This interview took place on March 15, 2015. Sadly, Bob Moss (b. November 19, 1925) passed away at age 92 on May 5, 2019.
Interviewers: Robbie Jean Rice, Jim Haggerty, and George Mack (FINAL EDIT 7/5/16)
We'd always go to house dances. I lived up Baggly Brook. That's where I was originally born and went to house dances. I got interested in the violin playing and fiddle playing and calling square dances.
When was this?
We moved off of the farm in '31. We went up there and there was two "Black men" that lived out on Cabin Hill. [The] Coss brothers, and they played around the square dances.
This was after we moved away from the farm. My dad lost the farm in the Depression. We moved away, and of course we kept friends of the neighbors up there. We went back there to a house dance and they were there playing. They... [were] getting into the moonshine a little, [....] so somebody said 'Bob can call,' and they got me a stool.
How old were you then?
About 12 or 14. I had heard enough of them, so yeah, I called. So from there on I just called square dances. Then of course we had a lot of house dances over that way. A lot of old time fiddle players there. They're all gone.
When you call a square dance do you just sort of make it up as you go?
Some. If you're playing an old fashioned jig or something, I make it up as I go and the rest of them, the singing calls, (the set). I kind of changed it though as I went.
I took the fiddle up later. In 1938 we went down to Dobb's Ferry to my dad's uncle. We were talking down there, and he said there's an old fiddle upstairs under the bed. If you want it and learn to play it, I'll give it to you. So, I went up and got it. [I] took it home, got it strung up enough, and started monkeying with it. That's where I learned to play, and then right after that when I was getting ready to go to school in '40 over in Sidney, I thought I'd take up lessons. So, I bought a new violin down on River Street to learn to play violin in school. When school started I went into the mid class and didn't stay very long. [The] music teacher says, You know you're wasting your time. You're wasting mine." I said, "Why?" She said, "You never play what I put out there. You're playing by ear." She said, "You might as well quit."
So, I quit and just got more interested in [it] myself.
Clayton French was my neighbor over there and he knew that I liked to play the guitar some and call, and so we got together quite a bit. Then he said, "Well, I've got a promise to play to a dance. You want to play with me?" So Red Scherer went with us and the three of us played. We played quite a lot at that time.
What year do you think that was? Were you in high school yet?
Right after high school. (In the forties) Margaret Hinckley [married Clayton French.] They got married and she played accordion with us.
Did you have a name for the group?
No, not at that time. Then, after we played there quite a bit, I thought I wanted a better guitar. So, I went down to Binghamton to buy one. I went to Week’s and Dickinson’s and I got a beautiful guitar, but it was more money. It was a beautiful L7 Gibson. I bought it. [Then] got foolish ten years ago and sold it.
I got a new Guild with the money
What was a house dance like?
We'd just move everything out, you'd set up, and you'd have a set in this room, and a set in that room, and if you had a double door you'd sit in a double door.
You'd sit in the middle of the two doors.
Yup, and holler as loud as you could holler..
xxx xxxx did a lot of the calling, and Bob McClennan played fiddle back in the house dances. I played a lot with Bob McClennan. The joke on Bob is [that] I was playing at our house, and we had a big register there, and the heat came up in the middle, and the air went down. Bob turned and dropped his bow [in the register] and it went down.
[We] took the case off the furnace and got his fiddle bow out. I played some there with them, and I called for him at that time at different house dances. One of the old caller or fiddle players was Harold Smith, and he played, and Bob McClennan. Frank Fisher. There was a group of them around. [There] was a fiddle player more than, but I got into it then. I got married and went down to Sullivan County to work for a doctor down there that owned a little farm. It was a hobby of his, and I took care of it for him. Cook's Falls was a Jewish summer resort, and they'd come up there, and they'd come down around the farm and got. A fella come down, and my wife was doing his laundry for him. I had my fiddle out one night, and he said, "Oh, I play violin." So, I give it to him. I played this way, he got it [and] played it this way. Then he got laughing, he said, "You know there's three left handed opera fiddle players in the world? I'm one of them."
