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Interview with John Gross (JG)

Conducted by Dr. Homer Rudolf
Strasburg, North Dakota
10 September 2004

Transcribed by Amanda Swenson
Proofreading and editing by Jessica Holkup
Transcription and translation of German words by Marvin L. Hartmann

Prairie Public Collection


HR: I’m going to start with giving us your name and where you were born.

JG: My name is John Gross, and uh, I have a J in the middle initial, because my dad’s name was John, see in those days, we uh, didn’t have no two names, so just one name. So we used the initial of my dad’s first name, is J. Gross. I was born in a Logan County, South of Napoleon, sort of between McIntosh, Emmons, and Logan County. And, but we were in Logan County, that’s where I was born, out on the farm, out in the country. That was the style those days, there was no hospital; it was too far to go to a hospital.

HR: Where’d your family come from in Russia?

JG: They came from Mannheim, the Gross’s came from Mannheim, in south Russia.


HR: Yah, when did they come to the United States?

JG: Well, my grandpa Gross came to the United States in 1897 with his parents. And his, my grandpa's siblings came in 1893. Grandpa had to, serve in the Russian Army, and he couldn’t come along, see, he had to finish five years service in the Russian Army. And uh, my uh great grandparents was going to wait till my grandpa was done in the Russian Army, but then, my grandpa, when he was home on the farm he said, “you better go, things are not looking good, and when I’m done, I’m gonna come. So he came alone then. My grandpa Gross, yah. His name was Matthias Gross.

HR: Well you came from a musical family, what are you earliest memories of music when you were growing up?

JG: Well, in those days of course, we didn’t have no radio, no television, and uh, not even a phonograph when I was a kid. But I remember my dad having a pump organ. And in the evenings, he would play that pump organ and uh, I remember so well, oh, we was maybe six years old, and he would sing those old folk songs. And I would fall asleep listening to those folk songs. And uh, pretty soon, he had, my brother and myself, standing by the organ. And we had to sing along, and we sang a song, I remember it was Im Fruehjahr. It’s in the springtime. And, I’d never seen it written anyplace, and to, to this day I haven’t seen this song written anyplace. Im Fruehjahr. But I remember that song, in the later years I wrote it up, so I wouldn’t forget about it. But I got it written up, Im Fruehjahr. And I had to sing to our Grandpa Gross. And the next song was, Grosse Frau und Kleiner Mann (Big woman and little man). That was a song, it was a humorous song, and we had to, my brother and myself, we had to sing it to our uncles and aunts and to our grandparents, for years. So, that was the second song that I got to know, Kleiner Mann und Grosse Frau, (Little man and big woman.). And of course the third song was my favorite one. And from there on I... yah.

HR: Did the whole family sing?

JG: No, no, I had nine brothers and three sisters, and none of them took on to singing. But uh, my older brother sang, oh maybe it was up to 18, then he quit singing, and he don’t sing no more. He the only one that had this of singing (laughing). And uh, I like old stuff, and I’m involved in a Historical Society, in Napoleon, and I feel that these German songs, are our heritage, need to be kept up to, just as well as to save our old equipment, and I find it interesting to keep up the old songs, and I’ve put a lot of them on tape already, try to preserve as much as I can. But I don’t know for who, because our grandchildren surly, aren’t going to be interested in them, I don’t think.

HR: When you were growing up, where did you sing?

JG: Well, where did we sing and what did we sing? Well, we sang the sermons songs because that was our a house language, it was German. And uh, that was the first songs that I got to know in the first language, so, German was preceding over the English, and uh, the only time I had to sing, them songs was for our grandparents, and for our uncles, and for weddings. Especially at weddings. And of course, the name day parties, you can’t forget the name day parties, they were an important item in our growing up days, was Name Days. And that’s really important, I shouldn’t say that, cause my dad would say “every dog has a birthday”. I shouldn’t probably say that, but anyway, them days, it was so important that a, there was celebrations, and we’d sing them songs, and we’d get together with our cousins and so on, and we sang those German songs.

HR: Describe a names day song. What all went on?

