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Recalling Peter Schickele-PDQ Bach's Legacy; Travel; Plains Folk Essay

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Show summary:

Peter Schickele, a distinguished composer and arranger celebrated for his ingenious creation of the comedic persona PDQ Bach, passed away on January 16th. Schickele's legacy is marked by his brilliant classical music parodies, including notable pieces such as “Iphigenia in Brooklyn” and “The Stoned Guest.” His career flourished in New York, yet he never lost touch with his North Dakota heritage, especially his connection to Fargo. He often returned to perform with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, highlighting his ties to the community. During one of these visits, Bill Thomas captured Schickele in a memorable session, reading from his memoir and showcasing samples of his work.

In a different vein, Tom Isern presents a Plains Folk Essay titled “Grand Jackrabbit,” offering insights into regional culture.

And, an exciting astronomical event is on the horizon: a total solar eclipse on April 8th. The eclipse's path of totality will stretch from Mexico to Maine, offering a rare spectacle. We discuss with travel writer Alicia Underlee Nelson the essentials of planning for this event and setting realistic expectations for the experience.

Bill Thomas Remembers Peter Schickele - Transcript

Bill Thomas

Well, if you want to hear the schlep-tet, or more of the goofy stuff that won him several comedy Grammys without ever having to do any stand-up, he won at least one straight Grammy as well. You can search Peter Schickele on the internet, or better, search his invention, P.D. Q. Bach, the supposed missing son of Johann Sebastian.

But what we've got here now is Peter Schickele in his own words, talking about his life in North Dakota, and how it set him up for a great career in music. Some things you might expect, some things you might not expect. He was here for the premiere of a, quote, newly discovered, unquote, piece by P.D. Q. Bach with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony in 2017, and he was talking to a very appreciative crowd.

SchickelPeter

Thank you. My family moved to Fargo in 1947, when I had just turned 12, and my brother David was 10. We had lived in Washington, D.C. during the Second World War. My father worked for the Department of Agriculture, and my mother worked for the Quartermaster Corps. After the war, my father took a job as head of Agricultural Economics Department of North Dakota Agricultural College, as it was then called. We drove out here from D.C. in the summer of 1947, in the family car with our dog, Ricky. We had never been to Fargo, and it was right after the Second World War, and housing was hard to come by. So my parents had bought a house sight unseen, with the help of some friends or somebody in the department. After our vacation stop, we continued on to Fargo.

We drove in through the back door of town, and there were all these grain elevators and warehouses and a string of crummy businesses. I remember my mother in the front seat of the car crying softly as we drove in. I will just jump ahead to say that the years in Fargo were maybe the best years of their lives.

Turned out to be just great people here, and my parents had a wonderful life here. They were wonderful years for my brother and me as well. There were many ways in which Fargo, I would say, was the high point of our young lives.

We had great friends, and they were very happy years for us. Fargo is where I got interested in music. Aside from listening a bit to classics like Peter and the Wolf, I wasn't particularly interested in music when I was younger.

I was definitely not a child prodigy. At the very end of our time in D.C., I got introduced to Spike Jonze. Does everybody know who Spike Jonze was?

And I became a fan. For those of you who might not know, Spike Jonze was a musician and comedian who was quite popular in the 40s. I remember the first time I heard Spike Jonze.

I was in a record store, and there was a sappy love song in the background. I wasn't listening to the words, and then suddenly the song got interrupted by two gunshots. And then it took off into this Neo-Dixieland sound, and that was my introduction to Spike Jonze.

The song was Serenade to a Jerk. We made a little theater in the basement of our house in D.C., where we would act out Spike Jonze records, my brother and I and our friends. We also did plays with scripts, mostly like the Westerns we saw on Fridays.

The Nitzo Theater was just starting when we left and moved to Fargo. My brother and I had just gotten a movie camera. In D.C., I had a paper route. I was saving up my money to buy a movie camera so David and I could make movies. Then I lost David's cowboy hat from our matching cowboy outfits, and my folks made me buy him a new hat with my paper route money. David didn't want a new hat, of course.

He wanted the movie camera. But my parents felt there was a principle at stake here. Deus ex machina.

Then I got an award for being such a good paper deliverer, and the prize money was just enough to get a camera. So we were all set. Once we were here in Fargo, we set up the Nitzo Theater in our basement.

We had two bedspreads for curtains, a stage area, and some lighting. By this time, my brother and I had started a sort of Spike Jonze type band, Jerky Jems and his bommy brothers. We had two clarinets, violin, and tom-tom.

