for the creation of Candyrapper because I didn’t want my sister to be on my team.

ERIKA: It was a good thing... I forgive you for it.

DAVID: She’s never forgiven me for it. And it was a good thing because you guys were amazing and really much better known than Velocirapper ever was. And now we all dance together on Orion.

David had to leave, but Erika, Deborah, Tom and I enjoyed Tom’s wonderful cooking and we continued talking to Erika about Tom’s effect on her life. I brought up the tune "Tom Kruskal’s" written by Amelia Mason and Emily Troll, and recently recorded by Elixir.      [listen to the tune]

ERIKA: The Elixir recording is good, but I have a recording that Amelia, Natty [Smith] and Emily did at Pinewoods. I bet Amelia and Emily wrote the tune at Pinewoods together, that’s my memory, because they were at Pinewoods working and volunteering together, and that’s when they started playing and writing tunes. Now they’re in a band, Anadama, with Bethany [Waickman]. They’re both Tom Kruskal people and they named the tune for Tom because Tom was important to them. I remember so well when they played it for July 4th skit night. I remember you, Tom, and Frank [Attanasio] were giving your inspirational speech to raise money so young people who enjoy Pinewoods could keep on enjoying it and then Amelia, Natty, and Emily came out and played the tune and dedicated it to you and it was perfect.

TOM: I was thinking about highlights of dancing – remember that Harrisville women’s tour that I took Candyrapper up to?

ERIKA: That was an early thing. It was really fun. My biggest memory of that was driving in the car and saying, Tom’s a crazy driver and it was snowing.

TOM: We were driving up to Harrisville, New Hampshire; we just went and danced morris a bunch up there. We stayed in a little cabin.

ERIKA: That was really fun – it was one of the things we did as a team. We really bonded with Tom and everyone else. We listened to the Rankin Family CD in the car.

PAT: Erika, do you know how special this has been in your life?

ERIKA: Yes. Tom is a huge reason why it all happened. For me it was a natural thing that became my whole life, in my own way. All my best and truest friends have come from these activities. That and Revels – they are very much intertwined and that’s always fed into it. Candyrapper is the strongest connection because we started as this team the same year that most of us were also dancing as a group of teen dancers in Appalachian Revels in 2000.

DEBORAH: That was a real pivotal year – the kids that were in Revels coming over to our house after the performance and Peter would drag them over to the contra dance. That’s when they all started going to the contras at the Concord Scout House. They would stay in the corner and they were just dancing by themselves over there.

ERIKA: Thursday nights at the VFW we did that too. Me and Peter started carpooling, going together. There were just five of us, the only young people there. And now, I don’t go to contra much anymore because of Orion rehearsals on Thursday nights, but I went once recently and every time I go now, it’s huge! It’s awesome.

DEBORAH: It’s interesting that one of our dancers, who moved out to the West coast, said young people aren’t doing anything out there. There are no young people contra dancing, or English dancing, rapper, or morris. He’s convinced that it’s because of Tom activity here, that it’s different on the East coast. But this whole process has taken years and it’s a rich environment. It’s inoculating a very fertile ground.

TOM: I think I’m the result of something, not the cause. It’s because it was there; I found rich ground. I was forced to do it by the need. I’ve used other people as much as I can because I needed help.

ERIKA: There are pockets of interest in Revels, the church community, the small morris kids community, NEFFA, and dance and Revels families in the area, and Tom was the one to do this at the right time when there were a lot of kids around and then have it get big enough that it survived past that catalyst time.

PAT: What part did the CDSS weeks at Pinewoods Camp play?

ERIKA: I think that was just another piece of the puzzle. I grew up knowing about Pinewoods Camp by being around it, via the Pinewoods Morris Men, and having my parents rent out the Conants’ cottage [next door to the Pinewoods Camp property]. We didn’t go when I was a little kid, or go religiously every year. Actually I went to CDSS Campers’ Week with the Kynoch family as a ten year old first and went every year since. Then my family started coming to Campers’ Week and then from there I went to volunteer on crew.

