Generations: DL native Ethel Duenow has been pushing the right buttons most of her life
“My mother claimed that we didn’t have enough money for a piano, so we did this instead,” said Duenow, an accordion player with 70 years of recitals and concerts behind her.
Editor's Note: The following originally appeared in the 2023 Generations magazine, which was included as a free insert of the Tribune in March 2023. Read the magazine in its entirety HERE online.
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Though she hasn’t been able to play the accordion of late, due to a bout of carpal tunnel that decreased the feeling and flexibility in some of her fingers, Ethel Duenow is looking forward to the day she can pick up the instrument again.
“I miss it,” she says, adding that she’s scheduled to have surgery sometime in March of this year.
Duenow has played the accordion since her mother all but forced the young Ethel Mae Johnson to take up the instrument.
“My mother claimed that we didn’t have enough money for a piano, so we did this instead,” she said, adding that she had an older sister who also took up the accordion, but “she left when I was very young.
“I’m not sure of the exact year I started taking lessons,” Ethel continued. “The first accordion I had was a 12-bass that my parents rented. Then I advanced enough that they purchased a 48-bass accordion.”
Accordions are sized according to the number of bass buttons they have, she explained, with 12, 48, 72 and 120 bass being the most common sizes. Eventually, Duenow said, her parents purchased a 120-bass — i.e., full-sized — accordion that she had “for many years.”
Her first teachers were Dick and Julie Halvorson, who owned Halvorson’s Melody Shop. Their small shop was located inside Bob Paulson’s book and magazine store on Washington Avenue, she added.
Because Dick Halvorson was blind, his wife Julie assisted him with the lessons, which took place “in a little closet in the back of the store,” Ethel said.
Accordion playing was a fairly popular local pastime when she was growing up. “They were selling accordions right and left,” Duenow said.
By the time the Halvorsons scheduled their first accordion concert at the Odd Fellows Hall in 1950, there were 35 students taking part — including Ethel, who played a duet with Tommy Mislevic on “The Merry Widow Waltz.”
Future concerts saw Ethel playing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” (also with Mislevic, on Nov. 6, 1951), the “I Myself Polka” (with Charles Schleeter and Frank Mislevic, on Nov. 6, 1952) and a solo on “Camptown Races,” May 12, 1952. After the first one, subsequent concerts were held in the Detroit Lakes High School Auditorium, as both the audience and the number of performers expanded.
The young Ethel wasn’t really into playing the accordion at first: “I was a kid. I’d rather be riding horses,” Duenow said. “But mom forced me to practice, and I got pretty good.”
After the Halvorsons sold their music shop to Bill and Jean Matheson in 1952, Duenow quit taking lessons from them, but kept up with the instrument.
“I started taking lessons from Eunice Pitman, a band instructor who owned the Nolan and Pitman music store in the Graystone building area,” Ethel said. “She took my music to another level, and told me I should practice for hours a day. I regret not following her instructions.”
As an adult, she ended up performing at venues such as the school in Audubon and at the occasional Farmers Union meeting in Callaway.
“When my mother had her 90th birthday I wanted to play my accordion for her, but it was in need of repair, so I rented one to play for her party,” she said.
After returning the rented instrument, Duenow purchased a new one, which is the same one she plays now. After her mom was admitted to the Alzheimer’s ward at Emmanuel Nursing Home, she started playing there as well.
“I also played for some of the family funerals, and also at parties for friends,” she said.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic caused some of those performing opportunities to dry up, she continues to be a regular on the entertainment schedule under the Big Tent at the Becker County Fair, where she performed several selections last July,
“I really enjoy it,” she says of performing at the fair, adding that it’s fun to be a part of all the activities there, and interacting with the crowds.
When she’s getting ready to perform, Duenow says, “I practice every day,” though it’s not quite as frequent during the times when she doesn’t have any appearances scheduled.
Her repertoire includes waltzes, polkas, two-steps, and even some popular favorites from the 1950s and ‘60s. “I’m always willing to play for special occasions,” she said.
Ethel later encouraged her daughter Tammy when it came time for her to decide on whether to become a musician — but Tammy did not choose the accordion.
“My daughter played the saxophone,” she said. “Her dad would rather have had her in the barn training horses than practicing, but she got pretty good at it anyway.
“Her son is very good (at music) too,” she continued. “He plays the violin and the guitar. There were a lot of musicians on my dad’s side, and my grandson Kenton is one also. There’s some (musical) talent in our family.”