Longtime fiddler, dance caller David Kaynor connects community through music

  • David Kaynor leads the fiddles during the Montague May Day celebration in 2008. Staff File Photo/Peter MacDonald

  • Fiddler David Kaynor plays waltz at the Munson Memorial Library in Amherst last year. Kaynor, 70, has used pioneering contra dances, weekly open jam nights in Montague Center and the Fiddle Orchestra of Western Massachusetts’ rehearsals as platforms to mentor musicians and dancers who are just getting their fingers or feet warmed up. Contributed photo/Ray Sebold

  • Fiddler David Kaynor plays at the Fiddler’s Green contra dance at the Munson Memorial Library in Amherst last year. Contributed photo/Ray Sebold

  • Fiddler David Kaynor plays at a Montague May Day celebration several years ago. Contributed photo

  • Conductor David Kaynor leads the Fiddle Orchestra of Western Massachusetts during a rehearsal at the Northampton Senior Center. Staff Photo/Chris Goudreau

  • David Kaynor plays the fiddle during a dance at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield in April of 2006. Staff File Photo

  • David Kaynor plays the fiddle at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield. Contributed photo/Becky Hollingsworth

  • David Kaynor, shown here playing the fiddle in 2006, has used contra dances, weekly open jam nights in Montague Center and the Fiddle Orchestra of Western Massachusetts’ rehearsals as platforms to mentor musicians and dancers who are just getting their fingers or feet warmed up. Staff File Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 1/9/2019 4:39:43 PM

While alternate contra dance couples move up and down the set at Greenfield’s Guiding Star Grange on weekends, David Kaynor acts as caller, plays fiddle or simply inspires other musicians.

But he’s also present as a guiding spirit.

Kaynor, at 70, has been a staple of the nationally known Greenfield dances for nearly 40 years, as well as a central figure in building community around traditional music, dance and ritual. He’s also credited with keeping the grange halls in Greenfield and Montague alive and swinging.

“He is an institution around here,” said Alice Yang of Sunderland, who met Kaynor as a novice fiddler about 10 years ago and wanted to find other people to make music with.

Yang is also co-founder of the Fiddle Orchestra of Western Massachusetts — one of two fiddle orchestras led by Kaynor, who plays a key role in a 23-year-old Monday night open jam in Montague Center. Like at his pioneering contra dances, he’s used it to mentor musicians and dancers who are just getting their fingers or feet warmed up.

“There are so many people who play this kind of music around the Pioneer Valley,” Yang said, “but he’s the force stronger than anybody who’s kept it alive and fresh.”

Taking learning into his own hands

Unlike his Amherst cousins, Cammy and Van Kaynor, who are also musicians, David Kaynor is a self-taught fiddler who’s continued to feed the fire of traditional music and dance in Greenfield, his adopted hometown of Montague Center and beyond.

“I grew up in a family that was really good at harmonizing,” said the Montague musician, whose father sang barbershop-style harmonies to pass the time washing and drying the dishes with his six siblings.

Kaynor learned to play trumpet growing up in Wilbraham, then also picked up mandolin, banjo and guitar. He taught himself fiddle with help from the Arm and Hammer String Band while living in Burlington, Vt., and went on to play at social events.

He joined his family’s Petersham dances, and then Cammy Kaynor’s popular Friday night Northfield dances, as part of the family’s Fourgone Conclusions dance band, with his Uncle Ed on piano. The entire family has had a profound, lasting impact on the Pioneer Valley’s contra dance revival.

When a dance was launched in Greenfield a couple of years later, he fiddled and soon began calling in a low-key rambling down-home style.

“That was a real hot time,” recalled Kaynor, who moved to Montague Center in 1982 from Belchertown. “I just learned (calling) by throwing myself in. I’d been watching Cammy and Ralph Sweet … and I’d also been dancing a lot, so I had role models, with examples of things to do and not to do.”

When the Northfield dance ended in the early 1980s, recalled Cammy, who’s since moved to the Boston area, “Greenfield was poised to take off, and indeed it became and still is a mecca of contra dancing in western Massachusetts with the heart and soul of David Kaynor in its foundation.”

Kaynor had become so good at fiddling that he accompanied the Green Mountain Volunteers dance group on its European tour in 1978. At a week-long festival in Bulgaria, he bonded with a Swedish folklore group and visited them the following year to learn Swedish fiddling and folk dance.

“I liked a lot of different types of music — Irish, Scottish, Quebecois. But having a group of friends to connect with the music, that was really big,” Kaynor explained. “The social experience of the music was a major driver.”

The Swedish immersion would solidify over the years — through repeated visits and teaching at contra dances and instrumental sessions — into a connection not only for Kaynor, but for scores of fiddlers, dancers and even weavers like Shelburne’s Becky Ashenden.

“When I play music with David, both Swedish and contra,” said Van Kaynor, now a Suzuki violin teacher in the Amherst village of Cushman, “he has this uncanny ability to improvise a third part, a second harmony. David’s basically watched and learned, and became quite proficient as a self-taught musician.”

A new challenge

“I feel scared. I feel despair. And at times, I feel denial: ‘This must be something else,’” Kaynor said slowly, seated in his living room.

Kaynor was recently diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the incurable motor neuron disease that weakens muscles — especially those associated with speaking, swallowing and breathing.

He began noticing pain in his shoulder, hip and back nearly a year and a half ago. The problem was diagnosed at the time as polymyalgia rheumatica, and his doctor prescribed Prednisone, resulting in temporary improvement. Then, last April, “I started realizing I had to work harder to not sound like I was slurring my words. People started remarking on it,” Kaynor said.

