BOB LIVINGSTON INTERVIEW
February 3, 2004
Bob Brundage – OK. Well, hi again, this is Bob Brundage, Today is February the Third, this is 2004 and today we are talking by long distance telephone to Bob Livingston back in Middletown, CT and I’m very interested in his experiences over the years and am looking forward to presenting this tape to the Square Dance Foundation of New England. So Bob, tell me a little bit about where you were born and brought up and a little bit about your early family history.
Bob Livingston – Well, I was born right here in Middletown back in 1937 and lived here most of my life – spent a little time in Missouri and some time in Charleston, West Virginia – moving around – never really had a career – done a little bit of everything and now I’m in my 56th year and I’m back in Middletown.
BB – Good. Well, what was your early experiences, did you come from a musical family or anything like that?
BL – Nope, not at all. The only thing we had in the house was a record player – I listened to back in the 1940’s I guess was cowboy music – my folks listened to the big band music of the day – what was on the radio. We never had – my wife – my family was involved with fraternal work and they involved with Masonic and the Eastern Star Fraternities but as far as going out and dancing or nightclubbing or socializing in that way we just sort of had a normal upbringing – myself and my younger sister – we went to whatever activities were in school and in the church, the Boy Scouts and that sort of thing.
BB – OK, what was your introduction to square dancing?
BL – Well, being in Middletown it was there – there was Bradley’s Barn which I guess went every Friday night and so square dancing itself was still a public event that people could participate in and it was just sort of fading out at the time that I was getting out of high school in the middle 50’s. In this area it seemed, it was quite strong when Middletown it was a town of about 25,000 people and all the little towns around it were rural but now we were situated half way between New Haven and Hartford and that pretty well – what they called urban sprawl – it was pretty well filled in as the farmers sold off their fields for house lots it seemed that activities like square dancing faded. So I was apparently aware of it and when I was 16, being an active member of the Masonic sponsored youth group, the Order of DeMaley (??) – we ran a refreshment kitchen in the Masonic Temple because, for one season anyway, somebody, I don’t know who rented the place and had what they called Eastern Traditional Square Dancing there on Friday nights. So, I would go down there and work the kitchen and watch the band and the caller and the dancers – it seemed like it was a young crowd – maybe a little bit older that I was – I was maybe like a sophomore or junior in high school.
BB – Right. Do you remember the caller that called there?
BL – I sort of asked and tried to find out some background on that place and I’ve had a hard time and it might have been a fellow by the name of Hank Post.
BB – Oh yeah. I knew Hank
BL – Yeah, he was, I guess quite active in this area but at the time I guess there were a few people who were active in that area – you know, throughout Connecticut – it was – there was place down in – not too far from us in Guilford and Uncle Dave – I knew people as I say – I never participated but I knew folks who would – young people who would go down there. So, I was aware of square dancing – I was a fan of the country music and more of the music of that day than what’s played on the radio today. My wife and I, back when I was maybe – well we got married when I was 30 – she was 4 years younger and about 5 times during that time we went down to the Grand Old Opry and we enjoyed just watching the performances and square dancing. (??) I even took something away from that later on to use in calling and going to and following regional bands in CT on a Saturday night we would go to a local restaurant or nightspot to hear a local band and once in a while – there was one place over in Woodbury , Old Tollgate Inn and somebody from the band would get up and call a set of squares every once in a while. But we just watched it – it was energetic – there was a lot of swinging and the people were young. But I had no connection with it until we had moved to Charleston, West Virginia and I was a radio D J down there for a while –
BB – Oh, were you?
