Home History Culture Oral History Transcribed Interviews

Victor Schwahn

Conducted by Homer Rudolf (HR)
Some conversation is with Bob Dambach (HR).
Bismarck, North Dakota
8 September 2004

Transcribed by Amanda Swenson
Editing and proofreading by Jane Trygg and Jessica Holkup
Editing German expressions by Marvin L. Hartmann

Prairie Public Collection


VS: My name is Victor Schwahn, S-c-h-w-a-h-n

BD: I can tell you were ready. You need to look at Homer, not at Dave or me. It’s just you two here.

VS: Okay, just us two here, okay.

HR: Could you give us your name, and where you were born?

VS: I’m Victor Schwahn, and I was born about 17 miles west of Strassburg, North Dakota, Lawrence Welk’s home town uh, back in 1938.

HR: And, where did your family come from in Russia?

VS: They came from uh, I don’t exactly know where my grandparents came from in Russia. But they were Germans from Russia, and they emigrated to the United States in about the late 1800’s. And I had three aunts and uncles that were born in Russia. And where they were from, and the rest of the family was all born, my father was born here in the U.S.

HR: Were they farmers?

VS: They were farming. And, several children, they were farming west of Strasburg, about 5 miles.

HR: What are your early memories about music?

VS: Well, the best thing that I remember about music, was when I was about three of four years old. I had a cousin that was much older than I am, that got married in Linton, North Dakota. And I remember Tom Gutenburg, was the Orchestra playing for them. And uh, I was a little fellow, and I had to take a nap, you know, after about 10 or 11 o’clock at night, when they were having the wedding dance. And I remember one song especially called “In the Mood” that Mr. Gutenburg played and that stuck in my mind forever. When I started playing at the age of six, when my father taught me how to play the pump organ, I wanted to play “In the Mood”.

HR: And, so when did you get an accordion?

VS: My first accordion was when I was six years old. I started when I was early six, age of six with the pump organ. My dad bought one at an auction sale. They had one at the farm for many years, and he knew how to play. My mother also had one at their farm. And, actually after he went to an auction sale one day, he brought home this pump organ. Of course I couldn’t reach the peddles, and he would sit me in his lap and he would pump the bottom, and I would, he would show me some of the waltzes on top. So one afternoon in August we were harvesting, and it was raining, and we couldn’t harvest. So my dad says, “We are going to Bismarck today and we are going to buy you an accordion.” So we did, we came to Bismarck and I got my first accordion within a 48 days - accordion. It was kind of tall for me; I had to lift up my head to be able to play. And that’s my first accordion.

HR: Did anyone else in your family play accordion?

VS: My brother does. My next oldest brother plays a little accordion, yes.

HR: Was he already playing when you got yours?

VS: No, he wasn’t. He only learned to play after we got that pump organ, that my dad bought at the auction sale.

HR: Were lots of other people in your family musicians?

VS: My mother played the organ, also, the pump organ. And my, the rest of the family did not play any instruments. The older brother, and the two younger sisters. But my family did. All of our kids are musicians, they played in high school, piano, and both clarinet and saxophone, and also fiddle.

HR: So when you got your accordion, how did you learn how to play it?

VS: All by ear, I never took any lessons. I did all, I just had a knack of listening to the music, listening to the song, sitting down and figuring it out, and uh play it by ear, which I can still do to this day.

HR: So who did you learn from, as far as songs. Where did you get the......

VS: Basically, on my folks had some real old records, and we had an old phonograph. And I would play them. And my uncle had a lots of old time music records from like, from way back when. I would go to his house, and he would put on them records. I would listen to them and I would sit down with my accordion, and I would play them out little by little. I would go from one day, probably sometimes we sat four or five hours playing it.

HR: Did you ever learn any songs from the radio?

VS: Sure did. I played a lot of songs from the radio. I heard ah, there used to be an old time playing band out of Yankton, South Dakota. I listened to a lot of those songs. And of course my biggest factor was Mr. Welk. Who is, by the way, my dad’s first cousin. Lawrence Welk's mother and my grandfather are brothers and sisters. They only lived about ¾ a mile away from the farm. So they would get together, my dad and Lawrence, would play a lot of the old barn dances and kitchen dances, and Names Days, and all that kid of stuff way back when.

