The Myron Colby Orchestra (click many of the pictures to see a larger verson)|
In the early days of the 1900s most small towns in New Hampshire had local musicians who played for dances on Saturday nights and for special
occasions. In those days there were dances for Old Home Night, Town Meeting Night (sometimes accompanied by oyster stew suppers), weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, benefits for townspeople who had bad fortune, and school functions. These dances were usually held in the local Grange Hall, Town Hall or Community Center.
One such town, Webster, NH, produced a musician who went on to become very well-known around the area for playing the fiddle for contra dances, "round dances" (waltz, fox trot, polka, gallop, schottische), and later square dances. Myron "Mike" Colby learned to play the fiddle at about 14 years of age. He took a few lessons but never practiced, as he was one of those gifted people who could play by ear. He was playing for dances held in Boscawen in the mid 1920s when he met his wife, Ethel, who was teaching school in Boscawen.
By the early 1920s he was playing for town dances accompanied by his mother,
Belle Colby on the piano, and his friend Luther (Lute) Fairbanks, also from Webster, on the drums. He sometimes had Katherine Gardner on piano and Chester Baldwin on drums with Mike Downes as the "prompter".
It was during this time when the group known as "The Merrimack Merrymakers", a contra dance group, won a demonstration trip to Durham, NH.
Myron, well known for his jokes, referred to the group as "Downes' Dirty Dozen." (click here for more on the Merrymakers)
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Mike started fiddling for the Eastern Barn Dance Style Square dances known for their singing calls.
Early members of Colby's Orchestra were his mother Belle Colby on piano, Luther Fairbanks or Art Virgin on drums, Hiram Gardner on violin,
and later Emile Larochelle or Dorothy Mitchell Garland on piano. The picture at right is a version of the orchestra from the 1930s - Myron Colby on fiddle, Hiram Gardner on fiddle, Emile Larochelle on piano, Luther Fairbanks on drums (man in upper left corner unidentified at this time).
Other early callers at the local dances were Kenneth Hoar, Emerson Hoar and Everett Ames. During the 1930s and early 1940s he played for dances at Flaghole Community Center in Salisbury, Danbury Dude Ranch, Georges Mills, Boscawen, Claremont, Hadley's Barn in Henniker, Warner, Webster, Wilmot, and occasionally in Short Falls in Epsom.
In the mid 1940s Colby's Orchestra with Frank Fortune doing the calling started playing at the Bradford Arena in Bradford, NH. Nellie Blake, from Concord and Wilmot Flat, had taken over on piano about 1946. Robert Messer from Bradford on saxophone also joined in 1946 - see the 1946 picture of the orchestra at right. George Rounds from Andover on banjo joined in 1950. Woody Roberts joined the Orchestra in 1956, playing the accordion. Colby's Orchestra continued playing for these round and square dances for most of the next two decades and are remembered by at least two generations of dancers. Their style of music is still talked about today by those who attended the dances in their early years.
Mike did not allow any "diddling" (plucking at strings or playing bits and pieces of tunes) between numbers or during intermission. When one song stopped, the next one immediately began. He didn't want to have to get everyone's attention to start. Mike did not allow anyone to sit in and play unless he knew the individuals and how well they played. When I was talking with Walt Heath, who played piano at Fortune's Barn quite a while, he laughed heartily, as he did not allow "diddling" when he had his own band.
Frank decided what squares would be called for a set, often just announcing them before he started calling. The orchestra played by ear and had played often enough to know what key to play it in. For the round dances, Nellie would make a great fanfare of searching through her sheet music to find what she wanted to play and put the music in front of her. This often created a delay between sets, which Mike did not appreciate. Then she would seldom look at the music as she played, gazing out at the crowd instead. Later, when Woody started playing piano, Mike made a list of the numbers they used with the key to play them in (photo at right - click to see a larger version) and Woody would just tell them the name of the song and the key.
In 1952 Frank was approached by Sunapee Records to make a set of records of the squares.
Click here for more about the recording session at the Bradford Arena.
In the early 1950s, someone decided that they all needed to wear matching shirts, especially for jobs not at the barn. Mike's wife went to a fabric store in Franklin and bought two bolts of square dance material (see sample to the right -
click Here to see a larger version
) and she made a shirt for Mike and dresses for both of his daughters. Kay Rounds, wife of the banjo player, made shirts for the other members of the band and a dress for Nellie.
The members of Colby's Orchestra were friends and a close-knit group, forming friendships that lasted until their deaths and to this day with their families. Frank and Mike had a professional respect for each other and were a combination that just "clicked." At one point, Mike had been sick and out of work for quite a while and Frank held a benefit dance for him on a Friday night. When there was "something of interest" taking place on the dance floor, Frank would just rock up and down on his feet even faster than he usually did or he would get flustered and loose his place and then Mike would just glance to where Frank was looking to see what had Frank so "excited." Just before intermission Frank would go down to the snack bar and bring back drinks for the orchestra and any family members that were there.
