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Voices Spring-Summer 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read an excerpt of “Old-Time Dance Music in Western New York” by James Kimball here.
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Volume 29

Old-Time Dance Music in Western New York by James Kimball

Dancing and dance music have a long tradition in upstate New York’s rural communities. Although some details—instrumentation, tunes, style of calling, and dancers’ attire, not to mention transportation to the dance—have changed, the joy and energy of today’s dancers in western and central New York would be familiar to their counterparts from the nineteenth century. Old newspapers, diaries, dance cards, and other primary source documents, combined with the recollections of aging tradition bearers, give us a look at not only the music and dance but also the social and business dealings of the era.
The Fat Men's Ball - drawing
The Fat Men’s Ball, late nineteenth century. Courtesy of James Kimball.

Nunda News, April 5, 1879
"The Fat Men’s Ball," which is to be given at Canaseraga, N.Y., on the 17th, under the auspices of the heavy men of the Erie Rail Road, with conductors Chapman and Hatch of Attica, as general managers, will be an interesting event, and is all the talk among the railroad men. . . 200 lbs. is the lowest limit, and it is confidently expected that Uncle Ben Wales, of the C.C.&C.R.R., who weighs 413 lbs., will be present with his "best girl" who tips the scales at 372 lbs. . .

One couldn’t believe everything printed in the old small-town papers—any more than one can today—but they were a continual source of entertainment, and a repository of local and not so local lore. Today, alongside diaries, tune and call books, and dance cards, they are a good source of information on dancing and dance music in New York’s rural communities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from pioneer log cabin parties to today’s dances in community halls and school gyms. From earlier periods we can document many events and their music. More recent versions of the tradition, of course, we can experience ourselves; we can dance with tradition bearers and eat supper with the musicians. But the participants are aging. Some of the best and most colorful callers have passed away or stopped calling because of illness. The rural population itself has shrunk as the suburbs move out into the country...
Poster for a dance
Poster for a dance. Courtesy of James Kimball.
... In my roles as historian and ethnomusicologist I appreciate and recognize the inevitable changes that come to any art; the folklorist and presenter in me would like to encourage the older repertoire and styles as long as there are those who will enjoy them.

"Old-time" in this paper refers to the music and dance of old-timers, especially those who grew up going to local rural "round and square" dances. Each generation of dancers in western New York, however, has blended its tradition with influences from changing popular culture. In the earlier nineteenth century a tradition of localized contradances gave way to the newer quadrilles or squares. These in turn began to make room for trendy couple dances (round dances) of the day. From the 1840s to the 1940s we see one after the other the arrival of the waltz, polka, schottische, two-step, fox trot, jitterbug, and beyond—any of which might still be part of an evening’s round and square dance.
Among the first round and square dances I attended when I started looking around western New York in the early 1980s were those held at the Oakfield Firehall, music by Ramblin’ Lou, part old-timer and part WWVA-styled country musician from the 1950s. Lou ran a country radio program out of Lancaster, New York, and the dances were broadcast live, advertisements and all. The caller, Accordion Zeke, was a master of the older singing call style, which had come to dominate New York square dancing since the advent of PA systems in the 1930s. Lou’s band included his wife on lead electric guitar and three or four of their teen-aged to young-twenties kids. The one boy played a full rock drum set. The sets of three square figures were perfectly traditional and always ended with a "jig figure," or "hoedown," which featured one of the daughters playing tunes like "Ragtime Annie" or "Devil’s Dream" on fiddle. The round dances were a mix of slow country favorites and energetic rock music...
The Checker Bys, early 1940s, a round and square dance band
The Checker Boys, early 1940s, a Wyoming County round and square dance band. From left: Keith Morgan, Lynn Rowley, Elmer Brewer, Woody Kelly, Ken Lowe. Photo: Courtesy of James Kimball.
The square dancing I had grown up with in northern Ohio was taught by school gym teachers or recreation leaders and usually done to records. Often just one or two couples did a figure while the others watched. Years later I realized that some of the records had been made by Floyd Woodhull, one of the most influential traditional callers and band leaders from New York State. Woodhull kept very busy from the 1930s into the 1950s, collecting and playing dances in central and western New York. His recorded square dances on RCA Victor were to influence most of the rural callers in the area today...
Unidentified fiddlers c. 1880s, western New York or Pennsylvania. This old tintype, acquired from an antiques dealer in Jamestown, New York, matches the frequent late-nineteenth-century descriptions of first and second fiddle duos, as well as the involvement of young players in neighborhood dances. Photo: Courtesy of James Kimball.
When I came to Geneseo in 1976, it seemed a natural step to transfer my interests to old-time music in western New York. But what was it? I started reading old newspapers from the region and visiting flea markets, antiques shops, and old-book dealers. I combed the weekly Pennysaver for auction and yard sale ads and found small notices of local round and square dances. Before long my home was filling up with musical instruments, sheet music, published and manuscript tune collections, instruction books, dance cards, early recordings, and notebooks of interviews and material taken from old papers...

A particularly newsy and long look at local dance musician history can be found in the diaries of Hod Case of Bristol. Case started keeping diaries when he was eleven years old and kept them up for seventy-three years, until he died in 1940. All but five years is preserved and in the historical collection of the Town of Richmond in Honeoye. Excerpts from Case’s diaries follow, preceded by a thumbnail autobiographical description (from the back of his 1890-92 journal):
Photo of Hod case
Horace "Hod" Case, fiddler and caller, c. 1925.
Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Orr.
Horace H. [Case] born in Bristol July 7th, 1855, devoted considerable time to instrumental music but his principal occupation is farming and hop growing. He married Oct. 7th, 1876 Julia Reardon...daughter of Dennis and Catherine (Gordon) Reardon, natives of Ireland. Horace Case is a member of the Peoples’ Party and has been Justice of the Peace four years. He is a member of Eagle Lodge no. 619 F. & A.M., and the Farmers’ Alliance of Bristol.

