Stories and Remembrances

"Heee Yaa!"

I first met Mac in 1972 as a 7th grader, when I started going up to the high school to lift weights in his after-school program (which he mentioned in his dedication for "Barry's Breakdown"). I lifted with him Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the next six years, and as we spent more time together outside of school I started going to dances and sitting onstage next to him on his piano bench. It was fascinating to watch from the perspective of the band and see him having so much fun!

Barry "Oso" Nielsen and "Mac" in 2007, courtesy of Barry NielsenMac was probably the most well-respected teacher in Con-Val, and he was the only person who could successfully get all the students in the cafeteria to stop what they were doing, bend down to pick trash up off the floor, and properly throw it away. This usually started with him bellowing, "Heee Yaa!" People who knew him probably know what I mean and how powerful his voice was. He even used to "Heee Yaa!" at houses of people he knew as we were driving by. I never knew when it would happen, and it's amazing how many people he was friends with!

I was with Mac the day he finished writing "The Dancing Bear" on his piano in the living room of his house at Bond's Corner in Dublin. He played it for me, and when he asked, I told him I liked it, so he dedicated it to me. I didn't know he was going to do that, and until finding I didn't know he'd dedicated any other songs to me. Fun fact: Bear is my nickname, but I only very rarely danced... maybe twice!

Mac had a huge impact on my life, and I went into the Marine Corps largely because of him. (He served our country in two different wars.) I know my enlisting had an impact on him because I see now that he dedicated "Barry's Reel" to me the same day I went away to boot camp. For many years, he wore the high school class ring I gave him on his pinky finger, and we stayed close even after I got out of the Marines until the day he passed.

As you can imagine, I have a lot of stories about our shared experiences through those many years...I really miss him.

Barry "Oso" Nielsen - The Dancing Bear

Bill Tomczak Meets Bob

I met Ralph Page at Marianne and Conny Taylor's Oktoberfest weekend in Stowe Vermont. Ralph was using recordings exclusively for calling dances and Marianne cooked up a scheme to have herself, Susan Worland, and me play for one of Ralph's dances. Ralph was thrilled beyond ecstasy, so much so that he invited me to join the band for a dance he was doing at the Brimmer and May school.

I don't remember who the fiddlers were, but Bill Possi and Rich Blazej were definitely there. Bob was playing piano, I had never met him before. And I simply can't resist telling this story.

The band was set up on the floor in front of the stage. I went to the foot of the stage right behind Bob and started assembling my clarinet. Bob stopped doodling at the piano, looked at me somewhat severely and said, "You fixin' to play that thing?"
   I replied, "well, yes, I was asked to be here."
   "Yeah? By who?"
   "Ralph Page"
And Bob replied, "Well that's as good as any" and went back to doodling at the piano.
After we played the first dance, Bob immediately came over to me, stuck out his hand and said, "Hi! I'm Bob McQuillen!"

From Book 7, Tune #114

Tomczak's Polka

The dedication reads: "We think we're real lucky if we get to play music with Bill Tomczak at the New England Folk Festival each year. He's a great friend, and a superb clarinette player - What a joy it is to know you, Bill."

The notes at the bottom:

"One time at the Girl Scout House in Concord, MA., Ralph Page got Bill T., Bill Possi, and Rich Blazej to play one of his tunes that he had written out a 3-part clarinette version for. Three great clarinette players! Now I'm gonna tell you - THAT was remarkable to a degree beyond calculation!!"

Bob McQuillen, 26 Sept. '86

Click here to see Tomczak's Polka

But here is how Bill Tomczak thinks it went:

"I do vaguely remember playing in a similar configuration at the Scout House. I'm thinking it would have had to have been after the Brimmer and May dance, which I am as certain as I ever get was the first time I ever met Bob. It would make sense that the clarinet trio got played at the Scout House dance. One thing I'm quite certain of is that the tune was "The Clarinet Polka" and it was Rich Blazej who wrote it out. I seem to recall having held on to that music for a very long time."

