By Nancy Dashwood
LESTER PRAIRIE The Lester Prairie-based musical group, Jolly Ramblers, has been well-known around the area since the late 1950s, when they began life as the Merry Makers.
That group was started by Albert Thiel, the great-grandfather of the young men carrying on his legacy today.
The family tree
Albert’s son, Chuck, joined his dad for a few gigs in 1962. Chuck’s son, Jason, joined his dad in 1989. Finally, in 2017, Jason’s three sons, Jacob 9.5 years old; Noah, 7 years old; and Benjamin, 5 years old, brought their home-grown family talents to the stage.
Jacob is a fourth-grader in Mr. Polhill’s class at Westwood Elementary School in Bloomington. He said his best friends are Mason, Carter, and Sam.
As far as drumming goes, he’s been doing that since the age of 2. Jacob has vague recollections of playing at a carnival at the age of 4. (His dad, Jason, thinks Jacob is remembering the McLeod County Fair.)
Jacob learned to play by listening to others a very common methodology in the Thiel family. “I was interested in hearing others play,” he said. “I wanted to try it.”
Typically, if Jacob can listen to a tune once, he can duplicate the necessary rhythm on the drums. When he plays, his entire body gets into the beat of the music. To Jacob, this is just the way it’s always been.
He shared that he has already been interviewed numerous times, and once even appeared on TV. He showed a video of his performance to his classmates. “They thought it was super-cool,” he remembered.
Jason said his son can typically pick up a new piece within a couple of musical measures, and so can his middle son, Noah. “I can hear myself in what Jacob plays,” Jason said. “I forget he’s the one back there.”
Currently, Jacob’s favorite subject is math, and he’s blown away many timed math tests already. He has a special interest in snap circuit boards. He wants to be an electrician when he grows up. “But I still want my part-time job as a drummer,” he said.
When Grandpa Chuck called Noah’s name from the stage, the boy scampered quickly for his own turn behind the drum kit. Noah said he learned his drum skills from watching and listening to his older brother and his dad. At this point, he plays along for a couple of songs at most gigs. The rhythm appears to flow naturally through him, too, according to his dad. His drumming is so good, it got the full house to sing along to John Denver’s “Country Roads,” at a gig Jan. 24 at B’s Bar & Grill in Lester Prairie.
Jason’s youngest son, Benjamin, comes along for most Jolly Rambler dates. There are toy vehicles scattered across the side of the stage, and a toy saxophone, trumpet, and other instruments are laid across the front.
Benjamin played contentedly with both types of toys, but gravitated toward the musical ones. When he played along with the Jolly Ramblers on his toy instruments, he played along to the exact rhythm.
Jason thinks Benjamin may some day perform as a singer. “He’s better at recognizing pitch,” he says of his 5-year-old.
The young boys’ dad, Jason, is a Lester Prairie High School graduate. He admits he got teased a bit during his school years about being a polka fan. He has adapted.
He, too, learned to play drums by listening to both recordings and live band concerts.
Jason was 8 when he first sang with the Jolly Ramblers. He still fulfills that role today, as well as playing drums, trumpet, and bass via the keyboard.
To Jason’s recollection, the Jolly Ramblers began playing for polka Masses in 1991.
He wanted people to know a polka Mass is not about congregants dancing in church aisles to the “Beer Barrel Polka.”
“We’re just taking the place of the organ for that service,” he explained. “Kind of like Martin Luther taking bar songs and turning them into hymns.”
Jason said many people do assume he intends to take over the Jolly Ramblers when his dad decides to retire. That is not true. “I’m not going to take it over,” he insists. “I have no interest.” He said he doesn’t enjoy the business side of being in a band.
He does have hopes that his sons may step in at some point in the future. “It’s fun to see the kids getting into it now,” he said.
Chuck was an English teacher in Lester Prairie for 25 years. He then provided music therapy at hospices for another 10 years. He has seen the power of music first-hand.
“Even people with severe dementia will respond,” he said. “People could be dying, but their foot would still be tapping.”
Chuck’s father Albert, (that would be generation one) got a kazoo for Chuck when he was very young.
Chuck said he’d sit by his father and play along to the music on his kazoo. He realizes his father must have been exceptionally patient to listen to many hours of kazoo accompaniment. That, and Chuck said, Albert just loved music.
As the youngest child in his family, Chuck often tagged along with his dad on gigs. He played drums by ear, just like his dad.
Chuck said it took him approximately 30 minutes to understand and play the concertina.
He also claimed to be able to play the concertina behind his head, but admits he doesn’t tell people that very often.
He distinctly remembers making the choice to quit high school basketball, because he could make serious cash playing music, instead. He could make up to $15 per night back in the late 1960s.
Chuck is sometimes nostalgic for the good old days when the band would fill venues such as Glencoe’s Pla-Mor Ballroom with polka fans. He knows those days are done, and has changed the band’s set list to reflect this. The Jolly Ramblers play a little bit of most musical genres now, and do take requests.
Chuck is very vague about his retirement plans. Right now, he said, nodding at his three grandsons, “They’re the reason I keep doing it.”
Catching the Ramblers
The Jolly Ramblers stay quite active with jobs around the state. Their contact information, history, albums, and other information can be viewed at the band’s website, which was launched in January.
There is a link to the Jolly Ramblers website on the Herald Journal’s home page this week: www.herald-journal.com.