He is a contra dance legend out West, too

Last modified: 2/6/2014 1:33:43 PM
Sometime around 1987, Bob McQuillen was convinced by Frank and Dina Blade, among others, to come out to Seattle and play for contra dances at our Northwest Folklife Festival over Memorial Day weekend. Mac knew a fine community gathering when he saw it, so at the end of that first trip he committed to return every year. He always came for two weeks, moved into the Blades’ basement, and would play several dances from Oregon to British Columbia before and after the festival. He and Frank had a local trio, Mac’s Quackers, and, after a few years, Bob added a quartet here called The Rhythm Rollers.

Mac could be found, with a cup of coffee always handy, in one of two places at Folklife. Mostly he staked out a spot at the side of the stage in the huge dance hall, watching the dancers, loving all the different types of music, and chatting with friends old and new throughout the day. And he told those jokes! His other haunt was the performers’ lounge where he’d take his seat at the piano and hold forth, accompanying a couple of dozen fiddlers and players of accordions, banjos, mandolins, flutes, whistles — all comers welcome. Those were the grandest of sessions, driven by Bob with his mighty playing and shouted encouragements, both delivered in his exquisite Yankee accent.

Last year at the end of his scheduled dance set, he grabbed a mic and began a short speech, a surprise to only a few of the 600 dancers. Mac was never shy about expressing himself in a crowd and was always worth hearing, not that one could avoid it. As was his custom, he started with his shop teacher’s bellow: “Now listen up everyone, ‘cause I’ve got something to say,” and went on to tell us all how much Folklife had meant to him over the years, how much he loved us all, and — here was the kicker — that he would no longer promise to come back. He didn’t close the door completely, but many of us sensed this could really be his last visit.

All of us out here will miss having Bob in our lives and music. But, as Arlo said about Pete last week, “He’s passed away, but that doesn’t mean he’s gone.” Bob will always be with the countless people he touched, taught, named tunes for, made music with, and loved.

W.B. Reid lives in Seattle, Wash.


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