Gordon Peery (1990)
Not too long ago a piano tuner submitted a bill for work done on the piano in the Nelson Town Hall. With his invoice he included the following comment:
“Because of the age of this piano and long abandoned construction practices, it is impossible to give this piano a highly accurate tuning. It has numerous false beats, inharmonicity, and heavy wear. Surprisingly, the overall tone is superior and the action is still fast and responsive. I suspect the piano is favored by those who play on it.”
Over the past decade I have come to know that piano well, playing for contra dances that occur regularly in the Nelson Town Hall. I have always enjoyed playing it, though from its condition it seemed like I shouldn’t.
The remarks of the piano tuner helped me to understand why I enjoyed playing it. Then it occurred to me that what was said about the piano was also a perfect description of the hall itself.
The old timber frame building doesn’t pretend to be anything fancy. The light fixtures, the windows, the architectural lines, all clearly address function over aesthetics. But the building, in its simplicity, harbors an elegance, or perhaps rather, a neutrality that facilitates the elegance of song and dance within.
Go to the Nelson Town Hall on any Monday night of the year and you’ll find anywhere from a handful to several dozen dancers moving forward and back, up and down, intertwining, moving through the graceful figures of a contra dance. Though the Monday night dance is just about 10 years old, the contra dance tradition in Nelson goes back long enough so that no one really knows when it began.
It has been maintained steadfastly enough, and has influenced enough people, so that musicians and dancers from all over the world have come to regard the Nelson Town Hall as a sort of Mecca.
Over the last dozen years or so the Hall has also become the site of regular folk music concerts. Whatever the magic it is that permeates the dances also makes itself present for concerts; performers from all over the world have remarked on a unique and appealing feeling about the place.
Driving through the village of Nelson is a brief but pleasing experience, and the scene suggests a town that has managed to escape the ravages of progress. The white church, a tiny library, the town hall, and a brick building that was once a schoolhouse and now serves as the town’s office building sit quaintly around a rough-edged common. This now quiet common once housed a large general store, and the village center no doubt was a much busier center of activity and commerce than it is today.
One could say that the Nelson Town Hall was built in 1787. That’s what the sign above the door says. As it turns out, the date refers to the original Meeting House which was built up on the hill, about a half mile away, where the cemetery is. That was once the center of town.
When a new church was built in 1841, the old Meetinghouse was dismantled, and its timbers used to build the present town hall. The porches (enclosed ells on either side of the building) from the meetinghouse were also shipped down hill, intact, and used to build a house nearby. That house, too, is still standing.
The present town hall is about one third smaller than the original meetinghouse, and there are not sufficient records to show what similarities it might have retained to the old meetinghouse, or even what wooden portions are original. But we can assume that the timbers are mostly original.
Last summer when the Nelson Congregational Church was undergoing major renovations, the congregation met in the town hall for several weeks. Pastor Carolyn Black said she was moved to tears nearly every Sunday thinking about how they had returned to the building that had housed worshippers 200 years earlier.
Regardless of the fine points of how much of the building is original, the town hall inspires a reverence for tradition. Town meetings continue to be held in the hall, and while Nelson residents have no difficulty disagreeing with each other, it is impossible not to be aware that one is speaking in the same room where Nelson’s humble destiny has been initiated and guided for many generations.
It’s as if the walls are giving the message, “You can say anything you please, but you better mean what you say.”
Jack Bradshaw has been moderator of town meetings for over 20 years. He has a particular reason to feel sentimental about the old timbers; it is his house on Old Stoddard Road that was built from the porches of the original meetinghouse. Jack feels strongly about the hall as a place for town meeting, and is concerned about the town one day outgrowing it. Noting that attendance might someday get to the point where only registered voters would be allowed in the building, he says, “People have brought kids. They are part of the flavor of town meeting.” Jack also notes what many Nelson people are proudly aware of: that the town usually has one of the highest, if not the highest, percentage of voter turnouts for town meetings and other elections.