BL – and we came back – we took an apartment in – just over the Middletown line into Durham and my wife saw an ad in the paper or a little writeup in the social news stating that there were square dance lessons starting at the cafeteria in the local high school. So, off we went. We took twenty weeks of square dance lessons with Tony DeCarlo from the Crosstrailers, the club in Meridan so we were charter members of the Durham Square Dance Club and quite active. We filled the Century Book in a year and we filled the second one a couple of years after that. The thing that sort of separated maybe us from others in the class, we had not yet gotten a family started – we had one son who did not come along until I was almost 40 years old. So, at that time there was just the two of us and we square danced 2, 3 or 4 nights a week. We graduated in June and got the New England Caller magazine and at that time you could go through it and find traditional dancing. So, we saw an ad for Dudley Laufman calling contra dances in Amherst, Massachusetts at the Episcopal Church there on the green. So, we went up to a couple of his dances and we would end up in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire dancing with Duke Miller. So, at the same time that we were dancing the club stuff we were participating a little bit with the contras and square dancing in the traditional vein.
BB – Right. Well, when did you get interested in calling then?
BL – At that time a lot of the clubs in the area would have an Amateur Callers Night and I happened to have a little stack of records because American Square Dance magazine or somebody said if you’d send them a couple of bucks they’d send you pot luck a stack of them – they were just hanging around. So I took them and just participated in the Amateur Caller night as you know many people did at that time and Charlie Underwood had become the club caller for the Durham club and he was looking to put together a caller’s class for himself working out of the garage in his house over the summer break. So he recruited me and 3 or 4 other people and Monday nights we would go down there and he started teaching me the basics I guess of Modern Western Square Dance calling.
BB – That’s great
BL – I just continued from there. The following summer I went to Dick Leger’s school up in Rutland, Vermont and that’s the only formal school that I ever went to.
BB – OK. That was to be another one of my questions so, well that’s really great but somewhere along the line you got a little disenchanted with Modern Western and you started concentrating on pretty much the traditional or one night stand type of thing, right?
BL – Well, I got so I was teaching the classes at – for the Durham club – Charlie Underwood was the caller and we would camp a little bit up and down into southern Vermont and over to New Hampshire and western Massachusetts and I got, picked up calling dates not because I had a great reputation as a caller but we got out and met a lot of people and I got on a lot of calendars and so we’re calling – fairly busy – I never was a club caller – I taught for a couple of clubs and had these guest dates. Then one Friday night I was to call the Green Mountain Squares in Brattleboro, Vermont, about 100 miles from home and, as I say this was on a Friday and we were half way up there and I got off the Interstate 91 and swung down into Nothhampton and on a commercial building there – there was a marquee on the top of it advertising that one town over on Williamsburg, Mass. the following night at the Grange Hall was to be a eastern style traditional square dance. It just said, “ Square dance parties, orchestra, Burton Grange” and I decided I would go to them. So I left my wife home the next night and went up there to check it out and I was just thrilled with the live music – there was a trumpet in the band and guitar player who plays now with the (??) String Band and a drummer and a terrific lady on the piano and the place was full – there was quite core active dancers that showed up – I guess they had them twice a month and at the break I went over and talked to him. I told him who I was an, like a lot of people who were callers I told him how good I was – that I was up into Vermont and called dances up there and that I called in western Mass. and I was teaching classes in Connecticut – all club stuff. He just walked me over to his guitar player and he said, “Well you just tell him what keys you want and you can get up and call a set of dances after the break”. At first I said I would and then I thought about and I put my tail between my legs and went home.
BB – Laughs
BL – There was just no way I could get up there and do that. So, I kind of learned a lesson – driving home I said, “Now who’s the caller here? I’m the one who knows 100 calls and have some formal training and he’s just a guy that gets up there and calls the same dances every week and people come in and they haven’t taken any lessons either and the music is real, it’s not canned and everybody has a good time”. So I kind of started from there. I didn’t go back to his dance until I knew 3 or 4 of them because he got me up on stage again. About the same –
BB – Who was that caller by the way?
