They had their music wherever they went
By Harriett Gustason
The Journal-Standard, Freeport, Nov. 4, 2001
The history of northwest Illinois is reflected in its music. From pioneer days on, music has been a major part of Stephenson County social and community life, in dancing to the fiddle at barn dances, in traditional hymn-singing, through the Saengerbund and Turnerein German singing societies, the camp meetings and the bands and choruses of early industries like the Henny Motor Co. Band and the Kraft Choral Society of the Kraft Foods Co. Every town and village always had its spiffy band and chorus.
The hankering for music was deeply ingrained in the earliest settlers of northwest Illinois, chiefly those Germans, English, Scots and Irish. The history of popular music in early northern Illinois was presented last Saturday evening as the first in a "lyceum" series being presented by Orangeville's promotional A Community Together (ACT), along with the Stephenson County Historical Society, the Freeport Arts Center and the Monroe Arts Center. The series will focus on the roots of northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin.
Ellertsen himself played a "paint-bucket Stradivarius" to join [local musicians] Steve Jervey, Mike Mulder and John Buford in the toe-tapping hoedown of strummin', pickin' and pluckin' which preceded his easy-going talk. Ellertsen's improvised bass fiddle cost him a total of $3.19 for a bucket, a broom handle and a stretch of plastic line.
There was fun going on, both off stage and on. The musicians were giving it all they had, the speaker spiced his talk with humor and an attentive audience was appreciating it all. Ellertsen told the audience he sometimes played the washtub bass. He brought with him three stringed instruments which were replicas of antiques.
"Few could read music in those early days," Ellertsen told his audience. "Songs were passed down in families. Mothers sang songs to their children. A lot of the tunes were used over and over with different sets of words." […] Hymns might have the same tune as an Irish dirnking song, he said, and an Irish jig might turn up in a Bach composition. Songs were also carried in the oral tradition from one locale to another by circuit riders and from camp meeting to camp meeting. The minstrel shows also relayed songs from one place to another. "Boy! Once we got a good song, we hung onto it," Ellertsen said.
Ellertsen teaches English and journalism at Springfield College, but is also into learning all he can about the way music wended its way into the upper Midwest, blending ethnic traditions with folk song of regional cultures. Illinois was settled from south to north because, he explained, no plow had yet been invented that could dig below the grasses that clogged this northern prairie making penetration and cultivation possible.
Ellertsen told how Germans had migrated [along with Scots-Irish settlers] down through the Appalachian mountain ranges from Pennsylvania, through the Virginias and Carolinas, into Tennessee, Kentucky and southern Illinois; then on up through Illinois into eastern Iowa. He said there was much German music mixed in with that of the mountain people, and that the German influence is also mixed with Scots and Irish music.
They used anything they could find to make rhythms to dance to. "If you owned a fiddle, you were in business," he said. "Many of those early instruments were essentially a box with strings on top. Crow or turkey feathers were often used as picks." When the instruments wore out they were often just "busted up and thrown away."
Ellertsen plays the dulcimer for its historic effect when volunteering at historic sites in the Springfield area. He said the Appalachian dulcimer was developed in Virginia in the 1800s and was used as simple stringed accompaniment. He demonstrated the deeper tone of the schietholt, a similar instrument to the dulcimer which [originated in Germany] and appeared in Virginia in the 1800s. "If you have any of these old instruments lying around in your garage, let me know," he said, drawing a laugh from the audience.
Pianos came with the arrival of the railroads in the 1840s and 1850s. They could load pianos on trains, he said. Then came the books and printed music which prompted folks to go from passing tunes down by ear to the actual reading of music. Ellertsen explained the era of shape-note singing in when people could identify the notes by their drawn shapes. There are shape-note singers still around, he said, one [group] in Madison, Wis. He sings in a group in his home area.
He said many of the old songs were in minor key and sound kind of dreary to us now, but were not for them of that day. Many of their more triumphant songs were in the minor key.
Many of these old songs, he said, passed along by oral tradition and later with the fiddle playing have cropped up 150 years later. The old ballads grandmother sang are now coming out by popular singers.
Ellertsen ended his presentation holding his dulcimer and scheitholt for all to see, and repeating his previous request, "Don't forget, if you happen to find any of these old instruments lying around in your attic or garage, be sure to let me know."