COLE CAMP — Folks with a full belly and a beer in their hand probably aren’t the toughest critics, but the 22nd annual Sangerfest German music festival didn’t merely pass muster with the usual suspects on Saturday at the Jaycee Gardens in downtown Cole Camp. It also earned praise from two young ladies visiting from Grasberg, near Bremen, Germany.
“It’s good, yes,” Annika Struss said of the Cole Camp choral singers’ pronunciation of German words.
“Really good,” added her sister, Corinna.
The Strusses were in town visiting their cousins, the Stellings, and they felt at home at Sangerfest. (And they were a bit of an attraction themselves. Several festival-goers stopped by their table to put their Deutsch to the test.)
Although the songs were mostly from the early to mid-19th century, when Cole Camp was settled by Germans, the Struss sisters recognized many of them.
“We have clubs and sometimes festivals,” where Germans keep their traditional music alive, Annika said.
The number of people keeping classic German tunes alive in Missouri is much smaller, but no less passionate. Ehren Oncken, 29, is one of those dedicated musicians. He has been playing with the Hermann-based Loehnig German Band — which performed on Saturday after the choirs were done — since he was 8.
“We’re losing the German heritage a lot in small communities,” said Oncken, who plays bass and accordion. “I take pride in it. I enjoy German music. It’s what’s anchored me to the German heritage.”
Hermann, like Cole Camp, was founded by Germans.
“They thought the hills looked a lot like Germany, and it was great for wine,” Oncken said.
“It was settled by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia, in December 1836, to preserve the German culture, language and customs,” said singer Terry Loehnig.
However, the town doesn’t have a festival specifically about German music, which is part of why the band loves Sangerfest, where it had played before.
“I think its right up there,” Loehnig said when asked where Sangerfest ranks among Missouri German festivals. “They do very well singing the German.”
Sangerfest organizer Neil Heimsoth said it helps that the singers in the Cole Camp choirs have been doing it for so long.
“We’ve been doing it for 22 years, so we have that to our advantage,” Heimsoth said. “You get used to it.”
Neil’s wife, Marilyn, said the singers spend about three weeks working on pronunciations before the first rehearsal of the year’s program. (In addition to hosting Sangerfest, the Cole Camp men’s, women’s and mixed choirs travel to other German festivals throughout the year.)
Knowing the meanings of the words isn’t crucial, but it helps. Heimsoth, who served as the festival’s emcee on Saturday in addition to singing in the men’s and mixed choirs, shared the plot of each song by way of introduction.
“Not all of us (understand each word), but while we’re practicing it, we try to explain what the words mean, so it has a little bit more meaning to the people singing it,” he said.
Sangerfest might not be a carbon copy of Germany from 180 years ago. For example, Saturday’s songs were sung in high German, but the area’s settlers actually spoke low German. Also, there weren’t red Solo cups back then, and settlers probably didn’t drink Bud Light.
However, it’s the spirit that counts, and Sangerfest has that in droves.
“I just enjoy the music,” Oncken said. “The stuff they sing sounds real nice. They do a great job with it.”