Interview with Ron Volk (RV)
Conducted by Dr. Homer Rudolf (HR)
Harvey, North Dakota
7 September 2004
Transcribed by Shelly Rolandson
Editing and proofreading by Jane D. Trygg and Marvin L. Hartmann
Prairie Public Collection
I: How did you find out that your grandfather had a musical background?
RV: Knowing that my day liked to sing, we always used to ask him, how did all this come about? My dad really relished the fact that he would talk about his dad and all the musical things that grandpa Volk had. He could sing any kind of song and my dad would sing second right away. My grandpa taught him how to do that at a really young age. One of the things my dad and grandmother would like to talk about is their family and their heritage. I do a lot of that myself. I go back in my family trying not only pick up who these people where and know some stories about them. Unfortunately, I only took interest in these things after my grandmother passed away, you know I was only in my early 20s when she did. Now when I think back at this and the things grandma could have told me about everything. But the musical background really, when you talk to people in the community or even out in Orin, if they ask you who you are, you say Schulmeister Pater bub (School master Peter's kid) Ok, you must be a singer than. Because that’s who the Schulmeister Pater was. All of that family was musical and they would say Yes, I remember singing with your dad or your grandpa. It was well known in the area that he was quite a musician all the time
RV: All of these songs came from the heart and the head. They didn’t use any books or hymnals?
I: Oh, music to them, I think music they learned by wrote, they really learned it at a young age, they knew them all by heart. I seldom ever remember seeing anyone pick up a book and singing it out. Church songs, they would sing out of the book because they would have such a great variety of church songs they would sing out of a book, and as we talked a little earlier, we had German songs in church and they would be an occasional German song, either beginning or ending hymn was in German. They sang alot in Latin also. We could do the mass in German we could do the mass in Latin or we could also do the mass in English pretty much. It just depends which switch he wanted to turn on for the day. But there was a lot of church music that we had that was done in German. Especially special occasions were almost all done in German. The funerals were all done in German regardless, they would do the prayers in church in Latin but the rest of the hymns were German hymns. Weddings? I don’t remember any prior weddings but my dad tells me that all the Germans had old German hymns for weddings also that they had picked themselves and I remember my dad talking about the German funerals because my dad sang a lot of funerals and he said they were all in German.
RV: Now in church would you have a missal that was all in German?
I: The missalet that we had that we grew up with pretty much was all in English. But there were missalets in the pews for some of the older people. But back then you must remember that everyone owned their own missalet. They weren’t in the pews themselves, everyone owned their own prayer book and they always had them in whatever language they could own. I know grandma's was always in German, matter of fact grandma had a difficult time because when she wanted to go to confession she had to find a priest that spoke German, because she always went to confession in German, and he couldn’t be young either because he didn’t know enough about sin for grandma to tell him about all the sins that he had. (Laughing)
HR Who referred to your grandfather as 'Schulmeister Pater?'
RV: My grandfather was known as the Schulmaaster, and so everyone knew him as the Schulmaaster, his name was Gabriel, but all of his children he also named after him. My dad's name was Schulmaaster Pater, which means Peter the son of the school master, and there was Schulmaaster Schtahoos which was my dads brother Stashus, and there was Schulmaaster Kahspa, my dads brother Casper. And they were just known as that so they were known as Schulmaaster Pater. And I remember as a young kid, someone came to the yard and they asked is the Schulmaaster dahaam? ( Is the school master at home?) We would all look at each other and say Schulmaaster. Yah, the Schulmaaster Pater. Who is Pater? I think my brother and I were 8 or 9 and we looked at each other and said, "Who are these people?" So of course we told them in German vawt, (Wait.) and we went into the house. So we went into the house and we asked my dad "Die loowen fer der Schulmaaster Pater." (They're looking for the school master Peter." and then my dad said, "Well that’s me." "That’s you!" And we said, "How can that be you, Pa?" We didn’t even know our dad’s first name until we were probably 9,10 years old, and we just knew him as Pa, and he said "I'm the Schulmaaster Pater." And we said, "OH!!" So we ran out and said "Der Schulmaaster vohnt doh" which means "Yes, the school master is living here."
