Category Archives: Song

Handing on the Tradition

by Zoë Madonna

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Outside the dance hall (Photo by Zoë Madonna )

The 2014 Ralph Page Legacy Weekend’s Saturday dance was buried in eight inches of wet, heavy snow that started falling at about ten in the morning and did not stop till late evening. Fortunately, the gym of the Memorial Union Building at the University of New Hampshire was heated enough to keep everyone comfortable. The kind of vigorous dancing that makes dancers sweat through their shirts was nowhere to be found at Ralph Page; even after three hours of dancing, I was hardly tired. The tunes were played at a moderate pace, some dances didn’t have partner swings, and one of the staff callers tells me he’s never used a calling card in his life.

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The past into the future (Photo by Zoë Madonna)

The Ralph Page weekend is more of a celebration of social dancing history and tradition than it is a modern “dance weekend.” A loop of David Millstone’s documentaries on Dudley Laufman and the history of contra in New England played in one room, where dancers could rest their feet. Memory books about now-deceased Ralph Page mainstays were laid out on a table. Workshops and dance sessions were themed around the past; a retrospective of mentors (Bob McQuillen, Larry Jennings, Ralph Sweet, Marianne Taylor), a program themed around one of Ralph Page’s Tuesday night dances at the Boston YWCA, and a session of “contras and squares that folks think ‘Dudley doesn’t know.’” “Dudley” is Dudley Laufman, who made immeasurable contributions to getting youth involved in contra dancing in the 1960s. He still plays fiddle and accordion, calling while he plays.

I was there because I’d gotten a calling scholarship, so I was in attendance at Dudley’s workshop on the “dos and don’ts of calling.” He hadn’t come with any dos and don’ts past “don’t ask at the beginning how many people are there for their first time” and “don’t let the band boss you around,” but the other attendees had plenty of questions for him and he had plenty of stories to tell, like the time he and his wife Jacqueline played a gig on a Boston Harbor yacht for a convention of insurance salesmen, during which they had to wear full colonial dress and were  not allowed to speak to their fellow performers or the audience. Dudley is in his 80s and had heart surgery recently, but that isn’t stopping him from calling barn dances. These days, a Dudley set usually consists of a few chestnut contras, some circle dances, a New England style square, and a Sicilian circle or two. Moves that have become commonplace in modern contra, such as the hey for four and gypsy, cannot be found in Dudley’s sets.

Dudley also had plenty of questions for me, whipping around with surprising speed for someone his age every time he remembered something he wanted to ask. “If a bus full of Girl Scouts, no, if a bus full of people with Down’s Syndrome pulls up and everyone comes in, what are you going to call?” I puzzled that question over for a minute before saying I’d call the simplest circle mixer I know. “Would you have them change partners?” asked another caller. I didn’t know what to answer. I still have a long way to go.

The defining moment of Ralph Page for me happened during lunch on the final day. As I was walking through the cafeteria, the jam session that had been playing struck up Money Musk. Two couples set up at one end of the cafeteria aisle and called for a third; I grabbed a partner and we three couples started dancing. No calls were needed. We all knew this dance. By the time my partner and I were waiting at the top, the line was at least twelve couples long. By the time the dance ended, there were at least twenty couples on the line: a good quarter of the people at the weekend, dancing Money Musk in a cafeteria for fifteen minutes with unabashed joy.

The Ralph Page Legacy Weekend was created in 1988 to recognize the contributions that caller Ralph Page (1903-1985) made to contra and New England folk dancing. It’s held the weekend before the third Monday in January (MLK, Jr. Day), at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, NH and sponsored by the New England Folk Festival Association.

A singer, dancer, musician—and Oberlin junior―Zoë Madonna is interning with CDSS this month.

“Nobody remotely like him…”—Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

Text and photos by Stewart Dean

576A3583 (Medium)Nobody remotely like him, and a towering example to us all of a life well led, decently, indomitably, with heart, conviction and a burning sense of fairness and compassion.

Attached are some pictures I took of him last summer at the Summer Hoot at Ashokan.  He was then so frail, but his spirit was still fierce.

