Sunday, November 6, 2016

Interview with Walter Sigtermans About "Crow River Country" Fiddlers

      Walter Sigtermans was the main researcher for the Minnesota State Fiddle Association’s "Crow River Country" fiddler’s project that was just completed.  This was the culmination of grant work spearheaded by the association’s president, MaryPat Kleven.  Walter gave presentations at each of the three concerts and tune workshops.  I wanted to make sure I caught up with Walter and asked him questions about his research while it was fresh in his mind.  It is a lengthy interview, but has been left intact as this is a under researched subject.

1)  What led you to help out with the Elmo Wick project and go to "Crow River Country" to do more research?

Well, first off, you (interviewer) did. Four years ago you and Annabelle taught a piece called "Old Red Barn" and talked about heirloom fiddle tunes which were passed down from father to son. That was the first time I had attended a Minnesota State Fiddlers Association meeting.  I had learned to play "Old Red Barn" on the fiddle from my grandfather (pictured below). So, you immediately had my attention. Heirloom fiddle tunes are something I can easily relate to. You were talking about what I had experienced, but had never recognized.

Walter's grandfather, Louis Curtis, of Manitoba.
My fiddle-playing grandfather operated an organic wheat farm in Alonsa, Manitoba. My dad was a mechanic for Northwest Airlines and we could get airline passes for dirt cheap. I grew up in Hastings, Minnesota but when I was 14 - 17 years old, I flew up to Winnipeg one weekend a month to take violin lessons from Grandpa, and listen to stories from my great grandmother. During the summer I would spend the month of August on the old homestead in Alonsa doing chores and getting violin lessons in the evening.

So, I got an early appreciation of history - through stories and songs. I also had the experience of living and working on a farm during the summers (I was the seasonal labor from south of the border). My great grandmother's quarter section had an old log cabin (built 1902) which still had a wood burning stove, and the farm was like a museum of old farm implements.

I have spent most of my life living and working in Minnesota, yet there are parts of this place, which I call home, that I am completely unfamiliar with. This project gave me an opportunity to learn what it means to be a "Minnesotan."

2)  What was it like talking to the families of these fiddlers?

For me it was really hard. I am an introvert, so the conversation process does not come naturally. There is a certain skill set required to be a good interviewer - and I don't feel that proficient at it.  You need to have an objective, yet be willing to explore the unexpected topics - preferably without long periods of silence.

  The hardest part was making that first contact. In this political season I didn't want to be dismissed or ignored before I could ask my (very specific) questions. I settled on sending a copy of their ancestor's tunes along with a hand written letter a few days before I tried calling them by phone.
       Gordon Jorgenson was great. He knew a lot of family history, and he had really loved his grandfather. I think it tickled him that someone was interested in Olaus, and it tickled him even more that Olaus had his own fiddle tune. Gordon had so much Jorgenson family information I had to keep myself disciplined about what my objectives were.
        Both interviews were with non-musical people who had inherited handmade family heirloom instruments. Gordon owns a fiddle his grandfather had made in 1942. Joan owns a hardanger that her great grandfather, Elling Sagedahl, made in the 1890s.  It was a thrill to handle and photograph such treasured works of art.

Pictures of the Wick family on Walter's presentation poster board.

        Yes, if you have enough time and know where to look.  I saw Ole Flolo's house, Olaus Jorgenson's house, the Sagedahl homestead. The granite and timber structures built in Sibley State Park by the VCC in the 1930’s were really impressive.  You can still see the outline of the Broberg log cabin (site of the 1862 massacre) in Monson Lake State Park.  I found the site of the Henschien homestead (and a marker where the farmhouse once stood).        

           Oliver Sagedahl's daughter, Joan, was a different experience. She apologized for not having more pictures of her father's family.  She did not need any forgiveness, least of all from me.  The key information from Joan was the correct spelling of "Morris Chargo."  Elmo had written "Morris Cargo" so I could not find anything about that very colorful character until I talked with Joan. She also provided some much appreciated photographs of her father.

