VIBES: The Dezurik Sisters; MN Farm Girls Turned Opry Stars
Home from work around four last Wednesday, I brewed two cups of tea and walked down the rickety back breezeway of my apartment to pay Glenn Wetterlund a visit. Knocking twice, I entered his little street-facing shop, offered the guy a cup of tea, and proceeded to ask him what was new. Glenn is the owner and sole proprietor of Cool Clear Water, a vintage western wear shop I happen to live above. Within it’s confines are the spoils of nearly two decades spent hunting for vintage western, where road-weary boots and frayed wrangler shirts from the 70’s are lovingly housed amongst fringed Rockmount pearl-snap shirts, where old t-shirts have sayings like ‘ARIZONA — IT’S ARI-ZZISTABLE” emblazoned across their chests.
Behind the cash register is Glenn’s CD player and a haphazard pile of CD’s. The pile, on any given day, includes the usual suspects — Nick Lowe, Dwight Yoakum, Patsy Cline, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Neil Young. Here, underneath his framed and signed photographs of Earnest Tubb and Patsy Cline, changing discs in the CD player was where I found Glenn last week polishing a pair of used Chippewa’s.
I try to make this tea-bearing pilgrimage below to the shop semi-regularly. The primary reason being that every visit turns into an educational one. One week Glenn may tell me about the merits of various vintage western wear tags, the next week a particularly colorful story from his past, when he worked with Jack A. Weil and Jack B. Weil for Rockmount Western Wear out in Colorado. That particular week Glenn had found the usual items— a few wool Pendleton shirts, an old Gokey’s shell bag with oil stains, a real coonskin cap, and a violin that needed to be restrung and repaired. These were set in a pile on the ground near the cash register. The piece de la resistance however stood humbly on the counter — a majestic, mint condition Stetson hat box with the name PILLSBURY scrawled across the top in a scraggly sharpie script.
“Whoa Glenn, what’s this here? This new?” I picked up the hat box quickly, almost greedily and turned it around, this way and that, peering at the underside. He knows my predilection for hats, so I asked — “How much? I already know I want it.”
“You can’t have it,” Glenn said. “It’s an old one I came across at an auction,” Glenn said. “You’d have to give me silly money in order for me to part with it. Take it out and look at the name on the sweatband.”
I sat the box back down on the counter and lifted the lid. Inside was a dark grey beaver felt in the recognizable silhouette of a ‘Boss of the Plains’ Stetson hat. Virtually free of any and all signs of wear with a jaunty crimson feather in the black hat band, both the hat and box were in mint condition, save for the unfortunate scribble atop the box.
“Probably never even worn,” Glenn said from his post polishing the new-to-him boots. “Don’t think Mr. Pillsbury ever even wore it. Most likely stayed in the corner of some expensive armoire, unopened, for eons.”
I turned the hat over to peer at the interior leather sweatband as instructed. There underneath the watercolor illustration of a cowboy feeding a steed from an upturned ten gallon hat, were the words; ‘MADE BY THE JOHN B. STETSON COMPANY ESPECIALLY FOR MR. JOHN S. PILLSBURY’
“Glenn — where in the hell did you find this? What will you sell it for? Have you had it appraised?”
“I’ll never tell you where I found it — I can’t go around giving away all my sources.”
“Well, whaddya’ gonna do with it then? You could make a month’s rent and more off that thing.”
Glenn’s answer was not surprising, given his predeliction for history and musuems. “I’ll most likely write to the Minnesota Historical Society and see if they’d perhaps be interested. I wouldn’t mind donating it to their collection.”
Originally hailing from New Hampshire, John Sargent Pillsbury moved to Saint Anthony, Minnesota where he made a considerable fortune in the flour and grain industry. An entrepid investor, politician, and bussinessman Pillsbury eventually went on to become the eighth governor of our far northern-state after cofounding the Pillsbury Flour Company with his nephew, Charles Alfred Pillsbury in 1872. The company was the first of it’s kind to use steel processors for rolling grain, and John Pillsbury was known for his great contributions to the Union Pacific Railroad and his even greater fortune.
The week prior to that of The Epic Hat Find, I walked downstairs to find Glenn listening to an Oxford American compilation, from their annual Southern Music Issue — circa 2005. While we were chatting about the origins of a particularly rare western shirt by the alluring brand name of ‘Sand and Sage’ a beguiling, yearning sort of yodeling began to emanate from the CD player. Glenn told me that the yodeling belonged a group called the Dezurik Sisters, a yodeling duo out of Royalton, Minnesota whose height of fame came about during 1938, after releasing their seminal single ‘The Arizona Yodeler.’
I was hooked. Their rural Minnesota upbringing coupled with their haunting, high-pitched voices that sounded like those of lowing animals and high-flying birds captivated my attention. Glenn lent me the Oxford American record and the accompanying magazine. I listened to the record in my Dodge truck during my five-am morning commute to work for a solid week.
