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Modern Folks Still Like the Old Songs

Russel, Vicki. “Modern Folks Still Like the Old Songs.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 4F.


“The emigrant may lose everything - love of fatherland and the use of his mother tongue, but the songs of his homeland survive the longest.” - Translated from the writings of 19th century German dramatist and novelist Gustav Freytag.


“Dakota voices are good and clear, the climate probably having something to do with it. “

So said Wasyl Halich, a North Dakota Ukrainian, in a 1951 issue of North Dakota History.

He was describing music heard in the state’s Ukrainian Catholic churches but his comment might just as easily apply to other ethnic-related music and instruments in use today in North Dakota.

Mrs. Alvin Melstad of Edinburg, whose husband is of Icelandic descent, says, “During the Icelandic centennial held in 1978 in Mountain, a chorus of about 20 local men from the Gardar area sang traditional Icelandic songs. They have been talking about reactivating the chorus, which was called Kalakour (Icelandic for men’s chorus).

During its fairly brief life, the men’s chorus sang at church services and at Gardar Community Club meetings. The Melstads live about three miles from Gardar, a town with Icelandic roots.

At Christmas Eve services in Gardar Lutheran Church, the congregation still sings one chorus of “Silent Night” in Icelandic. The words are printed in the church bulletin to help those who do not fluently speak the language.

Icelandic music is heard at some funerals, when Esther Jonasson of Mountain sings. Her town, about eight miles north of Gardar, has the oldest Icelandic church in North America.

Swedish music is often performed in the Fargo area, says Yvonne Anderson. She is a member of the Red River Valley Swedish Heritage Society of Fargo-Moorhead and works at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn. The college’s Swedish Folk Ensemble includes a half dozen or so students who play such instruments as violins and clarinets.

In Bismarck, a Swedish language choir has been organized by Dr. Marlin Johnson, a member of the Missouri Valley Swedish-American Association of Bismarck-Mandan. The choir, which is directed by Johnson, sang at the Swedish Julotta service held Christmas morning at Bismarck’s First Lutheran Church.

The state’s large population of Germans from Russia appears to be continuing its music heritage, both instrumental and vocal.

Dorothy Preabt, office manager for the Germans from Russia Heritage Society headquarters in Bismarck, says, “For $85 each, the society sells a slide/cassette combination concerning the history of Germans from Russia in North Dakota, with musical accompaniment. We also rent these out, but you’d be surprised how many people buy them.”

Music by the Tibor Brothers band of Hebron is not strictly ethnic, but the band does play many German tunes.

Their “Leider Von Wandern” record and cassette tape is a big seller at the Germans from Russia Heritage Society office, as are records of German music sung by the Ashley Lutheran Church Quartet and by Rocky and His Happy Valley Gang.

On weekends, Rocky (accordionist L.J. Rambousek, Glen Ullin) and his band members provide live entertainment at Rocky’s Bar

Bands have found that recordings of German music often are big sellers.

and Lounge in Glen Ullin, which Rambousek owns.

An example of groups continuing the German-Russian music traditions is the Young German Singers of the Napoleon, Linton, Kintyre, Wishek and Tappen areas.

John J. Gross of Napoleon, one of the organizers of the singers, says, “This group does a lot of singing of tunes that our German-Russian people sing anyway. Most of us were part of a group of people who used to go out snowmobiling, but since there was not much snow last year, we spent more time singing, and the group really got going then.”

Carol Vetter of Kintyre was one of the principal organizers of the group of 22 singers, who range in age from the early 30s to mid-50s.

Formed about two years ago, Young German Singers performs at nursing homes in Wishek, Strasburg, Napoleon and Bismarck, and at housing for the elderly in Linton.  August Vetter, who farms between Linton, Wishek and Napoleon, directs the singers.

All but one person in the group have totally German-Russian backgrounds. “And that one has a mother who was German-Russian,” says Gross.