     Ken Amundson was also fun and challenging in his own way. I had so much to ask that I didn't know where to begin. I saw him on a weekend where I had already learned so much that I was already at or near capacity. He was also planning to go on a trip as soon as we finished talking. He had cassette tapes, but no tape player so we sat in his van and listened to them there while it rained. I also liked seeing one of Elmo Wick's fiddles in his shop.

One thing I found helpful after all those interviews was to stop, sit, and write everything down while it was still fresh in my mind. Later I kept going back to those notes as I tried to piece everything together.

3) Did all the fiddlers hang out together and play at joint gatherings?

  Yeah, but I have two answers to this, because I have been looking at two timeframes. There was the period of 1890 - 1940 which was the age of Elmo's youth and the heyday of his mentors.  Second, there was the period of 1970 - 2009 which was the era of nostalgia and old-time music revival.

  I have been more interested in that first time-period and in those mentors who taught Elmo their craft.  During that 1890 - 1940 time frame we are talking about house parties and dances.  Music was not an end in itself - it was there so people could dance.

  Young Elmo was, first and foremost, a dance fiddler.  The fiddle music of that time was much more public.  People were not "specialized" players.  At that time fiddling was not about performance, it was just something everyone did.  Look at that neighborhood map and see how many farmers played these fiddle tunes.  So, yeah, there was that colored pencil sketch from the MNHS of an 1890 Norwegian house dance (see below).  There was also a newspaper clipping which Elmo had amongst his music of a dance at Norway Lake in 1901 (see below).

1890 house dance

          I got a much better appreciation of dances and dance music.  During the most recent August MBOTMA festival I spent a fair amount of time in the dance tent, stepping and moving to the beat.  I think it is pretty cool that the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America  teaches both hardanger fiddle AND Norwegian folk dance.  I may spend more time at the Nisswa Stammen festival next year picking up dance steps.

During that second time-period (1970-2009) it was mostly jams. By that time radio, television and the internet had changed music.  Music was now everywhere... in elevators, dentist offices and on your telephone when you have to wait.  Playing music was now something that was for specialists (professionals).  There were jam sessions like "Little Joe’s Barbershop" in Fargo, ND or "Cliff Hanson's Brooten Barbershop" in Minneapolis, but live amateur music became a private thing, which was not good enough for general consumption.

1901 dance in Norway Lake, MN.

 I guess I saw that played out with my own grandfather.  Grandpa learned to play fiddle on an instrument that his father sent him from England during WWI.  My great-grandfather had been in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and died in Amiens, France in 1918.  So, my grandfather taught himself how to play.  When he moved into the big city of Winnipeg in the 1930s he was viewed as a country hick.  His playing-by-ear anything-goes fiddling was not good enough, so he unlearned everything he had taught himself and started all over again.  He eventually got good enough to play in the Winnipeg orchestra, and could drive his son-in-law (my father) out of the house each time he started playing one of Paganini's caprices, but Grandpa still enjoyed listening to Don Messer.

4)  Is there any remnants of the scene left today?

         I drove past Ole Rime's homestead. The house has since been torn down and replaced with a new home. The barn might still be original though.  I climbed up Mount Tom and later that evening stood on the dock on Lake Andrew, watched the fireflies, and listened to the loons.

         But, I have a full time job, so...  I did not visit the island on Norway Lake where settlers spent the night during the 1862 Dakota Wars.  I never did check out the Wick and Wiig farmhouses.  There were a lot of little old Lutheran churches.  I photographed the outside of a few of them, but I would have liked to look a bit longer.  I never stopped into the cafĂ© in downtown Sunburg.  There are probably a dozen other places which I still don't know about.

5) Who seemed to be the most significant fiddlers and why?

         I was most interested in the older fiddlers who originally mentored young Elmo: Andrew Wick; Edward Wick; Olaus Jorgenson; Gilbert Rime; Otto & Vernie Henschien; Ole Flolo; Haaval Wiig; Elling, Ole, Henry, Edward, Clarence & Oliver Sagedahl; Ole Erickson.  That doesn't mean they were any more significant than:  Cliff Gandrud;  Carl, Harris & Ken Amundson; Herbert & Arlan Erickson; Henry Gafkjen; Reuben Pederson; Ole & Viola Kjeldahl; Cliff Hanson.  These are the people Elmo befriended, or learned about later in life.  The point is that they all played a role in his life's work.  When you drop a pebble into water you never know how far the ripples will extend and what their effects will be.

