Plains Music

Before the present age when every consumer is earpodded up and equipped with a private portable movie screen, wrangling over what music to listen to on the car radio and what show to watch on the living room tv were crucial survival skills. When battles were lost over which station or channel would prevail, you had to endure your parents’ or siblings’ tastes—and perhaps learn something from them.

Growing up I spent several summers at my grandparents’ house in the Skagit Valley sixty miles north of Seattle picking berries. It was thought that kids should learn how to work. Each season I spent the first couple days in the fields dreaming up ways of getting furloughed from this forced labor. The rich valley soil had no rocks, but the dirt clods were hard as stone and agony for the knees. What if I took a hammer to my leg and claimed that my injury was the result of an accident?  But after a few days I’d get used to the routine, mentally and physically, and start actually enjoying the work.

My great-grandmother was a Minnesota divorcée who, as a single woman, had left the big city of St. Paul to homestead in western North Dakota. There she met the Norwegian sheriff of Dunn County, a man with the perfect lawman’s name: John Bang.  They had one child, my grandmother, Gertrude Bang.

When I went out to Dunn County with my grandmother for a Bang family reunion in 1989, the centennial of North Dakota statehood, tales were still being told of John Bang’s prowess with shooting iron and fiddle—though not at the same time. He was Non-Partisan Leaguer, the socialist movement of state-owned grain elevators and banks that took hold just before America’s entry into World War I and went bust in the Depression. As a child my grandmother, born in 1910, recited poetry at NPL rallies. Later she became a leader of the movement against the proposed nuclear power plant on the Skagit River. She was a renegade thinker and doer in many other ways, too.

My grandfather, Judd Yearsley, was selling International Harvester Tractors out on the Plains, when he met my grandmother. My father was born in Bismarck in 1936.

The Depression and War drove the family to jobs at the Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington. After the War they moved to the rich agricultural lands of the Skagit Valley, completely deforested of the giant cedars that once covered the vast flood plain of Washington State’s biggest river (the Columbia ends its course shared between Oregon and Washington). John Bang planted a nostalgic acre of oats on his piece of Skagit land—in every sense a long way from the quarter section (140 acres) of the crop that he’d cultivated on his ultimately failed homestead.

My grandparents’ place in the Skagit Valley was a small farm divided into two parcels. Plans for acquiring more land had been killed in 1959 when they planted twenty acres of strawberries on rented property and lost the entire crop to the once-in-a-lifetime frost of that year.

My grandfather, Judd Yearsley, had a good ear and could pick out tunes on his harmonica. Thinking back, I wonder why he played it so rarely.

In my grandparents’ house there was an Estey upright piano against the wall the between the kitchen and the dining room. My grandmother hid various bits of jewelry and silver dollars inside the instrument. (There were also two bags of silver coins stashed in the floorboards of one of the closets; my grandfather directed me to pull them out after my grandmother died.) This approach to “wealth management” was the legacy of the failure of the North Dakota banks.

During my summers on the farm, I was supposed to play the piano every day, but I rarely did.  I rarely felt like working through my scales and arpeggios in the evening. It was all I could do to muster a bit of guilt about not practicing

The biggest musical event of the week at my grandparents was the Lawrence Welk Show that aired Saturday night on ABC just before prime time. The show ran from the 1950s until 1982. Even through the counterculture 1960s the program’s ratings remained robust.

My grandparents had listened to Welk’s band over the radio back in North Dakota, before the bandleader decamped to Los Angeles in 1951. As they watched his television show they seemed to glow, not just with classic numbers, but even the rock tunes that got the Welk purifying treatment.

Like my grandmother, Welk was a proud North Dakotan. He grew up in Strasburg in a German-speaking community. He never lost his accent and his English remained clunky and hesitant. The cadence, intonation, and even some of his pronunciations reminded me of my grandmother’s way of speaking.  She loved the show as much for the music as for the connection to North Dakota.

I hated the show:  the bubble machine; the cheesy set with its bogus chandeliers; the matching pastel-colored suits of the band (all-male, except for that female cellist, and maybe a violinist, too, and the wholesome, big-haired singers); the bleached out pseudo-jazziness of the arrangements; the lame attempts at light-heartedness; the old couples milling around the dance floor, their movements bearing now relation to the rhythm of the music; everyone white, except the tap dancer.

I had started playing the organ in the summer of 1979, three years before Welk retired. During the hour-long show there was always a number for Hammond organ, which, as a know-it-all teenager, I refused to recognize as an organ at all.  An organ had pipes. (I still balk—no pun intended—at the redundant term “pipe organ.” Back in 1979 I still hadn’t discovered Jimmy Smith.)

Whenever the Welk organist, Bob Ralston, would come on for his solo, my grandparents, eager to show their interest in my interests, would offer enthusiastic comments. I don’t remember being sniffy about Ralston, though I probably was.

Much of the Welk video archive is reported to have burned in its vault in the Universal Studios fire of 2008.  Even if just a fraction of his catalog survives on YouTube, there is still plenty to survey.

Here’s Ralston at his Hammond organ (brand plate above the keyboards prominent) in a show from 1980—one I probably saw—doing the 1940s hit, “You Can’t Be True Dear.”

Even now I recognize his style immediately from those summers: the louche vibrato; the artificial sound of the instrument (even more artificial through the tv); the hint of Liberace with rings; the deft display of ornamentation and glissando, the hands prancing for the camera.  I can now see and hear that guy was brilliant at what he did:  his craftsmanship can only be marveled at.

Meandering farther back through the fields of Welkiana on YouTube we come to a “Sugar” from 1967 done by the show’s first pianist, Frank Scott—the “Gentleman from North Dakota” as Welk calls him in his introduction. The bandleader-host also points out  that his quartet is made of other North Dakotans including Welk’s cousin (Johnny Klein on drums). This week marks the centennial of Scott’s birthday.

What hits me now is the smoothness and facility. Yet Scott’s left hand has punch and bite. It’s tv and there is no room for him to stretch out, but snatches of invention and verve come through in those seconds. Big block chords and tremolos are intercut with the scrum of arhythmic dancers. Who knows if they were even in the same studio or merely cut in as stock footage?

During the applause after the two minutes of “Sugar,” Welk says “Boys, I’m proud of all you North Dakota People.” And so would my grandparents have been: of their people, their music,  a music of their Plains homeland and of migration to the coast. Only now can I hear what they loved in it.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at