BILL JOHNSTON INTERVIEW
Bob Brundage – Well, hi again. This is Bob Brundage and the date today is November the 30th, 1996 and we’re still enjoying the contra dance weekend in York, Pennsylvania. Today we’re talking with the original promoter of this particular weekend, which has been going on for some time and I’m sure he’ll be telling us more about it as time goes along. So, we’re talking today with Bill Johnston from Skippack, Pennsylvania – has his own barn there and he’ll tell you about that. So Bill, where were you born and brought up and tell us how you got involved in square dancing.
Bill Johnston – Yeah, OK. I was born and brought up and spent all of my life in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania – that’s near Philadelphia and, golly – I was born in 1916. That makes me 80 years of age at this point and still hanging in there as much as I can. I went to Leighi University actually. Before that I had gone to Bordentown Military. My father was a manufacturer and I followed working for his company and then actually ran the company myself. I’m retired now – have been retired for some years but busier than I ever was. You said today was November 30 – this is an important day for us Scots. My name, Johnston has the ‘t’ in it which is very important – very important and makes it more Scottish. So, today, November 30 is Saint Andrews Day which is the Scots important holiday. We always observe this holiday and have big dinners, etc. So, we will have such festivities a little later this evening observing November 30. How did I get involved? When I was a teenager my family had a summer cottage upcountry -wise from where we were in one of the adjoining counties and it was rough country in those
days. It’s easy to get to now but in those days it was even harder to get to. Not far from where our little cottage was there was a bridge that crossed a stream – a wooden bridge, painted red and it was known as Red Bridge. I was a teenager and I would go there to the local dances – square dances. The thing I remember about that is that the caller would around the floor giving the calls and as he walked around the floor he had a penknife and a candle. He shaved the candle so that the shavings would go on the floor and keep the floor in proper slipperyness. So, I learned some square dancing there. Later then, when I was a young man out of college I was associated with a church group – actually Quakers and we had a bunch of young folks and we did some activities – we did plays and we had treasure hunts and we went bowling and that sort of thing. At a couple of the events we arranged for square dances and for that purpose we hired in Chris Sanderson. Now Chris Sanderson was a guy from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and he – I always giving him credit for being the guy who kept square dancing alive in southeastern Pennsylvania for all those years when square dancing was virtually dead. He came to these dances with these young folks that I was a part of and led the dancing so I learned a lot of dancing there. Later then, after I got married – that was about 1940 when I got married – of course the war came along and tire rationing, gasoline rationing, etc. so my wife and I bought bicycles. We had bicycles on the front porch one day when the doctor made a house call for our then infant son and he said, “ I see you have bicycles out on the porch. We have a group that goes riding on Sundays. Maybe you’d like to join us”. So we joined that group and we were doing a lot of bicycle riding on Sundays. Sometimes we’d go 25 0r 30 miles. We got to the point where we had a lot of energy left over – it was a real sociable crowd and we’d go to peoples homes for sociability. Somewhere, somehow, I don’t know – we got hold of two square dance albums that were available in those days. Lawrence Loy and Ed Durlacher. We would put those records on in one of the couple’s basements and we learned those records backwards, forwards and sideways. If we wanted to do anything new somebody had to learn to call. So, I bought a book and had to learn some of the dances and that was when I started to call for that group. Well, a little later, In Lansdale, Pennsylvania where I lived at that time we formed the Lansdale Youth Council which was to keep the young people of the county active and off the streets. So, a couple of the dances we arranged were on the school playground lots in the summertime and where I had done a little calling myself I knew Chris Sanderson and I hired him in a couple times but then eventually I started to do the calling myself. So that was my first public appearance you might say in square dance calling.
BB – OK, so what year approximately was that?
BJ – Well. Let’s see. I’ve got a note here somewhere. Yeah, we married – about 1942 was when I began to call – 1943 was when we were dancing on the school playgrounds when I did a couple.
BB – OK. Tell us about your barn.
