In the fall of 1964 Joe Ryan, Dave Fuller, Jack Sloanaker and myself provided music for dancing and intermission entertainment during the Vermont Old Time Fiddlers Contest at Goddard College. As we were getting ready to leave on Sunday night, a chap who introduced himself as Ralph Rinzler, said he was a “scout” for the Newport Folk Festival, and he would like to arrange for the four of,us to come to Newport the following summer to conduct workshops on New England dance music. The ensuing months saw a lot of phone conversations and letters back and forth between Ralph and me. I tried to tell him that we should bring along Newt Tolman, our flute player from Nelson. Ralph had never heard of a flute being used with fiddles. In fact, he had a hard time believing that there was any traditional music at all in New England. (He may have been of the school that thought the only traditional music came from North Carolina and Kentucky). Somehow he agreed to have Newt come along. Then he discovered that there actually was dancing done to the music and we eventually arranged to have twelve dancers and ten musicians (some ringers) with a large budget, make the trip to Newport. We were billed as the New England Contra Dancers. What a time. They wined and dined us, putting us up in some of the estates. We did a workshop on Saturday afternoon. This was in 1965, the year Bob Dylan shocked everyone by going electric. He was doing a mini concert in the space just above our workshop, and it finished up before we were done. Throngs of groupies chased Dylan down the hill right by our stand, and many of them sort of syphoned off into our dance session. Contra dances fell off the program and the whole thing turned into a rip roaring old time square dance.
That evening we opened the concert. Loring Puffer nearly threw up when we mounted the stage and faced 16,000 people. I asked Harvey Tolman to play a little of Money Musk as a strathspey before we danced it as a reel. He borrowed Jack O’Connor”s fiddle, found it not tuned to his liking, and said shit over the mic. But we got going and what fun we had on that stage to that great music. When we exited after thunderous ovation, we were greeted by Pete Seeger and Theo Bikel who both said we sounded like a Handel concerto. Took a long time to come down from all that heady experience.
Of course we all had visions of contracts with Vanguard Records and performances on the Ed Sullivan Show. But that never happened. However, shortly after Newport we were invited to perform at the Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass, where Joan Baez got her start, and right after that we were asked to come to the first Beers Family Fox Hollow Festival in Petersburg, N.Y. We had to have a name. I suggested “The Nelson Square Dance Band” because Nelson, N.H. was where we played mostly in those days. But Newt, who was from Nelson, said no, we’ll call it the Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra. I said why, I am the only one from Canterbury. Newt said, how many people in the Budapest String Quartet are from Budapest. So that is how we got the name even though everyone except me came from all points of New England, and most of them at the time were probably the best square and contra dance musicians around
Between 1966 and 1970 there was much back and forth about recording. Although we had been included in the anthology type recordings of Fox Hollow, we wanted our own LP. Folk Legacy was interested in recording a small group. Newt refused to record with a small company. Finally I got some musicians who would go without Newt, but by that time Folk Legacy insisted that Newt be included. Newt still held off. I gave up trying. In 1972 Jack Sloanaker suggested that the Canterbury do a recording on the F&W (Farm and Wilderness) label. I didn’t wait. I got Bob McQuillen, Allan Block, Dave Fuller, Peter Colby, Jerry Weene, Ted Levin, Nick Howe, Jack Sloanaker, Larry Delorier and myself. (Newt still wouldn’t go, but we had Larry who was quite apt at filling in Newt’s shoes.) We went down to Middlesex School in Concord, Mass. and did the recording in the chapel. Seth Gibson fed us bacon and eggs , donuts and coffee before we started. The chapel was bright and alive with sound. We did Irish American Reel first. It just sparkled. I sat in a pew to listen to the playback. I welled up, it was so overwhelmingly rich and full. I asked Jack if it would sound like that on the LP and he said you bet. What a day we had. Everything took the first time around. We stopped for a large meal at the school dining hall, and did a concert for the students in the afternoon, before finishing up the recording. In the evening at Seth’s house we listened to the entire playback while munching sandwiches and M&M’s. On the way home I couln’t get that sound out of my head. It had been the most magic day of my life.
The recording was an immediate success when it was released, with its now famous blue cover photo of us all seated at Middlesex Chapel with Colby in the pulpit. Newt said he wished he’d come along. A critic said she wouldn’t buy the record because Newt wasn’t on it. But then she heard it on the radio and phoned me up wanting to know who was that great flute player.
