The long, cold, New Hampshire winters will be a little colder in coming years without the familiar driving beat of one of the greatest masters of a uniquely New England style of traditional music. This past February, beloved pianist, accordionist, and tune writer Bob McQuillen passed on at the age of 90. He played his last country dance this past December. McQuillen was a torchbearer for contra dance music, a style of fiddle music and dance that was brought to New England with its earliest European settlers and has been played and danced there for over 200 years. It differs from other forms of American folk dance in its use of straight lines rather than squares or circles, in its unique calls, and in its orchestration—which is fiddle-driven, but uses a piano or accordion beat.
Born in Boston, “ Mr. Mac,” as his fans across the nation called him, moved to rural New Hampshire as a very young child and developed a love for New Hampshire’s indigenous form of country dancing and its music. After meeting a French Canadian piano player named Johnny Trombly as a young dancer, McQuillen learned quickly to emulate his style both on the piano and the accordion. In 1947, he was hired as an accordion player in the Ralph Page Orchestra, the quintessential contra dance band of the era. Eventually, he replaced Trombly as the piano player in the band.
As a young WWII vet returning to New Hampshire after two stints in the Marines, McQuillen developed his own unique piano style behind Page’s calling. He called this style “boom chucking” because he used his left hand to put down the bass line and his right hand to provide the chord accompaniment to fiddle tunes. The drive he created soon became a favorite of contra fiddlers, callers, and dancers across the region, and eventually across the nation. He gained great notoriety for his playing and eventually left the Ralph Page Orchestra to play backup for the legendary fiddler Dudley Laufman and his Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra. Laufman and the Orchestra, with Mr. Mac’s help, became prominent leaders of the national revival of contra dance music in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and on into the present.
McQuillen was also well known for his day job as an industrial arts teacher in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and later as police chief of Dublin, New Hampshire. In 1972, he wrote his first tune, “Scotty O’Neil,” naming it for one of his students who had died a tragic death. This began a 40-year tune-writing career during which he authored over 1,500 tunes in the contra style. Many were named and written for individuals, like “Amelia,” a well known waltz that was written for a friend’s baby daughter. The girl was born while Mr. Mac’s friend and bandmate was living in a crate that once housed the fuselage for the “Spirit of St. Louis” so she and the tune were named in honor of Amelia Earhart.
In 2002, McQuillen received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was the first time a contra dance artist had ever received the prestigious award. Mr. Mac continued to play dances with the Orchestra and with his own band, Old New England, into his final year. He often could be seen across New England hauling his piano to festivals in the back of a van, which was equipped with a ramp that would allow him to slide his piano out easily so that he could play outdoors.
His music and his style of playing spread way beyond the confines of his beloved old New England. For the past 30 years he played at house parties and music camps on the West Coast, including the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington. His unique piano style, as well as many of his tunes, have been adopted as standards by contra dance bands worldwide.
Mr. Mac will be remembered not only for his tunes and his style of playing, but also for his great sense of humor that he would often exhibit in the middle of dance (much to the caller’s dismay) by telling chicken jokes. Many spontaneous tributes can be found on the Internet, as well as a documentary film about McQuillen entitled Paid to Eat Ice Cream. In April, the annual New England Folk Festival near Boston featured a storytelling session dedicated to the many legendary exploits of McQuillen’s life in old-time music.
Bob was always in love with music and life. In the last few months before his death, when his failing health had taken some of his unstoppable spirit, he told one of his best friends and fellow musicians that, “this dying thing is so cool.” The love that contra dance enthusiasts had for McQuillen was evident in his final days as hundreds of musicians lined up outside his hospital room, waiting to play and sing for him.
On May 3, friends, family, and fans from across the nation filled Conval High School in Peterborough, New Hampshire to celebrate Mr. Mac and his music. The service was followed by a contra dance at the town hall and more private service the next day.