DEBORAH: Remember that year at English and American when we got Candyrapper to go? We were guardians for all these fifteen year olds and we dragged them all there.

ERIKA: It was great! And that was my transition year from going as a camper with my family to going as a volunteer and then as an adult. That was a real high in my memory. Going to an adult week for the first time was a revelation.

DEBORAH: It was really interesting last summer [2010]; it was such a funny feeling to have you guys all in Pine Needles cabin, as adults. They’re there, having cocktails parties.

ERIKA: That was a really big deal. We’ve been aspiring to that for years, to be old enough.

DEBORAH: And they had ownership. These kids that we saw from babies now are in an ownership position at Pinewoods; it was really, really cool.

ERIKA: It’s like growing up in a village in the old way of things, when you are in this place where people know you and you can go far in the small community and you have great things or drama together and it’s beautiful. I can’t imagine it being better.

TOM: Most people don’t have this.

PAT: I had the same experience in my life. I grew up in Toronto and had that whole dance community from the time I was a little girl, but then I left Toronto. So, I recreated it in Boston with Scottish dance, then English, then contra. Those dance friends from my twenties are still my friends now – they are my people.

ERIKA: My group of friends was because of Tom and Hop Brook, Candyrapper, and Revels – we were fifteen years old saying, we know that we are going to be good friends when we are fifty. You just have that model. It’s so powerful. You have your parents who had been friends with people since they were young dancing together. So you are younger than that knowing, that’s what they’ve done, so clearly that’s what I’m going to do. So, you are my friends. You kind of knew that.

PAT: Not only do you have the friends in your own peer group; but you have friends in the generations above you.

DEBORAH: They asked if they could come take cooking lessons with Tom. How many twenty- three year olds want to spend an evening with sixty year olds in an evening in the summer?

TOM: It was really fun. It was so much fun you came twice.

ERIKA: We’ve had fun with you for a long time.

DEBORAH: We all have this love of dance, the music, and we share a lot of the same positions.

ERIKA: I think there’s a similar way that people like to have fun. On New Year’s we had a bunch of folkie friends and bunch of friends from college who are not folkie friends, but the reason that it worked was because we all liked to have fun in the same way. I don’t even know what I mean to define “in the same way,” but I think we have same sense of humor and lightheartedness about things. We enjoy cooking and eating, drinking, and singing. We have similar activities but also a similar kind of attitude.

PAT: You just said a remarkable thing. Singing was in there. We’ve incorporated dance into our lives, which is unusual enough, but singing is really not something we do naturally anymore. It has become professional; you have to be in a choir, and when have you ever heard someone say, let’s have a song! What would you do?

TOM: It’s not part of my family tradition or our culture.

ERIKA: Tom hums a lot. I love that. When you dance with Tom, you have a humming partner.

DEBORAH: When I first started dancing with him, he would sing harmonies along with the country dances as we danced.

ERIKA: People who are my age know and honor Tom. There is this whole other extension into Maple Morris [a community of young morris dancers] – a lot of people are from Great Meadows or are Tom-connected people, but many aren’t. But they all still know Tom. I think it still has that sense even with people who weren’t part of the Tom teams. We counted this year and I think about half of Maple Morris were from Tom teams.

PAT: Is Candyrapper independent now?

ERIKA: No. Velocirapper was our model and they ended; they had a couple of generations and then they stopped. And then all of us in the younger group said that’s so sad they’re just ending. We didn’t really get that. When it came to the time when my friends and I were graduating from Great Meadows, we asked, should we keep the team going? I remember really analyzing what would be the different options. We just sat down and talked about it.

TOM: Now it’s a new leadership. The team dances great. They’re as good as they’ve ever been. It’s dancing to metronome and British style.

Having finished dinner, Deborah and Erika leave for Orion practice. After cleaning up, Tom and I sat down to talk again. Tom plays Ampleforth sword dance tunes: Morpeth Lasses and The Old Wife of Coverdale on his concertina.      [listen to Tom playing Morpeth Lasses & The Old Wife of Coverdale]

PAT: When did you learn to play concertina?

