in a small west central Wisconsin village about 30 miles east of the Mississippi River lived a young farm boy whose roots were embedded deeply into old time folk music.
Brian Brueggen, born in 1965, has carried on a family tradition that goes back to the 1800's. Being the youngest of five children, it was not unusual for Brian's dad and all of the children to sit in the kitchen and play music.
EXCERPT FROM LOVE WISCONSIN
"I was born half a mile down the road as the crow flies from where I live in Cashton. I've had chances to go many places with my music but have never moved more than just a quarter mile from home. Cashton is the best city in the world; it’s a place where I can walk to the post office and they’ll ask, “Hey Brueggen, where’d you play last night?” and also, “When you’re free, can you bring me a couple hundred gallons of fuel?” Folks here know I play music and haul fuel, but they don't make a big deal of it, and I like that. When there's an activity in Cashton, well, they know they can ask if I want to come and play. I’ll do that gladly for my community. The people have been really nice to me in this town.
I have a musical family, going back at least five generations, and I’ve been playing in a traditional German music dance band since I was young. Back then, a friend and I used to listen to a lot of music and go to polka music festivals. When I was around 15 years old, this friend told me that I should start a band. He said he already had the perfect name for me, ‘The Mississippi Valley Dutchmen.’ So, when I was 18 and started my own band, I called us Brian and the Mississippi Valley Dutchmen, and we’ve been playing ever since.
I’ve played with a lot of the polka greats, and it’s important to give credit where credit is due. The gentleman Sylvester Liebl was my mentor. He was one of the greats: a great concertina player and a great songwriter. But he was also a great dad and a great grandfather. Like my dad, he was just a true human being and was always really nice to me.
Sylvester Liebl wrote songs that have trickled down to me and other polka songwriters. In a lot of them you can hear how the environment in the upper Midwest is a part of the music tradition. Liebl wrote ‘Echoes In The Hills,’ and if you look around western Wisconsin, you see all the bluffs. He wrote the ‘Champion Valley Polka.’ He wrote that for the people over in the Hillsboro and Yuba area where there’s a little road called Champion Valley Lane. Every polka band in the Midwest plays that song. He also wrote ’The Barre Mills Schottische’ and the ‘West Salem Waltz.’
My dad wrote the ‘Cashton Polka.’ Right down the road from where I live, there's a little area called Pine Hollow, so I wrote a song called the ‘Pine Hollow Schottische.’ Beyond that, there’s a side road going to Melvina known as the ‘Grapevine’ that the gangster John Dillinger was rumored to travel back and forth on; I wrote a song called the ‘Grapeviner’s Lullaby.’ So we’ve definitely recognized the role the environment has played in our music and have milked it for what it’s worth!
After all these years, we're still a dance band playing a style of music that was hot in the 40s and 50s. It’s a big-time honor to carry on that tradition. I almost feel that if I don't, that tradition might not continue. We are about the biggest concertina band that's still going in Wisconsin. We have a six-, sometimes seven-piece-band, and I get a lot of requests where someone will ask if just two or three of us can come play. I will not do it. If I let go of that, that tradition is lost.
To find this tradition, you need to get involved in church festivals, and in different cities’ music in the parks type of events. The music and community go hand in hand. There are different styles of polka music, but I stick to and like the old traditional German stuff. My wife is from New Ulm, Minnesota, and that’s where this all started. They’ve had so many great bands and are really into the traditions like the arrangements and harmonies of the music.
I realize younger people probably think polka is a corny style of music. You know what? Maybe it is, but there’s a lot of music that doesn’t trip my trigger. The music is good, and depending on the age group of the crowd you're playing for, you can relate the music to their lives. For example, if I'm playing a dance and there's an older crowd there, I will veer my music towards their era. It’s important for me to bring back the memory to them so they can relive their story.
These days, it seems like you have to stand on your head and do somersaults to entertain people. Now, don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of good entertainers, but I try to entertain in the simple ways. I'm passionate about how our music should be played. I still think that when a band walks on stage, they better be dressed up in a uniform with matching shirts on, and their hair better be combed. I still want to see someone do the Jitterbug. I still want to promote dancing where a husband and wife actually hold hands and dance, because that's a big part of history. I'm not a fancy or flashy entertainer, but when it's time to play, we just keep the harmonies nice and make sure everybody looks nice on the stage.
Let the music speak for itself—simple as that."
Did you know....
The drums that started it all back in 1946 with our Grandpa Herman's band. The drum has been restored and is on display in the Community Hall in Cashton. Drum played its last gig in 1971 before Grandpa passed away. We love his slogan "Hot Rhythm Specialists"!