My parents signed me up for piano lessons when I was six. These didn't last long; I was a poor student and was happy with what I had already learned siting on my dad's lap as he played. He was self taught and quite good.
I played the trumpet in school bands and orchestras for six years in grade school and sang in choirs and ensembles.
My parents took me to my first square dance in Wilbraham around 1956 or 57 when I was 8 or 9 years old. During our summer vacations in Harpswell, Maine, I attended the local "square dances" (I think I remember more longways set dances and couples' dances than squares; we even danced some contras).
At 303 Massasoit Hall, Springfield College, 1966. Fairbanks Vega Tu-ba-phone banjo mandolin.
Photo by Tim Meyer
I began playing guitar and singing "folk songs" in 1966. I was a freshman in an all-male dormitory at Springfield College. In most ways, I didn't fit in. However, there were several guitar players in the dorm, and they were generous with their instruments and their time.
I was very immature for my age and had deep and complicated self-esteem issues. Playing guitar was incredibly fun and rewarding; it addressed or at least mitigated a lot of my personal problems; and it provided me with an outlet for the frustrated artist within. I simply did it whenever I could! When my younger sister Cindy gave me her old Sears Silvertone guitar for my very own, my involvement with music skyrocketed but my academic performance went right down the toilet. My commitment to competitive swimming suffered. Somehow, to the relief of many (including my academic advisor, swimming coach, and parents), I did manage to become a decent middle distance freestyler (among other things, my 800-yard freestyle relay placed 7th at the College Division Nationals in 1969), and I did manage to graduate in 1970. I'm still not sure I deserved to do so.
For several years after (barely) graduating from Springfield College in 1970 with an English degree, I kicked around the midcoast region in Maine working at a wide variety of odd jobs: Waiter, public school teacher aide, house painter, chicken barn cleaner, carpenter's helper, lobsterman's sternman, sea-moss raker. All the while, I went to every singing event I could, including wonderful singing parties at my own family's cottage by the shore.
Eventually, I began doing gigs, both solo and in ensembles, in bars and coffeehouses and at festivals and concerts. I began flatpicking melodies on the guitar and, increasingly, on an old Fairbanks Vega "Tu-ba-phone" banjo-mandolin which a neighbor had given me back in the early 1960s, with which I had experimented while in college (my roommates detested it). I have great memories of bouncing around Southern Maine with Bill and Gene Bonyun in their funky old converted school bus, playing at fundraiser concerts for the Maine Democratic Party and other such causes.
In 1969, at a party in Camden, I met luthier/musician Nick Apollonio. He was a beacon in the fog of confusion as I struggled with my identity and goals in music and life. His work on my musical instruments, our hours of talk about music, and the hospitality and generosity with which he drew me into the rich midcoast musical environment have had a strong, inspiring, and lasting influence on me.
In 1973, at a party near Burlington, Vermont, I met the charter members of the Arm and Hammer String Band, who induced me to come to their contra dances to both dance and sit in.
Thus, the beginning of my involvement with the music and dances of what we now refer to as Contra Dancing. That formative experience of being encouraged to sit in and to be part of the music, and get "on-the-job" training in dance musicianship all the while, has guided my long standing encouragement to others to sit in with me and, in turn, to welcome others to sit in with them.
I began playing fiddle in 1974. My deep love of this instrument led me into many situations including country-rock bar bands, string bands, and contra dance bands around the Connecticut River Valley and elsewhere. Soon, it led me into teaching, and I've thought of myself as a teacher more than as a performer ever since.
I began calling contra dances in 1980, taking over a little dance at the Guiding Star Grange Hall in Greenfield, Massachusetts which then struggled along for three years before becoming the first really established public dance there in decades. I also called and/or played at numerous small, out-of-the-way dances and other events around New England.
In the mid 1980s, I began helping people learn how to get through passably pleasant approximations of the basic polska, schottische, hambo, and one or two other Swedish dances. My knowledge of and approach to stylistic detail is simplistic: it was summed up by a Bostonian Scandophile upon learning that his partner's style evolved in the Connecticut River Valley: "Oh, you learned it from the Kaynors. Everybody knows they just do it for fun."
Whatever. Play a polska, schottische, and hambo at a contra dance at the Guiding Star Grange Hall and you will most likely observe a dance floor filled with people having fun.
Seeking both a place in the older local communities and increased input into decisions regarding our dance halls, I joined the Montague Center and Guiding Star Granges. I became involved in a gradual increase in the organizations' memberships and a clarifying of their intention to improve the halls' availability and accessibility for more participatory arts (of which contra dancing is only one!), concerts, theater, classes, and more.
Gradually, I became involved in the larger regional and, eventually, national contra dance scenes. I've been on staff at Northern Week at Ashokan every summer since 1983 and at Contra Dance Musicians' Week at the John C. Campbell Folk School every summer since 1996.
I've worked at New Year's events at these locations and elsewhere and I've taught, played, and called at Pinewoods in southeastern Massachusetts; Buffalo Gap in West Virginia; Mendocino in California; the Lady of the Lake in Idaho; Ogontz and Summer Acoustic Music Week in New Hampshire; Suttle Lake in Oregon; Wannadance Uptown in Seattle and Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington; and at many other camps and weekends, workshops, and other events around the country.
My 9th visit to Sweden took place in March, 2007. As usual, I visited, skiied, ran, drank coffee, deepened friendships, took part in music and dance events, learned as much as I could, and presented New England music and dancing in schools, public places, and private homes.
My resume reads like an itinerant performer's, but I see myself mainly as a teacher and facilitator. I've been described as a mechanic in artist clothing. Whether playing tunes, teaching and calling dances, or working at a camp, or even running in a road race, I tend to be more interested in the process than the product. Experience wins over expedience every time. Most of "real life" isn't like this, but music and dancing can be.