I: There’s another tradition that is practiced by Catholic German Russians and that’s the tradition of Names day. Can you tell us a little bit about Names day?
RV: Names day was always a great feast in our community in our Blumenfeld Church. We had a lot of Names Day celebrations, and really names day was the big celebration of the year. Your birthdays weren’t really that important My dad especially. His Names Day was the 29th of June, Peter and Paul, and his birthday was the 26th of June. But we as kids we always talked about dad’s birthday but that never meant anything to my dad. Names Day, people would come over, and we always had a house full of people for Names Day and it was just like a birthday party. People brought gifts, and we always had a big lunch. And there was always lots of people around. And my dad would always talk about all the Names Day’s in all the area. And one of the things that I think until our generation was actually born, no one really even got a first name unless you had a Names Day to go with it. I mean, there was no sense in giving them a name unless they had a Names Day to go with it. It was a great celebration in all the communities, and they would have even the church’s Names Day and our church’s name was Blummenfeld, was St. John Nephemus, and that was a great big Names Day celebration. And St. Johns Nephemus was a big church feast and the whole community celebrated it, but I remember our neighbor Louie. Louie’s Names Day was always a big day, and Uncle Nick who was actually married to my cousin, he was my oldest brothers Godfather. But we always called him Uncle Nick, but when he had Names Day, it was always a big day. You see the day after Christmas, is St. Steven, and we always had to find a Steven somewhere. There were not very many Stevens in our country.
I: What would happen at a celebration? Can you tell us?
RV: We would usually a names day celebration included a lot of Maistube (parlor) visiting and company. And then they would usually, you see there was no such thing as a gift opening, they always brought gifts but they were always set aside. And it was usually a lot of company, card playing, they would always have four, five tables of card playing. Card playing was a very big part of the visiting, always. And, of course, there was always a really big lunch, and a lunch about 9:30-10:00 at night, and I mean like a big lunch. They would have sausage, and potatoes, and one of the big treats at Names Day was head cheese. And so whenever we made head cheese, it was always saved for Names Day. The other thing that was always saved for Names Day was horseradish. And they would always bet each other who could eat the horseradish. And my mother would always make horseradish, you know, so we always had horseradish and head cheese, of course, and then a big lunch. Always a full meal at 9-10 o’clock at night and then of course dessert. A big cake dessert, and then they would cheer each other on and wish each other well for the whole year. I don’t even remember, there was a saying about Names Day and I forget what it is, and it comes to me now that they always had some kind of saying for Names Day too, a greeting or a well wishing greeting, and it just escapes me now what it was. I do remember the one for New Years because I remember we would have what you call Nei yore ah schiessa (Shooting in the new year. Visiting friends and firing shotguns into the air.). Which means New Year’s celebrators, and they would come at like 3:00 in the morning, and the first things that they would do is usually take a loaded shot gun and pull her off right next to the master bed room window to wake up the owners of the home. And then they would come in and want to have a little drink or something. But they always, the first thing they would do when they came in was, they would have to give the greeting, to come into the house, and it was Gluekses Nei Yore, hav'n langes levva. Alles was ish ish a house voll Kinder, a Schtall voll Rinda, Keller voll Wein un da kommet Leit rei." and which is really it means Happy New year to you, and all there is, is a house full of children, a barn full of cattle, a cellar full of wine, and a great time to come in and have company. Wishing everyone the best for the new year and that you got all these and you're willing to share them with everybody. And I don’t remember, I was probably 12,13 years old that New Years ever went by without the Da Yore ah schiessa(Shooting in the new year.) coming into the house. And they were usually the young bachelors from the community, that’s usually who did that. The bachelors in the 18-24 old year group, you know that came. And one of the things that was always done for New Years is my dad would make Hochsee Shnapp (wedding schnaaps), and that is the wedding schnapps that was burnt sugar everclear, and New Years Eve was always the time to make that and my dad would always usually make a gallon and he would go by a quart of eveclear, and we would burn the sugar at home and he would mix up a gallon, you know, four quart jars, and mix it four to one, because they would always take it straight, and we would always, and they would come around and my dad had a new bottle, and there was always a quart gone in the morning. And one of the traditions in our family always was for New Years Day we all got a shot of schnapps, no matter how young you were, everyone got a shot of schnapps, so we always looked forward to that New Years Day and we would get that shot of schnapps, and it was wonderful, and I still make it for myself and my family and when we get together I try it greet everyone with Gluekes Nei Yore (Happy New Year) and here is the schnapps, you know and we pass it all around, and we would make it for all the weddings.
