The Germans Among Us*

We had a party tonight watching The Lawrence Welk Show. Yes, that is what passes for a party at our house. America was a better place when variety shows like this were popular. I don’t really know that; I wasn’t alive when the show aired — or we didn’t have a TV at that time (it ran through the early 80s; I just checked). I can only imagine that our culture was better when the population appreciated brass bands, trained singing, full orchestras and, of course, polkas and similar played on an accordion.

I noticed that Mr. Welk had a distinguishable accent, not purely American, which made me curious, as I had thought he was born here. Well, he was, but it was to German immigrants who lived in a German-speaking community in North Dakota. He, in fact, didn’t speak English until he was an adult. There used to be many of these communities in the US; if our country had chosen an official language at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century, it might have been German. As it went, we never did choose an official language. English simply became the default, probably because it was the language originally used in federal government bodies and documents. For the record, though, all the hoity-toity English-only types who put their noses in the air and claim that early immigrants went out of their way to be ‘Murican and learn English aren’t exactly correct.

I found Welk’s biography curious. He was from a farm family who started out their lives in North Dakota living in an upturned wagon — those were the kinds of hardships Americans used to face. Welk was the sixth of eight children, and despite the hardships, Welk asked his father to buy him a $400 accordion. His father bought it for him and expected him to work it off on the farm. And like a good young man, he did just that. But I want you to put that price into perspective. Four-hundred dollars a hundred years ago is comparable to five-thousand in our day. That’s a lot of money for farmers. Did you know the accordion I would like to buy would cost me approximately $5000? That means quality accordions have maintained their value according to inflation. I currently own a much cheaper accordion; it’s a Hohner Panther, which is considered a decent student accordion. Someday, I hope to purchase a better one. Hey, I’d do farmwork to pay for it!

My husband noted the people on The Lawrence Welk Show still knew how to dance. They were cutting the rug doing polkas and waltzes; naturally, I told him it was because Welk was Catholic. I was teasing him when I said that, but it turns out it’s true! He grew up in a German and a Catholic community. He kept his faith throughout his life. He was apparently very devout and as an adult went to Mass daily to receive the Eucharist. All of this information, by the way, can be found on his Wiki page. I did no great research to write this post. However, the cursory look at his biography has piqued my curiosity, and if there’s a longer book available on him, I will find it. Biography and history are two of my favorite genres. Unfortunately, I buy biographies wherever I go, and I still have unread ones sitting by my bed. There’s something like serendipity to finding weird thrift store biographies I never would have thought to look for on Kindle. And sometimes, TV shows inspire me to seek more, too….

Speaking of, there’s a great movie out there called The Polka King. What a story that is! It’s a true story about a Polish accordion king, maybe not such a good Catholic because he ended up in prison for fraud. Just one of his schemes was to dupe Catholics into going on Vatican tours with promises of meeting the Pope. Even though he was a shyster, he still managed to get an audience with Pope John Paul II…to this day, nobody knows quite how he did it. I really recommend this film. Jack Black stars in it and, while Black is clearly demonic, he can be a great actor.

You see, I’m not obsessed with just Mexican music. I love all manner of accordion wunderkinds. There is a good German word for you. The truth is that Mexicans are simply superior at packaging the best parts of music into amazing songs. Mexicans have dramatic or intentionally flat vocals combined with goofiness and, often, barely constrained chaos. There is nothing that fulfills my vision of the world better than those descriptors. They are the descriptors I’d give to my own artistic vision when I write books: goofy, dramatic, droll, and nearly chaotic plot. When I die, please engage an accordionist to play in that manner at my funeral. Oh, and please, please, have dancing. Thank you.

*And a Polish guy too

**I realized belatedly that that last phrase looks attached to “what I want at my funeral” and not to the asterisk in the title. Have a Pole at my funeral, I don’t care. Or a Yugoslavian. I hear they are good accordionists, too.

3 thoughts on “The Germans Among Us*”

  1. As accordions go, so does the economy.

    I remember my grandmother saying wunderkind a lot, among other loanwords. She was German…not fresh off the boat, since she was born in America, but her and her husband’s family were a part of the ethnic Germans in Hungary, the Danube Schwaben. Maybe she only said wunderkind once or twice and it just stuck with me. When you’re young, things are bigger than they actually were. Anyways, that’s why Sister Elisabeth from PBS says all those fun German words and phrases 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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