- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2006

WISHEK, N.D. (AP) — A few miles off the Lawrence Welk Highway is a community where the sound of “O Du Lieber Augustin” is as common as anything by Britney Spears, Jay-Z or Garth Brooks.

In Wishek, the self-proclaimed “Sauerkraut Capital of the World,” German is almost as common as English and high school music teacher Janet Wolff isn’t afraid to teach the accordion.

Her teenage students don’t balk at picking up the instrument with its keyboard, push buttons and bellows, and they enjoy performing for old-timers who take their German traditions seriously.

“It’s just something different,” said 17-year-old Kasandra Huber. “I thought it would be fun. And it is fun.”

Wishek High School has 110 students. Kasandra is one of seven who play the accordion, an instrument made famous by Mr. Welk and Myron Floren, both of whom entertained generations of TV viewers on “The Lawrence Welk Show.”

In Wishek, a town of about 1,100 people, the accordion players include Jason Hochhalter, 18, a muscular high school senior, and Christy Schaffer, 15, a petite, full-blooded German who has been practicing for four years.

“When I was younger, I thought it was something different to do,” Christy said. “My grandpa did it. And I thought it would be interesting to play something different that no other kid was playing.”

Mrs. Wolff, who grew up in the Minneapolis area, married a German who owned accordions after taking the teaching job in Wishek in 1988. She thought the accordion would be perfect for performances during Sauerkraut Day, an annual festival that has been held in Wishek for eight decades.

Mrs. Wolff started teaching the accordion four years ago, using instruments borrowed from people in town. “It’s just another instrument to be exposed to,” she said.

“I was just going to play it for a day, and then I ended up keeping it,” said Jason, who looks like he would be more at home in a weight-lifting room than a music room.

When other students chimed in and good-naturedly chided him for “stealing” the accordion from another student, he grinned and added, “They’re just jealous.”

The culture of the farming region also helps, Mrs. Wolff said. Mr. Welk, the bandleader whose “wunnerful, wunnerful” show of the 1950s and 1960s still can be seen in public television reruns, grew up in nearby Strasburg. Many older residents converse in German, and wedding dances still feature polkas and waltzes, Mrs. Wolff said.

Lisa Horner, 17, said the student accordion players are following in their grandparents’ footsteps. “It’s kind of cool,” she said.

Helmi Harrington, who runs music studios in the Minneapolis suburb of Burnsville and in Superior, Wis., is not surprised to hear that teenagers in North Dakota play the accordion.

“In the 1990s there was a trend toward nostalgia, toward finding our roots in America,” said Mrs. Harrington, who is the director of A World of Accordions Museum in Duluth, Minn. “That always brings people back to ethnic connectors.”

Mrs. Harrington, who has played the accordion for more than a half-century, said the instrument creates melody, harmony and rhythm like a piano or organ, but is more portable.

“A single person can shine in a spotlight with marvelous notes,” she said.


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