Most Fiddle Campers know who Sylvia Miskoe is. She has been teaching piano accordion at Camp for a couple decades, a petite woman with blonde/grey/white hair walking through Camp with an accordion slung over her back. Sylvia loves traditional Scottish dance music and also New England traditional dance music and old time country dancing.
Some background that most of you already know.. The old time country dance (barn dance, square dance, contra dance, “Dudley Dance”, call it what you will) and the music associated with it have been part of life in New England for centuries, coming over with the original settlers from the British Isles. The “old dances” were mostly “local”, held in dance halls, community halls, barns, regularly, often weekly, and were very much a part of the social fabric back in the 18th, 19th, early to mid-20th centuries. Way before electricity and “amplification”, the music was provided by “orchestras” made up of fiddle, piano, guitar, and then whatever instrument was available locally, often horns, banjo, drums. The idea was to make enough sound that the dancers (who were often “many” and “rowdy”) could hear!! The “callers” were more “dance leaders” than what we think of as callers today. The dancers already knew the dances and there were often couples dances like polkas, fox-trots, waltzes and schottisches in addition to “called dances”. Some of these old-time dances survived in Maine until very recently in Northport (near Belfast) at the Blue Goose, In Greene at the Grange, at the Locke Mills Grange (near Bethel). Pam Weeks played for dances in West Paris decades ago where the orchestra included trombone, trap drum set, and a “whistling piano player”!! I think you get the idea.
Anyway,…. somewhere along the way the old time country dance that had been going on for centuries transitioned into the modern day “contra dance scene” and that’s where Sylvia comes in. She actually played in Ralph Page’s orchestra when she was a young woman, later the Duke Miller orchestra. These were really interesting times because the dances were very much like the “old dances”, and I thought interviewing her would give an interesting insight into what we try to do at Fiddle Camp. – bill o.
Bill: Tell us about the music in your family as you were growing up. When did you start playing accordion? Were there other instruments? When were you first introduced to traditional (folk) music? dance?
Sylvia: My mother was a school teacher, mostly elementary levels and my dad was a lawyer. At that time we were living in Woodsville. Mum played piano and as a small child I would dance, free style. We sang a lot, in the car. Lots of Stephen Foster. When I was 10 or so we got a piano and I began taking lessons. I also learned to read music in grammar school. 3 cheers for that curriculum. I was allowed to take the music book home on weekends and plowed through it, playing and singing song after song. In 1947 we moved to Concord. Square dancing was becoming popular, my parents loved to dance. To augment the family income, my mother started teaching dancing. Ballroom and square. I was a teenager then and was drafted into being her assistant. Grades 3-12, 5 week series. Grades 3-8 also got etiquette. In those years boys asked the girls. If a girl refused an invitation, she was not allowed to dance. One time I refused a boy and went and asked another. The teacher reprimanded me, made me sit out the dance. This rule extended beyond college. I remember Ted Sannella telling us that if you refused a dance, you could not accept anyone else. (For that particular dance.)
When I was at UNH I joined the Durham Reelers dance club. Besides the squares we did a lot of international. You notice I haven’t said much about contras. They were considered difficult and we only did one or 2 in an evening. Most of the squares were singing squares – Red River Valley, My Little Girl. Occasionally Dudley Laufman would come to our meetings, carrying his accordion slung over his shoulder. He was always full of stories and one day he said Bob MacQuillen was getting another accordion and passing his onto Dudley. In turn, Dudley wanted to sell his. I had been fooling around with a very small accordion that belonged to a friend and found I could pick out tunes and create music. I got my father to buy Dudley’s Hohner for $75 and I was launched.
Bill: tell us about some of the dances and callers back then
Sylvia: Ralph Page called on Tuesday at the Boston YWCA. His musicians were Ed Koenig, fiddle, Hayden Sweat, bass, and Cy Kano, piano. Cy enjoyed Science Fiction and usually had a paperback propped on the piano. Again, the program was usually the same – squares, contras, couples and international. Ralph used recordings for the international. There was no written music and the assumption was that unless you were straight off the boat you wouldn’t be able to play the tunes.
Cambridge/Boston was filled with music and dance. Every Fri night Ted Sannella would call in Porter Square, Somerville?. Afterwards people would gather at Old Joe Clark house for hot chocolate and music. The house was well known and many times well known personalities on tour would drop by: Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand, Brother John Sellers.
