Mississippi: The River of Song and more...

Smithsonian Institution
Americans Old and New1: Americans Old and New2: Midwestern Crossroads3: Southern Fusion4: Louisiana: Where Music is King


The Old-Time Music Scene Today
by Philip Nusbaum

One can still read reports of music and socializing in town newspapers of the 1980s:
Friday's program got underway with fest registration and purchase of a fest button at 12 noon at the Syttende Mai Hus in Viking Memorial Park. Bill Sherburne's Band played for dance festivities at the convalescent unit; flea markets, souvenir and food stands opened in the afternoon." (25)
        Today, old-time music is likely to accompany events that commemorate (or symbolize) the settlers' determination to prosper on the frontier, such as Syttende Mai. Although the holiday literally celebrates the Norwegian constitution, in Minnesota it also has become a day to display ethnic heritage. Participants attend to see handicrafts, eat traditional food, hear music, dance, and solidify their friendships. Music is also a prime part of the many festivals in Minnesota-such as at Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Minneapolis, and Spring Grove that yearly celebrate Norwegian (or Scandinavian) heritage in public places. (26)
        Old-time music need not be the only focus of an event, even at a dance. At the one held monthly during warm weather in Highlandville, Iowa, for example, for which the Bill Sherburne Band of Spring Grove plays, dancing is only one social activity. Some people listen intently but do not dance. Others use the music and social activity as a backdrop for conversation. Some may interact with band members directly by requesting a number or even sitting in to play with them. People sit or stand along the sides in the old schoolhouse where the dance takes place. Some bring their children, who might play with other children. There is a refrigerator in the kitchen for cold drinks. On the porch, in the area of cut grass immediately in front of the schoolhouse door, and around their cars, groups of people gather and talk. All of these spots are separate environments where different activities take place. Participants move freely from one area to another, encountering different people at each location.
        Of course, the music is intended for dancing. If, on some evening, dancing were not a central feature, the event would probably not be considered successful. However, it is not only the music and dancing, but the fact that people may participate in many activities that makes the Highlandville dance a success.
        Other casual settings for old-time music performance include community and senior citizen centers and nursing homes. For example, at Dethlefs Senior Center in Spicer (Kandiyohohi County) on February 12, 1987, fiddler Elmo Wick, guitarist Clayton Ellistad, and accordionist Henfred Larson, all from the Willmar area, entertained after lunch. After the band had started playing, audience members continued to enter the room,, sitting in chairs placed around tables that could accommodate about eight. While the occasion was not a formal concert, the music was meant as a major focus although some in the room preferred to read the newspaper and others talked to their neighbors. At one point, a woman played with a limberjack, a wooden doll whose arms and legs are fastened in such a way as to move freely. She bounced it gently against a surface, keeping time during the playing of "Kristiania Waltz." Others in the hall turned their heads to look at her, as she had become part of the show! (Another selection from that session, "Finska Valsen," is included on this recording.) Unplanned (but not unwelcome) audience participation, more frequently in back-and-forth talking between those on stage and in the audience, is common at old-time music performances.
        Each type of performance creates a certain set of demands. When playing at a wedding dance, for example, band members are expected to provide dance music for several hours and say things in keeping with the joyous atmosphere. They may also have to be diplomatic with guests who make requests not popular with the members of the band. At bygdelag meetings and in institutional settings the music is played to a listening audience, usually for a shorter period than a typical four-hour dance job. When playing for such ethnic gatherings, musicians select music most "Norwegian" in character and present it as an aspect of heritage.
        Old-time music is played at many other social situations that have no formal name; part of their appeal is that they are improvised at the occasion. If musicians know in advance that other musicians will attend an informal social gathering, some may "remember " to bring an instrument, "in case" the mood strikes to play a few tunes. At parties, civic events, town or ethnic festivals, some music concerts, or at other outdoor ac tivities, unscheduled performances may take place. Musicians gathered underneath a shade tree, with each other as the only audience, may casually begin playing. They may attract a few listeners, and the situation may turn into a performance.
        However small these differences in social situation may appear, they have helped the tradition prosper. Fitting music to various activities is similar to using language effectively. A person who speaks fluently is easily able to make his or her way in a wide variety of situations. The tradition of Norwegian music in America might best be seen not only as a set of tunes, tune types, and musical conventions, but also as the adaptation of the music to different, sometimes new social settings.
        That old-time music is easily adapted to many settings in part explains its long popularity. That players may feel free to express their own styles within old-time music, taking the music in different directions, is per haps another explanation. (27) Motivated by their creative spirits, players and other members of the old-time music culture create both satisfying musical expression and social occasions, the music fitting the occasion. Even though thousands may attend large dances or town celebrations, the mood of these events is an extension of small-town social life. Everyone is supposed to have a good time, socializing with old friends and making new ones.
        In the old-time music of the 1980s, the fiddle and accordion predominate as melody instruments. The accordion may be anything from an old-fashioned button box to a modern, electronic piano accordion. The fiddle is usually a conventional model. (28) The guitar, piano, banjo, and bass guitar are commonly used to back up the melody instruments. Less common, but acceptable, are the electric guitar, electric bass, and mandolin. (Musicians who play frequently in public often invest in amplifiers and either electric instruments or electric pickups for acoustic instruments, in order to be heard over a crowd.) When there is more than one melody instrument in a group, musicians may either carry the melody together or take turns playing it. In the latter case, the instrumentalist not soloing typically plays an accompaniment. A musician might seek to join forces with a player of a certain instrument, such as a fiddler seeking out an accordion player. Sometimes, however, the instrumental makeup of a group may have more to do with musicians living close to each other.
        The typical repertoire for Norwegian old-time music is still based on contemporary social dance music: waltz, reinlender, polkas (29). The waltz is by far the most commonly played form, a factor that distinguishes Norwegian from other ethnic-based traditional dance music. (Among Poles, Germans, Czechs, and Slovenians, the polka is at least as popular as the waltz.) Like most other dance bands, ethnic or not', old-time groups play two or three waltzes in a row, called a "set", of waltzes. They also play sets of reinlenders and polkas and may add single hambos, mazurkas, two-steps, or other dances to the mix.
        Some of the tunes on this recording are from Norwegian sources. Andrea Een learned the bridal march in Voss, Norway. "Tulut's Waltz" came to America in the memory of Sidney Mathistad's grandfather. Members of the Scandinavian Connection learned the reinlender from a tape recorded by a Norwegian group; Archie Tiegen learned "Kom Karolina" the same way. According to Bob Andresen, "'Ringnesen Reinlender" was popularized in many places in Minnesota by Vidar Lande, a Hardanger player visiting from Norway. Mel Brenden learned "Algot och Bade" from Walter Erikkson, a noted Swede-Finn accordionist living in Brooklyn, New York.
        Other tunes on this recording are more direct prod-ucts of the Upper Midwest. Ted Knutson composed 4, Judy's Waltz" in Norwegian old-time style. When Viola Lee was young, the man who tuned her family's piano played a certain tune to test his work, and it stuck in her memory. Her contribution, "Piano Tuner's Polka," is the result. Other tunes, such as "C and G Polka," played here by the Bill Sherburne Band, cannot be traced to a source.
        While this recording emphasizes Norwegian tunes, many of the players involved have eclectic musical backgrounds. Typically, they not only attended Scandi- navian entertainments but those of other groups as well. In the 1940s and 1950s, many listened to broad- casts of German-American and country music. Some of their repertoire shows the effects of such exposure. Ar-chie Tiegen, for example, picked up "Mariechen Waltz" from broadcasts of the famed German-style band led by Whoopee John Wilfahrt of New Ulm." (30) Tunes such as "'Gary Polka," played here by the Erskine Olde Tymers, and "Life in the Finnish Woods" are cur-rent in the repertoires of Norwegian and other ethnic based old-time musicians throughout Minnesota. Songs from American popular tradition, such as "Red Wing," "Love Letters in the Sand," and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, 3-31 as well as American hoedown numbers such as "Soldier's joy" and "Ragtime Annie" also have found their way into the repertoire of old-time musicians. Members of The Bjorngjeld Family grew up in North Dakota listening to old-time music both locally and over the radio, along with broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry. The result of these early influences is a synthesis. It is not necessarily a tune's origins, but the style of playing-- the fiddle/ accordion lead over a string band and/or piano accompaniment-- that accounts for the Norwegian old-time "feel" of most of these recordings.
        Perhaps it is most accurate to consider old-time music today to be a continuation of the music brought to America from Norway, modified by both the musical creativity and social adroitness of its players. While recordings and appearances lend touring bands professional credibility, such professionalism is not the standard by which we gauge the health of old-time music. It is but one option for interpretation and presentation. The flexible frontier style is the strand of the tradition that has had the greatest long-term viability in Minnesota.