JG: Oh, well, you’d have to have schnapps (whiskey), and Maistub (living room) and we’d sit there around the table, and especially my parents so much, ask, when we grow up it was not so common no more, those names, but we celebrated our Names Day too, and of course then it was part playing and some singing. But when our parents had Name Day celebrations, they sat around the table and the schnapps flasch, whiskey bottle was standing in the middle and every once in a while they would pass around the bottle, and have one glass and everybody would drink out of that same little shot glass. And the women would sit around the back and they would yepperkerna, (also keiferkerna - cracking sunflower seeds) eating this... sunflower seeds is what they called it, Russian peanuts. And they would visit and tell stories, and pretty soon one would say, "Han na stimme a'mol eins angh" ("Well, someone give us a pitch for a song.") and then one would start a song and one would start a song and they would sing and I remember, that real well when I grew up there was.

HR: Translate "Stimm a'mol eins angh."

JG: "Stimm a'mol eins angh?" Oh, oh they start out as song, uh, tune in a song, or something like that.

HR: And you, and what meistub? What does that mean?

JG: Meistube! Oh, let me see, gabbing, talking or visiting. Meistub, I know where meistub would come from, meistub, meistub, would mean they were in the front room. Was, I really don’t, I don’t know. Meistub, that was the common name, meistub. Probably was a maistoop.

HR: Did you have different dialect in Napoleon, compared to other places?

JG: Yah, my grandpa had a different dialect than my grandma Gross. Because uh, and of course my dad took on the mother dialect because he was mother tounge evidentially. Like my grandpa would say “Staah” (barn) and my grandma would say “Stahl” (barn) and my grandpa would say “Baem” (tree) to “Bahm” (tree) “Oh, Ich gehe haem." (Oh, I'm going home.) or my grandma would say “Ich geh' yah haam” (I'm going home) and so we, we took on the dialect of my, my mother or my grandmother. My dad took on the dialect of his mother, so that’s how our dialect, and our mother had the same dialect then as our dad had. And uh, see what was the other question that you asked?

HR: Uh, What did I ask?

JG: I had something in my mind I was going to tell ya. Uh, about the dialect evidently, huh. Oh yah, I was going to say, we uh, lived close to McIntosh County. And that was predominately Protestant. And they had a different dialect than we did. And when we would come to Wishek, they would say "Ahh, ahh, you must be Catholic," they could tell, according to our dialect, and we would, when they would come to us, we could tell easily, Ohh... oohh... you must be Protestant," because of the dialect. They had a different dialect. Somewhat different, but we got to know each dialect quite well. There was no problem.

HR: Was there special music for weddings?

JG: Well there was no organ played, no, there all songs in unison, or just standing or sitting down and singing. But, uh, it was folk songs, it was all folk songs. And of course, church songs, were not sang at uh, at uh, parties, like at Name Days, or whatever you had, or at wedding celebrations, other than at church. And like ah, gospel songs or religion songs were meant to be sang at church, or maybe in a proper place. But ah, we so we sang folk songs. I do know a lot of German church songs, of course, because I was in the choir when I was young, and it was German in the church, but we sang just the regular folk songs. It was uh, sad songs, happy songs, love songs, all kinds of songs. It didn’t matter we were, people were just glad when they knew a song, it didn’t matter whether it was an old war song, whether it came from the Napoleonic days, when Germany into Russia. It didn’t matter because ah, a song was a song, and they were just glad to be together and sing. And of course there was really no new ah, German songs. Because the, the songs they were old. They came along through Germany and through Russia, and in Russia, of course they uh, probably hardly ever developed new German songs, because they carried along the songs they brought along from Germany. And when they came to America, well it was, you know as well as I do, they just kept on in those songs, and of course, but that was always the songs that I know.

HR: What about funerals?

JG: Uh, funerals, I suppose you are referring to church evidently. Well there was the songs, yah, there was a Schicksal (fate) song, that had to be sung at every funeral. And at the end of the funeral there was Schicksal.

HR: Can you sing a little bit of them?

JG: Oh, yah, lets see how does it start. (Singing the song but words are unclear.) I really don’t know the words by heart. (laughs) I do have the words at home.

HR: Were there other places where German hymns were sung?

JG: Ahh, let me see, once, I’d have to think about that one. In church, or especially church services. Like during Lent, there was always those German songs. But other than church, no-no-no, not really. Like in the school, the country school there was some like The Old Rugged Cross and some of them, they were, lets see, school songs, but they had more religious songs, that we sang at the grade school. But other than that no.

