Brad Foster: A Calling Career — Interview by Tom Kruskal
Brad Foster, CDSS’s Executive and Artistic Director Emeritus, is a 2015 recipient of the CDSS Lifetime Contribution Award. He was interviewed by musician, dance teacher and longtime friend Tom Kruskal who himself was a recipient in 2010. Their conversation was held on June 27, 2015, at Brad’s home in Shutesbury, Massachusetts.
- CDSS Leaves New York City
- Major Achievements at CDSS
- Berea Christmas Country Dance School
- Calling Career
- The Present and Future
TK: So let’s talk about the move to Northampton [in 1987], and the early years there.
BF: One funny story about the move. Steve Howe wasn’t working in the office yet. He’d started working for me at camp part-time, and he had been doing stage management for the Theater for the Deaf and knew a lot about packing trucks from his tours with them. When it came time to move, we offered to help move the office staff who were going with us by putting their personal belongings in the same truck with the office gear. So we had this tour where we went to various people’s houses. Steve walked into the first one, looked at the pile of stuff, and said, “Two feet.” I didn’t know what that meant. Then we went to someone else’s house with more stuff, and Steve said, “Four feet,” and I still didn’t know what that meant. Then he looked at the office and he figured out the size of truck we needed. “Two feet” meant two feet of floor depth in the truck from floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall. And he was right! He knew how to estimate from his job as stage manager.
TK: So Steve was quite involved in the move, then, getting the truck?
BF: He was involved in the move; he didn’t join our year-round office staff until about a year after we moved up there. He was just summer help before that. Caroline Batson and Aithne Bialo-Padin moved with the office; they and I were the only ones who moved with the office to Northampton. Steve joined us a little later. Aithne stayed a couple of years, and then moved on to other things.
BF: Several years after the move we wrote new bylaws—Genny [Shimer] felt the Society needed a clearer structure—and we incorporated in Massachusetts, merged that organization with the New York corporation, and went through all sorts of legal this-and-that.
Around that time, we started [our programs at] Buffalo Gap. People down in West Virginia were saying. “There’s this great camp. Why don’t you come down here?” We did it partly because Pinewoods was so full. The English and American Week and the Family Week that started then still go on, because Timber Ridge is really the continuation of the Buffalo Gap programs. But just about when we started Buffalo Gap, we suddenly hit a downturn at Pinewoods. I remember when we started the Finance Committee meetings at your place, we had a couple of years of losing what seemed a lot of money in our terms.
TK: In my first meeting [as Treasurer ] there was a big blowup about our losing money and our need for financial controls. That’s why we created the Finance Committee.
BF: We did lose money for a couple of years and then we essentially regained everything we’d lost within a few years after that. It’s funny looking back at that, because we worked really hard at our finances, but it’s hard to say whether the improvement was due to our work or simply due to other factors bringing the campers back.
TK: Well, maybe the financial controls helped; they at least let us know what was going on.
TK: I wanted to get your sense of what you feel your major achievements have been, from moving the Society out of New York and making it more national. I think that clearly happened, to some extent.
BF: I agree; I think it happened as well. Later on, people had a different idea of what they wanted “national” to mean, but considering that I started with an organization that was focused on New York City and Pinewoods, I feel that we were very successful in becoming visible in a larger part of the country. A lot of what I did was to push support for groups—grants, liability insurance—to groups all over the country to help them grow. Encouraging the Family Week in California to get started, supporting it financially for several years to get it off the ground. Growing membership, becoming less ingrown. Those were the things I worked on. Also expanding camps. At its peak, we went from seven weeks at Pinewoods, when I started, to nine with the addition of two weeks at Buffalo Gap, plus three more at Ogontz, including a storytelling week. Then we went back to two at Ogontz, then one at Ogontz, and then [a combined] one at Timber Ridge. And now six at Pinewoods—that happened after my time.
TK: When you first started in Northampton you had a small staff, essentially no committees. So how did things change?