The Future

        Will the music survive for another generation? Some observers, stating that few young people are interested in playing it, are ready to bury Norwegian music, both old-time and bygdedans.
        But traditional music is awfully tough stuff. Through the 1950s and '60s, lovers of traditional Southern fiddle music were bemoaning its fate. Then, up popped a generation of fiddlers playing the old tunes, interpreting them in fresh, yet traditional ways. Will there be a revival of Norwegian traditional music? Can it be reorchestrated, as German-American polka music has evolved from German brass bands, or as contemporary traditional Irish bands developed from smaller ensembles, or as bluegrass was born from Southern oldtime string bands? Time will tell whether Norwegian music is disappearing, will benefit from a rush of enthusiasm, or will evolve into a new form.


25. Spring Grove Herald, May 18, 1988, p. 1.

26. Minot, North Dakota, and Decorah, Iowa, also have large-scale festivals of this type.

27. On this recording note the differences among the parlor style of Ted and Adele Knutson, the "lounge" phrasing of Robert Palmquist, and the danceability of the piece by the Bill Sherburne Band.

28. Archie Tiegen, Brainerd, has been noted for winning fiddle contests by playing old-time music on the Hardanger.

29. Larson's field recordings of old-time music include 106 waltzes, thirty-two reinlenders, nineteen polkas, three mazurkas, three two-steps, one square dance, and three versions of the song "Nikolina"; see "Scandinavian-American Folk Dance Music," xv.

30. "Mariechen Waltz " was Whoopee John's theme song. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Viking Accordion Band of Albert Lea recorded such Czech titles as the polkas "Muziky, Muziky" and "Prsi, Prsi" (Rain, Rain), the "Zvadla Rze" (Faded Rose) and "Jolly German" waltzes, and a march, "Vienna Forever." On the other hand, in the 1940s and 1950s, Whoopee John's band recorded such Scandinavian tunes as "Haselby Steppen-Polka," "Lordagsvalsen," and "Lingonberry Schottische"; Richard K. Spottswood, Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Commercial Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1894-1942 (Urbana: Univer- sity of Illinois Press, forthcoming).

Home | The River of Song Project | The Artists | Music Along the River | Calendar | Teacher's Guide | Press Room | The Store
© 1998 The Filmmakers Collaborative and The Smithsonian Institution, all right reserved
River of Song HOME the River of Song project the artists music along the river calendar teacher's guide pressroom store