BJ – Very well. Then, well actually I formed a square dance club which was called the Lancers – the Lancers Quadrille Club – and that was based on a play on words because Henry Ford had published in his book the Lancers Quadrille. In those days of you knew how to do the Lancers Quadrille you were at the top of the square dance ladder.
BB – You were at C2 – both laugh.
BJ – So our people all learned how to do the Lancers Quadrille and they were all proud of that so I formed that club in 1948 I formed the Lancers and in 1953 I finally got my own barn.
BB – So that was nearby Lansdale?
BJ – Yeah. That was in Skippack which is about ten miles from Lansdale. I’ve been in Skippack ever since with the barn.
BB – And you named the barn…?
BJ – We named the barn Lockwood which was the name of the Johnston Castle – castle stronghold in Scotland.
BB – I wondered what the connection was. And you’ve been dancing there ever since, right? Still dancing there. I know I’ve been to dances there and certainly enjoyed it but that was a couple of years ago – both laugh.
BJ – A few years back.
BB – So, tell us a about some of the activities – special events leading up to your present day contra dances.
BJ – Well. It might be interesting to know – at the same time I got started in calling another local fellow got started. A fellow by the name of Mack McKendrick. He was a leader all the rest of his life – he was a few years older than myself and he had a barn to start with. Well, it was a chicken house and he converted the chicken house into Mac’s Barn. He had that for a long time and he and I were colleagues – we worked together – and finally then I got my barn and, like I said. We used to go to the International Festivals in Chicago, which preceded the current string of National Festivals and they were back in 1948 and 1949. Back in those days I met such guys as Max Forsyth and Rickey Holden and Pappy Shaw and Ed Gilmore and they became mentors for me. Your brother, Al too, I know because he was running some simmer camps that I was unable to get to because I didn’t get vacations in those days. He ran various summer affairs at his barn and then they also had some at Camp Beckett that Charlie Baldwin ran and Herbie Gaudreau was the contra caller for that group. I would get the syllabus – people would bring the syllabus back to me – so I got line dances from Herbie Gaudreau indirectly that way. In my square dance activity I always included a contra or two at every dance I called.
Then the first National came along in 1952 and then meanwhile your brother Al, Ed Gilmore and Manning Smith all organized a summer week that was called United Squares up in Wisconsin. My wife and I were then able to get vacations and we went to four of them I guess. That was about one more year I think and then they closed up. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Conventions had been organized and we went to all of them that we could for many years. Back home I organized a round dance club because, in my business I traveled a bit – mostly Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Los Angeles and I was the guy from Delaware Valley who found out what was going on through the rest of the world and I brought a lot of this stuff back. So, it came to the point where we had to have a round dance club. So, we started that and then I started the Round Dance Teachers Association. I started a dance down in Atlantic City called – or Ocean City, New Jersey called the Haylofters. I was the first caller and got them started and called for them for many, many years. They’re still dancing I think. In Reading, Pennsylvania there’s a group called the Stardusters which I started and called for many years. They’re still going too I think. So, those were the things we did in the early days. As I say, I went to a few of the Nationals but not all. When we had the first convention in Philadelphia that was the first time contra was on the National program as something separate. Ten years later I guess it was we again had the National at Atlantic City and again we offered contra and that was the first time we tried to offer a second hall for experienced contra.
BB – It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now but…
BJ – It was tried.
BB – I remember I was calling at that particular convention. You know, just a little off the subject, what was your amplification equipment back when you first opened the barn.
BJ – It was a put-together- something or other probably that someone had made for me. I don’t remember any more how it was but it was a turntable.
BB – A Recocut? Recocut, does that ring a bell?
BJ – No, it was something that had a cobra head on it I remember and then they built me an amplifier inside a box and a couple speakers. That’s what I had.
BB – Well, that’s a little off the subject but I happened to think of it. I think back to my old amplifier – my little eight-watt box that I carried around way back then. How about – you mentioned several leaders that you’ve been involved with – how about your present day contra dance weekend. When did this actually get started?
