Posted by sixwatergrog on Thursday, August 4, 2011
I've never been to a contradance - not to dance and certainly not as a musician - and I don't know if I ever will. Nonetheless, I have happened upon the style of music performed at contradances and I like it a lot. To my ears, contradance tunes are the best of both worlds of oldtime and Irish music. With Appalachian music, you have fiddlers trying to sound as "oldtime" and authentic as possible, mimicking the untrained musicians of lore who perhaps unintentionally created a definitive style. Then with Irish music there's a lot of ornamentation and flashy, speedy, virtuoso playing, also with its own distinctive style to maintain. Very little crossover between those two styles for most folks.
All that gets put aside with contradance music. I guess it could be thought of as more of a generic sound because you have musicians who draw on tunes from a variety of traditions. Groove seems to be the main component rather than an adherence to authenticity. The tunes are played loosely but cleanly primarily as a means of maintaining the beat. In the hands of a contradance band, an Irish tune loses a little bit of its Irishness and an oldtime tunes loses some of its oldtimey nature, but in doing so the tune actually gains a fusion of rhythm and drive that often livens it up.
From what I understand the first commercially available recording of contradance music was not until the 1970's, although the history of playing this dance music goes back way before that. Still, there isn't a whole lot of tradition built up yet to get in the way of simply playing the tunes, whatever they may be. Also, the instrumentation of a contradance band isn't as set in stone as more traditional forms of music and there appears to be more of any anything goes type attitude, so long as the structure of the tune falls into a set number of measures played at a fast clip.
Speaking of recordings here are some of the first ones that I've become aware of:
New England Tradition - Farewell to the Hollow. This recording featuring the legendary Bob McQuillen on piano, April Limber (fiddle) and Pete Colby (banjo and autoharp) is available on Rhapsody, among other places. The tunes mostly come from French-Canadian, Scottish, Irish, Cape Breton and English sources. Pete Colby's banjo playing is worth pointing out. At first I thought it was a tenor banjo, but it's a 5-string. He just has a very Irish way of playing it.
Thursday, August 4, 2011 @3:23:22 PM
Nice post. I agree fully with your comments and those in the article. I have been laying n a volunteer contra dance band for 6-7 years or so. I have learned lots of tunes and my playing has improved substantially. In fact, I suppose I am one of the "core" players now. I have learned that I prefer playing dance or "service"music to "performance"music. I like the utilitarian aspect of dance music and the great appreciation we average players get from the dancers.
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