6)  What did you most learn from your research or your biggest takeaway?

Walter Sigtermans
         I learned a lot about a place I have called home for many years.  I finally got to see the Kensington Runestone at the Runestone museum in Alexandria, visited the Olaf Ohman farm in Kensington, saw the Acton Monument where the Dakota War started, climbed up Inspiration Peak of which Sinclair Lewis wrote (and guilted a few Minnesota governors for not having visited it themselves). I played fiddle in Fort Alexandria during History Live weekend.  But the coolest thing was playing a hardanger fiddle at the HFAA workshop in Dodgeville, WI, whereby I carried out my role in helping to keep an old art form alive.

 So, everybody keep practicing and playing your music because some day, a century or two from now, someone might be researching us.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Elmo Wick Presentation by Minnesota State Fiddle Association

On October 16, the Minnesota State Fiddle Association presented a concert and workshop on the great Minnesota tune collector and fiddler, Elmo Wick. MaryPat Klevin has been steering the association towards learning the tunes of our home state for many years.  MSFA used to be mostly a competitive fiddling organization, but in recent years has shifted the focus to teaching tunes and preserving our state's music.

Learning tunes
Under the tutelage of MaryPat, the MSFA “slojammers” have learned the repertoire from the first MN Fiddle Tunes Project CD. Now MaryPat and friends have done research and learned the tunes of the great Elmo Wick from " Crow River Country", MN.  Elmo was kind enough to leave MSFA a huge vault of his own transcriptions of tunes he learned from this region. That enabled MSFA to publish a book of more than 30 tunes they thought were most representative of the fiddlers from that area of Minnesota.

MaryPat teaching tunes.
  MaryPat has received a grant to do this work from the MN State Arts Board.  As part of this work, she has set up three workshop and concert series at various places in MN.  One session was on October 16th in Bloomington, MN. MaryPat and others taught 14 fiddlers tunes from this collection. The youngest participant was in his early teens and the oldest was in his nineties.   MaryPat is a great teacher of tunes to large groups, and participants were quick to pick up the tunes as she repeated passages, slowly building up speed and confidence.  Folks were eager to learn these tunes, many of which were first played on hardanger before Elmo transferred them to regular fiddle.  They taught a schottische and two waltzes.   The tune book is a great introduction into all of the fiddlers Elmo hung out with in the Crow River Country area.   MaryPat had good suggestions about 1st  position alternatives for the tunes that have harder 3rd position parts.  

          Since there are no recordings or living players who play these tunes, MaryPat talked about the challenges of making the notes come alive off the page.  Elmo’s notes don’t specify the style or bowing patterns for the tunes. There was some discussion about how to bow the tunes, but without Elmo here to instruct, this will have to be left up to interpretation.

          Of course, because it was a Minnesota event, there had to be cake and coffee during the intermission. The event was at a senior citizen home for the ease of long time MSFA member and leader Dan Radford who can’t get around too much anymore.

Walter giving his presentation
       After the workshops were done, Walter Sigtermans did a presentation on his research into the Crow county fiddlers with whom Elmo played.  He had personal tales gleaned from family members and historical societies.  He spoke about how the Norwegians in that county stayed together and kept their tunes alive.  A lot of the tunes in the collection originally came from the Hallingdal area of Norway.
Poster board with Elmo and other Crow County fiddlers.
      The concert covered a bunch of tunes from Elmo’s collection.  MaryPat and others from MSFA played the tunes they learned with guitar and bass backup.  Other students from the workshops were invited up to play during the appropriate tunes.  Dan Radford closed out the show by playing a few tunes with the band backing him.  Even though slowed down by a walker, it was great to see that this did not deter his enthusiasm for the music. This was the perfect close to a great day of tune preservation in Minnesota.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Upper Midwest Tunes Placing Again At State Fiddle Contest

MaryPat Kleven ( president of the MN State Fiddle Association ) finished in second place at the 2015 state fiddle contest in the heritage division.  The heritage division is devoted to equal parts telling stories about a tune and playing a tune.

