Dudley Laufman

Dance Caller and Musician
Man playing a fiddle outdoors.

Photo by Lynn Martin Graton


The name Dudley Laufman is so closely associated with the contra and barn dances of New England that most long-term residents refer to local gatherings as "Dudley Dances." Two forms of community dances evolved in New England -- contra dances, done in lines with partners facing one another, and square dances featuring sets of four couples. After the Revolutionary War, dances such as these, associated with England, fell out of favor, except in the rural areas of the Northeast where they continued to occur in informal settings such as kitchen parties and barn dances. Laufman came to New Hampshire in 1947 to work at a dairy farm and began to attend these local dances. He called his first dance in 1948 and soon started his own musical group for the dances, which later became the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra. During the 1970s, the orchestra made a number of recordings, and Laufman traveled throughout the region, performing and teaching dance at schools, community centers, and public parks, averaging 300 or more engagements each year. Today he performs and gives workshops with his partner Jacqueline as the duo Two Fiddles. Ernest Thompson, New Hampshire resident and author of On Golden Pond, succinctly conveys Laufman's contributions to New England dance: "I think Dudley Laufman belongs in the pantheon of genuine American artists. He belongs in Franconia Notch, the real Old Man of the Mountain."

Interview by Josephine Reed for the NEA

NEA: Dudley, when did you first get entranced by traditional dance calling?

Dudley Laufman: Oh, I worked on a dairy farm in Fremont, New Hampshire, and the man I worked for played the fiddle, and his wife was a social worker, religious social worker type of person, and she was interested in community activity. And she'd read somewhere about kitchen junkets, so she thought that it would be nice to have kitchen junkets at the farm. So she organized them and we were milking about forty Jerseys, and we processed the milk and pedaled it door to door in glass. So we had to milk the cows, get the milk processed, and get it ready. Then we'd have a corn roast, and after the corn roast we'd go up to the house and have a hymn sing, stand around the piano and sing. My favorite hymn was "Once Every Man and Nation." It's set to the tune of an old Welsh hymn, Ton-y-Botel.

And then they'd move the furniture out, invite the neighbors in, and we'd have a dance. And it was a old house. It was built in the early 1700s, and a long, narrow kitchen with a low ceiling and wide board floors, and a fireplace. And Jonathan would sit at one end, and he'd play the fiddle. And Betty or somebody'd play the piano, and Betty called the dances. And she used the Henry Ford book, the Good Morning Book, and she called the dances out of that. And we'd dance, and there was the smell of the wood smoke, and the firelight gleaming on the girls' hair, and the rosiny sound of the fiddle, and I was hooked. That was it.

NEA: And you knew you wanted to call.

Dudley Laufman: Yeah. Well, I didn't know I wanted to call. I just knew that I wanted it to be a central part of my life, the music and the dance. I didn't know I wanted to call. That came a little bit later.

So then I went to agricultural school in Walpole, Massachusetts. And besides learning how to milk cows and take care of chickens and feed pigs and grow vegetables, we had square dancing every Monday night. And at the end of the school year, they would have a folk festival and Ralph Page came to it, and he was my mentor. He was a dancing master from Keene.

The first year I played on the hockey team, the ice hockey team. So that took care of whatever need I had to perform in public. But I noticed that at the festival, which I danced at the first year, that the boys that some of the boys had learned to call. They'd been trained by one of the teachers to call some dances. And I noticed that they got a lot of attention from the female segment of the audience, and I thought, that's pretty neat.

Well, the next year it was an open winter. There was no ice. And so we didn't have a hockey team. Nobody could afford to go into the Boston area to play, so anyway, I didn't play hockey. And by that time, I'd really sort of got hooked on the dancing, and I'd learned to call, and so at the next festival, I called. I'd taught myself to call with a lot of encouragement from the Psalmody teacher, and his wife, who were dancers and callers, and they sort of encouraged me to get on with it. So I called the dances, and lo and behold, there was the groupies that came shortly after that. And so that was the beginning. Yes.

NEA: You grew up in Massachusetts. How'd you end up in New Hampshire?

Dudley Laufman: Well, my folks went to Boston University, and their classmates, who were the Chandler family. The Chandlers had a summer place in Raymond, New Hampshire and they were very English. They had a governess. And the governess was Betty Coffin, and Jonathan Quimby was their milkman. And so when he would deliver milk, he fell in love with Betty.

