Lawrence Welk has probably not appeared in a college newspaper for decades. His name is likely heard more often during a single session of nursing home bingo than over an entire year on Yale’s campus.
And, well, that’s fine. It makes me a little sad, but it’s fine, really. Why should we be reminiscing about a hokey, dead accordion player anyway? No good reason — except for the fact that he’s such a wonderfully bizarro icon of American earnestness, a maker of the very best of the very worst musical schmaltz and the object of my small obsession.
You may, perhaps, remember Lawrence from PBS reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show, in which the beloved bandleader gives a broad and goofy smile to his 40-person band, occasionally picking up his accordion to accompany his “musical family” and putting it down to deliver a monologue on some family-friendly theme. From 1951 to 1979, he presided over his television bandstand, conducting poppy, sappy and bubbly orchestrations of some of the most classic and mundane American music.
The son of German-speaking Ukrainian-born immigrants, Welk was a most unlikely American idol. With only a fourth-grade education, a thick accent, an accordion and a desire to get off of the family farm in North Dakota, he somehow became one of the most recognizable and beloved faces in the country. Glib and gleeful, his music seems to bask in the glory of his success story, bubbling sweet and triumphant affirmations to an adoring mainstream majority.
Welk’s big band schmaltz is not too far removed from the sonic lullabies we hear in elevators, lobbies and customer service phone lines today. The gentle guitar glides, clunky harpsichord solos, background vocal cooing all give it an undeniable sense of canned-ness. But it is oh-so-live. Performed by a 40-person band, all of its unwarranted key modulations, champagne bottle pops, stringy iterations of the same melody, again and again, are unabashedly human. Instead of the synthetic gloss of modern muzak, Welk’s simple melodies, saccharine orchestrations and unwitting celebrations of redundancy have the warmth of earnestness.
Clearly, Lawrence Welk is not so cool. And that is why he was loved — because he smiled, made music that was light on the ear and fun for the feet and was just a gosh-darn nice-seeming fellow. You could count on Lawrence. You could be sure that, even as his TV show went from black-and-white to color, nothing in the Welk world would change. The kitschy chandeliers above the dance floor, the gee-willikers play-acting, the “Champagne Music,” as it came to be called, would always be there when you tuned in.
But most importantly, Lawrence himself would never be anything but earnest and square. And it wasn’t just that he was square — he loved to be square, and generations of Americans, sans smirk, loved him for it. I certainly do. But I am also captivated and vaguely horrified by the eeriness of it all. These cheerful orchestrations evoke a dangerously normative white-bread America. In the boundless optimism, the wholesome cheekiness, there is something foreboding, melancholic and deeply, deeply awry.
My musings on this icon of a bygone feel-good era may not inspire you to take a road trip to Escondido, Calif., home of the Lawrence Welk Resort where life-sized statues of Lawrence smile benevolently to passersby, Baptist busses deposit gray-haired “Bye Bye Birdie” matinee-goers and tunes like “Baby Elephant” waft out of invisible ceiling speakers. They may not inspire you to silkscreen a shirt of the bandleader and his wrinkly smile for said road trip. Or to pick up a copy of Welk’s celebrated memoir “Wunnerful, Wunnerful!” or its sequel “Ah-One, Ah-Two!”
But let me at least recommend the wunnerful compilation, “The Best of Lawrence Welk,” available from Ranwood Records. That is the music — sold to me at the gift shop by a woman three months early in donning her Christmas sweater — that I listened to as I drove away from the Lawrence Welk Resort, past the billion-dollar biotech parks, corporate conference complexes and onwards through Southern California’s suburban fantasies. With this musical backdrop of sweet warm horns, happy-go-lucky maracas and dove-like chorus cooing, the Pacific sunset turned a Technicolor golden, transforming the manicured lawns, picket fences and shiny cars into a surreal and homogenous landscape of manufactured glory.
Dwelling on this white-bread-muzak-schmaltz-bubble-lite figure of an unironic American age, my purpose is not quite to celebrate the man, nor to criticize him. I kind of just want to say: “Lawrence Welk. Wow. That happened.” Maybe you should let it happen to you. Because, whether it strikes you as the epitome of cheesiness, the soundtrack of postmodern discontent, the surreal sound of Technicolor optimism, earnestness at its heart-shattering best, the musical manifestation of one man’s American Dream or the eerie surface bubbles of a much darker American Dream, it will not fail to evoke.