Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Grandma Thomas's Love of Singing

March is Women's History Month, so we're sharing some stories about Munichburg women. Below is one of the essays from Walter Schroeder's new book, Zombies Invade the Southside! In this essay, he remembers his maternal grandmother, Caroline Wilhelmine Thomas. Enjoy!

I wasn’t with my grandmother nearly as much as I was with my grandfather. Later on, Mom helped put my fragmented recollections of her in context when she talked about her mother. At the top of the list of remembrances is how much Grandmother liked to sing, especially with family at Christmastime and when she was with other German women. Mom said her love of singing was the chief reason she married my grandfather and why the two left Germany and came to America.

Here’s the story. It seems that young Caroline Wilhelmine Andree, raised Catholic, became friends with some Methodist girls. (Methodism had been spreading into the German Rhineland after the Napoleonic disruptions.) These friends liked to sing. She went to some of the Methodist worship services, which had group singing. This Protestant activity was frowned upon by her parents, yet she continued going for the joy of singing. Catholics at the time had no congregational singing when they celebrated mass, and no music that seemed as joyous and uplifting as that of the Methodists.

[Pronunciation note: Caroline Wilhelmine was the original, German, spelling of her name. After she arrived in America, she would also spell it “Carolina Wilhelmina,” which helped English speakers pronounce the “eena” ending of both of her names correctly.]

At the same time, she developed a friendship with a young man, Albert Thomas, an Evangelical Protestant who also liked to sing. The friendship blossomed and culminated in marriage on April 14, 1885; she was nineteen, he was twenty-three. The union was acceptable to Albert’s parents, but Wilhelmine’s parents objected. In addition to the religious difference, Wilhelmine’s family was well-off, and her marrying a simple country boy would be lowering their status.

The couple’s first baby, a boy named Albert Arthur, born five months after their marriage, did not live. According to Mom, Wilhelmine’s parents attributed it to their mixed Protestant-Catholic status and to conception before marriage, which was against Catholic teaching and likely a reason for the marriage. A second baby, a girl, came, and this time, rather than withstand the criticisms from the Andree family, the couple chose to follow the lead of another couple, friends from the village, and immigrated to America, going first to Boonville, where those friends, the Toennes family, had settled. Wilhelmine’s parents shunned the pair and wouldn’t even go to the train station to see them leave for America!

When the two, with baby Paula, relocated to Jefferson City the following year, 1889, they immediately joined the German Methodist Episcopal Church, at the corner of Broadway and Elm, and found a room in a house directly across the street. Methodists sang happy songs of praise and joy not the lugubrious, depressing hymns of other local German immigrant congregations. Singing was to express religious joy! Grandma Wilhelmine became a pillar in that congregation and taught happy songs to the Sunday School children, which included my mother and her sisters. When the German Methodist Church disbanded in 1916, she and Grandpa joined Central Evangelical Church, attracted by the German socialization and singing, and the religion, of course.

Above, the Thomas family, ca. 1900. Front row, left to right: Esther, Wilhelmine, Minnie, Albert, and Karl ("Doodle"); Paula (Polly) stands behind them. (Daughter Edna wasn't born yet.)

Often in the evening after supper, Grandma and Grandpa would go out onto the front porch and sing folk songs: Weiss du wieviel Sternlein stehen; Muss i’ denn; Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann; Du, du liegst mir am Herzen; Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein stehn; In Lauterbach hab’ ich mein’ Strumpf verlor’n; Die Lorelei (Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten). You might know some of these by their English titles: “Do you know how many little stars there are?”; “Do I have to [leave home]?”; “My father was a roamer”; “You, you stay in my heart”; “A little boy saw a little rose [blooming]”; “In Lauterbach I lost my stocking”; and “The Lorelei” (the last referring to a mythical siren whose beautiful singing lured boatmen on the Rhine to destruction).

Their repertoire of German songs also included energetic party songs like Bier her, Bier her oder ich fall um; In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus; Fuchs, du hast die Gans gestohlen; Mein Hut der hat drei Ecken; and O du lieber Augustin. These translate to “Bring beer, bring beer, otherwise I’ll faint”; “In Munich stands a Hofbrauhaus”; “Fox, you stole the goose”; “My hat has three corners”; and “O dear Augustin.”

The duo sang German Christmas carols in the front yard in the evening, and neighbors would go out into their own yards to listen to the duets: “Oh, the Thomases are singing German carols tonight! Let’s listen!” Grandma and Grandpa gathered the family, including Richard and me when we were old enough, around the piano to sing German Christmas carols and songs. My little voice was lost in their robust singing, but at the same time I was learning the German words.

Their most distinctive song was the Bergisches Heimatlied, or “Bergisches Homeland Song.” It was an anthem. Berg is the small historic region (a duchy) of the Rhineland where they came from. The sheet music had been sent to them by Albert’s former schoolteacher as a remembrance of his homeland. It was their signature sign-off piece. Mom, of course, learned it, and she continued to sing it the rest of her life. I listened to her carefully to pick out words and melodies, with help from the sheet music.

Above, the Thomas family, ca. 1909. Front row, left to right: Esther, Wilhelmine, Edna, Albert, and Minnie; Karl ("Doodle") and Paula (Polly) stand behind them.

In November 1938, Aunt Minnie took Grandma to Kansas City to hear the Dresdner Kreuzchor (Boys’ Choir of the Holy Cross, Dresden, Germany) in the Municipal Auditorium. The world-famous choir, composed of boys ten to nineteen years old, was on tour of the United States, performing songs of Bach, Wagner, Schubert, Brahms, and Schumann. Grandma included the whole program in her scrapbook, including its long history of the seven-hundred-year-old choir. It must have been a highly memorable event for her.

Above, the radio in our living room during the 1940s.

Grandma bought a Philco floor model radio in the 1930s that received shortwave frequencies. Mom said that was so she could hear broadcasts of German music from Germany. Indeed, in one of Grandpa’s letters to his relatives in Germany in 1941, when the war was going on in Europe, he wrote, “Wir hören jetzt gerade die deutsch Musik von Berlin. Wir könnnen es gut hören.”—“We still hear German music from Berlin. We hear it well.”

Wilhelmine and Albert Thomas, 1922.

It was through her many songs and her singing that I remember my grandmother most fondly.

This essay is excerpted from Walter A. Schroeder’s new book, Zombies Invade the Southside! (2023), pp. 24–27. We’ve added hyperlinks to some YouTube videos so you can hear the music. Some of the videos have the German lyrics and English translations, so you can learn to sing them!

Copyright © Walter A. Schroeder, 2023

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