And after a lot of courting, he persuaded her to not go to Africa, as a missionary, but to stay in New Hampshire as his wife. So then she went to live on Mistwold Farm with Jonathan, and that's how it started. He played the fiddle and she called the dances.

NEA: Dudley, what is it about dairy farming that gets you?

Dudley Laufman: When you're a dairy farmer you're self employed, but the cows are the boss. You know, when you're a musician, you're your own boss. Ralph Page was his own boss. Frank Upton was his own boss. Newt Talman was his own boss, Bob McQuillen. And that's really what I wanted to do, and it was warring all this time. And well, let's see, the dairy farm part was, you know, the smell and just the general work, the haying, and all of it. I loved it. But anyway, I end up after working, after Stockbridge [School of Agriculture], I worked on a dairy farm in Walpole, New Hampshire.

NEA: You decided you wanted to call dances. How do you learn to do that?

Dudley Laufman: Taught myself. But what I did was I went to Ralph Page's dances in Boston, and then later on in New Hampshire. And so, I mean, there was more than just learning to call and wanting to call. I mean, part of it was necessity, you know. I used to love to go to Ralph's dances and sometimes he wasn't calling a dance. And we'd want to have a dance, so the only way to do it was to teach myself, you know, to do it. And, of course, I had his style. I had recordings of him calling and I listened to him doing it. And so it was just a case of imitating him. So there was that.

NEA: So would you practice in the barn with the cows?

Dudley Laufman: No, in my head. And then, Ralph, God bless him. Michael Herman recorded him and these are great, fantastic recordings. The best things that ever been done. Canterbury Orchestra can't hold a candle to these recordings that Ralph Page made with his New Hampshire Orchestra. They were just wonderful.

NEA: Now, when did you start fiddling?

Dudley Laufman: Nineteen fifty-seven, my first wife, Cynthia, gave me a fiddle. And then Dick Richardson was my fiddler at the time. He was from Moultonborough, New Hampshire, and he was Ralph Page's fiddler, but he also fiddled for me. He was a great fiddler. And I used to stand in back of him. I had a photograph one time. Most callers would stand in front of the band. I had a picture of Ralph Page standing in back of the band. That's pretty neat. So I played the accordion standing in back of the band, and had the rest of the band sitting in front of me. So I could play the accordion, manage the band, call the dance, and look over Dick's shoulder, watch what he was doing. Then I'd go home and practice. So I taught myself.

NEA: Dudley, do you remember the first time you called a dance?

Dudley Laufman: I remember that. It was at the Aggie. I think that was the first time. Pretty exciting. The first time I called at the Aggie, I was using a recording, and it was a French Canadian, little '78 thing. And it was a tune we now call the "Crooked Stovepipe," but the recording was a French tune. It was called "Reel de Gondolier," 'cause that was the only recording we had of the "Crooked Stovepipe." Since then it's been made several times, but so it was sort of a semi singing call, and I learned it from Ralph Page. So I called that at the school, and I guess what was exciting about it was seeing the people doing it, but also them applauding at the end, you know. And that made me sort of a hero at the school, you know. Well, that, the year I called, I was the only one.

I think the first time that I called not at the school where there was a different kind of an audience, was at Friendly Crossways, which was a youth hostel. And they'd have Quaker institutes there and I called there. And I used a record there, and I was not happy with that. And I forget what it was. I think Bob Trase was the caller for the evening, but he knew I was getting interested in calling, so I tried to call "Darling Nellie Grey," 'cause he had a recording of it. And it just wouldn't wait. The record wouldn't wait, you know. So I said, "Ah, the hell with this. I'm gonna use live music from now on."

NEA: And you're completely committed to using live music.

Dudley Laufman: You bet. Well, you know, it's so artificial, the recorded. You want live music. I loved it.

NEA: Okay. For those of us who don't know, can you explain the difference between contra dancing and square dancing? Then there's traditional dancing and singing square.

Dudley Laufman: When I was a kid we went to square dances. And the dances were for the most part traditional, New England, what they call eastern square dances. Most of these were singing calls to tunes like "Jingle Bells" and "Red River Valley" and "The Girl I Left Behind Me" and "Coming Round the Mountain," and things like that. And the caller would sing the call. Ralph Page was one of the best. Lots of people took it up after and before him. And well, the voice just didn't have it, you know. So far as I'm concerned, Ralph was the best. But other callers were pretty good. Happy Hale was one of the first ones that was good. and then Sammy Sprang, and Duke Miller. But at these square dances we also did contras. But at most of the contra dances, most of the square dances when I was going to the dances, they would do maybe five contras in the course of the evening.