Event Announcement from Northern Junket, Vol 14 #2

SPUDS Polka - click to see the full-size tune.From SPUDS (Summit Pick-Up Dance Society):

We reached out to Sarah Gowan, one of the organizers of the Summit Pick-Up Dance Band in the Philadelphia area, about Bob's "SPUDS Polka" in Note Book 7 - did they know it? Did they play it? Would they play it? She replied immediately:

"What a cool project!  Sure, we know SPUDS Polka, it’s part of our open band repertoire and I included it in our book, Tuneadelphia, original compositions by people who have played with SPUDS.  Attached it the permission page I got back from Bob allowing me to include the tune and a thank you he sent after the book was published.

We’ll make sure to get SPUDS Polka into one of our setlists this year and see if we can’t get a bit of video for you.

Thanks for reaching out!"

To see SPUDS Polka, The Tuneadelphia transcription and Bob's notes to SPUDS click here.

For more information about SPUDS click here.


Bob McQuillen Collection, 1930-2014, MC 282, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, USA.A Peek into the Bob McQuillen Collection in the Archive at University of New Hampshire, Durham

This collection consists of materials relating to and generated by the musical career of Robert Comer McQuillen (1923-2014). A significant portion of the collection consists of the original composition notebooks (1972-2011) in both standard musical notation and McQuillen’s system of solfeggio. These notebooks are accompanied by several galley proofs and the inked copies McQuillen produced for the publisher in preparation for the publication of Bob’s Notebooks 1-15.

Hundreds of individuals sent thank you notes for the tunes he wrote them; McQuillen saved every one, and the tunes they wrote him in return.

The collection consists of 23 boxes and one map case in 5 Series. Visit the Archive Website for a complete description of the collection.

Bob McQuillen Collection, 1930-2014, MC 282, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, USA.

Bob McQuillen playing tunes on Carmen. Photo courtesy Great Meadow MusicWoodland Dream, 'In Dedicato Memoriam' - February 4, 2023

I’ve been playing the tunes pretty strictly in order up to this point. But Bob seems to have had a special relationship with this one, he describes it as an unusual tune because of the way it came to him. Sort of a mystical experience. Today is the ninth anniversary of his death. I had to skip ahead and play this tune.

Justin Godin, Merrimack, NH

"The Old PSO would get a workout"

Mac was always willing to make the trek over to East Putney to play at Pierce's Hall when i asked him, even though the dance didn't generate enough money to pay him what he was worth. The old PSO (Piano-Shaped Object) would get a workout whenever he came and I loved the way his voice would fill the hall when he was amused by something happening!

Fred Breunig, Brattleboro, VT

A Memory

Bob bursting into a space yelling "What the hell is going on here!" Then cracking a big smile and laughing at all of the terrified faces of those who didn't know him.

Steve Hoffman, Thetford Center, VT

"What an Inspiration!"

I first heard Mac play on a cassette of the Canterbury Country Dance Band in the back seat of a car in Chapel Hill, NC. I immediately said, "I have to learn to play like this". And I did. Copied that tape and painstakingly learned my first tune measure by measure, copying Mac as best I could. What an inspiration!

Mary Cay Brass, Athens, VT

"Keep The Flag Flying!"

I am so happy to hear that you are remembering my good friend Bob McQuillen. I loved Bob and his music. I hold dear in my mind the wonderful night of music, hearing him play and seeing him honored with a special presentation at Boston College for his contribution to music and the Arts.

I have all of Bob's compositions in his published books and hold them with pride in my collection. Mr. MAC honored me by composing several tunes for my late wife Chrysandra and myself and that pleased me much.

Another of Bob’s masterpieces is Hetty's Hornpipe which is to be found in my collection on the internet. He, along with his wonderful Ladies (Old New England) recorded it in his home, and I was honored to play along with them. Hetty’s is a special favorite of mine, so to commemorate Bob and his music I recently taught the tune to a friend of mine here in North Carolina and I also played it on the Radio in Ireland. Of course, everyone loved the tune and wanted to learn more about the MAESTRO and his music. MAC was a dear friend and one of a kind! Keep The Flag Flying, as they say in Ireland.

