Nov. 16, 1996
Bob Brundage – Well, this is Bob Brundage again and the date is still November 16, 1996 and now we’re talking to the other half of this square dance weekend here in Mystic Connecticut and we are talking today to Cliff Brodeur and his lovely wife and we are about to get into where you were brought up and so forth. I know your folks were both square dancers and we knew them even before we knew you Cliff. Tell us about where you were born and brought up and your experiences in the past.
Cliff Brodeur – I was raised … I was born in Hartford, Connecticut and lived in Hartford for two years and then moved to Windsor, Connecticut where I went to high school and I lived there for 18 years. The last 28 years I have been in Pittsfield, Mass. I met my wife Senta at a square dance convention in 1967 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and we have been together ever since.
BB – So, 19 .. did you say 1957?
CB – 1967.
BB – 1967, yeah, I was thinking … I didn’t think you had been married quite that long. (laughs) but be that as it may. So I know your folks were into square dancing when you were growing up, so tell us a little about that.
CB – My dad was a program chairman for a club in Connecticut, the Windsor Old Towners, and what he used to do was bring traveling callers from all over the country, Sam Mitchell, Bob Elling, Bob Fisk, Ed Gilmore and a lot of callers came to our house and it made an impression on me growing up that that’s what I wanted to do for a living.
BB – OK. I must have known your folks. I really can’t say that I remember them but I must have known them … we were all in it together back in those days, right. So … then when did you get in to where you … any kind of a musical background in your family.
CB – I started … my grandfather played in the Shrine band, he played a flute and I come from … my great, great grandfather had a coronet band in Merrimack, New Hampshire where he came down from Canada. There was no work in the woolen mills and they started the Brodeur Coronet Band in the 1880’s and they played throughout New England with a prompter back in those days.
BB – Right. Let me see. I’m admiring this little, today we call it a flyer, a brochure about … The Brodeur’s Coronet Band will give a promenade, concert and dance in the Merrimack Hall Friday evening, April 22, 1881 and the prompter is Bella Ed Kenniston. Tickets are 50 cents.
CB – Wow.
BB – There’s a piece of memorabilia that’s for sure. So how did you graduate into … you started dancing obviously.
CB – I started dancing at a teen age club like a lot of the callers did, myself and Jack O’Leary from Connecticut. Our parents would let us go and we took up square dancing. We were so enthused by what we saw. We saw these large crowds and these traveling callers coming to the dances and they were driving Cadillac’s and doing really well back then and I thought, boy, this is the only thing I ever wanted to do for a living ever since I was like13 years old.
BB – So, how did you get from that into calling then?
CB – I started … I went to school … a callers school in 1965 with Al Brundage who my mom and dad danced with at the Greater Hartford Club….
BB – Right.
CB – …. and Earl Johnston, and they gave me the foundation. What happened was, Tony DeCarlo, who was a caller for Meriden, Connecticut, had a nervous breakdown and all of a sudden I had a club and I was calling to 20 squares every other Saturday night in Meriden, Connecticut and I couldn’t even get people back with their partner. I really didn’t know anything about it but I had these huge crowds and I had to come and learn every other week because people would be there.
BB – Right. Well that was quite an experience for you and you certainly polished your program a little bit since then. I was just watching you call this morning and 20 squares on the floor and everybody seemed to be moving around. You got everybody back home again. (laughs) Just keep in mind that somebody told me one time that a singing call is one great big zero.
CB – Uh huh.
BB – OK. Anyway. All right. So tell us about some of the big events that you’ve been involved in. I know you’re involved in Tumbling Weeds.
CB – I started as a … when I first started in square dancing I was a music supervisor for the Parks Department and started working with children for four years on the playground. I would take my guitar and I would go to these 21 parks and do sing-along’s back when I was a teenager and then I got into square dancing and I started doing festivals. Started traveling south in 1970. My first festival was the Winston Salem Festival with Harry Lackey down south. We boarded a train and went down into the Piedmont festival with Harry and the Easterdays and I had … did a lot of festivals on the East coast from 1970 through 1986.…Philadelphia, Baltimore, a lot of the big ones.