HR: Who were the other visitors that you knew when you were growing up?

JG: Ahh.. well there was Tom Gutenberger. He was a famous, famous guy, a musician. And um, and then of course, before the.... John Schwab, he had a farm out of a Strassburg here. Then he come to Napoleon, he was a popular guy, he would play them old, old numbers and he would sing those old German songs too. I remember them, I do, and uh, some of the other old musicians, well there was Lawrence Welk. But by the time I had got old enough to go to the dances, he had already left the country. Was Lawrence Welk, I never got to go to any of his dances. And there a, the musicians, the Otto Dahn was another band, from uh, up by Steele and that area, and uh, other than that, at that time I presently, I cannot recall.

HR: Did people uh, get together in the homes to sing?

JG: To sing?

HR: Other than Names Day?

JG: Oh yes, oh sure, when we got together, especially the younger ones, when we got together and our cousins, we lived in the vicinity, where our, all my first cousins lived around there and we would get together and sing part of them German songs, in our home. Oh, not English, it was all German. It was all German where I come from. You could say 100% German. Uh, Where else did we sing? No, not no other place that I recall.
HR: Tell us about the young German singers.

JG: Oh, yah, the young German singers, in '79 when ah, about that time we moved to town from the farm. And then uh, we got together our certain group of us people. And then we got a, singing group started. And then ah, we beated them out of that song, the uh, I didn’t like the name of the young German singers because I was always the oldest one in there. I didn’t like that name, German Singers because I was over voted on that one. Because we got the title of the Young German Singers. The first time that we sang that we got public, was when we went to Wishek at a Germans from Russia Fall Fest. Or lets call it October Fest in Wishek. From there we got on the road, that put us public you might say, that was our first time we had ever played in Wishek. And that was like in '79, or 1980, and then from there on we sang here and we sang there, and we were a group of 21, 22 people. Some either died away or moved away, and then about 8 years ago we disbanded, and we quit, and I was the oldest one in the group. And I was probably one of the very few that could read German, where the gal singing with us couldn’t even read German. But she learned it by heart, and she sang just as well as anybody who could read German. And we had some others too that spoke some German, but they couldn’t read German.

HR: So you sang here and there. Where was that?

JG: Oh, where was that? Hm.. well we sang, okay, lets see, we sang in Wishek, we sang in Strassburg at the nursing home. We sang at the Germans from Russia international convention in Bismarck, once or twice. We sang in Beulah, we sang in the uh Fargo, Grand Forks. One time this uh, Tim Kloberdanz, I think it was, then he had like ah, ethnic group. Different ethnic groups coming together, there was the Polish, the Hutterites, there us, and there was the Czechs, from the Dickinson area, we played there too, and played quite a few songs. Oh, we sang in Napoleon, and just about all around. Quite a few places, we didn’t get, well even the South Corner, by the way at one time.

HR: Were you paid?

JG: Yah, we got paid a little bit. I would of been game, to sing without pay, but there was always some in our group that thought they had to get paid. If they sang like a few minutes, a half our or so, that was enough, unless we got paid more. I didn’t like that. And uh, yah, there was some pay, we got like 200-250 dollars. Maybe it amounted to.. , maybe for the gas and maybe a meal or but that was about all. We never went on for big money anyhow.

HR: Do you remember barn dances from when you were little?

JG: Barn dances, and then there’s barn dances. Why you got to be more, barn dances. When was it, this spring I think, we were the barn dance between our place and Speier. Yes, I remember some barn dances. When I was younger, there was some barn dances around. But then by the time I was able to get a girlfriend and was able to dance good, I was called to the military or the army in 1945 in WWII, and by the time I come home, well we got married, then we settled down and of course I didn’t really get too many barn dances. In our area, there wasn’t that many barn dances where I lived. We was 20 miles northeast of Napoleon. Barn dances were more or less down in the local town, in Logan County, I would say or in Ames County, probably that I would remember barn dances. There was some barn dances here, I would go to barn dances around Burnstead, North Dakota. There was a fellow with a barn there, and once in a while he’d have a barn dance.