Every so often at town meeting there will be some discussion about the hall, with varying opinions about what should be done in the way of repairs and improvements. But with the exception of some flush toilets installed a few years ago to replace the privies, there have been no significant changes in the hall. It remains dingy, dusty, its closet areas cluttered with old useless junk.
In a morbid reminder of the past, the attic still houses several small wooden coffins which had been made in anticipation of children dying in the influenza epidemic of 1918.
The water is undrinkable, there are no private areas for performers to dress or warm up. Wobbly benches and hard metal chairs are brought out to seat audiences. Yet the place works, and works well, for community gatherings, public meetings, private parties, concerts, and most frequently, contra dances.
The Nelson Town Hall is world famous for being the sort of Mecca of Contra dancing, (dance callers from the west coast have actually knelt in reverence on the floor) and in recent years has also become noted for great folk music concerts with musicians ranging from Hungary, Scandinavia, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and all over the United States.
There has been one significant change in the cultural aspect of the Nelson Town Hall, though it probably reflects more on national trends than anything else. It used to be that events, notably the contra dances, were attended primarily by local people and summer people who had gained acceptance into the community.
Today the dances and concerts are attended by people from other communities who come to tap into the Nelson charm. Lifelong Nelson residents who used to frequent the Saturday night dances are not particularly impressed by the Town Hall’s international reputation as a cultural center, and in recent years have tended to keep away from the dances.
There are probably many reasons for this, including the fact that some dancers nowadays have a tendency to be a bit dogmatic in their dance floor behavior, a sure bet to alienate independent-minded Nelsonians. Perhaps part of it is just a natural evolution, and to understand that we can look at the history of local dancing.
When the Nelson Town Hall was moved to its present location in 1841, contra dancing was still a significant social event throughout New England, though it was soon to lose favor to the waltz and other ballroom dances. The contras were popular in part because they emphasized democratic values-everyone dance with everyone else, regardless of social station. In 1841 dances were for the most part being done in homes. “Kitchen Junkets” could be held just by moving the kitchen table and sticking the fiddler (who was often the prompter as well) in the sink (the only safe place).
Whether the Nelson Town Hall was initially used for dances very much we don’t know, but it surely had come into regular use by the time the first dance revival hit. In the 1930s there were a number of former summer people and city dwellers who, responding to the crash of ’29, came up to make Nelson a permanent home.
In addition, the Monadnock region became a popular place for weekend skiers. This new population sought out rural customs. Nelson author Newt Tolman wrote in his book Quick Tunes and Good Times, “Old natives like my father and mother, who hadn’t set foot on a dance floor since they were young, found themselves in great demand to teach newcomers all the fine points of the traditional figures and how to follow the calls.”
The Nelson Town Hall became the site of some of the rowdiest dances around. Alcoholic refreshment was abundant, and brawls were not uncommon. Eventually the local dance organizers felt a need to clean up the scene, and they hired a young caller named Ralph Page to run the dances. Ralph influenced the dances in several different ways. He had little toleration for things being done differently than how he thought they should be done, and he had the authority of character to make that work.
Beyond just knowing the dance calls, Ralph was an excellent teacher and no doubt inspired many people. He also popularized “singing calls, where dances were done to popular tunes of the day such as Darling Nellie Gray. Eventually Ralph moved from Nelson to Keene and became so popular a caller (traveling all over the country and even to Japan) that he left Nelson behind.
While Ralph Page (who died in 1985) remains a legend throughout the U.S. in contra dance circles, and while his name is still regularly associated with the Nelson Town Hall, it was Newt Tolman (who in addition to being a writer was a fine flute player) and others who may have provided the underlying ingredient to Nelson’s present magic. In his writings Newt speaks sarcastically of the “Darling Nellie Gray” school of dance tunes. He preferred the traditional fiddle tunes that had originally been written for the dances.
