September 23, 2020
There are bands that can hardly wait to make an album. The ink is barely dry on their business cards, the official website is freshly uploaded, they’ve only just worked out a practice schedule, and they’re already making the rounds of recording studios to start laying down tracks.
Then there’s Anadama.
The New England trio with strong Boston connections formed back in 2007, but only released its first album, “Way Back When,” this past spring. “After more than 10 years together,” the band proclaimed, “Anadama is pleased to finally offer more than stickers and koozies to our dear fans.”
There are understandable reasons why it took Amelia Mason (fiddle), Emily Troll (accordion, fiddle) and Bethany Waickman (guitar) so long to make a full-fledged recording: things like going off to college, figuring out what to do after graduation – and where would be the best place to do it – and then the whole business of settling into work and life. It also has to do with Anadama’s focus on the contra dance scene, that uniquely New England social dance tradition with Anglo-Celtic roots for which Greater Boston has been a generations-long mainstay.
“The skills it takes to play for contra dances are different than the skills it takes to record an album,” explains Mason, the trio’s Boston representative. “You don’t need an album to get contra dance gigs, so we never really devoted a lot of time to preparing for one – and because of work and other things going on, we only have so many opportunities to get together.”
But for more than a decade, the three have made the most of those opportunities, and over the past year were finally able to get themselves into a studio and record 10 tracks.
“We’re a very committed band,” says Waickman, who along with Troll resides in Portland, Me., “but on a part-time basis.”
Much like Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton music and dance, contra dance has its own distinctive community in Greater Boston and elsewhere in New England, and beyond. For decades, contra dancers of all ages have gathered regularly at venues like the Scout House in Concord, the Masonic Temple in Porter Square and First Church in Jamaica Plain or at annual events such as the New England Folk Festival Association; the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS) summer programs at the Pinewoods camp in Plymouth also have been a key source of contra dance continuity.
Contra dance music has historically drawn on an amalgam of traditions, notably Irish and Scottish, as well as Cape Breton and others in the Canadian Maritimes, Quebecois, old-timey and Appalachian. And like those traditions, the music has over time integrated fresh influences and innovations: incorporating contemporarily written tunes; broadening the scope of music traditions to include, among others, Scandinavian, French/Breton, even klezmer; grouping tunes in medleys; and creating arrangements that add varieties of tone and intensity. (Recent years also have seen the rise of “crossover contra,” utilizing hip-hop, techno and other modern forms of music.)
On “Way Back When,” Anadama’s sound reflects these various changes in contra dance music but also pays homage to the tradition, mixing “classic” contra tunes with those of a more recent vintage (including their own compositions). There are also nods to musicians who have been leading figures in the contra dance scene, some of whom have been personal mentors to the trio’s members. Mason’s versatile fiddling, equally proficient with Irish jigs, French bourées, Cape Breton reels as well as homegrown New England tunes, is supported by Waickman’s percussive, enthralling guitar strums that drive the melody without running it over; Troll’s masterful piano accordion is the connective tissue, capable of taking the lead, harmonizing with Mason, supplying rhythm, or holding a few notes to add some texture.
The power in this combination, and the wonderful polyglot nature of contra dance music, is evident on such tracks as the pairing of reels “Flying Home to Shelley” – a solid part of the contra dance canon written by Paul Gitlitz of Washington state – and “Exile of Erin,” a D-mixolydian corker composed by Tony Sullivan, an Irish banjo player from England. Another medley brings together a traditional Irish reel, “The Coalminer,” “Salvation,” written by Scotsman Simon Bradley, and the venerable “Brenda Stubbert’s” by Cape Breton fiddle legend (and Brockton native) Jerry Holland.
Not everything is blazingly up-tempo. There’s the bewitching “Dream Waltz,” by Cliff Stapleton, a member of the inimitable Anglo-French ensemble Blowzabella; “Da Lounge Bar,” a laid-back jig composed by Norwegian hardanger fiddle player Annlaug Børsheim; and a gorgeous pair of French tunes, “Le Canal en Octobre” and “En Flandres,” by accordionist Frédéric Paris.
The New England contra dance pedigree is manifested in “The Fading Light” by Keith Murphy (more about him later on), the middle of a particularly well-crafted jig medley flanked by a namesake piece by Irish flutist Michael McGoldrick and a classic Irish trad number, “The High Part of the Road.” And the album’s last track is perhaps the most quintessentially New England of them all, encompassing “Master of the Dance” by western Massachusetts musician David Kaynor and “Kennedy’s Reel” by the late New Hampshire pianist/accordionist Bob McQuillen – an enduring and much-loved figure in the contra dance scene – as well as “Moneymusk,” an archetypal contra dance if ever there was one.
It bears mentioning that Anadama offers its own contribution to contra dance music on “Way Back When”; Waickman’s “Washington Street” and a piece written by Mason and Troll in celebration of Sudbury resident Tom Kruskal, a leading light in English traditional dance.
While Mason, Troll, and Waickman enjoyed putting together “Way Back When,” they acknowledge that Anadama in a recording studio is quite different than Anadama playing for a contra dance. The difference has to do with the spontaneity and vibe of a contra dance, they explain: conferring with the dance caller on what tunes he or she feels will work for the next dance (jigs with a lot of lift? high-energy reels?), then figuring out among themselves the specific tunes and the order in which to play them; settling into a groove once the dance is under way, and watching the dancers move and feeding off their energy.
“With contra dances, there’s a lot of improvising and being in the moment,” says Troll, who grew up in Wakefield, “and I love that.”