BJ – Oh yeah. This got started in 1976. This is our 21st year. When we first started the staff was Don Armstrong and myself and Angus McMoran from Canada. He was the square dance guy. He did some contra and round dance too. When we first started it was in Binghamton, New York. That’s because Manning and Nita Smith had been doing a Round Dance Weekend – Labor Day Weekend – in Binghamton and we went back to that same hotel. But then eventually that hotel closed and we went another one in Binghamton and they carpeted their ballroom floor so about six years later we came to York and have been here now about fifteen years.
BB – How far are we from Skippack?
BJ – It’s about a two hour drive.
BB – Oh really. I didn’t realize it was that far. Who are some of the other leaders you’ve had on your staff?
BJ – Well, Harold Harrton – after Angus died suddenly we suddenly needed another caller. Harold Harrton from Canada – hadn’t been with us a couple of years and he used to run camps up in Canada so he was with us for one year and then we had Herb Johnson for three years. Then Dick Leger came along and he’s been with us the last nine years.
BB – That’s great. Alrighty. What about recordings? Have you done any recordings?
BJ – Nope. No, never did any. Oh, I’ll take that back. I did one for the Lloyd Shaw Foundation. I’ve written some dances one of which I wrote was called Shawna’s Reel. I did record that for the Lloyd Shaw Foundation.
BB – I assume that you never really did get into what we now call club dancing or Modern Western Square Dancing.
BJ – Well, in a way I was in it. When what we today call club dancing or Modern Western was getting started but after a while I didn’t like the way it was going. All these new calls that you had to study and learn. If you missed a class – Bingo – you were out. And I thought that was going the wrong way so I backed away from that many years ago.
BB – And the other thing you realized was these dancers were not dancing to the music.
BJ – Oh yeah. Right. I love the music and I love dancing to the music rather than dancing just to the beat.
BB – Are you doing anything with line dancing?
BJ – No. When you say line dancing you mean country western. I’ve done some of it but …
BB – Maybe something like Amos Moses or that type of thing. Of course, back in the days when you were at the barn and people had to learn the round dances and you cued it one time and then they had to dance it the rest of the way…
BJ – Yeah. That’s right. That was another thing that was unique about my club. My dancers learned the dance whereas what was happening at all the other clubs around the cuer cued every beat from beginning to end.
BB – OK – tape clicks off temporarily. OK. Getting away from square dancing for a minute lets’ change the subject. Do you have any particular hobbies?
BJ – Oh yeah. Yes indeed. I’m very heavily involved in Scottish tartans, which many Americans mistakenly call ‘plaid’. The proper name for it is ‘tartan’. A plaid is actually a garment like a shawl one might wear over the shoulder. I’ve been interested in that – studied that – ever since I was in college. Since my retirement I’ve gotten very heavily involved. I’m President of Waters Tartan Educational and Cultural Association, Inc., also known as the International Association of Tartan Studies. Then there was another group in Scotland called the Scottish Tartan Society and I was a life member of that for many, many years until one man got hold of it and he misused his power. He alienated one person after another. I started complaining about it the result of which he threw me out and told me I was no longer a member. But, I’m still active and so some of the people in Scotland who also have been kicked out and have lost their interest in that group said to our group here in America, “ We want to form a new group in Scotland. Will you help us?” We have helped them. Earlier this year we had had our first organizational meeting as the Scottish Tartan Authority. I’m on the Board of that and I’ve been over to Scotland three times already this year. We go on with the various Scottish games all over the country. Sometimes we do an all day seminar – lecture – and then we’re usually on the field during Saturday and Sunday if it’s 2-day games under a tent that says, “ Tartan Information”. People come up and say, “My name is so-and-so. What my clan? What’s my tartan?” and we try to have all those answers. It’s all in a computer program that I designed so that we can show tartans from the computer.
BB – We aren’t going to do any Scottish games here are we?