In June, Kaynor — an avid runner — noticed that when he was out running, “I would feel my airway was closing up. My muscles were fine, I was exhaling fine. But breathing in, it felt like the airway became a one-way valve.

“I’ve also lost more and more resonance, tone and projection,” Kaynor added. “Speaking is getting harder and harder.”

Pausing occasionally between words and sometimes even between syllables, he lets drop that he may have called his last dance.

“I haven’t made a final decision, but it is so hard for me,” he said. “My lips and tongue have definitely changed. There are things I can’t do anymore. Playing? I’ll see how long I can go. My hands do feel different, but it’s hard to say what that actually means.”

Music, dance, community

Whether or not it’s the end of calling for Kaynor, he has already had a lasting impact on the Pioneer Valley.

“The thing I think David’s done best in his life is he’s encouraged hundreds of people who probably never really saw themselves as up-and-coming musicians,” said Susan Secco of Northfield.

Secco was encouraged to hone her piano skills to play at dances, where she said Kaynor was welcoming to everyone.

“There was always an open-door policy on stage,” she said. “He’s had a mission, trying hard to break down barriers.”

Ray Sebold of Montague — who’s known Kaynor for decades as a dancer and as a regular at the 35-year-old Montague May Day celebration where he’s led the grand opening fiddling procession and Maypole dances — added, “One of the things David has been very clear on is that he doesn’t like an exclusivity to dancing. From the get-go, he was always against an ‘experienced’ (challenging) dance.”

In fact, the fifth-Friday “newcomers dance” starts an hour early as a free session to encourage not only beginners, but also more experienced dancers willing to join them as Kaynor walks them through basics, avoiding the kind of complicated dances and tunes that he feels may discourage those starting out.

“It’s a very generous thing,” Sebold said. He also pointed to Kaynor’s decision to become a Guiding Star Grange member, encouraging musicians and dancers to also join when the 145-year-old agricultural organization was struggling.

A fundraising contra dance spearheaded by Kaynor and others in 1996 raised $6,300 toward renovations, recalled Sebold, who served as Guiding Star president then.

Kaynor said he got “a lot of sideways looks” from old-timers when he joined the Montague Grange in 1988 after facing resistance from members to scheduling regular contra dances there.

A non-profit group Kaynor spearheaded purchased the Montague Common Hall in 2013, where he had been calling dances since he moved to town. It’s been the focus of that group’s continuing efforts to renovate it as a community centerpiece.

Becky Hollingsworth, a longtime Montague friend and a piano player at some of Kaynor’s dances, said that in music, dance and community-building efforts, he embodies the ethic, “If we want to keep a resource, we’ve got to do something.”

“He sets the example and de-mystifies it, and begins encouraging people to do it,” she added.

“If I hadn’t joined and some others hadn’t,” Kaynor acknowledges, “both grange halls ... probably would have been sold. Whether dancing could have continued under new ownership is hard to say.”

Dances are for everyone

Van Kaynor said David “is so committed to the community aspect that he won’t compromise that in order to get more people to come” to his dances, refusing to appeal to polished performers where sit-in musicians feel shunned and beginners may be intimidated.

“He’s so inclusive,” Van Kaynor continued. “There’s been more and more expectation for the music to be rehearsed, so it’s not as spontaneous. In the old days, we just made up melodies at the dance, on the fly.”

Contra dances at May Day, for example, are among a few where “anybody can take part — any income, any age. So you may see a 9-year-old dancing with an 80-year-old,” Van Kaynor said. Dancers are welcomed as beginners or veterans, couples or singles.

At all such celebrations, you’ll find David Kaynor inviting everyone to join in with whatever they have to offer.

“Through him, I’ve had so many opportunities to play — at sessions, dances, May Days, farmers markets and other events,” said fiddler Donna Francis of Montague. “He’s been a very important part of my musical life. And the tunes he knows — hundreds! His memory is remarkable, not only for tunes, but he is the only dance caller I know who never uses any notes.”

Asked about his cousin David’s role, Cammy Kaynor said, “I feel heartened that so many people took up the vision and preserved not just the superficial aspects, but the deeper and the visceral reasons for having traditions like these. It would not have been possible without the exceptional leaders like David, who built communities like the Guiding Star Grange dancing public, the Montague Center activities and similar core communities across the country.”

Kaynor has left a legacy across the country, both as a fiddle and dance instructor in workshops, and as a caller at countless dance camps.

“When you go to a festival somewhere, and you find an impromptu crowd of fiddlers chugging away on ‘Fisher’s Hornpipe’ with harmonies and improvisations coloring the swelling sound of the melody, there is a good chance you will find David in the middle of the crowd prompting, encouraging, smiling and giving it his all,” Cammy Kaynor said. “That is who David is, that is what inspires us. And that is what we all need.”

The possibility to grow community dances, Cammy Kaynor added, “is all the more possible because of people like David, who have set the seed in so many places.”

“He’s made music accessible to novices like me,” said Yang, “not only because of his musical abilities and his teaching and leading skills, but also because of his big open heart and his great sense of humor.

“He’s definitely doing it out of love, because ‘community music makes the world a better place’ seems to be his life mission,” Yang continued.

Kaynor, for whom time may be running out, said the timelessness of the music he plays and teaches — including dozens of original fiddle tunes — has played a core role in the sense of place where it’s taken hold.

“It’s sort of like the community’s like a river delta where there are all these different branches of the flow,” Kaynor reflected about musicians, dancers and other people connected by tunes he’s composed, played and taught, who’ve come, gone and returned, sometimes years later. “Dance is one of the branches. And one of the nice things is that people can take side trips out of it for however long — a month, a year, a decade — and then they can flow back in.”

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at the Greenfield Recorder for 42 years. He can be reached at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.


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