In Heaven There is No Beer???

by Diana Mavetz Petrich

Last Thursday I spent a few hours at the home of Bernie and Kathy Barich on beautiful Bear Island Lake. This wasn’t exactly a social visit even though I felt like I was with old friends as the laughs came easy and often.

I initiated our meeting after I found a bunch of polka music on albums, cassette tapes and CDs that were left in the house I purchased in Ely. I ran across a CD from the Ely polka band, “The Barich Brothers.” This homegrown band played during our wedding reception in 1981 in the lower level of the Ely Community Center. I instantly knew the subject of my next column.

Growing up in a Slovenian family, polka music was regularly played at home. The Ely radio station (WELY) hosted (and still hosts) a Saturday morning polka show. At the Mavetz house, WELY was always on the transistor radio that sat on the kitchen counter right next to the jar of orange Tang.

The word polka comes from the Czech word pûlka, which means “little half,” which is a reference to the short half steps featured in the dance. The polka is a lively Central European dance and is also a genre of dance music familiar throughout Europe and the Americas. It originated in the middle of the 19th century in the Czech lands and is still a common style in several European countries.

Slovenian-style polkas are an Americanized style of the music based upon the traditional Slovenian folk songs. This style of music came about when immigrants from Slovenia taught the old songs to their children. As adults, these children translated the old traditional lyrics from Slovene into English and arranged them in a polka beat. This style of polka is usually associated with Cleveland and other Midwestern cities as that is where most Slovenian immigrants put down their roots when they came to America.

The local band I am inspired to pen about was made up of three of the four Barich brothers. The oldest brother, George, played the banjo; the middle brother, John played the bass; and the baby of the bunch, Bernie, played the accordion.

The boys were sons of George, Sr. and Frances Barich. They had 11 children, but only seven lived to adulthood. The birth order of these seven were Mary, George, Sophie, Annie, John, Albert, and Bernie. They grew up at 904 E. Chapman Street in Ely.

Bernie was the last of Frances’ 11 babies and was a rather large baby. During his birth, he suffered from Erb’s Palsy, which caused a weakness and paralysis of muscles in his right arm and hand. This birth injury affected his right arm permanently.

Frances was a musical soul and encouraged her youngest, Bernie, when he took an interest in playing the accordion. When Bernie was about 10 years old, she ordered a Francini 12 bass accordion from the Montgomery Ward Catalog. He started to play it and discovered it worked better when he turned it upside down so he could tickle the ivories with his strong arm and hand.

Johnny’s Accordion in Duluth offered a six-week training session and would travel to Ely to teach willing students. Bernie started taking the training, but after a few lessons, the instructor resigned his post as it was too difficult for him to teach a student ‘upside down accordion’ skills. He found it too uncomfortable to bend in an awkward craning position to instruct Bernie in correct accordion play.

Instead of formal training, Bernie mostly self-taught himself by spending hours with local accordion masters Abby and Billy Smuk. He paid close attention and learned by watching and listening. Many Sunday afternoons the boys would sit with their mother in the kitchen. She would sing as they would play while she turned out oodles of noodles and/or prepared the Sunday dinner.

When Bernie was seen out and about playing his accordion, some would make comments about how he played the accordion differently than others. One man accused him of being so drunk he didn’t know one end of the accordion from the other.

“Georgie,” as his brothers called him, played guitar as youngster, and got himself a banjo after returning to Ely after serving in the Army in WWII and the Korean War. He learned to play by ear along with the Smuk brothers, Louie Devich, and brother Bernie. When “Johnny” was about 20 years old, he became interested in what his brothers were doing, and Georgie made him a bass out of a garbage can so John could join in.

After the three were equipped with their instruments, they played at home for family and at weddings and receptions. As they perfected their music and performing abilities, they began to get asked to play for the public at Dee’s Bar, the Vet’s Club, and the Jugoslav National Home - all in Ely.

I asked them if it was lucrative for them to play their gigs and both brothers laughed. They said they never did it for the money, rather they said it was an absolute pleasure to play for an audience. Bernie said, “We didn’t really care about the money - we just liked to play.”

Both men said their playing would bring in good sized crowds in Ely but better crowds when they played at Nick’s Bar in Gilbert, the Elks Club and Sabin O’Neil both in Eveleth. There was standing room only as people would come from many of the Iron Range municipalities to watch the brothers and dance to the music of their ancestors from the old country (Slovenia).

The brothers put out three albums. They recorded them to preserve the music their ancestors brought from Slovenia to America. On one of their recordings are these words, “To forget the old songs, customs and language would truly be a loss. We present this tape to our families with the hope they will enjoy our music.”

I had to laugh when I asked them the titles of these albums. I’m not sure if it was the titles themselves or the way they told me the names. They are in the order they were produced:

#1. “How About This One”
#2. “Here’s Another One”
#3. “Here’s To You”

Through the years, the band added members to play with them - mostly drummers. Bernie’s youngest son, Jimmy, played with them until he went to college; Jerry Fink played part time for about 10 years starting in 1992 and Tommy Nemanich would play with them occasionally, too.

