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Remembering Lawrence Welk

Helm, Merry. "Remembering Lawrence Welk." Dakota Datebook, 11 March 2004.


If he were still living, Lawrence Welk would turn 101 today. For those few listeners who may have never heard of Welk, he was one of America’s most successful bandleaders.

Lawrence grew up in a sod house near Strasburg in south central North Dakota. His first clear memory was of crawling to his father who was smiling and holding out an old accordion. Another favorite memory was of the day his brother John got married. Lawrence volunteered to stay home to do chores so he could play John's accordion the entire day without being made to stop.

When Lawrence asked his father for his own accordion, his father said yes... just as soon as he paid for it himself. At that time, the government was offering a bounty on squirrels at 2 cents per tail, so Lawrence starting trapping them to get the money. When he finally made $15, he sent away for an accordion. It was so poorly made, it lasted only a couple weeks.

About this time, his father took him to see Tom Gutenberg, a traveling musician. The 17 year-old was awe-struck by Gutenberg's accordion and made a life-changing decision. He went to his father to offer a deal: if his father would buy him an accordion like Gutenberg's - a $400 instrument - he would work on the farm for four years and turn over every penny he made from his music. His father took several days to think it over but finally said yes.

After three months, it finally arrived, and Welk played until his father ordered him to stop so they could get some sleep. In his autobiography, Welk wrote, "Obediently I put the accordion down beside my bed where I could still reach out and touch it... but I got up again at four o’clock the next morning and slipped out to the barn where I began to play for the surprised chickens and horses. I played for more than an hour, while the dawn gradually cut through the morning darkness and turned the sky violet, and then gold, and then a clear shining blue. That was a moment I'll never forget."

When Welk began playing for dances, his father said, "Accordion playing is all right for fun, Lawrence. But it's not a life's work... You’d better start thinking more about the farm." That's where the two parted company; Welk enjoyed working outdoors in the fields, and he liked building his muscles from the exertion, but the only thing he wanted to be was a musician.

Welk soon became a favorite at local events, but at one wedding, an older couple waltzed by, and the man said, "You play pretty good there, Lawrence, and so does your brother John. But neither one of you boys plays as well as your father! You just don’t have the rhythm!"

One night, Lawrence played a dance in Ipswich, South Dakota, where his brother and sister-in-law promised to watch out for him. Every time he and his band finished playing, the crowd would pass the hat and hire them to play another hour. The next day, Lawrence went to church floating on a cloud - until the priest launched into a fiery sermon about "the Devil who had
come to town the night before, and lured the people into sin, dancing and prancing even unto the Sabbath Day!"

The day he turned 21, Lawrence completed his contract with his father and packed his bags. His father said he'd be back, hungry, in six weeks. But the younger Welk saw it differently, and it didn't take long before almost everyone in America knew who he was.

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