HR: What would the bands play for the barn dances?

JG: What were the bands like? There wasn’t usually uh, one man with an accordion, or something like that. That was good enough for a barn, it was no big deal, I suppose. I really don’t recall any uh, specific name of anybody that played. Just well let’s put it this way, just about every other house hold had an accordion, and there was just about somebody who could play waltzes or polkas. Just all around, there was somebody that could play accordion. It was quite common. Well, we didn’t have no musical instrument in our house, practically. Well, my dad had a foot organ. A pump organ for a while, but then there was a couple of years that the pump organ went kaput. And, then we didn’t have no musical instrument in our house. But, uh, why do I come back to this. Well I suppose, not everybody had an accordion in their house, and I know our house didn’t have it. But there was a lot of people that could play accordion. There still is a lot of people that could play the accordion, but they didn’t want to come out in public. They are afraid that they didn’t play good enough, but that was quite common. But it was good enough to play for barn dances. Yah.

HR: Well, if you didn’t have an instrument in your home. When people got together for Names Day, did they sing without the accordion?

JG: Yah, we sang with out it. Sure, sure. We sang without it a pump organ or whatever.

HR: That was common?

JG: Quite common. Quite common in our area, back where I grew up. Well, we lived in the area where my mother came from. Her maiden name was Vetter. And uh, all her sisters and brothers lived in the same area, so we would always intermingle with them. And of course there was all, a kind of a musical thing there. Because uh, my uncle Joe Vetter, he was a church organist, for I don’t know how many years, maybe 30-40 years. My dad was a church organist for I don’t know 28-30 years. So there was a lot of just, singing was quite a common place. But uh, I know a lot of songs, but I’m no professional by far. I haven’t got the voice for it either. I’m not really too proud of my singing, but I know a lot of songs, German songs, by heart.

HR: How many do you know?

JG: How many do I know? Oh my goodness. Don’t ask me that question. I recorded about 70 some songs this winter, last winter, that I put into cassette tapes. But, by heart, I don’t know, I could sing a lot of songs by only by heart. All in all I don’t know, maybe 10 to 15 probably.

HR: Do you sing a lot?

JG: Do I sing a lot? Yah, I tried to sing almost every day. But uh, I’m disgusted with my voice, and I’ve got emphysema, and then a lot of lung problems. Some days my voice is better, and some days it is not so good. But I try to sing something everyday. The wife watches television, and then I sing in my room, and pretty soon “BOOM” she slams the door because its too much noise. And that’s how it goes in our house. (laughs) When I try to sing some song. (laughs) You can ask her, when you see her once. Ask Martha how it is in our house.

HR: What are the oldest songs that you remember?

JG: The oldest songs that I remember, well, well I just said Im Fruehjahr is the title, and then, uh, the very oldest, there would have to be a Grosse Frau Und Kleiner Mann. It goes something like this (sings). So there’s about 8 or 9 verses to that. And it’s a rather humorous song. (laughs)

HR: Translate it in English a little bit.

JG: Oh, there was this big lady, she wanted a little man, for a husband. And that’s what she got then. And then she would go to the dance floor, and he would have to stay home, and he would have to clean up the house, this and that. And when she would come home from the dance floor, and he wasn’t done doing this and that, then she took the broom handle and hit him over the head. And finally he jumped into the butter churn, the big ones that they had in those days. And he jumped in there for safety, and whenever he came up she would hit him on the head. And finally he came out and he went to the neighbors house. And he was complaining to the neighbors about what his wife is doing. And the neighbors said, “Ah , don’t complain, my wife "Du hast dein did the same thing to me yesterday”. And that’s why I say, that it was a humorous song. It was an old, old song. (laughs) There’s about 8 or 9 or 10 verses to that. That’s probably uh, the oldest song probably, and Bleumlein, was also a very popular, old, old song. Wie die bluemlein drausen sind, wann die Abends leuftlein gehen (How frangrant are the outdoor little flowers when the evening breezes pass) That was an old, old song. They would sing that a lot at the weddings. Bleumlein, yah. And um, Du Hast Deine Diamanten und Pearlen. You’ve got the diamonds and pearls, that was a very old song too. I know my dad used to sing that song. And (sings) Ach, Wie Ists Moeglich Dann. (My, how is it possible?) Oh I can hear my dad singing (sings)Ach wie ists moeglich, dann, dass Ich dich Lassen kann, hab dich von Herzen lieb, dass glaube mir. (How is it possible that I can leave you. I love you with all my heart, please believe me.) Well, that was just a lot of songs I would have to have be prepared for that so I could really tell you about the really old songs.

