Tag Archives: being a folklorist

The National Barn Dance

Happy 90th birthday.

(I missed it by a day.) It was on April 19, 1924, a Saturday, that the National Barn Dance began it’s 36-year run on radio station WLS in Chicago.  In fact, the Barn Dance had more than a run. It dominated. It was model for all the live country music radio jamborees that followed, close to 500 in all. It’s most eager competitor, the Grand Ol’ Opry, copied the National Barn Dance from the start and lagged behind it for twenty years. Through the 1930s and into the war years of the 40s, there was no country music radio show, and few from any other category, that had as large and popular a cast or as strong a cultural presence as the National Barn Dance. During the Depression, a poll of listeners identified Lulu Belle & Scotty, the Prairie Ramblers (with Patsy Montana) and the Arkansas Woodchopper as their favorite members of the Hayloft Gang. All three acts stayed at WLS for the better part of three decades.

The Barn Dance itself was more than a single broadcast. It was a brand that encompassed about 5 hours of Saturday night radio shows, 2 two-hour long live theatre shows, 2 print publications plus regular coverage in its parent company’s magazine (The Prairie Farmer), and an extensive artists bureau that maintained regional road shows and regular personal appearances by its many Saturday night stars.

DrDosido and the Hayloft Gang

But I just missed it. By the 1950s, the National Barn Dance was past its prime, and WLS ended the show sometime in 1960. In October of that same year, I received a transistor radio as a birthday present. So when I could put my own hand on the dial and search the airwaves for myself, there was no Hayloft Gang to be found. (Actually, the Gang and the show had migrated to WGN in Chicago. There it possessed but a shadow of its earlier grandeur, and WGN was not a strong enough signal to be picked up in my upstairs bedroom in Hoagland, Indiana). As a teen and young adult, I became vaguely aware of the fact of the National Barn Dance, because my uncles had enjoyed Lulu Belle & Scotty and some of the other stars. My mom didn’t like the song “Barbara Allen” that Bradley Kincaid had popularized during his stay on WLS in the late 20s, and she had little affinity for other country songs: “They’re all about trains or prisons.”

The Fiddlers of the National Barn Dance

But my interest in the National Barn Dance was piqued during the first big field recording session for my 1979 grant from the Indiana Arts Council (see the Indiana Hoedown section in drdosido.net). Fiddler Francis Geels of Decatur, Indiana listened to the show every Saturday night as a kid, and had learned several pieces from the broadcasts, most notably from the playing of Slim Miller of the Cumberland Ridge Runners. Give a listen to Mr. Geels playing this fine, rare old tune: Get Aboard the Ship.

Then fast forward twenty years to my historical research on traditional fiddling in the Old Northwest. I started poking around to find more about the early days of the National Barn Dance. I had long known of George Biggar‘s account of the first broadcast on April 19, 1924: “Tommy Dandurand, if I’m not mistaken, was in charge of the first little fiddling band.  The announcer thought a square dance caller might be of help, so a call was put on the air.  Tom Owen telephoned that he ‘used to call dances in Missouri.’  So down he came.” Biggar, however, had not yet started his long tenure as a WLS program director. His account is not first-hand. What I found in the Chicago newspapers of the day is that “Timothy Cornrow from Ioway” was the first fiddler. In succeeding weeks, the fiddlers who played on the Saturday night variety show were described as generic “barn dance fiddlers.” When summer came, WLS held an on air-contest for old-time “fiddle teams” that was won by George Adamson of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Frank Hart of Aurora, Illinois and William McCormick of Marseilles also placed.  A picture of these two, plus guitarist J.B. Priest, became an icon for the early National Barn Dance.

WLS Old-Time Fiddlers
My conjecture is that that either Mr. Hart or Mr. McCormick was the fiddler heard on 1926 recordings of Tom Owens WLS Barn Dance Trio (listen to Hell on the Wabash). Tommy Dandurand, a retired streetcar operator from Kankakee, joined the National Barn Dance in the fall of 1924, and led the show’s house band of fiddlers until at least 1930. Along with fiddler Rube Tronson and square dance caller Ed Goodreau, Tommy Dandurand & His Barn Dance Fiddlers recorded 14 sides for Gennett in 1927 (listen to McLeod’s Reel). In the early 30s, Mr. Dandurand’s younger partner took over as leader of the Texas Cowboys (the National Barn Dance Orchestra of the 1933 Bluebird sessions?). By the middle of the decade, the house band had given way to showier string bands like the Cumberland Ridge Runners, the Prairie Ramblers and the Westerners.

Francis Geels and the Hayloft Gang

It was the 1930s when young Francis Geels and his siblings began to learn tunes, songs and stagecraft by listening to the Hayloft Gang’s Saturday night broadcasts, and by attending WLS-sponsored Home Talent Shows and other personal appearances by Barn Dance stars. Many years later, I began to consult with filmmaker Stephen Parry of Chicago, as he began work on The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance for Hayloft Gang Productions and Independent Television Services. My contributions to the documentary included  serving as music supervisor and as author the lead essay, “The Rise of Rural Rhythm,” for the companion book published by the University of Illinois Press.
Hayloft Gang bookHayloft Gang book
Perhaps my biggest contribution to the project was to introduce Stephen Parry, the director, to Francis Geels and his sisters, Helen Loshe and Esther Mowrey. A movie crew traveled from Chicago to Decatur, Indiana and interviewed the 3 siblings on the old family farm. Several heart-warming clips are included in the documentary. And the home DVD version of The Hayloft Gang, which showed up in my mailbox 90 years to the day after the National Barn Dance’s debut, includes a last performance by the Geels Family Band under the Extras menu.

Hayloft Gang book

DrDosido and Mr. Seeger

Like any respectable folkie I sang along with Pete Seeger in concert several times. All that took, of course, was a ticket.  The somber news of his passing, and the many well-deserved tributes that sprang up on Facebook and other media made me pause to reflect on how his singular humanity and distinctive musical commonality influenced my life. (I am not sure that these flowery descriptives come at all close to expressing his impact and my admiration.) A couple of memories did force their way to the front of my meditations. I had a few face-to-face encounters with Mr. Seeger in the halls of the Old Town School of Folk Music, and also back stage at the Orchestra Hall concert he headlined to mark the School’s 35th anniversary in 1992.

The one extended conversation we had was by phone. It was occasioned by the oral history project I was assigned to mark that same anniversary. My interviews had to be recorded so that excerpts could be used on a WFMT radio special celebrating those 35 years.  So I called Pete up. He was sitting in the comfort of his home in Beacon, New York.  I was in the studios of public radio station WBEZ in the Chicago Loop, using their special recording equipment. I viewed the situation as momentous. For Pete, it was much more mundane. I wanted him to remember the legendary night in the late 1950s that he dropped by the Old Town School’s Second Half and led some songs for the assembled students.  The event looms large in Old Town School lore. Pete couldn’t recall it. But he could frame it in the bigger picture – his mission and ours.  The world, he told me, needs an Old Town School of Folk Music in every city to help people learn to play and remember how to sing together.

Pete Seeger helped me learn how to play. Not directly, though I did use his How to Play the 5-String Banjo tutor back in 1976, after I constructed my own banjo from a Stewart-MacDonald kit. Earlier, in the summer of 1969, when I was back home after my freshman year of college, I made regular trips to the Allen County Public Library to check out record albums from their surprisingly (to me) large collection of folk music. By that time, I knew was through with rock and roll, and that folk music was what I wanted to pursue. I didn’t know much back then about folk music, about  the large and growing scene of folkies devoted to traditional music. I didn’t know enough to realize that the music I grew up with locally, mostly wedding and square dance bands, was in fact folk music. My own LP collection at the time contained only a couple of Beach Boys albums and a record of bluegrass instrumentals by an unidentified band, an LP that Dad had won as a door prize somewhere. The albums I borrowed from the library that summer included several of Pete’s.

I don’t remember any particulars about the albums or the songs.  But I remember being impressed that Pete sang songs that came from people all over the world.  I realize now that Dad must have had reservations about Pete’s politics.  But he never expressed them to me out loud.  He did ask why I was borrowing these LPs from the library. I told him I wanted to do with my life what Pete Seeger was doing with his. Dad requested further explanation. My answer was that I wanted to go everywhere and learn the songs that regular people sing. Pete was my model.

Pete Seeger helped turn me into DrDosido. He, at least, helped move me down that path. In fact, Pete’s younger brother Mike became a more influential role model. Like Mike, I mostly narrowed my focus to Anglo-American traditional music. And following Mike’s footsteps, I began to seek out unheralded country fiddlers and other local musicians. I began to visit community events where friends and neighbors made their own music together, often for dancing. I began to realize that I had grown up with folk music and dance all around me. But I followed my own path. I didn’t go out looking for authentic mountain music or old-time southern music. For several decades my gaze was frozen on my home region: the Old Northwest, the Great Lakes states, whatever name you want to give to my Midwestern home. I did what Pete Seeger did. I just didn’t go very far away.

It’s good that I can complete the circle I started inscribing with these memories. On one of those visits to the library while home on a college break, I took the advice of my best friend, Steve Winters. He suggested I check out a Mike Seeger album called “The Second Annual Farewell Reunion.” It consisted of Mike doing duets with different musical friends on a variety of old-time and traditional songs. If my memory is reliable, one of the pieces on that LP was a duet of two Seeger brothers doing a song Pete wrote, adapting a melody and turn of phrase from the Scottish ditty, “Well May the Keel Row.” Pete universalized the sentiment into “Well May the World Go.” Since news of Pete’s death, I find myself whistling that tune every morning as I’m making coffee. I learned it over 40 years ago. I never sang it for anybody until last week.

Well may the skiers turn, the swimmers churn, the lovers burn.
Peace may the generals learn, when I’m far away.

Well may the world go, the world go, the world go.
Well may the world go, when I’m far away.

Sweet may the fiddle sound, the banjo play the old hoedown,
The dancers swing ‘round and ‘round, when I’m far away.

Well may the world go, the world go, the world go.
Well may the world go, when I’m far away.

Strong may the trees grow. Clear may the streams flow,
Blue above and green below, when I’m far away.

Well may the world go, the world go, the world go.
Well may the world go, when I’m far away.

The Search for German Old-Time Music

More accurately, today’s topic is the old-time music played by musicians from German communities around Hoagland, Indiana. The question of how much of the music played for barn dances and house dances was actually German is a question I’ve never been able to answer fully. There’s no doubt that square dancing was very popular in these German communities as far back as the 1880s. But why? Daily life then was carried on in Plattdeutsch (low German),  Square dance calls were in English. My Great-Grandpa Flaugh was a caller, and Clara Franke, my grandmother verifed that he used standard English calls as ‘promenade’ and ‘allemande left.’ Amos Kline, who ran Kline’s Barn, a commercially successful dance hall east of Fort Wayne near Zulu in the 1930s and ’40s, told me that the crowds of dancers who kept him in business were all the German folk from down in the area between Hoagland and Decatur.  And by the 1980s, when square dancing around Hoagland had been supplemented with a self-consciously German revitalization of the polka, one of the favorite bands (from the equally German area around Napoleon, Ohio) regularly announced that it was now time for a set of “English square dances.”

First, a little background. German immigrants were the first European-Americans to settle in southeastern Allen County, Indiana, beginning in the 1840s. It was an area of wooded wetlands–swamps, if you will–and not a suitable location for villages of the locals, Indians of the Miami confederation. There was a well-worn Indian trail, later named Wayne Trace, that cut across the surveyed grid of roads legislated by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Wayne Trace was a dirt road that stopped about a half-mile to the southeast of Hoagland. It started up again at the Minnich road and ran northwest up through the Soest community and on into Fort Wayne. In my day, that stretch of Wayne Trace was only partly paved. The old Indian trail connecting these two stretches would probably have passed right through the Tyler property on Hoagland Road. In the 1950s and ’60s there was no obvious evidence of this earlier history, except for a historical marker placed near the end of our driveway by the Allen County Historical Society. It noted that Hoagland was platted in 1872.

A few Anglo-Americans established themselves in the area before 1872, but it was the huge earlier influx of Germans that made the dominant cultural imprint. Immigrants directly from Lower Saxony and other areas of northern Germany came to this part of Indiana and Ohio to claim homes, drain and clear the land for fields, and build communities. A circuit-riding German Lutheran minister (his great-great-great grandson was a college classmate of mine) helped establish several congregations in the 1840s: St. John’s Bingen (two miles south of Hoagland) and Emmanuel Soest (a few miles northwest) were the first, followed soon after by St. John Flatrock (two miles East). Flatrock, the church and school attended by the Franke family, and thus central to my story, was founded in 1849. Within ten miles of Hoagland, south in Adams County, are three more German Lutheran congregations formed at the same time, two of them even older. Zion Friedheim and St. Peter’s Fuelling were founded in 1838, with Immanuel Union Township coming along in 1849.

This account is intended to convey the depth of the German presence in Hoagland, or more accurately, the open country around Hoagland. That cultural presence extends beyond this core towards other rural German communities, such as Marquardts outside of Monroeville and Hessen Cassell, between Hoagland and Fort Wayne. The latter is the only German community centered around a Roman Catholic church. Even Fort Wayne must be regarded as one of the most German cities in the United States. I grew up in this arguably most German area of the country with a love for old-time square dancing and a curiosity about how these Good Germans came to have such a strong love for a social dance form with French roots, English calls, and a thoroughly American history.

Some of Hoagland’s older citizens in the period from 1976 to 1988 provided partial answers.  My grandmother’s memory stretches the furthest back into the 19th century. She told me a story related to her by her mother of an incident that happened before 1890, the year my grandma was born.  Here are Clara Franke’s words: “Mom would used to tell, it tickles me.  She used to tell about when she was a little school girl.  And the kids played. . . .  And she said that Uncle Duff Dauer. . . he was older than she was. . . and they used to play they was dancing.  And he’d call.  He’d call ‘Teleman left,’ he’d say; then ‘all a prom, all a pomay.’  ‘All promenade’ you know, ‘ all a pomay.’  She used to tell that.  It would always tickle me so.”

Grandma remembered well the time when barn dances and house dances were a most important social gathering in the neighborhood for all generations. The square dance, which they called a quadrille, was central, but not the only dance. “They’d dance three changes [of the quadrille].  Then they’d play a waltz, a three-step, a two-step . . . I  don’t remember whether they danced a foxtrot or not. Now I never did learn to waltz.  I tried a couple of times, but I just couldn’t learn.  And Daddy never waltzed.  Daddy never danced anything but a square dance.”

Grandma remembered some of the older musicians, but she could not tell much about the tunes they played.  Here’s another bit from my interview on December 28, 1976.

CF: Grandpa [Fred Franke, my grandfather] played the mouth harp, and Bill Ahlfelt–here this house, way back in the lane, you know, on the Hoagland Road, across from Ervin Koeneman’s, that’s where Ahlfelts live. Bill Ahlfelt played the guitar and Henry Ahlfelt played a mandolin. . . . For our wedding, we had the Rohrbach boys.  One played the violin, I know. . . . Bill Peppler, did you know Bill Peppler?
PT:  The name’s familiar.
CF:  Well, they belonged to our church.  He’s buried here on the cemetery.  Well,  she is too, she is too. They’re buried right close to where Dad and I have our lot.  And uh, Bill Peppler used to play the accordion. That was a little box about like this when it was closed up, and then, they could pull it way out, you know.  It was nice music. . . . Oh, if Lena Peppler was living she could tell you . . .Bill would play at a dance and Lena would go along.  She’d go along and she’d dance to beat the dickens.

I got a little bit more information about the old-time German musicians of the Hoagland area from the early years of the 20th century from a few other conversations.  My first attempt at an interview didn’t go so well.  Edgar Witte lived just down the road from us.  He knew my family, but I didn’t really know him.  When I showed up on his door step in December 1976, he didn’t know what to make of a long-haired college kid asking him about the old days.  He never invited me in, and I never got to ask about tape-recording his memories. I also regret that I never went back to try to establish a better rapport.  When I left his front steps, I sat in my car and wrote what I could remember into my notebook.  Here is a paraphrase of what he told me:

Talk to my brother. He would tell you more about that. He’s got my banjo. I played for about ten or 15 years. We played all over, even over in Ohio. We had a lot of different people in the band. One guy would have a clarinet, one a violin. This one would drop out, then that one would drop out. Once we played back in a platform back in the woods. Most of the time we played in barns. They were cold. We played the same kind of music they have on the records they have on TV. ‘Paw and Maw’ I think they call it. [Hee-Haw ?] We didn’t have any microphones in them days. You had to play your heart out to be heard. Now you just touch the thing. Stand close and you’ve got a good loud sound.  I played the banjo. Plectrum. One guy had a mandolin. A ‘bug,’ we called it.

I had become a much better interviewer by May 22, 1988, when I went to visit Elmer and Velma Grotrian in their farm house about a mile from the Franke homestead. They were avid dancers, starting with the old-time barn and house dances of the early 1900s through the rise of the polka revival in the 1980s. Elmer was born in 1904, and full of vivid memories.  In the old days, one of the most popular musical ensembles in the Hoagland area was Wilbur Scheumann’s orchestra, with Wilbur on saxophone, Gus Macke on concertina; Herb Milan on banjo; and Pete Hockemeyer on drums. Here’s an excerpt from that interview.

EG:    Now those boys, they went out and played for anybody  who wanted to give a public dance.  Anybody that had a barn . . . that was fit to have a dance on, that they wanted to entertain like their community or group or whatever it was, why they would put on a dance; and these guys would go and play for something like that.  That Wilbur Scheuman’s  gang was a pretty popular band at that time. . . .  Now, when you’re talking violin, Bill Peppler was a violinist.  Now him again and old Bushman Rohrbach and, either Bushman Rohrbach or Charlie Judt.  Charlie Judt played the concertina too.  Now Bill Peppler, he was got about, oh, about half shot, liquor or what have you.  He’d stand one leg out like this and saw, he would saw it off, by God.  And the more the people enjoyed it, the better he could play.  He had to get about half teed up first, so he could wheel her out.  Now the Thiele boys, now Fred Thiele, he was a violin player too [Paul Thiele was the caller, Coony Meckholt (or Thiele ?) played concertina] . . . Cooney Thiele was the one, he enjoyed drinking a little bit too.  And he got wound up.  Why he really enjoyed seeing people get out and dance.  And like I said, in those days it wasn’t a matter of what they was going to get out of it as the pleasure of seeing people entertain themselves.  That was the idea.

That’s as far back as living memory has been able to take me.  The musicians named here were active in the first three decades of the 20th century.  I hope it is clear to the reader that all of their surnames are German names. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly what tunes they played, though they seemed to be of the same category presented by Hee-Haw fifty years later, at least in the estimation of Edgar Witte.  The violin and concertina were important. But a lot of instruments also had a place in the old-time German dance bands of northeastern Indiana.

More to come.