Folk songs and some church songs are part of the singers’ repertoire and 95 percent of the songs are sung in German. Some of the song titles are “Strasburg to Strasburg,” “Nice is the Youth,” “There Would be No Greater Friendship,” “The German Waltz,” “When the Soldiers Come Marching Through the Town” and “The Sailer.”

“Most of the German songs we sing are very old, and we sing many of them in the low-German dialect of the Germans from Russia. The songs were brought along with our ancestors from Germany when they went to Russia as long as 200 years ago.”

Gross continues, “Our kinsmen did a lot of singing when they traveled by oxen for five months from southern Germany to southern Russia near the Black Sea. They not only cried, they sang much to keep from going into despair, and to help keep their spirits up. So it was in Russia and in the early pioneer days here in America.”

Musicians who perform with Young German Singers are organist John Vetter of Kintyre, Anton Wangler of Tappen, who plays electric organ or piano, and Carol Vetter, who plays the accordion.

John M. Gross of Napoleon, who is John J.’s father, was a church organist for 30 years and he now plays piano occasionally to accompany the German songs sung at the Golden Age Club in Napoleon.

Notes for several songs in the “Folksongs of Our Forefathers” songbook were written by him.

Some hymns still are sung in German at churches throughout the state, including St. Boniface Catholic Church 12 miles southwest of Napoleon.

And German music is played by bands at numerous wedding dances in areas of the state where descendants of the Germans from Russia live.

A quartet of Napoleon men sings German songs. They are Leo Gross, Andy Weigel, Andrew Johs and Aloyius Gross. “The quartet has no name, they just sing when they are asked to do so,” Gross says.

Gross says that German singing is done all over North Dakota by groups from Dickinson and Jamestown, to name only two. “Mr. and Mrs. Julius Miller of New England sing in German, and up at Harvey, there is a German band, and they also play German tunes.”

Young German Singers performed in June in Bismarck at the opening ceremonies for the North Dakota Heritage Center, at a Germans from Russia convention at Kirkwood Motor Inn, Bismarck, in the summer of ‘8, and at the South Central North Dakota Germans from Russia convention in Wishek that same summer.

“We’ve talked about practicing more, making tapes, and traveling to such German-Russian areas as Alberta and Saskatoon in Canada,” Gross says. “Every time we have singing practice, each family throws $2 in the ‘kitty’ for our travel fund.”

“The accordion is definitely the German-Russian instrument. You can carry it with you wherever you go, and it is used for polkas and waltzes. In the early days, almost every German-Russian family had either a pedal organ or an accordion in the house,” says Gross.

Mike Dosch of Strasburg and Joey Schmidt, son of Mr. and Mrs. Ray Schmidt of Napoleon, are two well-known North Dakota accordionists.

Schmidt now lives in California, where he performs on the television show of another musician whose early career was as an accordionist- North Dakota native Lawrence Welk.

Dosch grew up on a Strasburg farm two miles from Welk, his boyhood friend, and later played the accordion on numerous national and Bismarck radio and television programs.

“Sixty or 70 percent of the homes here in Strasburg have an accordion,” says Dosch. “People often stay home and furnish their own entertainment - like playing cards - and playing music for singing, waltzes, fox trots and polkas.”

Welk, as most people know is a Strasburg farm boy who “made good” with his “Champagne Music.” Welk’s father, who was a farmer and a musician, came to the United States in 1870 from Alsace-Lorraine. He and his wife settled on a farm near Strasburg in Emmons County and were the parents of five girls and four boys.

The second youngest of the boys is Lawrence, who took an intense interest in his father’s accordion. Until he was 13, Lawrence Welk never had taken a music lesson, but he was furnishing music for community dances. By 1927, he was leader of a band called the Biggest Little Band in America.

Julius and Rose Boespflug Miller are members of the German Folk Singers from the Dickinson area. The Millers, Joey Schmidt and German singer Tony Schaaf of Glen Ullin are featured on the Tibor Brothers’ “Lieder von Wandern” album.

The album is one of many that have been recorded and mixed at the Tibors’ JoMar Record Studio in Hebron.

