Each year, the National Endowment for the Arts awards a small number of folk artists National Heritage Fellowships. This year, one of the recipients was Dudley Laufman, dance caller and musician from Canterbury, New Hampshire. I am sure many New Englanders applauded the choice, since it is hard to overstate the impact that Dudley has had on the region’s folk dance revival over the past sixty years. As a caller with a keen eye for sizing up an audience, he introduced thousands to the joys of the barn dance. And his Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra, the first to release an LP of New England contra and square dance music back in 1971, served as a training ground and inspiration for hundreds of area musicians. He continues to maintain a full performance schedule as one half of “Two Fiddles” along with music and life partner Jacqueline Laufman.
Sipping mint tea by the wood stove in the Laufmans’ self-built Canterbury home, our conversation was a fascinating swirl of barn dance history, callers, orchestras, dancing masters, fiddle tunes and figures. In this first installment of the interview, we’ll focus on more recent events.
So how did you and Jacqueline meet up?
Jacqueline: I met him at the Canterbury Fair back in ’78 maybe, and I heard the music –– he was playing for morris dancing and I loved the music and I kept coming around to the fair and finally I asked him, “What kind of music is this?” And he barked at me and said…
Dudley: “Flatlander!” I could tell by her accent she was from Massachusetts.
Jacqueline: So he described the music, which was morris dance music. He was playing his concertina at the time and I just loved the sound. My dad had played accordion when I was little and I had always wanted to play and finally I decided that I’d join the morris team. I danced for two years and decided that the music was so wonderful that I wanted to play it. I played it on the accordion and then Dudley a few years later was playing the fiddle and said, “Boy, wouldn’t this sound good on two fiddles!” So I went out and bought a fiddle and he showed me where to put your fingers down for the key of D –– because we both don’t read music –– and I was off, I was launched. And he hired me for a dance four months later.
Wow –– to learn the fiddle in four months! You’ve got my admiration there.
Jacqueline: What it speaks of is not my ability but Dudley’s encouragement to have people join him as soon as possible. I only knew a few tunes but I was driven. I really wanted to be able to play music. He would introduce me as a musician and I thought, “Wow!” That was better than saying you’re the queen of the world or something to be able to be called a musician! And the tradition goes on. Not only has he had apprentices for calling but I’ll have fiddle students and within two months they’ll come sit in with the band when we’re playing at a dance. So that continues and I’m proud to be part of that tradition.
What makes a good caller and what makes a good dance fiddler?
Dudley: A good caller depends on what some dancers want. Some dancers want complex dances and they want a caller who can do that and make it work. And most of them are willing to wait and bear with him while they call the dance. But looking at it from the opposite way, a caller should not, for instance, when he gets a crowd of people at the beginning of the dance, ever say, “How many people have never done this before?” That’s a no-no as far as I’m concerned but I hear callers do it all the time. “Raise your hand if you’ve never done this dance before!” What an embarrassing thing to raise your hand. So I never do that and I tell anyone I’m teaching, “Don’t do it. Leave it out!” Do a very simple dance to begin with, even if there are some dancers there who can’t stand simple –– they’re gonna roll their eyes. Do it anyway and watch what’s happening. And you can tell by watching who can dance and who can’t. And you build your dance around that. And a good caller should not use cards. They should memorize the dance. They shouldn’t have to depend on the calling cards. I don’t know wherever that came about and I’ve had several callers tell me that they can’t run a dance unless they have their cards. But if you’re looking at the card when you’re calling a dance, then you’re not paying attention to what’s going on on the floor. And I think a good caller should also be a musician. It’s rare that you find a [good ] caller who’s not a musician –– Ted Sannella was one of those. He was not a musician. He couldn’t carry a tune in a handbasket and he knew it. But he really knew his music and he was an excellent caller and a good teacher and a great personality. [New Hampshire caller] Ralph Page was a musician but he didn’t play. He could play the fiddle, play the string bass, the piano, but he didn’t. His voice was the best for dancing tunes as far as I’m concerned. Ted and I grew up dancing to Page. Ted did not have a pleasing voice for calling but everything else made up for it, his whole mannerism and style of dances.
Okay, so there’s the charisma, the sound of the voice. What about the timing of where you place the calls?
Well, that’s a technique that you’ve got to learn. Particularly if you’re calling contras, you’ve got to know that you give the call before they do it. So you have to give the call at the end of the phrase so the dancer starts the figure at the beginning of the next phrase.
Right. Do people have different approaches to that or is it pretty standard?
It’s pretty standard. These days there’s a generic, standard way they’re all calling. They all begin to sound the same. If it works it works, but a lot of them have not developed their own style. Most callers just talk the call. They don’t chant or sing. They haven’t learned to do that yet. I always encourage them to listen to the tune and see if you can develop your voice to flow along with the call and make it pleasing. I think what makes a good caller is they’ve got to be able to size up their audience very quickly and build the dance around the lowest common denominator. Like, for instance, if some kid comes in with Down’s syndrome, you’ve got to build your dance around that. And you’ve got to invite your audience to take that into consideration. You can’t do gypsies and hays. They are not the be-all and end-all. And you can’t say that this dance is only for those who know how. That doesn’t cut it. People paid their way in. Everybody gets to dance. So the person running the dance has to be aware of that.
... I think a good fiddler should be aware of the fact that the dance, this whole event is not there just for them. They’re part of what’s going on. Their job is to give the caller what he or she wants and the dancers what they want. I saw a band one time where the two fiddlers had their backs to the audience. They were totally ignoring, just into their own thing. That’s rude. A good fiddler has to be a dancer and they shouldn’t be bored. If the caller has asked for a very simple tune, the fiddler shouldn’t roll his or her eyes and they should make something of it. It’s a chance for them to develop the tune. If it’s a singing call, then you’ve got to stay with the same tune. If it’s a long one like “Camptown Races,” don’t roll your eyes. Play the damn tune and play with it. You know, fool around with it a little bit. You can’t use medleys on something like that. Those are some of the things that make a good fiddler.
[For the rest of this interview, as well as Dudley's tune "Mistwold" and his poem "How Contra Dancing Was Invented," subscribe to Fiddler Magazine!]
[Peter Anick, author of Mel Bay's Old Time Fiddling Across America," teaches fidle and mandolin and performs with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces. Some of his dance tunes can be found at www.wideospaces.com.]
Photo: Peter Anick