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Willem Lange: Recalling Nights of Beer, Laughter and Western Swing Music

Moon and all your splendor know only my heart, call back my Rose, Rose of San Antone. Lips so sweet and tender, like petals falling apart, speak once again of my love my own...

Maple Corner, Vt.

I’m sitting at a tiny table in a room jammed with people, and Mother about three feet away, listening to Western swing. If I just close my eyes and listen as well to the indistinct voices, male and female; if I listen to the laughter; if I let the beat of the music run through me ... I can feel my feet moving to 60-year-old memories — of youth and infinite possibilities.

Mother and I are having a bite and a beer at the Whammy Bar in Maple Corner and singing along with my favorite central Vermont band, Big Hat, No Cattle. David Blythe, a friend from church and a Montpelier attorney, is the bass player. It’s kind of weird to see him in a black cowboy hat, but he’s really good on that acoustic bass, and when a few minutes ago he dedicated Pretty Woman to Mother, her quiet, barely contained delight was palpable — to me, at least.

We were never much on the beer, my buddies and I, back in the ’50s. We couldn’t afford it; so I can’t imagine that the owners of the roadhouses, dance halls and bars we frequented were too tickled to see us coming in. We were into dancing, the more vigorous the better, and singing along with the band. We scraped together what few dollars we had for gas, piled into one old car or another — mine was a 1946 flathead-six Plymouth sedan with nothing inside but a single seat for the driver; everybody else sat on the bare metal floor, rolled-up sleeping bags or boxes — and headed out for the night.

Well, bring it on down to my house, honey, there ain’t nobody home but me. Bring it on down to my house, honey, I need your company. Aunt Claudy went to town to buy a new slip; Uncle John went fishin’ on a three-day trip. Bring it on down to my house, honey, ain’t nobody home but me.

There was a huge, hulking Quonset hut down in Homer, N.Y., right on old Route 11, with a country- and square dance every Saturday night. It had a concrete floor, but it was smooth, and who cared, anyway? If we called ahead, we could usually get dates at Cortland State, just a bit farther down the road. Most of them were phys-ed or dance majors, and how they could promenade to the tune of Marching Through Georgia!

It’s difficult, arriving at Maple Corner, to imagine there’d be a bar here. It’s the quintessential Vermont crossroads: a meeting house, a minimal general store with a snack bar, and a post office. But if you go into the store, walk all the way to the back, and hang a right, you’re there. The band’s on your right at the top of a few stairs. You squeeze past them and look for a seat. We were a few minutes late this evening and at first had to sit on the sofa at the far end of the room. The waiter has to be as nimble as Baryshnikov to navigate between tables, knees and feet with drinks and food orders. Between numbers, as the boys in the band gather themselves briefly, I look around the room. I’d guess about 40 people; a careful count comes up with 17.

Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette! Puff, puff, puff, and if you smoke yourself to death, Tell Saint Peter at the golden gate that you hate to make him wait, but you just gotta have another cigarette.

Kevin Brown fronts Big Hat, No Cattle on guitar, dobro and lap steel guitar. He also writes some of their songs, along with Mike Ricciarelli, who’s amazing on whatever stringed instrument he picks up. Danny McHugh is the drummer. Because he’s sitting, you never see him in a crowded room, but you know he’s there. Listening to Smoke, Smoke, Smoke reminds me that it’s a polka, one of the world’s greatest athletic inventions.

A whammy bar is a little metal rod attached to the bridge of an electric guitar. It can change the length and tension of the strings and create a vibrato effect. So the name of the place is clearly intended to appeal to electric music cognoscenti. That doesn’t include me; but Big Hat’s Western swing does take me back to the days when most of us still wanted to be hillbillies or cowboys. I remember a really nice bar in Warrensburg, N.Y., where, if she saw you sitting on the side, the owner’s wife would demand (but beautifully) that you polka with her. She could polka literally all night; it was worth the drive to Warrensburg — 55 miles — just to whirl her around.

A big black dog sat on the back porch, and Bingo was his name.

That one was danced in a circle, with a grand right-and-left at the end of each section. The girls came at you one by one — B ... I ... N ... G — and when you got to O, you grabbed her by the waist and threw her up into the air. Girls wishing to appear feather-light gave a little jump as you lifted. I saw Hedy Cmielewski coming at me one night, and got ready; she was a handful. We coordinated beautifully. She vaulted skyward into an overhead wagon-wheel chandelier, blew out several bulbs, dislodged a lot of dust, and knocked herself out cold.

No more weeping, no more tears, I want a smile from you ... our hearts will still remember that our love was true. Say adiós when the sun sets on the sage.

As the evening wore on, all those years ago, the crowd grew more romantic (the beer helped), and the music slowed down to two-step and finally slow dances. Big Hat, No Cattle is doing the same: Sentimentality creeps in; the conversation quiets; some folks are calling for their checks. I close my eyes one last time and reach for Mother’s hand, remembering how providentially she came along just in time.

As I sit here alone in the moonlight, I can see your smiling face; And I long once more for your embrace in that beautiful Kentucky waltz.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.