Jan 17 1868 Had an old folks party here. Dave Thomas played.

Mar 25 1869 I traded my little fiddle to Frank Mitchell for a sled.

Jan 18 1870 [age fourteen and a half] Went to school, all the scholars to Caleb Simmons in eve. Herb Case and I played for them to dance...my first attempt at calling for dancing...I played and called one sett.

Feb 24 1870 Herb Case here...and wanted me to go to John Johnson’s beyond Slab City and play with him to a dance...Rode with him and his wife. Herb and I played I rec’d $2.50. First money for fiddling.

Feb 11 1871 ...I to Carter’s and took music lesson...;

Other than the named contradances (including "Opera Reel") and a circle dance or two, old descriptions and dance cards don’t usually identify what tunes were played. Much of the evening was taken up with quadrilles, each divided into three or more figures. The last and liveliest of these figures, commonly referred to as the jig figure, involved the most swinging, often with a chance to swing all the other ladies or gents in the set. The tune might be a popular old "hoedown" or reel (or a newer tune in that style) or a lively popular song—"Rickett’s Hornpipes," "Turkey in the Straw," "Soldier’s Joy," "Pistol Packin’ Mama," or "Alabama Jubilee." The first two figures (or changes) were frequently taken from the collections of quadrille sets published in Boston, New York, or Chicago. Such sets were commonly included in violin instruction books from the 1840s through the 1880s. Especially important to music-reading New York dance musicians were sets of quadrilles, available in part books, put out by E. T. Root of Chicago and by Cub Berdan. The first two or three tunes usually had no individual titles, and most were in 6/8. The standard eight-bar phrases were generally not repeated, and key changes were common.

I asked Mark Hamilton, of Black Creek, if he knew any tunes that changed keys. He thought of several but had no titles for them. And he played them without repeats—a characteristic of Hamilton’s playing in general. In the following months and years, he recalled more two key tunes. As I met old-time dance musicians, I found that they all knew at least a couple of these tunes, generally untitled or called "Uncle Luke’s tune" or the like. These tunes had fallen from their active repertoires; they were not used in modern dances or concert contests (but the mere question prompted these musicians to come up with pieces they hadn’t played for many years), and organized fiddlers’ clubs and contests had long since taken no interest in them. The heart of older New York dance fiddling hadn’t made it into modern public venues...
Mark Hamilton
Mark Hamilton, fiddler and caller, c. 1945. Photo: Courtesy of Mark and Katie Hamilton. (You can read more about Mark Hamilton in our Voices pages, as well as hear an interview with the fiddler.)

Edward G. Peterson, Geneseo fiddler and caller
Edward G. Peterson, Geneseo fiddler and caller. From The Livingston Republican, Geneseo, January 24, 1926. Photo: Courtesy of the Livingston County historian
Characteristic of western New York calling, it [sing-song way of calling] can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that the caller usually was an instrument-playing musician. It is simply easier to sing the call along with the tune than to just shout it out while playing. We know that many rural dancers came to prefer the singing calls over the older shouted or prompting style. Old-timers around Geneseo still remember Ed Peterson, the African American fiddler and Civil War veteran who sang most of his calls as he played local dances into the 1930s. Mark Hamilton learned his first singing calls from his father. Clarence Maher remembered "old Mike Sheehan" who had to sing his calls because he stuttered. When Floyd Woodhull (Elmira) and Monty Williams (Hornell) started singing into microphones in the 1930s, this became the norm...
Plenty of people still enjoy local-style square dancing. There are, however, fewer musicians who want to play that music. It doesn’t attract crowds the way driving fiddle tunes do, or Nashville-style country round or line dance tunes. There are even fewer callers still able to give a full evening of the traditional local squares (singing or otherwise) that were once so popular. Modern callers tend to want to teach something different than what the local folks grew up with. Those interested in sustaining a local art have to be satisfied with repetition, uncomplex tunes and steps, and with learning from older participants. My own practice in putting on local college, church, club, or festival dances has been increasingly to do it their way. The students who attend, and who may play in the band, tend to have no or little previous experience in square dancing. They’ll do, and have generally enjoyed, what we give them—especially as we have been able to bring in Kenny Lowe, Mark Hamilton, or others from the community to lead the calling. But old-timers, most from rural backgrounds, are very pleased when they find the dances as they have known them all their lives. It is the save-the-tradition approach that some in folklore circles have sometimes been criticized for. Given the alternatives, I rather like it.


James Kimball (kimball@uno.cc. geneseo.edu) teaches at SUNY-Geneseo. A version of this article was originally presented as the Phillips Barry Lecture, sponsored by the Music and Song Section, at the American Folklore Society meeting in Rochester, in October 2002.Photo of James Kimball

...The last and liveliest of these figures, commonly referred to as the jig figure, involved the most swinging, often with a chance to swing all the other ladies or gents in the set. The tune might be a popular old "hoedown" or reel (or a newer tune in that style) or a lively popular song—"Rickett’s Hornpipes," "Turkey in the Straw," "Soldier’s Joy," "Pistol Packin’ Mama," or "Alabama Jubilee."

The full article, that is excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Spring-Summer 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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