Just a few days after Pete Seeger’s passing, another traditional music icon died, albeit a much lesser known one. I am referring to Bob McQuillen, the New Hampshire old-time contra dance piano player. McQuillen died on February 4th at the age of 90, following a stroke.
Bob McQuillen played piano accordion, but he is best known as a vamping piano player in the "boom-chuck" style common to New England contra dance music. Although he played chords instead of melodies, Bob still managed to write approximately 1,500 traditional sounding original tunes.
|Bob McQuillen at house party in 2013. Photo by Don Plummer.|
I’ve never wanted to dance in a contra dance and have never played in a pickup contra dance band, but I am still drawn to the sound of contra dance music. I find its hybrid of Celtic and Southern Appalachian styles coupled with a strong sense of rhythm appealing. I could never limit myself to just the Irish trad or just the old-time repertoires, but I could probably survive for quite a while on a mixed bag of contra dance standards.
You don’t have to delve too far into contra dance music recordings before you find ones with Bob McQuillen on piano. A couple of my favorites are New England Tradition from 1988 featuring 6-string banjo master Pete Colby and Bob McQuillen with the Rhythm Rollers from 2008, which has some tasty accordion by Laurie Andres. Just last night I was working on learning the first tune on that Rhythm Rollers album, a reel called Road to California.
Check out those recordings and more like them. In the meantime here’s a public radio interview with Bob McQuillen from 2002: http://nhpr.org/post/archives-bob-mcquillen.