Several tunes, such as Chorus Jig, Ladies Walpole Reel, Money Musk, Hull’s Victory, and Rory O’More, were written for specific dances. Dances not linked to a particular tune would be done to any vast number of jigs and reels which had come from Ireland, Scotland or French Canada, or which, composed in New England, were influenced by these genres.
Albert Quigley, a fiddler who lived right next to the Town Hall, shared Newt’s enthusiasm for the old tunes, and went so far as to blame the new singing calls for their demise.
Eventually Newt Tolman thought he’d seen the end of the dancing. He writes, “…by 1950 or so, I never expected to play again for square dances,” but then goes on to talk about “…the second revival of square dancing in Nelson. A happening in which the music itself became the dominant factor.”
The second revival occurred between the mid-50s and -70s, and was largely the work of Dudley Laufman.
During those years that Dudley was calling in Nelson and throughout New England he revived interest not only in the older dances, but in the music as well. What made it work was that Dudley’s style appealed to young, counter-cultural people. Hippies discovered “square dancing” (which they preferred to call “contra dancing” since the word square had negative connotations – the term has stuck) and town halls were suddenly being populated by enthusiastic barefoot dancers who introduced all sorts of rock and roll inspired movements into the dancing style.
If this element alienated some of the older dancers, it provided sufficient enough numbers to replace the losses and provide an economic base for the dances. What also happened during this time was that a whole new generation of young musicians became interested in the old music.
Newt writes, “There were almost as many musicians attracted to our square dance revival as there were dancers, and it wasn’t long before I found myself being prodded into playing once again.”
Newt Tolman died in 1986. Though he seldom came to dances during the last few years of his life, he continued to have contact with a number of musicians, and his memory lives on as an inspiration to the present day community of dance musicians.
Dudley stopped calling in Nelson in the mid-70s, in part because the economics of the dance wouldn’t support increases in hall rent. He lives in Canterbury, N.H., and works primarily in schools throughout the state teaching dancing to children. He returns to Nelson occasionally for special dances. He can speak candidly about the changes in the dance scene that alienated some of the “old timers,” and which have also caused the current generation of dancers to favor other callers.
He notes that when he first began calling in Nelson, the dances were interspersed with the dancers’ visits to their cars for refreshment and socializing. They began resenting the newer dancers who insisted on an uninterrupted flow of dances, one after the other.
The “consumers” demand that dances be busier is clearly a reflection of overall cultural trends, and for better or worse, it is a trend which musicians and callers who want to be successful usually must cater to.
Still, dancing in Nelson hasn’t surrendered the rustic quality for which it is so well known. The dances never start on time, there is a great interest in socializing, and Dudley’s impression of dancing still seems to hold true: “There was always some ragtaggle thing going on. The dancing was rowdier, noisier, closer to the earth.”
For a few years dances in the Nelson Town Hall, and in fact in the entire Monadnock region, were carried on by Jack Perron. While Jack eventually lost interest in calling and willingly passed on the job to new emerging callers, his tenure as a dance caller and organizer served as an important link to the present.
By the time the Monday night dance moved from its original location in Harrisville to the Nelson Town Hall, it had become known as an event for musicians. No one was hired to call the dances or to play for them; whoever showed up provided the music. Whoever showed up was usually some of the finest dance musicians from a 50-mile radius, plus any musicians who happened to be in the area (Nashville musician John Hartford even pulled up one night in his Greyhound bus and came in for a few tunes).
The musicians arrive to play, and to hear each other. The dancers never seem to be in a hurry to begin; a cluster of people on the floor at the beginning of the night is more likely to be listening to the latest bawdy joke than awaiting instructions for the dance. Eventually it all gets going.
It is a free-for-all, informal, a chance for new callers and musicians to come out. Experienced callers and musicians are likely to use Nelson as a testing ground for new dances and tunes, or for experiments designed to result in hilarity.