BJ – Laughs. No, none of that. No
BB – They’re a little bit athletic.
BJ – Well, I’ve been involved in the Scottish Country Dancing and that’s been another one of my loves. So, I introduce some of it in all my contra dances and we do some here.
BB – And really beautiful music too. It’s such an appeal. I picked up an album of Scottish music. One of the things I’d like to have recorded – I heard a very – something I’m sure that would disturb you – and I heard one of our leaders who happens to be here say, “ He’s a Scotchman” and I think this goes against the grain. Would you correct this – isn’t the correct term, “ He’s a Scotsman”
BJ – Yeah.
BB – He’s Scottish but he’s not Scotch and he’s not a Scotchman.
BJ – Well, we do usually do say, “Scottish” and use the word, “Scotch” as it applies to whiskey and, more than likely we tend use the word, “Scottish”.
BB – But Scotsman is correct , right?
BJ – Yes, A Scotsman or a Scot.
BB – Or a Scot. It constantly amazes me the number of people that don’t realize the use of the proper terminology. Getting a little bit serious, what do you find is the appeal to leading square dancing – contra dancing?
BJ – As a leader? What is the appeal to me? The appeal to me is seeing people out there on the floor dancing to the music, with the phrase, with ease and grace and elegance and getting their satisfaction is my satisfaction.
BB – Well, that’s a great philosophy. I know you’re not involved in the Modern Square Dance activity as it is today. You know it is declining. Is there any hope for this activity?
BJ – Well, it was a fad for many, many years and as fads come and go square dancing is dying off before. Then it came back the last twenty or thirty years and now it’s dying off again. So that has a fad aspect but I think one of the things about the demise of the fad was the proliferation of all these people having to go to class for a year before they can even be called a dancer. I felt that was wrong so I always stay with traditional stuff although in contra dancing we get into newer material. I even write some myself but we still keep I think within limits. Maybe I go a little bit farther than many of the others in getting into unusual formations but I don’t think we’ve made it so complicated like modern square dancing.
BB – Well, Stew Shaklette and I were chatting while you were doing some of your dances earlier and he remarked about the fact that all of these dances were within a very, very close knit group of basics for many and he was stipulating the fact that – it’s amazing how many different formations you can get into with the very simplest of basics. As I mentioned to him, in my estimation, none of them work unless you are dancing with the music.
BJ – That’s right, yeah. It’s got to be with the music, which is one of the great things about Scottish Country dancing because it’s always with the music. If you aren’t, you’re lost – you’re the one that’s out.
BB – All right. Let’s go back to the Lockwood Barn. I know you’ve entertained some of the – what we call National Traveling Callers. Tell us about some of them.
BJ – Well, in the earlier days we used to have some of the national callers come there – not a huge number. Ed Gilmore would come regularly year after year.
BB – He fit your program.
BJ – Oh yeah. Ed was one of my major mentors and Al – Joe Lewis to a degree but I also remember Rickey Holden. When I first met Rickey at one of the International Conventions in Chicago and I heard him call – he had a rhythm that went with the phrase of the music and, by golly, you came out with an Allemande Left and a Grand Right and Left and when I learned how to do that call the way he did I had it made. So Rickey Holden was a mentor and Ed Gilmore too. Ed Gilmore was – we were just talking about body mechanics and how things happen. So, I learned a lot from him. But then your brother Al would come and Vaughn Parrish, the Maxheimers, Don Armstrong – a lot of those people would come and Mac McKendrick who had his barn just about five miles away from me he too would bring in probably more callers than I did. Almost every year he’d have Les Gotcher come in – Frankie Lane – those two were regulars.
BB – Well, he was following the modern trend, right?
BJ – Yeah.
BB – More than you were. That’s interesting. I didn’t realize the two barns were that close.
BJ – Yeah, yeah. Just over the hill.
BB – OK, anything else we ought to talk about today?
