Minnesota musicians keep concertina tradition aliveby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota is a sort of living history museum for a member of the accordion family called the concertina. Concertina clubs, concertina jam sessions and even concertina makers can be found across the state.
Dennis Wolter, a retired back hoe operator from Excelsior, is said accordion music is usually upeat.
"It's happy music; there's no sad music in polka waltz music," he said. "If there are they just don't get played."
While Wolter plays the concertina, his friend Vern Schluelter, a farmer from Arlington, plays the button box accordion, a more common but less refined instrument. Schluelter said the music can keep people friendly, at least for awhile.
"I've never seen a fight break out while they're dancing. It's after, during intermission," he said.
The monthly jam session of the Minnesota Concertina Club held every second Saturday in the Glencoe community room next to the town library.
Jeannie Enabnit, one of the ringleaders of the monthly jam, is a keeper of the concertina. She is also the president and editor of Button Box America!, the club and the newsletter as well as "The Concertina Connection," newsletter, publications that reach readers in 30 states.
Jeannie organizes the button box jam session every month in Glencoe which also attracts concertina players.
Enabnit is a player herself and a sort of moderator of the jam as she calls on one of the ten or so gathered squeezers to supply a tune. She said she works to keep the music alive because it moves people--literally.
"It's traditional; it's personal," she said. "It's something that's not a pay to view. It's not a spectator sport."
That's for sure. In the room, no toes can resist tapping when waltz or polka music is played and very often dancing breaks out. So if not world peace, polkas and waltzes contribute to this country's massive need to burn off calories.
Just as Dennis Wolter remembers the dancers from days gone by.
"Everybody worked hard then, and then you could work all day and dance all night and now you don't see that much anymore," he said.
The jam builds nicely as other players arrive. The musicians nod, a chair is pulled out, and the music continues. Then about mid session, a player with a claim to concertina royalty arrives.
Jerry Minar from New Prague pulls out his concertina. It's a Hengel, one of the top concertinas around. The Hengel is named after the late Christy Hengel, the legendary New Ulm concertina maker.
Jerry Minar studied under Hengel then bought his business and now makes the marvelously intricate and elaborately decorated machines.
Minar builds one concertina a month and can fetch thousands of dollars each.
"There's 374 reeds that vibrate in there to produce the sound," he said. "Many, many, many parts that have to come together plus they are beautifully engraved. My wife does the decorating. There are about six hundred some rhinestones that sparkle."
LaVern Rippley, a professor at St. Olaf College, chronicled the concertina's journey across the ocean from Germany to Chicago to Minnesota in a book. The instrument and the music supplied a link to the old country for the Chicago stockyard immigrant workers living in nearby neighborhoods.
Rippley said the workers, in many cases, were so poor they rented out rooms on an eight hour basis.
"[They] had three shifts sleeping in the same bedroom and then [enjoyed] the concertina in their little bit of leisure time," he said.
Rippley has long since dropped his scholarly objectivity about the concertina, in part because because his ten-year-old granddaughter is a talented concertina player.
That's why Rippley is optimistic the folk art surrounding the concertina is not dead, a notion the Minnesota Concertina Club bolsters with each note they squeeze out of their instruments.
- Morning Edition, 12/21/2009, 7:45 a.m.