‘Gimmie that old-time music’

Published 10:24 am Thursday, March 5, 2009

The first Monday of every month, people leave the Hayfield Township Hall, saying: “Gimmie that old-time music. It’s good enough for me.”

Old-time music is like old-time religion: It was good enough for dad and mother, so it’s good enough for their children.

For example, Earl Weiland. He still enjoys old-time music just like his parents did before him.

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Weiland is one of the Three Old Boys. The others are Everett Vermilyea and Harley Hanson.

They play old-time music for the fun of it. At nursing homes, churches and other places.

Weiland is the “senior” member of the group. He is 98 years old.

“I’ve been playing music for 92 years,” he said. “Now the Three Old Boys play once or twice a week. It varies.”

“It’s an enjoyable pastime for a man of my age,” Weiland said.

The banjo picker drives himself to each gig with the Three Old Boys.

Last Monday afternoon, Weiland, Vermilyea and Hanson joined friends at the Old-Time Fiddlers Jamboree at Hayfield.

Marion Stanton was there, too, and so were Donald Holton and Duane Johnson.

The latter played bass guitar and Holton played the accordion.

Hanson played piano and Vermilyea and Stanton, the fiddle.

Weiland played the banjo.

It was old-time music in its purest form.

No speakers, no amplifiers. Just musicians and their instruments entertaining a room full of people.

“How long have we been doing this?” asked Dallas Finley, who organizes the monthly jam sessions. Stanton has to think before answering. “We started at the Oaks, didn’t we?” he said, adding, “And that was over 25 years ago.”

“Those were the days when we had 15 or more fiddlers show up, but then they started getting too old to come and dying off,” Finley observed.

That, of course, makes those who do come the first Monday of each month to play old-time music even more special.

They are survivors. They don’t complain about the aches and pains of growing older. They don’t look over their shoulders for the Grim Reaper. They just play old-time music as long as they can as best as they can.

“I’ve only been playing since I was 65,” said octogenarian Stanton. “That was quite a few years ago.”

Hanson, who plays piano and banjo, has been playing old-time music, “so long I can’t remember when I got started.”

Vermilyea remembered he took seven music lessons from an Austin High School “band director by the name of …” He paused to think. “I know his name. Every time a reporter asks me that question I tell him the name of … oh, what is that name now?”

He gives up the memory chase.

When you’re the dean of contestants in the Old-Time Fiddlers Contest at the Mower County Fair you’re entitled to forgetting a name.

How many Old-Time Fiddlers contests has Vermilyea won at the annual Mower County Fair? “Oh about a dozen I suppose through the years. Of course, they don’t have anybody my age to compete with me in my age group so they have to declare me the winner no matter what,” he joked.

The jamboree’s formula is simple: Anyone with a string instrument or an accordion comes to the Hayfield Township Hall at 1 p.m. the first Monday of each month and plays polkas and waltzes until they’re too tired to continue.

“Why do I like playing the old stuff?” fiddler Stanton repeated a reporter’s question. “Well, I guess because that’s all the music I know, and it’s still the good stuff as far as I am concerned.”

On this day, there are 47 people sitting on chairs, enjoying the music.

Finley, whose wife, Edith, used to accompany the musicians on the piano before her death, opens the township hall to let in the people. “Some are sitting in their cars at 11:30 in the morning, waiting to come in,” Finley said. “They will drive a great distance just to hear them play.”

On this day, the musicians start with “Starlight Waltz” and a string of waltzes follows: “Waltz Across Texas,” “Minnesota Waltz,” “Lakeside Waltz” and others.

Then, Vermilyea announces: “We better pick this one up a little,” and the group launches into a crowd-pleaser “Beer Barrel Polka.”

“Blue Skirt Waltz” is followed by “My Wild Irish Rose,” which earns an encore performance by the musicians at the audience’s request.

Then, an audience member requests “Mockingbird Hill.”

Another request from the audience stumps the band. “Do you know ‘Waltzing with Angels?’” a listener asks. “No,” responded Hanson, “but I know a few angels who waltz.”

Everyone laughs at the joke before the band plays “Little Brown Jug” and then “Turkey in the Straw.”

Throughout the two-hour long program, audience members a) Sway to the music, b) Sing along with familiar songs, c) Talk among themselves, d) Listen quietly or e) All of the above.

The answer is, of course, the latter. There are no hard-fast rules of engagement when it comes to enjoying old-time music, such as “Red Wing” and “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain.”

The music stops when Ella Mitchell, a retired nurse from Kasson, takes the floor at the front of the room.

She is a storyteller, who entertains the monthly jamboree audiences.

On this date, Mitchell tells the story of Pastor Sven and Reverend Ole and a problem with a bridge near their country church.

The audience laughs.

Then, Mitchell answers the question “How do you sell a cow?” and the audience giggles throughout.

Finally, she prefaces her last story with an apology if some find the title offensive. Then, Mitchell proceeds to tell the story of “The Damn Tractor.”

That joke, too, gets easy laughter from the audience.

A friendly storytelling rival of Mitchell’s in the audience attempts to upstage her by telling about the Norwegian math test.

No sooner does the laughter die down, when another audience member reads a poem about winter in Minnesota.

Not to be out-done, musician Holton tells a joke about a kleptomaniac friend and there’s more laughter.

The musicians are rested, and its time for the second half of the program.

Somebody requests “When It’s Springtime in the Rockies” and audience members sing along.

Next, “San Antonio Rose” produces more swaying to the music and Weiland’s banjo-picking spices up “Missouri Waltz.”

Vermilyea does a tour de force performance on the fiddle, during “Down Yonder.”

At his direction, the musicians play “St. Louis Polka” in the key of D.

Meanwhile, Finley is busy in the township hall kitchen, preparing his favorite pastry: Krumkaka cookies.

He has baked more than 400 krumkaka cookies this year already.

When Hayfield American Legion Post No. 330 held a cancer research fundraiser in January, Finley’s krumkaka cookies brought $10 to $15 at auction.

“They go fast,” warned Finley as the music ended on the March afternoon.

It will be a whole month until the musicians reunite in April for another Old-Time Fiddlers Jamboree at Hayfield.

A wait made even more agonizing for fans with the stark reality one of their favorite musicians may not be there.

Then, it will be a chorus singing “Gimme that old time religion” for a lost member of a music tradition to treasure always.

“The days when we had as many as 15 fiddlers here are gone forever. We keep losing more friends every year we get older, but those who keep coming back still play some good music,” Finley said.