May 6, 2012

A Music Tragedy

April Limber, Bob McQuillen, and Pete Colby (with his customized autoharp),
The band known as "New England Tradition"
In the 1980's, I was looking for an Autoharp instructor.  I was self-taught and felt that I had reached a plateau that I couldn't get past without some formal instruction.  I had been unsuccessful in finding such an instructor when I heard that there was a magazine for autoharp players called The Autoharpaholic (no joke!).  I subscribed and even bought some back issues. It was through this excellent publication (a subject for another blog) that I learned of the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops in Elkins, West Virginia.

These "workshops" are best described as a summer camp for grownups.  The Augusta Center, located on the campus of Davis & Elkins College, hosts a summer program of dozens of classes in arts, crafts, and history.  The range of classes is staggering.  And the very first year I heard of this program, they were offering a class in autoharp playing taught by one of my favorite artists, Evo Bluestein.  I signed up, took the class, and attended the Augusta Workshops in various classes for the next several years.  I believe that 2005 was the last year I went there.

In the late 1990s, during a lunch hour in one of my Augusta experiences, I was introduced to 
2002 NEA National Heritage Fellow Bob McQuillen, who was teaching a class in Irish dance piano accompaniment.  After he had left, a friend related a very sad story about him.  

It seems that Mr. McQuillen had played in a contra dance band called New England Tradition.  According to Great Meadow Music website, "
New England Tradition was formed in 1978 to continue the rural contra dance tradition of southern New Hampshire. Their repertoire reflects the diverse cultural heritage of the region: French-Canadian, Scottish, Irish, Cape Breton and English tune all make a contribution. Peter Barnes summed up their music: "In New England Tradition you have the best distillation of the fun, drive, and excitement of this region's traditional dance music that I can imagine. I promise you enjoyable listening!" This music has passed the test of time with flying colors."
The band featured Bob McQuillen playing piano, April Limber on fiddle and Pete Colby playing banjo and autoharp.  In 1988, this band had recorded an album called "Farewell to the Hollow" that is still available as a CD.

The autoharp and banjo player, Pete Colby, was a gunsmith and instrument builder.  In 1981 he was listed in 
Susan Ferrell's Directory of Contemporary American Musical Instrument Makers as having a shop at 74 River Rd., Andover, MA, where he built 5-string banjos and autoharps.  In fact, Mr. Colby had enrolled in one of the autoharp classes during a year during which I was unable to attend the Augusta Workshops.  I had heard from a friend that "There was a guy in our class that plays Irish dance tunes on the autoharp and has a custom built autoharp that's so fancy it looks like a 1955 Buick hubcap!"

My lunch friend went on to describe the loss that Bob McQuillen had suffered in 1994.  It was documented in an Old Time Herald article ten years later.  
Donna Hebert, writing about  "My Life and Times in Contradance Music" described what happened:"A gunsmith and instrument maker who had worked for Martin Guitars, Pete made his own fine banjo and the autoharp he sometimes played. Rather than bluegrass or old-time style, Pete Colby flatpicked in a style that owed something to Irish lead tenor banjo, but was his own unique style, and his sound came ripping through those fiddles and set us a fair pace to match. He’s been gone for 10 years this December—an aneurism took him—and fiddler and lifelong friend April Limber, took her own life when Pete died. This provoked a community-wide response, as we all knew and missed them both."

The Colby Tailpiece
As my lunch friend told the story to me, Pete and April were lovers with a suicide pact.  Allegedly, if either one was taken first, the other would take their own life so the two could be together again.  This is apparently incorrect as indicated in the informative comment received from Sarah Bauhan (see below).   The suicide pact story is false.  Regardless of the cause, the result of this tragic scenario was that Bob McQuillen lost two of his closest friends at the same time.  I can't even imagine the grief!

Peter Colby, who was only about 50 when he died, is remembered for a banjo tailpiece that he designed, still produced by the 
Breezy Ridge® Instruments, Ltd. company.  That "hub cap" autoharp resides in the cherished collection of Eileen Roys.  I have seen it and it is a masterpiece of craftsmanship and ingenuity.

1 comment:

Sarah Bauhan said...

I was just looking for a photo of Pete and April and your site came up.
I Just want to clear up a couple of factual things about their deaths (since I was there). It was December 1988. Pete had a blood clot that traveled to his brain and by the time he got to Concord hospital he was in a coma. After a day or two when it was clear he wasn't going to make it, his family let him go.
In the meantime, April had been having a really hard time and was in the throes of planning her own demise. (She had tried the week before - and Pete alerted me to this, saying he was really worried. I know this because I found a suicide note written from then.) She took the opportunity when she knew Pete was going to die to burn his house down and take her own life. It's seems overly dramatic and bizarre, unless you knew April. When she made up her mind about something, she followed through - and always with a logic that made sense to her. There was no suicide pact, as was put out at the time. Pete and April weren't a couple anymore - they were kind of family to each other by then, and April took care of Pete, including protecting his privacy by torching his house (after she removed the animals and valuable instruments) because she knew he wouldn't want his family to go through his things. It was all an incredibly sad and tragic end to two people who were brilliantly talented, but whose emotional lives were complicated and messy.

You don't have to post this - but I wanted you to know - in case you felt like taking the part about the suicide pact out.
Sarah Bauhan, Hancock, NH