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By Alan Govenar
Texas A&M University PressCopyright © 2012 Alan Govenar
All rights reserved.
Czech Accordion, Seymour
Inside Wicker Feed Store on the south side of the Baylor County Courthouse Square in Seymour during the second week of July, conversation centers on family, livestock, and the Old Settlers Reunion and Rodeo, the oldest event of its kind in Texas. Started by a retired cowboy named Jeff Scott in July 1896, the first three-day reunion included a rodeo, a barbecue, baseball games, and a Grand Ball. Hundreds of people came, and it was so successful that the town leaders decided to organize another. The Cowboy Reunion of 1897 was bigger than the first and was attended by Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and some three hundred members of his tribe. One night they even staged an Indian War Dance around a bonfire, dressed in full battle regalia. Over the years, the Old Settlers Reunion and Rodeo, as it is now called, has continued to grow and now even attracts cowboys on the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) circuit.
Wicker's has the feel of a general store, where locals shop, swap stories, and joke around. When I ask about traditional music, a short, white-haired man who looks to be in his sixties ambles up to the counter and introduces himself as Julius Vita. "I do a little of that myself," he says with a half-smile. "I play accordion and sing the old Czech songs. Interested?"
"Definitely," I reply, surprised to find a Czech accordion player in a Texas feed store.
Vita is pleased and has a little kick in his step as he exits the store to get his accordion from the back seat of his red Ford Bronco parked next to my Honda Civic. He owns an auto parts store on Main Street, and Wicker's is one of his favorite stops after lunch or when he's out doing errands around town. Back inside, everyone waits in anticipation. Charles Wicker moves a chair into place and Vita sits down. The first song is a waltz, and when he's done, I ask if I can interview him and record some of his playing. He nods and says, "If you got nerves enough to stick with me."
I rush out to my car and bring in a tape recorder and thread a reel-to-reel tape as fast as I can. Vita scratches his head, quietly amused by the equipment set up in front of him, then pulls the bellows of his accordion and picks up where he left off as he segues into a fast polka.
Julius Vita was born January 25, 1918, in Bomarton, Texas, about ten miles due west of Seymour. His parents had emigrated from Czechoslovakia through Galveston to the town of East in Central Texas before buying a farm in 1928 in Bomarton, a small farming community of mostly Czech immigrants in Baylor County. Tim Orsak, a local historian who works as an operations manager at the Seymour Independent School District, says that the first Czechs came to Bomarton around 1908, searching for "cheap land," and that the community grew to about 150 Czech families by 1915 but then rapidly declined because of a terrible drought. "By 1917," Orsak recalls, "over eighty families had left, though there was still a strong Czech presence in language and music. In the 1920s the Bomarton Brass Band was well-known in the area, and later, Anton Kohut organized a fourteen-piece Czech band."
As a boy, Julius Vita attended a one-room schoolhouse in Mary's Creek, a small town near his home, but he quit in the seventh grade because his father was gravely ill and his help was needed on the farm. He started playing music around the age of six, learning from his father and brothers, and at sixteen, his mother bought him an accordion.
"My mother promised me that if I didn't smoke until I was eighteen years old," he recalled, "she'd buy me an accordion. I had been smoking cedar bark, anything I could get a hold of, out behind the barn, but I really didn't like it. And when she told me, I'd already seen that I didn't like to smoke, so I just gave it up completely. I didn't even try to smoke. So, I told her I'm sixteen now and I'm not figuring on starting smoking. So, she bought me an accordion."
Growing up, Vita never joined a band per se but instead played at local barn dances, where he might have fiddle and guitar accompaniment. "They'd clean out the barn and dance on the dirt floor," Julius' son Jim Vita says. "All the musicians were like him. They worked day jobs. Whoever was available showed up to play. In fact, my folks met at a barn dance and married in 1944. Mom was from Rhineland, about twenty miles west of Bomarton. Her maiden name was Margaret Birkenfield and she was of German descent."