He was down to the house all the time. "Just call me 'Sash,' that's all anybody ever knows me by." He spent a lot of time down to the house, and then one weekend he said, "Can I take that fiddle back to New York with me?" I said, "Yeah." He took it down, and when he came back he said, "Don't ever sell it." I said, "Why?" He said, "That's going to be a real good one." That was 75 years ago. I still have it. I got it set up in my spare bedroom; that and my guitar.
Then I moved from there to Sidney, and was working over there. One night I went home, [and] my wife said, "You know, there's an ad in the paper for a guitar player and caller." They had his name, and so [I] called him and I told him what my background was. He says, "Come on up." So, I went up and we set there for quite awhile, and he played the fiddle. He was from Canada. Ed St. Onge. Terrific fiddle player.
It'd be '48. We went up and he said, “You want to play, then?" I said, "Yea." He said, "I've got a job. It's in Oneonta, but it's union. You gotta be union in order to play, and I'm not union either, so we're going to have to see if they'll let us in the union." I went down and saw the head of the union. He questioned whether he wanted us to get in the union or not, but he finally gave in and we got in the union then. We played two nights a week at Joe's and Mary's in Oneonta. Mondays, or Wednesdays and Saturday nights. We played there for about five years.
Where was that?
Right there in Oneonta. West Broad Street. We played square dances. We done other dances. We played some grange halls and school dances. We played for the fire department. We played a lot. We traveled. Ed had a beautiful trailer that lifted up, and the drawers slid out and the instruments all went in it. When we're going to play tomorrow night, we'd just put then in there and then hook on it the next night and just go. We did a lot of playing. I think Charles Haskins was playing sax at that time, and he was up at the college. He'd been down to the naval base or somewhere and he got polio and died. After that we kind of broke up. Then, I was here in Walton and a bunch of us called ourselves Delaware Valley Boys. We played some up on the radio, and I played fiddle all the time then.
Who else was in Delaware Valley Boys?
Stewart Nickels and myself. Billy Sherman and Ben Shackleton. They're all gone. Ben's dad was a great fiddle player, too. Ben was very good. We played together, and then after I retired, went to Florida. I got in down there with a group. They were just a group of guys jamming every afternoon, and so I went over and sat in with them and played fiddle. Lot of bluegrass down in the south, and so I played there quite a bit. One day there was a fella came over to play guitar, and he had his amp with him. He was from Indiana. A very close friend of mine. Carl Demarest from Elkart, Indiana. Terrific musician [with] no hand. He'd come over and he'd have his amp with him. Of course, he had to have an electric guitar. He played with the pickup group, and when he got done, they said, "Well, we'd prefer you don't come back again." He said, 'Why?" They said, "Well, we're all acoustic and we don't want electric here."
So, I talked to him awhile after that, and he said, "You play guitar pretty well. You consider we get a group?" I said, "Yea," and we got a group together [of] all old-time professional musicians. I played rhythm. I didn't play much fiddle at that time. He played lead guitar [and] we had a bass player. We had a mandolin player. Just going down to all these summer resorts down there and playing a lot. Carl and I played with and we traveled once in awhile down to Tampa with Southland Bluegrass. They'd go down to the festivals, and they asked us to go down there and help them out. So, we helped them out and we had the group together, with Carl, and we played for a long time. Just on the go down there. It just kept us going.
So, most of your life you've been playing music?
Yea. Over in North Afton there's Echo Lake pavilion, and they built that and they brought country bands in. They call[ed] me and they said, "They have told us now they want square dances, too." They said, "Would you come over?" I said, "Yeah, I'll play." I went over the night they opened, and we were opening band that night and played over there. There's a barn this side of Bolster's barn. That's on 206 [near] Afton, and we played two or three summers there all summer at Bolster's barn. I played fiddle all the time there, and then I got back down south and we'd go around to trailer camps. We did some other work too, some birthday parties, and we even worked New Year's Eve a couple three times. They were great musicians, but of course that's [where] their life had ran.