TOM: Well, I bought my first one in 1965, which is the one sitting right over there. I just played around with it, just picking up how to play it over time. It was a slow and gradual process. Nobody around me played, so I didn’t take lessons. I mostly listened to that William Kimber recording, that Bicky McLain had. That was the main thing, and just sort of developed my own style of playing. Playing for morris dance is pretty much what I do.

When I bought my first concertina, I was staying at Sidmouth Folk Festival with the Chingford Lads, which was a young team (1964-5) in England and there was a guy there, Peter Boyce, who was running the kids team (high school boys). They were performing at Sidmouth and I roomed with them in a dorm situation, called the Scout House at Sidmouth. Nibs Matthews had set it up for me to do. One of the boys was their musician and he played concertina and he was the one who told me where to go to get one, and he showed me some things. That was the most of a lesson I got, was that.

PAT: Do you think of yourself as a musician outside of playing for morris?

TOM: No, not really. I love music; I always have done something musical in my life and I love singing although my voice is a wreck. It’s hard singing in my church choir, which I really enjoy and I like the people. I’ve got a breathing problem and paralyzed vocal chords, closed in a shut position. So, I’m just breathing in through a small hole, which is not normal. Normally the vocal chords open up and they can breathe. It makes me sound hoarse and singing is a strain.

PAT: It must make it difficult to dance as well.

TOM: It does; I can’t take in enough air. I can do English country and that’s about it. I can’t morris dance, which is shame because I loved it. But I danced for a long time; there are other parts of my body which don’t want to morris dance either! It’s alright. I teach morris to the Hop Brook kids and the Great Meadows kids as well. Morris I know more than they do and I make them do it. You can teach style without having to jump high, absolutely.

PAT: Do you know of other people who have done what you have done in this country?

TOM: There’s Banbury Cross, a kid’s team longer running than mine which was started by Lynn Beasley, when her kids were little. She was involved with Revels and she started a morris team. And she was a very organized and dynamic kind of person and she held that together for years. She always hired good people; Erika’s father Steve was one of their teachers and various other people. And then, Lynn started another team along with her daughter, Emily Beasley, that’s called Mulberry Morris and they’ve been going for quite a while. Banbury kept going under new management. They’ve been a major force. I hardly invented this idea.

PAT: But elsewhere in the country?

TOM: Berea College always had the Country Dancers performance group. Swarthmore has had college teams over the years; there’s Green Mountain Morris Dancers (boys) and Maple Leaf Morris Dancers (girls), in Norwich, Vermont led by Chris Levey with Jane Finlay, who danced with Ring o’Bells in New York City. And they were also all involved with the Dartmouth, New Hampshire Revels. Revels is a big recruitment tool for getting kids interested, because the show has a lifetime, everyone gets excited, and then it ends and people want to keep going. So, Revels is a huge incubator.

In England, from what I’ve talked to people, having a high school team was really unusual; it’s more typical that little kids would dance in an adult team, but it’s changing there too. They would get to age 12 or 13 and they wouldn’t be seen dead doing it. I don’t know about morris, but in the sword dance world, this past summer at an event with Orion in Grenoside [England], they had a whole youth longsword competition.

I think traditionally it’s been a family thing. We stayed with some people in the Newcastle [England] area, quite a long time ago, and they were describing their teams and how they did this big family event every year. All the families came; it sounded like Daffodil Weekend for us. And it was obviously very strong for them and really part of their community. And of course a lot of the traditional teams were family-based. A lot of the sword teams tended to be all of one or two families. And women did dance some when they had to, from within the families, in sword teams.

So, there is that family part which is pretty strong here too. My end of the year party is a big event for all the teams; I do it for all the kids, young, old, graduates, and we usually have eighty to a hundred people here in the summer. I do deep-fried turkey and French fries. Kid’s food. And other than that it’s a potluck. It’s pretty cool with all the little and older kids and families, parents, siblings.

