Thursday, December 11, 2014
Norwegian Hillbillies... there is a phrase I don't get to say very often. In the U.S, there were not a lot of Norwegian-born accordion virtuoso bandleaders. That was really a Minnesota thing back in the 1930s. Back before 1920, the two most famous were probably Thorstein Skarning and Ted Johnson. Johnson led a dance band that I don't find that interesting—but Skarning, he was a Norwegian Hillbilly. You can hear a little bit bit of that action here.
Any why not really, there was French Canadian Country music, and artists in Norway like hank Malvin were still cutting country 45s in the 1970s. Skarning grew up in Drammen, Norway and emigrated to America prior to 1917 with his wife Anna. By 1918 he was recording for Victor Records, Columbia and Brunswick. But they were recording waltzes, and marches. Country music as we know it didn't exist yet. That particular combination of folk music and western ballads would slowly arise over the next decade mostly in the South East. In Minnesota, Skarning was so far ahead of the curve he was an anachronism. More here.
Skarning's Entertainers set list wasn't much different but in addition to those dry marches and drab waltzes were also classical music, polkas and an indigenous Norwegian folk genre called hygdedans. When they did stray into classical music— usual Greig or Mozart it was more-or-less lost on his popular audience. But look at that picture: the corn stalks, overalls, hay, straw hats and farm animals... they look like a county band, like a bunch of hillbillies. This exaggerated rural affectation went on to become de rigueur of country bands for the next half century. You could argue that it's still relevant today. You can see more pictures in the book
Norwegians in Minnesota by Jon Gjerd. (This co-mingling of polka and hillbilly was re-named "polkabilly" by folklorist Roby Cogswell in the 1990s.)
Thorstein Skarning and the Norwegian Hillbillies played on 1140 WDGY-AM three times a week back in 1938. By then the band was more countrified, and named Skarning and his Norwegian Hillbillies. There were a lot more polkabillies and "Norske" favorites around the region now as well: The Swiss Hillbillies, Olaf The Swede, the Little Swiss Miss Yodeler, and many others. (The book Polkabilly by James Leary really expounds on this list.) The elder Skarning died in Fargo, ND in 1939 but his son Thorstein B. Skarning took over as band leader. His daughters, Lou and Irene later played the Sunset Valley Barn Dance on KSTP-AM in the 1950s.
WDGY went through changes too, it moved to a new home at 1130 kHz in 1941. In 1977 they flipped to a country music format that everyone saw coming since 1930. The calls were dropped in 1991 when they flipped to KFAN-AM News talk and 630 AM picked up the calls. It was only in 2008 when 630 flipped calls to WREY-AM with a Regional Mexican format that the now heritage WDGY calls landed on 740 AM replacing WMIN. More here.