BF: In the move from New York, the old committees disbanded and only some were reformed immediately. The first committee that came up was Bylaws. The next was Finance, because we had the short term financial loss. Staff slowly grew. The office work grew. In New York we had one computer. Gene and Susan Murrow brought in the first CDSS computer, and we used that for a long time. It was a CPM Vector Graphics machine. Then, around the time we moved to Northampton, we migrated to a single DOS based PC. But it was just one computer. A board member from Michigan asked, “How can you get by with only one computer?” I hadn’t thought about it, we all just struggled to get computer time. But soon after we added one more, and one more....
TK: From the outside, it seemed like a slow, steady building. It’s interesting to me how organizations grow. In some ways it’s easy to grow, and it’s harder to shrink, or stop growing, because it feels like failure. But things can end up changing in ways that actually don’t work.
BF: There were times when I thought my role was to be a “brake.” Ideas would come through that were often good ideas, but their timing was wrong, or the speed at which people wanted to carry them out was wrong.
TK: I want you to talk about [the Christmas Country Dance School in] Berea [Kentucky] a little bit. You’ve been going there for a long time, and it’s an important part of your connection to the dance world. And it’s a different world.
BF: Yes, it’s a different world. So, Berea. In 1977 I got a ride across country with Stan Kramer22. My trip to Pinewoods that summer took me from California to Port Townsend, Washington for the first Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, then wandering back toward California and heading with Stan to Brasstown, North Carolina. Stan took me to the John C. Campbell Folk School and then up to Berea.
I got to Berea just in time to help tear down the Dodge Gym, which I never saw in operation. I don’t think I got back there again until I was Executive and Artistic Director. Berea had a tradition of having CDSS’s Director come on staff if he or she was a teacher. I think Jim had been there on staff, but the directors between Jim and me, who weren’t teachers, hadn’t. Genny had been teaching there, but she said that it was time for me to take over, and then she kept going anyway. In those early years, the ‘80s, I tended to do Berea for one or two years, then Brasstown’s Winter Week one or two years. Sometimes I’d do neither, so I wasn’t constant. Now things have changed—for the last ten years, or longer, I’ve been to Berea almost every year.
Berea reminds me of the [CDSS] dance weeks back in the ‘70s. It’s old home week: it’s a part of your family life and tradition to do it. Ogontz has turned into that for [my family] too; we go to CDSS’s Ogontz Family Week because it’s our family vacation.
TK: It’s interesting. CDSS has a lot of groups that are very different from each other. It’s not as if there’s a single model for anything. In a way, that makes it hard for the national organization to have a clear focus, because there are all these different groups doing all these very different things, and with very different needs.
BF: This is partly based on the stories I’ve heard about Gay (May Gadd), but I felt like she had an iron hand and made people do things the “right way,” her “right way.” There was an advantage to this in consistency, but its existence also meant it was harder for the groups that were different. When I came in as Director, one of my goals was not to have that iron fist. It wasn’t what the Society needed at that time; we needed to help all the different groups in their different ways, rather than to apply a single model.
TK: Let’s go back to your non-CDSS calling career. How did you get your gigs? Did you go out and seek them actively, or did people get your name through the grapevine?
BF: When I first started calling, I taught at community colleges, and I went looking for community groups that wanted dances. I also taught the class at U. C. Santa Cruz mentioned earlier. There weren’t many dance groups around hiring callers. I got involved in the international scene early on, and then, by the ‘80s, more dance groups existed, and I was able to start putting tours together. By the time I did my first tours of the Northwest, Penn Fix had moved back to Spokane, and had created this great newsletter in which he kept track of all the old-timey little dances up North. This gave me a list of contacts that I could use to set up a string of gigs. So I would put together a tour that would take me from Seattle to Spokane and out to Idaho and back again.
TK: You would write the organizers and say, “I’m going to be in the area. If you’re interested, I would love to put a tour together?”
BF: Yes. And I also started getting hired for weeks and weekends. Creating Mendocino English Week made me much more visible. First I started the Mendocino Camp and taught there. Soon thereafter, I got hired to teach at Family Week and English & American Week at Pinewoods. Just before I became CDSS Director I was asked to be Program Director for Family Week. Once I started with CDSS, I programmed about one week a summer, sometimes two. But programming was a big part of my job. When Buffalo Gap started, I was already scheduled to run a week at Pinewoods, and I also ran the first English & American Week at Buffalo Gap.
