Earlier this week New Hampshire’s contra dance community said goodbye to one of its most celebrated musicians and writers.
Bob McQuillen died Tuesday following a stroke. He was 90 years old.
McQuillen - sometimes called “Mac” or “Mr. Mack” – Among those contribitions: writing thousands of tunes. And as he noted on NHPR in 2002, many of them were written for – and named for - individuals:
“If I run across somebody in the course of my musical activities, I will say to myself that so-and-so needs a tune," McQuillen said. "Usually in due course I come up with one for that person or the situation. Or animal – cats, dogs, two horses to date…”
Friends say these personal tunes were an indication of McQuillen’s connection with people. David Millstone is a dance caller and a videographer who produced a documentary about McQuillen in 2001.
“I know how excited people were when they got a tune written for them," Millstone said. "I’ve got one, my wife’s got one. It was, ‘Wow, we’ve arrived! Mac wrote us a tune!’ And of course there are a lot of people who have their tune and treasure that.”
After serving in the Marines during World War II, McQuillen came to the Monadnock region, where he started attending contra and square dances. When he returned home he’d try playing the tunes he heard on an accordion. Soon, McQuillen said, he learned there was an empty chair in the orchestra led by Ralph Page, known as the “dean” of dance callers.
“So I said to Ralph at a dance one night, I said hey, if I bring a box over (that was our old term for an accordion), can I sit in with you guys some night?" McQuillen said Page's response was "'Bring it next week.'And boy, did I ever.”
Page hired the aspiring accordionist the following week. Over time, McQuillen became better known for his piano playing, which David Millstone describes as “powerful, rock-solid rhythm – to give the dancers something to hook their feet to – in what he often described as ‘boom-chuck style.’ Boom is the left hand, on the downbeat, and chuck is the right hand.”
Outside of music, McQuillen taught industrial arts at Peterborough High School and Conval Regional High School. His first tune, in fact, was named for a former student.
David Millstone says McQuillen's percussive piano style was matched by his presence and personality: "He’d always have a story, he’d always have a joke – often the same jokes, over and over, and laughing uproariously at them as though he had never told them before.
“Bob was, for many of us younger dancers, a link to our past – a link to our past, to the rich music and dance traditions that we were enjoying, and still do.”
McQuillen was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with a National Heritage Fellowship; he was the first contra musician to be so honored.
Speaking on NHPR in 2002, he downplayed the accolades: “All I do is, I’m a New England old-fashioned contra dance piano player. And I do my thing, and I do my thing and I love doing it and I love playing music with those with whom I play.”