Contra dance, a form of social dance done in straight lines, was brought to New England with its earliest Anglo settlers. During the past 200 years, it has become part of life in the region's town halls and community centers. Bob McQuillen, pianist and accordion player, has held a central position in that scene for more than 50 years. He was born near Boston, but his family moved to southwestern New Hampshire when he was a child. Although his grandfather played accordion and his father played the piano, McQuillen did not turn seriously to music until he returned from service as a Marine during World War II. Some friends took him to a local dance, and he became interested in playing the accordion. He continued his day job teaching industrial arts at the local high school in Peterborough, New Hampshire, but also began playing accordion and piano for dances throughout the region, working with the legendary contra dance caller and historian, Ralph Page. In 1973, McQuillen wrote his first tune, Scotty O'Neil, named for a student who died tragically. Since then, he has written more than 1,100 dance tunes, many of them national and international classics throughout the expanding contra dance universe. Still, it appears that his greatest joy comes from what he sometimes modestly calls "boom chucking," providing the propulsive rhythms for a contra dance band that set feet and bodies moving on the dance floor.
Interview with Mary K. Lee
NEA: I wanted to congratulate you on the award. I was hoping that you could talk about what it was like hearing the news and what the award means to you?
MR. MCQUILLEN: It's hard to believe that it's happening. It is definitely hard for me to understand why I have received it. I don't think that I've done enough to rate being singled out for such a wonderful reward. I mean, Bill Monroe, the most famous country musician, perhaps one of the most famous in the world, got this award and here they're putting me on the same pedestal. I just find it completely incredible that I was selected.
NEA: Do you know any of the other people receiving the award?
MR. MCQUILLEN: I don't know Ralph Blizard personally but I know who he is and I've seen him in action. I do know Kevin Burke, he's an old friend from a long time ago.
NEA: Can you talk a little bit about how you got involved with contra music and the role it plays in the community up in New Hampshire?
MR. MCQUILLEN: Contra dancing has been going on in New Hampshire for well over two hundred years. I got into the scene going to dances in 1946 when I got out of the Marines after World War II. The dean of contra dance calling, Ralph Page, called locally here in the Monadnock region where I live. He was from Keene and I was living in Peterborough. He was the world's, well at least this country's, most authoritative figure when it comes to contra dancing. Anyhow I got to go to these things and in due course was able to get a job playing accordion for him.
I've been attached to the contra dance scene since that time. Now, not everybody in the Monadnock region here in New Hampshire goes to contra dances. But there are many people who are enthusiastic about it and continue to follow that little star.
NEA: Can you tell us about one of the first songs you wrote, Scotty O'Neil?
MR. MCQUILLEN: I can indeed. I was a high school teacher here and at that time we also took care of the junior high. I taught "industrial arts," shop class. There was this dandy kid in my shop classes in the seventh and eighth grade, Scotty O'Neil. When it came time for him to go to high school, instead of sending him to the local high school in Peterborough, his folks sent him up to a private boys school in the next town, Dublin. On his way up and back to school he'd pass the house where my wife and I and our two sons and daughter lived. It was right on the road.
Often times he'd stop at the house and visit. I think our daughter had something to do with that. "Want to stay for supper Scotty?" "Sure." And he'd stay. We were quite close. Then he bought a motorcycle and he got into a tragic accident and was killed. That was in the fall of 1972.
Just out of a clear blue sky in the early part of 1973 I suddenly got an idea for a tune. It was the first time I had written anything down, written it out in music form. The gang that I was playing music with at the time, the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra, had a date down in Massachusetts to make a recording. There was going to be a dozen or more musicians down there to make this recording. I took the tune down and said, "Hey, would you guys play this?" And they did. And lo and behold they liked the tune. I'd already named it. I named it Scotty O'Neil, of course, after the kid.
NEA: What are some of the lyrics?
MR. MCQUILLEN: There are no lyrics. This is a melody thing. The tunes that I write don't have words. They're instrumentals. They're dance tunes that we might play at contra dances here in the area.