The studio is named after the brothers’ parents, Joseph Tibor and the former Margaret Hecker, whose father, Leonard Hecker, was born in Russia, came to the United States and began a band in Dickinson in the 1920s. Margaret played piano in the band.

Her sons’ first album recorded at JoMar was entitled “A Special Old-time Tribute to Our Grandfather,” and it featured the nine Tibor brothers who sing and play such instruments as accordion, drums, banjo, guitar and bass.

Currently, the Tibors’ music includes traditional polkas, waltzes, country tunes, hits from the 1950s and many of their own compositions.

In Beulah, a group called German-Russian Singers includes members of the Beulah Germans from Russia Society. It and three other German singing groups were organized during the past 10 years by Rose Schulz of Beulah.

One of the ethnic singing groups Schulz organized includes older women singers, all of whom were born in Russia. Eva Scheid, who now lives at the Joachim Nursing Home in Beulah, is in her 80s and was one of the group’s lead singers. The black skirt and black blouse with ruffled waist she performed in were garments that came from Russia.

The other singing groups Schulz formed are the German-Russian Dakota Singers, a group of younger people; a children’s chorus; and an adult chorus, the Nondenominational German Singers.

She and her two sisters are members of the latter group, which sings locally at anniversaries, parties and Beulah Germans from Russia Society events. The singers are accompanied by an accordionist.

Songbooks of traditional German tunes help disseminate the German-Russian music tradition. “Folksongs of Our Forefathers,” compiled by the late Joseph Height of Illinois and published in 1977, and “Songs We Love to Sing,” compiled by the Germans from Russia Heritage Society and published in 1977, are two songbooks popular with the German-speaking residents of North Dakota, as well as the rest of the society’s members.

Some Polish music traditions are maintained at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, Warsaw. The church was built in 1900 and is called the “Cathedral of the Prairie.”

The Rev. Stanislaus Duda of the church says the church’s choir sings at least one or two hymns in Polish each Sunday.

The choir members of all ages sing from a loft in the back of the church before a huge pipe organ. It is the state’s only Polish-singing church choir.

Duda says there are only a few dance bands in the Warsaw area that play Polish polkas and waltzes.

“Church music by our choir is more important in this town of 120 people. We will soon begin an all-Polish Mass at the church the first Sunday of each month. At Christmastime, our choir sang Polish carols and hymns at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Grand Forks, where choir director Al Gratz of Grand Forks is also introducing a few Polish hymns into his choir’s repertoire.”

In addition to such hymns as “A Lullaby to Jesus,” the St. Stanislaus choir sings Polish folk, drinking and military songs. “I play the clarinet and saxophone and have a little music background, so I teach them the songs,” says Duda.

He says interest and participation in many Polish traditions, including music, is declining in the Warsaw area. “When they closed the school here in 1970, that also put the skids to a lot of the Polish culture we had.”

Why does Duda think it is important to carry on the Polish music traditions? His answer reflects an opinion shared by most musicians who play or sing ethnic music:

“We have something to contribute to this state by passing down the Polish songs. When you get right down to it, the United States doesn’t have many traditions that haven’t been brought to it by immigrants.”

Some ethnic music and traditions have diminished in occurrence as the state’s early settlers have died.

“People used to live on 20 or 30 acres of land. Farms got bigger, more impersonal, more mechanized - everything got to be more ‘Americanized.’ Even as late as 25 years ago, everything around Warsaw used to be in Polish. Even plays were done in Polish then,” Duda recalls. ‘

Duda is attempting to preserve Polish music and traditions by teaching the church’s children to sing in Polish. “I’m translating into English versions of some Polish hymns, and I’ve been trying to introduce the children and the adults to Polish customs.”

Daughters of two of his parishioners sing in Polish at weddings and funerals, and one of them sings with a Polish music band in Minnesota.

A relatively new ethnic music tradition - “polka Masses” - are held several times a year in the Czechoslovakian areas of Lankin and Bechyne, according to John T. Kosobud of Adams.