HR: So what would your dad play?

VS: My dad played the pump organ.

HR: Oh, so at barn dances they had pump organs?

VS: They would haul them with the wagons, and take them to the farm houses. Or they would come to their house and they would play the parties there.

HR: Well, when did you start playing for dances?

VS: My first dance was a pie social at, um, one of our local schools. They had these pie socials years ago, and I was nine years old when I played for my first dance. And I played for my first wedding when I was 16 years old, my brothers wedding. In the afternoon only.

HR: So were you playing by yourself?

VS: I was playing all by myself. Yes.

HR: What, when did you start playing with other people?

VS: Uh, actually I joined a band back in 1955. Right after high school I joined a band in Bismarck called “Glen Anderson and the Twilight Troubadours”. And we played for 10 years. On the road we played all over the state of North Dakota. And, mostly weekends. And, then of course I played quite a few weddings after that, down in my hometown.

HR: What in that band, what instruments?

VS: Originally we started out with the first band we had a fiddle, a lead guitar, and a rhythm guitar, and the accordion. We played old time and country music.

HR: Did you play weddings and barn dances?

VS: We played weddings and proms, and pay dances. Pay dances, you know the old pay dances where you went out in like Flasher and Solen and the Junction Inn. We would play at a $70.00-$30.00 basis. We would get the first $70.00 dollars at a dollar ahead. And then we would go 30% for the guy that had the hall, and after that it was a 70-30 split.

HR: And did you play barn dances at all?

VS: I played one barn dance, at uh, ah, maybe two of them. Out at barn dance west of St. Anthony, North Dakota, called Adam Burger’s Barn. They had barn dances out there, and we played there a few times.

HR: Have you had your own band most of the time then?

VS: Uh, we played for ten years. I was playing in this band, and the band leader was actually Glen Anderson, and he was the band leader, we played for ten years. And we broke up the band after that because some of them had different things they had to do, so the band broke up at that time. But then after that I was laid off for about two years and did some fill ins for different bands.

HR: So would you ever go in a band now?

VS: I do not, I do nursing homes. I do a lot of volunteer work and then I, once in a while I’ll do an anniversary or a wedding dance, if some of the relatives but some of the relatives and stuff like that. But basically I do a lot of volunteer work right now.

HR: Were you just doing a dance for a nephews wedding? Was that was you were talking about now?

VS: Right, right, my niece just got married last weekend. And I played the wedding marches and the when they came to the hall. And I also played them to the table, which is called a “Dish Marsh” in German. And that kind of thing, so after that they had a different band playing.

HR: Talk about Catholic weddings, and the music band as apart of the Catholic weddings.

VS: Well basically, in those early days accordion music wasn’t done in the churches at all, the Catholic weddings. It was basically the organist playing and the song leader singing. But now, I’ve done some golden wedding anniversaries with the Polka Mass. And I do a Polka Mass at Strasburg, every last Sunday in June. My niece that lived down the farm, well she’s going to school in Bismarck now, she does the singing in church on Sundays. And so we get together once a year and do the Polka Mass in Strasburg.

HR: So what about the receptions? There’s a lot of music at the receptions?

VS: A lot of music at the receptions. They do uh, oh, sometimes sing-a-longs at the receptions, and we have the marches. Consequently, the old weddings we had down in Strasburg, you played in the afternoons. They danced from...they got married in the morning and they started dancing until about 9:30-10:00 o’clock. Then they danced till noon. Then they had dinner, big dinner, and after dinner they played till about 4 or 5 o’clock. They danced all afternoon. But in the meantime some people were just invited for the afternoon...for the supper part of it. They would come to the door, as soon as they did, and if you were playing a waltz or polka or whatever it was, you just stopped and got off the stage, went back there and played this old march, that you marched them in. And usually this old guy would stick a dollar in your mouth for playing him in.

HR: With the wedding party, there was just special visitors too?

VS: Yes, there was the wedding dances. A short set of three dances that we played, and then the whole wedding party. First the bride and groom would dance. Then the best man, and the bridesmaid would dance with the bride and groom. And they just switched around till all the wedding party had danced. The final dance was with mom and dad. They both went in there and danced. And then after that the whole wedding party was out there on the dance floor.

