History Culture Lawrence Welk
Remembering Lawrence Welk
Helm, Merry. "Remembering
Lawrence Welk." Dakota
Datebook, 11 March 2004.
If he were still living, Lawrence
Welk would turn 101 today. For those few listeners who may have
never heard of Welk, he was one of America’s most successful
Lawrence grew up in a sod house near Strasburg in south central
North Dakota. His first clear memory was of crawling to his father
who was smiling and holding out an old accordion. Another favorite
memory was of the day his brother John got married. Lawrence volunteered
to stay home to do chores so he could play John's accordion the
entire day without being made to stop.
When Lawrence asked his father for his own accordion, his father
said yes... just as soon as he paid for it himself. At that time,
the government was offering a bounty on squirrels at 2 cents per
tail, so Lawrence starting trapping them to get the money. When
he finally made $15, he sent away for an accordion. It was so poorly
made, it lasted only a couple weeks.
About this time, his father took him to see Tom Gutenberg, a traveling
musician. The 17 year-old was awe-struck by Gutenberg's accordion
and made a life-changing decision. He went to his father to offer
a deal: if his father would buy him an accordion like Gutenberg's
- a $400 instrument - he would work on the farm for four years and
turn over every penny he made from his music. His father took several
days to think it over but finally said yes.
After three months, it finally arrived, and Welk played until his
father ordered him to stop so they could get some sleep. In his
autobiography, Welk wrote, "Obediently I put the accordion
down beside my bed where I could still reach out and touch it...
but I got up again at four o’clock the next morning and slipped
out to the barn where I began to play for the surprised chickens
and horses. I played for more than an hour, while the dawn gradually
cut through the morning darkness and turned the sky violet, and
then gold, and then a clear shining blue. That was a moment I'll
When Welk began playing for dances, his father said, "Accordion
playing is all right for fun, Lawrence. But it's not a life's work...
You’d better start thinking more about the farm." That's
where the two parted company; Welk enjoyed working outdoors in the
fields, and he liked building his muscles from the exertion, but
the only thing he wanted to be was a musician.
Welk soon became a favorite at local events, but at one wedding,
an older couple waltzed by, and the man said, "You play pretty
good there, Lawrence, and so does your brother John. But neither
one of you boys plays as well as your father! You just don’t
have the rhythm!"
One night, Lawrence played a dance in Ipswich, South Dakota, where
his brother and sister-in-law promised to watch out for him. Every
time he and his band finished playing, the crowd would pass the
hat and hire them to play another hour. The next day, Lawrence went
to church floating on a cloud - until the priest launched into a
fiery sermon about "the Devil who had
come to town the night before, and lured the people into sin, dancing
and prancing even unto the Sabbath Day!"
The day he turned 21, Lawrence completed his contract with his father
and packed his bags. His father said he'd be back, hungry, in six
weeks. But the younger Welk saw it differently, and it didn't take
long before almost everyone in America knew who he was.
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