BL – Charlie Bardwell
BB – Oh yeah, Charlie Bardwell
BL – Right. He had broken off way back in – a fellow – he’d played drums for Corky Caulkins and Corky Caulkins had started a club in called the Valley Swingsters in (??) and Corky Caulkins had passed on – he passed on just about the time that we graduated from – in 1971 at a club dancers dance. We saw an ad again in the New England Caller that there was a benefit dance for his family at the – up at the University of Massachusetts so we went to that dance. We met callers there that were both club callers and some of the traditional callers. A fellow came to me and told me that this club that Corky Caulkins had started, the Valley Swingsters danced every Sunday evening – every fourth Sunday of the month at a church in Holyoke, Mass. And I went up there. They had rotating callers. One of them was Ray Gay who lived in Holyoke and, I can’t think of everybody’s name – George Hodgeston –
BB – Yes, I knew George
BL – and as they had to leave or passed on eventually I ended up calling for them and the last two callers would take turns would be George Hodgeston and myself. So this was an opportunity to use recorded music and then on New Years Eve and in the spring they would have a live band come in so I got some taste of live music. Then, the one caller there, Ray Gay said that this gig he had another one up in east Massachusetts, which was on Vermont line off Route Two – the Mohawk Trail in a little town high up in the hills about 20 miles off the Interstate out of Greenfield, Mass. It was at a town hall community center – a little bit too far for me to get there was maybe 120 miles from my home so I never got there while he was calling but he developed cancer which eventually took his life. People who went to that dance would tell me when they were down at the Valley Swingsters that Ray Gay would be calling a dance and couldn’t get through the evening and that this young fellow that was sitting in the band by the name of Doug Logan came forth and because he was sitting in the band had just picked up some of the calls by rote and filled in for him. Doug Logan was taking over for him more and more and eventually when Ray had to give it up and then he passed away shortly after that. Doug was only in his twenties – he was a school teacher from the Boston area and decided to move to a rural area – he moved out there and took a job teaching at regional high school. He was scrambling around trying to put together some of the old time eastern dances to continue the program that danced every 1st and 3rd Saturday. So I met him at the Charlie Bardwell dance . He told me he had gotten about 17 dances – enough to get him through an evening and I eventually started going up there. He continued the dances for 15 years and he gave me a lot of time on the stage. He started a family and he got involved with more and more in outside activities and was calling on me more and more to fill in. By the time – in 1998 after 15 years he decided he didn’t want to do it any more. So that’s when the dancing stopped – it was a little bit too far for me to do on a regular basis. He kept it going – gave me a lot of – that’s when really I was sort of an apprentice there because there was live music all the time. It was that band there that – like in the summer of ’84 was actually my first gig where I called the dance myself – the town of Covington, Mass. had hired the band from the east to do a summer dance at their pavilion at the park and Doug Logan had wanted to pass on it so he asked me to do it – that was the very first time I ever called a dance – 8:00 to 12:00.
BB – Yep. Four hours. OK
BL – So from then on I just sort of – that’s where my attention went to. I joined the Connecticut Callers in 1975 and it happened that Ralph Page was doing the program that day. It was the only time I ever met him. Then in 1976 another fellow who made an impression on me was Harold Hartin up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. We went up to – in August the CNE – the Canadian National Exhibition which was a large – they call it a largest fair in North America and ha, as we were going in we saw these groups of square dancers – they looked like they were a club. They red and white uniforms on. There was a live band and this fellow, who was Harold Hartin was calling and I talked to him – I took maybe – I had been calling maybe a year or so in ’76 and he knew Dick Leger. I guess he had gone to a Maine Folk Dance Camp which was – I think maybe Ralph Page had something to do with that at that time. We got back to Toronto – we’d go up there in the 80’s – they had dancing in the park, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – they had live music and they had Harold Hartin call. The music was so smooth and sounded exactly like the Sets In Order label records that I had here at home (tape goes blank for a moment) to listen to it on tape it so professional that it sounded like it was recorded music and not live music and they were really terrific. He would let get up and call one (garbled). Eventually I joined the Old Time Callers Association up there. In fact, I ordered a book from them and I then went up there in the summer and they gave me the book and said they owed me some money – I had sent them too much – and they said, “We’ll just put you on our roster” and I said, “Well, that’s fine” and then I was reading their bylaw later and I said, “ I’m not on their roster as a caller – anybody who is interested in preserving their old time square dancing can join whether you’re a caller or not”. But they said, “ In order to have a little ‘C’ – (small case) after your name on their membership list you have to get up and call one singing call and one reel and one jig. Si I went specifically to one of their dances just to do that but I – I joined their – I find that the either with the French Quadrilles and the singing calls and the old time eastern dances done throughout New England and the type of patter – they used phrased music but they don’t really – they don’t give the call in advance of the beat – they sort of have a chant that you’re probably well aware of but it’s just these eight beat chants but it’s all the same routes – the figures – they are basically all the different styles of the same thing and it’s all community dancing. I enjoyed that style
BB – Right. Well tell me about your Bernardston, Massachusetts dance.