Then there was a fella come to us one day, he'd been over with the boys who'd been jammin, [and] he said he didn't care for the music they had over there, [so, he] come over. He listened to us and he said, "I kind of like what you guys play, could you use a fiddle player?" [We said, "]sure can." So, he played with us, and then he got to tell us that he had traveled out of Nashville [and] Wheeling, West Virginia. He'd worked with Porter Wagner, the big guys, and he played fiddle for us [for] a long time. Fabulous. We had a ball. He was good. Learnt a lot playing with him. It was good.
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[Now,] back to the house dances. What were the popular songs that you sang or played at that time?
"Red River Valley."
"Wabash Cannonball," that kind of stuff. You could [call] whatever you wanted to call in them.
Did you ever take part in the dance, or did you ever call? I know you called, but did you and Betty ever dance, or did you always call?
At most of the house dances, Betty and I weren't married at that time. We were married in '47.
When did you learn? You sort of sound like you just picked it up, but [were] there any of these old timers that you learned a lot from?
No, I don't think so. I just got it from listening. A lot of the time I listen to the radio [and when] I hear something, I shut it off right away so [that] I can keep humming it and get the fiddle.
It's a different side of your brain when you do that than the ones that learn by reading.
Did you hear of Grant Rogers when you were a kid or later?
Grant was not that much older than I am now.
So, you were contemporaries?
Yea. There was a fellow down to Cooks Falls in Sullivan County. His name was George Lashonnic, and he played real good fiddle. Then, of course, Clayton French, and it was one of the Coss boys and Fisher boys, their fathers were all fiddle players. I don't know whether the Hulses dad played a lot, but I don't think he played fiddle
So, basically jigs and reels that you played; fiddle dances.
No, we used to [play] regular songs a lot. That's basically what I played. We were playing one night, I played fiddle that night, just putting on a little program. Fella came up to me and he said, "Could you play an Irish jig for me?" I said, "Yea, I think so." I told [the] boys, and I started it. The guy stood there and kind of looked. He said, "Thanks a lot. You just made an old Irishman happy." He left, and I never saw him again.
If you play by ear, you play a song totally different than it [is written]. [It's] just a matter of what your brain recorded. You put some different notes in it; some different changes. I played with a fellow that lived right across from me down there. [He] picked a real good guitar. I'd go over there and sit with him. We'd laugh. He'd put a lot of minors in which I didn't [do] that much. I was putting sevenths in. Both of us played by ear.
The nice part of when I played with St. Onge was that Ed kept track of the tunes that were coming out each month. Where we played we had our own stand, and opened it up. [It] had a light on it, and [we] set our music in there. Of course, I didn't read music, but he got music for whatever songs he wanted for the month. He'd get them for the sax player, and Ed was sax himself, and then trumpet. He got the guitar. All that showed was the music chords, so that was that was my help. That's what he done, and that was it. It was fun playing with them. It was more up to date, and some real good music. "Tea for Two," and all [those] kind of songs.
So, they would dance; not square dances, but just dance.
Yeah. It was funny; we went to went to work there to Joe's and Mary's, and the first night we played there we played three tunes, love tunes, and then we had the square dance and filled up the floor [with] dancing . They got done with that, we started right into another one, and here comes the boss man, "What are you guys doing?" "We're just playing," and he said, "Yeah, but if you don't stop for awhile and let them drink, I won't make any money." So, that was the time we would we would play three rounds, and then we'd do a square dance, a real fast one on the end, and then just take 20 minutes off.
Did you ever get to play with Grant Rogers, meet with him, or talk with him?
No, I didn't know Grant that well.
Bob, you know the way the unions were kind of important; I think to hear that story will bring people back to a time we don't remember.
All the places in Oneonta had signed that they wouldn't hire a band that wasn't union. So, in order to get a job up there, people would call the union for a band and tell Linus Houck, [the head of the union]. If it was a good sounding job, Linus took it [for] his own group. [We got] a square dance.
