Home Commentary Remembering the Local Music Scene of the 1960s

Remembering the Local Music Scene of the 1960s

I read and enjoyed my fellow musician, Willy Lindner’s, piece “Until He Doesn’t . . . Recalling music’s role in a changing Vermont” in (a recent) issue of The Bridge. The end of that article stated “What are your Central Vermont music memories”? 

I grew up in Montpelier from 1948 to 1969, although my parents, who moved here from Brattleboro and Readfield Depot, Maine, in the early 1930s and were very well known in the city, continued to live in the house I currently live in at 3 Hubbard Park Drive until their passings in 1980 and 1996. I graduated from Montpelier High School in 1965 and attended UVM, graduating in 1969, but returned all summers during college to work with the old original caretaker, Jim Portall, in Hubbard Park. I then moved to Westford and Essex Center, returning to Montpelier in 1998 and have been here since.

Music was in my soul from a very early age. I took piano lessons from Mrs. Laird on Summer Street and then clarinet lessons while in Union School. Upon entering high school, Cliff Mix, who owned “Mix Music” (record store), first in the basement of Gray’s Department Store (Bear Pond Books/Boutique 9/Alley location) and later at 10 State Street (current location of Botanica), was the high school band director and wanted me to play bass clarinet in the band. During my freshman year at Montpelier High School I became more interested in “ear” (as opposed to reading) music, especially bluegrass and country. I learned guitar and banjo. I used to play with my high school classmate, the late Billy Parker, who played mandolin, and Doug Peck of Marshfield, who is still playing gospel music in the area, on guitar.  I played banjo. 

Sometimes we’d practice in the laundromat, which is still there near the corner of Barre and Main streets — it used to be open all night! In addition, I was involved in a folk group with three neighbors, Richard Bryan (who currently lives on North Street), Janet Barber, and Jack Walker, called “The Birches,” and we did a few performances, including one at MHS Smilie Auditorium. This was in 1962–63. Then in 1963 I was in a folk trio called “Meg, Mike & Maynard” (Meg Pond and Mike Yates, MHS ’63 and me, MHS ’65). We also did several performances and were recorded by the late Bob Jackman in the Union School auditorium, where we played a concert. We also played at MHS.  

In any event, during this time from 1961 to 1965, there was music in Central Vermont. Some players from the old “cowboy radio” bands (such as Don Fields & the Pony Boys) were still playing country music. Famous Vermont fiddler Tony Washburn was in the Rhythm Masters, who used to gig regularly at Beansie’s Barn, a building that is still located on the opposite side of Route 12 where Horn of the Moon Road crosses over the Wrightsville Dam. And there were barn (square) dances with bands at the Grange Hall and various other locations. The Unitarian and Bethany churches used to host some “hootenannys,” where I also performed. There were some good bluegrass pickers at Goddard College (Bill McClelland and George Austin come to mind).  And Tom Azarian was well known up in Cabot. He used to play out some, plus he had kitchen junkets at his house way up in the hills when he was married to artist (then teacher) Mary Azarian. Also … the Bluegrass Trio, which consisted of Gary Barr (originally from Nashville, who became the postmaster at Goddard) on guitar; Gary’s wife, Carol Ann Barr, on bass; and Marshall Freedland (a Goddard student) on banjo. Great trio. They used to play the Northfield and Montpelier Legions, the Oasis (now a used car joint on Route 2 out of Montpelier), the Hideaway in Waterbury Center and the Garden Restaurant (where Hippie Chick Pea is now) in Montpelier. They also performed on Dick Sicely’s radio show on WSKI on occasion. And speaking of Sicely, he and his brother, Ron, and some other musicians used to work various venues in the area, eventually starting the “Country Cuzzin’” bar on Main Street in Barre. The Craftsbury fiddle and banjo contests (two separate events) started in the late 1960s and drew huge crowds with a lot of interest.

