Plains Folk

Lindass Barn Dance

Senator Elroy Lindaas always said, come over to one of his barn dances, and I finally did. These gatherings take place eight or ten evenings a year during the months June through September in the gambrel-roofed barn loft on Elroy’s farm east of Mayville, North Dakota.

On this particular starry September night I ascended the barn stairs onto a polished plywood floor in the loft. There was Elroy fronting a band comprising different players at different times, including 2 accordions, base, fiddle, banjo, rhythm guitar, and mouth harp. I watched and listened and tried to think who Elroy reminded me of, and then it came to me: Ernest Tubb, whom years ago I observed at work in ET’s Record Shop, Nashville. Not so much the voice, although Elroy has a fine baritone, mellow and just a little reedy; it’s his carriage, the way he fronts and packs guitar, that reminds me of old ET.

All around the perimeter of the loft is a grand mix of chairs—easy chairs, folding chairs, couches, rockers, love seats (more on the subject of romance later). You need good chairs to rest in, because folks here dance pretty hard.

The music comes in sets, mainly polkas, waltzes, two-steps. The polkas are mostly traditional, the waltzes both traditional and country, and the two-steps pure country & western. “Candy Kisses,” for instance, or “Mansion on the Hill.”

When the dancers start to flag, novelty numbers get them going again. “I think it’s about time to do the butterfly,” Elroy intones, and all the chairs empty. “Circle right!” he commands, “Now circle to your other right,” and people fall for it every time.

Guest artists come to the microphone to contribute sets, like this hulking trucker from western Minnesota who offered a set of country standards like “Green, Green Grass of Home,” the next best thing to Porter Wagoner himself, and closed with “God Must Be a Cowboy at Heart” and dedicated it to his MOM, for pete’s sake. This sort of thing makes me glad I write nonfiction (mostly), because if I put something like that into a piece of fiction, some snippy critic back east would say it couldn’t happen.

Oh, and those dancers. They’re almost all social-security-eligible, some of them have been since the Nixon administration. This is eastern North Dakota, of course, and so there are no hats or caps in evidence, but plenty of enthusiasm. If I met these people outside I’d lay money some of them couldn’t climb the stairs to the loft, left alone dance the night away up there, but they do.

And some of them, too, put those love seats to good use. “We’ve had two romances spring up this summer,” Elroy says, and past romances engendered in the loft have led to marriage. Late in the evening I noticed more middle-aged people showing up to collect their elders, I’m not sure if it’s because they didn’t want them driving that late, or because they wanted to keep tabs on their love lives.

Elroy was born and raised on this farm, which his grandfather homesteaded in 1878. The first barn dances originated with his daughters when they were in high school. Elroy had a musical history, however, having played in a three-piece band in high school days with his ag teacher and another student. “Then I got busy farming and laid such things aside,” he recalls. Middle age does funny things, though; Elroy bought a banjo at a sale, and pretty soon the grown-ups were taking over the loft with their own music.

He’s regionally famous or notorious or something for his song parodies, generally composed for some special event. This started when he got elected to the state senate. For the victory celebration, he says, “I put together a little song to the tune of ‘The Wabash Cannonball,’ and it was a hit.” It’s always a mistake to encourage that sort of thing, because now Elroy has a repertoire of about twenty such numbers, many of them anthems for the minority party in the state, which generally does have better music than the majority party anyway.

It’s so dark and still here in the farm lot, but the loft light spills buttery onto the ground, and its beams release laughter across the beet and bean fields.


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