Could you describe how the music changed over the period? For example, you started out with the house dances and square dances, and later on more modern songs came in and the music changed.
The grange halls started coming along about that time. When that first started it was mostly house dances, then the granges. The[re's the] [grange] in Walton, [and] there was one in Hamden that was upstairs, and you played up there.
For the house dances, would [that] be square dancing, or jigs or reels or something, [and] then you'd play maybe waltzes with it?
Well, very seldom play[ed] much round dance. Very little. They did one. They want[ed] square dance; that was a house dance. Everybody brought something to eat, we'd play for awhile, and sit down. They had a great big pot. They'd put a two pound bag of coffee in there and let it perc. That was pretty much the house dances, and that was then. They kind of faded out [when] people started getting cars and the grange started operating. Then the style of music started changing.
Changing; like the big bands and all that kinds of stuff?
Did the churches ever get into music or that was forbidden?
No, there were some gospel bands around, and the fella that played guitar and his wife had been with one of those bands. She was terrific singer, and when we [did] shows out in the different parts we always made her a part of it. He was good and they harmonized sometimes, but they were professional. [They] had been on the road, and they're both gone.
Annie from the library had these pictures of square dances in the main street, Delaware Street, in Walton. It was all roped off, and he was playing. This was in the fifties. Did you ever play?
Yup, on Gardiner Place.
Was that a square dance there on that block?
What about at the fair? Did they have square dances at the fair or anything?
No, nothing like that, no. We played a lot of street dances--whole block dances they called them.
Even in the 60s, 70s, [and] 80s. The Presbyterian Church did that. We had a block dance. Some of you guys came to play.
It was an interesting life because with Ed St. Onge it was a big step for me [from] playing some old house dance. [He got] it kind of organized, we travelled quite a bit, [and] then we had our regular music.
Where would you go when you travelled?
We played out towards Catskill some.
Sometime in that 70s period, we used to go to barn dances in the springtime. There were a lot of them.
The big one was up here on the hill, right on top. When they built that barn we played in there a lot. Huge, huge crowds.
Then, when we played with Ed, we played in South Kortright [on] the second floor of the big chicken coop up there. The old hall on Main Street, they always wanted St. Onge's orchestra for New Year's Eve, and we were working New Year's Eve in Oneonta. So, they held theirs the next night and we come over there and play.
Did you have practice sessions ever, or did you sort of work it out?
You could tell when our practice session was when we were playing. Joe's and Mary's, they couldn't sell drink from 12 to one, so you had to shut off on Saturday night. We were supposed to play until one o'clock, so that's when we used our practice session.
There were no bars, here, right?
No, even when we first moved here there were no bars here.
I brought in your fiddle. I don't know if you're going to fiddle.
We played in one down in Hancock for a long time. Delaware Valley Boys. We were down there just the other side of the bridge into Pennsylvania. We went down there for awhile.
Did you ever play with Bruce Hoyt?
Very little, very little. Bruce was a good caller. He called a lot. They had dances up to Art Paul's, [and] I think he called some up there with them. Harold Smith was up there playing fiddle that time and Griffin played drums. I forget who else was playing there. Then there was another fiddle player and his son that played up at the grange hall in north Franklin. We called him Andy Gump. He had a great big long nose. I set right by him the night he passed away. George Storehg over here on Upper Loomis, he played fiddle, him and his boy at house dances.
Did they charge people to come to house dances?
Yea, men paid a dollar a piece, believe it or not. When I started playing first, three dollars a night.
After you got married, did Betty go with you to the gigs?
Sometimes she did. Not a lot because the kids were growing up.
A lot of this was before television, so was this like a main form of entertainment that people had?
Weekends always were busy.
Every weekend there would be something playing?
Yeah, we played somewhere all the time. When we played with Ed up there, St. Onge, normally three nights a week we played. It was [a] funny thing, but the granges quite often had the dance on Monday night.
