Interview with Adolph Lesser (AL)
Conducted by Dr. Timothy Kloberdanz (TK)
12 September 2004
Transcribed by Amanda Swenson
Editing and Proofreading by Marvin L. Hartmann
Prairie Public Collection
TK: Adolph, if you would tell us your full name.
AL: My name is Adolph Lesser.
TK: And where were you born?
AL: In Loveland, Colorado.
TK: And when, what year were you born Adolph?
AL: In June the 21st, 1915.
TK: Tell us about your family, did you come from a big family?
AL: I had seven brothers, there was 8 boys and 1 girl. And I was the second to the youngest, Dave was the youngest. The others were all born in Russia. Then my parents would come over.
TK: And where did they come from in Russia?
AL: Frank, Russia. And out of those eight boys, 4 of us served in World War II.
TK: And you yourself, you were in some of the big engagements in WWII right? Which ones?
AL: I was in with the 35th infantry division. And I was in Normandy. And then in between I was in the Battle of the Bulge was my last one. And I was in five major campaigns. I was in four different armies. And mostly with General Patton's Third Army.
TK: You were with the third army with Patton? Now Adolph, maybe I shouldn’t ask this but with WWII, with the first name like Adolph, did you have to take a lot of ribbing?
AL: Oh you know I had a lot of fun with that. After I had a stroke, and I went to the hospital here for therapy, there is two German girls in there, they are about the best therapists you could ever find, they really know their business. And they like me, always had a little fun with them. And one of them names was Uta, like cutting Utah short, and the other was Petra, I said “ I’ve never heard of those names in Germany”. They said, "Well, they’re very popular nowadays." I said, "Well, I might mention a name that wasn't quite so popular." I said,"Has any of the babies been called Adolph?" They said, “Oh, no!”
TK: And then what about, during the war, did you have to take any teasing during the war?
AL: Oh during the war, I used to have pure dark hair you know, and you didn’t have any mirrors to shave. And I had always had a mustache. And I kept shaving, I didn’t have a mirror. And a guy looked at me and said, "Have you looked in the mirror lately? I said, "No...." He says, "They’re looking for a guy with your name and mustache like that!"
TK: Now did you change your name during that time?
AL: No, no no. You mean, if my music career? No, no no. It probably would have been better if I had, but no.
TK: Now what year did your family immigrate to this country.
TK: And where did they settle?
AL: New York.
TK: Oh, so they came into New York?
TK: And then from New York?
AL: To Loveland. Now, I might say something, my brother George was about four years old. And his eyes were good. And they thought they might keep the family over. The rest of these were all going to London, and my folks they were leaving their home in Russia, and if they go back they have a home, and if they don’t, forget it see. So they thought they’d keep our family later. Pretty soon this guy said, "See, how bad do you want to go?" They said, "We really want to go bad." "Give me 20 bucks under the table." I was wondering how many 20 bucks in one day, he picked up, and that was a lot of money then.
TK: Yeah, now, you had told me on the phone something, and I don’t know if you remember, but, you said that “Maybe our German to Russia people weren’t so smart on coming to Colorado in the first place.”
AL: My dad said, "Why did we ever come to Colorado?" We worked ourselves to death, raising those beets, and working and irrigating. We were used to the cold weather so North Dakota wouldn’t have been any worse. And if we had irrigate in the old country, it would have been better to move to North Dakota. I think we would have been better off.
TK: Yeah, somebody commented last night at the Dutch Hop, they said an older gentleman, he said “You know our people worked hard in the beet fields, but when it came time to Dutch Hop, they played hard”.
AL: Oh, I’ll tell you, in my day when we farmed, spas would have gone broke. Nobody needed a spa, you worked hard every day. And then when there was a dance at night, they were able to go out there and dance along to the tunes you know. But we didn’t need no spas. We’d be working in the fields, we’d be wringing wet and every thing, we never had to go to a spa.
TK: They were wringing wet last night on the dance floor too.
AL: Yeah, I believe it. (laughs)
TK: Was there music in your family?