In addition to country and bluegrass music, rock and roll (garage) bands were starting in the early 1960s, with the Beachcombers being the most prominent in the Montpelier area. They started in  ’61 and lasted (with different personnel) into the early ’70s. They were the first to develop Montpelier City Hall as a Saturday dance venue and eventually packed the place with 800-plus kids at $1 a head on a Saturday night. They originally developed a scene at the old Green Acres out on Lake Elmore and later “The Loft” (Slayton’s Barn … now owned by Kaplan) on Cummings Road in East Montpelier.  

From left, rear: John Lauderdale, Mary Mulcahy, Brian Cerutti, Sue Locke, and Craig McNeer. From left, front: me (Danny Coane) and Dick Powell.  Again, taken either late 1964 or before spring 1965 at, I think, Newport High School gym, where we played a prom. Image courtesy Danny Coane.
It was in 1963 that Craig McNeer, Dick Powell (now a court officer at the Washington County Court), and I started a rock band that became The Jesters, which also included Bryan Cerutti from Montpelier on organ, John Lauderdale from Barre on lead guitar, and Sue Locke (her father Herbie owned Harvard Clothes) and Mary Mulcahy from Barre. Craig played drums, Dick played rhythm guitar, and I played electric bass. The Jesters were very popular for a couple of years (1964–65) and also played Montpelier City Hall, the Montpelier Armory (currently the Recreation Center), the Montpelier Swimming Pool Bathhouse, the Barre Armory (now the Elks) and Barre Auditorium as well the Shed (a teen club in Swanton), Phantasia (a roller rink in Highgate), Casino Beach (a club in St. Albans Bay), the Cave (now Pure Pop Records) in Burlington, and venues in Woodsville and Newport. There were a number of other rock bands playing Montpelier City Hall:  The Thunderbolts, The Vistas, and The Bassmen from Burlington; the Strat-o-Tones from Plattsburgh.  Also, there was a great rock band from Barre, The VIPs, which included the late Kip Meaker, one of Vermont’s finest blues singers/guitarists, and Leroy Preston on drums. Leroy left Vermont after graduating from Spaulding in 1967 and started Asleep at the Wheel with Ray Benson — that group went on to fame and fortune and just celebrated their 50th year together. I would also say that rock music in nightclubs did not really exist in Montpelier-Barre in the ’60s but there were a handful of clubs in Burlington at the time.  

As far as club or bar music, eventually there were some country joints around in which I played.  Willy Lindner’s article mentions the Little Valley House on the Northfield road and the Zodiac in East Barre. There was also Hillbilly Heaven out beyond East Barre. The White Stallion, where the entrance to the Barre-Montpelier Road Shopping Center is now. Skyline Casino out in Williamstown. These are just some that come to mind, but there were others and, in fact, MORE night clubs/bars for entertainment than exist now. Charlie-O’s was “The Pines” back then and a rough bar with no music.

Anyway, just some memories — way more than you want or need, but thought I’d pass some information on to you.

Danny Coane is a member of the Starline Rhythm Boys, the Vermont Bluegrass Pioneers, the [formerly WDEV] Radio Rangers and Them Boys.

The Bridge’s Copy Editor/Columnist/ Board Member Larry Floersch responds to Danny Coane’s memories

For many of us who have lived here forever, it does stir memories.

One of the first things I learned when I moved here in 1976 was the power of live music. Our close friends had a small cabin on Government Cut (Hill) Road near its intersection with Culver Hill and French roads (near Shady Rill and Rumney School) in Middlesex. One summer night, a Saturday as I remember, after we had had dinner and a sufficient amount of beer, Marshall and I pulled out our guitars and started playing on his back porch. The next thing I knew, neighbors started showing up, some with guitars of their own, to listen or jam with us. One old farmer showed up (I think by tractor) in his manure-coated barn boots, then rushed home as fast as he could go on that John Deere and returned with what he called his “dancing” shoes! It was a long time ago, but I think maybe 20 people showed up in all and we played till well after midnight. As bad as some of us were as musicians (me in particular), people craved that live music and didn’t want it to end.

Larry Floersch, Berlin