BL – Well, In 1987 a fellow by the name of Ed Self
BB – Ed South?
BL – Self, yeah
BB – Oh, Self yeah
BL – Yeah, yeah, Self – decided to put together some local musicians to form a community band in a sort of open-ended organization – anyone who wants to sit in for any gig can be part of the band for that gig and of course, there were some core members and they would play for just any event in town – any little church social or weddings and anniversaries, nursing homes – some places they got paid and some places they didn’t for helping and he was a school teacher in the English Department at the high school in Greenfield in the beginning – he has since retired – I guess he’s in his later 60’s and he remembered the older – as I say the culture becomes more of the rural area up there lingered longer – there was more of a core of people who still danced or remembered dancing than there were in Connecticut which was becoming maybe citified (?) quicker more than it was further north. He got the Town Hall – the same Town Hall where I called my first club dance – my first club dance was as a guest caller for the Stateline Stompers – Ted Cromack was the caller.
BB – Oh, I remember Ted, yeah
BL – That club gave em my first chance to call a dance – first dance I got paid for. So, they started holding monthly dances at the Town Hall in Bernardston and it’s just been going on for – we’re in out 17th year.
BB – OK. Well didn’t you do some filming at one of those dances?
BL – Some filming?
BB – Yeah
BL – Yeah, I videotaped –
BB – Videotape, right.
BL – quite a bit.
BB – I know you sent some back to here the Lloyd Shaw Dance Archives and had the pleasure of seeing them – they were very interesting so, have you done a great deal of that videotaping your dances?
BL – What I do is I put a little disk in the camcorder and it might take months to put 2 hours on it because it will be sitting there next to me and I don’t like (garbled) – I taped a large part of the dance and to watch it later on was like watching grass grow.
BL – So now it’s like if somebody shows you a dozen photographs and then photographs just moved two, three minutes and if I see – I’ll pick it and maybe just take a shot od the band or the outside building or just a short pan of the crowd or then maybe watch one figure or watch people swing or do the jitterbug – Just little takes and I take them while I’m calling si I have the microphone in one hand and the camcorder in the other hand so sometimes I have to just stop and tend to calling the dance so sometimes they get cut off where they shouldn’t be so I’ve got a lot of these little pieces as they accumulate and I’m not sure what to do with them. I’m sort of negotiating with my son – we don’t know how to get them on DVD or something more permanent or (garbled).
BB – Well, you should make sure that they somehow get into the Square Dance Foundation of New England’s archives, you know, to be preserved there in some form or other – either in the camcorder version or the DVD. So, I encourage you to do that. I think you are also connected with some French Canadian dancing down in Rhode Island.
BL – Yes. Yes.
BB – Is that something on a regular basis?
