“Living Music’: New book chronicles life, music of fiddler David Kaynor

  • After a childhood filled with music, David Kaynor learned to play guitar in the 1970s and then turned to fiddling, which became his primary instrument. STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING



  • A flyer created by David Kaynor for a contradance. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO


  • Kaynor performs in April 2006. RECORDER STAFF/PAUL FRANZ

  • David Kaynor in a 2018 concert in Amherst. FILE PHOTO

  • David Kaynor, on fiddle, gives instructions for a waltz. Kaynor was known as an enthusiastic and supportive teacher. FILE PHOTO

For the Gazette
Monday, September 27, 2021

Before his death on June 1 following a prolonged illness, David Kaynor had a tremendous following around this region, the nation and beyond. Yet the overwhelming range of the Montague fiddler, teacher and dance master’s talents may have been overlooked by many outside of a core group of musicians and dancers.

But a new book, issued just weeks after his June 1 death, offers a compendium about Kaynor’s life as a musician, as a fully involved community member and as a mentor for hundreds, if not thousands, of traditional music and folk-dance enthusiasts.

“David A. Kaynor: Living Music and Dance,” in addition to offering a detailed biography penned by Kaynor himself in the last years of his life, includes choreography for 56 of his dances and scores for 77 of the tunes the self-taught fiddler composed.

Many of the tunes, with names like “The Funnel in the Tunesmith’s Truck” and “Luke the Bear,” have intricate harmonies noted as well.

What could be described as “The Whole Kaynor Catalog” also contains Kaynor’s instruction manual, “Calling for Beginners by Beginners,” as well as his “Thoughts on Harmony” and “On Composing,” plus tributes from family and friends and descriptions of the many communities he inspired.

Even Kaynor’s painstaking calligraphic skill is on display in this book in the examples of the intricate, hand-crafted posters he created for many of his dances, following the ornate style of 18th- and 19th-century village dance masters.

“A book twice this size could not capture the breadth and depth of his influence, not only in the general world of contra music and dance, but also the personal lives of the hundreds of people he has inspired,” wrote Susan Songer, Kaynor’s Portland, Oregon, musical collaborator since the 1990s. Songer edited and published the 295-page book and approached him with the idea for it within 24 hours of his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

“Putting it together was a huge challenge, coming to terms with how it could all make sense and making it a coherent whole,” she said.

The book is available online at www.theportlandcollection.com.


The 73-year-old’s three-year battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, curtailed first his calling at contra dances at Greenfield’s Guiding Star Grange in November 2018, and then his fiddling. Yet Kaynor kept directing the musicians whom he’d customarily welcomed and encouraged as the Back Stage Band.

“After David lost the ability to speak,” wrote his longtime fiddling friend Susan Conger, “he still communicated with the musicians at his dances through facial expressions and hand gestures, continuing as he had for so many years to set an example of welcoming everyone on — and off — the stage.”

The spiral-bound volume is also filled with reflections from some of the musicians, dance leaders and others who knew the Wilbraham-reared fiddling phenomenon over the course of his life, which included stints as a shoe store salesman, hotel clerk and high school special-ed teacher and swimming coach.

Many of them attest to Kaynor’s wry, sometimes dry humor, his ability to craft harmonies, his energetic drive and his constant encouragement of even the most extreme beginners to join in and try their best.

In an essay titled, “About David’s Calling,” Erik Weberg, a Portland, Oregon, contra caller writes, “As a caller, David is undeniably friendly to all dancers … He’s holding a conversation with friends. … While he’s teaching, he’s responding to what he sees and hears from the floor. … David’s sometimes quirky teaching style is entertaining, but … In addition to teaching a dance, he is teaching dancing itself.”

Kaynor’s voice, which unfortunately was silenced by ALS many months before his death, rings out in his writings throughout the book.

“The Connecticut River Valley is a rich musical environment,” he wrote. “Musicians abound in a wide diversity of genres and levels of skill and involvement. Many regions are less fortunate. If, lacking musicians, you find recorded music acceptable, you might as well use it. … (But) I would far rather dance to a spirited hand-clapper, foot tapper, body slapper, saucepan-banger, or any other living, breathing, interacting, evolving live person than to a machine, however good the quality or classy the renditions contained in the recording.