NEA: Tell me about "boom chucking."
MR. MCQUILLEN: "Boom chucking" was initially a derogatory term for the kind of piano style that I have. The left hand puts down a bass note or notes, the baseline, then the right hand provides the chord accompaniment. The "boom" being the left hand providing the base, the "chuck" being the chord on the right.
NEA: You said it was a derogatory term.
MR. MCQUILLEN: Well, I think it was originally. They'd say, "Well he's nothing but a boom chucker." Well, I'm the most authentic boom chucker you can talk to. That's what I do!
NEA: It sounds like you take pride in being a boom chucker.
MR. MCQUILLEN: I do indeed and I'll tell you why. I got my piano style from a man named Johnny Trombly. Johnny Trombly was Ralph Page's piano player in the band that Ralph gave me the job playing for in 1947. One time at a dance, I was messing around at the piano, which I did from time to time, doing some little diddly and Johnny came up and said, "Bob, do it this way." And he showed me a way of playing the chords which I call "Johnny's Moves." Johnny Trombly was a boom chucker, but he didn't call it that. I asked him one time, "What do you call that style Johnny?" He said, "Oh that's French Canadian style Bob." He was himself French Canadian.
Johnny was such a good piano player, his music so delightful, that when we dancers heard that Johnny was going to play for someone else on a given night - say a night off for Ralph's orchestra and Johnny'd been hired to go play somewhere else in another town. If there were no dances locally, we would all jump in our cars, the dance community around here, and rush down to wherever Johnny was playing. We wouldn't even know who the caller was going to be. We didn't know who the other musicians were going to be. All we knew was that Johnny was going to be playing down in Fitzburg or someplace. So we'd go shooting off to Fitzburg because we knew that the music was going to be great to dance to because Johnny Trombly was playing piano there that night. That's how we felt about his playing and his style. And I tried to pattern my playing after what he did. I don't exactly duplicate what he did, but my basic style is exactly what he did.
NEA: Now aside from Johnny Trombly and Ralph Page, were there other people who had a significant influence upon your career?
MR. MCQUILLEN: I played for Dudley Loftman and his Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra for quite a long while. I played for a man named Duke Miller, a caller who came over from New York state every summer. I played for him for twenty-six consecutive summers, ten weeks each summer. These guys were all part of my career. They gave me the opportunity to play, to mix with all of the other different musicians and to be a part of that scene.
NEA: Have there been any challenges to continuing to play and perform over the years? What are the challenges that you see in the future for contra musicians?
MR. MCQUILLEN: You know, I really I don't see any challenges, because this thing has mushroomed. Contra dancing is expanding in this country. The West Coast is rife with contra dancing. Contra dancing is being done in far off places like Hawaii. Contra dancing is big up in Alaska. They love contra dancing up there. There's contra dancing down in Florida. There's contra dancing in Missouri. I mean, you know, the stuff is all over. It's like weeds, it grows. So the music and the way of playing it is growing all the time.
NEA: Now is the music and the dance, going to the dance halls, it that something that young New Hampshire citizens also enjoy?
MR. MCQUILLEN: We've got kids that come quite a lot. Over in the little town of Nelson, New Hampshire - I call it the "Contra Dance Capital of the World" - there's this tiny little hall where we play every Monday night. We play for nothing. The dancers pay a $3 minimum and have the time of their lives. It's a short dance, starts at eight and goes to ten-thirty. The young people have a great time and we enjoy playing for them.
The same thing is going on the West Coast. I play for a dance hall out there from time to time where they have what they call " family dances." The whole outfit, ma, pa and the kids, all come to this thing. So the seeds are in fact being promulgated.
NEA: Do you teach your musical technique to others, to students?
MR. MCQUILLEN: I have apprentices who I've working with for nearly ten years. In fact, my first apprentice was the oldest son of my fiddler Jane Orzechowski. I started working with him on piano when he was eleven and now he's going off to college. I've got four kids I'm teaching the piano to now. The New Hampshire Council on the Arts has really helped me out with this. They've provided me with funds to do this apprenticeship business.