TK: One unusual aspect of your success with this career is your ability to handle both the artistic and the administrative sides of the job.
BF: Sometimes it was hard to juggle the two.
TK: And of course, doing Pinewoods was part of the job. That was Gay’s model.
BF: It was Jim’s model too. Back then the [NYC] office would shut down [during the summer]. Gloria Berchielli and some others would come by to pick up the mail, but no sales took place unless they were handled from Pinewoods. In my early days it was easy for me to leave my administrative tasks and go off on tour without having to think about CDSS while I was gone. Ten years later, CDSS work came with me on the tours.
TK: So, about your parallel career as a caller…
BF: Oh, yes. I feel like the things that brought CDSS to hire me were a mixture of my camp administration experience and my teaching ability. I’m not sure we all agreed on what I was supposed to do with that teaching ability. One board member said that being director would be a big boost for my teaching career. I thought that my teaching career was a big boost to CDSS.
TK: What about your English dance teaching? Presumably there was more of that when you became CDSS Director. And as you said, the number of groups grew, so that there were more groups wanting somebody to come in and teach.
BF: By the time I became CDSS Director I was a fairly accomplished English caller and contra caller, good enough to teach the advanced dance in NYC and to be on staff at CDSS adult dance weeks, but there were fewer places that would hire someone calling English. So I did more contra dance calling than English calling, but often did it with people who played English, like Laurie Andres and Cathy Whitesides. Of all the people I toured with, I toured with Laurie and Cathy more than with anybody else. Sometimes we’d be booked for an English dance and sometimes it would be a contra. As time went on, I got hired more for English. There had been an explosion of contra dance callers, and there weren’t nearly as many English callers available.
TK: That’s still true.
BF: Now I do primarily English country calling and the odd, rare, contra. It feels like the whole thing is just totally the opposite of what it was when I started. And when I call contras, it tends to be at community events with both English and contra.
TK: In the early years, did you ever consider that calling might be a way to make a living?
BF: Yes, I called for my living for a while in Santa Cruz. What that meant was that I lived really cheaply. I lived incredibly cheaply, and I earned very little from teaching. That’s when I had my international class and my English class on the UC campus and I taught at a community college and did the odd dance, but it’s hard to call that a living. By the time I was up in the Bay Area, I was teaching a lot all over the place. I would call at Berkeley and Stanford twice a month each, and I would do these private parties. I realized that I could have turned that into a livelihood, but it would have meant being on the road constantly. Even then I didn’t want to do that.
TK: When I started in the dance world, I did notice the big explosion in the ‘70s, and the increased number of people who were trying to make a living from both calling and music. I think the musicians were a bit more successful, perhaps, with that than the callers were. There were more venues for the musicians, and they could do concerts as well as dances.
You’re famous for your stories, and I’m wondering if you have some favorite ones you could tell. Does anything come to mind?
BF: We were talking about May Gadd. I had this image, possibly from something Ellen said, of this woman doodling while she taught, and ever since my impression of May Gadd has been “a rumpety tump, a rumpety tump.” Years later I was out canoeing with [my wife] Barbara [Russell] on Long Pond at Pinewoods, and we ran into some middle-school age kids. It turned out they were relatives of Steve Howe’s from across the pond. They asked where we were from and we replied Pinewoods Camp. Their reaction was, “Oh, you’re the “tiddely pommers!” [Both laugh.] The way camp is situated, C# [pavilion] is fairly well sound-isolated from the lake, but there’s a low spot that goes right through to the Point on the Conants’ property, heading right straight toward Ashanti [the Howe family cottage across the pond]. That’s what they’d hear at night, the “rumpety tumps,” but they called them “tiddely poms.”
TK: What about those early square dance days you were talking about?
BF: I learned squares—my western patterns called squares—from that fellow “John the bass player.” He’d call a full night of squares—the Virginia Reel plus four or five squares, a lot of polkas and a lot of gaps in between. People mostly bounced around and didn’t pay much attention to the caller. One of the first calling skills I developed was “patience.” It was the only way to survive that.
