Harold Luce, Consummate Fiddler, Dies

Friday, August 15, 2014
Chelsea — Harold Luce, born in Chelsea in 1918 and raised during the Great Depression, couldn’t keep his hands off his older brother’s violin, clawing his way to the top of the family piano to prod at its strings when he was only 5 years old.

Despite his sisters’ protests, his family ultimately gave in and allowed the youngster to play more freely, and down the line, a teacher recognized his aptitude, suggesting he could become a successful violinist.

But for Luce, recalled friends, fans and family, sight-reading music was no fun at all, whereas playing off his ears — and from his heart — brought him unrelenting joy.

“He didn’t want to be a violinist,” said his longtime friend and student, Adam Boyce. “He wanted to be a fiddler.”

A true player since age 11 — described by Boyce as a “New England-style, Yankee barn dance fiddler” — Luce spent a lifetime mastering the instrument, becoming renowned as much for his authentic old-time style and ease in playing as he was for his shy kindness and generous desire to teach others.

“Music was his main thing,” said Luce’s daughter, Donna Weston, of Middlesex, Vt. “I said the fiddle was his lifetime companion. I think it went everywhere with him, other than doctor’s offices.”

Luce died Wednesday at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the day after an unexpected operation. He was 95.

The product of a bygone era, he was perhaps the last of his generation’s kind in the region, an iconic fiddler and caller for those who appreciate the craft of contra dance.

“He was, as they say, a fixture,” said David Millstone, 67, of Lebanon, a contra dance caller and fan of Luce. “He was a grand old man of New England fiddling, not widely known outside of the region, except to fiddle connoisseurs.”

In the mid-2000s, Millstone said, Luce was on the staff of the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes of Port Townsend, Wash. , “and people out there understood that here was someone who was a Yankee fiddler through and through.”

His reputation, quietly cultivated over a lifetime of teaching and music-making, had preceded him.

In 1934, at age 16, he became an original member of the Ed Larkin Contra Dancers, performing in the vast majority of Tunbridge World’s Fairs from that year on.

He performed in the New York World’s Fair in 1940 and again in 1964, and mastered a series of feats, including learning how to do keel somersaults while playing and designing a nine-pedaled contraption that allowed him to play piano, fiddle and harmonica all at the same time.

He was an early supporter of the Northeast Fiddlers’ Association, created in the mid-’60s to help preserve and promote old-time fiddling, and was associated with various other fiddlers groups throughout New England.

In the 1980s, he was one of seven people featured in a documentary on New England fiddlers, and in 2004, he was the recipient of the Governor’s Heritage Award, through the Vermont Folklife Center, for his many years of teaching and music-making.

In the years between and beyond, Luce kept a busy schedule of performances in and around the Upper Valley, squeezing them in among his demanding work schedule as a younger man, and filling in his calendar almost entirely upon retirement.

“He especially liked to play at nursing homes,” said Boyce, 46, of West Windsor, “because even though in later years, he had quite a few health issues, he couldn’t hardly get around … he always thought the folks in the nursing homes were worse off than he was, and he thought he needed to give them something once a month that would raise their spirits and to let them know that somebody cared.”

Luce grew up on a working farm in Chelsea in the valley of the First Branch of the White River. He first heard the sound of the fiddle during a neighbor’s kitchen junket, where “the tables and chairs were moved out of the way, and a house was transformed into a ballroom for an evening,” Boyce wrote in a biography of Luce.

In later years, he shyly watched Ed Larkin during contra dances while he hid behind pianos, ultimately gaining the courage to come out and play.

He married Edith Keyes, of Brookfield, Vt., in the late 1930s, raising six children and spending 58 years of marriage together until her death in 1997. During an interview the following year, his eyes still welled up at the mention of her name.

Life was tough at times. The Luce family lived in Brookfield, Vt., where Luce was the head of the family farm, for 15 years, and a part of that time overlapped with his 25-year career at a salt shaker and machine tools factory in Windsor.

But music pervaded in the household, and the six children were encouraged to play and explore the home piano and guitar — anything but Luce’s fiddle.

“Hands-off the fiddle,” Weston said. “That was Daddy’s.”

Luce continued playing even after a mowing machine accident in the late ’80s, when he lost two of his fingers on his right hand but was still able to hold a bow.

“If it had been his left hand, his playing might have been ceased,” Boyce wrote in the biography, “but Harold himself has said that if it had been his left hand, he would have simply taught himself to play with the other hand — a truly remarkable testimony to an incredible, indomitable spirit!”

In later life, Luce also volunteered in various capacities, including driving people to and from doctors’ appointments for Randolph-based Stagecoach Transportation.

His companion since 2002, Marion Gilman, died last year.

He was also an avid teacher throughout his life, Luce teaching hundreds of students over the years. They were drawn to him for his unusual, informal teaching style, encouraging people to listen to their instruments instead of to perfect their grips or poses.

He never scolded, but was a stickler for doing things the traditional way, both with his students and in the many bands he played with, including the Harold Luce Band and Hartt Hollow. And by playing and teaching traditional music, Luce was essentially keeping a generation of tunes alive.

His goal, though, was never so grandiose. He simply played that music because it was what he loved to do.

“Even in the traditional fiddling world, there are a lot of different types of fiddling ... and ultimately, people reach out and choose what they like,” Boyce said. “Hopefully at the very least they’ve gotten some of his lessons of patience, and whatever you’re passionate about, that you play it with as much zest as you can. But I doubt very many of them are playing the basic repertoire that he did.”

Boyce recalled one time that a reporter asked Luce what would ever stop him from fiddling.

“And he said he didn’t know — ‘death, I guess,’ ” Boyce said.

And it was true: Among other performances, he was continuing monthly public dances in Tunbridge with the Ed Larkin Contra Dancers, and he played his last public show on the Saturday before his death, performing with them in Piermont.

“He loved to play, and that’s just what he lived for,” Boyce said. “Every fiber of his being was full of music.”

Hartland’s Clyde Jenne, a prompter — the more traditional name for a caller — for the Ed Larkin Contra Dancers, has known Luce for more than 40 years.

“He had a nice, quiet Yankee sense of humor, I call it,” Jenne said. “He’s always been the epitome of a gentleman, and I think one of the nicest old-time fiddlers around — the style, and the ease with which he played.

“And even the last few years with his health problems, it just seems they all disappeared when he played.”

Calling hours are scheduled for Sunday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Boardway & Cilley Funeral Home in downtown Chelsea, 300 Vermont Route 110, including a Grange service at 7 p.m. A funeral will follow on Monday at 3 p.m. at the nearby United Church of Chelsea.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.

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