PAT: It’s a very strong instinct in a family for the younger kids to want to do what the older kids are doing, and that has been incorporated into your work. It’s part of the dynamic of the family.

TOM: It’s cool. That’s powerful stuff.

PAT: Are you training new musicians?

TOM: I don’t do a lot of that. I have tried to drag some of the kids into the music, especially morris music. David’s been teaching two of my kids. Tim, who is a Hop Brook little kid, played with me at the Christmas show on the two morris dances. He’ll be able to play morris and that’s what he wants to do.

Music is personal; it’s introspective and the things that I’m dealing with, with the kids teams, is broad group dynamics. It’s very different than music.

PAT: The group dynamics stuff – you did it because it felt right to do it that way, or did you think about it?

TOM: I didn’t think about it until after the fact. It was my natural inclination and it became intentional.

PAT: How did you know to keep your hands off of it?

TOM: I don’t know. It was always a struggle; I do tend to interfere; I have a tendency to want to take over to some extent, but with them I think in that case, maybe, David didn’t want me. It was very much his thing and I respected that as much as I could. Now I just can’t be in charge of them all; they’ve got to run themselves and do their own thing.

PAT: Are they all practicing at the same time in one place?

TOM: Yeah. There are sometimes four different teams in a not huge parish hall, but it’s big enough for four rapper teams, one in each corner. The groups have always seemed a little chaotic to adults. They think it’s out of control. They say “Listen to Tom, you should listen to him.” It’s hard for the parents. Especially with the littler kids; their parents get more upset if they think their kid is misbehaving or not being respectful enough, or they’re not getting enough attention, or whatever it is. I have great parents, though.

PAT: How did you get involved with the home school community?

TOM: A few kids found me. The home schoolers around here are always looking for things for their kids to do. So, they consider morris dancing part of their education. The parents are more supportive and tend to be more active. It’s a subtle difference but it’s clearly there. And then, a couple of times some of the home school parents said, should I post your flyer at the home school place and I say, sure do that. And we get a few more. Maybe fifteen percent of the kids are home schooled. It’s interesting; it’s a different kind of kid; they seem to know better what they want and if they like the dancing, they like it in a clear cut way. It’s what they want to do.

PAT: John Ramsay has had a lot of success teaching English country dance in the St. Louis home school community.

TOM: I really could do so much more than I do. I’d have to stop my job though. The time I deal with meetings, things like DART, taking kids to the New York Sword Ale, doing registration, by the time I deal with all these things, it’s just – I could work harder I suppose but there’s a limit.

PAT: Are you grooming a lieutenant?

TOM: Erika is young still and almost too close in age to the kids. She’s twenty-five maybe. She has been working as a teacher for a couple of years now. She’s been involved with organizing Maple Morris, and maybe I can imagine cutting back a little and not having to be at the church every Sunday for the team practices.

That’s a big thing. I’m not there every week, but when I miss one I have to take an action to deal with it or cancel. It’s hard; and now we have grandkids in Ireland and stuff going on. I do as much as I can. There have been moments when I’ve wanted to be more organized about it; having a committee and more parent involvement. But I don’t think that’s what the teams want.

That’s why I brought Erika in; that’s a more likely solution. We need parents to be helpful but not to be in charge of anything. One of the parents has been our treasurer forever and [Boston dancer] Kem Stewart has been helpful in the background, getting bells made for us and doing things. But basically, that’s all behind the scene and the kids don’t have any sense of that.

PAT: Is there a connection between your profession as a jewelry designer and music and dance?

TOM: Maybe. Maybe my jewelry designs have something to do with music. They’re all very simple things, but they’ve got a movement and fluidity to them at their best, anyway. Or just a gestural quality, that might be like dance in some way. I think that’s plausible.

PAT: It’s not something that you’ve consciously done?

