David's Blog

Joan Pelton dies; created "Chestnuts" moniker

Readers here probably know of my fondness for the "chestnuts," those classic contra dances that have been at the core of the traditional repertoire. Years ago, I wrote a piece, "So Why Are They Called Chestnuts?" which was later included in the Cracking Chestnuts book and which can be found online. The person responsible for that term entering our dance vocabulary was Joan Pelton, who died on February 15, 2012. She is someone who made a difference.

Joan Pelton was born in Pennsylvania but moved to northern Vermont in the 1950s where she came in contact with old-time square dances. After moving to upstate New York, she was involved with the folk scene there, including the Pickin’ and Singin’ Gathering at the Caffé Lena and the Fox Hollow folk festival. She played guitar, and appears as the piano player on the first hammered dulcimer album of Fennig’s All-Star String Band. After moving back to Vermont, she worked at Philo Records, an independent record label. In the mid-1970s she formed Silo, a distribution company that focused on small independent labels for folk music and, later, jazz, New Age, and children’s recordings. She was a fixture at many festivals, selling first from her truck and then from a booth at the Hudson River Revival, Old Songs, and Falcon Ridge. In 1977, Joan Pelton started Alcazar Records.

Alcazar (pronounced Al CAY zar) was a small label with a mission. The liner notes on the Alcazar Dance Series recordings stated that goal clearly:

Alcazar as a corporation is dedicated to the working musicians and callers of the world. The intent of the corporation is to research, record, and publish traditional dance music, and make it available to interested individuals everywhere. We believe that good dance music of all types can also be good listening music, and that making good dance records available will foster the tradition of using live music for dancing.

The first album released on Alcazar was Yankee Ingenuity's Kitchen Junket. The company's second album was Maritime Dance Party, featuring the fiddling of Gerry Robichaud (misspelled on the cover as "Jerry").Potluck & Dance Tonite, the third album, featured square dances called by Seattle's Sandy Bradley.

Alcazar's fourth and fifth releases were the two volumes of New England Chestnuts, featuring Rodney Miller on fiddle and his brother Randy on piano, along with Sandy Bradley (guitar), George Wilson (bass, banjo, fiddle), Steve Woodruff (button accordion) and Laurie Andres (piano accordion.) Volume I was released in 1980 and Volume II appeared a year later. (The albums have been re-released as a two CD set by Great Meadow Music #GMM 2005, available directly from the company or through such organizations as CDSS.)

Rodney wrote, “I have a letter from Joan Pelton dated Jan. 9, 1980 that asks us to do the first NE Chestnut lp. Here is a part of it:

Dear Roddy and Randy,

I have spoken with Randy at length about a proposed record of New England “chestnuts” (meaning the dances that are still danced in N.E. that have become traditional. Whatever traditional means)...

In the 1970s, Joan Pelton’s son Jesse started dancing with the Green Mountain Volunteers, a performing troupe from northern Vermont. Joan started playing again for dances, which is where she met Randy Miller. Randy commented, “She’d lean over while a dance was being taught and she’d say, ‘Boy, that’s an old chestnut!’ in that inimitable style she had.”


David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


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