LARRY JENNINGS INTERVIEW
July 26, 2004
The following interview contains many blank spaces and interruptions. I seem to have caught Larry when he was not feeling his best but he wanted to continue. Blank spaces will be indicated by: …….. and indistinguishable words by: ?? Beginning of tape follows.
Bob Brundage – Well hi again. This is Bob Brundage and today is July the 26th, two thousand and four and today we’re chatting with Larry Jennings back on the east coast and looking forward to an interesting interview with Larry because he’s a very interesting guy.
Larry Jennings – ??
BB – Laughs. Larry it’s so nice to talk with you so why don’t you tell us a little bit where you were born and brought up and how you got into square dancing.
LJ – OK. Well, I was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1929 which makes me about 73 years old. I was brought up – my very early years were in ?? Kansas and my years up ‘till age 10 – 7 to 10 were in New Haven where I was born. At age 10 I moved to Bethesda, Maryland just outside of Washington, D. C. and I spent 5 years there and my entire outlook on life I’d say was colored by those 5 years as they are by many people – years before graduation from high school. I did not, at the time know of the existence of what I will call if you’ll beg my – like, I beg your pardon – I’ll call New England style dancing. ……..
BB – OK
LJ – Ah, let’s see, I wonder if that’s the best thing to call it. I know what I want to say. When I came into dancing there’s always the prescribed thing to do as called by a caller. That’s probably the best definition of what I want to talk about. Anyway – I call it Happy Dancing – structured – accessible and participatory. That’s the kind of dancing I like and that would apply to – pretty well to modern square dancing except it does not allow for a period of classes to get going that I consider accessible to meaning not a series of classes. OK, so that’s what we’re talking about and I did not know anything about that much dancing until I was a senior at MIT for 4 years after I left Bethseda. In my 4th year at MIT there was a square dance advertised at Harvard University and I and a bunch of my associates were spending part of our senior year on a physics project and we decided that we had hit the books hard enough for several days – that was Saturday night and somebody said, “Let’s go to the square dance”. So we said, “Well, what in the world is that?” and I said, “ I don’t know what that is. Let’s go find out”. So we marched up the river to Harvard College and there was a room so big that I couldn’t even imagine the end of it and it was full of people who were dancing and having a good time and knowing what the caller meant when he said something and I didn’t. The girls had pretty petticoats on and the music was live music at that time. Joe Blundon was the caller. Had you known Joe Blundon at any time?
BB – Yes, I know Joe.
LJ – Ah …….. Well. I was as I said, was simply overwhelmed. I said, “I want to do that” and I didn’t know what ‘that’ was but it was a general circle of people that did all kinds of things – they did square dancing and we didn’t distinguish between square dancing and contra dancing in those days. …… Well, I went to all the events. Al (?) Smith did the calling and there was Scandanadian dancing and various things but the focus fell apparently – was based on Ralph Page and his Tuesday night dance …
BB – Oh, yes.
LJ – … at Clarendon Street in Boston. I’d taken a few at the YWCA in Cambridge which saw ……. what’s the guy who wrote the IOCA songbook?
BB – Oh golly, I forget now Larry but go ahead.
LJ – His wife was Beth and she played accordion.
BB – Oh, Tolman? Not Tolman?
LJ – No, that was …..
BB – OK. Well, never mind.
LJ – ?? Well, as we get older dragging names out gets hard.
BB – Laughs – I hear you.
LJ – He had the dance on Thursdays in Cambridge and he did singing squares primarily.
BB – Ok – it wasn’t Joe Perkins. No.
LJ – No, Joe Perkins called on second Saturdays in the Concord Town Hall and the new was taken on by Ted Sannella. I ran into Ted Sannella many times in my researches. Let’s see, oh, I should mention explicitly in addition to Ralph Page, Charlie Baldwin. Charlie Baldwin, he was in forefront of the ?? that you and many others call Modern Western Square Dancing which I like to call Club Style. He held out with live music and drums and I went to both places but Ralph Page was more my style than Charlie Baldwin although I have the greatest respect for Charlie as a person and as a dancer and as everything. Let’s see, do you want more details than that ask me and I’ll tell you more about it. Maybe I’ve been talking quite a while.
BB – Well, why don’t you tell us a little bit about the books that you’ve written.
LJ – Well, I’ve written 2 books. Let me describe the first one. In 1976 ?? I started a series of dances that were designed to present dancing as I would like it to be.
