BackMusic for patter squares

I enjoy calling American-style Squares, and I find that the right music can make all the difference to the way I call and the way the dancers respond.

Here's a recording of Cripple Creek by Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt — not designed for calling Squares to, but it would certainly work.

Tunes that I find work well include Cripple Creek, Crooked Stovepipe, Ragtime Annie, and several others whose names I can't remember.  But some bands use tunes which are too tuneful.  Wild Thyme, for instance, used to give me Chris Dewhurst tunes — terrific tunes, but they got in the way of the patter call.  On one occasion they just wrote out a sequence of chords and played them with fiddle improvisation.  “Great”, I said.  “We were joking”, they said.  “Well I'm not joking”, I said, “that's exactly what I want” — and we used it.  More recently a band gave me “Hommage a Edmund Parizeau” and I struggled to call against it — I don't know whether the tune is too syncopated or whether it was the way it was played, or whether the B-music which starts with three long notes doesn't lend itself to patter.  A patter square isn't the time for the band to produce a set of great idiosyncratic tunes that would make contra dancers whoop for joy — what I want is something that will stay in the background.  The patter is what the dancers need to hear.  That doesn't mean that I like the records some Modern Western Square Dance Callers use — just a “boom” on the bass guitar and a “chuck” on the rhythm guitar, and occasionally a whisper of fiddle.  Something between those two extremes.

The other point worth making is that you don't need to stick to the tune.  A fiddle can just go “da-diddy-da-diddy-da-diddy-da” using notes which fit the chord structure and I'll be very happy.  And I don't want a tune with two different chords in each bar — tonic and dominant with a little sub-dominant works well.

And I don't want lots of tunes.  Some bands and callers like Tune 1 for the first break, Tune 2 twice while the heads lead the figure, back to Tune 1 for the middle break, then Tune 3 twice while the sides lead the figure, then back to Tune 1 for the final break.  I hate this!  I'd like one good tune seven times through.  It also means that if for some reason the call gets out of time with the music it doesn't bother me; I just stop the band when I stop the dance.

I usually call squares which are phrased to the music — typically a 32-bar break and a 32-bar figure.  These tend to be New England reels.  Kathy Anderson on the other hand almost always uses unphrased Southern reels and doesn't worry about the dance fitting the music.  It certainly works for her, but I feel much more comfortable when I'm fitting the call to the structure of the music, even though I may not be calling a 32-bar figure.

I asked for feedback on this page, some of which you can see at the bottom.

Tony Parkes responded:

I find that the way a band plays a tune matters more than the tune itself.  Ralph Page's New Hampshire Orchestra recorded Arkansas Traveler for Michael Herman's Folk Dancer label, circa 1952.  It's fairly slow, with a prominent piano and a heavy downbeat from the bass and the pianist's left hand.  (The pianist, Arthur “Johnnie” Trombley, was Bob McQuillen's mentor.)  The recording is fine for the old contra dance Arkansas Traveler, but not for the traditional square of that name — or for any fast square.  Other recordings of the same tune would be better for squares.

Colin, you say that some tunes are too “tuneful.” Yet you mention Ragtime Annie and Crooked Stovepipe (my two all-time favorite tunes, as it happens), both of which I consider tuneful, as working well for you.  I suppose it depends on what one means by tuneful.  To me the term implies a wide range in pitch within each part (as opposed to uniformly low in the “A” part and uniformly high in the “B” part); it may also imply some passages of longer notes, something a person could hum or whistle easily (which I presume is what you didn't like about Hommage a Edmund Parizeau).  Again I find that a band's style, more than the raw notes, is what determines whether I'm comfortable calling patter to a given performance (live or recorded).

One factor that helps me separate tunes into “square” and “contra” categories is story line or lack of it.  If a tune seems to “tell a story” with a beginning and an end, I'm more likely to prefer using it for contras — or for prompted squares whose figures always coincide with the tune.  If the end of a tune seems to flow straight into the beginning of the next round, I'll use that tune for squares where the overall phrasing is less critical, or for squares with a figure longer than 32 measures, or in situations (like one-nighters or family dances) where I'm pretty sure the dancers will get out of phrase.

