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Notes from the Field

Contra Dance music

Rating: 1 votes, 5.00 average.
I have always seen this music as a subset of Old Time, what a number of folks would call Northern Old Time, as it has so much New England and French Canadian, and Irish/Scottish influence as Appalacian. If it is its own category of music, well thats great, I would not argue.

It is a body of tunes. I recently checked out a contra-dance web site in an entirely different part of the country from where I live, a place I have never been, and I found their set list was entirely familiar to me. I knew about 80 to 90% of the tunes.

I recently played for the Monday night summer outdoor contra-dances in Ithaca, NY, and was extremely happy to see the number of mandolins. This has not not always the case in pick up bands, and years ago there were many times I was the only, or one of two or three mandolins in a large band. We had enough mandolins here to gather a bunch of us together stage left and became kind of the mandolin section. And did we sound great! There were two finger chorders, four finger chorders, chop chorders, melody players, double stoppers, there were F styles and A styles and celtic flat topped and Army Navy mandolins, and even an OM.

The fiddlers called the tunes, as is their want, and put together some real exciting sets. Unlike Southern OT music, contra dance sets are free to change keys, and even rhythms a bit, as long as there is a reasonable chance we can all make it, and the dancers will follow. And each tune gets played enough times that if you didn't know it clean before you do now.

There is always that moment of tension the last time on the B part of the first tune, will we make the transition? Will it be clean? The dancers are committed. Will they follow us into this, will it be a train crash. Here we go, ahhhhh. Made it.

The hardest part of playing a contra dance is to refrain from noodling around while the caller is teaching the next dance. The instrument is in your hands, there is steam coming off your fingers from the last dance, and the caller is taking what seems like an eternity explaining who the inactive couples are.

While mandolins did show up in force, there were the normal huge contingent of guitars and fiddles, and around here a hammered dulcimer is not unlikely. The lack of orthodoxy is thrilling, and the occational woodwind or lower brass instrument can really move the music along. Its good for us mandolins too, to see what the autoharps and banjos and what not can do and to discover what voices are reserved for us. We aspire to be more than a soprano guitar or a picked fiddle.

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Tags: contra dance


  1. Joe Nobiling's Avatar
    Now that's a contradance orchestra more than a band, I'd say. Way out in the vast expanses of the midwest on the Midwest Coast of the U.S. along the banks of the Mississippi there's never that many instruments gather for a contra or barn dance. We're lucky to have a 10th of that many musicians show! I should move to Vermont or Oneonta, NY where there's more musicians per block than we have per 100 square miles! Good reading.
  2. Jim Nollman's Avatar
    good writing. sound like the start of a book about old time music in the year 2009.

    I'm of a different persuasion than you. I vastly prefer a small group, no more than 3 or 4 people on mandolin, fiddle, bass, and...either guitar or concertina. That way, we get to be as musical as we can, and not feel like hoboes jumping on a freight train that keeps moving whether we make it or not.
  3. JeffD's Avatar
    One thing I have learned about contra-dancers - they are not listening to the music the way concert attendees might. Musicality and dancability overlap, but are not identical. How ever beautiful the tune is, there needs to be that emphasis at the end of each playing that reminds everyone to start over with the next couple. And the B part needs to be as long as the A part, or twice as long and only play it once, and no speed changes for musical drama, or any other reason, etc., etc.
  4. catmandu2's Avatar
    I'm with Jim here. In our contradance pick up nights, if there is one mandolin already (and there usually is), I'll play something else. I think one is adequate.
  5. greg_tsam's Avatar
    I play in a contra dance band for the last 5 months and really like it the more I get used to it. The emphasis is certainly on having a good beat you can dance to. We have two mandolins but one of us usually switches to OM depending on the song. Sometimes we play together and I harmonize with the lead. Very pretty and the dancers love it.