LeRoy Larson: Preserving Scandinavian Folk Music in the Upper Midwest

By Jared Schmidt

Since 2015, LeRoy Larson of Lakeland, Minnesota, has begun donating his treasure trove of Scandinavian folk music and related materials, including photographs, interviews, and 333 78 RPMs to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. This collection, which includes field notes and original audio from his dissertation Scandinavian-American Folk Dance Music of the Norwegians in Minnesota, is rooted in a childhood surrounded by the folk music of the Upper Midwest and a lifetime dedicated to performing and recording the music of his home.

Growing up near the Mississippi headwaters in Leonard, Minnesota, in the southern portion of Clearwater County, Larson’s home was filled with music. His family had a particular knack for music as his father played the trumpet, piano, fiddle, and mandolin, while his uncle performed with a swing band during the 1930s and ‘40s playing piano and saxophone. Although many of Larson’s predominantly Norwegian-Lutheran neighbors viewed dancing and playing instruments like the fiddle akin to temptation from the Devil, Larson’s parents never stopped him from letting the music move him. He learned early-on how to waltz and schottische.

As a 5th/6th grader, Larson started his musical career with the ukulele. It may be difficult to picture the strumming of a ukulele amidst Minnesota’s forests and frozen lakes instead of Hawaii’s palm trees and Pacific coastline, but this was indeed the case for Larson. Ukulele’s were inexpensive instruments running about $5. Having learned the ukulele, Larson moved on to the banjo. Larson notes that, “The first time I ever played in public was in our one-room school house there. That was for 4-H meetings…it was a safe place to make a debut because [of] friends and relatives and neighbors; my dad and I would be playing a program.” Larson was also inspired by the music available on the radio, there was Polkabilly, country western, and blue grass and artists like Hank Williams stuck with Larson. He and his friends would learn the tunes from the radio and neighbors and purchase folios with lyrics, which they set to a melody.

After high school Larson continued his education, pursuing a degree in instrumental and vocal performance. After graduation, he took a job teaching music in Houston County, Minnesota. The seven years he spent teaching in this hilly and lush southeastern county would be crucial for Larson later as he began documenting Scandinavian folk music among many of his former neighbors. He moved away from Minnesota briefly to Bloomington, Indiana, where, in 1967, he received his Master of Science in Education from Indiana University. Returning to Minnesota, Larson established the Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble in 1974. Each member of the group brought a unique style resulting in a syncretization of sounds. It was at this point that Larson established his own recording label, Banjar Records. Larson notes that it was important to create a copyright “because it’s your sound.” He says, “Music was basically my life. So, that’s what motivated me, no matter what aspect of music it was I was composing a lot. I was doing Dixieland and early jazz, and doing Old Time Scandinavian composing, arranging.”

This passion led Larson to pursue a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Minnesota. His 1975 dissertation became the first scholarly work on Scandinavian folk music in the Upper Midwest, focusing on the soundscape of rural Minnesota. His fieldwork and desire to learn more music as an artist turned him into a “tune detective,” not only seeking out the music but tracing down who recorded it, when and where. One of the tools in his “detective” kit was a UHER, a 6”x6” portable recorder of German design, complete with microphone and shoulder strap and was powered by either batter or an available outlet. It could record at 3 ¾ or 7 ¼ speed. Larson preferred the faster speed as it produced a better-quality sound. “[The U of M] just sent me away with it, and I still have it.” They never asked for it back.

Drawing upon a lifetime of performing at and attending concerts, as well as contacts gained through his teaching career in Minnesota, Larson reached out to possible collaborators. After getting in contact with individuals via telephone or letter, he would arrive at their homes with his trusty UHER to find more than just the performers he had reached out to. “Well, often times they would invite another couple over, it could be just husband and wife, but sometimes…there was about three or four couples, so then everyone chimes in and then gets going and then they’re really talking.” This created a comfortable atmosphere where everyone shared stories about barn dances, late-night escapades, and performing for energetic crowds. “Scandinavians were always happy that someone would actually come to their place and would want to hear them and record some of their music, which is kind of an ego boost, too.”

His travels led him to twenty-four Minnesota counties. During his fieldwork he also documented individual and group performances from men and women on a variety of instruments. His dissertation includes over 160 melodies, each meticulously documented in the two-volume document. All of these are in the Mills Music Library Archives and are currently being digitized for future tune detectives.

Music, according to Larson, holds a beautiful opportunity for individuals to get in touch with their culture. One of the most impactful ways, he suggests, is through dance. Learning to waltz or polka, for example, can become a gateway to investing in the future of Scandinavian folk music of the Upper Midwest and keeping alive these traditions, one two-step at a time.

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