BL – Yeah, that is. A year after the dances started with the (??) String Band in Bernardston, Massachusetts in Grange Hall in Killingly which is right on the Rhode Island line – they asked me to call a dance and then they continued it and we’re in our 16th year over there but that really wasn’t something that started up because I think they were active enough if they didn’t have a monthly – I think they became monthly after I started calling but they would have them intermittently with Irv Anders and other callers – Harold West – whoever was still active in eastern Connecticut at that time. I had gone over there just to dance one night when Harold West was to call – actually Irv Anders was to call and Harold West was filling in for him and wasn’t used to the band and I had a list of calls and I said, “Check off the ones you know and I’ll do some of the others” but something that everybody knows like Red River Valley or Just Because I won’t do them if you know them. So I guess I did enough so the next time they had a dance they asked me if I would do it. So it became a regular thing and 15 miles away, over the line Lori Morin has a modern western square dance club in Chapachet. Some of the – I went over to dance with her club and she asked me to get up and do a tip, which I did and at the end of the dance one of her dancers came through, shaking hands and said, “You know, that dance you did was like a french quadrille” and I said.\, “Oh, do you dance french quadrilles/” and she said, “ Oh, we have one tomorrow in Providence”. She told me where it was and I took a ride over there and the caller there, George Bernard asked me to get up and do one and I did. Then I went back – they were being done monthly and after 3 or 4 he decided to retire and he handed me a sheet of dances. So I’m doing those – once a month on Sunday afternoons. These are at the Blackstone River Theatre and they –
BB – A couple of minutes ago – I’m sorry we lost part of that but – so let’s continue now – we’re talking with Bob Livingston back in Connecticut and we were just talking about the French Canadian dances just across the line in Rhode Island so, here we go again Bob.
BL – I’ll give you a quick little rundown on the French Canadian deal. One of the members of the French Canadian community was a Modern Western square dance dancer and he told me about these dances and I went over there and participated as a dancer and would get up and do a guest call and eventually the caller that George Bernard he actually was in his 70’s and a widower and recently remarried to a women who was a widow but who was not interested in becoming a Sunday doing quadrilles. I guess he (garbled). So he passed the baton to me and so I’ve been doing them and we got a grant so we can sit down and he can give me some of the background of why these quadrilles are done the way they are done in Rhode Island.
BB – I see. Well, tell me – you’re doing mostly one night stand type of thing outside of these regular traditional type dances around in Connecticut, right?
BL – Well, it’s every second Saturday in Killingly and fourth Saturday in
Bernardston, Massachusetts and fourth Sundays at the Quadrilles in Rhode Island. Especially the band, the (??) String Band in Bernardston, they get quite a few extra dates – home days during the summer – anniversaries and weddings – they’re doing weddings – even a restaurant or two, a supper club – they’ll have me come in a get a few people up and do a (garbled). There’s also the East Fair has square dancing in the summer and the Covington Fair – these are small fairs but full fairs with the rides and all. They continue having squares. Westhampton, Mass. this summer had a – the town, maybe a three hundred or two hundredth anniversary celebration over a weekend and we had a big dance there – quite a few people came to that. People still, when they think of community dancing they think of it as the way it was back when their (??) was. You know, when it was is just as what they say is Eastern dancing. They don’t think of it as the club dancing because the club dancing in that area – we used to dance with all the clubs there – they’ve come and they’ve gone. The clubs are more regional rather than local you know, one club in each little community.
BB – Yes, Well, that’s very interesting. Just as a matter of interest do you have any other hobbies that you do?
BL – This is it. I follow the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and see how the politics of the worlds is going. I enjoy music, We go to shows – Blue Grass shows. My son is – when he went to school in Pennsylvania – Bucknell – they had started a contra dance group there so I got to do a contra session – it was not on their schedule. I also found that the live music, eastern squares was still strong and Saturday nights we’d go out (garbled) and people were still dancing. They were not necessarily an older crowd. Maybe there were younger people there and they were dancing because their parents were there and maybe they would not do it all their life but you can look out on the floor and still see people in their 30’s and teenagers.
BB – Ah, that’s great. Well, I assume from what you’ve been telling me that you aren’t concerned about the death of square dancing as you know it. You seem to be – I think you feel you are going to keep busy until you want to retire, right?
