Nail that Catfish to a Tree

Rethinking Square Dancing

from In Pittsburgh (Feb. 20, 1997)

by Mike Schneider

About 15 years ago, long before I knew square dancing is a hip urban alternative, as someone recently told me, I went to my first Pittsburgh square dance. At the time, I was living with five other people in a Victorian mansion in Manchester. The live-in owner was a born-again folk musician who'd had a mystical experience at a jam session in the Great Smoky Mountains. [Actually, I believe it was the Ozarks. M.S.] He gave up his Ph.D. studies in political philosophy to become a bagpiper, and he bought this big beautiful, semi-rundown North side house and invited musicians and other off-the-beaten-path people to move in.

In those early Reagan years, with the cultural glow of the 60s still flickering, our communal living arrangement was both cheap and a social statement. We liked each other and loved music, and there were many good times that revolved around homemade acoustic music.

So it was, one springtime Friday, a glorious, balmy evening after days of rain, home from work, no plans for the night, I was easy prey. "Let's go square dancing," said someone with a strange burst of enthusiasm. I hadn't done this since Miss Keebler paired me with Susie Colyer in third grade. Susie is a grandma now, and the women I'd like to bump into on a promising Friday night don't go square dancing, I said to myself. I pictured stout-hearted men with bandannas around their necks. I pictured thick piles of petticoats flying up to reveal the thick calves of farmer's wives. I imagined what I'd sound like saying, "Howdy do and yessiree."

Abuse fell from all sides as I gave voice to this callow view. An open mind is a terrible thing to waste, they said. Try it, you'll be surprised. Soon enough we were on our way, the air thick with herbal smoke.

The band was Swinging on the Gate, and I remember being stirred as Ron Buchanan's fiddle wove a sonic tapestry with the ringing banjo and driving guitar chords. Live acoustic music, rippling, clear as a mountain stream. Dancing that included the magical element -- novel for this child of rock'n roll -- touch. Spinning embraces with comely women, "swinging" in square-dance parlance, partner to partner around the set -- it was dizzying, figuratively and literally.

A film of false perception peeled away. In this most unprofound and obvious cultural form, which I'd grown up with and taken for granted, I'd found a rich expression of communal spirit, and it seemed to incorporate joy and beauty I'd only imagined till now.

It was a memorable night, even after my neurons settled, and the Friday dances have continued to be part of my life, something I can count on. Lively music, kicking-up-heels dancing. I know no better, more reliable way to blow off stress and lift sagging spirit at the end of the week. A doctor friend says heart disease would disappear if everyone did this regularly. Aside from that, there's something about communicating physically with a room full of people -- each person a distinct style of movement, rhythm, touch. Community is built into the form. It can be stimulating.

Ron Buchanan is still around, fiddling and calling dances, which these days include "contras"-- a New England line-dance version of country dancing. (He's doing a special beginners dance Feb. 28.) The music alone is easily worth the admission ($6), always a live band. Music that was unplugged before it was hip, played by musicians plugged into something better than amplifiers.

Tradition. Roots music. Where would Jerry Garcia play if he were alive and well and in Pittsburgh? Who knows, but he might show up at the Edgewood Club. The same underground stream that nourished Garcia is the bedrock of bands like the Lackawanna Longnecks, who often play the Friday dances. Longnecks fiddler Mark Tamsula played guitar, John Fahey and Leo Kottke style, until the first time he heard an old-time stringband. He began listening to 1930s recordings and going to fiddle festivals, learning tunes passed player-to-player for generations, going back hundreds of years, across the sea to Ireland and Scotland, where much of this music came from before settling in the southern mountains and taking on its Appalachian flavor.

Twenty years later, Tamsula is one of the finest fiddlers anywhere. A quiet, gentle presence, he doesn't have much to say about things other than music. How could he? With a repertoire of more than 600 tunes, he's a walking folk archive. He doesn't read music, and most of these melodies aren't written down. Standards like "Turkey in the Straw" and "Soldier's Joy," which goes back at least as far as Civil War morphine addiction, hence the title, and rarer tunes like "Granny Does Your Dog Bite?" and "Nail that Catfish to a Tree." You won't hear these on the radio.

Sometimes when I'm dancing and tuned into this music it comes over me that I'm taking part in something like a river flowing out of the shadowy mists of long ago. I can't explain why I like this, but I do. Weaving with the other dancers, as the caller directs, with a simple vocabulary of figures -- grand right and left, chain the ladies (not what it sounds like), swing your partner (still my favorite) -- I'm part of a fluid geometry, a human kaleidoscope set to ancient music. It is, if you like, dance as communal performance art, American as shoo-fly pie, almost as old as the hills and valleys, better than moonshine, legal too.

The Friday night dances now make their home in the ballroom of the Edgewood Club on Pennwood Avenue. Dances start at 8:00. Call 731-8861 for information.

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