December 6, 2020


John Putnam – Founder of Putnam’s Orchestra & Father of Contradance

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History was an African American man named John Putnam who was born during the era of slavery that was not only a barber and musician but became the founder of Putnam’s Orchestra.

John Putnam was born in Massachusetts in 1817 which was during the era of slavery, but there is no evidence that he was enslaved in the state. In fact, he made his living in the city of Greenfield, Massachusetts as a self-employed barber, providing haircuts to the white public as was the norm for skilled black barbers at that time. White men, for the most part, had their hair cut by Black men during this era in American history.

John was married to Julia Putnam, and they had nine children – John H., Joseph, Charles R., Ida C., James S., Anna C., Ben C., Helen (Nellie) C., and Clara C.[1]. By the 1880 census, there was evidence of a grandchild who lived with them in their home whose named was Harry W. Putnam[2].

Not only was John Putnam a skilled barber, but he was also a musician as an expert fiddler, band leader and dance promoter, becoming known as the The Father of Contradance.

Contradance is a country or folk style of dancing when couples line up in a row, face each other and dance. It was John Putnam who reigned the supreme fiddler during Contradances since the fiddle was the foundational instrument in Contradance music.

It was in 1875 that John Putnam founded Putnam’s Orchestra, or band, where he was band leader. Putnam and his band performed all around the Greenfield, Massachusetts area[3].

The Underground Railroad

At the time of John Putman’s life, black people wanted freedom from enslavement. Therefore, many tried to escape by any way they could, and one such route was via The Underground Railroad, which was a complex network of undercover people and secret places that assisted the enslaved in escaping slavery. John Putman was a part of The Underground Railroad, and the state of Massachusetts had a large secret network.

Because of the fact that he worked in his own shop to cut hair, John Putnam was in a great position to use his shop and barbering career as a cover while he helped black people escape and find freedom. He would hide escapees from slave catchers via a tunnel underneath one of his homes, as he had multiple[3], which was one of the steps that led to their freedom.

He would provide escapees with complete instruction unbeknownst to anyone around him as they only saw him as a barber and musician. In all actuality, he was a freedom finder for many of his Black people, knowing well how to keep his right hand from knowing what his left hand was doing.


John Putnam died on June 3, 1895 in Northampton, Massachusetts and buried in Greenfield, Massachusetts at Green River Cemetery. His grave holds both himself and wife, and the tombstone reads John and Julia Putnam, The Father of Contradance.[4]


[1] Massachusetts, State Census, 1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014.

[2]Year: 1880; Census Place: Greenfield, Franklin, Massachusetts; Roll: 533; Page: 323D; Enumeration District: 267

[3]Memorial Hall Museum Online

[4] U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012.