The barn dances mixed polkas and waltzes with Czech folksongs. "I know quite a few of them," Julius said, "but I don't remember the names." One of his most requested songs was the waltz "Louka Zelena" ("Green Meadow") and "Julida Polka," which was also popular in German immigrant communities around Texas. Other Czech songs included the melancholy "A Ja Sam" ("I Alone") and tunes about love and the beauty of nature, such as "Na Bilej Hore" ("On White Mountain") and "Pod Dubem, Za Dubem" ("Over the Oak, Under the Oak").
Over the years, Vita performed mainly at informal gatherings of his family and friends in the Czech communities in Bomarton and Seymour. Tim Orsak recalls hearing Vita for the first time in the church hall at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church when he was about 10 years old: "He was sitting by himself near where the band had been playing. The band was on break. There were no Czech bands in Seymour at the time, but we had a lot that came through from the Dallas–Fort Worth area—the Panther City Polka Boys, the Alpine Village Band, the Czech Harvesters, Jodie Mikula, and even the Vrazels played here. Sometimes Mr. Vita sat in, but mostly he liked to play by himself. He liked the old tunes he had heard growing up. He never sang, and I couldn't tell if he was playing the whole song, but everybody enjoyed it. Everyone around here liked him. He was a great supporter of all the kids, whether at athletic events or stock shows."
Vita was a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), a Third Degree Knight of Columbus, and an active member of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. "About 70 percent of the church was Czech," Jim Vita says, "and Dad was a true volunteer. He'd play for people in the Westview Nursing Home and was instrumental in starting Little League Baseball in Seymour. Mom kept all the score cards and they did whatever they could to keep Little League going for about ten years."
Jim learned about Czech music from his father and started playing himself when he was about nine years old. "I would run home from church on Sunday mornings, and I'd mess around on the piano and then break out his old accordion before they got home. They'd want to sit around after church and talk to their friends. So, it gave me a chance to just pick things up about music here and there."
As he got older, Jim played in a band called The Tiger Tails, named after the fuzzy toy tiger tails given away by Esso (now Exxon Mobil) gas stations as a promotion. "We'd hang those tiger tails off the neck of our guitars. We had three guitars and a drummer, and we played local dances, every other week at the VFW Hall, everywhere around here. We didn't do any Czech songs. We were into country music—Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and a lot of Johnny Bush, whose big hit at that time was 'One Fool on a Stool.'"
One time, Julius Vita got his son Jim to play with him for an American Cancer Society benefit at the Seymour Golf Club and Country Club. They called themselves Hans and Franz and dressed in lederhosen and busked from table to table for five dollars a song. "We played a lot of songs," Jim says. "We raised about a thousand dollars."
Each year the Vita family reunion was timed to coordinate with the Old Settlers Reunion and Rodeo in Seymour. There were nine children in Julius Vita's family, seven girls and two boys, and five of the Vita girls married five Hrnicrik boys, all of whom were from Baylor County. "We'd get over two hundred people, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren."
Jim Vita still has two of his father's three-button Hohner accordions: his first, bought by his mother, and his last, given to him as a gift by his wife and children on his fiftieth birthday. Jim remembers some of the old Czech tunes but wishes he knew more. "My family spoke Czech when they didn't want us to know what they were talking about," he says. "I hated that they didn't pass it down." Julius Vita died January 28, 1989.
