One of the first towns I heard about when I moved to New Hampshire was Nelson and its many musicians and organizations. There’s Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, Nelson Town Band, Trip to Nelson, Monadnock Folklore Society, Hunt and Allison, Yeehaw Jihad, – and I wondered, Why is it that such a small town has so much music? So I asked two long-time Nelson residents Gordon Peery and Alouette Iselin, both accomplished musicians in their own right. The answer, as I suspected, is a long one and so I have narrowed the question to focus on the folk music scene.
Some Background about Nelson and Contra Dance music
Gordon Peery first came to Nelson in the mid- 1970’s. Alouette had already been in town for a couple of years. But the story of folk music preceded them by nearly a century. Contra dance had been around since the mid-1800’s in Munsonville, a section of Nelson. When Alouette and Gordon came, Apple Hill had already been founded (in 1971) by Eric Schumacher and Bonnie Insull. Ralph Page and Newt Tolman had been putting their own twist on Contra dance and its music for the past two decades. Newt Tolman, a member of the founding family of Nelson, was a skilled flute player and published the Nelson Music Collection of 63 contra dance tunes. At the same time Ralph Page, a skilled musician, dance teacher and caller, used simple melodies, resulting in tunes that were less sophisticated than Tolman’s. And so during the 1970’s there were a few standards and about 100 tunes, and then more music was composed and more dances choreographed. Bob McQuillen himself composed 2000 tunes!
In 1977, Richard Nevell wrote a book about contra dance history called A Time To Dance. In it he named Nelson “the contra dance capital of the world” and it stuck. “I believe Nelson has the longest history of uninterrupted contra dances,” said Alouette. “There’s a mystique around the United States about Nelson,” explained Gordon. “I remember I was on the west coast and when I said I was from Nelson people practically bowed before me!”
Creating a Folk Scene
At the invitation of a friend, Alouette began to sing on weekends at the Hancock Inn. “I had sung at coffeehouses, but was not a professional singer. This gig got me started.” Singing in Hancock gave Alouette the inspiration of starting a coffeehouse at the little brick school house in Nelson. She proposed to the town that the funds raised could go to the renovation of the building. For several years she would cart tablecloths, Chianti bottle candles, coffee, tableware, and wood for the stove in preparation for the evening. “I would shanghai people,” Alouette recalled. “It was hard to predict the turnout.” Admission was 50 cents or baked goods to sell.
After a couple of years of the coffee house, Alouette started the Nelson Concert Series. “I loved Gordon Bok and asked him to come to Nelson. He packed the place and returned annually in November.” At the same time the Folkway, founded by Alouette’s sister and brother-in-law, was becoming a staple of the Peterborough music scene. One memorable evening, Gordon Bok was playing in Nelson while Stan Rogers, a Canadian folksinger, did a show at the Folkway. Afterwards, Alouette hosted a party where the two met.
“It was one of those perfect nights,” recalls Alouette. “Stan was quite competitive, and at one point I saw Gordon (Bok) and Stan facing off. Later fiddler Harvey Tolman (nephew of Newt and 2007 winner of the Governor’s Arts Award) started playing music that Stan couldn’t follow. Mary DesRosiers was in another room holding a joke telling session. There was singing in the kitchen and all kinds of music mixing.”
This party is not the only time musicians of differing genres came together. Participants from the Apple Hill Summer Chamber Music Workshops, who came from all over the world, would come to dances during the summer. Once, Joan Baez came to a dance. Then there was the concert by three members of The Chieftains – Seán Potts, Paddy Moloney, and Seán Keane at Nelson Town Hall. “Eric Stumacher would come to the dances and sit at the piano with me,” remembered Gordon. “It was intimidating to have someone of his musical virtuosity watching me, but he loved this style.” Alouette recalls Bonnie Insull at a party asking about contra dance music: “I was playing with a staff member at Apple Hill and a cellist who was interested in contra dance music. Bonnie popped her head in and said, ‘Where is the music? Do you have that music in your heads?’ And then when she started playing with us, she said, ‘Oh, that's easy.’ As we knew she would. It just sounded hard.”
Instilling a love of local music
Having so many musical adults in the community naturally led to the children learning to play. Bob McQuillen taught piano to many of the children. “At Christmas he would give out a CD as a gift,” said Alouette.” “He was a giant.”
At various times between 1986 and 1994, Gordon taught music at the Nelson School. “He instilled a love of the history of local music and the town itself,” said Alouette. “On Monday after a concert the musician would come to the school and perform for the children.” Gordon continued the story: “Notable among them was Utah Phillips, who had written a song called Daddy What's a Train?. I asked him to sing it, because the Nelson School had just had an addition put on that was designed to look like a train engine. Also, I had taught the kids one of his songs, The Goodnight-Loving Trail, which he sang for them. Another time I brought Matt Molloy, and Seán Keane of the Chieftains, along with Maura O'Connell, who was singing with them on that tour. They had seldom been awake at that hour, let alone performing in front of a group of school kids!”
Back to the original question
Why is there so much music in the little town of Nelson? It began with the people who settled in the area, playing music from their homelands in Great Britain and Canada, and blending these music traditions. It grew with some music pioneers – members of the Tolman family, Bob McQuillen, and Ralph Page. And then it all came together and expanded during a very special time in the mid-20th century. Gordon Peery summed up the growth of the Nelson music scene: “It was a matter of coincidence of who moved there and what they had in common. We were free spirits with no kids and a love of music. There was always something going on - concerts, playing together, pot lucks.”
What’s happening now
In 1980, the Monadnock Folklore Society was formed by Gordon Peery, Mary DesRosiers, Ken Wilson, Jennifer Price and Gary Heald to accommodate musicians too big for the Folkway. Originally concerts were held at various locations before moving to Nelson Town Hall. “There is a lot of wood, which is great for acoustics,” said Gordon. “Musicians love the ambience. In this space you can feel the music, the dances, the town meetings – all of its history.” The Society hosts concerts, the Monday Night Dances in Nelson, and a monthly contra dance in Peterborough.
For music makers of all levels, Eric and Sarah Sandberg host a Sacred Harp Sing several times a month in their home. The Nelson Town Band, begun in 1989, plays concerts throughout the warmer months and welcomes new members. Allison Aldrich Smith and Hunt Smith host a weekly “Pie Jam” at their home before the Monday dances.
And then there are pockets of music throughout the town – neighbors who play guitar, fiddle, piano who don’t necessarily perform. “There is one house that has great bluegrasscoming from the house, and I am sure it is not recorded,” said Alouette. “I have to go over and introduce myself!”
Gordon Peery plays piano and fiddle. His musicianship has been inspired by some of the very people mentioned in the accompanying article, including Bob McQuillen and Harvey Tolman. In addition to playing for contra dances since the mid-1970’s, Gordon has been a member of several bands and collaborations. These include Fresh Fish, Trip to Nelson, New Hampshire Fiddlers Union, The New Gray Cats, and Celticladda. He continues to perform throughout the Monadnock region, New England, and last year enjoyed a tour performing on Cape Breton. He is president of the Monadnock Center for History and Culture where he also manages the Music in Bass Hall Concert Series.
Singer-songwriter Alouette Iselin plays guitar and hammered dulcimer. She sings with the Animaterra Chorus and performs with Melanie Everard as Close Enough. Each Winter Solstice – and occasionally for a Summer Solstice, she performs with four other local musicians as the Solstice Sisters at the Nelson Town Hall. Alouette was also a member of the Rolling Crones, a seven piece folk blues band. Her songs have been recorded by The Wintergreen Trio and The Amidons. Alouette teaches hammered dulcimer and is a therapist in Keene.