(Closer to home), ..During the summer there were weekly dances in New Hampshire, Fitzwilliam, Dublin, Bradford. Duke Miller called in Fitzwilliam and Dublin and Frank Fortune called in Bradford. The Bradford dance continued through the fall and winter.
Bradford, NH Barn dance 1952
Bill: When did you start playing music in public? Were you in bands or was it “sitting in” with bands or orchestras, or just playing solo? Talk about playing in the band or “sitting in”. Did the personnel change from gig to gig? Who chose tunes? What were some of the tunes? Did you know them already? What was the mix of squares to contras to couples dances? What were the venues like? How did you learn new tunes back then?
Sylvia: Sitting in: Generally dance evenings welcomed sitting in. This was how one learned to play for a dance. Eventually as you gained experience you moved closer to the stage and got a mic. In general there were no designated bands. I spent one summer in the early 70’s playing for Dudley in Nelson, with Newt Tolman, flute and Kay Gilbert, piano. I don’t remember who sat in. Alan Block was often there and got paid.
Many people played for Duke Miller in Fitzwilliam and Dublin, both paid and sitting in. When Bob McQuillen went on vacation, Duke would hire me. He always called the same program so we quickly learned the tunes. Duke called with his eyes closed and when he wanted to end the dance he would rotate his hand a few times. Ordinarily this is the speed up signal but not for Duke. I only made that mistake once. The dances were a combination of squares, couples and contras. Musicians would play for a couple of years, get bored with the repetition and move on.
Frank Fortune’s dances in Bradford were mostly squares with couples dances in between. Waltz, schottische, polka. The routine was 3 tunes with a pause between each. He hired the same band each week: piano, accordion, drums. I don’t remember if there was a fiddle. Mostly singing squares, one contra per evening. In between the squares, 3 per ‘tip’ there would be a waltz, polka, schottische. Each tune would get played a couple of times, then a pause with clapping, then new tune and after several repeats, another pause with clapping and a 3rd tune. The contra was often Haymaker’s Jig with a nice down the middle 4 in line. Because each singing square had its own tune, there was no tune selection. If the dance was Nelly Bly, the band played Nelly Bly. For 16 or 20 rounds. Golden Slippers had 2 versions. The first older one had each man taking a new ‘little girl down the center with a butterfly twirl’. 4 rounds to get the 4 women once around the set. Then the 2nd man, etc. 16 rounds of the tune. The 2nd version was half as long and fitted on to a record. Each man had 2 turns. And don’t forget the breaks, intro and closing. You do that every week all summer and you never forgot the tune. Golden Slippers was always played AAB.
Frank Fortune and the Colby Orchestra 1952
Bob Bennett from Concord, called a weekly Wednesday dance at the Manchester NH Country Club all summer. He was happy to have me sit in with Roger Pinard fiddling, a keyboard and drummer. As usual, the program was the same week to week and we only played one tune per dance. No medleys. That’s where I learned Rickett’s Hornpipe. I asked Roger where I could get music and he gave me a little spiral notebook with tunes written in pencil. This was before Xerox. A real treasure.
The Tuesday night dance at the Boston YW was much like the other dances I’ve described but the dancers were a bit older, often coupled. Fewer singles and college students. Ralph did the same dances as other callers, a mix of squares and contras. At intermission he would put on recordings of couples and international. These were Folk Dancer labels. Ralph would dance to these. 4 or 5 kolos or Israeli dances and couples dances like Boston 2-step and The Roberts.
He had a house band that I told you about previously. The pianist, Cy Keno, read paper back sci fic while he played. He is in his 90’s. After a while I got bored with the sameness and stopped going. I was already dancing 3 other nights. I think Ralph chose the tunes, many were marches like O’Donnell Abhu and All the way to Galway. Of course some dances and all the squares had designated tunes. As he aged people said he got grouchy but I wasn’t aware of that. Marianne Taylor said she once played a crooked tune as a joke and he firmly told her to never do that again. I was NEFFA secretary when Ralph was president and forgot my notes once. While he was very cross, he didn’t yell at me. Just sighed.