HR: You talked about the “Dish Marsch”. What was that used for?

VS: The “Dish Marsch" (This was a dialect expression which in High German would be Tish Marsch, Table March in English) was the march that was played. The "Dish Marsch" was you played them in when they came in late in the afternoon. The "Hochzeit Marsch" was the march that you played when the wedding party came in. That’s another different march. Then the “Dish Marsch" is the one that you played them to the table when they were all ready to sit down to eat. You went up to the wedding party and they all marched up there, and they were all just kind of screaming and hollering to do their thing to get them to the table. And that was another kind of a march. And after that they had another march that you played where they went around with plates, and went to all the people and they would throw them quarter, fifty cents whatever they had, change in their pocket, the first round was for the cooks. And after that the second round was for the musician.

HR: That’s how you got paid?

VS: That’s how we got paid. And then of course, during the course of the day, when you played a fellow would come up and give you a dollar, and he wanted to dance with the bride. He would pay you a dollar, and that was your pay for the day.

HR: You did mostly Catholic dances?

VS: Ah, mostly Catholic yes.

HR: Did you ever play for Protestant weddings?

VS: Ah, well it I don’t remember for sure, but I’m sure there was. Maybe a half and half.

HR: They would have been different?

VS: No, they were basically the same. If you were from that neck of the woods, and you did a wedding in Strasburg, there was all basically the same kind of format.

HR: What would you be playing with bands after that first band, what type of instruments were in those bands?

VS: Well, I played with several bands, one with Marv Allen Band, I just did the waltzes and polkas for them. They did more country western and that kind of music. And then when it came time for the waltzes and polkas, I would just strap on the accordion, I would play the waltzes and polkas with them. They were both, a lot of them were just guitars and drums and a lot of those kinds of musical instruments.

HR: Were there ever women in the bands?

VS: Oh sure, as a matter of fact, there used to be a lady who would play with us at when we played at the Eagles Club in Bismarck. She was a piano player, a lady named Marge Harrison, no longer with us. But she was a good piano player. We just recently lost another good piano player, Dorothy Seeley. She used to be in our band and played piano with us.

HR: What types of dances, you talk about waltzes and polkas...

VS: Oh no, there was waltzes and polkas, and we used to split it up about 50/50 between the two steps and fox trots, as so called. And every once in a while, once a night...there was no such thing as a chicken dance in the early days....it was the butterfly and the Schottisches. Those were just on a rare occasion. But the butterfly was one that you would always played, at least once during the course of the evening. But Schottisches were in between.

HR: Was the dance organized in any special way so that you do a certain number of dances and then did a little break?

VS: Yes, we always played three different songs. And then if you played a waltz, three waltzes you would end up with at least one polka. I remember one wedding I played in Strasburg. I played seven polkas after three waltzes, and they were all out there dancing all seven polkas, they just wouldn’t quit. (laughter)

HR: Why would there be a break?

VS: Then you would take a break, because most of the people wanted to dance with different people. The format nowadays, is that it just keeps playing continuously, and then if you’re out there with some nice young lady, you should probably want to dance with another young lady. You had that opportunity to after a set of three, you sat down, and thanked them, and had a chance to dance with some one else after that.

HR: Did you play mostly in this area?

VS: We played mostly in the Bismarck area. We went as far of east as Jamestown. We went as far north as Pettybone, Robinson and that area. And we played as southwest as Hanes, North Dakota. And west we played out at Glen Ullin, and that area out there.

HR: Do you think that you have a unique, your own style of playing then?

VS: Well basically I kinda do. I have a, I’m more into the old style of, a fellow back home who did wedding dances, way back in the day of Names Days, a fellow named John Schwab. And I basically followed his style of music. And Mike Dosch, a lot of his, and I like Joey Schmidt, I do a couple of his numbers. That’s the kind of style that I basically like.

HR: So if someone heard you play, then they would know that that was you?

VS: Ah, pretty much so, because a fellow in Strasburg who has the Blue Room now has one of my CD’s and he puts it on. And one guy said the other day “How come you’re playing already, it hasn’t even started yet?” (laughter) He recognized the music.