BB – Right. The Atlantic Convention?
CB – I didn’t go to that one. I was still in high school in 1977.
BB – Oh sure. OK. That’s right. Then how about National Square Dance Conventions?
CB – I’ve been to the National in Baltimore. I enjoyed that immensely. I got the experience to go and call in front of 400 squares and I was very nervous.
BB – Right. (laughs) I can understand that. But … and how about Callerlab?
CB – I am a member of Callerlab. I do a lot of things in my own area more than outside of my area. We’re involved in promoting floats and promoting a lot of what I call promotional work. I’ve just finished doing a big project with the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. (coughs) We also just finished doing a show at the Jacobs Pillow which is a very famous dance theater. We have been doing a lot of commercial work outside of the square dance movement, very strongly in the last few years.
BB – Yeah, I want to get into that because you have a very interesting program and I would like to know a lot more about it. But what about … you mentioned some of the people that you have been associated with after callers school … you became involved with a lot of big festivals and so forth, some of these have made some kind of an impression on you over the years and tell us about any of those that come to your mind at the moment.
CB – Well I worked with … I worked with your brother, Al Brundage quite a bit. Al really gave me the incentive to start out in this business.
BB – Yeah. OK. When did you hook up with this fellow Red Bates?
CB – I used to watch … I used to watch Red when I was 15 years old. My dad used to book him and Red became my idol. Red was my idol and John Hendron. Today I work mostly with Red. We do four or five weekends together a year and have become very close friends.
BB – Right, well that’s great. What about hobbies?
CB – Hobbies?
BB – Outside of calling square dances.
CB – I like to walk, cross country ski, mostly outdoors things.
BB – OK. Now you have had a little bit of help along the way with a very charming young lady sitting here named Senta. What is your impression about square dancing Senta ? What was your life growing up with this guy?
Senta Brodeur – I have a great impression about square dancing. I think that it is a wonderful, wonderful activity. There are times that I get kind of disinterested in the activity itself but, on the other hand, I wouldn’t really know what to do without it because of the people and how wide it is where you can go anywhere in the world and meet friends that you have never met. I do … I think it’s a wonderful activity.
BB – Right. You’ve probably been involved in a lot of the clerical things to do with this business too, registrations for weekends, probably making the coffee at the club and this and that and the other thing, is that right?
SB – Well, very involved in that part.
BB – (laughs) I’m sure.
SB – Weekends and all the paper work and book work. I never … I never booked his dates for him though. Yes, I can’t say I never did. I did when he was in the service. I had the poor guy traveling to spots all over the world for nothing. (laughs)
BB – Yeah. And how long have you been married now?
SB – We’ve been married … it will be 29 years in January and we raised up three wonderful children with the activity. I work as a school bus driver and I support all our benefits and insurances which helps out. I say I make the living. (laughs)
BB – Right. You’ve got that right. OK. You remember you were sitting here when I talked to Red and I would be interested in what … what do you find appealing about square dance calling?
CB – Well, the thing I enjoy is … anything that you could … I really enjoy square dance calling and I think it is a wonderful thing that you can make a living at something you enjoy and I’ve made my living my whole life on square dancing. I enjoy the people. I enjoy meeting friends all over the east coast and people from all over the world and sharing the cultural experiences of those people.
BB – One of the things that you’ve been telling me about during lunch is that considerable experience of people from other countries coming here and you were having ???? can you talk to me about that?
CB – I have been working for the Jonas foundation of Red Hook, New York with Pete Seger. Pete is an international folk singer. What we do is we basically go there and these children come and meet each other for the first time during the summer and they all intermingle and share their cultural experiences together. I have been doing that for several years with Pete and also recently I have just finished working with the American Russian Youth Orchestra in Moscow. That was a real experience because they had never seen square dancing and we put the Americans together and we did the Virginia Reel and they had a great experience with that and also the Chinese from Taiwan. We did a program for a Chinese cultural camp up in the Berkshires where they had never seen square dancing and the rhythms are a little different over in Asia and just to see the smiles on their faces was wonderful.