AL: Yes, my brother, I had three brothers that played. Conrad played well, he played real well. And Brad played a few weddings, and he quit. Henry played for his own entertainment. But Conrad, when I was real young, and he was playing weddings in Colorado, and I would always go along and sit in the corner and listen. But he died of pneumonia real young, 28 years old. And then his wife had some accordions and my dad told me, "Don’t you ask for an accordion." Times were tough then, I mean, present days, because she needs her, all of her money, she had little insurance and everything. So I don’t know what happened with the accordions, they just went someplace, whether she got paid for them or not. But I went on from there. We moved to Janesburg. I always tried to learn to play anything I could get my hands on. I don’t know how many harmonicas I wore out, but I could afford them. But then we had a pump organ and I worked on that. And I tried to build a dulcimer, with not much success. And then we got a two row button accordion, and I played a few shack dances and whatever. And then finally, I made up my mind, there is no future in this. I’m going to Denver and I’m going to buy a full sized accordion, and I’m going to give you a cassette today with a picture of it on the side. It was the most beautiful accordion, rhinestone accordion, two hundred dollars, and I thought I’d never ever get it paid off. I played in mining camps, and I played in barn dances. In the fall you’d play a barn dance and it was cold. You could see your breath until a bootlegger came or else the crowd and warmed it up you know. And then the pay was by the collection of the hands. And by the time you counted the nickels, and pennies, and washers and tokens, every little tax money they had then. Two bucks, two fifty, three bucks, three bucks was a good night, because people were working for a dollar a day. But I sucked so much dust into this accordion, and I’d have to go to the filing station the next day and blow it out and get ready for the next job. What I done, to play and everything came, not many people would do. I just done anything I could to play, I wanted to play.
TK: At what age did you start then?
AL: What age did I start then?
TK: What age did you start, how old were you?
AL: Oh, I guess I started when I was about 11, or 12. Messing around, but I had a band when I was sixteen. I had a band then. And I played in Greeley at the Sunset View Pavilion. It was a big dance hall and at that time, they’d bring the radio station in on dance night, if you were driving down the highway, you’d hear my band play. And every Saturday night was like a New Years Eve dance. Then I got a job played at 6:30 every morning, playing over the radio in Greeley. And I had some good sponsors like, Mayer's Hatchery, Gallup Chevrolet. But I had Purina Chow, which was good. And you kept saying, keep those letters coming folks, because when the mail got pretty thin, you were almost out of a job. So you had to beg for postcards. And so I played there a long time, it got me a lot of jobs in the neighboring states, you know. They’d hear the band and they’d hire me to play. So I got a lot of jobs out of that.
TK: Now, you mention you played shack dances, what are shack dances?
AL: Shack dances, well it is farmers, they’d have these beet shacks you know. And that the laborers lived and worked in. Well it was empty, and you didn’t have to advertise a shack dance, people were so poor in those days, the single people if they got 50 cents on a Saturday night, that was a lot of money. They’d go to the dance, and then they’d go to the picture show and then they were broke. But on a Sunday afternoon, you could go to the park in Loveland or in Greeley or in Windsor, these young people were all in the parks, and if you had a megaphone and to tell them that there would be a shack dance tonight, oh that spread like a forest fire, then another one would run to Windsor and Hall, and you’d be playing that night, and every body knew it, you never had to advertise it in the paper. (laughs)
TK: Adolph you said when you were playing, what instruments were in the Shack Dance?
TK: So just an accordion?
AL: Yeah, alone. And I played some barn dances alone too. It was, my accordion, didn’t have amplification for 17 years. I played it without amplification. And I would sit on the case and play, and when I'd play the last number, I'd put it in the case and I was gone in two minutes. And now, the equipment I have... the van and everything, there is a difference you know.
TK: What songs would you have been playing back then? What were some of the names of the songs?
AL: Oh, you mean the polka? Mostly our Dutch Hop style. But more than that. I had the musicians when I had the band. We’d play a lot of proms for the high schools. You know the modern numbers, no polkas, I’d have to write in the contract, no polkas. So when I’d be playing, and some of these people were “Come on Adolph, play the polka”. I said, "No I can’t do it." They said “What, you think you’re too good?” I said "No, read the contract." But I wouldn’t have got those jobs if I'da played polka, you see. So we know, we were up to date on all of our modern music.
TK: Were you always a full time musician?
