Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bob McQuillen - Contra Dance Piano Player

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:

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