Born and raised in Royalton, Minnesota, the Dezurik sisters were in fact sisters, born to a family of seven. Their farther played the fiddle, and their brother Jerry the accordion and guitar. Inspired by the birds and animals that surrounded them on the farm, Carolyn and Mary Jane passed the time by playing guitar and attempting to emulate the sounds of the birds they heard from their front porch.Their natural abilities and unfettered, authentic playing style won them many talent contests around central Minnesota.
This continued until 1938 when a scout from WLS-AM radio out of Chicago arrived at the Fairgrounds of Little Falls, Minnesota only to see Mary Jane and Carolyn sing two songs on the last day of the fair to wild audience attention. Mary Jane and Carolyn signed with the station shortly thereafter.
As the Dezurik Sisters committed only six songs to vinyl, the other recordings I scrounged up were those recorded directly from WLS-AM radio hours. One of my favorite moments from those rare, static-y recordings came from a particular radio host; who introduced the girls with a sweeping, and oddly poetic introduction.
“And now — here are two girls from the wide open spaces —where men are men! And where mothers make you wash behind your ears — The Dezurik Sisters!”
In 1940 both sisters married two men of men of their own. Carolyn to Ralph “Rusty” Gill, a WLS staff guitarist hailing from East Texas (known for his compelling mountain ballads) and Mary Jane to Augie Klein, the WLS staff accordion player. Rusty Gill had his own band — the Prairie Ramblers, known for their song with Patsy Montana titled 'I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.' This was their most popular recording, landing Patsy in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Rusty Gill into the company of popular entertainment personalities like Gene Autry.
By 1944, during the height of WWII, the Dezurick Sisters were performing together regularly, for both Augie and Rusty had been drafted. The two performed both for Purina’s Checkerboard Funfest, the Eddy Arnold Show, and finally on the Grand Ole Opry. Shows at the Opry meant commuting by train every Friday from their home in Chicago to arrive in Nashville by Saturday. During the war, these trains were filled with mostly soldiers and sailors. The two young yodelers, traveling alone, relied on the kindness of the train engineers to keep them safe from the rowdy attentions of their fellow male travelers during their weekly commutes to Nashville. Boarding the sisters with their guitars on the train first, the engineers would ‘seat’ these young yodelers in the Ladies room, lock the doors, and finally on the doors place a sign — OUT OF ORDER!
Rusty and Augie returned from the war in 1946, but the solace did not last long for in 1947, an automobile accident caused Mary Jane to enter an early retirement from show business. Carolyn enlisted her sister Lorraine to take the place of the other Dezurik sister, and the two performed together from 1949 to 1950, appearing regularly on NBC’s televised series Midwestern Hayride. Guests included the likes of Gene Autry, Patsy Montana, the Delmore Brothers, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Porter Wagoner.Shortly thereafter, Carolyn joined her husband’s band, the Prairie Ramblers, to become their first female vocalist since Patsy Montana.
1947 seemed to have marked the end of the Dezurik Sisters as they were originally, a duo of fresh-faced midwestern farm girls, and 1956 found the Prairie Ramblers giving up country music entirely. The band swapped their cowboy boots for Bavarian costumes and the Prairie Ramblers changed their name to the Polka Chips with Carolyn DeZurik.
In music as in design there is always a trend — either towards something or away from something. And these trends usually relate to the collective yearnings of the time. In the thirties and forties, country music was still very much tied to an agrarian way of life, not the mealy and over-processed cannon of backroads, girls, and tailgates that it is now. Perhaps this trend towards yodeling — seen in the vocal stylings of country music acts of the thirties such as Patsy Montana, the Dezuriks, and Roy Acuff — was really more of a sense of nostalgia, for farm families and a way of life in which any and all members of a family knew to play an instrument, a la Merle Haggard’s ballad of a big, poor, southern family, Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)
The Dezuriks played traditional yodeling music — so closely related to farm life — at a time when the landscape of American music was slowly beginning to change, a transformation that would take country music from something hyper-localized (music that was found at church talent-shows and in the stands of county fairs), into something slick and programmable, music that could embrace the new template of television.
In an incisive essay written about the Dezurik Sister, Louisiana author John Biguenet writes;
“The yodel quavers between word and sound, between voice and instrument, between man and woman, between despair and exaltation, between adult and child, between human and animal, between civilization and nature. It reminds one of the the cracking voice of a boy on the verge of manhood, of a woman fighting back tears, of a mute struggling to express - what? Something melancholy, something quivering between bruised experience and disappointed innocence.Perhaps that’s why the yodel always erupts in the midst of a sad story. Caught between desire and rejection, faithfulness and betrayal, love and loss, the balladeer abandons language altogether to express the outraged heart.”