A Catskill Catalog: November 2, 2011
In August of 1940, Dave Todd made a visit to the end-of-the Redkill Valley farm of his friend, Carson Kelly. Dave, like Carson, was a farmer, his place was over in the Denver Valley, up where Roxbury Run is now.
Dave was a fiddler and square dance caller, as was Carson Kelly, and he had come on fiddling business, but the guy he really wanted to see was Carson’s 15-year-old son, Hilton. Young Hilton was earning quite a schoolboy reputation as a fiddler and square dance caller.
It was in Hilton’s blood. Grandfather Ward Kelly began the family’s musical legacy in 1882 when, at age 16, he bought a second-hand violin in a Fleischmanns store. Ward Kelly played that violin at many a square dance in the late 1800s, early 1900s. His “Kelly’s Full Orchestra,” a four-piece ensemble, played all around the counties.
Ward’s grandfather, Edmund Kelly had fought in the Revolution, his people among the many Connecticut families who settled the Catskills when the Catskills were the frontier. Edmund Kelly’s sister, Amy, married a farmer from Roxbury named Chauncey Burroughs. Their middle son, John, became pretty famous.
In 1905, Ward Kelly bought the last farm up Redkill. It was at that farm, up past the Hoeko place, where the valley narrows, and the Town of Roxbury begins, butting-up against Greene County, where Carson Kelly welcomed his friend.
Dave Todd called square dances with a popular band called “The Melody Boys.” Carson Kelly, too, called dances - seemed to go natural with playing the country violin. A good caller uses his rhythm and his words to lead the dancers through the intricate maneuvers that is a square dance.
Dave Todd knew that 15-year-old Hilton was already turning into a good caller. The boy had been calling square dances at school since he was 12, and played a lively, accurate fiddle. And Dave Todd was tired. “The Melody Boys” were a popular, busy band, and Dave was ready to get out.
He’d come to ask his friend’s teenage son to take over playing and calling squares in front of “The Melody Boys.”
Nobody ever taught Hilton Kelly how to play the fiddle. When he was five, his parents bought him a little tin fiddle. The kid just picked it up and started fiddling around, soon mimicking the tunes his father played. After six months of tin fiddling, Hilton was given a three-quarter-size violin by a great uncle who was impressed with the boy’s untutored progress.
Soon, little Hilt was playing, by ear, everything he heard his father play. In 1937, he began playing for his schoolmates in Fleischmanns School, teaching them to square dance with the command calls his father and grandfather had taught him: “Allemande right, dosado.”
“The Melody Boys!” This was too much for Hilton to take in. He had just turned 15 the month before. “The Melody Boys!” Wow.
Hilt accepted, and soon he was playing square dances six nights a week. He was the caller-fiddler. Forrest Bouton played the piano. Bill Pultz was on the sax, and Ivan Delameter, the drums.
The war intervened, of course. Hilton served with the 71st Infantry Division, and then, home from the war, he married Stella, and the kids came, a girl and a boy, and he built a business trucking milk from the 18 farms in the Redkill Valley, and from other farms, out to the creameries, and Hilton continued to play and call dances six and seven nights a week.
There would be a square dance at one of the local schools every Friday night, this week at Roxbury Central, next week at Stamford, another week at Downsville. Every Saturday night the Westkill Community Center was packed with dancers. Thursday nights were the Halcott Grange Hall.
So when, in 1953, Dr. Gil Palen asked him “Hilton, when do you sleep?” All Hilt could say was, “Sleep? What’s that?” This led to a serious conversation about stress, and rest and balance and health and the dangers of heart attack and stroke and how something’s got to give.
What gave was “The Melody Boys.” In 1953, Hilton left the band.
He never stopped playing. Hilt would play at the Legion Hall, a firehall, a party, wherever he was asked, maybe once a month, here and there, for the next 25 years.
Then, in 1978, Carol McIntosh called, representing the New York State Council on the Arts. Eastern style square dance was a dying art form. The state arts council was sponsoring an Eastern Style Square Dance Seminar in Cooperstown. Would Hilton like to attend?
Eastern style square dance differs from the now-more-familiar western squares. For one thing, dancers don’t dress in western costume. Each couple dances through the squares in turn, rather than simultaneously. It looks and feels different.
Hilt returned from the seminar ready to help bring back eastern style squares. His band, “Hilton Kelly and the SideKicks,” began to play around. Stella played the keyboards with Don Irwin and Don Strauser on guitars. Interest in old-style square dancing and country fiddling grew.
The rest we know. Hilton Kelly is today recognized as the premier mountain fiddler in this part of the Catskills. In 1994, The Roxbury Arts Group dedicated their performance hall “Hilton Kelly Hall.”
That 15-year-old kid, Dave Todd put in front of “The Melody Boys” has now been playing square dances for 74 years. He plays that same violin his grandfather, Ward, bought, second-hand, in a Fleischmanns store, in 1882.
© Bill Birns