Seamus Connolly

Seamus has three of Bob’s tunes in his splendid collection online:

"King of Contra Dance"

King of the Keyboard reminds me of a family story.

Many years ago at the Northwest Folklife Festival, when I was a brand new fiddler, I was in a small jam with players at a similar musical  level. Bob sat down to play with us—someone had a small, portable keyboard. I was thrilled. (I had no idea he would play with anyone, no matter their level.)

I had earlier promised my school-age daughters that I would watch a juggling act with them that afternoon, and that they should come find me at the jam when it was time. So they did. But I told them, "I cannot watch the jugglers with you. I am playing with the King of Contra Dance."

They managed fine without me, and for years after, when they saw me in a session, they would ask, "Are you playing with the King of Contra Dance again?"

Sometimes I was.

Susan Songer, Portland, OR

"Still miss the guy."

Kate Barnes & Bob McQuillen
Kate Barnes and Bob McQuillen, Ralph Page Weekend in Durham, NH, sometime in this Century

"Mac called me his Guardian Angel..."

While I lived in the Boston area (1974-79), I danced actively in the Monadnock valley. At that time, I was one of the few Boston dancers who would go up to dances in New Hampshire on a regular basis, in Francestown, Harrisville, and Dublin. Mac of course was a big part of this scene. I taped a dance held at the church across the street from the Dublin Town Hall, which turned out to be a celebration of Mac's birthday. (June, 1979).

Returning to my hometown of Spokane, WA, I started up a contra dance series (January 1980) with Bob Childs as caller and musician. He was in Spokane to learn to make violins. For several years, I would return to New England for a week or so to visit friends and to attend dances where Bob was a regular. In 1981, I started the Lady of the Lake fall weekend. For the first few years, we relied on regional staff but in 1984, we hired Ted (Sannella), Mac, April (Limber), and Pete (Colby). In 1985, Frank Ferrel hired me to call at Fiddle Tunes. When he told me he had funds to bring out Mac but no one else I volunteered to give up my stipend so he could bring out April, picked them up and took them to Port Townsend. From then on, Mac called me his Guardian Angel (he never knew about my efforts to get April out there).

Over the course of the next twenty years, Mac was a constant staff member of Lady of the Lake. He and Ted were on staff for our first June week in 1986. He was a frequent participant for both June and Fall camps as well as one stint at Family Week.

Whenever Mac came out for Lady of the Lake he stayed at Debra and my home. He always insisted on sleeping on the couch and always insisted on taking us out to dinner after camp, always at the same restaurant which served prime rib and potatoes. Mac first met Debra in 1986. And given the host that she is, she offered him something to drink. He replied with tea. She offered several kinds of herbal tea. He announced in his Mac like voice "Tea, Tea!"

The two became friends for life, with both of them sending occasionally to one another boxes of Lipton tea. That next year, Mac wrote Debra a tune called "Tea with Debra" and I added a dance to go with it.

Penn Fix ,Spokane, WA

"When Bob played everyone sounded good."

It was around 1980. Some friends and I were going and camping at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. We played some music. Mostly Old time and Irish. At that time we weren't that good. We had some flags flying over our camp. One was green with a gold Irish harp on it.

One afternoon this older guy with a brown top hat comes into our camp. He points up at the flag and says "I see that flag up there with the Harp on it do you guys play Irish music?

We said yes, we'll be playing around the campfire tonight. Bob says "I play music too, do you mind if I come by and play some tunes?" Sure, no problem, we say.

After he leaves the conversation goes like this. "who was that?".... "I don't know,... never saw him before",.... "says he plays music"... "Do you think he's any good?"....."Probably Not".

Ha Ha so Bob comes by later that evening with his accordion and blows us all away.

Those times at the Philly were some of the best times I ever had. Bob was such an amazing guy. He encouraged everyone to play, even if you weren't that good. When Bob played everyone sounded good. I'm so happy to have called him my friend.

Ed Bonsell, Hatfield, PA