2013-03-14 / Top News

German Russians recall music traditions

Organizers of the Dakota Memories Oral History Project, in cooperation with Prairie Public Broadcasting, will air a new radio program titled “We Always had to Sing: German-Russian Music in the Old Days.”

The program will air on Tues., March 19, at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.

One person after another tells us how, in the old days, “we always sang” and made music. You can hear about church music, lullabies, accordions, playing for dances and just for fun. Music was clearly a big part of the life of the German-Russian families who lived here on the northern Great Plains.You can hear stories about it, and a few verses of some old songs, on this radio special. The narrators grew up on the Northern Plains in the regions of South Dakota, North Dakota and Saskatchewan.

The commentary is by North Dakota State Sen. Robert Erbele, who grew up in a German-Russian family, living on the homestead near Lehr. Erbele has a lifelong interest in music and is featured in Prairie Public’s awardwinning 2005 documentary, “A Soulful Sound: Music of the Germans from Russia.”

Louis Helfrich, born in Glen Ullin, said, “At Christmas time we always sang, when we were doing dishes we sing, or if we were driving to town to go to church we’d sing, we’d sing on the way home from church.”

His family was not unusual, judging from what the other narrators say. Mona Leippi, from Regina, Saskatchewan, talked about her father, and how he “went to no ends to find used instruments and we had a little band that would be maybe 30 children. We played mostly hymns and simple marching kind of music.”

Ruben Richard Wolf remembers at threshing time “my Dad said, ‘If you work real hard I will buy you an accordion.’Then he proceeds to play the accordion for us.”

All in all, 16 people share their memories of music among the German-Russians in the early and mid-twentieth century.

Public interest in documenting and preserving German-Russian ethnic identity inspired the launch of this oral history project in 2005. For four years, organizers traveled the Northern Plains, gathering stories and documenting family relationships and childhood memories of second and third generation Germans from Russia.

The NDSU Libraries’Germans from Russia Heritage Collection and Prairie Public provide major funding for the program. A CD of the radio program will be available for $20. To pre-order the CD, contact Jeremy Kopp, Special Collections Associate, at (701) 231-6596 or Jeremy. Kopp@ndsu.edu.

The program can be heard on North Dakota stations 90.5 FM in Bismarck, 89.9 FM in Dickinson, 91.7 FM in Devils Lake, 91.9 FM in Fargo, 89.3 FM in Grand Forks, 91.5 FM in Jamestown, 88.9 FM in Minot and 88.7 FM in Williston.

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