German-Russians to recall music traditions in radio program

A new radio program will feature 16 narrators sharing memories of music among the German-Russians living on the northern Great Plains in the early and mid-20th century. “We Always had to Sing: German-Russian Music in the Old Days” is schedule to air Tuesday, March 19, at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. CST. NDSU Libraries’ Germans from Russia Heritage Collection provided funding for the program.

All the narrators grew up on the northern plains regions of South Dakota, North Dakota and Saskatchewan. They will give personal accounts regarding church music, lullabies, accordions, playing for dances and playing for fun. They also will sing a few verses of old songs and discuss how they always sang and made music. 

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

Louis Helfrich, born in Glen Ullin, N.D., is one of the narrators. He said, “At Christmas time we always sang. When we were doing dishes we’d 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 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 with 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 proceeded to play the accordion for us.”

Organizers of the Dakota Memories Oral History Project, in cooperation with Prairie Public Broadcasting, will air the program.

The Oral History Project started in 2005. It was inspired by public interest in documenting and preserving German-Russian ethnic identity. 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 provided 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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