BELFAST, Maine — Outside the American Legion Hall in downtown Belfast on a recent Friday night, subfreezing temperatures made the snow squeak underfoot as eager contradancers scampered, breathless with cold, toward the dance hall.
Inside, it was a different story. More than 200 people shed their winter coats and boots, found partners and lined up in long rows under a disco ball to wait for the dance to begin. Then the lines of dancers began to move, twirling together in complex patterns that were tied together by the relentlessly infectious music played by the Gawler Family Band. Soon, the room heated up as dancers moved forward and back and up and down the hall, stomping their feet and cheering for the band when the songs came to an end.
The band, a longtime midcoast and central Maine institution, is made up of John and Ellen Gawler, their three adult children Molly, Edith and Elsie Gawler, and Edith’s husband, Bennett Konesni. With fiddles, banjo, guitar, a cello, harmonica, washboard and other acoustic instruments — including their feet — the family filled the Legion Hall with the rich, melodic and happy traditional tunes they are known for.
“It’s a joy,” patriarch John Gawler, 67, said later of playing with his family. “Everything else just slips away. It’s almost a meditation. The mind gets really still. All we’re doing is enjoying each other’s company and playing music. That’s a wonderful time. It brings me happiness.”
Lots of families enjoy singing together, and some even have traditions of harmonizing around campfires or on road trips. But for the Gawlers, music is foundational. For them, love of traditional music is akin to a birthright, and they don’t take it for granted. The daughters have gone in different professional directions. Molly Gawler, 31, of Monroe is a dancer; Edith Gawler, 29, of Belfast is a farmer and an architect at a Belfast design firm; and Elsie Gawler, 26, also of Belfast, makes yogurt and cheese at two midcoast creameries. But they all consider it a responsibility and a pleasure to share with others all around the state and even the world.
“We talk a lot about our generation of musical compadres carrying on the traditions that our parents have passed down to us,” Elsie Gawler said. “Keeping those traditions alive feels really, really important, and there’s a lot of energy for it in our generation.”
Some of those family traditions began when John Gawler was growing up in Washington, D.C., with the custom of playing music and singing together every Sunday in what they called a “bing-bonger.”
“We learned to play and sing, and I fell in love with traditional music. I taught myself banjo, guitar, harmonica and those things,” he said. “That’s what we carried through to our next generation. We did the same thing when our kids were little.”
His family began coming up to Belgrade to spend summers when he was 10 years old, and John Gawler became a permanent Maine resident as soon as he graduated from high school in the late 1960s.
“It was home, and the other wasn’t,” he said. “It was clear to me. I found my people, you know, the people I feel really comfortable with.”
As he built a life in Belgrade, where he found work as a sheet metal roofer, he continued to play the roots music he loved. He was even able to track down some of the elderly musicians whose music he admired, much to their surprise.
“There was a time when I was young that people my grandparents’ age thought the music was going to die. In the early 1970s, when I went out seeking the older musicians, they were just amazed that anyone cared,” John Gawler recalled.
One was Otto Soper of Orland, who was in his 80s in the 1970s. He had played in many Maine dance bands in the 1920s, a time when even the smallest communities had a robust heritage of Saturday night dances. Soper knew Down East Maine fiddle music, influenced by Scottish-Canadian and French-Canadian traditions, and which had faded into obscurity over the years.
“He thought his music was going to die when he did,” John Gawler said. “He opened his heart and his home to us. Every week, we would go and spend time with Otto. We were like sponges, soaking it up. We were learning right from the source.”
John and Ellen Gawler, 59, met through music, and when they had their three girls, they kept right on sharing the old-time music from Soper and others. The Gawlers were founding members of the Maine Country Dance Orchestra and lugged their babies to the contradances and other gigs along with their fiddle and guitar.
“They came in Snuglis, or little backpacks,” John Gawler said. “They were involved in music, even in the womb or as little tiny ones. Of course they wanted to join in. Ellen was able to teach them how to play the fiddle, and I sang them to sleep every night with lullabies.”
Elsie Gawler said she distinctly remembers being part of the band as a
“I had one role — to say, ‘thanks for the doughnuts, goodbye!’ after ‘Turkey in the Straw,’” she said. “Music was always around and part of my childhood. I think when I was 14 or 15, I went through a phase of finding how I connected with this type of music as an individual, instead of just being something my family did.”
She found that connection at Maine Fiddle Camp, a multigenerational summer camp in Montville, where people come from all over to learn traditional music. There, she met kids her own age and was able to forge her own identity as a folk-music-playing cellist. It was a nice balance to the family’s life in Belgrade, where they lived in the countryside and had a small garden and a string of ponies at their house and always played and sang together.
“I really enjoy singing with my sisters,” Elsie Gawler said. “Sometimes I don’t really think about how wonderful it is. Because we’ve grown up doing this together, it just feels so natural. It’s kind of effortless, blending our voices, because they all kind of came from the same place.”
Edith Gawler said music was the glue that kept her family always wanting to spend time with each other.
“It was the thing that brought us together in a very joyful and positive way,” she said. “For that, I am forever grateful. It really set the tone for the way we interact with one another as a family.”
She met her husband, Bennett Konesni, as adults at Maine Fiddle Camp, where they hit it off musically and romantically. Konesni, 34, also grew up playing traditional music with his family.
“I think the music itself was a big indicator that we were compatible,” Konesni said.
These days, he and Edith keep busy playing music and homesteading at Duckback Farm in Belfast, where they specialize in growing garlic. They perform with the Gawler Family Band and with their own duo, Edith and Bennett. They’ve also been able to travel internationally as cultural ambassadors with the U.S. State Department and recently returned from a two-week tour in the Ukraine.
“It’s a way to highlight the America that isn’t seen through Hollywood and isn’t seen through the news,” he said. “It’s an honor to serve. I feel it’s a great way to be of service to America. The message we bring is one of peace and international cooperation and collaboration. Those things don’t always come through in America’s diplomatic efforts. What better way to connect with people than through music and food? It’s such a universal thing.”
In March, he, Edith and Elsie Gawler will travel to Mongolia with the State Department. There, they will head into the countryside and play American roots music for people who might never have heard it before, but who will no doubt smile and tap their toes. It’s just that kind of music, and they’re just that kind of musician.
“We fit into the long, long line of humans who make music because it’s a fun thing to do,” Edith Gawler said. “We sing and make music, not because we have to to keep our line going but because it’s something that brings joy to us. It is something that’s so profound, when you think about it.”
Chrissy Fowler, a board member and regular caller with the nonprofit Belfast Flying Shoes dance organization, said the joy is something that is readily apparent to the people who come to dance and listen to the Gawler family play music.
“They smile the whole time,” she said. “They all look alike, and they’re all smiling hugely. They’re definitely joyful and fun, and they’re so deeply rooted in the tradition here in Maine. They’re definitely beloved.”
Elsie Gawler said they don’t take that for granted.
“So often there’s this kind of barrier between a performer and an audience member,” she said. “Whenever and wherever we can, we try to break down that barrier and have less of a gap between us and the audience. Our energy comes from people in the audience. If they’re smiling by the end, it feeds me in a really incredible way. That’s what traditional music is all about. It’s the music of the people.”