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It was ‘one of those McQuillen grins’ of his

In the late 1970’s, I was an aspiring contra dance piano player. Bob McQuillen was the old-timer — even then! — the patriarch of the local contra dance music scene. From the beginning he was very supportive, and even though my style of playing quickly evolved into something different than what he did, he was never judgmental.

In those days, it was quite common for lots of musicians to show up at a dance and sit in. However, an additional piano player couldn’t really sit in, so I took to bringing a newly-acquired accordion, an instrument that Bob also played. While accordions have a piano-style keyboard, they serve a completely different function musically, and can add a nice energy to dance tunes.

My accordion had been given to me by a relative who had never really played it. It was a decent looking instrument, nice shiny mother-of-toilet seat finish, and in good condition. But I didn’t like the voice it had, and somehow Bob became aware of that. He started showing up at dances with an extra accordion for me to play from his vast collection, and at the end of the evening he would ask me what I liked or disliked about it. This went on for several months, each time with a different accordion.

Finally one night he brought a lovely pre-World War I Hohner. He gestured for me to play it, and gave me a smile that seemed to suggest he was letting me in on a secret. Of course, it was the perfect sound. At the end of the dance, he never asked me how I liked it (as he had previously). But when I went to leave the hall, I found that he had put that accordion, in its case, next to mine (also in its case), and tied the handles together with the sleeve of my jacket.

I then realized that he had been taking my comments from trying each accordion, and thoughtfully applied them to the next selection, until he knew he had found something I would really like. I looked at him in thanks, and he just gave me one of those McQuillen grins.

Gordon Peery is president of the Monadnock Center for History and Culture’s board of directors.

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