BB – Right. That’s part of this field right? OK. You have a very unique approach to square dancing in the future and certainly in the present also. We’ve talked about this and I’ve said to you on more than one occasion I think you are on the right road. Tell us about what it is that you’re doing looking ahead to the future.
CB – I think …. I’m concerned about the present activity as it is today with the length of the lessons. When my folks got in it was eleven weeks. We used to have large classes. Today I see myself doing more and more one night stands. I am getting hired by communities that want to just dance once a month and do the Community Dance Program. They don’t want a lot of material they just want to be able to come and say, “Lets square dance. All dances taught”. And you basically go in there and you entertain a bunch of people that have never danced and give them a good time. My career is growing very rapidly outside modern day square dancing today. It’s resorts, It’s children’s camps. It’s wedding parties and live music. It’s almost reverting back, Bob, to where it was a few years back.
BB – Right. Quite a few years back.
CB – Before club level.
BB – Well your also working with live music most of the time when you’re doing this. Right?
CB – I work with live music probably once or twice a week in the summertime.
BB – Do you do some of these things with recordings in them.CB – I do a few things with recordings … most of the things I do in the summer are live music with banjos and hammered dulcimers and the excitement and enthusiasm that you can create with three part harmony in say, with a banjo take the lead or a hammered dulcimer take the lead, the guitar man … the enthusiasm with a band is tremendous.
BB – So you are obviously doing a very limited basics program when you use them. How far do you go with a program like that? Ladies chain?
CB – I do Ladies Chain, Star Left, the old Texas Star, Star Promenade, Grand Square. I like Grand Square because I can do a lot of instrumental leads. I’ll say sides face … banjo man. The banjo comes in and then the dulcimer comes in, the guitar comes in and it’s wonderful. I got interested in live music because of people like Red who had a band and Al who had a band and I felt like, coming in in the ‘60s, I did not have that experience that Red and Al had in the activity and I wanted to somehow go back and try to capture what I had missed.
BB – Right. You also have a very unique approach to square dancing in the form of this huge book here. You call it your sales presentation. In that are quite a few pictures that are less memorabilia. Tell us a little about this book and what you actually do with it.
CB – What this book is … what I do … a lot of times for bookings I have to go to country clubs, to caterers, to camps, to organizations and I’d rather have them call me on the phone. With this book I create a demand for people to hire me. A lot of people don’t know what I do and by showing them this or inviting them to come see us perform live … the greatest sales pitch is a bunch of people smiling and clapping their hands with the enthusiasm that you can create and I go in and I show them these different pages. A lot of these things I have done with Red. There’s pictures of Pete Seger in here. Pete was another one of my idols and we’ll talk about Pete later. Pete Seger actually played a lot of the children’s camps that I do today when he was blacklisted in the McCarthy era. He was out playing camps because he couldn’t go on TV and Pete has been also one of my idols. I don’t follow his politics but I follow him as a musician and his ability to excite a crowd.
SB – A lot of your inspiration came from Pete Seger, Your inspiration as far as how he knows how to move a crowd that … Cliff has always been inspired to do that. He can move a crowd even today as he ages … what 7…
CB – 78 years old. He just did a concert with us and he had 900 people. They were in the tent and they were singing, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone‘ and ‘If I Had a Hammer‘. He hit the stage and it was just a mystical legend. People just stood there in awe and sang and it was magic.
SB – He hardly had voice left but he had these people sitting right in the palm of his hand.
BB – Well that is really a unique approach that’s for sure.
CB – I wanted to just show you this. It is one of my first letters to Pete. He asked me to come down and do some Clearwater festivals and he says, “PS. Give our best to Al Brundage”.