Many (but not all) Northern tunes seem to me to “tell a story.”  Many (but not all) Southern tunes seem to me to be continuous.  But the same tune can be played in ways that are more appropriate for one or the other situation.

I have a lot more to say about tune feel and selection; hopefully I'll have time soon to distill it into an essay.  Thanks to Colin for inspiring me to begin organizing my thoughts.

I agree — I'm not sure what I mean by tuneful.  One suggestion was “Chinese Breakdown”, but I wouldn't want to use that, and I don't know whether that's because I know the singing call to go with it or because the tune would overpower my call.  Fred Feild says that the most recorded fiddle tune of all time is Soldier's Joy, but I can't imagine doing an American Square to that because I'm so familiar with it played as a rant for the English Traditional dance.

Fred also points out that Bob Dalsemer has a good list in his book “West Virginia Square Dances” at

Here are some suggested tunes, for you to listen to or print out.  If you select several, you can only Play the first:

Ragtime Annie
Crooked Stovepipe
Cripple Creek
Fisher's Hornpipe
St. Anne's Reel
Boil 'em Cabbage Down
Rock the Cradle, Joe
Kitchen Girl
Hume's Humour

On Tuesday, November 2, 2010, Paul Moore from Northern California wrote:
I like hoedown tunes that phrase, though it is fun to use a 'crooked' tune from time to time. You already have Ragtime Annie on your list. Also good are Rubber Dolly, Devil's Dream, and Chinese Breakdown. For pure lift and phrasing you can't beat old tunes like Soldier's Joy (played at 125-128bpm), Fisher's Hornpipe, and St. Anne's Reel. Some of the lively, contemporary Irish reels are great for squares also: Larch on Oak, etc.

Some of the standard western singing calls adapt very well for hoedowns: I Never See Maggie Alone, Mountain Dew, Washington Lee Swing, Walking the Floor over You, and Arkansas Traveler.

Also, a number of the tunes that Don Armstrong recorded as Contratoons for Lloyd Shaw Foundation work very well if played at 125bpm or faster. I especially like Caledonian Lady and Rickets and Rambles. These are Ozark mountain tunes.
I hope this helps.
On Wednesday, November 3, 2010, Sylvia Miskoe from Concord NH USA wrote:
There is a distinction between New England style squares and patter squares.  Most of the Southern tunes will work but I would try to avoid any tune that is crooked (not AABB=32).  I can offer  Boil that Cabbage Down, Rock the Cradle Joe and Kitchen Girl.
Also refer to Tony Parkes and the books of Ted Sannella.
On Monday, September 1, 2014, Erik Hoffman from Oakland, California wrote:
I've come to think a band playing for contras can orchestrate to create a "roller coaster" affect. This is because contras repeat with the music. The caller can often stop calling. The band can take over and let the music provide the variation for the dancers. Is it smooth & silky? Bouncy and exuberant?  -- Let's go from loud to soft, to a rhythm break to solo fiddle, etc. Again, the band provides variation, the climb to the top, then the exhilarating ride down and up.

In a square, especially a patter square, it's the caller that provides the variation -- the surprise -- for the dancers. Thus I like square dance bands to play more like a train: get on board with that smokin' groove and keeping that train a rollin'. Good bands really know how to get fan the flames of the groove, providing the steam engine that supports the caller's patter.

Many tunes can be interpreted in either way. And, in a way, all can, though some lend themselves better to one or the other. Take Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss. It can be played straight-ahead, with that train-like pulse, with all those old-time bowings that propel dancers in a mighty way. Or it can be played "tunefully," with harmonies, varying melodic twists, and dynamic fluctuations ways that also propel dancers mightily, but with that contra-sensibility.

    Contras: roller-coaster
    Squares: train
On Monday, September 1, 2014, Colin Hume from Letchworth wrote:
Erik -

Thanks for your comment - I completely agree.  I once had a band who played "Hommage a Edmond Parizeau" for a square - great tune for a contra, but it really got in the way of my patter!