BJ – Oh yeah. Contralab. You know we started to form that…
BB – How about Callerlab first of all…
BJ – Well, Callerlab, yeah, I was a member of Callerlab. I wasn’t one of the founders or anything but I got into it. After I withdrew from some of my calling as I got older I had a kind of falling out with Callerlab because they said, “ Well, you’re not dancing with fifty-two dances a year anymore so we don’t need you. You’re now an “Apprentice” and after forty years of calling. So, I dropped out of Callerlab. But then we started Contralab and I was very, very interested in Contralab and Hal Rice was the guy who was really the starter but some of us felt that we’ve got to get some control on here or it might not go the way we’d like to see it. So, to make sure – we were at the Indianapolis National Convention when Contralab was formed and so I was instrumental there in helping and I remember Glen Nickerson and I think it was Boyd Rothenberger and myself were the guys who put together the original Constitution and Bylaws.
BB – And then Glen was the President of the ….
BJ – Well, no. Glen was Treasurer….
BB – Oh yes. OK.
BJ – Well, he’s also been a very, very active leader in Contralab ever since it’s beginning.
BB – And they have a similar weekend like this in southern California, correct?
BJ – Yes, they do. I was there once.
BB – Well, it’s a long walk – both laugh.
BJ – That’s why I haven’t been there more.
BB – Well, you got to Scotland all the time.
BJ – Well, that’s it. That’s why I can’t go to San Diego all the time.
BB – There you go. Well Bill, this had certainly been a very, very interesting conversation. I’ve enjoyed it very much and, as much as I’ve enjoyed the weekend – I’ll tell you, I really have – I’ve been meaning to get here for a long time. Again, it’s one of those things. As you know I was kind of out of square dancing for a while. So, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to sit down and put this on tape.
BJ – Not at all. My pleasure. I’m glad to be honored to be selected to be on your recording here because I think what you’re doing is a wonderful end of the job.
BB – Well, thank you.
BJ – I’m a life member of the Lloyd Shaw Foundation but I plan to make a contribution toward the work you’re doing….
BB – Oh, thank you very much.
BJ – ….because I appreciate what you’re doing. I think it’s a great thing and, as I said earlier – I don’t think it was on the tape – but I regret that there are some callers that you haven’t been unable and won’t be able to get on here because there were some terrific guys out there.
BB – Which brings up – did you know Ralph Page?
BJ – Yeah. I knew Ralph Page. Not to well but I knew him. I remember when we started the first contra at the first National that contra was going to be had we sent out a form letter to all contra callers we knew of. The form letter began, “We understand that you are a contra caller” this was a form letter. Well, Ralph Page got one of these and he didn’t like that phrase. He wrote back, “ Well yes, I am a contra caller” – both laugh.
BB – How about Ted Sannella?
BJ – Ted Sannella I knew but I didn’t get up there too often. Yeah, I knew him and he was another great guy.
BB – Duke Miller?
BJ – Duke Miller. Yeah, I knew him, I learned a lot of stuff from the contra world from him. I remember going to a dance up in New York State and Duke Miller was calling and Sue Leger was playing the piano for that group. That’s how I got to meet Sue and Dick Leger.
BB – Is that right? How about Rod Linnell?
BJ – I never Rod Linnell. Ralph Sweet, I never knew. I guess I was in touch with a couple of times. Chip Hendrickson I used to know. I still have an occasional touch with him.
BB – I just interviewed both of them last week.
BJ – Oh yeah.
BB – It’s a great time. Ralph Sweet is making – manufacturing flutes and tin whistles.
BJ – Is that right?
BB – Well Bill….
BJ – OK. My pleasure.
BB – Yeah, thank you very much and we’ll see you around here and there.
BJ – Well, glad to see you here. I was going to say too – this year we’re happy to have you and your brother Al and Stew Shacklette and Bob Osgood. We kind of think that’s all a feather in our cap this year to have some of these notables with us this year.
BB – Good. OK. Thanks Bill.
END OF TAPE – END OF INTERVIEW