BB – There you go. (all laugh)
CB – And there I have that letter. That’s the first Pete Seger letter I ever got with a leaf on it and of course, Pete played banjo with Al and that was my introduction to Pete Seger because I knew … knew Al and then we developed a friendship through Al Brundage, your brother.
BB – Well that was certainly a very interesting approach to square dancing and, as I’ve mentioned before, I encourage you to keep this up because I think this may be the trend that we are heading for eventually and I hope some of the other national leaders around the country will get the message one of these days. So all of your … you do call the Community Dance Program as prescribed by Callerlab and a lot of effort went into that, obviously, to get it going. Do you agree pretty much with the Basics that are used?
CB – I think … I think it’s a great program and I think what we have to do with square dancing is we have to bring it back to the general public. I think it’s got too complex, too hard, too many lists. We’ve just got to be able to take the public and bring them in for a night of entertainment and say, “All dances taught”, and give them a good taste of dancing and enthusiasm and when they go home at night they had a good time doing square dancing. I think it again goes back to using the music and the feel of the music. What I learned years ago when I heard the callers like Al and yourself and Earl Johnston and Red, these callers call with a rhythm that the callers … some of the callers today have a different style that makes me feel a little bit old compared to what I do but …. What do you think Red … say something (laughs)
RB – (unintelligible)
BB – I’ll go along with that. The emphasis today is too much on choreography your saying and not as much on sociability like it used to be.
CB – I think sociability is really important where people … square dancers, they don’t care what you do for a living. If you’re working with a person that’s a sanitation engineer or you’re working with a lawyer or a doctor … there is no class distinction at a square dance. Everybody is just really nice to each other and they can get away. And as one of my friends, a very successful cancer doctor said … he said, “I don’t have to be anybody. I can just be myself” and he said, “That is a wonderful thing about square dancing. They don’t care who I am or where I’ve been”.
BB – Right. Well I’ve said many times over the years that I’ve known dancers for years and years and years and never knew what their religion is and never knew what their politics are, never knew what jobs they had and so forth and you get to know a guy and his wife and eventually get to know their kids and like that … it’s really wonderful, no doubt about it. And you’re an exceptionally good example of that Cliff. We talked earlier, not on tape, about costumes. Give us your thoughts on that, you and Senta both, and Ginny (Ed. Note: Ginny is Red’s wife) should get in on this costumes.
Senta Brodeur – I believe … and basically when we were discussing it earlier with Ginny, Ginny really inspires me to get into the prairie skirt. That is something that I basically wanted to do because I had done many years in costume. But working with the public is something I do. I certainly wouldn’t appear in the public, as a leader, with these full funny looking dresses and the prairie skirt I feel much more comfortable with … it encourages the public eye a lot more than the original square dance dresses. But Ginny, as a younger, newer dancer in the activity, I’ve known her for five years, and she’s been new, has encouraged me into the prairie skirts … so this is how she came into the activity. “I’m not wearing that thing”. I believe this is the way it should go today and I’ll walk into a square dance club today and a square dance … I mean in a Prairie skirt look and I will get very discouraged looks from the older dancers but I feel that I have to stand there, and stand out, and promote that this is ok to do. That tells them it’s OK to wear this type of dress today.
BB – Yeah. Well I asked Red about the appeal of square dancing and so fourth, what … do you have any magical solutions to our drop out problems Cliff?
CB – (laughs) Well. Just in my own area what I’m trying to do … is both the clubs that I teach … I teach two beginner classes on two nights a week. My clubs … my entry level clubs are Mainstream clubs. I keep them Mainstream. They are in the minority and what I do in the summer time is I run a Monday and Tuesday night dance for my … for the new dancers that we teach and that’s at Mainstream and we are pretty successful at holding our dancers once we get them in there. You don’t beat them over the head in the summer time. You keep ‘em … they say the level is Mainstream – Mainstream or a little bit lower but that seems to be working. On a whole I am concerned about the levels of … talking about Plus … everything … in some areas there is just Plus dancing. There is no Mainstream.