NEA: And what's a contra?

Dudley Laufman: That's done at long ways. Two lines, partners facing. So we always would do "Lady Walpole's Reel" or "Boston Fancy," "Morning Star," "Durang's Hornpipe". Sometimes "Lady of the Lake," "Hall's Victory," and "Money Musk." Couldn't do a dance without "Money Musk." And now this was down in the Monadnock Region. In other places in the State of New Hampshire they didn't know what you were talking about. They were just square dances. The only contra they would do would be the "Virginia Reel." Over near the Maine border they would do "Lady of the Lake." And but anyway the difference is that the square is in square formation, and the contra is in long ways.

NEA: Four couples make the square.

Dudley Laufman: Yeah. But generically the whole issue was called a contra dance. And then back in the ‘70s, when this dancing caught a hold with the hippies, they didn't like the word "square," and they discovered some of the dances were called "contras," so they called everything a contra dance, even though we do it with squares. It just tipped the scale the other way. But then they started writing new dances and the contra dance became a thing of its own, the modern, urban contra dance.

NEA: Well, you really became part of an entire movement. I mean, you might not have meant to, but I think in some ways you kind of did, because you were very much interested in the whole life of the whole back to earth movement.

Dudley Laufman: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was Johnny on the spot. If it hadn't been me, it'd probably been someone else, but it happened to be me. And the kids that were coming to the dances, the barefoot hippies, you know, they were tired of doing rock and roll where you didn't touch your partner, and they found here was something they could touch their partner and it was connected to the rural area, back to the land. And they thought that was pretty neat. That's what they wanted, and I was the guy that was doing it.

NEA: The authenticity.

Dudley Laufman: Yeah. And I was inviting musicians to come and sit in and play. And so that was also a big part of it. And they didn't like the recorded music, and they didn't like the square dancing, so you know, I was just on. And that was great, you know, just moved right along with it. But I hadn't planned that. That just what happened.

NEA: I think you're at a stage where unlike a lot of people you can look back and say, I lived my own life.

Dudley Laufman: Oh, yeah. I have no regrets. I mean, it's been hard. Life, life is hard at times, and it's been difficult, but I wouldn't do it any other way. I can't think of any other way. I mean, I fantasized about being a professional hockey player at one point. And I've fantasized at being a lobsterman, but, you know, I went lobstering one time down off of Rhode Island. Once was enough. And I got banged up in hockey enough to know that I don't want to do that.

NEA: Can you talk about the 1965 Newport Festival?

Dudley Laufman: What happened was that we went up to Goddard College and they had a contest. Fiddle, the Vermont fiddlers had a contest. And I was hired to come up, play for the dance. But they also made us do something during the contest. Between contestants they asked me and Dave Fuller, Jack Salonika, Joe Ryan, to play some music and to describe the difference between the jig, the reel, and the hornpipe. So we did that, playing those instruments. And I was playing accordion and fiddle. Joe was playing clarinet, mandolin, and fiddle. Jack was playing bass, and Dave Fuller was playing accordion. I think Jerry Weene, he was a student at Goddard, he may have showed up, too. And so we did that. And then we played for the dance at night. And then on Sunday we did some more stuff. And then when it came time to leave, we were in Joe's truck, and it was getting dark, and out of the gloom came Ralph Rinzler, who was well known down in the Washington area, but a scout for the Newport Folk Festival. He said, "I'm Ralph Rinzler. I'm a scout for the Newport Folk Festival. Like you to come to the Festival this next summer and do what I saw you do at the workshops. Explain the difference between the jig, reel, and hornpipe. You guys come, the four of you, come." So he said, "I'll call you." He gave me a card.

I said, "Well, I don't have a phone, you know, but we'll work this out." So anyway, we got talking about a month later and I said, "Well, you know, really ought to have Newt come." He said, "Newt? What's Newt play?" I said, "Flute."

"Flute? What do you want with a flute?" And I said, "Well, flute was what we use here in New Hampshire sometimes."