Two dance callers who got their start at the Nelson Monday night dance are Mary DesRosiers and Steve Zakon. Both have gone on (as did Ralph Page and Dudley Laufman) to gain national reputations, though they are still usually found in Nelson on Monday. This cannot help but perpetuate the legendary status of the Nelson Town Hall.
But ultimately the hall speaks for itself. In recent years the hall has been used for concerts, and many of the performers who play there are from outside of New England, and often from other countries. I used to help run these concerts, and oftentimes it was my job to meet musicians at the hall before the concert so that we could set up the stage (such as it is) as they wanted it, and check the sound. I always felt awkward in welcoming musicians to a place that (especially when it was empty) seemed so stark and unkempt. Yet almost predictably, musicians would walk in, get about halfway up the hall, turn around and say “What a fine hall,” or more perceptively “There is a certain magical feeling here.” These are people that play all over the world in some very fancy clubs and concert halls, but they are moved by coming to the Nelson Town Hall. What happens when the audience arrives reinforces that feeling.
The Nelson concerts (most of which are sponsored by the Monadnock Folklore Society) owe their existence to the Maine folksinger Gordon Bok who first came to Nelson in the mid-70s to do a benefit concert for what was then Tomte Gubben School (now the Monadnock Waldorf School). Even then, Bok’s reputation might have called for a larger and more elaborate facility, but he came, and being a master at showing appreciation for things good and simple he brought the hall and the audience into a state of enchantment.
It was almost as if he had tapped into the energy of all the tunes and dances that had happened over the years and released them into the air. After Gordon had made a few successive annual concerts it became apparent that the Nelson Town Hall was a good place to have concerts.
Not all of this can be ascribed to mystical properties. Basic physics comes into play; the hall has wooden walls, a wooden floor, and a wooden ceiling that is high enough to allow sound to travel but low enough to keep it from echoing. It is small enough that sophisticated amplification is not necessary. And finally, in its simplicity of design, there are no distractions; one is forced to pay attention to the music, because that’s all there is to do.
What’s going to happen to the Nelson Town Hall? I spoke recently with Harvey Tolman about this. Harvey (a nephew of Newt’s) is a fiddler of some repute and is one of the reasons other musicians come to the Monday night dance. He is part of the contemporary dance scene, yet he has been a part of the past too, as the Tolman clan goes back to the early years of Nelson history.
I mentioned a plan that had been drawn up at one point to fix up the town hall by providing a joining structure between that and the brick schoolhouse. This could house a kitchen and heating plant useable by both buildings. The town hall needs work: the floor can’t be sanded any more – it’s too thin. The whole building leans to one side and the floor slopes (it has for as long as anyone can remember), causing dance lines to slide to one side of the hall.
It really should be fixed up, I emphasized to Harvey. “Well,” said Harvey, in his quiet but persuasive manner, “some folks like it the way it is.”
As he spoke, I knew he included himself in that number, and then after I thought about it, I realized that I actually like it the way it was too. Because of that slope in the floor, Rich Blazej, a dance caller from Brattleboro, wrote a dance called “Getting Out of the Hole in Nelson.” One of the figures in the dance is a sashay to the east side of the hall, with no return step to the other side. Each time through the dance the entire set takes that step, and as a result at the end of the dance the sets are still relatively in the same place. That dance can’t be called anywhere else (except in a hall with a similar slope) and as a result very few dancers outside of central New England have ever done it. But dancers and callers all over the country know about it.
You can’t capture what happens in the Nelson Town Hall. You can record a concert there, you can take minutes of the town meeting verbatim, but you won’t have seen what happened.
What the Nelson Town Hall does is to provide a framework, of simplicity and frugality, that enables us to better perceive the essence of the music and dance. That same framework has also lent a better perception to the issues of town meetings over the years, and no doubt guided the religious quests of our forebears with a certain grace.
It’s not the only such building in the world of that sort, but it is rare enough to be treasured by all who find peace and clarity within its walls.