Even though there are no longer Czech bands in Seymour, Czech music is still popular in Baylor County and memories of Julius Vita remain a source of pride in his community. A local radio station, based in Seymour, broadcasts polka music every Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. Station owner and manager Mark Aulabaugh says, "We do local programming from noon to 1 p.m. and then we air It's Polka Time, a syndicated show hosted by Craig Ebel that is produced in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. KSEY FM reaches about five counties, though our primary listeners are in about a fifty-mile radius from Seymour—Munday, Knox City, and Benjamin. In addition to Czech music, we are eclectic—meaning classic Western swing, honky-tonk, and local country bands, though we are principally farm radio with in-depth weather reports, agriculture and ranching news, and agricultural commentary geared to our listeners who are farmers and ranchers."CHAPTER 2
Cowboy Songs and Country Hymns, Stephenville
In the riding arena behind his Depression-era stone house on the outskirts of Stephenville, John Burrus tugs on the reins of the chestnut quarter horse he is training. He turns to the right, then lopes in a circle and moves to the left. "Some horses don't know how to turn without tripping over the front foot," he says as he slows to a stop.
I tell Burrus that I'd heard about him from Fred Dalby, a rancher in Aspermont, and he rubs the back of his neck with the index finger of his right hand, not sure exactly how to respond.
"Fred told me that you sing some of the old cowboy songs," I explain.
In his blue denim shirt and jeans, scuffed work boots, and beaten-up black felt hat cocked forward on his brow, Burrus is stocky and muscular, stoic but soft-spoken, a man of measured words.
"I roped with Fred all over West Texas," he nods. "Yeah, I've been all over the United States rodeoing. I've done all right. All I can do now is breakaway and ribbon roping. I can't get off the horse and tie the calf any more. My knees and ankles are all tore up. That ain't so hard. It's the breakin' and trainin' them horses. What I do for a living. Everybody brings me those outlaw horses, and they rear and fall, buck me off, fall on me. It takes about thirty days where you can take a horse and ride it down the road and get him handling pretty good, but it takes a good while for a roping horse. All depends on the horse. Some horses train out fast, and some of them it takes a year or so. The trick is staying on their back with saddle blankets."
I follow him out of the arena across his backyard, shaded with mesquite and hackberry trees, to the kitchen door of his home. Inside, he leads me to the living room, where he offers me a seat across from the fireplace. Then he reaches for his guitar, perched in a stand behind the dining room table, grabs his harmonica rack and positions it around his neck, and hums before he starts to sing in a husky voice.
John Burrus was born December 29, 1923, in Eldorado, about forty-five miles south of San Angelo on US Highway 277. His grandparents, he said, "came to Texas from Missouri in a covered wagon. My father was a rancher, and I was raised breaking and training horses."
As a boy growing up, Burrus was interested in music. "My dad gave me a colt when I was about five or six years old, and when I was twelve, I traded that colt for a mandolin. My music teacher in Eldorado ordered me one. I took lessons for about a year. Then I traded my brother the trombone I played in high school for his guitar."
After graduating from high school, Burrus volunteered for the US Army and served during World War II in New Guinea and India until his discharge. When he returned to Texas, he worked on the ranch his father leased in Vance, and he played the guitar in his spare time. One day, when he was in town, he met Gwen Bain from nearby Barksdale. "John came to my grandfather's store to buy some ice," Gwen recalls, "and I happened to be working on that day." They married a year and a half later in October 1947. The couple moved to a ranch near Goldwaithe, Texas, and later to Comanche, where John broke and trained horses.
In the mid-1950s, John joined the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA) and competed professionally in calf-roping events not only in Texas but also in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and as far away as Calgary and Alberta, Canada. While on the road, John took his guitar and fiddle, and when the other cowboys went into town, he stayed back at camp to read his Bible and practice his music. He knew a few basic chords, G, D, C, and A, and then tried singing along as he played. He remembered the traditional songs he had heard as a child. Later, he added new arrangements to his repertoire, based on songs he heard other cowboys sing and sheet music he had seen in songbooks and Christian hymnals. In time, he bought himself a harmonica. "I just picked it up and went to blowing it," he said. "It was a cowboy instrument, you bet. It's easy to pack. Ain't much room in the pocket of them jeans."
