Dancing Brings Community through the river of a man’s life

My father Erwin Thompson continues his story of how dancing and music continue to shape and enrich his life and the lives around him. —JGR

Waltzing and The Broom Waltz

Square dances were my love, along with the simple waltzes, the Rye Waltz, and most of all the “broom waltz” where at several points in the dance the music changed to march music, the dancers paraded around the hall, and somebody without a regular partner handed a broom to the man who was dancing with the girl he wanted and exchanged the broom for the girl. The broom, then, was passed on to the next man with the same results. Lots of fun, with some interesting social results.

Later years, when I was playing for these dances I could almost determine who might get which girl. I had the fellow musicians trained so that when I stopped fiddling they would also stop, thus leaving whoever had the broom to dance with the broom.

Launching Dances in Elsah

In the later years of the Great Depression, I rented the Elsah Town Hall, and managed to get the music together for these dances. The village board let me have the hall for fifty cents, the amount they paid the janitor.

The first square dance of the evening, we solicited the men dancing and each one that could afford it donated one dime. This paid for the hall, the coffee, the sugar that went into the coffee, the coal oil for the stove that heated the coffee, and a “string fund.” In those days, before the electric amplification as we know it today, the music came from the instruments. We broke strings.

Gordon and Don playing
Gordon Dingledine and Don Peters provide live music for square dances these days.

I had a string for every instrument that was played there in my fiddle case. If a musician broke a string, or came with an instrument with a broken string, they got a new one. That was the only pay any musician ever got except the thrill of furnishing music for a group of dancers that enjoyed the dancing and the company of their neighbors sharing fun. I still meet people who remember those dances with pleasure. At least one marriage (that lasted until death) began there between a couple that would have never met, otherwise.

In later years, we never had a party for our children (after they got so they could walk, good) that wasn’t a square dance party. When they were in high school, sometimes we had a square dance every two weeks. One winter we didn’t have any furniture in our living room all winter. I still meet people who remember those dance parties.

When my wife, Ruth, was a Girl Scout leader, we had dances in the basement of the local school. Sometimes we had ten sets of youngsters (there are four couples to a set).

A few years ago I was working with a man from another utility company. Suddenly he looked up at me and said, “Aren’t you Mister Thompson?” I agreed to the identification. “You taught me to square dance when I was about this big! He held up his hand to measure the height. “You tied a red ribbon on my right hand, so I could remember which one it was!” He went on to say how the experience had helped him get adjusted socially. A fine tribute to something Ruth and I had accomplished together.

Getting a ten-year-old boy to ask a ten-year-old girl to dance would range from the difficult to the impossible. But the way we did it worked beautifully! The boys lined up on one side of the hall, facing the wall. The girls likewise on the opposite side.Then they backed up, on signal, and danced with whoever they bumped into. Of course, there was maneuvering, backing up looking over the shoulder, catty-corner walking. But it worked! In later years, some of the high school dancers sometimes said: “Mister Thompson, why don’t we just back up and dance with whoever we bump into?”

At age 92 I am still fiddling, helping others learn the old tunes that I have loved these many years. A young man, now 18, whom I have been sharing my tunes with since he was ten, won an adult open class fiddle contest last summer. A young woman whom I started out on banjo, and loaned her mine for seven years because she did not own one or have enough extra money to buy one, won the Illinois State fair banjo contest a couple of years ago. Satisfying. The sharing of accumulated knowledge. The passing of the torch. We still have square dances at the Unitarian Church in Alton, Illinois.


On the personal side. On June 6, 1942, I married a girl that I had known since high school. Some people said we had a lot of courage. Others said we didn’t have much sense. I came close to not coming back from the European theatre. I was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries, and a Silver Star for: “Gallantry over and above the call of duty.”

Anyway, it worked. We raised three fine children, all graduated from college. Our oldest daughter and our son both were acclaimed: “Teacher of the year” on the same year. Our youngest daughter Janet spent five years in Africa, helping to bring education to people who otherwise would not have had the opportunity. All of them are “givers,” sharing their skills and knowledge with those who need it most.

Our oldest daughter, Julia, was killed in a tragic traffic accident two-and-a-half years ago. Ruth’s tired body gave up May first 2006. May Day. Appropriate, since she loved flowers and dedicated much of her retirement years perpetuating and adding to the gardens of my ancestors. We live in the home my grandfather built in 1863. My daughter Janet and I continue to write, publish books, and present workshops…and write for this faithful blog audience.

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  1. Happy Birthday! Keep writing those stories of times gone by. They’re wonderful. At Veterans Week in Branson – this past week, I visited with a WWII vet who had a musical background too. You guys would have a great time together.

    From the sounds of things, you’re getting younger all the time.

  2. Erwin Thompson is amazing. Do you have recordings of any of his music? I keep thinking about archival music that stirs my soul and hope some of Erwin’s music – and his legacy – find their way to the Smithsonian.

    If I get to live to 92, I hope I’m as active and energetic. Way to go, Erwin!

  3. Thanks, JJ….yes, we have many hours of Pop’s music recorded…on
    cassette…I’m not sure about the quality of the recordings. My sister
    was working on categorizing them before her death. We had a
    Riehl-Thompson archive at the University of Illinois that she
    initiated. My father has typed all the old family letters…his
    transcriptions and the originals reside there…along with copies of
    his books and mine. Looking forward to your post tomorrow. –JR

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