Fitzwilliam Dance, Sept 3, 1977 and Aug 21, 1971 Duke Miller Calling
Band included fiddle, piano, banjo, accordion, Bob MacQuillen playing piano or accordion
Contra: Lady of the Lake, Music: Fireman’s Reel
Square; Windmill, MUSIC Meeting of the Waters
Square: Maple Sugar Gal, Music tune of that name
Square, Music Up Jumped the Devil
Contra, Music Aunt Mary’s Canadian Jig
Square: A visiting Couple, Music: Road to Boston
Square: My Pretty Girl, Music same tune
Couple dances: Gay Gordons, The Roberts
Contra: Queen Victoria Music Scotland the Brave
Square: Maple Leaf 2-Step, Music: Same title Grand Square was included
Square: Smoke on the Water
INTERMISSION Many retreated to parking lot for beer or pot or general mischief
Square 2 Head ladies cross over Music: Life on the Ocean Wave. This was Bob’s least favorite tune. No matter, it got played almost every week.
Square: Buffalo Quadrille, Music O’Donnel Abhu
Square: Wheels Q; Music same title
Contra Rory O’More Music: same title
Couple dances: Varsouvienne, 3 part tune. I never heard this version anywhere else.
Waltz Theme from Dr Zhivago
The dance programs did not change much. In general squares were in groups of 3. Often Duke would combine 2 contras, prefaced by a ‘listen up’. He did the same for the couples. I don’t recall any mixers. This is in contrast to Ted Sannella who always made #5 a mixer.
You can see that it was very easy to learn the tunes and Duke would send the music to anyone who needed it.
I’ve played off and on for Dudley for many many years. One summer he was hired to call in Nelson every Sat night. Kay Gilbert on Piano. Newt on flute, me on accordion. Sometimes it was Allan Block fiddling. That was a regular happening. Also a fair number of weddings. I could have been a Canterbury musician when they were traveling but between the horses, farm, vegetable garden, husband and 2 kids I could not be gone overnight.
We used to go up to Franconia College for dances every few months, also New England College. Generally Dudley would hire nearby musicians. Francestown with Alan Block and Kate Barnes, New Boston until they closed the town hall to dances (safety reasons). For a while Pete Colby, April Limber and McQuillen were Dudley’s preferred musicians, with Deanna Stiles sometimes.
Bill: Tell me about some of the personalities.
Sylvia: Playing for Dudley was fun although he always selected the tunes (and still does at MFC! – bill). Alan Block had a habit of leaving the band during a break. He never returned until we were about to play, pushing and disturbing those already seated as he found his seat. April Limber never told anyone she didn’t want play with them. Instead she made them uncomfortable in subtle ways. One fiddler carried large music books with him. When the band began playing, he would shuffle through his music until he found the tune being played. April would wait until he had found the tune and played it a couple of times. She then would call the change making him start shuffling his music again. April did not like anyone leaning over to watch her fingers. When that happened she would just shift into another position.
One night I had to share the mike with a fiddler. After a while I realized that the fiddler was moving the mike stand with her foot, closer and closer to her instrument. At the end of the tune, I’d reset the mike but when we began playing the next set, the foot would begin pulling the mike closer to its owner.
Bill: When and how did you get interested in Scottish music and dance?
Sylvia: I joined the NH Scottish Dancers in 1954 when I was a junior at UNH. As usual we danced to recordings from Scotland. They were almost all accordion based. Jimmy Shand was the best known musician. Dancing to them was like flying. Jean and Arthur Tufts lived in Exeter and drove to Cambridge every Monday night to dance with the Boston Branch. Marianne Taylor was their pianist, Jeannie Carmichael was the teacher. I danced in the intermediate class and watched the advanced class, wondering if I would ever be good enough to join it. The RSCDS (Royal Scottish Country Dance Society) published little volumes of 12 dances every year. Music was included with the dance directions.
I began learning the tunes and volunteered to play for some classes. My offers were met with silence. The prevailing opinion was that unless you were a born Scot, you couldn’t play the music.
In the early 70’s more and more musicians were coming into the music scene. They were good players and played both by ear and sight. The Scottish dancers resisted hiring locals, preferring their recordings. Finally I and several others convinced the Branch to hire a well known Scottish band leader, Angus Mackinnon, to give a workshop on how to play for dancing. This included starting and stopping a dance and how to create a set of 3 or 4 tunes with the original tune played first and last.
Cal Howard, Allan Chertok, Ralph Jones and I formed a band, eventually named The White Cockade. We were the first, and for some time, the only Scottish Country Dance Band on the East Coast.