In 1960 the Orchestra started playing at the Stark Mansion in Dunbarton with Frank Morrison as caller. Robert Boynton of Dunbarton joined the orchestra playing the stand-up bass. Frank Fortune returned to call with Colby's Orchestra in 1963.
THE ORCHESTRA MEMBERS
Myron "Mike" Colby (fiddle) was an automobile mechanic. When a woman customer continually complained about what was wrong with her car, he told her it was the nut behind the wheel. In 1955 he sold his garage and moved from Webster to Concord where he worked as an auto parts salesman for Shepard Auto Supply, traveling about the central part of NH. He then took a position as a machinist at
Shepard's. Mike died on Saturday, July 22, 1967, of a massive stroke while getting ready to go play at Fortune's Barn in Bradford.
Luther Fairbanks (drums) and Mike grew up together in Webster and took violin lessons together. Luther just didn't have the
ability to play the fiddle and Mike didn't even practice to have a perfect lesson, so Luther went on to play the drums. Luther had a set of bells and blocks attached to his drums. He knew just when to play them during the square dances and polkas. The young people liked to hear him play them and would motion to him from the floor to play them. This would annoy Nellie, the piano player, so she would start giving Luther and Mike dirty looks. This would generally make Lute do it all the more. Mike would definitely hear about it later. Luther worked as a machinist at Kingsbury & Davis in Contoocook, NH. He was proud of his motorcycle. He was a bachelor and said that "those who would have him, he wouldn't have, and those he would have wouldn't have him. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of 69.
Mike and Luther in the 1920s|
Nellie Blake (piano) got picked on plenty by the guys, but she could hold her own. As she did not drive, someone had to pick her
up and transport her to the dances. This was usually Mike. He would pick her up in Concord after work and bring her home for supper at his house before they went to the dance. While washing hands before supper, Nellie taught Mike's daughters the rhyme, "Wash and wipe together, love and kiss forever." When Myrna was born, Nellie gave her a pair of doeskin baby booties, which she still has. When Mike and family moved to Concord, the apartment they found was upstairs over Nellie's. She wore very strong perfume, which sometimes filtered upstairs. Nellie worked in the accounting department of the State of New Hampshire Department of Employment Security. She lived with and took care of her mother until she died. Nellie's mother had a boarder, Harry Forrest, whom Nellie married shortly after her mother died. Nellie died of Alzheimer's Disease in 1987 at the age of 85.
George Rounds' (Banjo) family and Mike's family visited each other often, and their wives became good friends.
George's daughter, Eleanor, and Mike's daughters have been friends ever since. One night after playing in Bradford, George and Kay went to Mike's summer camp in Epsom on Chestnut Pond. As they were hungry when they got there, about 2:00 a.m., Ethel made onion soup for everyone. George and Kay and their two children, Eleanor and Arthur, often went up to Buckhorn - a hunting camp Mike had on Kearsarge Mountain (Kids in the picture at right at Buckhorn are Eleanor and Arthur Rounds and Janice and Myrna Colby). They spent many hours fishing, making a playhouse, and picking berries.
George was in the Coastguard and worked as a boat builder at Proctor Academy in Andover. He was an excellent carpenter and woodworker and did fine woodworking on the side. He was well known for his laminated lamps. He made Mike a footstool shaped like a violin. It is still used by Myrna. He was an "artist" working with wood as well as playing the banjo. He died in 1998 of Alzheimer's Disease at the age of 91.
Bob Messer (Sax) was a farmer and innkeeper. He and his brother, Ralph, had cattle and did haying for their farm and to sell. They also had a livestock trucking business. In the summer he worked with his family running the Pleasant View Hotel in Bradford, which was a summer vacation resort for people from "the big cities." He was in charge of the kitchen and was an excellent cook. The family also had a large maple syrup operation which kept him busy in the early spring. Bob and his wife, Marge, still live where he has lived ever since we have known him, just a short distance from the Pleasant View Hotel. The hotel is now known as The Rosewood Inn, an upscale Bed & Breakfast. Mike's daughters still go visit with Bob Messer, the only remaining member of the original Orchestra. After Mike's death, his wife worked one summer for Bob at his Pleasant View Hotel as a cook.
Woody Roberts (piano) moved to New Hampshire from Vermont in 1956. He then played accordion, and joined the Orchestra at the Bradford Arena.