BL – There’s a reality – I think it’s true. You need – it’s like a pump out in the farm yard. You need a jug of water to pore in it to prime it and if you don’t have that jug of water you’re not going to get the rest of it and that jug of water for square dancing happens to be the old times dancers. That core comes as long as there’s a Grange Hall that sponsors it so there’s no heavy overhead and willing workers and band members. People come of all ages and they’ll have a good time but they won’t necessarily come every week. It’s not in their blood like the old people. So I say if there’s three squares, your number one square – how many people in your community do you need to make up your number one square? You need eight people because that number one square is going to come to every dance. The square behind them, you need two people because that’s the square – I mean you need sixteen because you need two squares worth. That square the people will come every other dance. Then the third square the people will come every once in a while – maybe you need you know sixteen squares of people that might come casually to make up that third square.
BB – That’s interesting. That’s a very nice analogy.
BL – I still pay my dues to –
BB – Connecticut Callers ?
BL – Yes, I’m active with them and with NECCA and programs for live music through the NECCA Specialist Program – I’ve done a couple of those but, what I was thinking of – the Durham Club that I joined, I still pay the dues but I very rarely get to a dance. They’ve had Lori Morin on the schedule the past couple of years and she’s on it this year. It’ll be a Mainstream dance and I’ll get there. When that club was founded it was – everybody lived in the community and now the club is still doing fairly well but it’s a regional club. People maybe come from a thirty mile circle all around it – they’re from the shore, they’re from Hartford, they’re from over in the Meridan-Wallingford area, they’re from east of the river – East Haddam and such and Durham is – if I go to the Library, if I go to the independent market in the center of Main Street I meet the people who have come through the lessons through the years – some of them were in my classes – they – this community that was built is where I made life long friends even though we maybe have not danced together in over twenty years. There’s no way that they can participate in that anymore. They just can’t drop off and then come back in without going through a lot of workshopping and really dedicating themselves to become the Plus dancer with that club. When the club started it was – well, you hopped on the lessons in September – it was a community service to take the lessons and you stayed at maybe fifty, seventy five at that time in the early seventies that they would have dropped out and come back but they finally can’t go back now.
BB – I see, right. No, you’re so right. Well, Bob I think that this has been a very, very interesting conversation and I appreciate your taking the time to put down your thoughts. You’ve given me a beautiful analogy of the future of square dancing in your eyes would be.
BL – May I add one more thing about that. They have some potential and promise to survive but – you are aware of like River Dance which they have revived Irish dancing but I don’t really say that it has because people sit in their seats and watch it – they don’t participate in it and when I go and call a community square dance the community is still dancing and I don’t know if it will – it will probably survive in some form and it will always – I don’t see – it’s up in the air whether – it could survive because there is a percentage of the population even though everybody is a ?? so they say and I’m one too in a lot of ways but there is a percentage of the population that is very active in many different pursuits and I think there are people that would participate with other things in square dancing as long as it’s there – if it’s not what they want they’re not going to do something else to save it they’re just going to walk away from it.
BB – Well, that’s great. So Bob, let’s call it an evening then and again I thank you very much for taking the time to get your thoughts down on tape and I’m sending this up to the Square Dance Foundation of New England and if I ever get back to Connecticut I’ll try to get around to one of your dances.
BL – Good deal. You said that you saw one of these, some of my video and it was at the New England Foundation?
BB – No, it was at the Lloyd Shaw Dance Archives.
BL – Oh, it was. OK, I remember when I sent it .
BB – Yes, you did, yep.
BL – I did?
BB – Yep
BL – Why did I send it? I don’t remember doing that.
BB – OK. No, I think that it was either at my request or Bill Litchman. We were trying to stock up things for the archive and that was – but I did see them and they’re at archive still which has been forwarded up to the University of Denver. So, anyway thank you again and I’ll hope to see you around the square .
BL – OK, thanks Bob
BB – OK Bob. Goodnight.
End of Tape