It was me and John Helgeson on clarinet, my brother David on violin, and George Thorrelson on drums. I was Jerky Jems, and my brother was Dripwater Squirtfunk. We're talking a class act here.

I'm not sure what the other names were. I think it's safe to say that most, if not all, of my early musical efforts were for Jerky Jems and his bommy brothers. I recently came across a news clipping from 1948 from the Fargo Forum with a picture of us performing a version of the song of Volga Boatmen that involved George Thorrelson and Don Steffensen pulling a five-inch boat across the stage while John Helgeson, my brother, and I are playing in the background.

The caption says, Director and clarinetist and sound effects man Peter Sickley, who also arranges for the band, nothing self-centered about me, reports that he found transposing the piece for two clarinets and violin more difficult than he had anticipated. The Nitzo Theater also continued doing plays. The news clipping I found had a picture of a scene from one production, The Pony Express, which seemed to involve my brother getting ready to trip George Thorrelson, who was about to stab John Helgeson in the back.

My brother and I were also involved in the community theater here. I did the kid shows like Tom Sawyer and sometimes played a kid role or a young adult part in the adult productions as well. One of them I was scheduled to kiss the girl I had a crush on, but then she dropped out.

I remember one show had a guy, an adult, from my neighborhood, who just would not learn his lines. And one of my memories of that play is the look of panic in the woman playing opposite him as she waited for something, anything, that would give her a cue as to what her next line was. He would just make stuff up and she would have this look of horror in her face.

I loved the theater and loved doing those shows. I took piano lessons with a friend of the family named Virginia Jensen. My mother had a clarinet that she had played in college and I started fooling around on that too.

Fargo at that point had a very good clarinetist named Bertram McGarrity. He taught at one of the colleges. So I went to take clarinet lessons with Bert and he listened to me and he said, Peter, you've got so many bad habits on clarinet, it would be easier for you to start a new instrument.

And he suggested the bassoon, which I never regretted. It wasn't until later that I found out that the Fargo-Moorhead Community Orchestra, as it was then called, needed a bassoonist, as they didn't have any at the time, so Bert had a motive in his suggestion. I played bassoon in the band at high school and joined the orchestra.

My high school friend, who became the other bassoonist in the orchestra, was Meyer Osterfield. Meyer and I were both quite passionate about music and I remember one time the conductor taking us aside and saying, you know, you're playing the bassoon, an instrument that sticks out above the orchestra and it's very visible. I wonder if you guys could cool it and stop moving around so much.

Apparently we were very emotional in our playing. I always enjoyed playing, but I was frustrated because I didn't have a bassoonist to study with. McGarrity was a clarinetist, so I took lessons with him, but I never learned things like how to make reeds or even how to fasten them.

If you play on store-bought reeds, they're pretty crummy, so that was the downside. But on the other hand, I was one of the only bassoonists around, so I got to play a lot. It was either me or Meyer Osterfield, that was it.

Later in college, I got to play in a Schutz Festival, someone organized in the Philadelphia area that I probably wouldn't have been able to play with if I were not a bassoonist. My mother, Beth, started playing double bass in Fargo-Moorhead, a community orchestra, because they needed a double bass player. My brother, David, was on viola.

It was during that time that my brother and I discovered chamber music. We had regular chamber music evenings. Neighbors would come over and play through various pieces in the living room.

It would be at our house or at the home of Sigvald Thompson, who was a cellist and composer and the conductor of the orchestra, and his wife, Isabel, who was the concert mistress. It was a mix of adults and kids, and it was just wonderful. I didn't usually get to play, because the repertoire was almost always for strings.

But my brother, David, would be on viola, and once in a while I'd play if there was something that called for bassoon. They'd play Mozart and Beethoven quartets, sometimes Brahms or Schumann or Haydn. My father played flute, but it was hard to get him to play.

We had what we called the family orchestra, which was the four of us, and he sometimes could be coaxed into going along with it, but he didn't really enjoy playing. David became a fanatic chamber music player, and he put a lot of energy into organizing the evenings. That's definitely one of my fondest memories of Fargo, the chamber music evenings.

Other players included Betty Quam and Margaret Strahl. We also did things like an opera written by Bert McGarrity, which friends performed in our living room. That opera included my father doing a poem in German called The Stork, which was his party trick.