Then I went out and visited Duke Miller and fell in love with his sing-songy style of calling contras and singing squares, so I taped them and came home. But in my early days I couldn’t find any bands that would play the music for me. So I started doing just patter-call squares. Later on I shifted, so by the time I became Executive and Artistic Director I was pretty much doing New England squares and very little patter-call anymore. And I would do some singing contras too. Duke Miller sang Petronella and Money Musk and others.
I found out that Peter Barnes23 had also gone to the same dances I did, and had in his head the same Duke Miller sound, and we would set it up to do a duet. It was fun to do. I’d start at the microphone and would teach it and then sing it. A little while later I would still be there standing in front of the microphone but Peter would start singing and people would think it was still me. Then suddenly we’d shift into harmony. Peter always did the harmony; I couldn’t sing harmony when I was also trying to call. The people were really confused. “Where did that second voice come from?” We did that for a while, especially with Money Musk.
TK: Tell me what you are doing now.
BF: I’m still quite connected to CDSS—I was in the office just two days ago. In my new work as Executive Director of 1794 Meetinghouse, I organize summer concerts, and CDSS is helping sponsor three of our folk concerts amidst a whole summer of all kinds of music. I recently went to a Centennial fundraising party at Sukey and Rhett Krause’s house—it was really an Ogontz reunion. Because I like what CDSS is doing, and because I wanted to be a good role model, I publically got out my checkbook: I wanted people to know that we give too.
I also run a new dance program called New London Assembly. It’s somewhat ironic. For years CDSS has been putting on an Early Music Week, even though early music is not directly connected to CDSS’s mission. Meanwhile, Amherst Early Music Festival, which is an early music program, now is putting on an English Country Dance Week, even though English country isn’t directly connected to their mission. That’s in part because people on both boards, like Pat Petersen, suggested I lead an English program at their summer festival.
So I’m leading it now, and watching the dancers at New London reminds me of the old days. Back in the ‘70’s at the CDSS dance weeks at Pinewoods, I felt there was a culture of respectful learning, of coming to a dance and being quiet and listening to what the teacher had to say. And people had a fairly long attention span. As time has gone on, there’s been more chatter, less attention paid to the teacher, and it’s become harder to teach style. I realize I’ve contributed to that change, doing things like learning to teach quickly and trying to make English country dance more welcoming to newcomers, but that has also played into the modern culture of short attention spans. New London is different. When I started New London Assembly, it was outside the norm—it just wasn’t a place anyone normally went for English country. By chance, we attracted dancers who were all respectful listeners, and so we have been able to work on style in a way that is often hard to do at other camps. At New London, people come to learn. It's not just recreation. So I go to New London, and it’s like a blast from the past, and I can teach differently there than I do elsewhere.
And that is my life now. I continue to run New London Assembly, to direct the 1794 Meetinghouse, and I’m doing nonprofit accounting locally for a number of small nonprofits. I also travel to teach, when I can, while also trying not to be gone too much from home—I love being home with my family. We still go to CDSS’s Ogontz Family Week whenever we can, and I’m often on staff. And the same is true with Berea’s Christmas Country Dance School. And we try to get to something at Pinewoods—I’ve been going there almost every summer for the last forty-four years, only missing two so far. All of this is a big part of my past, and a big part of my present and future too.
TK: Okay, this is good. I have my work cut out for me writing this out.
BF: Thank you, Tom.
CDSS thanks Tom Kruskal for interviewing Brad, Nancy Boyd for transcribing, and Sharon Green, Pat MacPherson and Caroline Batson for editing. Also thanks to Deborah Kruskal et al. for creating the Award party for Brad on October 24, 2015, in Athol, Massachusetts.
The Country Dance and Song Society, founded in 1915, is an education and arts service nonprofit for dancers, musicians, singers, callers and organizers, specializing in the dances, music and songs from English and North American traditions.
22 An original member of the Bay Area’s Claremont Country Dance Band (which worked closely with Brad Foster in the late 1970s), Stanley Kramer still plays violin with the Nonesuch Country Dance Players, Bangers and Mash, and other bands.
23 Contra and English country dance musician Peter Barnes currently plays in the Latter Day Lizards, Bare Necessities, Big Bandemonium, Dark Carnival and Yankee Ingenuity; he also teaches, records, publishes music books, composes and crafts wooden whistles. He lives in Massachusetts.