Mary Pat chose to play a fiddle tune from Leonard Finseth that was featured on the last CD.  She told a great story about Leonard and how she relates to his tunes.  It is wonderful to see Upper Midwest tunes get back into circulation at these events.

Mary Pat playing at the 2015 MN State Fiddle Contest

Friday, February 21, 2014

Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Workshop at Winter Bluegrass Weekend

As you may already know, the Minnesota State Fiddle Association has taken to transcribing, learning, and teaching the songs off of the last CD.   They have a free workshop planned for all those who are coming to the Winter Bluegrass Weekend, which runs from Feb. 28th-March 2nd.

Here is the description-


9:30 AM Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Project Workshop. The Minnesota State Fiddlers Association has taken on the project of learning and transcribing all of the fiddle tunes from the Minnesota Fiddle Tune Project CD. We will teach some of the more basic tunes and jam on the others.

I hear that afterwords they plan on jamming on some of the tunes.  This should be a good time.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The next Minnesota Fiddle Tunes CD and a new band!

Exciting news here at Minnesota Fiddle Tunes HQ!   We are announcing a Kickstarter campaign for the next phase of our project.   See the campaign here.  The band is already together and working on tunes!  Right now we are moving forward with the love for the tunes and the concept of the project, but pretty soon we are going to have to deal with the finances of recording and putting out a CD.

Last year I successfully put out the Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Project CD, which was a culmination of my first efforts to preserve, promote and learn Minnesota fiddle tunes.  A lot of my early work involved research into the significant fiddlers of the area, most of whom have been forgotten.  The next logical step is to dive into these fiddlers' repertoires and immerse ourselves in the tunes they were playing long ago.

Leonard Finseth

Leonard Finseth stuck out to me right away.  He lived on the same farm his whole life, but seemed to be everywhere in the region playing with many of the great old-time musicians of the Upper-Midwest.  That he recorded much of these musical wanderings in home recordings is a real treasure.   The problem is that the recordings have been stuck degrading in dusty archives and family attics until now. By putting a band together to pay tribute to not only the tunes, but the fiddlers themselves, we can make this lost music become alive again. The excitement that musicians have for this project is already apparent.  This is going to be a real labor of love.

Now that the band is assembled, we have to learn how Leonard played all the songs and come up with arrangements that stay true to tradition, but at the same time feel modern.  We will then have to take this big band into a recording studio, and some engineer is going to have a fun time mixing fiddle, accordion, banjo, nycelharpa, pump organ, guitar and bass. By the time spring comes we should be putting the finishing touches on the CD and setting up shows to support it here in the Upper-Midwest ( imagine, if you will, a VFW club in Bemidji, MN).

This is the kind of historical work that has a hard time paying for itself. Two years ago I was awarded a grant to cover the costs of the Minnesota Fiddle tunes CD.  The energy and enthusiasm that that project created has brought us to this point.  In order to get to the next level we need another infusion of funds, and what better way to do it than on this grassroots level! Thank you for helping us preserve and spread this great Upper Midwest fiddle music that has been tucked away in attics for so long.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Lawrence Westad

Picture courtesy of the Westad family.
One of the biggest regrets I have in doing the Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Project CD is that I didn't have more information on two of the old fiddlers who I got source material from: Lawrence Westad and Ed Selvaag.  Recently a letter came to me from Karen Obermiller who knew the families of these two.  With help from her and Lawrence's family, we were able to track down this old article from a Minnesota State Fiddlers' Association newsletter that sheds a lot of light onto the life of Lawrence-

I would like to tell you about our friend and fellow MSFA member, Lawrence Westad.  Lawrence is a very kind and happy person who has done much for the preservation of fiddling.  As you enter his farm driveway located a half dozen miles northwest of Parkers Prairie, you are greeted by a square pillar of split rock with the words "Velkommen til Vesta".  This translates- Welcome to Westad- and that is exactly what they mean.  This is where the good old-fashioned sincere hospitality is served in heaping proportions!