The polka Masses’ popularity spread from Czechoslovakian communities of New Prague and Gibbon, Minn., to North Dakota several years ago, and the Masses now are held at St. Joseph’s Church in Lankin, St. Catherine’s Church in Lomice and the Catholic Workmen’s Hall across the road from Saints Peter and Paul Church in Bechyne.

At a polka Mass, a three- or four-piece band of musical instruments like saxophone, accordion and bass tuba will provide accompaniment as the congregation sings words of the liturgy to the tunes of such old standards as “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “ Let the Sun Shine In.”

“These polka Masses attract tremendous crowds - even people from Protestant churches,” says Duda. “But instead of the choir and organ, we have the polka band and local singers, usually dressed in costumes that have red vests. When you think of the polka, you think of red vests or red jackets,” Duda continues.

“The polka Mass tunes are played and sung in waltz or polka tempo, or in the manner of a slow country western number,” he says.

At Minot Air Force Base, the music heritage of the state’s black population is represented by a gospel choir of 40 voices under the direction of the Rev. Harold Ray, a chaplain at the base. They have sung traditional black gospel music in concert throughout North Dakota. Ray conducts weekly gospel services at the base for a congregation of some 350 members.

Norwegian music still fills the North Dakota air at churches and Sons of Norway lodge meetings.

For example, the Smaa Fjell Mixed Chorus of the Sons of Norway lodge of southwestern North Dakota is composed of six men. The lodge serves a 50-mile area around Reeder.

The men’s wives are just getting started with singing in the chorus, too, according to Dora Johnson of Reeder. Her husband, Marvin, is one of the singers.

The chorus sings Norwegian folk songs at the lodge functions and does some entertaining at Norwegian couples’ anniversaries.

Other examples of Norwegian singers are Inga Kelnar of

The church at Warsaw plans to hold an all-Polish Mass one Sunday each month.

Scranton, who may be heard singing in Norwegian at weddings and funerals, and Gerhard Christianson of Hettinger, who performs Norwegian tunes and even translates them for his audiences.

Playing the traditional Norwegian Hardanger violin and singing Norwegian folk tunes is the musical specialty of Osmund Vallevik, who lives at Spring Brook, near Williston.

In addition to performing at social functions and Norwegian “lags” (gatherings) around North Dakota, he has recorded at the Norwegian Folk Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

The eight-string Hardanger violin Vallevik plays was one of 28 such violins hand-crafted by his father.

“When someone gets wind of one of these, they go to great lengths to get one. The violins are inlaid with pearl and have eight strings rather than the four of the normal violin. The Hardanger violins are specially made for each individual,” Vallevik explains.

Vallevik’s sadness at the diminished supply of Hardanger violinists is similar to a lament voiced by Ted Pedeliski, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

Concerning the Ukrainian musical heritage in North Dakota, Pedeliski says, “One problem that’s put a dent in musical expression is a lack of violinists and dulcimer players. They died off in the 1950s and 1960s and the ones they have now don’t have such an extensive repertoire of music as the old ones.”

Members of the Ukrainian Cultural Institute of Dickinson are trying to preserve old-time Ukrainian music.

According to society spokesman Agnes Palanuk of Dickinson, three-musician groups (violin, dulcimer and accordion) play Ukrainian music for weddings, private parties, anniversaries and the like.

One such group includes Laudie Burian of Manning and William Namyniuk and August Anheluk, both of Belfield. They have accompanied Ukrainian folk dancers from the Belfield area.

“There are specific folk songs for specific Ukrainian rituals,” according to Palanuk.

“At a wedding anniversary, for instance, the musicians’ part in the proceedings occurs mostly at the door and at the receiving line,” she says.

In the past, the most common instrumental combination was the violin and the dulcimer. “In later years, the accordion has been added for emphasis,” Palanuk says.

Burian, Anheluk and Namyniuk usually perform in southwestern North Dakota, but sometimes they are asked to perform in, the Wilton area, where there is another Ukrainian settlement.

