In celebration of Bob McQuillen

It was the best damn memorial service we’ve ever seen. Family and friends, musicians and callers, dancers and dreamers all congregated in Peterborough on Saturday to celebrate the life of Bob McQuillen. McQuillen had the habit of treating each experience as “the best damn” fill-in-the-blank he’d ever been a part of. Whether it was a fiddle festival, a memorable vacation, or a ham sandwich, he treated everything with equal gusto and received it with equal wonder.

One story circulated from lips to ears, to lips and ears again, as the gathered folks in their country Sunday best danced their way around town that sunny day. Many stories circulated, to be fair; the man was a prolific writer of songs, but the number of tunes he penned is dwarfed by the plethora of tales he inspired.

But the one story seemed to be the most fitting. McQuillen had grand plans for his 100th birthday, it seemed, which wouldn’t have come about until 2023. Folks would come and dance, he’d play the piano and it would be a contra dance night for the ages. And if he didn’t make it to 100 years old — in the physical form, anyway — he knew “damn well” folks would put on a dance for his funeral.

It’s a common thing, to want a celebration of your life instead grief over your death, but achieving that is far less common. But there was nothing common about Bob McQuillen, and there was nothing funereal about his memorial. The ConVal gym rang out with the voices of 1,000 or more shouting “Hee-yaw!” just as he did many times in that same building to silence a rowdy crowd, lungs puffed up like the bellows of a squeezebox. Jaunty piano playing issued forth from his signature music truck, back doors thrown open to let the notes spring out and draw in a gathering crowd of musicians and dancers, many of whom learned the craft from McQuillen himself.

And the Town Hall has never been home to more mirth and merriment than it was Saturday night, as hundreds swung their partners and weaved their way from dance to dance in the purest form of glee and celebration.

“He hasn’t left us, he’s just expanding,” was one take on the man’s passing, and it rings true; his spirit is all around us now, borne on the wind through borrowed song and shared peals of laughter.

It’s hard to imagine that a man who was always bigger than life, who touched lives from generation to generation, whose legacy will be felt for generations still to come, could get any bigger; yet here we are, and the better for it.

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