When George, passed away in 1997, Bernie asked his classmate, Mike Weinzierl, to join them with his banjo and after a bit of cajoling, Mike agreed and joined the band.

I asked John and Bernie if they had groupies. They laughed and answered quickly, “We had a lot of people who would come to see us frequently.” I then asked them if they ever had fans throw undergarments at them and Johnny laughed and said, “What for?”

The Barich Brothers were well known across Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. They were invited and played at Johnny Sniderich’s Annual Booya; the Croatian Fest in Ashland, Wisconsin; Ironworld in Chisholm, Ely Blueberry/Art Festival, Tower-Soudan gatherings plus many reunions and other venues.

Bernie was the lead singer; John was backup and would harmonize and brother George would listen and smile from his place on the stage with his banjo.

Their music was just a sideline and a fun hobby for these three Ely boys. Bernie was the only one of the family that went to college and was my sixth grade reading teacher. He attended Ely Junior College (later renamed Vermilion Community College) where he earned a two-year degree and then transferred to the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education.

His first teaching job was at a two-room schoolhouse in Section 30, right outside of Ely. Millie Sandstrom was in one room teaching first, second and third grades and Bernie was in the other room teaching fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. He said that was quite an interesting two years. He then taught for two years in Babbitt, Minnesota until he applied for a teaching position in the Ely school system where he was hired and taught for 31 years.

Johnny worked for the Zenith Underground Mine as a motorman for seven years and loved working there. His job was driving 12 ore cars deep in the mine on the 17th Level. Even though conditions were poor in the Ely underground mines because of water seepage, he said he liked his job.

He mentioned the electricity went out in the Zenith mine once and they took the tunnel over to the Pioneer Mine as they had electricity. I never knew such a tunnel existed. The 17th levels weren’t exactly on the same plain, so they had to climb a ladder up to the 17th level of the Pioneer Mine and then ride the shaft up to the surface. The workers were then transported back to the Zenith Mine.

After his stint at the Zenith Mine, he left to go to work at Erie Mining Company in Aurora for a year. Then he was hired at Reserve Mining Company outside of Babbitt as a heavy equipment operator in 1963. He stayed there for 20 years until Reserve closed. When the mine reopened as Cypress and then sold to North Shore Mining, he worked another seven years until retiring in 1997.

After his time in the service, George worked in Michigan as a foreman in the papermills. He returned to Ely and was hired by Reserve Mining Company as a foreman in the crusher.

After our interview was concluded, I asked them if they would play a few songs for me. They were more than happy to jump to their feet and go into the adjacent music room where Bernie’s accordion was at rest on a love seat and Johnny’s bass guitar was resting on a stand a few feet from Bernie.

Once they got their microphones working, they started to play and smiled the entire time. I could see the years melt away from the 86- and 80-year-old men in front of me as their youth and spark were restored. Without question, you could tell that these men thoroughly enjoy playing.

I made requests of two Slovenian songs I know and heard many times throughout my life. Johnny and Bernie were quick to oblige by smiling broadly and started right into the melodies. I was immediately transported back to watching my parents with their siblings singing and swaying to the melodies of “Pojdi Zmenoj” (poy-dees-minoy), which translates to “Come with Me.” I also requested “Angelsko Cescenje,” which translates in English to “Angelic Adoration (of the Blessed Virgin Mary).”

I decided on the title of this column when they broke into a rousing rendition of “In Heaven There Is No Beer,” a song about the existential pleasures of beer drinking. That wrapped up the mini concert, but not before I shed a few tears as I remembered my grandparents and parents. There is just something about music that touches your heart and soul.

These two still meet at least once a week to play together. Bernie continues to go down to his music room three or four times a week to play and still enjoys learning new songs. The Bariches always play the old country songs their mother taught them so many years ago.

In 2016, several Iron Range residents of Slovenian background were recognized for their contributions to preserving their heritage. Among the recipients were John, Bernie, the late George, and the late Mike Weinzierl, who took over after George died. I asked about the honor and both John and Bernie glazed over it, which solidified my suspicion of their humility.

I felt right at home sitting in their music room having a private concert. Kathy joined us for the last couple of songs and neither of us could help tapping our toes to the music that filled the room. I asked her if she still enjoyed their music after all these years. She simply smiled, nodded in the affirmative and softly said, “So many great memories...”

As I drove away from my afternoon with these two Iron Range music legends, I couldn’t help but smile for the experience. The older I get the more I cherish learning about my heritage and celebrate these moments with people who are also descendants from the same country.

I feel honored to have spent a few magical hours with these humble and wonderful men. If in heaven there really is no beer, I’m very glad John and Bernie tipped me off beforehand. Dober dan (means good day in Slovene)!