Sylvia, Cal Howard and Vince O’Donnell
Omer Marcoux – Fiddler and Woodcarver
Omer Marcoux was a fiddler and a woodcarver who lived in Concord. He was well known for his small carvings of dogs and oxen. One of his carvings of a pair of oxen pulling a loaded log sled graced Franklin Roosevelt’s desk in the White House. I knew him a bit as he joined other musicians playing at parties. There was a small restaurant in Concord and Omer and friends often played at lunch time in return for tips and lunch. Omer’s repertoire was unique and not particularly suited for dancing as he only played a tune for 3-4 rounds. He also was fairly irregular, drawing out a note or lopping off a bar or two, especially at the endings. Since he played solo most of the time, this did not matter. He would sometimes burst into song and always his playing was joyful.
Omer was ill with ‘La Grippe’ in the spring of 1976. Justine Paul and I had been playing regularly, with him and learning his unique repertoire. We realized that these tunes would be lost after his death unless they were written down and recorded. We embarked on a many month’s project to transcribe as many as possible and publish a music book. Omer was delighted.
The book, Fiddle Tunes of Omer Marcoux, was published in 1980 and includes 44 tunes.
Two years later Omer gave us permission to make a recording and we arranged a private concert at a local restaurant. He was excited, more erratic than usual and quite tired, only playing a few rounds of each tune. Unfortunately, holidays and personal lives prevented us from making necessary fixes and in the spring Omer died. We published the tape with minimum editing, titling it ‘Fiddle Tunes with Omer Marcoux’.
The Last 40 years.
Bill: Talk about yourself and “your other life” a little.
Sylvia: That’s hard. Music has always been part of my life but there are other parts, too. Horses are the other passion and I have enjoyed them since I was 10. Pleasure riding, competitions, driving in a cart. For many years I had a small boarding business, catering to the neighborhood families. I closed that when my day job entailed overnight travel. Day job? I am a microbiologist and my last job was Federal and State funded. I inspected patient testing sites from doctor offices that performed lab tests to commercial labs and hospitals.
Back to the music. Over the years I have participated in festivals, workshops, taught at camps and traveled. The accordion has taken me many places. The first adventure was a month in China in 1994(?) and I was a staff person for a Summer Camp Experience in China. China was just opening up to the west and Camp Interloken (Now Windsor Mountain) organized a tour with Chinese students so they could learn about American summer camps and how they operated. There were 4 American staff and 10 American students. We were matched with 2 Chinese teachers and 8 Chinese students. Tony Saletan and I provided music and contra dancing. The language barrier was immense and our American teens were afraid to step outside the English spoken bounds. If we had gone to Europe they would have disappeared in a day.
Two years later I was invited to play and lead dancing in Russia when Richmond, Indiana, and Serpakov, Russia, became sister cities. Where the Chinese were curious and friendly about everything American, the Russians were cold and distant. The food was bad, the lines were long. Here’s how you made any type of purchase. I selected a wooden souvenir, stood in line and asked to buy it. I was given a chit and directed to the check out station, waited in that line and paid. I took my receipt back to the souvenir counter, waited my turn and was given my purchase. Had I wanted to purchase something else at a different counter I would have had to repeat the whole process.
I have made 4 trips to Scotland, twice for classes in how to play for dancing and twice for tours with the Strathspey and Reel Society. No language barriers, great food and friendly folks. In Edinburgh I stopped in a music store and thumbed through a tune book. To my surprise and delight I found a tune ‘Jack McKelvie of Bedford, New Hampshire’. Jack had been a friend, dancer and teacher.
Back to the East Coast. In 1999, New Hampshire was featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall in Washington, DC. Twice a day, I played my Scottish music. The following year the New Hampshire program was presented to all the fourth graders in NH schools. They were bussed in to the Hopkinton Fair Grounds from 9 AM to 3PM. It was fun to renew friendships made in DC.
In 2009 Dudley Laufman received the National Endowment for the Arts Folk Heritage Award. He asked me to come to the presentation in Washington DC along with several other musicians and dancers. We did a short program of contra dances at the evening concert.
In 2011 I received the Governors Arts Award, Folk Heritage category. This includes all types of folk arts from wood carving and fishing fly tying to music. I joined Bob McQuillen and Dudley Laufman and was the first woman musician to receive the honor.
Because there are now many good musicians available to play, I am less busy. However I take great pleasure knowing that I have mentored many beginning musicians, I was on the ground floor of the folk revival and was instrumental in introducing American musicians to the Scottish Country Dancers.
As I look back on my musical journey I think the best part has been sitting on a stage playing dance music, alone for a class or with friends for a dance, feeing the connection with the dancers and knowing it is my music that makes them move.