It is five in the morning, and as dawn creeps into the sky over the hills of southern Vermont, hundreds of people are still dancing, as they have been since twilight nine hours earlier. Farmers, teachers, doctors, builders; they swing and spin, balancing and pushing off one another in long lines across the gymnasium floor. A full 200 people are in the hall, their movements propelled by Nightingale, a band that uses impeccably crafted accordion, mandolin, guitar and fiddle music to drive the exhausted group into a frenzy. As the band hits its final beats and the sun crawls over a wooded ridge, a whoop erupts out of the bobbing mass. They have danced through the night.
This is contra dancing. Derived from 17th-century English and French court dances brought to America by early settlers, the tradition of spending an evening twirling and spinning your neighbors to driving, hand-made music was quite popular across rural America a century or more ago. But in the 1940s and 50s interest in this community art form dwindled as more modern, industrial forms of entertainment caught the attention of the populace.
But over the last 30 years contra dancing has undergone a revival in America, developing from a tradition that was tenuously hanging on in remote farming communities into a popular and durable pastime in small towns and major cities across America. As a farmer/musician who preserves old work songs, I have long been curious about why some traditions survive where others disappear. In this case, it seems to be that the tradition is flexible enough to accept changes while remaining true to its roots, without ever sacrificing the joy that has brought dancers to dance halls for over 200 years.
Recently in this publication I have looked at the intersection between food and music with the idea that there are strong parallels between the two. Music contains powerful lessons for farmers, cheesemakers and chefs who wish to honor traditional foods while making them fresh and exciting for a new generation of eaters. With this in mind, I sat down with members of Nightingale, one of today’s most popular dance bands, to see if they could give me insights into the balance of tradition and innovation that has driven their own success and that of the contra dance tradition.
They emphasized, that as a creator of art, you must know and honor your sources and learn directly from them. In the same way, an aspiring mozzarella maker will travel some distance to apprentice with a renowned cheese genius, the members of Nightingale traveled to the sources of New England music — Quebec, the British Isles, and France — to learn the technical details that distinguish each region’s style.
It is this process that gives their art integrity, their work being rooted in the important details of the traditions they studied. Technical mastery gives their music structure and form that is time-honored, and also recognized and appreciated by large communities of traditional music-makers and their fans. Without grounding in the fundamentals of their art, they would have no forms to play with, no materials with which to construct their powerful forms.
Indeed, Keith Murphy, guitarist in the group, described playing a contra dance like building a house. Together, the band creates big, exciting musical structures, through hard physical work. Using their instruments they must drive the dancers and find a way to be heard over the chaotic noise of the dance hall. Hundreds of feet stomp along the floor, and the dancers laugh and shout as they move around the room. Framing this house is rougher work than a concert hall performance, which they also do and which Murphy compared to building fine cabinets. But it is exhilarating work nonetheless and that is why the band plays together about 100 times a year.
Another point emphasized by Murphy is the value non-traditional sources of inspiration. As an example he cited what is known as the ‘Bo-Diddly beat’, a syncopated rhythmic groove named after the rock and roll musician who made it popular. Murphy occasionally includes this rhythmic pattern into guitar accompaniment during Nightingale’s performances. In the fiddle music traditions that have fed contra dance music for centuries, this kind of syncopation was rarely attempted. But Nightingale, and other successful contra dance bands of today, infuse blues, jazz, and rock rhythms and chords into the more traditional sounds that are the foundation of contra dance music.
Part of the secret of the endurance of contra dancing as a tradition and Nightingale as a band comes from the cross-pollination of musical ideas from different regions and cultures, much like farmers have for generations borrowed such ideas as improved tools and innovative breeds. But Murphy urged caution with this approach. ‘You have to find a way to work it in subtly, not hammer it out in an obvious, arresting way,’ he warned. ‘You can’t use it too much.’
Third, you must think for yourself. The group emphasized that though they studied deeply the traditional forms that are the foundation of their style, they did not learn just techniques of one or two masters: they learned how to learn. They learned how to experiment and judge for themselves what sounds good. They learned how to shape and craft their art according to their own values, and because of this, their music is fresh. It doesn’t sound like a poor cover of another band’s music. It is startlingly original, which makes it fun to hear.
And this is one of the most important parts of Nightingale’s art, and I would argue the art of all farmers, bakers, cheesemakers and chefs: the product is filled with joy is a product that grabs the consumer and pulls him in. This is the secret of contra dancing’s success as a tradition, Nightingale’s success as a band and will in time be the foundation of a truly Slow food system. That euphoria we’ve all experienced as a great cheese hits the tongue, the pleasure of taking the first sip of a great wine: these are the same as the shouts and laughter of a group of contra dancers. Any would-be lover or producer of great food should therefore take a spin on the dance floor as Nightingale plays a spirited waltz or reel, to discover alongside Slow Food, Slow Folk.
In this article I will explore the contemporary resurgence of contra dancing in depth. Why has this traditional peasant’s dance become so popular in America and what role has the band Nightingale held in driving this newfound popularity? How do you rescue ailing traditional culture with such success?
Through an ingenious blend of tradition and innovation, Nightingale has emerged at the forefront of America’s folk-music revival. In this article I will explore the way one contra-dance band is successfully reviving imperiled musical traditions by infusing them with innovative spirit. We will examine the contra-dance tradition and its modern connection to food, farming and agrarian life, including barn dances, dawn dances (where dancers and bands continue from sunset to dawn) and farm parties.
Taken from the latest number (25) of the Italian magazine Slowfood
Bennett Konesni is an American musicologist