HR: So you talked about Names Days a couple times. Tell us about those.

VS: Names Days were a big thing back in the um, early thirties and forties, and even in the fifties. My mother had a Names Day on November 25th, and they had a big supper, and had all the relatives and friends invited in to a little summer kitchen. Then we would have this musician by the name of John Schwab come out and he would play probably about 8 o’clock at night till about 4 [o’clock] in the morning. They partied all night, that was a big thing. The Names Days was a really big thing.

HR: What is the Names Day?

VS: A Names Day is the, like St. Catherine was my mother’s name. Her name was Katherine, so St. Catherine was the 25th of November and that’s when they celebrated that particular. It didn’t make any difference whether it was a Thursday night, or a Friday night or whenever, whatever that day was, that’s when they celebrated the names day.

HR: Was that her birthday?

VS: That was her Names Day, not her birthday.

HR: Was that more important than her birthday?

VS: Well, yeah, they didn’t have no birthday parties. Once in a while they might have a birthday party. But not very often. Most of the time the Name Day was celebrated.

HR: Do you remember singing on her Names Day?

VS: Oh yes, I remember I used to look in, cause when we were kids in those days we didn’t get a chance to do much ah.... but when I got a little older, that was when I was four or five or six years old before I started playing accordion. But after I got older I would probably sit in with Mr. Schwab and play with him at the Names Days.

HR: So everyone there sang songs?

VS: Well, mostly just the men did. The men were that were singing the songs, they would sing all the old German songs and harmonize beautifully. Then every once in a while, and the ladies would jump in. And there were some very good vocalists in the group, and they did a nice job singing the old German songs.

HR: So, this was the party you invited the people to then?

VS: Right, right, yah, we were invited all those people were invited to come. And of course after all of the homemade beer and red eye, they were happy. (laughter)

HR: Were the songs sung in German?

VS: Yes, they were sang in German, most of them, 90% of them were sang in German.

BD: When you were doing weddings, would people, besides playing instrumental music, were there be songs sung in weddings as well?

VS: Absolutely, after they got a few like I say a few beers and a few red eyes, they get together in some corner and the guys would start singing, and they’d sing at the weddings. That was a tradition. There was always a group of guys singing, and the ladies would join in, and they would have a probably, the music would shut down, give the musician a little chance for a break. And then guys would get together in the corner, and they would just sing their hearts out.

HR: Would they use a piano or some kind of instrument?

VS: No, they would, no music, no instrument at all. Just harmonizing, just doing some barbershop quartet type thing.

HR: Do you remember any of the names of the songs good?

VS: "Du, du, liegst mir im Herzen" (You Dwell In My Heart) was a song that was most popular. And there was some other ones, I don’t remember all the names of them. But uh, they were nice, very nice harmonizing songs.

HR: Were there other holidays that were important for music?

VS: Well the Christmas holidays were kind of, we did a lot of ah, Christmas songs, you know at Christmas time with the family. And did some sing-a-longs. I would sit down and play the accordion and they would do some songs of, “Here Comes Santa Claus” and all this kind of stuff. I also did a little playing when I went to grade school. I’d take my accordion along for Christmas programs at school. And I’d do a little playing and they’d have little sing-a-longs at school.

HR: There wasn’t, you didn’t play in the church at Christmas time?

VS: No, I did not. I did not play in church.

BD: I was wondering if you could pick up your accordion? You were talking about some of those songs you would play like at the wedding, and if you could just give us some example and tell us what they are. And then you know just mention the songs you played for the cooks, or when someone came in the room, if you could just give us a little sample of that.

VS: Sure, sure I can do that. I don’t need to mention my name again, cause I already got that alright?

HR: No, no. Okay Dave’s ready to roll so keep looking at Homer, and tell us about the instrument that you have.

