Stringdancer History - the Beginning

By Martha Edwards

Stringdancer was born at the very last Kimmswick dance weekend held at the Lee's farm. It was a pretty wild and wonderful weekend, even by Contradance standards. Sort of like the old days, we heard.

Anyway, Pam and I were playing waltzes on a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Kimmswick.

Contradancers don't usually drink very much alcohol - no one likes a stumbledrunk on the dance floor, and besides, life is good when you dance, and the need for a drink kind of goes away. BUT, it was a special weekend, and Karen and Dan had put out some champagne and strawberries in celebration of their anniversary, and Ken and Laura had spiked some tea with rum in celebration of theirs, so I suppose we could have been a little Under the Influence.

David had joined the waltz musicians, and after the waltzes were over, asked me if I knew any old-time tunes. I had been a classical musician - freelanced in Boston for many years but quit about four years before I moved to St. Louis. "Two," I said. "One of them is the Devil's Dream, and the other one isn't."

Well, after we played my only two fiddle tunes, we pulled out the Fiddler's Fake Book and played a few more. I think it was George Booker that got me, or maybe Leather Britches. Or Red Haired Boy, or After the Battle of Aughrim. Anyway, it became clear to me that playing fiddle tunes could be hot music-making.

So when David said he wanted to form a "New England Style" contradance band, I had no idea what that meant, but figured it would be fun.

And Pam. I'd always liked playing with Pam, and I like the sound of two fiddles. So we began.

We played through stacks of tunes for several months, looking for our favorites among the ones most commonly played at contradances on the East coast, listening to Uncle Gizmo, Nightingale, the String Beings, the Hillbillies from Mars, Wild Asparagus, Yankee Ingenuity, Grand Picnic. We picked some of our favorites from the tunes played at contradances here in St. Louis, too - and we listened to Rhys Jones, the Volo Bogtrotters, the Ill-Mo Boys.

When we had picked out about 60 or so tunes, we xeroxed them all, then laid them all out all over my living room in stacks: New England tunes, Irish tunes, Old-time tunes, tunes in A major, tunes in e minor.

David had posted a question on the rec.folk-dancing newsgroup about putting together dance tune medleys, and we tried to apply the (often contradictory) recommendations, but found that the only real way to tell if two tunes go well together was to try them. Breaking the rules worked just about as well as following them.

After we had assembled a dance-length group of medleys we got Childgrove to put us on the schedule on February 4, 1996. Our first gig. The crowd loved us, but then, they would have loved us no matter what we did. We were one of them, we were dancers.

There we were. Stringdancer - Pam and Martha and David


By David Kirchner

Stringdancer was not the first St. Louis band to play "northern" tunes. Bob Boercherding was playing New England tunes for dances before we got started, classic stuff straight out of the Canterbury Dance Orchestra repertoire. Also, there was a fascinating crossover of French-Canadian tunes into Missouri old-time fiddle music somewhere in the 1920s-1940s.

My understanding of the story is that there were a few influential fiddlers in that era who liked French-Canadian music and who would tune in Canadian radio stations at night, trying to pick up on the fly the tunes they would hear. I'm pretty sure Charlie Walden played tunes out of that Missouri/Quebecois tradition for dancing in St. Louis before he and Pat moved up to Chicago (before I got to St. Louis). There was also another husband-and-wife duo whose name is escaping me at the moment that played tunes from that tradition.

But I'm pretty sure we were the first St. Louis band to play the kind of three-tune medley sets with tunes from different traditions thrown together higgledy-piggledy that were standard on the East Coast at the time. I brought that concept with me from Washington, along with a listing someone had put together of all the tunes played by the Glen Echo open band over the past few years (and how often they were played). Martha's little history on the website is quite accurate, we didn't know what we were doing, we just kept trying tunes next to one another until we thought they sounded good.

One difference from many other bands was my presence -- as a caller, I knew something about what worked for the structure of a contra dance and what didn't. Thus, from the very beginning, we were paying attention to putting three tunes together that would all work for, say, a dance with a balance at the top of the B1. And when we performed I was very careful about choosing tune sets to fit dances, which was common to the musicians I had worked with on the east coast but was very unusual in the midwest.

Of course, the other thing that was special about us was Martha and Pam's marvelous sound and pitch control. No one was playing twin fiddles with that fat sound anywhere in our part of the midwest, and I don't think it was even common nationally. Those two things made us stand out very rapidly against the backdrop of mostly old-time bands in the region, especially at the all-open-band weekends that were still dominant in the midwest at that time -- Kimmswick, Breaking Up Thanksgiving, Sugar Hill, Swing Into Spring, etc. Within a year or so, people at those weekends were making sure they were on the dance floor when we played (the other can't-miss musician was the phenomenal Rhys Jones).

We were quickly asked to play elsewhere, and fortunately we all had careers that facilitated that. Within a couple of years, we were playing out-of-town at least every six weeks or so, everywhere within about 4 hours drive -- Louisville, Cincinnati, Champaign, Columbia MO, Springfield MO, Kansas City, Lawrence, plus some of the smaller communities like Carbondale IL and Cape Girardeau MO. I remember a very fun trip out to Lincoln, Nebraska -- a local organizer had heard us at Kimmswick and asked what it would take to get us to come out there. Knowing the community was small, we decided to do it as a lark, and told them if they flew us there and back we'd play for free.

Later, we started getting hired for weekends, and had the good fortune to work with folks like Kathy Anderson, Ron Buchanan, Beth Molaro, Becky Hill, and Joseph Pimentel. Robert Cromartie heard us playing as the undercard band at Pigtown Swing one year and encouraged us to come out to the Carolinas. So we did a nice week-long tour with him as caller, and played the OFB and River Falls and Atlanta. That's about as far away as we ever got from our region. No, wait, we did play at Glen Echo once, right?

Anyway, as Martha said, our personal lives eventually led us in different geographic directions, so now we only get to play when the planets align. We should try and make that happen sometime soon, after we all stop worrying about the pandemic.