Some Historical Notes on 

Walla Walla Friends of Acoustic Music*

 

by Daniel N. Clark

 

About 1975, Stanley and Relta Tucker began holding old time square dances for their family and friends at the Tucker Timberrib, the recreation building Stanley had built with its fine wooden dance floor at their farmstead on Winesap Road near Milton-Freewater.  At first we danced to recorded music, but the Tuckers are a musical family, and in 1976 their daughter Trudy and her husband Jon St. Hilaire formed the Ryegrass String Band and began playing for the dances.

 

When we lost Lee Perkins, our old-time caller, neighbor Richard Bixby began calling the dances.  By 1984, Richard started adding a few contra dances, a phenomenon he had become acquainted with at the Port Townsend Festival of American Fiddle Tunes that same year with Jon, Trudy, and their friend Sue Gerling.

 

In 1985, inspired by what they saw at Port Townsend, Trudy, Jon, Richard and Sue decided to form an organization to promote traditional music and dance forms in the Walla Walla area, and asked me to help with the legal work.  On September 13, 1985, we incorporated Walla Walla Friends of Acoustic Music as a Washington nonprofit corporation whose purpose is "to promote the awareness, appreciation, and use of acoustic music as well as traditional and folk dance, through the sponsoring of concerts, dances, and other musical events."  That month WWFAM held its first concert at the YWCA featuring the Ryegrass String Band and Malcom Johnstone, a classical guitarist, and in October put on its first square and contra dance at the Timberrib. 

 

The next month's concert featured six singer/song-writers:  Charles Potts, Jimmy Turner, Ron Hendricks, Kurt Lash, Gary Burton, and Barbara Clark.   Barbara had written her first song in 1979, and by then had composed about 20 songs in the folk tradition with mostly political content, which she had been singing around at rallies and events. Other early WWFM offerings included folk and jazz concerts, children's music, clog dancing workshops, a bluegrass jamboree, jam sessions, and an open mike coffee house which has continued to be a popular event offered several times a year. 

 

Our December 1986 dance was a going-away party for our caller, Richard Bixby, who was moving to Portland, and was a watershed event in many ways.  Richard had introduced us to contra dancing, but our numbers were still low, never more than one contra line and two to three squares.  At this event we had three contra lines and a level of excitement that didn't go away.  

 

In January, 1987, to replace Richard, we invited veteran contra dance caller Larry B. Smith from La Grande to put on a callers workshop for us, and as a result Howard Ostby, Judy Fenno Morrison, Todd Silverstein and I began to share the calling at our monthly dances, with music by the Wednesday Night Band, an open group of WWFAM members led by Trudy on the fiddle.  Though Judy stopped calling after a couple of years and Todd Silverstein moved to Salem in 1989, Howard and I have been regularly calling our monthly third Saturday dances ever since, sometimes with the help of other callers.  In the summer of 1988, we also added a first Wednesday dance at the bandstand in Pioneer Park during the summer months which has continued ever since, and on December 31 that year we began an unbroken tradition of  WWFAM New Years Eve contra dances.  

 

Regional contra dance and music camps have been an important source of new dance and music styles for us, beginning for several of us with the Fall 1987 Lady of the Lake Dance Camp at Lake Couer d'Alene sponsored by the Spokane Folkore Society. The featured specialty dance that year was Cajun, which caught our imagination.  In 1988, Barbara and I started teaching Cajun two-step, waltz and jitterbug to the music of Frenchie and the Swamp Rats, later renamed Crawfish Pie, a Cajun band composed of Jon St. Hilaire on accordion, Trudy on fiddle, Glenn Morrison on bass, Joe Corvino on guitar, and Howard Ostby on the scrub board.  The following year's camp featured swing dancing, which Barbara and I also started to teach on occasion to the tunes of Swing Shift, composed of Jon, Trudy, and Glenn, along with Jerry and Julie Yokel. 

 

Contra Dance Classes. 

 

Contra dancing is a wonderfully vigorous, community-building activity that soon had most of us realizing we had never had more fun in our lives.  An evening of contra dancing usually involves a circle and a square or two along with several contras, which are done in a line of partners, similar to the Virginia Reel.  In these dances, which came from early pagan rituals and later French Quadrilles and English Country Dancing, couples dance with every other couple in the set, and partners are constantly changing throughout the night, making them highly sociable events. The music is lively, most often a fiddle band playing high energy English, Irish or American jigs and reels, along with waltzes and polkas. 

 

To bring this zesty experience to more people, in February 1992, Barbara and I offered a four-week series of beginning contra dance classes in the Dietrich Dome at Walla Walla Community College, followed by a second four-week advanced segment.  The response was good, and that fall we moved the classes to Edison School, also through the Community College, and later at Sharpstein School.  In l995, we moved the classes to the Tucker Timberrib under the sponsorship of WWFAM, where they continued through 1996.  Over the years we've also presented dance classes for students and alumni at Whitman College and at other local venues. 

 

Our initial announcement for the classes included the following:

 

There is nothing so necessary to human beings as the dance…Without the dance, a man would not be able to do anything….All the misfortunes of man, all the baleful reverses with which histories are filled, the blunders of politicians and the failures of great leaders, all of this is the result of not knowing how to dance.