I: That’s red eye!
RV: Red eye, yep people call it red eye, but we always called it schnapps or Hochseit Schnopps. (Wedding Schnapps).
I: Now would they be singing this greeting at New Years?
RV: Well, it was more of a chant than a song, the New Years greeting was more of a chant than a song, I guess it depends on how much they had to drink I suppose. And how many houses they have been to before they got down to yours. One year they blew the chimney right off our house.
I: Getting back to the Names Day. Were there songs associated with names day?
RV: I am not aware that there was a lot of songs associated with Names Day that were sung at our place that I can recall at all. I think there was a musical tradition, sometimes if the crowd was large enough, they would get together and start to sing some of the songs that they used to sing at the time. But I do not recall there being just a Names Day song itself.
I: And the other tradition, I don’t know if it took place up here, but in the Strassburg- Linton area, there was a tradition on your Names Day, if you were in the bar, you had to by the rounds for people. Have you heard of that?
RV: Not that I am aware of.
I: That must just be a local tradition. What does the music mean to you?
RV: I guess music means to me that it’s a way to express a lot of the things that you feel. A lot of the church music, I really like to sing the church music. To me it’s praying in a way. I have a hard time just praying, praying. But I love sing and pray that way. There was always a lot of ways to express yourself through music. The German music sounds course but it isn’t as course as it sounds. A lot of it is lyrics of stories that is going on. Alot of the American music is also a story that they are trying to tell. We grew up singing as a family, my brothers and I started singing at the age of 3, 4. And when we were in school, we all did a lot of music. And when we got to Drake School, they didn’t realize that these Country Bumpkins, who could hardly speak English could sing like there is no tomorrow, and we were always in the front of the choir. Because it was not shameful to sing, we were all proud to sing. Because all of us sang. We all sang through grade school and high school, and I always said we lived 20 miles from town in the '60s, you just didn’t go the football practice after school because how were you going to get home? But I was the guy you came in to sing the Star Spangled Banner, because I was the only one who could really do that. Music has always been a great tradition in our family. and we still, when my brothers and sisters get together, we still sing, and we have on occasions we have sung for family members, and now that my uncles and aunts are getting old and passing away, my brother and I have made it a tradition to get to each one of the funerals, we lead the singing. My Aunt just passed away recently in Hankinson, Sister Bernadine Bechler and we were down with the Sisters, and we offered to do the service and sing and all that, because its been a tradition that we like to. Its a way of celebration for us and for them, and we all know they enjoy the singing. My aunt in Rugby who passed away a couple of years ago, she had her music already all listed, She said Ron, when I die I want you to sing this at my funeral. They loved to sing the old church hymns, especially the old Virgin Mary hymns. On this day, O beautiful Mother. There isn’t a woman that it doesn’t bring tears to their eyes on certain occasions when you sing that for them. And we used to sing that a lot of times, my dad used to sing that with us because he would sing second to me, and but it was all these songs that people really remember, it was so nice to do, the harmony of it all. I really enjoyed the singing.
I: It sounds like when you are singing that you really connect with you ancestors?
RV: Yes, I think my ancestors were always a singing group and I think its a connection to them quite a bit going back to the traditions of my dad and my grandfather and maybe even his grandfather before him. I am not really sure if he was a big singer but I am assuming that grandpa got that from somewhere on the line. But really my dad is our inspiration for our singing. My dad just loved to sing. He sang in the church choir till he was seventy-some years old from when he was five or six. He always made sure that none of us were afraid to sing and have these big belt out voices. Sometimes I would stand behind someone in some of these small churches and somebody looks around and then looks at me and says “Oh yah you got to be one of the Schulmaaster Pater's buba (School master Peter's kids). You know, you got to be one of Pete Volk's boys. Because my dad could belt it out too, and loved to sing for groups and for whatever too.