Dulcimer player Namyniuk has played the instrument for 30-some years and makes and tunes dulcimers.

Another Belfield area music group is the Ukrainian Folk Orchestra.

Accordionist Ernest Klem, drummer William Cerkoney and guitarist Al Roller are members of another three-man Ukrainian music group.

They play Ukrainian dance music at such events as a New Year’s Eve party at the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in Dickinson. The three often sing, too, Palanuk said, and they specialize in

Music Passes From One Generation to Next

 contemporary arrangements of Ukrainian music.

“Some of the instruments that the Ukrainian immigrants brought with them to North Dakota have died out,” Palanuk says. “The sopilka, a wind instrument similar to a flute, is now extinct in North Dakota. I have talked to people older than I who remember it, though. When people are no longer interested in playing the old instruments, their usage dies out.”

Another instrument indigenous to Ukrainians is the bandura, a string instrument similar to the dulcimer, but with slight variations. “In Saskatoon, there are people who play it, but nobody I know in the Dickinson-Belfield area does,” Palanuk says.

Dulcimers in use by Ukrainians in the state usually are handmade, Palanuk said. They resemble harps, but are much smaller and are held horizontally, on the knees. On top of a dulcimer are 12 or more groups of four strings. The instrument’ has a range of two or three octaves, depending on its size.

The dulcimer is an ancient instrument, mentioned even in the Bible.

Folk songs are sung at Ukrainian weddings in western North Dakota. One well-known tune is “Dark Eyes.” It is about two lovers who ask, “When, are we going to get married, and where are we going to live? We will live in the meadow ‘til we build our own house.”

The Ukrainian musical heritage contains many Cossack songs. “These vibrant marching songs were very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, and people still sing them today,” says Palanuk.

She is a member of a group of about 10 Ukrainians who sing in the Dickinson area. “When we sing with our Ukrainian folk dancers we sing so they can get a few minutes of rest. We call ourselves the Ukrainian Folk Singers,” she says. The singers have performed in Washington.

“North Dakota Ukrainians’ strongest music area is our church music, in which songs are always sung a capella,” according to Palanuk. “It just has not been part of the Ukrainian way to have instruments in the church music.”

St. Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church north of Belfield and St. John’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Belfield both have choirs that sing divine liturgy and religious songs in Ukrainian.

In Wilton, ancient Ukrainian Christmas carols are sung at Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Traditional native American instruments and ceremonial and secular songs continue to be heard in North Dakota, although the sacred songs are not performed much anymore except in connection with the sun dance of the plains Indians.

At powwows, Indian young people stand by the circles of singers and drummers to record the music on cassette tapes. In part, this is how the music is being handed down to the next generation these days.

While some Indians criticize the commercialism of some powwows, in which dancing and singing contest winners receive cash prizes, they also consider powwows to be forces in preserving their heritage, according to Wallace “Butch” Thunderhawk. He heads the Four Winds Culture Center at United Tribes Educational Technical Center, Bismarck, and oversees powwows held at the center.

Various percussion instruments (like drums and rattles) and recorder-type flutes constitute the majority of musical instruments used by Indians in North Dakota. The Turtle Mountain Dancers, a metis singing and dancing group from the Belcourt, Rolla and St. John area, performs not only in North Dakota, but was featured at a folk festival held in St. Louis in 1976. In addition, it has performed at the National Folk Festival and appeared on Walter Cronkite’s U.S. bicentennial television special.

Edward Johnson, Belcourt, facilities manager and a public relations worker for Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, is coordinator and leader of the group. He plays traditional French fiddle tunes and other members dance the Red River Jig. The music shows the influence of French settlers and trappers, while the Red River Jig shows the influence of dances the French learned from Irish soldiers and settlers.

Ernest Klem and Bill Cerkoney play contemporary arrangements of Ukrainian music around Belfield and Dickinson.
Accordionist Mike Dosch, Strasburg
Two Ukrainian musicians from the Belfield area are August Anheluk, violinist, and William Namyniuk, playing the dulcimer.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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