When he wasn’t at the mic or talking to someone, he would look out into space as if gazing into eternity…with utter calm.  It seemed to me he could have, at any time, stepped into the void….utterly surrendered and unafraid

He has now turned and turned….which he wrote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbPl91kTFro

His voice has been faltering but him never.

“…in our direst need, the smallest gifts: the nail of the horseshoe, the pin of the axle, the feather at the pivot point, the pebble at the mountain’s peak, the kiss in despair, the one right word.

In darkness, understanding.”

(“Dy Cabon’s Prayer to the Bastard,” by Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls)

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Youth Traditional Song: The New Kid’s Tale

by Zoë Madonna

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I was the Doctor in the mummer’s play. My role was a) to use the tiny flask and revive the Soldier and the Sailor after they had fought and killed each other, and b) make a glaringly obvious Doctor Who joke. (Photo by Suzanne Mrozak)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “youth” as “the time of life when someone is young” or “the early period of existence, growth, or development.” Something or someone is “youthful” when it “[has] or [shows] the freshness or energy of someone who is young,” or is “in an early stage of development.” With that in mind, was Youth Trad Song, which took place during the first weekend of January, a “youth” event? To encourage young people to attend Youth Trad Song, admission was balanced 80% “young” (under 50) and 20%  “young at heart” (over 50). Still, 40 or 45 years old is not considered a “youth” under most definitions; what, then, makes Youth Trad Song a youth event?

The answer to that question is involvement and openness. Before the weekend, a schedule of staff-led workshops was posted on the website, but the directing committee also actively sought submissions for camper-led workshops, with the reminder that anyone could schedule one at the last minute at the weekend; all that a would-be workshop leader had to do was write the location and the theme of the workshop on the giant schedule on the dining room wall. The result was a delightful, spontaneous hodgepodge of song (“Around the World in 80 Songs,” “the anti-pub sing,” “Georgian and Ukrainian harmony singing,” “camp songs with Jillian and Eevy!”) filling up every corner of the handful of buildings YTS occupied. There was room to create, and share creations and ideas; the only thing that everyone was asked to do for the weekend was learn “West Indies Blues” to sing together at the first dinner. The crowd didn’t even make it ten feet before breaking into “Bringing in the Sheaves,” kicking off a song circle that lasted till three AM.

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Sam Kleinman leads a song from the new shapenote tune book, The Shenandoah Harmony. (Photo by Zoë Madonna)

A perfect example of the kind of organic creativity YTS’s environment cultivates:  I participated in a mummer’s play during the open mic on Saturday night, in honor of Twelfth Night. The idea of doing the play had been brought up just that morning at breakfast by Marvin Warren, who had seen a good number of Twelfth Night plays but had yet to take part. After a bit of tossing ideas around at lunch (St. George? Sarcastic dragon?), we gathered enough people (Soldier, Sailor, Doctor, Chimney Sweep) to perform the stock play in the song “Rise Up, Jock.” We picked parts, added parts where they were needed (Old Father Christmas made an appearance in the guise of Brad from the Foggy Bottom Morris Men), we gathered and made props (most out of paper bags and duct tape, in keeping with the Paper Bag Mummers of Waltham’s tradition), learned the chorus to the song, found stock lines and insults thanks to Lynn Noel’s iPad, and found a willing stooge whose open mic performance Marvin (playing the fool) could interrupt by shouting “Room! Room!” and banging on a pan, announcing the arrival of the mummers. Five minutes before we went on, a woman named Rose volunteered to be Beelzebub and pass the hat at the end of the play, and we ended up raising some money for next year’s Youth Trad Song scholarship fund.

What does it take to be young at heart, or youthful? Some of the attendees, like myself, were at very early stages of our lives as folk singers. But then there were people at the event who have been singing for 50+ years, who have well established identities as performers and singers and leaders in folk and traditional music communities.  I wouldn’t have been too surprised if the veterans had cliqued up and did their thing while us kids did our thing, as I sometimes see at contra dance events. Instead, everyone sang like they were new and youthful and open to everything they heard, celebrating each contribution alike.

A singer, dancer, musician—and Oberlin junior―Zoë Madonna is interning with CDSS this month.