Sometimes at rodeos, Burrus would take his guitar and harmonica and sit in the stands while the cowboys were out riding around warming up their horses. "He'd even bring his Bible with him," Gwen recalled. "John was a devout Christian. He'd be there sometimes by himself before anybody else got there. The wives of the other cowboys appreciated that because they were sitting there waiting for their husbands to rope. And some of the guys riding around in the arena made fun of him. But the wives would ask him to pray for somebody they were concerned about. It got to where a lot of them would ask him to pray. He would just stand up, take his hat off, or maybe when he was just sitting there holding his guitar, he'd take his hat off and pray. He would say something like, 'Lord Jesus, we thank you for all that you've done for us, and for saving us from our sins. We ask you to bless this person and heal the sickness in your own way.'"
In addition to rodeos, Burrus liked to perform in nursing homes for senior citizens and at camp meetings that were usually held in the summer. "John Gaither, a friend of his," Gwen says, "worked for the Four Sixes Ranch, near Guthrie. The meeting would be on someone's ranch and would last two or three nights. We took our motor home. They would put up a tent and would have someone bring the sermon. John would play his guitar and sing. A mix of cowboy songs and church songs. The service would last as long as they wanted it to, usually not more than an hour and a half, something like that. Some cowboys would stand up and give testimonials. I've seen tears in some of their eyes, but no one really broke down and cried. They would talk about what God had done for them, helped them through bad times. Sometimes it might be a broken marriage that got mended, or a child that had gone wayward that gotten straightened out, or some friend, just things that would affect their lives. It was never denominational, but it was Christian."
The songs John Burrus performed evoke the spirit of the working cowboy. The perils of herding cattle combine with the yearning for stability and faith in the uncertainties of life on the open range. Most of the songs have a moral—out of the hardship comes a higher purpose and, sometimes, salvation, "free from the burden of sin." "To me," Gwen says, "John was unusual. He had very high morals and that's what he wanted to sing about. But he also liked singing some of the old cowboy songs."
In "Windy Bill," a cowboy meets his match in a big black steer and learns a hard lesson. In "Trail to Mexico," after a cowboy leaves his "darling girl" and loses her to a "richer life," he laments, "Old buddy, old buddy, please stay at home. Don't be forever on the roam ... God pity a girl that won't prove true. I'll travel west where the bullets fly, and I'll stay on the trail till the day I die."
In "Kentucky Waltz," a cowboy longs for the romance he had with the girl of his dreams: "Now I was a lad that was lucky, but it all ended too soon." "Power in the Blood" extols the strength faith imbues once a true commitment to the Lord is made: "Would you do service for Jesus, your king? There's power in the blood, power in the blood." "He Was Just a Lonely Cowboy" tells the story of a cowboy named Jack who falls in love with a "maiden," but prior to their wedding day, "a quarrel came between them" and Jack left. When he returns, he finds that she has already died: "They said as she was dying/She breathed her sweetheart's name/And told them with her last breath/To tell him when he came."
In 1973 Burrus bought an indoor arena and ninety-six acres of grazing land west of Stephenville, where his three sons and daughter helped him train horses and run the State 4-H Roping School. In 1986 he was forced to stop working with horses because of a leg injury, and his son William assumed the horse-breaking responsibilities.
While Burrus no longer worked on the ranch, he kept one horse, named "Shorty," which he sometimes took out to keep him "reining properly." During the last years of his life, he continued to play guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and harmonica at home, singing or humming to pass the time and to entertain his wife and family. John Burrus died December 26, 2009, but his legacy lives on. His sons, William and Jamie, and his two grandsons, William and Brant, whom he taught to play guitar, still sing many of the cowboy songs and country hymns they learned from him. Jamie Burrus, in addition to performing the traditional music he learned as a boy, is the pastor of a cowboy church in Bunger, Texas, and his brother, William performs in a band at a cowboy church in Stephenville.
Excerpted from Everyday Music by Alan Govenar. Copyright © 2012 Alan Govenar. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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