HR: Did your grandmother sing any songs?

JG: No, no. Huh uh. My grandmother didn’t sing, my grandfather didn’t sing, my mother didn’t sing. And I couldn’t figure out why my mother didn’t sing. And then uh, I tried to find out why my mother didn’t sing. And then it came out when she was going to sing it one time, and she sang it off key. And my dad gave her a bad reputation, a bad feeling about it, and that was it, she no more sang, that’s what I was told. My dad was the only one, really in my house that sang other than his two kids, my brother and myself. That was all, my grandpa Gross, he didn’t sing. I can’t believe it, at least that’s what I remember. I remember my grandparents, and some of my great grandparents. And my dad was one of the oldest in his family, and I was the oldest in my family, so my great grandparents were still alive see. So there was no, but we still had to sing to our grandpa, whether he enjoyed it or not, I don’t know, but he listened. (laughs)

HR: We would like you to sing a couple of songs like you do at home with your omnichord.

JG: Oh okay, yah. Uh, (stutters) We, in our church, we had what they call a sotality. A young people group. And when we got there, there wasn’t a hall beside the church. And then we put on some skits too. And we went from town to town. And we sang some German songs too. And uh, and their popular song was Leisentente. It was a war song, we sang it just a lot of war songs. I do not know how come there was a lot of war songs. It goes something like that, if you don’t mind, it goes something like (sings) Leise sind die Abendsglocken in den Kloster zu Berlin. Drueben liegen viele kranken, und verwunden ...... In den Kloster gehet leise jemand in schwartzen Trag. See it was like in the wars that between uh, Germany and France. And Strassburg, and when some of the soldiers that they fell. They were brought there in the Kloster ( Convent). That’s where and, the nuns and then there was like a hospital, and they were supposed to take care of them. And that is what the song is about, and the mothers would come there and claim their sons, and maybe tend to them when they are tried to get healed up. That’s what the song tells about how it was in those days like in Germany and France, well there was a lot of cloisters there, in Southern Germany. Cloister, what is that, its like a monastery thing. So okay, that’s what the song was about. Some how, I don’t know why so many German songs. I just know quite a few of these war songs. But, we grew up as kids, we didn’t think nothing of it. We didn’t realize just what this was all about, these war songs. (pause) ( Now he’s playing on an insrument [omnichord] of some sort and sings. Words are not clear enough for transcription)

HR: I would like you to play the song you first learned from your dad.

(talking back and forth, about nothing really, about turning the volume down)

JG: Ahh, now you would like to hear.

HR: The first one you learned from your dad. Could you tell us the name of the song?

JG: Its called Im Fruehjar (In Springtime). And then I like to go out to the field, and in the field in some time, I like to go out and enjoy the birds, but I have a brother who likes to go fishing. And uh, he wants me to go along with fishing, but I say no, I like the birds. But then he says no, you go along with me go fishing, and then I says no, you go fishing cause I don’t want to stand there all day and try to catch a fish. And then we agree you go your way, and I go my way. And that is what the song is all about. See once that I get the right key. (Sings) I uh, I goofed in one place in the words, but I know, I kept right on going. Its not too noticeable.

HR: It works for me.

JG: It works for you alright, you didn’t recognize that. But I’m satisfied if you are.

HR: No one ever said anyone’s perfect.

JG: Yah. So.

HR: (Unclear)

JG: Oh, oh that war song.

HR: Do you know what it is?

JG: (plays omnichord) (Sings Leise Sind Die Abends Glocken which was referred to above.) I know I left out two important verses, but I wasn’t quite sure of it, so. There’s another German song if I may that uh, I had to sing of it to my great uncle, its also sort of a war song. A very popular song, sort of one of the older ones too. (Sings, and plays the omnichord.)

Tape ended during the middle of the song. And the side B didn’t have anything on it.

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