AL: I never meant to be. It just happened, I never meant to be a full time musician. And I never meant to go into the army neither, but it just happened. I worked in the Cheyenne Union Pacific railroad shop. Jobs were hard to get. But I was already playing then, and I kept running down here to play jobs, to Denver. And after the jobs Cheyenne... that was too far. So the Union Pacific in Denver, the railroad shops, they had a band, and a guy by the name of Frank Wolf. I got a hold of him and told him my story and I says “Frank can you fix it to where you can have me try?” He said, "I'll try." And he had me transferred down there, and that’s when all of my friends, machinists in Cheyenne jumped on me. They been trying that for years and didn't get a transfer. So then from there, I went to the army. And it was good, because wherever I was in the army, my wife could ride the train for nothing see. So I got out of the army, and came home, and my wife rented a place in Loveland. She was in California before that. "Rosie the Riveter," she worked in a defense plant. So I said, "Lets go to Denver to look for a place to rent." So I can come back to work. I decided to go into the shops first, so I walked in there and there was a young kid in there. He said "What can I do for you?" I said "I guess I got a job here, if I could ever find a house to rent." He says, "What kind of job?" I says, "Well I’ve been working out here as a helper." He said, "If you have a job here, I want you to go to work tomorrow." I said, "I don’t have to, I got so many days." "Well, he said, "Why don’t you move into a hotel like where I’m living?" I said, "I don’t make the money." He was a personnel (unclear), and I had enough of that in the army. You know the old song, but I told him and I went out in the shops, and they said, “Hey, look who’s back, when you coming back”? I says, "Never." "What happened?” "Oh" they said, "Yeah, that guy." I went back to the car, and she says, "When are you going back, what are you going to do?" And I says "I don’t know." Went back to Loveland. People came to my house every night. Everybody was getting married. Wedding, wedding. I played five weddings in a row. Five nights, in the same place. Play for your bride and groom. Lay down your instruments, go home at two in the morning. Come back different bride and groom, five in a row. And then I gave a New Years Eve dance at the Armory. And we could have filled two armories. And I got to thinking this isn’t too bad so. So another friend of mine we decided to build a dance hall, so we did. Down here, a nice ball room. We call it South of Denver. They have a little town here on the side they call Rosedale, and the other side is Garden City. And those two little burgs were the night life of Greeley. Loveland was dry. Greeley was dry but they had all kinds of bars and music out there and that’s where we built our dance hall. We run it six years, we hired big bands on Wednesdays nights, westerns Friday nights, and polkas Saturday nights, and always a wedding on Sundays. Run it six years. Then I was too far in and I couldn’t get out. We would have had to buy some land and I built a music store and I was in that over 20 years. So I always had a business in conjunction with my band, I never quit playing.
TK: I have one question, that people ask, "Were the barn dances..... what night were the barn dances generally on?"
AL: Anytime. You couldn’t have a barn dance now. You’d have to have police protection, insurance, everything in the world. Barn dances then were just like I told you, like those shack dances. We’d announce we were going to have a barn dance Sunday night. Adolph Lesser is going to play, don’t worry about a crowd, they’d be out there. And the bootlegger would make some money, and the guy running the dance would make some money, and I would made a little bit of money. And everybody was happy. You couldn’t do it now. They did have two barn dances in Colorado. Jimmy Smith’s barn dance, southeast of Loveland, and then they had a barn dance down at Loveland. They were built for year around. And that’s when I met Paul Winegard. I played over the radio and he heard me in Sterling, and I advertised that I was going to play at Jimmy Smith’s barn dances on a Tuesday night, southeast of Longmont. And he come down there to meet me, first time we had ever met. And after that we were good friends.
TK: What kind of man was Paul Winegard?
AL: Great musician. He was a nice guy. He was a great musician, good teacher. And he had an accordion studio in Denver and I had one in Greeley. And we didn’t bother each other. He had enough business there, and I had enough business here. But if he wanted something from me, I’d give it to him and if I wanted something from him he’d give it to me. And I was recording albums then and he was too, and of course we’d handle everybody else’s albums. And he’s stop in front of my store with a station wagon. He’d carry an armload full like that, open the door and set them down. And I’d say, "What do you got?" He'd say, "I can’t sell them in Denver." I says, "Well pick out some others and just leave those here." We’d just trade, no money exchanged, got along well that way.
TK: Adolph would you tell us about the weddings? The old time Germans from Russia weddings, because, do you remember whether they were one day, two day, three days?
AL: Oh well, it depended. They were one, there were two days, there were three days. At the earlier stage, they didn’t use the accordion much. They used two violins, one would play the lead and the other would kind of second you. They had a dolcimer, and a cello with a bow. But that was only in the houses and the smaller places. Pretty music. Then later, I played with four people. They were close to fifty from the old country. And I was about 18. I had a job of just chording along, I never played a little lead on the accordion, just a little foundation in the corner. If I played too loud I didn’t have a job, so I’d keep it under their music, you know. Then later on, why the violins had to give way to the accordion, the bigger places, the amplification and everything.
TK: What year was that you say, when the accordion came in big, when?
AL: Accordions, most of them from the beginning were button accordions. They were a little inferior, you couldn’t play sharps or flats on them or too much. It was a push and pull like a harmonica, a blow and draw. They had the chromatics, but nobody knew how to play them. But then the piano accordion came in, not that big, but they had small ones and others. So they started to work on the piano accordion, and then finally they took over, you know.
