A Heritage Lives On Through Song

Gross, Megan. "A Heritage Lives On Through Song." Napoleon Homestead, 3 January 2018, 1 and 6.

The German-Russian culture has many traditions which live on, such as knoephla, kuchen, and polkas. But one tradition that may seem to be fading is kept alive by a few German-Russian vocalists.

Last Thursday, Dec. 21, John Gross, Joe Gross, Brian Gross, Gaylynn Becker, and Karl Becker played and sang some original German folk music at the Napoleon Care Center.

John Gross of Napoleon learned the German songs very young. He said that his grandpa, Mathias Gross, and dad, John M. Gross, sang and taught him how to sing and play music. “When I was eight years old my dad called me up to the organ. My dad was the church organist,” said John Gross.

Entertaining residents at the Napoleon Care Center on Thursday, December 21 with German Songs, left to right, were: Karl Becker, son of Gaylynn Becker, Brian Gross, son of Joe Gross and Joe’s uncle, John Gross.

Over the years, John has been a master to over 10 apprentices. Gaylynn Becker, Bismarck, was an apprentice under John last year. This year a nephew, Joe Gross, formerly of Napoleon gave it a try. The apprenticeships are granted through a state organization called the North Dakota Council on the Arts. An apprenticeship will match a master in an art with an apprentice to continue cultural traditions. The apprenticeship lasts about nine months.

Joe and John have played for many audiences including St. Gabriel’s Community, Marillic Manor, Edgewood Vista in Bismarck and Napoleon Care Center.

Joe Gross started singing while in high school choir in Napoleon and has been singing in his church choir for 20 years. He said it was always in the back of his mind to learn the German folk music with his uncle John. All it took was a little nudge from Gaylynn encouraging him to do it. He told us that he is really glad he did it and has learned a lot about his family history through the process. “When we were singing, he’d have a story or two every day that I’d try to write down,” Joe Gross said. Apprenticeships like the one John and Joe have are more than just keeping music alive, it’s keeping generations of family history alive.

What really makes these original German songs special are the stories behind the songs. Whether it be a love song, a war song, or a party song, they all have a special meaning and story tied to them. “I kinda like war songs because I was in World War II. Our people brought along a lot of war songs with them,” said John Gross.

There is so much preserved history in these original German songs. “Folk singers are in essence the story teller of our history,” said Troyd Geist, a Folklorist with the North Dakota Council on the Arts. John is well known all over the state, but I don’t know that people understand the rarity of these songs being hundreds of years old,” Geist said. Some of these songs John is sharing with people are 400 years old and have not been written on paper but have just been passed down from generation to generation.

John Gross is 93 years old and still doing great playing music and traveling around North Dakota. His wife Margaret says it’s kind of what keeps him going. It is great to see John keeping this simple tradition alive and helping the German-Russian heritage continuing on through song.

Reprinted with permission of The Napoleon Homestead.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller