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Music Of Yesterday


Renee Giffen


"Beside the organ we all stand,

Together we sing old songs which are grand." (1)


Music, so much a part of personal and commercial entertainment,was also found among the early settlers of the Red River Valley. There wouldbe good times when neighbors and friends gathered around the organ and sang,and take turns playing the organ. In some homes a family get together meantsinging hymns and playing the organ. One thing is certain, the people ofthe Red River Valley loved music.

Families in the rural areas had to make their own entertainment,especially in the winter when they couldn't go anywhere. So, neighbors,friends, and relatives gathered together in the homes for parties. The nightwas spent dancing and singing. They square danced and waltzed to tunes suchas the "Missouri Waltz," "The St. Paul Waltz," "TheSidewalks of New York," and "My Wild Irish Rose." They alsodanced the polka which was enjoyed by all. The floor would sway to the actionof this dance and the rafters rang with cheerfulness. The youngsters couldn'ttake part in all these dances but they enjoyed watching the adults.

When visitors came to homes to visit, music was part ofthe evening's entertainment. Mrs. O. A. Roberts recalls that when her unclecame to visit and it was time for farewells, they gathered together andsang some favorite hymns. Sometimes it grew into a song hour.

Music at Christmas time for the Swedish was very special.A song titled "Glada Yulafton," which means Happy or Glad ChristmasEve, was sung before gifts were opened. "Glada Yulafton" is atraditional Swedish song which has been handed down through the years. Thegrandfather of the group would read the Christmas story in Swedish and thensing "Glada Yulafton." The song is also part of a tradition atthe Red River Lutheran Church in Hallock, where the choir leads the congregationin singing it every Christmas Eve.

Another part of the social life, in the early years, inthe Red River Valley were the singing games of the teenagers at partiesand other social gatherings. Some of these games were "Farmer in theDell," "Skip Come a Loo," and "Three Old Maids in aSkating Ring."

Some young fellows gathered in a group similar to the Barber-shoppersor the Barbershop quartet. They had several groups and gathered in differentareas of the town on a warm summer evening. One group started up with asong down by the school and another group answered with another song froma different area. This went on for hours. It was a great way to spend theevenings and it also kept the boys out of trouble.

There was never really a special hour set for musical orsinging enjoyment, just when the mood relaxed the family. Men might be singingcertain hymns or folk songs while doing chores and women would be hummingor singing while they finished their housework and baking. Men always feltrelaxed after coming in from the fields after a hard days work and beingable to sing and play the organ or piano. In the evenings the mothers andfathers played the instruments and the children took turns singing together.

Singing was usually acquired by teaching yourself. It wasall by ear.

Some favored German songs are "So Nimm Den Meine Hande,"(Take my Hands), "Gott is Die Liebe(God is Love), and "Auge inAuge," (Face to Face).

Music in the rural schools was a big thing. They'd singat every PTA and club meetings. They'd learn songs like "Old BlackJoe," "Yankee Doodle," and other songs written to those tunes.One of the girls usually played the organ for the group. Later on, manyschools had phonographs.

There was usually a regular period everyday in which thepupils sang. Usually it was in the beginning of the school day and Fridayafternoon was always a special time to sing.

Most families had an organ because they were cheaper thanpianos. Until the railroad came up here the shipment of such a sizable,heavy item to the frontier was nearly prohibitive for the person of averagemeans. Many of the earliest organs from the east were shipped by water toHudson Bay, then to Fort Garry, and finally up the Red River to their destinations.The cost was pretty high for some people to pay. The initial cost was $107.50,boxing $3.00, the organ stool $3.50, and book of music for $2.00,for a total of $116.00. And when the freight came it cost an extra $14.00for shipping which boasted the total cost of the organ to $130.00. At thatdate, land in the area could be purchased for $1.25 an acre and muchwas sold under the Northern Pacific bond exchange program for less thanfifty cents per acre; so the organ easily represented the price of a quarterof a section of land.

Getting the organ was one thing and learning to play itwas another. Usually they had to learn to play the organ by ear becausethey couldn't read notes. When they went to dances, they heard many differentsongs, then later at home when the songs came to their mind, they workedat it until they could play one or two new songs. They probably left outa few notes now and then but they did it the best they could. This madelearning to play the organ more enjoyable and fun.

The more fortunate children who could afford piano lessonstook them so they could learn to play the piano better and learn to readnotes. Music lessons usually cost fifty cents each. However, there weresome teachers who didn't charge anything.

Music was usually limited to girls. Usually the boys weretoo busy doing farm work and it' just wasn't the thing for them to do. Thegirls were also kept busy, doing chores and housework, so this kept themfrom practicing. Practicing was usually limited to Sundays and holidays.

Piano lesson day was a great day. Usually the teacher livedmany miles away from the student, so that the pupil had to walk or ridehorses to her place. Lesson time was limited to summer time and then onlywhen they weren't engaged in field work.

In some families only the oldest girl was allowed to takelessons and then when she knew how to play the piano, she taught the othermembers of the family to play. This way they saved money and there was onlyone child going instead of the whole family.

Some piano teachers went around to the homes and gave pianolessons because some students just couldn't go to her house. In some biggercities, lessons were given in hotels where the teacher rented the pianoin order to give the lessons. Pianos were necessary to hotels of that daybecause so many of the community parties were held in them.

There were other instruments besides the piano that wereplayed and they were self-taught.

We think of a violin as an instrument played in the symphonyorchestra. But there are times when the instrument gives out a differentkind of sound, as anyone knows who has ever attended a genuine old-timesquare dance. When you hear the call, "Grab your partner," andthe music starts, you just don't think of the violin. It becomes a fiddle.The fiddle was once the instrument for the jig, the reel, the clog, or thesquare dance. Fiddling is for country gatherings or for people who stillhave the love for country living in their souls. The fiddle can be heardat almost every square dance.

Americans seemed to like the rhythmic twang of the jew'sharp, especially when it is played in a square dance or a folk band. Thejew's harp is not only for dancing. Many people found it a cheerful companionfor lonesome hours.

The mouth organ is often called the harmonica. Mouth organswere usually carried around by the men all the time. In fact, in their overallsthey had a special pocket for carrying the mouth organ. Some men broughtthe mouth organ to wars with them. It helped to cheer the weary and lonelymen during the great struggles of the war.

If a family didn't have enough money to buy an instrument,they just took a comb and wrapped a piece of paper around it and sort ofhummed and blew against it which really gave a funny feeling to their lips,but a sort of a song also flowed out.

Many communities enjoyed the accordion at their variousgatherings. Lawrence Welk has perhaps made the accordion one of the mostpopular instruments.

Music is still in today's world, but it is not really enjoyedin the homes like it was in the early days. The older people find that musicis still a part of their lives and occasionally play on the piano or singold hymns which they remember.

Families in those days had a lot to worry about and theyprobably didn't feel like singing all the time but it was by far the bestrecreation. This recreation brought people closer together and into thehomes of others. And, no greater satisfaction can be found in life thanmaking music.



Dockin, Mrs. Lawrence; Northcote, MN; Interview January6, 1972

Drache, Hiram M.; The Challenge of the Prairie; c. 1970North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies; pages 217-9

Finney, Mrs. George; Humboldt, MN; Interview January 6,1972

Gilmore, Lee; Folk Instruments; c. 1962 Lerner PublicationsCo.

Hemmes, John; Humboldt, MN; Interview January 6, 1972

Roberts, Mrs. Orval; Humboldt, MN; Interview January 8,1972

Tri, Mrs. P. N.; Humboldt, MN; Interview January 6, 1972

Turner, Russell; Hallock, MN; Interview January 5, 1972

January 8,1972

Tri, Mrs. P. N.; Humboldt, MN; Interview January 6, 1972

Turner, Russell; Hallock, MN; Interview January 5, 1972