|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XVIII NUMBER 2 Winter 2003|
Bob McQuillen Earns Nation's Highest Folk Honor
It was only after serving as a Marine during World War II that Bob McQuillen '59 took up music as a serious pursuit, first heeding the call after attending a dance in Peterborough. An industrial arts teacher at Peterborough High School, he kept his day job but began playing accordion and piano at contra dances all over the Monadnock region and beyond.
In September 2002, more than 50 years and thousands of contra dances later, McQuillen was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
"Bill Monroe, the most famous country musician, perhaps one of the most famous in the world, got this award and here they're putting me on the same pedestal," Bob said on hearing of the award, which brought with it a check for $10,000. "I just find it completely incredible that I was selected."
Others are not as surprised. In contra dancing, Bob McQuillen holds a central place – not only for his tireless schedule of playing, but also for the more than 1,100 dance tunes he's composed, many of them now standards in the contra dance repertoire. When he won the New Hampshire Governor's Folk Heritage award in 1997, he was described as "the most imitated contra dance musician in the world."
"The dean of contra dance calling, Ralph Page, called locally here in the Monadnock region where I live," McQuillen recalled about his early days in an interview with the NEA. "He was from Keene and I was living in Peterborough. He was the world's – well, at least this country's – most authoritative figure when it comes to contra dancing. Anyhow, I got to go to these things and in due course was able to get a job playing accordion for him." After years with the legendary Ralph Page Orchestra, McQuillen joined Dudley Laufman's Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra and played with the group New England Tradition.
In 1973, after 20 years of playing other musicians' work, McQuillen wrote his first tune, "Scotty O'Neil," named for a student who was killed in a motorcycle accident. "It was the first time I had written anything down," he recalled, "written it out in music form." Now McQuillen's tunes are available in a series of books as well as on disc, and he's the subject of a documentary film by David Millstone titled Paid to Eat Ice Cream (see the spring 2002 issue of Keene State Today).
As a performer, McQuillen takes pride in his particular approach, called "boom chucking." "Boom chucking was initially a derogatory term for the kind of piano style that I have," he told the NEA. "The left hand puts down a bass note or notes, the bass line, then the right hand provides the chord accompaniment – the 'boom' being the left hand providing the bass, the 'chuck' being the chord on the right."
"They'd say, 'Well, he's nothing but a boom chucker.' Well, I'm the most authentic boom chucker you can talk to. That's what I do!"
McQuillen currently plays with the group Old New England – more comfortably for dances than in concert. "For concerts you've got to be too fussy," he explains. "You can't make a mistake at a concert because people are sitting there and really listening to you. But at a dance everybody's out on the floor dancing."