TOM: No. And you know my typical day at work is a constant stream of organizational tasks really, not that different from the dance teams. It’s an organizational job; I’ve got five employees and there’s designing jewelry and there’s making jewelry, which is great, but a lot of it is administration. I’m kind of in charge of things, but any kind of strategic planning which needs doing, I have to do it myself. And there is always a need for marketing. I like that stuff; I enjoy it.

PAT: So maybe that is the connection.

TOM: It is! Great Meadows is an organizational job in a lot of ways; and it’s about people. It’s certainly about dancing too.

PAT: It couldn’t happen without a certain instinct for what will work with people.

TOM: I am pretty good with people, I think. But it also takes a toll on me. I find it hard and I get upset because I want everyone to be happy. That’s my main problem; I don’t want strife and I really hate it. I hate it. So that’s hard because with the team groups there are always problems, but also at work too, inevitably. On the other hand, I’m fairly good at trying to work through it all. And I am very patient and that’s a virtue certainly with the kids.

PAT: Do you have good perseverance?

TOM: Almost to a fault.

PAT: A perfectionist?

TOM: No, I’m not. I couldn’t be and do this, actually. I mean Deborah is a real perfectionist. She will always get upset if, say, Candyrapper is not stepping together! I care about excellence and I recognize it but it’s not really what I’m trying to achieve.

PAT: What do you think you are trying to achieve?

TOM: Just to keep community going, through the dance and music. That’s what I’m trying to achieve, holding it together and not the perfection.

You want to do your best and feel good about it, and there are parts of the dancing that you don’t get unless you are doing it right or well. But that can be achieved at lots of different levels of perfection. Say with morris dancing, you can get the feeling of doing a dance well and being all together – morris dancing has this wonderful thing of being together but not holding hands; lines going forward and back and your sticks clashing. You can get that pleasure of doing that without being great morris dancers. The kids get that and I see it at all ages.

PAT: They don’t expect that probably.

TOM: No, I don’t think so. I mean, it often happens that doing morris at Marlboro Ale when the kids’ teams go, and sometimes it can click for them, they really get it or start to get it. It’s funny about the excellence part, because there are some people in all the groups I’m involved with that want it to be better and more precise. And it’s not that they’re wrong; it should be better and we’re trying, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s fine to strive to be better even if it’s never going to be achieved and you can still get some of what it means to be better.

PAT: There was a recent thread on the ECD List with some people writing about those ephemeral moments when you reach dance perfection. It happens like a spark between two people in a dance and I think we’ve all experienced it but you can’t plan for it. You can work on your style and musicality, etc. and then it will happen sometimes.

TOM: That’s right. If you obsess about it too much, it can ruin your fun of just doing what you’re doing.

PAT: There is a whole part of your life in music and dance which we haven’t talked about which is less creative, but you’ve spent a lot of time working for PCI [Pinewoods Camp] and CDSS doing management work. Do you want to say anything about that work?

TOM: Yeah. That was a large part of my life; especially before I started doing kids teams. Because I was there when Pinewoods Camp, Inc. first started and I’d just come back from California in 1975 and PCI had just been formed and I was asked to be on the board. We were just trying to figure out what we were going to do. We didn’t really have a manager, so I was chairman of the management committee, for six years. I was fairly young; in my late twenties. But then I stopped doing it; there was too much to do, with my business and a family, and everything. And I had been on the CDSS Executive Committee in New York City and then became CDSS treasurer for nine years. At that time there were no CDSS committees, and so we decided to have a finance committee and I was chairman. We met monthly and did all kinds of work on reporting. We were trying to pull things together, budgets, etc. As that ended, I became PCI treasurer at the same time, for about a year.

I’m good with numbers; I was a math major for two years in college. My family is all mathematicians; my father was a statistician; my uncles were mathematicians; my brother’s a math person. They’re all math people. I’m good with numbers, he said modestly.

PAT: Well, if you have to run a business it definitely helps.

