Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Myron Floren

Myron Floren died a few days ago. Who is Myron Floren? Why he's none other than Lawrence Welk's accordion player, also known as "The Happy Norwegian," a monicker that sets him apart from all other Norwegians I've ever met. Why do I bring up the death of Myron Floren? Because I think it's a good opportunity to talk about Welk.

Actually I have a bone to pick with Myron. The accordion is one of the coolest fucking instruments in the world. I've seen (and, well, heard) it used to great effect in many different kinds of music--rock, tejano, experimental jazz, country--yet if you want to portray someone in a movie or TV show as a complete loser, what instrument do you have them play? Either the accordion or the clarinet (a different beef for a different time about people dissing the clarinet). My wife, who has a fascination with Lawrence Welk, was watching an episode recently and it was hosted by some kid who plays accordion in a Welk tribute band in Branson. This kid was the worst of the accordion stereotype. To make it worse, he's only about 20. I wanted to inflict physical punishment on this kid. He was playing an active role in making the accordion the most uncool instrument in the world. It also made me wonder if the kid had ever gotten laid, but since he works in Branson, who knows? Maybe he gets lots of older ladies with Myron Floren fantasies.

Anyway, onto Welk. Lawrence Welk was once a hell of a bandleader. But he took his populist streak too far, famously saying "Keep it simple so the audience can feel like they can do it, too" and "You have to play what the people understand." Of course, it shouldn't be that simple. You can make great music and make money too in ways other than butchering the popular music of the day. Which is what Welk did, especially over the last 20 years or so of his show. Nevermind the ridiculous costumes, the ethnic stereotypes, the extreme whiteness of this show. The music alone makes me cringe. You can make good music that 60 year old North Dakotans will like. Let me mention the work of one Merle Haggard, who did this pretty successfully. Or for that matter, Frank Sinatra who got people of Welk's generation dancing as well as he did, whether in New Jersey or North Dakota.

What is really fascinating about Welk today is his continued popularity. His show is the highest rated syndicated program in public television. Why? This is hard to figure out. A friend of mine puts it this way:

(By the way, the continuing drawing power of the Welk thing is dying for a book. It's just damn weird. The reasons my family and I watch are strictly tongue-in-cheek, but I suspect we are very much the exception. Are there that many old-timers still around who want to watch the show? Do gays watch to wonder about Tom Netherton? Do blacks watch to wonder how Arthur Duncan could have worked on such a lilly-white show? Was some insidious bargain made between Lawrence of Dakota and the devil? So many questions.)

I don't know that I can expound upon this perplexing question any better. Does anyone have any insight on this?

One thing about Welk though. He's just about the most powerful expression of a very particularly northern US culture affecting the whole nation. We can think of a million ways the South has influenced American culture as a whole? But the North, or at least that swath starting in maybe the upper peninsula of Michigan or maybe Wisconsin and extending west to Washington and Oregon? The Welk show represented my grandparents and the other people of that generation better than anything else I could name. Garrison Keillor is part of this culture too, but it's a different thing, maybe one better suited for people a bit detached from that culture and who can look on it with a certain fondness but also a bit of irony.