New England musician Bob McQuillen died Tuesday after suffering a stroke on Sunday. The Peterborough, N.H., piano and accordion player was 90, and his death followed on the heels of another, better known, musical nonagenarian, Pete Seeger. He played for square and contra dances, but for many traditional musicians he will live in the music he wrote for dances — about 1,000 tunes, published in diminutive books that handily fit in instrument cases.
I came to know his music in 1993 when Tom and Carole Norulak of the Pittsburgh area asked me and my friend Dennis to record an album of instrumental dance tunes. Tom played accordion, Carole hammer dulcimer, and Dennis bass on all tracks and guitar on a waltz. I played rhythm guitar on all tracks but the waltz, and on two medleys I overdubbed mandolin and violin. One medley started with the McQuillen tune “Deer Run North,” a charming hornpipe made more enchanting by the mandolin, which brings a citrus-style tang to string music.
We recorded over the space of two long late-October days in a small studio in the back of a shopping plaza in Latrobe, Pa., home of Rolling Rock beer, the culmination of several interstate practice sessions in Stark County, Lakewood and Pennsylvania. Many of the tunes were new to me, so I had to learn the chords, and learn them well, and those tunes I already knew were tunes on which I usually played melody, so even on those I had to learn chords, sometimes a simple task but in some cases demanding a measure-by-measure analysis of the chord sequence. I also wrote a violin harmony for Tom and Carole’s “Magic Forest Waltz,” namesake of the album and the group.
When the weekend to record arrived, I drove to Pennsylvania from my job in Akron wearing my 19th-century garb that was my Halloween outfit at work, which included a red bandanna hanging from a pocket of my Amish breeches. Tom came out to greet me and said, “I know this sounds weird, but would you put that bandanna in your pocket?” Turns out the red bandanna was worn by the loving members of a local gang, and I could have gotten shot or knifed for wearing a Halloween outfit, so I tucked the bandanna in the pocket. After Dennis arrived we relaxed, played music and drank some adult beverages, enough to take the edge off my mild tension about the next day but not to make me groggy.
Next morning off we went, east to Latrobe, and we enjoyed a long, tiring day in the studio with a break at Wendy’s, where I was surprised to see friends who lived in Ligonier. Other than the overdubs we played four-person live, meaning we all played at the same time. The advantage of that method is that the musicians play off each others’ rhythm and energy, the disadvantage that one person’s mistake requires everyone to stop and start over. In one case I got mixed up on chords to an eastern European tune that had a somewhat unusual chord sequence, but I quickly figured it out, and otherwise we had only minor problems, usually completing each track in three takes, a tribute to our thorough preparation.
That evening was devoted to more relaxation and adult beverages, and we finished Sunday’s session by suppertime. Tom and Carole returned to the studio later to add some percussion and make the final mix, the reels of tape went to a cassette manufacturer, and “The Magic Forest” came to life, complete with cover art by Tom of Cook Forest, Pa., the Magic Forest for which the album and tune were named.
If I remember correctly, Tom and Carole sent a completed cassette to McQuillen, who complimented them on the good dance tempi. Twenty years later I still love to play “Deer Run North” on mandolin, and it’s time to explore more of McQuillen’s tunes. Play on, Bob, and God-speed.