Lecturer of music James Kimball led the Geneseo String Band in its performance of the square dance in the College Union Ballroom on Saturday Feb. 7. While the turnout was large enough to fill the room with dancers, Kimball remained humble about the night’s success. The large crowd that came to the event consisted of both students and locals alike. Already largely well-adapted to various styles of folk Americana, Kimball’s group was entirely in its element.
The instrumental make-up of a square dance band is approximate and anything but static or formal. For minimally structured leisure events such as square dances, this looseness can be practical for accessibility. It also, however, allows a band to put its own personal spin on songs that could be over 100 years old.
According to Kimball, all a square dance band needs is something to play a melody–– traditionally on a fiddle––as well as something to play a rhythm. The Geneseo String Band far exceeded these minimal requirements, with roughly 20 players on a full range of stringed instruments—from double bass to guitars to mandolins—all of which were accompanied by flutes and a drum set.
This large incarnation of the String Band produced a sound that was a great deal more full-bodied than one might expect to hear in folksy melodies meant simply to get people dancing. The result of the musicians’ collaboration was a penetrating atmosphere of life and energy.
In keeping with that atmosphere, Geneseo education alumna Carol McClellan took over Kimball’s role of caller—the square dance vocalist who instructs the dancers—during several songs. McClellan projected well and her songs seemed to be the most energetic of the set. “She says she’s got a teacher’s voice,” Kimball said. “She can holler out and be heard well.”
There certainly has been a decline in the popularity of square dancing in recent decades. Once so commonplace that high schools would hold them after sports events, square dances are now much more likely to be attended by people of older generations.
“This was a regular social thing in high schools through the 1960s until The Beatles arrived,” Kimball said. “Then, everything started changing.” In spite of a decline in popularity, the tradition of square dancing music remains important throughout rural areas of western New York and in various parts of the country.
Kimball expressed his belief that it is important to keep folk traditions alive and to remember that square dancing is as much a piece of American culture as apple pie. “It’s a fun bit of Americana that doesn’t need to disappear,” Kimball said. “It is certainly a piece of our history.”