It was also here in Fargo that I wrote my first music piece, a musical composition. It was a piece called The Sheik of Palamazoo, for no particular reason. I have no explanation for the title, other than it sounded a little Eastern.

I wrote at least one piece for violin and piano for my brother and me to play as well. I was writing a lot for Jerky Gems, too. When I was a teenager, I used to get up early and go hang out at the local radio station WDAY.

So I could watch the house band for a while before going to school. It was just so exciting being around live musicians. The band would play numbers during the shows and do little themes and transitions between programs.

And different lineups of musicians would play during the different radio shows. For some shows, it might be just three guys. Other times, it was a small-sized big band.

Eight people or something like that. Hank and Thelma were country singers. And they just had backup bass and guitar.

And then they'd have a full polka band for other programs. Orville Nellermo was the bass player. Not only does he have a great name, he was a great bass player.

And he was a sweetheart of a guy. I got my first ear training watching him play. Ear training means knowing what you're hearing, which for a composer is important.

He wasn't playing from written parts, he was playing from chord symbols. C7, D8, D9. I didn't really know much theory at that point, but I knew what the strings on the bass were.

So if I saw him pluck an open D string, and it was the key note, I knew it was in the key of D. I got into this thing with him where I would guess what key he was playing in, and I'd signal it, and he would let me know if I got it right or not. If I thought it was in D major with two sharps, I'd hold up two fingers.

If it was two flats, I'd hold two fingers down. I don't know how we got away with all this, with Frank Scott playing the piano and being pretty serious about his job, but we got away with it. Our family lived in an ordinary wooden house with two stories at 1354 North 12th Street.

We had a piano in the living room and a record player. There was a rule that we couldn't listen to Oklahoma, which we loved, more than once a day. And we couldn't listen to Spike Jones records when my dad was home, since he did not share our enthusiasm for those.

I attended Fargo Junior High School, and then I went to Fargo High. We walked to school each day, and we did it in some pretty low temperatures, as you know. Though it didn't keep us from the finer things in life.

I remember coming back during a blizzard one time when we stopped in on the way for some ice cream. I remember a teacher named Mr. Wrongly in high school. Remember him?

Yeah, okay. We were supposed to do a book report every six weeks, but I made a deal with Mr. Wrongly that I could make a movie instead, and it would count for the whole semester of a book report. And I did make a movie called The War Before the War.

It was about the lead-up to the Civil War. I remember there was one scene that had me playing a guy drunk on corn whiskey. I can't deny that I saved the best parts for myself.

One of my closest friends in high school was Skip Shebold. He was perhaps unusual among my friends in that he wasn't particularly musical, but we were very good friends. My first girlfriend was Patti Vogel.

She was a wonderful girl, very lively. In Fargo, our family started going to church for the first time because my parents thought we should be exposed to religion. We went to two different churches during that time, both congregational.

The pastor of one of them was a very free-spirited guy. I remember one of his sermons was called Bingo, bango, bongo, I don't want to leave the Congo. Which was a popular song at that time.

I always worked jobs in the summer. Sometimes I had a job after school, too. I worked for our friend Eddie Strauss, who had a clothing store, packing up suits to be sent to various places and steam vacuuming the floor, whatever he needed.

One summer, I got a construction job. I wasn't exactly a natural for that. I would do things like clean the house, like dig out an entire area when I was supposed to just dig a trench.

One of my least glamorous jobs was cleaning typewriters. I had to brush each key and soak them in a vat of acid to get the ink off. That was really unpleasant.

I learned to drive in those years. I remember one time my brother and I were making a movie and it called for me to be driving and I only had a learner's permit. So my mother laid down in the back seat of the car.

So she would be out of sight, but in the car. We had a red convertible in those days. That movie was called Rocky Stone Rolls On.

Rocky Stone was a detective and there was a scene involving finding a corpse down by the river. We had an old bayonet that somebody had given us and at the end of the movie it featured a fight with the bayonet. The last shot was my brother lying on the floor with Hershey's chocolate coming out of his mouth.

Looks just like blood in black and white movies. I graduated from Fargo in 1952 and then I went off to Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia where my brother joined me for two years later. My father got a job with the United Nations and my parents left Fargo for Rome, Italy, where they lived for several years.

After college, I moved to New York to go to Juilliard and have lived there ever since. Over the years, I've been back here a few times to do PDQ Bach concerts. The place has always been special to me.

They were very happy years for me and my family and musically Fargo is really where it all started for me.

NOTE: This transcript was generated using AI tools. The official record of the show is the audio recording.