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Dakota Datebook

Lawrence Welk


Lawrence Welk was born on this date in 1903. He grew up in a sod house near Strasburg in south-central North Dakota. His first clear memory was of crawling to his father who was smiling and holding out an old accordion. Another favorite memory was of the day his brother John got married. Lawrence volunteered to stay home to do chores so he could play John’s accordion the entire day without being made to stop.

Then one day his father took him to see a traveling musician. The 17 year-old was awe-struck by musician’s accordion and made a life-changing decision. He went to his father to offer a deal: if his father would buy him an accordion like that – a $400 instrument – he would work on the farm for four years and turn over every penny he made from his music. His father took several days to think it over but finally said yes.

After three months, the accordion arrived, and Welk played until his father ordered him to stop so they could get some sleep. In his autobiography, Welk wrote, “Obediently I put the accordion down beside my bed where I could still reach out and touch it… but I got up again at four o’clock the next morning and slipped out to the barn where I began to play for the surprised chickens and horses.”

When Welk began playing for dances, his father said, “Accordion playing is all right for fun, Lawrence. But it’s not a life’s work… You’d better start thinking more about the farm.” Welk enjoyed working outdoors in the fields, but the only thing he wanted to be was a musician.

Welk soon became a favorite at local events. One night, his band played a dance in Ipswich, South Dakota. Every time they finished playing, the crowd would pass the hat and hire them for another hour. The next day, Lawrence went to church floating on a cloud – until the priest launched into a fiery sermon about “the Devil who had come to town the night before, and lured the people into sin, dancing and prancing even unto the Sabbath Day!”

The day he turned 21, Lawrence completed his contract with his father and packed his bags. His father said he’d be back, hungry, in six weeks. But the younger Welk saw it differently, and it didn’t take long before almost everyone in America knew who he was.

Dakota Datebook by Merry Helm

Wunnerful, Wunnerful! The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk; Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1971

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