NEA: And when you're performing what sort of emotions are your experiencing?
MR. MCQUILLEN: What sort of emotions? Whoopee! It's a wonderful thing to do and I love doing it!
NEA: What are your favorite types of performances? What do you prefer doing if you have a choice?
MR. MCQUILLEN: I prefer playing for dance, not for concerts. For concerts you've got to be too fussy. You can't make a mistake at a concert because people are sitting there and really listening to you. But at a dance everybody's out on the floor dancing and they're not apt to notice if you make a wrong chord or hit the wrong note - they're concentrating on the dancing. It's a lot easier on the nerves playing for a dance, But I will do concerts. My band and I do concerts and we hire out for weddings and play incidental music. We do whatever the hell we're asked to do. But I'm a dance musician per se, that's my big bag.
NEA: Your grandfather played the accordion and your father played the piano. Did you pick up on any of your musical skills from them or did it mostly come later?
MR. MCQUILLEN: I never met my grandfather - mother's father. I never saw the man. My father did not like contra dancing. I brought him to one of these things one time and he didn't last long. He stayed for just long enough to find out what it was like and then he got the heck out of the hall.
My father had a tremendous ear and tremendous piano skills. He was self-taught, never had lessons, couldn't read music. But boy could he play the piano. He was what they called a ragtime piano player. That's not how he earned his living - he was a businessman. But he could play the hell out of a piano. And I am blessed with my father's ear. That's what he gave me in this aspect of life. I could always hear things and carry them around and regurgitate them.
NEA: What about the song Amelia? That's also one of your songs, right?
MR. MCQUILLEN: Let's see, this is sort of complicated. After Charles Lindbergh flew across the ocean in the Spirit of St. Louis, the thing was to get the plane back. They took the wings off and put them in one crate and the fuselage in another, then sent the whole thing back to this country aboard ship. I don't know where the wings box went but the fuselage crate eventually wound up on the banks of the Black Water River in Contoocook, a little town in New Hampshire. Somebody then took the crate and put a slanted roof on it and made a little cabin out of it. So now we got Lindbergh's crate living in the woods on the shores of the Black Water River which is about fifty feet across and pine trees all around, a real pretty spot.
Now along comes Diana Stiles and she lives in this thing for a while. She also develops a fondness for some dude and out of that we get the emergence of a cute little baby girl. Who, because this was Lindbergh's crate, was named.. .go ahead...
MR. MCQUILLEN: After...
NEA: Amelia Erhart.
MR. MCQUILLEN: You got it. That's exactly why. About three years or so after that was when I decided that Amelia ought to have a tune. And that's how it all happened.
NEA: Well I just have one more question for you and I just want to thank you again for speaking with me today.
MR. MCQUILLEN: Oh it's a delight. Listen to me, I love talking about this stuff. This has been my whole life for fifty years, my dear, and you know this is such a big deal. It's just wonderful. So go ahead.
NEA: I just wanted to know what you're looking forward to about the awards ceremony and the concert and coming to D.C.?
MR. MCQUILLEN: The people there who are involved in this are trying to be very nice to me I don't totally know why. Well, maybe I know some of the why. I've written an awful lot of tunes, that's why. Very few people have written over 1100 tunes like I have. However, now comes a dude from Cape Breton Island who says, "Yeah, well you know Dan R. McDonald up there." And I say, "Yeah I know who he is." "Well, he wrote 2500 tunes." This puts something in perspective, would agree?
MR. MCQUILLEN: Now here's a man who's done at least double what I've done and nobody gave him any award that I know about, you know. But as I said before, people are trying to be nice to me and I do appreciate that. I think it's very sweet of them. But I still don't completely understand why I deserve such a magnificent recognition as this if you compare me with, as I said earlier, the likes of Bill Monroe and these high level dudes that they've given these awards before.