BB – Right.
Red Bates – That is very true.
CB – I think the entry levels, if the dancers can graduate in Mainstream and stay in your club dancing Mainstream and not be forced up into the Plus level … in some areas they are looked at as beginners even as Mainstream dancers. If you can hold them in Mainstream, which we have been able to do with two clubs, they’re not big, but they are doing as well as any of them. And just keeping it so they can dance. I think … I think the level climbing for new people, in other words, they had to dance Plus right out of class, has been a problem for me. That is my opinion.
BB – Good. No, that’s great. In your experience with dancing – with calling once a month for the public as you do, do you find any people coming into the club activity as a result of that.
CB – I haven’t really … I haven’t really found that. What we have gained in our town is respect that we exist. The more these people can see … we do floats and we do news articles. We do schools and people now realize that there is a square dance club and they realize that maybe this is fun and maybe down the line working with these children, where they are not totally turned off, and they are enjoying square dancing, maybe they will be part of the activity some day. We can only hope that what we’re doing will contribute to a growth factor in the years to come.
BB – That’s a great philosophy. You’re not hoping that you are going to draw them this year or this week or what have you but looking at the long ….
CB – The whole picture of our movement. Al Brundage said to me, growing up, he said, “Cliff, try to leave square dancing as good as you found it”. I can remember that.
BB – Right. So have you done any recording at all for folks?
CB – Yeah, we did a few records. Yeah.
BB – (laughs)
CB – We did … a record that really sold for us … we did ‘This Land Is Your Land’ .I did that with Red. I was inspired to do that after working on the Housatonic River … actually the Hudson River with Pete Seger. Pete Seger … that was the scariest thing I ever did was … we had a rehearsal, I have a picture in the book of that. We had a rehearsal and we went on and we played ‘This Land Is Your Land‘ and Pete played the banjo right next to me. He was there doing the harmony. Pete again was a legend to me and there he was. It was an experience I will never forget.
BB – So. OK. Well I think we just about … let’s see I … oh I did this … there it is … I’m looking at the picture of that … oh that’s great. I asked Red about line dancing. Do you do anything with line dancing in your programs?
CB – I … I do basically some line dances. I’m not a great line dance fan. I don’t believe that line dancing will kill square dancing. I have been to two line dance sessions and basically what I see is a lot of single people and a lot of women. A lot of people put the demise of square dancing onto line dancing but I don’t believe that’s true. I think there are a lot of singles that don’t have partners … the wives like to go out … mostly women, they don’t … they can’t get their husbands or they don’t have husbands so they go line dancing and I’ll go there and there are 30 women and 2 men. So they’re line dancing. I use line dancing in my one night stands but I use very simple things that people can pick up in ten minutes. Again, line dancing has gotten as complex as some of the square dancing which is starting to drive people out of line dancing. It has got to be easy, fun and easily taught and taught quickly.
BB – Doing anything with round dancing at all?
CB – No. I do more things like the Macarena, the Electric Slide, some of those new …
SB – Folk dances
CB – … the Hora, the Tarantella. We use some international dances in our programs and the children’s things – the Hokey Pokey, the Shoemaker – some things the children can do in schools.
BB – Yeah. Well, that’s really great. Before we get away – I remember now I want to … I’ve got a couple of records with me in my briefcase there that I wanted to have … that you might be able to use in the future. But be that as it may. But this has been a very, very interesting conversation and I think you have given us a slightly different pitch to this whole thing and I talk with these old timers around the country that are strictly, strictly into the club style dancing, Western style if you will, and you have certainly given us a completely different picture about where the future of square dancing lies and I want to thank you very much.
CB – Thank you Bob for your time very much.
BB – OK. You bet. We’ll be talking to you again.
End of tape – End of interview with Cliff Brodeur