Remembering the life, music of Harold Luce
By Stefan Hard
STAFF WRITER | August 19,2014
Stefan Hard / Staff File Photo
Harold Luce of Chelseaplayes lead fiddle durng the Northeast Fiddlers Association monthly get-together at the Canadian Club in Barre.
Harold Luce was an elder who inspired and entertained right up until the last days of his 96-year life.
The Depression-era farm boy, dedicated father, and consummate fiddler died Wednesday at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.
Luce was a fixture at central Vermont contra dances, fiddle festivals, and the Tunbridge World’s Fair for decades and played regularly in public until just days before his passing. A legend in his own time, Luce was interviewed and recorded by the Vermont Folklife Center in 1990 and was awarded the Governor’s Heritage Award in 2004.
I had the pleasure of hearing and photographing Luce as he played lead fiddle recently at the monthly meeting of the Northeast Fiddlers Association, held in June at the Canadian Club in Barre. Luce seemed to play with almost no effort, truly a second-nature for him, with the smoothness and efficiency of motion that comes from so many years honing his skills.
Playing fiddle at his side at the Canadian club was Bonnie Tucker, of Burlington, one of many younger fiddlers Luce had mentored over the years. Tucker told me she considered Luce a treasure, and she carefully watched Luce’s every move when playing with the elder on stage.
Adam Boyce, of West Windsor, is another fiddler inspired by Luce who played often with him. Boyce considered Luce a rare, one-of-a-kind musician who simply loved sharing music, including teaching the craft of Yankee fiddling to younger players through the Vermont Folklife Center’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.
Luce began playing in the 1930s for kitchen junkets, where families cleared out the kitchen for impromptu concerts and folks danced wherever they could find room in the house. He also played at more formal dances, especially contra dances, and at festivals and fairs. Luce was a regular fixture at the Tunbridge World’s Fair, where he often played in tux and tophat. He also played at many weddings, funerals and parties, but among his favorite venues were the elderly care homes, where the old-time music and his friendly nature were greatly appreciated.
In a short biography he wrote about Luce, Boyce tells the story of the master’s musical life, starting when he first picked up the violin at age 11 and mostly learned how to play on his own by ear or by listening to records played on an old Victrola that a neighbor had loaned. Boyce also highlights the key juncture that led Luce to a life of fiddling, and finding his beloved future wife:
“The time Harold Luce was 16, several important things took place. Ed Larkin formed a group of contra dancers to carry on the old-time dance tradition of the area, Harold being one of the original members chosen by Larkin, filling in as dancer or fiddler as the occasion demanded. This same year, 1934, Luce went to a kitchen junket that Ed Larkin was supposed to be at, but couldn’t make. Harold filled in on the fiddle, and during the course of the evening, when the fellow who tried to do the calling simply could not be heard or understood, Luce started calling out the changes while fiddling away, probably as he had observed Ed Larkin do himself. Quite an accomplishment for the young Harold, which would be something he would continue to do and gain much recognition for in later years.”
Luce stayed with the Ed Larkin Contra dancers for 80 years.
At the same junket Boyce describes above, Luce met a young woman, Edith Keyes, who would later become his wife. It took a while for things to develop, for Luce had a reputation for being shy with the girls.
“The two never spoke to each other, and didn’t until 4 years later,” writes Boyce in the biography, “when Harold sent word with someone to ask her to go to the New Year’s Ball with him, at the Chelsea Town Hall. The young couple won the prize for the best dancing pair, and about a month later, the two were married.”
The Luces had six children, raising the family on a farm in Brookfield. Luce also worked at a machine shop, according to Boyce, sometimes only getting four hours of sleep per night, yet still finding time to play his fiddle. This unwillingness to set aside the fiddle for most any reason continued his entire life, even through injuries in his later years that might have stopped others, including the time he lost two fingers in a mowing machine accident.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Luce’s playing also contributed to a lasting bond between other couples on the dance floors where he played over the decades. Thanks to his life-long dedication to the music, that old-time, New England-style fiddling continues to be enjoyed in halls throughout the Green Mountains.