The woman who introduced the concertina to Garrison’s Farmer’s Mercantile Hall on Sunday says she can’t wait to bring the unique instrument she learned to play as a child to Vinton’s Art in the Park Festival in September.
Jan Leman played her concertina during the Great Plains Desperados concert. Later, she discussed with Vinton Today how and when she learned to play the unique instrument.
It was her Polish parents’ wish that Jan join their family Polish music tradition at a young age.
“I am pure Polish and my parents were first generation Americans,” Jan recalls. “I was a Mazur Polish Dancer for many years. My parents wanted to keep their Polish heritage alive. My dad and brothers played the accordion. My mother chose the concertina for me because she loved the sound of it. I did start out on a ‘student’ concertina. It had the same amount of buttons but was smaller in size. Still, at age seven, that thing was HUGE on my lap. But I learned anyway. I obviously was stronger than I looked.”
Similar to an accordion, but without the piano-style keys, a concertina makes different sounds when the player pushes the bellows closer together than when expanding them.
At first, Jan was not very much interested in the concertina, she says. But she didn’t have a choice.
“I grew up in a very old-fashioned household, where children did as they were told,” she said. “There was no point in complaining.”
She first learned on a “student” concertina, but now says even that instrument “was still too large for a little girl.”
“I would put my entire hand through the hand strap,” Jan recalls. “Now, my thumb rests on top to work the air valve. Back then I just adapted. That was just the way it was. As I said, complaining would have gotten me nowhere.”
After a few years of lessons, Jan’s parents decided she was good enough to perform publicly, and Jan realized she was enjoying the music, and the attention she was attracting when she played.
“When I was 10 years old, my parents would take me to concertina jam sessions. Most of the other concertina players were older men. I was the ‘cute little blonde girl’ with her concertina. I played right along with them,” she says. “They were often amazed.”
Along with her skill at the instrument, the sight of a young girl playing an instrument almost as big as her was part of the attraction, Jan recalls.
“I do remember liking being the ‘cute little blonde girl’ with her concertina. That thing was as big as me and everyone thought that was just adorable,” she recalls. I loved the attention; plus, I could play it.”
As a child, Jan grew tall sooner than most her age, which helped her adapt.
“Fortunately, I grew quickly and by age 12, I already was adult size. I then started the band and stood to play the concertina. It was held much like an accordion with the same type of straps. Now I sit on a tall stool to play.”
Jan’s first band’s name was “Jan Leman Band,” the same name she uses for her band today.
“I played until age 21 when I married and started a family,” she explains. “I didn’t play again for 35 years.”
Then, a year and a half ago, Jan met a musician and singer named Larry Bister.
“We became friends and he encouraged me to play again,” Jan recalls, adding that she was still reluctant to try playing it again.
“It took a long time for me to pull the concertinas out of the closet, but once I did, there was no going back. I was playing again and I couldn’t believe it,” she says.
At first, Jan decided to look for a brand new concertina, but manufacturers stopped producing them decades ago.
“My only option for a new concertina was a hand-made one that would cost $14,000,” Jan says.
She bought a used concertina that is about 40 years old, and has a friend who has been playing for more than 50 years who knows how to maintain a concertina. She worries about what will happen when that generation of concertina experts dies out.
In December of 2016, Larry and Jan decided to form a band and worked hard to put together a show. She has played in several venues in Milwaukee, where she has already earned the title “Concertina Queen” from fellow musicians.
“We have been very lucky in that we were offered gigs and have been playing steadily,” says Jan. “Coming to Garrison and Vinton has been the highlight of the summer. I am always happy to share my music. However, coming to Vinton/Garrison and sharing it with a completely new audience was very exciting. I found the townsfolk very welcoming and appreciative.”
One thing that Jan said she appreciated most about the Garrison audience was how they sat and enjoyed the music.
“It was truly a concert where people sat and appreciated the music,”she said, adding that her band often plans in Milwaukee’s beer gardens, where most people continue talking as the music is playing.
“I was honored to be asked to play for such a delightful audience,” she says of the Garrison event. “It was a wonderful honor to be invited,” she says. “We had a truly appreciative audience. I will be back in September to play at Art In the Park Festival. I simply cannot wait.”
About Farmers Mercantile Hall
The former Farmers Mercantile in Garrison closed in 2004, when health issues forced Emma Crossley to close the business which had opened in 1911 at the corner of West Main Street and Sycamore Avenue. Nick Fisher and his wife Charlotta Toth-Fisher bought the building at a pulic auction (which also included the sale of all of the store’s merchandise) in the summer of 2005. The day he bought it, Nick said he would let the building tell him what it would become. There have been approximately 20 concerts at the Hall, beginning a three years ago with “The Idiot Jam” organized by Todd Frank and his musician friends to raise money to replace the Garrison library, which had been destroyed in a July 2011 wind storm. For more information on the Hall, or to learn about reserving it for concerts or other events, call Charlotta Toth-Fisher at 319-475-2277.
See the Farmers Mercantile Facebook page HERE.
The Fishers continue to work on the building, and have recently added four air conditioning units to the lower level.