That love came early for Anadama’s members, who grew up in families with a strong interest in folk music and dance, including contra. Mason’s grand-uncle, Dudley Laufman, is a National Heritage Fellowship-winning caller and musician whose involvement in New England contra goes back seven decades; her mother (Laufman’s niece), fiddler Cathy Mason, played with Laufman during the contra dance resurgence of the 1970s and ’80s. “There was no pressure to play fiddle or folk music,” says Mason, “but it’s not surprising that’s what I did, since I was surrounded by it.”
Troll’s parents introduced her to contra dance when she was a youngster (“I immediately became more fanatic than either of them,” she says), and also involved her in music improvisation workshops, which proved foundational. She, along with Mason, were part of a highly visible young generation of musicians and dancers – now well into adulthood – that energized Greater Boston’s folk and traditional music scene during the late 20th and early 21st century.
Waickman, who grew up near Saranac Lake in upstate New York, had siblings as well as parents to make music with – and in a big house and home-school environment to boot – and the family became a band playing for contra and English country dances as well as performing concerts.
Another common denominator for Anadama is the influence of folk music camps, which provide an instant community to encourage and inspire one’s musical development. A music teacher of Waickman’s co-founded one, Meadowlark, further expanding opportunities to explore her interests, while Mason and Troll were regulars at the CDSS Pinewood camp. Waickman made her way to Pinewoods in the summer of 2006, where she met Mason, but it wasn’t until the next summer, when all three were Pinewoods crew members, that proved to be the beginning of Anadama.
“It’s like any festival, or any experience with community where you spend a lot of time,” says Mason of Pinewoods. “When you’re on crew at Pinewoods, you work a lot, but when you have free time, there’s not a lot to do – you’re in the woods, and back then there was no Netflix. So you stay up late, you find a place to get together, get a little crazy and just play music.”
Mason and Troll were familiar enough with each other’s musicality, but playing with Waickman was a revelation – enough so that, according to Troll, at the end of the summer Mason proclaimed, “I’m making this band, and I’m playing fiddle, and Bethany’s going to play guitar, and I want you to play accordion.”
Faves and raves
One dynamic of any band how it integrates the assorted musical influences and backgrounds – especially one that plays contra dance music, with its embrace of multiple traditions and styles. Just to follow the Irish music threads through Anadama, for example, makes for some interesting cross stitches. Mason briefly took lessons from the great Donegal fiddler Tommy Peoples while he lived in the Boston area; she doesn’t regard him as a key influence, but is grateful to have had the opportunity. Troll evinces an admiration for Irish fiddlers like Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, and the work of Solas, while also praising Boston/New England Irish musicians like Heather Cole-Mullen, Owen Marshall, and Max Newman. Waickman has an ongoing Irish indulgence as a member of the trio Fódhla along with Boston-area fiddler Ellery Klein and Portland flute player Nicole Rabata.
The now-defunct Vermont trio Nightingale – fiddler Becky Tracy; guitarist/mandolinist/pianist/foot percussionist Keith Murphy; accordionist/pianist Jeremiah McLane – has been a chief wellspring of inspiration for Anadama, individually and collectively. Nightingale, which formed while Mason, Troll, and Waickman were around elementary-school age, brought a performative quality to contra dance music, incorporating a sophisticated approach to arrangements while maintaining a self-described “obsession with rhythmic integrity.”
Anadama displays similar attributes – including instrumentation, obviously, but also the awareness of how this combination of instruments can be deployed creatively while maintaining the pulse so integral to the dance. There also is the individual respect Anadama’s members have for those of Nightingale. Troll, for example, has long appreciated McLane’s expression and presence: “When he plays, every fiber of his being is in that music, being given to the audience,” she says. “I aspire to play with such hearts and guts.”
For Waickman, Murphy was not just teacher and mentor, but the spark for her to start playing guitar in the first place. Hearing Murphy and Tracy (who are spouses as well as musical partners) in concert, she was intrigued by Murphy’s use of DADGAD tuning and his propulsive strumming. After exploring the basics on her own, she took lessons from Murphy and gained a deeper insight into his distinctive rhythmic style. Waickman went on to become a regular accompanist for Lissa Schneckenburger, a New England fiddler-vocalist who also has played for contra dances, including in the Boston area.
“It's rare that you don't hear, or feel, every eighth note that's going by,” she says, describing Murphy’s style. “I think that nearly constant contact pushes things along. A lot of those subdivisions might be a ‘thump,’ or a ‘chink,’ or just a hint of an upstroke. But that hummy/whirring/unrelenting drive comes from the constant up-down, up-down, up-down never really disappearing. And yet there's so much subtlety that can be built into that basic principle.”
However much it may reflect the innovations in contra dance, though, Anadama feels perfectly comfortable staying close to the roots.
“We’ve never been worried about being ‘trendy,’” says Waickman, citing the final track of the album as an indication of the band’s mindset. “That New England set is intentionally old-school, but it’s not far off from what we sound like.”
“I think we’ve been pretty consistent in terms of what we play and how we play it,” says Mason. “We have an assured aesthetic, we have similar if not exact tastes, and that’s why we’re still together.”
The contra dance scene is, like most everything in the universe, on hold for the foreseeable future. How quickly it will rebound, and what it might look like once that happens, is a matter of conjecture and not a little concern. As Waickman points out, contra dances tend to draw on an older, and therefore more at-risk, population. Mason notes, however, that contra dances themselves are not a for-profit entity: As long as they can pay musicians, and for use of the hall, they’ll be OK.
“I try not to think about it, because it makes me really sad,” says Troll. “There is no greater joy for me than playing with a really tight band for a huge group of dancers who are happy and really in synch. And I just think it’s going to be a really long time before we get back to that.”
“It could be a while,” agrees Waickman, “but I’m sure we’ll at least find a way to see each other before the next contra dance gig.”
For more about Anadama, and to order or listen to “Way Back When,” go to anadamamusic.com.