I: Do you have a couple Germans songs you could sing for us?
RV: Well, to tell you that truth, I don’t really have any German songs. I sing the Maria, zu Lieben (Mary, to Love), but I would have to get some music for that, so I could see the words for that.
I: Is there anything? Any of the songs that you sang in church that you sing in German that you could sing off the top of your head?
RV: Off the top of my head, boy......
I: You can just start from the beginning and sing as much as you remember.
I: Do you need some water? You sound a little dry.
RV: Yes I am a little dry.
-----Cut in Tape-----
RV: Esmond, that’s the only place that I can recall that had a barn dance. We never had them out in our country area. They only had the wedding dances.
I: I mean if your having a wedding dance two every weekend, there is no need for a (unclear).
RV: No, Well for some reason.. There it is.
I: Travis was reminding us on the way up here how you did the story about the Ghost of the Harvey Library.
RV: Oh! that’s right I remember, Sophie yes.
I: Ok whenever your ready Ron.
RV: OK. One of the hymns that we sung a lot that has been requested of my brother and I over the last couple years is a old German song Maria, zu Lieben , which means Mary we Love You or Mary my Mother and it goes like this. Maria, zu Lieben ist alles mir sein, In Frieden und Leiden der deiner ich sein. Mein Herz, O Maria, an bind ich mich zu, Und Lieben und Frieden an Himmliche Ruh (General translation; Mary, to love is everything to me, I am yours in Tranquility and Suffering. My heart, O Mary, is bound to you, And Love and Peace in heavenly Rest. and that song has three verses to it, and it was a very traditional soothing hymn about Mary taking care of her child and all of us being taken care of, and then one of the other songs that we always sang that is really a traditional hymn, that almost every church had is Holy God We Praise Thy Name , Grosser Gott, wir Loben Dich, and as a child I don’t think I remember Father Proehler who was at Blummenfeld Church from 1953-1959, I don’t think church ever didn’t end without Holy God we praise thy name. He just loved that song and he would start it himself, if the organist didn’t. But I am sure everyone knows the hymn you know the melody of Holy God We Praise Thy Name, but in German it goes Grosser Gott, wir loben Dir, Herr, wir preisen deinen Sterken. .......... and then it goes on and on Holy God, We praise Thy Name and always with thee......... and a lot of it.... this one has a special verse that goes back over it again, but it was a real traditional hymn. I always loved to sing that. Especially when it turned to English when I was eleven years old and after the Second Vatican, we got to sing these in English and we actually knew what the words were for a change. because a lot of the Germans songs we sang them because we knew what they all were but we never really exactly knew all the words, it was just massive Latin I mean we knew the Mass in Latin, and as altar boys, we could recite those prayers but we never really knew exactly what they all were, until we got back to the English versions, "Oh that’s what we are saying, Father!" But theses were wonderful old hymns and they were always sung,.Holy God We Praise Thy Name, we still sing that at funerals, and then we sing Maria, zu Lieben for people. There is not a lot of other times that we sing the German hymns anymore. It is kind of getting to be a lost art for people, and you know there are very few people even my age, and I will be 55 next summer, that can even still speak German and understand German. You know unfortunately another 20 years from now it will be completely lost. I was at the German Russian Convention and I was really kind of sad after I left thinking you know I was one of the youngest people at the German Russian Convention. This may all be lost if we don’t get this all down in some way in black and white. That is one of the things that I am trying to do in our family and with our traditions is let my kids know all the traditions and the family things that we had so that they can be carried on, even if they are not fully carried on. At least some of these can be carried on, and now that my wife and I have three sons, and they all three are very good singers. We actually did a four part harmony number at Christmas for the first time. But one of the things I want to do is get them together and learn a couple of the German songs, so we can sing German songs together. And if they sing them with their dad, they will always remember them as like I did with my dad. You always remember those things that you did with you dad.
I: Why don’t you sing the chorus again for us?
RV: OK With Holy God We Praise Thy Name? OK.
I: Very good thank-you. Super Thank-you so much
I: Alright! This is very interesting
RV: Well! Thank-you!
End of Tape