TK: Now, with these weddings Adolph, could you tell us sometimes they would talk about blowing in the bride and the groom?
AL: Oh yeah, yeah. Well I’ve got a picture here, from Frank, Russia, I’d like for somebody to look at it.
TK: Oh, okay, I think I know which one you mean. Is it the bride and groom going down the street with those musicians?
AL: No, no. All those guys were, were the horns.
AL: Well, I have no idea. A lot of those people in Russia learned how to play horns. Later on you know, some had to go to the army, maybe they learned it there, or maybe they learned it at home. But some of those came to Loveland, and the church that I was going to, they had a bunch playing horns on a Sunday. And then of course they had to learn other instruments to play weddings. So, then when the bride would walk into the church, they would stand there playing their horns. When the bride came out they’d play their horns, and they’d get in a car and try to meet the bride and groom where they were going. And then they played their horns there. Well that was almost the end for the horns. But they kept them sitting right behind them, but then they’d play these other instruments. Now, if somebody wanted to pay a little extra in the dolcimer, they’d pick up their horns and give them a little special sing-along, you know. So you had to pay a little extra for that. So then, later on, the horns kind of disappeared, they still use the trombone, or whatever, in these, like what you heard last night.
TK: Now they talk about this tradition of Duesch. What is that all about?
AL: That was the sing-a-longs. You would, you’re going to dance with the bride. You go up and pin money on her. And Rosalinda pins money on the groom, and you throw money in the dulcimer. And we played this Duesch. It was a sing-a-long, sometimes they’d sing along, sometimes not. It was an extra special number we played for you four. And we know a lot of them. I had those old time musicians with me. We knew fifty of them. But some of the bands didn’t know over 7, 8 or 10 of them you know. But these old timer, I thought I would be with them the rest of my life, which was a mistake. I should have learned some more from them, so that’s what happened. And I had an old man playing dulcimer with me. And I was playing so many weddings, like, two, three a week. Maybe a month later, somebody would come up and say "George, you played over that at Lafayette, who got married over there?" "A couple single kids," and he’d say this in German, because he couldn’t remember you know. (laughter)
TK: And this was George?
AL: George Dinas.
TK: George Dinas.
AL: He would always say that, but he was right, people got a kick out of that.
TK: That’s good, now Adolph, when did this term Dutch Hop come about and why?
AL: Exactly like a, Dutch Hop, you see the advertisement I showed you. It was advertised as German Dances. When WWII started the German newspapers had to quit printing. And you couldn’t use that word German. So somebody, I was going into the army when that happened. Somebody thought up of the word Dutch Hop. I don’t know who, or why. It has no connection with our business, but it worked. He advertised Dutch Hop, and the dances continued, and they still call it Dutch Hop. When I come back from the army, they was all talking about Dutch Hops. And some of the people never heard any different so we’re stuck with it for the rest of our life, it will never be changed back again.
TK: Now what is it Adolph, about Dutch Hop music that is different? Is there something different about it from the music in like Milwaukee or.....?
AL: Yeah, well, Dutch Hop is not easy to play. I hate to say this because the Slovenian music is easier to play. Chezch and Bohemian music is easier to play. Polish music is pretty hard, Russian music is pretty hard. But, from what I can gather, just by all, I played all these Dutch Hops, and I played some Russian music and I played some Poland music, some of the Dutch Hop, they were a little steal, a little sprinkle of Russian, Polish and neighboring countries over there, and it’d all worked into the Dutch Hop. But the Dutch Hop, you have steady fingering mostly one note. It’s not dollying around on chords like some of them, so it’s not easy. Frank Yanchovik, we’d played a lot together. America’s polka king, he had a show on in Chicago, one whole hour. And he wanted me to come back and play with him on the show. I didn’t have the men that could travel then, they had jobs. But I have a letter right here, he says, but before we play we’re going to have to practice a couple of nights with you. Because that Dutch Hop music, that’s not easy for us. But I could play his music, but he couldn’t play ours. So, well there are numbers that were handed down from generation to generation in true folk tune tradition. And no music written, hardly at all than there is no, but there never was then. But then I noticed some people would say dorf, villages in Russia, Frank here and another one there and another one there. They probably played the same number, but a little bit different. And you couldn’t say he was wrong because he was just as right as you were. And in Kansas they played a lot of them different.
TK: Now, in Kansas they will say something like “Play me a hook sight”. Will you know what they mean?
AL: Yeah, they were smarter than us. They call our music hoch zeit. (Wedding) . If they would have advertised hoch zeit music there, this Dutch Hop, they would have never been in there. They never accepted it, and they advertised it and got by with it just fine. Wedding, wedding music, if they would have used that here, they would have never gotten a hold of the Dutch Hop. But that’s all right.