Lawrence's father, Palmer Mathais Kristenson came from Loten, Norway, where his parents were living on a fourteen acre farm. There wasn't much future for him on that size of a farm.  In 1893, Palmer at age 23 came to America on a freight ship via Quebec, Canada.  He then changed his name to Westad, which was the farm name in Norway.  Palmer worked in the pine forestes and iron mines of Minnesota and eventually became an established farmer in the Henning-Vining area.  Lawrence's mother Christine Nelson Bradley was born in Elmo township in Ottertail County.

Lawrence was born the third of February 1915 in a little log cabin, being the eighth child of eleven.  He attended rural school, having both men and women teachers.  They did a lot of singing in that little country school- he remembers when they turned to page 50 and sang "When You and I Were Young Maggie." 

Lawrence's youth was spent on the family farm working with his dad.  The wages were low!  They survived seven years of drought and very low livestock prices.  But Lawrence has a strong vein of perseverance and his farm now numbers 270 acres.  Through the years he operated a threshing machine, which he still keeps as a souvenir, operated a dairy herd and raised hogs, as well as many other farming ventures.  Lawrence knows what hard work is like. He also knows what tough luck is like, because he lost a barn full of hay from fire which was started by a bolt of lightening.  But, as Lawrence said, "It did result in a new and better barn!"

Lawrence's wife, Ruby, was born near Eagle Bed, in Ottertail County.  Her grandparents came from Sweden.  Her parents farmed and had a herd of dairy cattle.  Ruby's mother is now 99 years old and is living in a nursing home in Cold Spring, MN.  Ruby has one brother and one sister. Ruby attended a small country school and then went to Parkers Prairie High School.  She then went to Staples, MN and received her teaching certificate. She then found a job teaching school in District 273. And guess who she found at a dance in Miltona one night!

 Ruby and Lawrence were married in Parkers Prairie at the First Lutheran Church in 1944.  They started their life together on the same farm they live on today.  Ruby raised gardens through the years and well remembers the struggle in keeping the hogs penned up.  Hogs love gardens! Through these years Lawrence supplemented their income by working as a mason laying blocks.

When Lawrence was a lad, he had a neighbor who played a fiddle. Lawrence loved this kind of music and the neighbor enjoyed playing for the youngster. In 1929, another neighbor who had a fiddle was moving to California and had an auction.  Lawrence was a happy 14 year old when the auctioneer declared his three dollar bid was the winner! It was a Sears Strad copy.  A school teacher taught him how to tune it and helped him with a few basics.  The first tune he learned from Olai Gronn, and so he calls it the Olai Gronn Waltz. But there was much farm work to be done and Lawrence more or less forgot about the fiddle. The fiddle has since disappeared and he speculates that his sister just may have burned it along with other trash and junk!  "She was like that," he said.

Then in the mid 1950s, a new neighbor moved in from Iowa. This fellow could sing and this prompted Laurence to start fiddling again. They would get together once a week and things got to be as they should be. The fiddle he seems to use the most is a Strad copy by Roth. He bought this fiddle, along with two others from June Kimbler of Henning, whose father used to play.  Nowadays Lawrence gets together with Ed Selvaag of Henning, who plays the fiddle, guitar and piano; and Maurice Strom who is a retired depot agent and loves to fiddle.  Lawrence has played in many contests and has a piano top full of many beautiful trophies. Phil Nusbaum has recorded Lawrence and Ed Selvaag playing the old favorite "Greet the Folks at Home" for the Minnesota State Arts Board.

 Lawrence loves to hunt deer. Sometime back he found himself in the woods near the Canadian border, in the Ash Lake area, waiting for a deer. A waltz was spawned in his mind and he called it the "Ash Lake Waltz." This has been recorded by Wilbur Foss' "Fiddles Had Fun in Yankton, SD in 1986." Many fiddlers refer to this tune as the Westad Waltz."