“There are no right or wrong instruments,” he adds. “There are only right and wrong instrumentalists. I can dance more enthusiastically to an inspired and involved electric guitarist or synthesizer player than to a standoffish fiddler, however skilled and steeped in tradition, who does not try to relate to the dance. … The musician who will strive for an evolving, interactive relationship with the dancers and the dance is the musician for me.”

Musical journey

The book’s autobiographical section, which Kaynor began writing when he became housebound in 2020 and unable to play fiddle, describes a Springfield family that began singing in harmony around nightly dishwashing, and hosted singing parties around the piano.

It also tells of his own journey from trumpet lessons as a boy to teaching himself to play banjo-mandolin, even as he began going to square dances as a boy with cousins in Maine. And a boyhood swimming coach’s boundless encouragement would eventually inspire Kaynor in his mentoring of musicians and dancers.

In the 1970s, he taught himself guitar and began playing and singing in bars in northern Vermont, eventually teaching himself fiddling. It was after he moved back to his family home in Wilbraham to earn a master’s degree in counseling that he traveled in 1978 to Europe as part of a tour with the Green Mountain Volunteers. That led him to tour Sweden, where he returned to learn an entire repertoire of traditional tunes.

Kaynor also discovered that “raggedness in rhythm or tonality” could reflect a “basic honesty of old music,” even if with intonation that had once seemed to him to be wrong.

“Some of those people,” Kaynor quoted a Swedish friend as explaining, “lost parts of fingers in farm and forest work; some played wind instruments with holes drilled in different locations; some of them just heard the scales differently. We just want to play some melodies as we believe they did. It brings us back to their lives and times. It brings them forward into ours.”

He moved to Belchertown in 1980 and began playing at contra dances as part of The Fourgone Conclusions in Northfield with his North Amherst Kaynor cousins. Later that year, dances began at Greenfield’s Guiding Star Grange, and he began playing there and later calling as well, with his own band and any musicians who cared to join in.

Kaynor, who moved in 1982, began leading musicians at the annual Montague May Day celebrations that began in 1985. Soon after, as dances started at the Montague Grange Hall, he joined the Grange and served as Grange master for 12 years. He also encouraged other dancers and musicians to join, and in 1995 joined the Greenfield Grange as well, sponsoring fundraisers, making the Chapman Street building handicapped-accessible, and making other improvements to both halls.

Kaynor also led fiddle orchestras in Vermont and locally and helped run open, informal Monday night fiddling sessions, while teaching at music camps in the Northwest, the Appalachians, New York state and beyond.

All, in the words of Fiddle Orchestra of Western Masschusetts co-founder Alice Yang, were guided by the tone Kaynor set: “‘It’s safe here; this is a place for everyone.’ … David once told me fostering and leading community music was his life mission, his way of making the world a better place.”

Kaynor, who was an avid runner, skier and swimmer, was determined to lead a full life even after ALS began taking its toll and he lost the use of his voice and the muscles he used to fiddle. He was able to continue making music using his guitar and used keyboard-to-voice technology to speak and even to call his last couple of dances.

In his last months, eye-gaze technology allowed him to continue typing by using only eye muscles, and even to compose 13 tunes, some with harmonies.

“I was there at Maine Fiddle Camp when David called a dance using the iPad Bluetooth keyboard that activates his voice software,” wrote Brattleboro fiddler Lissa Schneckenburger in one of the book’s many touching tributes. “After so many years of hearing David teach walk-throughs and call dances, it was hard for me to hear David’s familiar phrases coming out in a weird robotic voice. It hit me in a visceral way and I had to walk away from the dance so I could have a good cry of my own. And then I realized … what an amazing gift he was giving us all … showing us not to let fear or difficulty or newness keep you from doing the things you love, from living your best life.”

Now retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. He blogs at www.richiedavis.net/.