TK: Now with Dutch Hop music. Would you say that Dutch Hop music also that it ends a certain way. That when it ends, the tune does it end a certain way?
AL: Oh well, that’s a pattern, that only the Dutch Hop players have. It has a different ending, it warns you with about three different chords. And maybe it’s a good thing, because when I was playing these house dances, and they danced in a room like this, and if it didn’t have an ending, and you didn’t give them a warning to stop. Some of those guys would have run into the people on the sides you know. They were going so fast and everything. No, that’s that was created by the people who plays Dutch Hops. Nobody else has them. No other polka players have that.
TK: What about the hammer dulcimer? How important is that in the Dutch Hop?
AL: Very important. The hammer dulcimer, they still argue, who invented it. Now some people think it came from Germany, absolutely wrong. They don’t even like the hammer dulcimer. Their instrument is a zither, but don’t be berating that thing, that’s a good instrument. Like the Third Man Theme years ago, with the zither, that was a hit. Now I played a wedding for some people from Germany and I brought a dulcimer. They said don’t bring that back no more, because we don’t like it. Our thing is the zither. So maybe the early dulcimer you see in Germany is in the museum. But the Russians in Canada claim to have invented it. And the Germans never did claim it, but that’s where they came from. But then you have these guys down in Tennessee and Arkansas, back in the hills they have a dulcimer, almost like this, and when I was in the store, I saw all kinds of different dulcimers. So we don’t know who invented them. But they’re good. Now I have a couple of records here, back there from Argentina, that I told you about, that the Germans from Russia who live down there. But I couldn’t hear a dulcimer, and they play the button accordion, mostly horns and violins, but they didn’t play the dulcimer, I couldn’t figure that out. If you listen to those, it’s a little different.
TK: Now Adolph, you mentioned that sometimes when people came forward, they would put money under the strings of the dulcimer, would they ever put coins?
AL: Oh, you mean coins, oh, let me tell you about that. Do you remember years and years ago, when you went to Wyoming, and the northern part of Montana, you didn’t see a dollar bill. Do you remember that? Everything silver dollars, silver dollars. At that time if you bought 3 dollars of gas and gave him a ten dollar bill you’d get seven silvers. Well, right after WWII a family from Scotts Bluff lived up there, and they called me and said, we just want you and your relatives to play this wedding. And I had enough relatives to make a band. One of them came from Canada and from different places, we’d played together before. We’d played in New Orleans. And I want to tell you something, these people were hungry for a German wedding, and they really went all out for it. They started to throw those silver dollars in that dulcimer, and finally my cousin said, "I can hardly play it. Let me dump it," He raised it up and held a cigar box, and filled it. And later that afternoon he says, "Where are we going to put them?" I was wearing suspenders and I had my pocket full and I could hardly keep my pants up. And now, a guy came along and put in a fifty dollar bill, and I told Reinie, my cousin, I said, "That man didn't want to do that." He says, "I know it." He tapped him, he says, "You put...." He says, "I know what I’m doing!" He give the bride a hundred dollar bill. So we played. Later in the afternoon he put in another fifty. I don’t know how many hundreds he put on the bride. The next day, I called the brides mother over and I said, "What is with it this guy? He’s putting fifty..". "Take all the money you can get from him. He’s our landlord, he owns most of the farms, most of the oil wells, take all the money you can." So we got five 50 dollar bills, and I bet you that bride got at least 1000 dollars, hundred dollar bills. And then when we went to eat the dinner of the German noodle soup oh, he carried on about that. So then we felt at ease. That was a wedding, I’ll never forget as long as I live. Oh, we had a lot of silver dollars, they had them all out that way.
TK: Now, Adolph you mention the wedding you will never forget, that’s a great story, tell me about the one you were asked to play a wedding in the quanset hut where somebody wanted you to keep at it.
AL: In Sterling.
TK: My hometown?
AL: Yes, in that quanset back there, we played away there, four of us. And we started at 12, and I mean, busy, busy, busy, busy, we wore out the bride. So the best girl came up and took her place. She’d take the money, and let’s go. Ready to go, busy, busy, busy. Four o’clock. I said we got to stop for about 5 minutes. OK, five minutes... back. Busy, busy, busy. Pretty soon they said, "It’s time to eat... can two of you play while two of you eat?" "Well, that's pretty hard," I says, "Because I'm the only accordion player here." "Well," he says, "Can the other guy....."
Interruption stops the tape, no more talking on the rest of it.