We did more recordings in ’74 … CANTERBURY ORCHESTRA MEETS THE F&W BAND STRING…that symphony of 60 musicians, (30 Canterbury people from all over and 30 F&W campers,) and MISTWOLD. We also did our only single … a 45 for Country Dance & Song . We picked up some more musicians … Art Bryan, Charlene Fagelman, Vince O’Donnel, Jack Perron and Fred Breunig
This core group of a dozen or so never actually played together for dances. Once we all played for a wedding in Bedford, Mass. (This came about as a result of a Middlesex student playing catch outside the chapel when we were recording. He chased one over near an open window, heard the music, was captivated and ended up getting the record when it came out, gave it to his sister who hired us to play for her wedding). And occasionally I might hire two or three to play for a dance say in Francestown, and five or six more would show up to play for free anyway. But growing gas shortages and changes in musical interests gradually cut in on the number of,sit‑ins as everyone went their own ways to form new bands and dances. The Boys Of The Lough and The Chieftains were having a big influence on many of Canterbury musicians and pressure was being brought to bear to sound more like Irish bands. Right about this time Peter Colby strongly suggested that the Canterbury Orchestra limit itself to six musicians, and try for a tighter sound. There would be Peter on the banjo, Bob at piano, April Limber, fiddle, Deanna Stiles, flute, Art, guitar, and myself on accordion. No sit‑ins. Sit‑ins were part of the spirit of the Canterbury. Art’s wife Laurie wanted to play, as did Sara Bauhan. We didn’t stay together very long. Given the personalities of everyone, myself included, it’s a wonder we lasted as long as we did. Long enough to do a recording with Andy’s Front Hall in Voorheesville, N.Y. Bill Spence’s favorite recording was our first LP. But, being an engineer, he couldn’t understand how we could make such a great sound in an open room with two mics standing twenty feet away from us. I can make a better record in my studio he said. We tried. It was a grueling three days. Bill is a perfectionist and he made us do everything four or five times. And he prefered us to do medleys. We were used to everything being a go the first time, with no medleys, so this made us all nervous which bothered our style. And the mics, one for each of us, were right up against our instruments. Didn’t dare burp let alone fart. Tony Saletan and Mike Cooney were there for a while and poor Pete thought they were there to judge his banjo playing. The cats peed in his banjo case which didn’t help matters any. But the Spences were cordial hosts … fed us well and drank us well, and housed us. On the last night Bill had earphones on, the new tape going, and our first LP on another track. After listening to the two for several hours he said, well I can’t make a better record, but I can make a different one. He produced a fine recording SWINGING ON A GATE, and it stayed in print a long time.
Shortly after this Pete and April quit the Canterbury and soon after formed New England Tradition with Bob McQuillen. The rest of us went our own ways, playing together only occasionally. The Canterbury Folk had its short season during this time. Philo Records brought eight of us,including Carl Jacobs and Sara Bauhan, up to Ferrisburg, Vt. to do a recording. I had requested that we do it like we were used to with open mics etc. They said sure, but when we got there they had each one of secluded with earphones in a separate cubicle. We couldn’t see each other for eye contact. The engineers were downstairs and talked to us through intercom. It was awful. Afterwards they said it wouldn’t go… didn’t come up to Canterbury standards etc. I said I wonder why. They did house us comfortably and fed us well and kept us in suds. But no record. After this, I mostly worked alone, or with pickup musicians here and there. The Canterbury Orchestra had a ten year break.
In 1985 we were invited to perform in concert at the New Hampshire Folk Festival. I said no it would be too painful. But they insisted. A dozen or so showed up. Allan Block even joined in. It was a great joyful and tearful reunion for many of us, and a fine video came out of it which is still shown from time to time on Channel 12 Concord. Seth Gibson said let’s do it again, so in 1986 we gathered at Middlesex once more. Cal Howard was with us and RP Hale, Dick Nevell, Lydia Reeves, Deanna Stiles, Alan MacIntire , Sylvia Miskoe, and Dave Fuller in a wheel chair. Greg Boardman came down from Maine and did his song Belle of the Contra Dance, which became the title of the recording, a cassette this time. We had set aside three days to do the recording, figuring we might have lost some of that spontinaity, but in spite of a late start, we did it in one day.
In 1987 we were invited to play at the Old Songs Festival in Altamont, N.Y. In June of 1992 we had a picnic for the orchestra at Middlesex. Eighteen musicians showed up. It was intended to be just a picnic, but of course we went inside to the chapel and played music. It was videoed. Dave Fuller came in a wheelchair. It was his last gig. He died three weeks later. We played at his memorial service. Then later in the fall we played for a memorial dance for Dave in Carlisle. In the winter, Jan. “94 we played for a benefit for public radio in Peterboro. In April we played for a dance at Jerry Weene’s Violin Artisan Studio in Waltham, and then at the New England Folk Festival for the first time. In December we played for the Concord, N.H. 3rd Sat. dance, and in May of ’95 again in Waltham. Once more in E. Concord in the wake of a hurricane, fall of ’96, and back to Waltham May of ’99 this time to benefit Jerry’ studio which had burned to the ground.
New folks come aboard. In fact, twenty one of them are actually from Canterbury. Several of them are children, and their involvement is due to work of Jacqueline Laufman who has taken them and some of their parents on as students.
The unnamed CCDO goes back to 1953 when Newt Tolman first played for me. There is a long history. A lot of musicians from all over New England and beyond have played in the group. Many of us are old farts now. We have lost some people. Newt Tolman was the first to go. Pete and April died, then Larry Delorier. Kathy Garland and her father George have both gone. And Dave Fuller.
But the music goes on. Whenever we get together we always play Farewell to Whiskey and Money Musk like on our first record. It always sounds the same. That magic is always there.
The secret is this. We don’t rehearse. Anyone can play. The combination of instruments must be piano, string bass, banjo, accordion, flute/piccolo, and several fiddles. We don’t do “leads” and we don’t do medleys. Never fails.