BB – I see.
LJ – I had no qualms about this thing – I’m going to have a dance and it’s going to be my way and I’m going to do things the way I like them done and I think there are people out there that would enjoy that in spite of the fact that they’re given over all control to me. At the first dance based on that premise I had 125 people come to the door and we had said we’re limited attendance to 100 because we wanted to have comfortable dancing and we turned 25 away. That takes some guts, you know. At the second dance attendance was 70 and the third dance the attendance was 30 and if you follow – extrapolate you’ll find that at the next dance there wasn’t anyone there at all.
BB – Laughs.
LJ – But, especially when I developed that I had scheduled on the day of the Super Bowl and I had taken the afternoon because I found that I had scheduled on the same day as Dudley Laufman although I didn’t want to cancel my dance I moved it the afternoon instead of the evening. Anyway, there were 35 people that came to that dance all knowing what they were getting into I think or mostly. We had a glorious dance and I said, “ If I can get, for an unknown caller ……. for an unknown caller we can have a good time together”. By June the attendance was up to 125 and off we went. So, that’s a little background. Now I had the problem of letting ….. in the beginning I had a multi-caller format. ….. I wanted to have dancing that I would enjoy and I can’t enjoy dancing without actually doing the dancing. So I had to persuade other callers beside myself to do the calling so I could dance. ….. I had ….. The callers were people like Ted Sannella and Tony Parkes at that time and Roger Wynot – I guess that’s the main ones. There were lots of other people like Bob Fitzgerald (?), Carl Reagan (?). So I had to let these callers know what I wanted. They had all been calling at the CDS Tuesday Series which was – I call it moribund. It was a terrible dancing experience. It was the kind of thing that the people came – the dance went ‘till 10:30 – it was considered bad taste to leave before 10:00 and at 10:01 everybody left. That’s not the kind of dance that I had in mind. So I wanted to tell the callers what to do that they weren’t doing on a Tuesday night – CDS Drop-in Evening they called it.
So I had to tell them about an attitude – you don’t tell people they’re dancing well if they’re dancing poorly for example. You don’t have music unless it’s the best you can get. Well, I had something to use along these lines and I had a happy ?? with the callers and so I decided to cook up a sheet of 30 contra dances that I thought would lead to what I would come to call in later years ‘Zesty’ dancing. ….. So I took the things – first of all Ralph Page’s notes and various things and I had this trouble – like creating these 30 dances that I felt were interesting enough to list. ………………… Loud beep ……… but they offered the opportunity of dancing according to the style which I referred to. …..
BB – So then you turned it into a book.
LJ – Yeah. I had these 30 dances on tape and I just used them. The next 30 came easier because people like Ted and Tony and even Roger Wynot were composing dances like crazy in those days. We had a bal., Ted and I particularly understood each other and Ted would write a dance and he would get up on the stage and he’d call the dance and I’d dance because that’s what I liked to do. But then, of course he was interested in his dance so he would trust the 3 X 5 dance cards that had the dance on it in my hands and I would come up and take the callers position and call to see if anything was needed to remind the dancers and Ted would go dance the spot. It was just balmy days. It was a kind of excitement – he’d imagine the description I’d given. After a while, I was accumulating a lot of dances and I accumulated a lot of biases. I decided to share my biases and the dances that I liked the best with other leaders and anyone else who was interested. I worked on the book which was called ‘Zesty Contras’ off and on from 1978 to 1983 when it was published. Have you seen the book?
BB – Yes.
LJ – You know then that it’s about half descriptions of attitudes that I take toward dancing and all kinds of things like that plus 500 dances.
BB – Yes. Well, I understand you’ve also done some caller training.
LJ – Well, yeah. I wouldn’t quite give it that name but …
BB – You’re maybe more of a mentor?
LJ – … some people – I enjoyed mentoring. I think Sue Rosen and Lisa Greenleaf would give me credit for mentoring them at the beginning. Are you into the contra dancing enough to realize that those names are national idols – callers at contra dance camps.
BB – Right
LJ – Be that as it may – I felt like you don’t tell callers – you don’t – let me start over – you don’t tell dancers that they’re dancing well just because it makes them feel good so you tell them, “You can dance better than that” and I took the same attitude towards callers. “I’m happy to have you here to take your turn at the Multi-Caller Evening but I want you think about this, this and this to be a better caller”. I had a little sheet that I put the tempo down and the number of changes and some facts like that and then I gave an appraisal of each dance as they called. It was nice to emphasize this point and this point wasn’t worth the energy it took. You might call that caller training. I prepared about 35 such assessments.
