Debbie Gray - Bill Bailey
This is the first in a series of videos posted from a 1989 program of singing squares presented by caller Debbie Gray and the Deb-U-Tones (vocals by Alice La Pierre and Julia Huestis). Musicians are Jack O'Connor, banjo; Mary Lea, fiddle; and Peter Barnes, piano. The venue is the First Congregational Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Larry Jennings ran the NEFFA Contra series there for many years. The video recording was made by David Pasternack and was posted on YouTube by Andrew Tannenbaum.
Other dances on the program:
Lady Be Good
Going Down South
Four Leaf Clover
Oh Johnny Oh
Beer Barrel Polka
Debbie Gray and the story behind the Deb-U-Tones
by Debbie Gray, March, 2013
I learned to call contradances in the early 80's when I lived in the Albany, NY area. I was a total dance junkie and was about to go on a college term abroad to Greece for 3 months and was going to be away from my beloved dancing. I hoped that I could teach my fellow classmates how to contradance so I could keep on contradancing in Greece, so I threw myself into a self-study with Don Armstrong's caller's handbook and practiced to LP's and tape recorded music, and I wrote out dance cards to take with me. Before I left for Greece, I called my first gig at the college where I worked, complete with recorded music, and fellow dancers came to support me. When I went to Greece I discovered that my fellow students weren't interested in much beyond designer sweatsuits and Michael Jackson, so I took up Greek dancing on my own while I was in Athens and had some wonderful adventures with that. When I returned from Greece I had one paid gig lined up, and my career as a caller took off from there.
Learning to call was a DIY operation because there were so few local callers to learn from. I discovered that being one of the only callers in the Albany area kept my gig schedule full, but I didn't have the time to dance anymore. Boston has so many great callers, and it was easy to find a dance any night of the week, so I moved to the Boston area in 1985 to really learn the craft of calling from the best callers, and to get in some great dancing, too.
Square dances were a new experience for me, because they weren't called much in Albany. I got interested in them at dance camps, but moving to Boston gave me regular exposure to squares. I looked forward to Tony Parkes' Monday night dances. I loved listening to his rhythmic square dance patter, and the high level of energy of the dances. And I always enjoyed Tony Saletan's exuberant singing squares – I just loved singing along. In the summer of 1986 I wrote a proposal and won a NEFFA scholarship to a week at Pinewoods with the express purpose of getting more exposure to squares including Southern and Canadian squares, so that I could bring squares to more audiences. So I became a student of squares – all types of squares. I borrowed square dance records from the library and read as many old square dance books as I could find. Ted Sanella and Larry Jennings both had me to their homes so we could talk shop. I tape recorded Tony Parkes to get the hang of that great patter he uses. And I was hooked on the Kerry dances that Bridget Edwards taught, straight from Ireland. I eventually started writing singing squares with funny lyrics, and callers like Walter Lenk and Tony Saletan used my material and encouraged me. Most of the senior callers were generous with their time and encouragement – it was wonderful to be surrounded by the best and have them take an interest in what I was doing. It was a great time for me to be in the Boston dance scene.
But singing squares always drew me in. Hearing Tony Parkes' and Tony Saletan's singing squares was the best thing ever, because they both had great singing voices, Tony Parkes had great material and a silky voice, and I loved the animation in Tony Saletan's voice. And the audience could sing along, unabashedly, to such meaningful lyrics as, “Because, just because!” It was impossible not to have a great time dancing to them. So as a caller I wanted to pass that along to my audiences.
I wrote a lot of my own material but did use other singing squares that were out of the 40's and 50's such as “Lady Be Good,” “Bill Bailey,” and “Oh Johnny Oh.” I loved the Cowboy Dances of the 40's and used some of those figures in my dances. As a caller, I saw an opportunity to build in some extra fun by writing lyrics that would make people laugh. As for the harmonies, I got my inspiration from Walter Lenk who liked to harmonize with others for his singing squares. So I got together with some friends and took it a step further. Together we sought out music that would be fun to sing, and I paired the songs with dances I thought would work. With the help of two of my funniest friends, Alice LaPierre and Julia Huestis, The Deb-U-Tones were born. Our first gig was at the 1989 New England Folk Festival in a session I called “Schmaltzy Singing Squares.” Debby Knight was the pianist, Mary Lea the fiddler, and Jack O'Connor played banjo and mandolin. Peter Barnes and Carol Bittenson would make guest appearances for other gigs.
Our rehearsals were a combination of putting together harmonies and trying to out-do each other with outrageous lyrics. Most of those lyrics didn't make it into the final versions because they got too raucous, but we'd laugh ourselves silly seeing how far we could take things. I sought out some old music like “Sheik of Araby” and composed some calls around it. For “Sheik,” I used a metaphor for promenading – “Let's walk your camel home, it's all around we'll roam, 'cause you're the Sheik of Araby”. Walter Lenk told me that some women in his audience misunderstood the lyrics and bawled him out for calling them camels! Ah, the folk process :-)
My all-time favorite singing call was a dance that I paired with “The MIT Song,” which is sung to the same tune as “Solomon Levi.” I discovered The MIT Song by listening to the “Magic Piano” at the New England Folk Festival, a player-piano owned and operated by Peter Neilson. He had some great old-time music, and I asked him if we could visit him at his home to collect some material. He was a wonderful host, bringing out piano rolls for us to listen to and and enthusiastically singing along to them. One of us still has the tape recordings of our visit with him, listening to music and laughing hysterically. Not only did the MIT Song provide some local color, but it was a tip of the hat to my pal Larry Jennings, an MIT graduate who wrote “Zesty Dancing” and other dance books, and devoted much of his life to the pursuit of better dancing. I can still remember Larry in the front square in the main hall at NEFFA, with as broad a smile as I'd ever seen while we belted that one out. In order to use the juiciest lyrics in the MIT song, I had the square dancers do a full circle left and circle right, giving me plenty of time to get those lyrics out there:
“[Circle left] I wish that I was back again at the Tech on Boylston Street,
Dressed in my dinky uniform so dapper and so neat,
[Circle right] I'm crazy after calculus, I never had enough,
It was hard to be dragged away so young, it was horribly awfully tough!”
“Rah for Technology, Ology Ology Oh,
Glorious Old Technology, Ology Ology Ology Ology”!
And for the halfway point of the square:
“[circle left] Back to the days that were free from care in the Ology varsity shop
With nothing to do but analyze air in an anemometrical top
[circle right] The differentiation of the trigonometric power
Of the constant pi that made me sigh, those happy days of ours!”
It was great fun hearing the audience let loose with “Rah for Technology” and howl with laughter. That was the most fun about calling dances – getting people to laugh and sing along with me – hearing 300+ people in the main hall at NEFFA singing “Rah for Technology” was pure joy. It was the all-time high point as my time as a caller, with the Deb-U-Tones, sharing the moment. And I still love dancing to singing squares, because I still like to belt 'em out from the dance floor.