TOM: I’m good at the financial analysis part of stuff and it’s not a question of being a professional accountant, it’s a sense of things. I can look at these reports and spreadsheets and I can see things. Not the nitpicky stuff, but I can see something doesn’t make sense or what’s really going on. It is something I can do and I care about a lot. It’s a way to help. I’ve always been on committees, and boards. I can compromise and talk to people and process; it’s a way of interacting with people that drives some people nuts or puts them to sleep. But I’ve always liked talking. And there was the recent capital campaign of PCI I was fairly involved with.

PAT: Have there been any turning points in your life, in the context of what we’ve been talking about?

TOM: I suppose getting involved with teaching those kids opened up a whole thing for me to do that I just went with. That felt like a turning point. But I’m sort of the slow plod along type; steady. I’ll get these flashes of ideas, something that I ought to do, a lot! Those are like little turning points, mini-turning points, and I usually will take them a certain ways. I’ll talk about them usually with Deborah, take a few steps, look into them, and then sometimes they’ll take on a life of their own. Usually nothing happens luckily. I mean you can’t do all those things. A lot of the things I’ve done have started that way. Just little flashes of inspiration; to me they seem like opportunities of things which should be done.

When Hop Brook first when to the Marlboro Ale, it was one of those little things. It hit me: we should go to the Marlboro Ale, you know, so I called Andy Horton, and asked, can this happen? So, we worked out a way for it to happen. Those are like mini-turning points and a lot of them are sort of obvious, but it’s all the stars being aligned just right and it becomes clear that this is what should happen now. You see it – I mean, it’s there for the taking.

PAT: It all goes to back to having an entrepreneurial way of looking at life.

TOM: That’s what I do in my work too.

PAT: Do you think there’s a “what’s next” for you?

TOM: I wonder how long I can keep doing this. The “what next” would be finding a way to cut back some but not have it end. Maybe that will work with Erika. And I don’t think I could stop doing it, but I could have some flexibility not to go every Sunday necessarily. Like what David was saying is true – I can play, and teach, and kind of have a certain rapport with the kids. So it’s a lot of things that are hard to replace, in some ways.

Having Erika come to help was a mini-flash. That’s what it was like starting the group. I feel like I took what was there, waiting to be taken. I know I did. There were all these kids around, and I saw it and I just took it.

PAT: It’s the same as seeing the pattern in the numbers.

TOM: Right! It is. It’s a lot of work once you get the idea. Ideas are cheap; doing things is really hard. Ideas seem like the creative part, but sometimes I think that the “doing” is the creative part. Solving the day-to-day, week-after-week little things and how you deal with them, the decisions you make, that’s creative as much as the initial idea.

PAT: There’s the flash and then there’s the character that takes it past the flash. Those things we’ve talked about: patience, perseverance, being comfortable with it not being perfect, and recognizing when it’s not going to work.

TOM: And there are hard parts and they are not fun at all. On the other hand, I usually come back home from performances or trips feeling energized. I often dread going, a little bit, because you’re on stage, to some extent, you’re out there. My challenge now is to figure out if there’s some way that things will continue when I am cutting back and I’m not sure there’s an answer to it. But there are more and more of these kids coming back to town after college. Natty is coming back at the end of January and I’m hoping he’ll be involved because then I’ll have a musician [Natty] and a teacher [Erika], which really could run it, if they wanted to.

PAT: And you’d be willing to pass it on.

TOM: Yes, I would be willing if they wanted to do it. They’re cheerful people so maybe they would. Erika has just been coming and helping getting a feel for it. I haven’t actually turned stuff over to her but I think it’s possible. The little kids are easier in some ways. I’m still really their teacher, more than the teens. The teens tend to rebel against authority; and I’m not that much of an authority. I know they appreciate what I do. With the little kids it’s different. They do pretty much what adults tell them. I like them to be wild. I don’t want to squelch them. I want to channel that energy into the dancing.

PAT: Do you do any non-English stuff?

TOM: I don’t think I do actually. Very occasionally we take vacations that aren’t dance activities. Otherwise it’s just committees, and dance groups, or organizing things. But I guess I must like that, because it’s what I do.