BB – All right.
LJ – I was supposed to be working on my Dad’s – mostly dances but I decided the problem as of 1983 was not the last of sufficient sequences to make an interesting evening of dancing. Instead, the problem was getting callers to shape up and so I stopped looking for dances and looked for ways to escape tayloring – to escape calling. OK. Well that’s probably enough of that topic ……
BB – OK. Tell us a little bit about your association with the New England Folk Festival Association.
LJ – Ah, NEFFA. Ted, my ?? was very attached to NEFFA. He was President one year and I was program chairman. I think – Ardrith didn’t like what was a workman-like job. I hear tell – the course management after I was program chairman was different than it might have been had someone else been Program Chairman that year. So, I had this relationship with NEFFA but, more than that I was interested in Board meetings and decision making and I never, although I could have run for President – I never did run for President – because I liked to have the freedom of being detached. So, I took the role of Executive Officer and Ted was the front man. I don’t mean to say he didn’t have numerous ideas at all but he was not interested in changing the course of dancing. I’ve written down that Ted is the most supportive man I’ve ever known and I believe that. He was a … we miss him. Well, let’s see – but in accordance with my liking to go to board meetings – the things that would come up in board meetings and there would be controversy between side A and side B. I heard side A taking it’s cause and side B taking it’s cause and I thought that they were thinking the same thing but they had gotten off on different languages. I consider one of my greatest assets to NEFFA was – I would take at the board I think – all I would talk about this enough offering a proposal in a length of time and the bickering well into another subject. When I came back the next time I said, “Here’s the various possibilities. I think the way that we want to present NEFFA is such and such and I commend it to you” and it would always railroad through – almost always.
BB – Yeah, well that’s great.
LJ – I take pride in those actions. One of the most important actions was the set of bylaws and I see other organizations like the Country Dance Society – Boston Central – they’re squandering their resources unnecessarily whereas I drew up a set of bylaws that allows, for example people would take responsibility within a certain area but not take any responsible for all areas. Whereas a typical member of the Board of Directors is supposed to take responsibility for all areas. Just arranging the bylaws for this possibility – you tell somebody, “You can come on board and you can have the whole of NEFFA as your bailiwick or you can take just a little piece and still be within the bylaws” and I’m proud of that.
BB – Well that’s great. Did you ever – were you ever on the staff at Pine Woods for example.
LJ – I haven’t talked about my calling career because it wasn’t much of a calling career to talk about. I did call and I didn’t make it a point of taking a turn at calling at the NEFFA contra series which my series has come to be called. I enjoyed calling but I didn’t want to hang out my shingle is all. So, I didn’t do much calling. Let’s see – what was the question?
BB – No, I was just wondering if you had ever been on the staff at …
LJ – The staff, yeah that’s my place.
BB – … Pinewoods
LJ – No, I ….. ah, maybe I’ll just answer that without a comment.
BB – Yeah. OK. No problem. So what did you find – what was – what did you think was the appeal to calling? Just the …
LJ – The appeal to calling?
BB – Yeah.
LJ – What was my appeal to calling?
BB – Yes.
LJ – Well, as I say I was not – I did not hang out my shingle looking for gigs.
BB – Well, I mean did you just enjoyed watching the people dance and have fun.
LJ – No. I didn’t watch the people dance. I danced. I didn’t have any fun watching people dance. I danced. Every dance that I did – that I called – I danced. That was most of the dances.
BB – OK.
LJ – ?? as far as the dance was concerned ….. I ….. I’ll just say that I was in a position where people – I rubbed some people the wrong way …
BB – Yes.
LJ – … and it just wasn’t …….
BB – Right.
LJ – Let me think …
BB – Well Larry, I think we’re getting down near the end of this tape so I want to thank you so very much for taking a few minutes to talk with me and tell me a little bit about your life experiences and I wish you all the best in the world. Would you like a copy of this transcript when I …
LJ – Yeah, I’d like it.
BB – Yes. OK. So, right – so thank you again very much for talking with me and I’ll be talking to you again hopefully.
LJ – OK, more power to you.
BB – Right on.
LJ – OK, bye bye.
BB – Bye bye.
End of Tape – End of Interview