VS: This accordion was ah, purchased by my wife for me. We looked at it at the uh, out of Chicago, at a catalogue for many, many months. Of course at those days, I couldn’t afford much, and I told my wife I says “I better keep my old accordion so we could make ends meet” Finally, one day for my birthday, low and behold this accordion shows up at my doorstep. I bought this, ah, my wife bought it for me I should say back in 1960. And I have been playing it ever since, through barn dances through Bowery dances, and all these years, I’ve only had it in the repair shop for one time, one time to get it tuned up and cleaned. Otherwise it’s right up to snuff as far as the music is concerned. Now this first march that I’m going to be playing at the old wedding dances at the Blue Room in Strasburg. We would play the uh, after church, the wedding party would come to the hall, and they would be lined up outside. And the uh, wedding dance that was played was the wedding march. And they marched into, around the hall, and they would be screaming and hollering and doing all their stuff there. So this is called the “Wedding March.” It goes something like this.

Playing accordion.

VS: And after the wedding march was done, of course we have the Ehre Tanz (Honor dance). In German, that was the bride and groom would dance with each other, and then all the bridesmaids and best men would dance with the bride and groom. And finally the dance with the parents, went in there and danced. And that was called the Ehre Tanz, and it goes something like this.

Playing accordion. .

VS: You put the little ending on there and they’d all go sit down.

Playing accordion.

VS: And they’d all go sit down. And then you play it over again till everybody had danced with each other in the whole wedding party. And then in the um, course of the day, most of the like, the wedding parties, only some of the people coming were not invited for the morning services or for the afternoon dinner. But they were invited for the evening supper. So after they got done milking their cows at about 3:00 in the afternoon they’d come to the wedding dance, the wedding supper and the wedding dance. And when they came into the hall, and while we were playing on stage and doing the regular dancing, they’d just holler at ya, and I’d stop and run down to the back of the hall and I’d play the Dish Marsch to play them in. And it goes something like this.

Playing accordion

VS: They were screaming and hollering and the would be Jouchtsin (Celebrate!)as they call it in German, and they would clap their hands and Jucht, Jucht all the way down the line as they were walking in. And usually the guy would pull out a dollar bill and either stick it in my pocket as we were playing or shove it into my mouth. Didn’t taste very well. And after that.

HR: What happened after that?

VS: The next order of business, was of course a playing them to the table. That also occurred at the noon lunch, dinner time. When they... after they got into the church after the wedding dances... there was a march that was played when they all walked to the table and especially the bride and groom and the attendants. Its called the Dish Marsch (dish march). Hold on a second..... I got so many marches I forgot which one that was.

Playing accordion.

VS: That was actually the march they played when they went around the table. The Dish Marsch was is another march that was played uh, almost like the when we played them in from when we come into the door. I guess I forgot that one, I got mixed up a little bit.

HR: What about the um, were the bridal parties lined up? So they could make the change. One dance for that, because the bride and groom danced with other people?

VS: Well, the, when the guy paid a dollar for them to dance?

HR: No, no this is when the brought out couples to dance?

VS: Oh, okay after the bride and groom danced the first one, they would go and sit down when I played this [plays accordion to signal music cue to sit down] they would go and sit down, and I would wait a little bit and I’d play the same song over again, and then they switched the bridesmaid would dance with the groom, and the best man would dance with the bride. And they’d dance that segment of three different songs, marches, and then they would go back and sit down again, and then they would switch around with the maid of honors until they all had a chance to dance.

HR: And then you would be playing the three quarters between the....

VS: Right,

HR: There’s more to them?

VS: Right, exactly there’s more to them, till they all danced with each other. And how much they’re going to do down there, I don’t know. And after this, basically uh, the evening of the dance. The full band showed up. The afternoon is probably a piano player and accordion player who played all afternoon and all morning to the dances. And in the evening the full band would come and play for the full dance from about 8 to 2 o’clock in the morning.

HR: How could you play that long?

VS: It wasn’t easy. A long time, some of the accordion players would get sore arms around their wrists and that but uh, they’d manage. We played for sometimes uh, we played for one dance at a private party we played from 8 [o’clock] at night till 5 [o’clock] in the morning. We played pretty well straight through. It was long hours, but a lot of fun.

BD: Basically could you ah, before we got the lights set up, could you go over that again...what the buttons were and so forth again?

