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
HR: Did you have different dialect in Napoleon, compared to other
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
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
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.
HR: Well, if you didn’t have an instrument in your home.
When people got together for Names Day, did they sing without the
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
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.
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
(talking back and forth, about nothing really, about turning the
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.
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.