                        --The Dancing Master in Moliere's Le Bourgeous Gentilhomme (1670)

 

The merits of dancing are widely debated.  A view contrary to the above praise was expressed by the Rev. J.D. Crane in Popular Amusements (1869):

 

The devotedly pious, the truly pure in heart, do not dance.  Dancing wastes time, wastes health, scatters serious thought, compromises…character, leads to entangling associations with frivolous minds and careless hearts.  Young people who are famed as "beautiful dancers" are generally good for nothing else.

 

Closer to home, Todd Silverstein, who loves the flirtatious aspects of the dance, has given us the following wisdom by an unknown author:

 

A good dance should include respect and importance for partner, flirtatious possibilities, plenty of activity, and above all grace—a smooth flowing statement emphasizing the dancer's real life predicament—in short, an eight minute marriage.

 

Many of us in the Walla Walla area have been "wasting time and health and scattering serious thought" to our great delight for over 10 years.  Although most of us agree that dancing should be above all else fun, we would also agree that the better dancers we are, the more fun we're likely to have.

 

I would not have you a dancer; yet when you do dance, I would have you dance well."

            --Lord Chesterfield to his son (1750)

 

Dance Retreats. 

 

Friends of Acoustic Music had talked for some time about putting on its own dance camp, so in 1995 I agreed to organize a Wallowa Lake Dance Retreat, to be held at Wallowa Lake Lodge near Joseph, Oregon.  We began on Saturday, March 25 with a musician's jam session and dinner at the lodge, followed by a community dance in the evening at the Odd Fellows Hall in Enterprise.  Howard and I called, along with Randy Krischbaum from Enterprise, to the music of the Wednesday Night Band.  On Sunday morning after breakfast at the lodge, we ended the retreat with an advanced dance in the lobby.

 

This worked out very well, so when we came back in 1996 we followed the same routine with an added Saturday afternoon couples dance workshop.  Barbara and I taught the Irish polka, some special waltz moves, and the Salty Dog Rag; for the evening dance we invited the local band Off the Cuff to join us, along with caller Larry Smith.  The only problem was the owner of the lodge, who didn't want us to invite people from the community to join in the dancing, which is why we held the evening dance in Enterprise.  Also, it drove him crazy to have the furniture moved around for Sunday dancing in the lobby, even though we were about the only ones there during the slow winter season. 

 

As a result we looked around northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington for other sites, and finally decided on Camp Meadowood Springs on Weston Mountain, near the Spout Springs ski area, From 1997-1999 we put on the Weston Mountain Dance Retreat there, which I continued to coordinate.  This was a full dance camp beginning at dinner on Friday night and ending with lunch on Sunday, with contra dances on Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday morning, dance workshops Saturday morning and afternoon, and a Saturday night talent show.  Though the camp was run by WWFAM, it was co-sponsored by our neighboring folklore societies, Blue Mountain Folklife Society in Pendleton and Northeast Oregon Folklore Society in La Grande.  It featured all of the callers and bands in our area, together with specialty workshops including English country dance, southern squares, international folkdance, and swing dancing.

 

In 2000, we moved the retreat to the Walla Walla airport, with Gina Massoni coordinating.  Billed as the Weston Mountain Uptown Dance Retreat, and located at the Cloggers Hall at the airport, the retreat followed the same pattern of dances and workshops, and featured Phil and Vivian Williams from Seattle leading the dance music and musicians' workshops.  A highlight was a salsa dance workshop and a visit to a winery next door. 

 

We wanted to repeat the experience for 2001. Unfortunately, we discovered that the clog dance teacher who was renting the hall at the airport had given up her lease and that the Port of Walla Walla, which owns all of the airport buildings, was planning to tear out the wooden dance floor and stage and convert the building to a warehouse with a concrete floor.  In researching its history, I learned that the building had been built in 1941 as the black soldiers’ theater at the army airbase located there during World War II, when military services were segregated. 

 

Since dance halls are fairly rare, particularly those with a history like this, we approached the Port with a proposal to save the building and to make it available to the public at least on an interim basis, which they agreed to do.  With that reprieve, WWFAM agreed to begin holdings its monthly dances and other events there, including a benefit dance to raise funds for the hall.  Before long, it was leased by the Unity Church of Walla Walla, and was not only preserved intact, the hall got a new furnace, handicap accessibility, and a general upgrading. 

 

With the renovation going on at the airport hall, WWFAM membership chair Brenda Sims took charge of the successful 2001 Around the Town Dance Retreat featuring the Portland Band Feline Groovy, using three different area halls at various times during the weekend.  The following year the Northeast Oregon Folklore Society in La Grande took responsibility for the retreat, which has continued as the Spring Music and Dance Festival, while most of our monthly dances continue at the newly renovated airport hall.

 

Dancing in the Community. 

 

Since contra dancing is a very informal activity, unlike club square dancing with its special clothing and complicated moves, it can be easily taught to inexperienced dancers, and has become a hit at community events, including annual barn dances at Whitman College begun in 1987, and barn parties at Walla Walla College, which WWFAM members have been calling and playing for for many years.

 

WWFAM has also held public dances as a part of the program at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site and at the Downtown Walla Walla Concert Series and other events, and its members continue to present music and dance for a variety of other community institutions and gatherings.

 

Through concerts, dances, coffee houses, song circles, retreats, workshops and other events, Walla Walla Friends of Acoustic Music has been dancing and playing in the community for many years, and we hope to continue for many more.

 

 

                                                                                                August 2001

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* From A Privileged Life, by Daniel N. Clark, a work in progress.