VS: Okay, the uh, bass chords back here, this is a 120 bass accordion. It’s got four and five sets of reeds in the front and three and four on the back. Which is the number of reeds, usually a four and five set reed accordion, is a very good instrument, it’ll play for a long time, and lasts along time. In the front is the key board is a 41 treble key, keyboard in the front. That’s a full keyboard as an accordion is concerned, 41 treble keys. I have on this one here, I have 11 switches. I have the master switch that goes right into the master song. I have the clarinet song, and I have all different kinds of buzzes. And that’s all and a lot of the accordions now-a-days with that electronic stuff can do almost all kinds of instruments, but this is the old standard straight accordion.

BD: What’s that by your other hand? Those buttons all over there. The four large buttons.

VS: Oh, this is the uh, switches for the bass.

Plays a little

VS: And you have four back here, and then you have the master, the middle one is the master. They make the different switches, the different sounds of accordions on the bass.

BD: Tell us about the little buttons that are by your right hand.

VS: These right here?

HR: The ones by your right hand.

VS: These here, the bass buttons, this is a middle C right here. These are the basics where you start out with your cords. And you go into F, B flat, E flat and A flat, and on the way up it’s a C, G, D, A. And a lot of people will play the bass using these two, but I play it using these two.

HR: So how many buttons do you have all together?

VS: 120. But a lot of them are doubled, if you go way up to here, they will play the same thing again. But there’s a you’ll see, when you push one, one will move a little bit up here. Uh, so a lot of them are doubled, why that is I really don’t have no answer for it.

HR: Do you use all the buttons?

VS: I use basically, all the way, I play all the keys, all the way down on the keyboard. I use all these buttons from the middle C on all the way down to the E flat, and all the way up to the top to B.

BD: What made you play that, the first song that one that had been stuck in your head. Why don’t you play that for us.

VS: Okay, the first song that I played when my dad taught me was an old waltz, and it was one that Mr. John Schwab played all the time. I can’t even tell you the name of it. I call it the “Old Man’s Waltz”. It goes something like this.

Playing accordion.

BD: Why don’t you play ah, the uh, one you’d play at the barn.

VS: Okay

Playing accordion.

BD: What about the [unintelligible]...

VS: The “Strasburg Waltz”, got to be, no doubt.

BD: Okay, so tell me in about the “Strasburg Waltz.”

VS: Well the most requested song that I get at wedding dances, or any kind of place that I play whether its nursing homes, or something by that for volunteer work, is the “Strasburg Waltz.” It’s the Waltz that is originated down at Strasburg. Its one of those waltzes that everybody remembers somehow or another and they request that a lot.

BD: Would Lawrence Welk play that?

VS: Absolutely, that was one of the waltzes that he would play.

BD: Well, tell me about Lawrence Welk.

VS: Well, Lawrence Welk was from Strasburg, and everybody knows that. And his favorite waltz was the “Strasburg Waltz.” Of course he did another do another polka that was one of his favorites, it was called the “Champagne polka”. I have kind of learned how to do that one, and uh, I think I’ll probably put that on my next CD.

BD: Well, we need you to play a little bit of the “Champagne Polka”, and the “Strasburg Waltz.”

VS: Okay, first is the “Strasburg Waltz.”

Playing accordion.

VS: And of course the next favorite, one of my favorites, too...of course Lawrence Welk’s favorite and it’s called the “Champagne Polka”.

Playing accordion.

BD: Can you tell us the difference between a button accordion and a straight accordion?

VS: Okay the difference between a button accordion and a straight accordion, is of course the button the accordion has all the buttons, and its got the same keyboard for melody as does the keyboards here, but done in a button style other than a keyboard style. And a lot of the button accordions, some of them you had to pull the bellows one way, and you get one octave, and you push and pull the bellows the other direction it was another octave. You had to coordinate that with your music

BD: Which one is older?

VS: I’m sure the button accordion is. The button accordion is the older style accordion and then the keyboards.

BD: Have you ever played one?

VS: I tried my uncles one times and uh, didn’t do too well. Cause I didn’t have enough practice on it. But he did show me a few cords, and I was able to play a little bit of it, but not that much.

HR: Which one’s more flexible?

VS: This one right here, for me. Well I think its more flexible because its got so much more it can do, rather than a button accordion when you listen to them......

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