After Nellie Blake retired in the late 50s, he took over on the piano and is still playing piano for square dances and at nursing homes. Woody started as a carpenter, and then became a contractor, putting in housing developments in the Contoocook area. He was an excellent finish carpenter and now spends his spare time restoring antique furniture in his barn workshop. He and Ginny are well known for their yard sales, which they hold every major holiday weekend in the summer and fall. Woody, the youngster of the Orchestra, became good friends with Mike and after Mike's death formed the Woody Roberts Band with Bob Messer, George Rounds, and Bob Boynton, Mike's son-in-law. Woody tells the story that when Daddy first met Woody our family went to visit with Woody and Ginny. As we sat visiting, Daddy said to Ginny, "It seems to me that it would be only polite for you to offer us a cup of coffee." Ginny learned early on that she could always expect the unexpected from Mike. In 2007 Woody, now 86, is still playing for square dances and private parties.
Perhaps it was the close friendship this group of musicians shared that gave them the special "something" that is remembered by many of those who attended the dances.
Because so many people greatly enjoyed the dances in Bradford so much, the Orchestra and Frank were asked to play for dances many other places. During the summer months they played 6 nights a week. On Tuesday nights it was the Sunapee Yacht Club, Wednesdays found them at the Pleasant View Hotel, which was owned by Robert Messer and family, other nights found them at Pleasant Lake Casino in Warner, Lake Massasecum Ballroom, and Warner Town Hall for school dances, Wilmot Town Hall, as well as Town Halls and Grange Halls in all the surrounding towns.
The picture on the right (click for a larger version) was taken in the late 1940s in the Warner Town Hall, where they played for many school functions. On the right of the stage are Frank Fortune, Myron Colby, Luther Fairbanks and Nellie Blake. On the left front row, second from left seated is Clara Belle Colby (Myron's Mother), and Janice Colby is standing behind her.
They also played for street dances in Bradford and surrounding towns, usually held for Fourth of July or an Annual Street Fair dance as was held by the Women's Club in Bradford. Street dances were often preceded by a parade. The Orchestra was on a float in the parade, playing as they drove (click picture for a larger version). A group of strong men would somehow get a piano up on the back of a dump truck which was decorated with hemlock, sometimes ribbons and posters, or banners. The truck would be pulled up into the town square and a street dance would take place in the evening. It was hard on the legs and feet dancing on the uneven pavement or sometimes even gravel, but no one really complained, they just loved to dance and were not crowded when they were outside. Sometimes they even tried spreading sawdust or cornmeal to make the pavement smoother.
Bob Messer remembers that the Orchestra was asked to play at the Carpenter Hotel in Manchester. Someone had been to the dance in Bradford and thought
the guests at the Hotel would enjoy a square dance. The Orchestra dressed up in suits and white shirts, which made them all nervous. Going to Manchester was a very big deal in those days. Bob remembers that the hotel guests had a great time doing the square dances. They also appeared at Castle Heights Ballroom in Georges Mills, NH. See the two pictures on the right from 1949 (click a picture to see a larger version).
Playing for anniversaries, birthdays, and benefits was a common occurrence for the Orchestra.
When someone had been sick or had a fire on their property or experienced other bad luck, the town gave a benefit dance for them. Sometimes a town would have a benefit for a soldier returning from
the war, especially if he was wounded. All money raised was given to the person and the band usually did not charge for the evening. They were called upon to play at many weddings, often for couples who had met at the Bradford dances. It should be noted that The Woody Roberts Band was very busy with 50th wedding anniversaries, especially from 1995-2000. The majority of them had Myron Colby's Orchestra play at their wedding.
They played at the Fifth Annual New Hampshire Folk Festival in Gilford, NH. There they got to listen to and watch many of their contemporaries from other parts of the State such as Mal Hayden, Willie Woodward, Paul Frost, Leo Guimond, Bob Bennett, etc.
Of interest is that under the listing of fiddlers participating was Myron Colby,
and the last entry was Marcel Robidas, who took over when Myron died.
Marcel was a very young fiddler at his first folk festival that year he told us later.
In 1953 Frank and the Orchestra traveled to Keene to play at the New England Folk Festival.
Mrs. Ruth Rollins, one of the regulars at the dances, had trained two sets of her 6th grade students to give an exhibition of square dances and she wanted Frank and the Orchestra to furnish the music. She sent Frank an album of square dance records by caller Fenton "Jonesy" Jones with music by Stan James and The Valley Boys with a personal note (right - click for a larger version) ). When they were not on stage, Frank and the Orchestra enjoyed listening to Ralph Page and other callers and musicians of the day. These appearances were also a good chance for Frank to learn new squares.
Written 2006/2007 by Janice Colby Boynton, with help from Myrna Colby Toutant