"You sure?" he said. You know, ‘cause he thought everybody just played banjoes. He didn't realize the New Englanders did this sort of stuff. We've always kept our light under a bushel, anyway, you know. We're just a frog hollering from a little puddle. So this is brand new to him, but he loved what we did. Anyway, we ended up going down with about ten musicians. I think four or five hired, and then I brought all the rest. I worked it so they could all come down. And then I said, "Well, we're gonna have to have some dancers." "Dancers? What do you want that for?" I said, "Weren't you paying attention? We played for dancing on Saturday night." He said, "That's right. You did." So anyway we brought the dancers. That was great.

NEA: And then what happened when you got there?

Dudley Laufman: We did a workshop in the afternoon, and so I was describing the difference between the hornpipe and the jig and the reel. And then we showed some of the dances. We had some people from Nelson. We showed some of the dances. And the workshop above us was a little mini-concert that Bob Dylan that was doing. And it got over before ours did. And he was headed back to the dressing room, and coming running down the hill, and all these groupies following him, trying to get a piece of his hair and his coat, and his followers were protecting him.

Well, they heard our music. We were right in the midst of "Petronella," you know, and it was rich. And they heard it, and they sort of swarmed off into our workshop. So it changed from being "Petronella" to the "Virginia Reel," but it was great. Some of the dancers from Nelson were a little annoyed that we couldn't do the contras. But I said, "Ah, come on. Grab this while you got it." And so we got all these hippies barefoot, hippies dancing the "Virginia Reel" to this great music. They filled the place. Must have two hundred dancing there on the grass. It was great.

NEA: Now, even though you're really known as a caller of contra dancing, you've gone back to what you call traditional New England barn dancing.

Dudley Laufman: That's right. The traditional contra dance is like a "Money Musk", "Petronella", "Chorus Jig", "Hull's Victory, Morning Star". And those dances have been done for years, particularly in the Monadnock region, but other places, too. And the contra dance is divided up between active and inactive couples, and you start as an active couple and work your way down the set. Inactives work their way up the set. When they get to the top they become active and work their way down the set. So, in other words, they have minor sets. So you have an active and inactive couple and in the minor set. And the active couple interacts with the inactive couple, and passes through to the next inactive couple, and the inactive couples move up, and you move from one to the other. When you're active, you stay active ‘til your progress to the bottom. When you're inactive you remain inactive ‘til you progress to the top, where you become active and start working down. And when you get to the bottom, you become inactive and start working up. So the traditional dance has the inactive couples not doing as much as the actives, and a lot of the hippies and the computer programmers didn't like that. So they invented dances where they had everybody doing something all the time, so that's the modern urban contra dance, and I'm not interested in that and don't do it. I'm not saying it's bad. It just doesn't speak to my need.

So anyway, when this thing really got rolling, the dances that I was doing were the old ones, you know. And that was great for awhile. But more and more people were coming to the dances, and it got to the point where the people that knew the dances were very much in the minority. So I needed something that was going to fill the gap, and I got on the staff at Pinewoods and discovered the barn dance, the English barn dance. And those dances are more like the Virginia Reel, more what they call a whole set, and a lot easier to do, require no teaching and are still great. So that's what I started doing and, of course, when I started doing that, I lost the hot shot contra dances. They didn't want to do those. Not enough activity in them.

So they started going their own way, and I had to make a living, and there was more bucks in the barn dance, so that's the way I went. And then it got me to work in schools with kids, but I also worked with drunks, and preppies, and families, and weddings, and things like that.

NEA: What is it about traditional dance that you think is so evocative, that all this time later people are still coming to dance these dances people were dancing oh, so long ago.

Dudley Laufman: I don't know. It's hard to tell. I mean, I know what it is with me. It's a whole combination of things, but I always try to I get the feeling that it reverts back to the dance at the farm, but also the dancing over in the Monadnock region. It's a combination of both. That's what it is for me. I really can't tell what other people get from it. There is the atmosphere of courtship that is very strong in this stuff.

NEA: And let me ask you finally, when you found out that you won a National Heritage Fellow, what did you think when you got the phone call from Barry Bergey [NEA Director of Folk and Traditional Arts] ?

Dudley Laufman: Well, Jacqueline was sitting there, and my grandson was sitting there, and they were playing cards or something. And I was doing some sort of business over there, and the call came, and I couldn't believe it at first…. And it took some while to set in. It still hasn't set in entirely, you know. It's pretty big, I guess.

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