Danny Hathaway's Folk Tales
I've had the pleasure a few times to teach and experience Maine Folk Dance Camp, while Mary Ann Herman was still crackin' the whip. It was not quite our style, no focus on live music, but we loved the place and the people with both our hearts. Initially my wife Joan and I had the fortune of Mary Ann's smile and favour. I always found some job that needed being done around the camp and set about doing it, gladly, something extra to say thank you for the privilege of being there. At one camp, I spent a couple of hours under the dance hall floor shoring it up, and cutting away some of the building that was pressing up against the record player column and causing the records to skip. Whenever there was movement or dancing across the floor and the whole building would rock and the needle would jump, and this was doing considerable damage to records, even having destroyed some. I was being eaten alive by mozzies, sweating buckets, bugs drowning in it and dripping off me. But I felt good about doing something that worthwhile. When it was over, I had the pleasant surprise of a gift of Mary Ann, a bottle of one of my favourite Islay single malt Scotchs, courtesy of Mary Ann, and a kiss and a hug. Wow! Nice!
But there were rocky times to come later when our dear friend Henry the cook died, which put an end to that mutual mischief, and the care he used to show us, the love amid welcome. I think things were getting hard for Mary Ann, something we couldn't be aware of as we weren't there most of the time. We only had those couple of weeks a year. And, for some awful reason, it seems that for a couple of camps running, Joan got ill. Quite sometime ago, at my parents, Joan was with my folks enjoying chatting in a hot tub out on the veranda while supping a strawberry daiquiri, new experiences for Joan and not a good combination, heat and alcohol. Poor Joan rose out of the tub and passed out, falling flat on her face and damaging here upper front teeth. Over years they have died one after the other and gone into abscess. Would you believe it, this happened twice when we were doing Maine Folk Dance Camp, Joan in severe pain, her face swelling up to distortion.
We found a great dentist in the nearby town that Joan liked and she was well treated. However, it sometimes meant our going back for return visits, and that meant we needed to be in the area. Joan had Rheumatic fever as a child and this meant she had to have antibiotics and these had to kick in before any real dental work could be done. Mary Ann showed compassion and was great about this, at least initially, that first time. We were allowed to park our VW camper van beside the house at the entrance to the camp. We could use the facilities in the house, and even sleep there if there was a free room. We were made welcome. I made a point to help with any chores, chopping wood, fixing a door here and there, moving furniture, learning some Spanish out of our respect of the camp handyman, and asked regularly if there was anything needed doing, always willing. I did some trips, picking people up, delivering them to the airport, etc. Joan wasn't well, as can be expected given the painful and embarrassing circumstances, so she was less visible, less able to contribute, but she did anyway, what she could.
But, that misfortune of an abscess happened again, and while we were invited to stay for that extra week, things just didn't feel right. It was never made clear to us why. I still feel a bit sad thinking back on it. That was the last time we spent time with and saw Mary Ann.
We had some great times at the house the two times we stayed, playing music with the likes of Jaap Leegwater and others. One day, feeling exploratory and a little down about the distance I was aware of growing between Mary Ann and me, and doing my usual thing, looking for work to do, I turned to the barn. With Jaap, Joan, and one or two others in tow, keys in hand, in we went. It was dark and musty and dust hung in the air. An occasional hole somewhere let light in, cutting a bright slash swirling with the dust it lit up as it crossed the room. There was what we took as bat guano all over the floor, slick and vile, and the occasional flapping of wings overhead, a disturbed owl. We were stepping in this soup with plops, squishes, and the occasional slip. It seemed too even and thick to be just bird dung. Things scurried away, and I saw enough to know there were rats. I think I remember Joan shouting out as something darted across her path. There were boxes everywhere, stacks of them, cardboard, damp and rotting, and there were other things stacked here and there, circular? I felt something give, crack underfoot, and had a sinking feeling. What had broken now? Having done a bit of muck shovelling, and to be frank, lobster bait is worse, I ignored the muck and reached down to pull out what I'd broken, and a black semi-sphere slipped out of the ooze. It was a record, a broken shard. I wiped the slime to reveal a bright yellow-orange label -- Doudblebská Polka, The Michael Herman Orchestra. The sinking feeling grew. I remembered coaxing a developing folk group to play this for our regular dances, and even getting my old square dance band in Olympia to learn it so we could use it as something different, one of our choices of mixers, during an evening of square dance. And, it was one of the first folk dances I'd ever learned, with the "la, la, la" some bewailed, and at least three different clapping patterns. Not put off by the layers of ooze or the rotting carboard or the wildlife, and Jaap with his usual bravado, we moved some of the stuff and peeled off some of the cardboard and muck. It was records, boxes and boxes and stacks and stacks of records -- Michael Herman's records! More names of dances and artists were rubbed into view or revealed when the top record was moved. There were also quite a few cracked and damaged records, 78 RPMs. We walked more carefully now. It was a treasure trove. It was both exciting and sad.
I wish I'd had the nerve back then to have asked for and taken at least one of everything home ("it would have blown all four tires and broken both axels on our Volkswagen"), to clean up with care and to to put them lovingly back into use for dancing and teaching others the music, or to use on our old Victrola. I didn't, and I regret that. But, I did ask if I could take a few. I think, if I remember rightly, Jaap got a stack or two, as did another of those present. Me, still concerned, I looked for every record with calling on it I could find, avoiding all the other temptations. Though I did look for but didn't find another Doudlebska Polka. I admit that, in the end, I took more than just a few, but I did choose some of those that needed attention. I must have ended up with at least a small box worth myself, Don Armstrong, Ralph Page, an amazing list of luminaries. I was thinking about folks back home in the Portland / Vancouver area and the dance community we were also quite active with, contras and squares and the like, and Bill Martin, who was showing an interest in calling at the time, our guitarist and close friend, something that would add to ther resources we'd been building up for that community of musicians, dancers, and callers.
We got back to the Pacific Northwest and I diligently cleaned every record after a long soak to start with, soft brushes, special cleaners for vinyl, at least two weeks to clean them up one at a time in our spare time. The grooves were filled with muck, often dried and hardened. Those recordings and the calling eventually became a seed for Bill Martin to learn, practice, and develop his calling. It also became a resource for others, directly and indirectly. While not by any stretch of the imagination the only influence, Billy welcomed it with appreciation and I am sure it has helped him to become the excellent caller he is, along with the innate charm, consideration, and talent we knew he already possessed naturally -- a sweetheart.
Billy also had access to other recordings of mine, gathered together over time, to add to the resources we had for developing callers, such as the publications of Don Armstrong and others, and including an album of Dick Leger's calling. We founded and created a lending library of books and recordings for the Portland Country Dance Community (PCDC) that I hope is still there, known about, and being used.
History and traditions pass on in many ways. It is nice that a few of these recordings could be brought alive again and prove useful, inspirational, and productive beyond themselves and the artists who made them. I like that.