“Music, the International Language”–Stories by my father Erwin A. Thompson

This set of stories written by my father Erwin A. Thompson is part of the ongoing Riehlife series “Mondays with Pop.” At 95, he continues to be a masterful storyteller who loves history, music, and culture. He was a reluctant traveler compared to my mother (Ruth Thompson). But, once launched, he engaged with the people he met in other countries as if they were relatives. Which, I’d say, we are. –Janet Riehl

Music, the International Language

I am not an authority on music history. At 95 I am still learning. I’ve had some very rewarding and interesting experiences in which music has played a big part. I would like to share some of the experiences where music has bridged the language barrier and some of the other things that would make people feel free to communicate.

We are a gathering of many nations and many cultures. These include the music that the emigrants brought with them when they came. A few fine examples are “Westphalia Waltz, ’’ “Under the Double Eagle” (Germany) “The Wearing of the Green”
(Ireland) “Napoleon Crossing the Rhine”, (France) “Barbara Allen,” (England), and “Comin’ Through the Rye’,” (Scotland).

These songs are fine examples of native music brought from their homelands to a new country. There are others that are downright thefts of the heritage of the music. “La Golondrina” (the swallow) is a beautiful Spanish ballad. Somebody Americanized it and their versions (in my opinion) are a disgrace to the original.

Back in the late thirties the “Woodpecker Song” was a very popular piece of music. In1944, in the midst of World War II we occupied a German house. Time dragged as we waited for days for an attack that didn’t come.

There was a phonograph, and the men played records to pass the time. What a surprise to discover the tune to the “Woodpecker Song!” It had been stolen in its entirety from an old German piece.

The legend of “Lili Marleen” is perhaps just a legend, but it goes like this: During the African campaign of World War II the camps of the American and German soldiers were very close together. The Americans heard the Germans singing, and learned the song. Somewhere along the line it was translated. This was the legend that I knew for years. It has only in recent years that I have found printed words. It is typically German rhythm. I believe the legend.

In our own country and social climate I have seen the social gap bridged over a few times, because the mutual interest in music made the people involved feel comfortable in violating the social rules that we normally live by.

At the Alton Horticultural Society one evening two of us discussed plans that we needed to make to fulfill our duties to the society. After we had concluded our obligations, she said to me: “Erwin, you need to get acquainted with the boys two doors down the street. They play the same kind of music that you do.”

So, being me, I knocked on their door, introduced myself, and started a friendship which in addition to lasting a lifetime, resulted in their sister marrying one of my best friends. Our musical background was similar enough that we shared our musical knowledge and backgrounds. Just a fine example of how music can bridge social barriers.

Another time a group of musicians were gathered out in New Mexico. We heard a knock on the door. Turned out to be a young woman carrying a violin. She said: “I heard music. Could I join you?”

So my host made her welcome, and we blended nicely with our new member of the group. Turned out that she had played with some of the musicians that I knew back in Illinois.

Another time I was part of the Southern Illinois Folklore Society which gathered at Greenville, Illinois. When they danced a square dance, I called one of the figures, and it went off well.

A couple of interesting results. An elderly lady came up to me afterwards and told me how much she had enjoyed seeing it. She expressed the regret that she had not been a part of the dancers. She was having trouble walking, but I’ll bet she would have given it a good try!

There was a ham and bean supper for the performers after the show. I happened to overhear a conversation at the table next to us. These people said how much they had enjoyed seeing the square dance and how they wished that they knew how.

Not in the etiquette books, to respond to an overheard conversation, but I did. Turned out that they were serious about it. We teamed up and gave dances there in Edwardsville for a year or so, and later on for some of the same group when they moved up to Exeter, Illinois.


PART 2 tomorrow features music stories from Botswana, Ghana, Brazil, and the South Seas. Not a bad set of globe trotting for a farm boy raised in Illinois.

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