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South Dakota Storytelling

by Christopher Vondracek — published 2022/11/21 09:24:22 GMT-5
South Dakota Storytelling

I sat in Doris Groebner’s carpeted living room in Sioux Falls, sipping wine, waiting for the meatloaf to bake, and listening to Doris talk about her mother going on a date with Lawrence Welk.

It was the winter of 2017, just a few weeks before I would move to Washington, D.C. I had come to Doris’s house hoping to score one more interview—perhaps my last—for this strange little book I was working on about Welk’s legacy in the Upper Midwest.

As it turned out, this interview was far from my last. But a comment that Doris made stayed with me, perhaps getting to the heart of my project than anything else we said about Welk.

“Brown County,” laughed Doris, when I mentioned her hometown of Aberdeen. “You can stand on a cigar box and see for one hundred miles.”

My interest in Welk began in 2007. That summer, I ventured out with my college indie rock band on a haphazard tour across the Dakotas carrying a dog-eared copy of Welk’s 1971 autobiography Wunnerful, Wunnerful that I’d plucked from my grandmother’s bookshelf. We played gigs from the Corn Palace in Mitchell to a Fargo dive bar, chasing Welk’s shadow all the way.

My book documenting this tour, Dancing with Welk: Music, Memory, and Prairie Troubadours, was published earlier this fall by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. At first blush, the book focuses on Welk. And often I get questions about the Champagne Music Maker—what I liked about him, my favorite song, where I see him fitting in America’s musical songbook.

But my book is really about what sat behind Doris’s comment: South Dakota’s highway language. Ever since I was a boy in the backseat of my parents’ Chevette, running west out of southern Minnesota into South Dakota for Christmas in Beresford, my mom’s hometown, I’ve been listening to and enamored with the stories and talk of South Dakotans.

It's a hardscrabble language. It’s talk of weather. Distances and animals. It’s wise and it’s warm on cold nights. It’s the yipping of legislators in the capitol, like calling after cattle, when their name is called from the dais. It’s the color commentator at the State B basketball tournaments. And it’s chatter at the café.

The stories first came to me through my family. When I attended college in Vermillion, I heard the rural patois for myself in friends’ or faculty’s speech. That earnest language, never far from a mirthful smile, often rooted in tangibility. This may’ve been born out of the Dust Bowl. Or living far from skyscrapers. And maybe we’re losing it as generations pass on.

But in Dancing with Welk, a book ostensibly about music on the prairie, what I tried so hard to capture was the way South Dakotans told stories, a big sky and tallgrass vernacular. Many of these stories didn’t make the final draft (which is maybe a relief to my family and friends). But some did. And I hope they reach the ears and eyes of a generation or more from now who want to know how it felt to be a young person with big dreams in a place where your imagination is a survival instinct.

As I share in the book, Doris’s mother doesn’t go on a second date with Lawrence. I won’t tell you why—you’ll need to pick up the book to figure that out! But I will tell you how it felt that night to leave her apartment. It was a blizzard outside, and Doris and her daughter, Cassie, watched as my wife, Carrie, and I waved goodbye and walked down the stairwell. And I remember, looping around the highway, spying the apartment, all the lights on, each a separate resident, feeling satisfied to have captured the smallest flicker of some of that old-fashioned talk.

--Christopher Vondracek 

To purchase Dancing with Welk, click here.

Dancing with Welk