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It all began around 1900, when Norwegian immigrant Bernt Berntson Bradskerud purchased a violin in a northern Wisconsin logging camp and gave it to his son, Bennie. Then ten years old, Bennie began playing his violin, learning Scandinavian folk tunes from fiddlers in his rural Wisconsin immigrant community, especially his musical uncle and cousins. For the next thirty years, Bennie played all night long at house parties and community dances that featured the Scandinavian waltzes, schottisches, and square dances which became the backbone of the repertoire for the Berntsons.
In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Bennie Berntson's son Maurice, playing guitar, and his daughter Eleanore, playing pump organ, joined the family music circle. Cousin Benny Smith played banjo, cousin Jimmy Severude played violin and the band was frequently augmented with local fiddlers and friends who joined in on cold winter evenings. The addition of Eleanore's pump organ, playing melodies as well as chording, blended with the violins to produce a strikingly warm, rich sound. Maurice further enhanced the mix by playing the violin melodies on the guitar, a unique twist to traditional Norwegian folk music instrumentation.
The pump organ itself presented the Berntson family with a subtle social issue in that particular time and place. Traditional Norwegian folk music was intended for dancing....many conservative Norwegian Lutherans looked on dancing as an abomination, and dance music was literally regarded as "the music of the Devil." The rural folk dances were of course lively affairs where drunkenness and fighting were all part of the scene, and even though the Berntson family was by nature a quiet and mild mannered bunch, the minister of the local Norwegian Lutheran Church was not the person one wanted to see pulling into the driveway when a music session was underway. The organ was considered by many to be an instrument for playing hymns and religious music, and to use this sacred instrument in the playing of the Devil's music was, in the minds of some, a moral outrage.
So, being the rather reserved folk they were, the Berntsons discreetly navigated the perilous moral waters of Norwegian folk dance music by playing amongst themselves and their many musician friends in small gatherings, honing their musical craft and gradually incorporating subtle elements of music which they heard on the radio. The music of the Grand Ole Opry, German Polka music, early country music and other popular music of those years began showing up, especially in Maurice Berntson's guitar picking style; Maurice often played extra grace notes and turnaround licks which gave his playing a jaunty sound. Eleanore's style of playing reflected both her brother's rhythmic playfulness and her father's very mellow violin playing style. Although the pump organ functions in somewhat the same fashion as would an accordion, Eleanore's playing is more rustic and charming than many Scandinavian accordion styles.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Eleanore's son Karl began playing the family music, and a second guitar was brought into the musical picture. While Maurice played the melodies on his guitar, Karl provided a bass line and chording. At full strength , the Berntsons could feature several fiddles, pump organ, banjo, and two guitars. The music had come a long way from Bennie Berntson's solo fiddle in the early 1900s.
The Berntsons are alive and well and heading into their second century of music making.
Today's Berntsons concert features the same traditional song repertoire which has been played now by three generations of Berntson family musicians. And, just as in the old days, in addition to the mix of older and younger generations of Berntson family musicians, there are new friends and neighbors who have dropped in to play: violinists Loretta Kelley and Andrea Hoag, and bass player Charlie Pilzer.
Eleanore Berntson Lundeberg has been playing this repertoire on the same 1916 Beckwith pump organ for over seventy years. She has transcribed scores of the old Scandinavian folk tunes which she learned from her father, preserving this rich trove of music for future generations.
Karl Fredrik Berntson Lundeberg is a CBS/Sony recording artist, a piano player, and an award winning composer who owes any musical success he has had in the world to the early experiences of learning and playing guitar with the Berntson family as a young boy.
Andrea Hoag has studied with Päkkos Gustaf and Nils Agenmark, and is a graduate of Malungs Folkhögskola (Sweden). She is known across the U.S. for her playing in American as well as Scandinavian folk fiddle styles.
Loretta Kelley is America's foremost player of the Norwegian hardingfele (Hardanger violin). In Norway, she has performed on the Norwegian State Radio and consistently places high in Norwegian fiddling contests. She regularly tours the US, Canada, and Norway.
Charlie Pilzer began his involvement with Scandinavian music in 1978, when he met and joined the Faroe Islands-based band Spælimenninir. Spælimenninir's repertoire is pan-Scandinavian, and Charlie's work with them made him ideally qualified to play with Andrea and Loretta, on a pair of highly acclaimed CDs of traditional and recently-composed Scandinavian tunes, Hambo in the Barn (1996) and Hambo in the Snow (2006). Hambo in the Snow was nominated for a 2007 GRAMMY Award as Best Traditional World Music Album.
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.
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