Ed was a great fiddle player.
Well, his son's pretty good too.
Then when we had round dances he played saxophone, and Charlie always [had] to switch from bass to trumpet, and Rose Bell, she played piano, of course I played fiddle. It was good being with them. I learned a lot by playing with them.
Were there other woman fiddle players?
I didn't run into any, no.
Did you ever hear this guy Belcher?
Belcher from Delhi? They associated a tune called Belcher's Reel" with him. He was a black guy.
I was trying to think of the guy up in north Franklin. Lived up on the mountain. They played there. They played a lot for awhile. It was it was funny. The night he played there [in] north Franklin we was there, and [when] I wasn't dancing I'd sit up on this stage by him. I'd been talking to him and sit[ting] there. He loves to tip his head over like that and hear the hum of that fiddle. He set there, and we'd been talking, and set there, and his hand slowed down a little bit and he slid down, and fiddle come down like that--he's gone.
His son never played after that.
Was he a young man when he died?
No, he was getting up pretty well.
Should I give you your fiddle and you can open up and show it to us?
ZOOM0021 Bob Moss music 11:35 FINAL EDIT 7/5/16
That's when it changed keys in the voice. They didn't want you to play because they had their capos on, and this is the other one.
What's [the] oldest tune you can think of? One of the first tunes you ever learned, maybe, or something like that?
I don't recall what it would be.
Yea, it's been a lot of fun. Like I say, I've traveled more and done more probably than a lot of the fellas around here. Of course, they played maybe more here than I did, but I traveled out more than they did. Then, when I got in Florida, there was a lot of traveling down there. There was Southland Bluegrass that's done a lot of traveling. They were really good.
Country music is crazy down there. The old timers down there and the parks--elderly people. We go there and they say, "What do you charge?" "We don't, we just play for the fun of it. We've done our playing, [and] now we're going to play for fun." "Ok, we'll pass a hat." Some night's you'd be surprised by how much you've got. Then you'd go back a week later, [and] they'd be there, and they asked you for certain numbers. One guy, every place he went, always likes to come up and wants to know if I'd sing "Waltz Across Texas." I always had to play that one. "Waltz Across Texas." I can't play it. I never tried it. I played guitar and sang it. The whole band played.
Now when you switch to guitar, it's different fingering, right?
Oh, yea, different tuning and everything, yup.
Not if you have ear and have talent. It's hard for me.
Once you started it that way, it's hard to switch.
How long have you been retired?
30 years first of November.
I was thinking it'd been a long time.
Play one more before you put that away. One more.
One that we used to close with [and that] we quite often played [was] "We’re Using Our Bible for a Road Map." The lady that done the gospel, she done two or three on the end. Then we'd close with "Bible for a Road Map." That was our thing.
"Using Our Bible for a Road Map."
That was our theme song.
What wonderful memories you have.
Did you play on Monday, ever, at the grange hall?
At grange halls sometimes we did on Monday.
Nope, never played at Mundale.
Bruce's brother, Hilt, I played with him quite a lot, and the other one. He was a real good caller. His brother had a great voice. Hilt, Hilt Hoyt.
"Over the Ways Walls."
There's a lot of those old songs. I got so much in[to] bluegrass in the south.
It's a different beat, and you'd be surprised, but a lot of those guys down there play every day in the park where I was. Two to four they had a jam session every day, and the guys come up [to] their place.
Where were you in Florida?
Eustis, Florida. Leesburg area. Southern Palms RV Park.
They put up a camp up in Connecticut.
This was a class?
The class of '40. I graduated there. Senior class. My wife and I went with them. Two or three other couples went with them. We got up there and they were going to close the halls up. We talked to them, and they finally said we'll leave the hall open, but there was nothing for them to do. Well, somebody mentioned that [they] had a guitar with them, you know, they pounded on, and one of [the] Shackleton boys [played]. So, we got out there and got the kids square dancing, and those kids had the best time with nothing to do.
Were they graduates of Walton or Sidney?