A Mandolin Orchestra’s Labor Roots

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MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOCIETY: Albert Bellson with his music students in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul.

Former students said Bellson was formal and meticulous. He gave the Rondo girls lessons on mandolin, mandola, mandocello, guitar and bass guitar.

Italian immigrant Albert Bellson was considered Minnesota’s master mandolin player and teacher in the 1920s and ’30s, an era when big string orchestras were all the rage.

Despite his lofty stature, Bellson took time every week to walk from his downtown St. Paul instrument shop and music school to the Rondo neighborhood. That’s where he coached, cajoled and conducted a group of mostly African-American girls known as Taylor’s Musical Strings.

Former students said Bellson was quite formal, always wearing a suit and tie and taking meticulous care of his nails. He’d head over to Rondo to give the girls private lessons on mandolin, mandola, mandocello, guitar and bass guitar.

Today, mandolins are known mostly for adding the plinky sound to bluegrass music. Back then, they were classical instruments and more.

The girls’ “repertoire included J.S. Bach, Stephen Foster songs, Sousa marches, gospel tunes, and, when their elders were not listening, the blues,” according to Amy Shaw, an expert from St. Catherine University, who wrote a definitive story on the mandolin mania in Minnesota History magazine in 2001 under her married name, Amy Kreitzer (tinyurl.com/MNmandolins).

One of Bellson’s pupils, a young mandocellist named Evelyn Fairbanks, remembered how his style swung from subtle to animated — sometimes within seconds.

“He raised both hands chest-high with his elbows sticking out,” Fairbanks wrote in her 1990 book, “The Days of Rondo.”

“He looked at each of us, one at a time, to make sure he had our attention. Then he made the slightest movement with his baton and we started to play. …

“With his hands, his head, his winged arms, his facial expressions, and sometimes his entire body, he made us play the song the way he felt it should be played,” she recalled. “When he led us in one of Sousa’s marches, he created an entire parade for us to play for. And when we played the lullaby ‘Mighty Like a Rose,’ it seemed he almost fell asleep before we tiptoed to the final measure.”

Born Alfonso Balassone in 1897 near Salerno, he learned to play by the light of olive-oil lamps as a child in Italy. When his parents emigrated in 1906 to Rock Falls, Ill., they changed their name to Bellson. By 11, Albert was already teaching. Before he was 16, Bellson was serving as an agent from the instrument making Gibson Co. and had joined the American Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists, and Guitarists — a group of string musicians, publishers and manufacturers that promoted fretted instruments.

Giuseppe Pettine, a world-renowned mandolin virtuoso in Rhode Island, called Bellson his “most talented pupil” during his three years of study out East. Moving to St. Paul in 1920, he opened his Bellson School of Music in the Schiffmann Building on St. Peter and Sixth streets.

Along with lessons, he sold everything from Hawaiian guitars to ukuleles, accordions to tenor banjos. His school and shop would bounce around different downtown St. Paul locations over the years.

On stage, Bellson began to blossom as a classical mandolin soloist. He toured nationally in 1921 with his company’s sextet, the Original Gibsonians.

A reviewer in Salt Lake City called him “one of America’s premier artists.” And he wowed crowds at Guild conventions from Los Angeles to Toledo. He somehow found time to direct mandolin orchestras from 1925 into the ’40s. He married Vergel Vanzora, and she joined his nationally prominent quartet as a mandola player.

When he wasn’t playing Italian classical arrangements, Bellson was strumming banjos and ukuleles with his Bellson Hawaiian Serenaders. But by the late 1940s, mandolin orchestras began to fizzle out amid competition from recorded music and movies. Tastes changed, but a couple of his students still remember the mandolin maestro.

Scott Mateo Davies, a globe-trotting musician from Minneapolis, remembers first auditioning as an 11-year-old for Bellson. “He accepted me but only if I agreed to practice a minimum of two hours a day,” Davies said via e-mail from his current home in Guatemala. “As a sports-minded kid, this was a tough one, and my mother talked me out of it.”

In his mid-20s, Davies returned and studied under Bellson for a few months before the master’s death in 1977, at 80.

Until the end, Bellson wore a suit and tie and Davies always called him “Mr. Bellson.”

“I used to come early and stand outside his studio, listening to his practice,” Davies said. “He played slowly, very slowly, paying attention to how he shaped each note and each phrase. He made me play every piece at, minimum, half tempo and only gradually took it up to speed. A favorite saying of his was: ‘There is always time for the music.’

“I miss the man,” Davies said. “I greatly value my time with him, now more than ever.”

Another former pupil, Jeffrey Wachter, took lessons from Bellson in the 1970s — just like his grandfather did in the 1930s.

“He was a gifted musician, composer, teacher and arranger,” said Wachter, who cherishes a bootleg cassette tape of one of Bellson’s records.

“He was a sweet guy and very encouraging to a struggling mandolin student,” Wachter recalled. After his 90-minute lessons, which often went overtime, the student and teacher would chat about music and faith. This was decades after Bellson’s peak of popularity in the 1930s.

“When I met him, those days were well in the past and largely forgotten by most folks,” Wachter said. His approach to teaching mandolin was very classically minded and although my interest at the time was in bluegrass and folk, he forced me to learn to read music and for that I am grateful.”

Maybe because of his immigrant childhood, Bellson was never a snob when it came to teaching music. Whether it was the girls in Rondo, or an amateur such as Wachter, Bellson treated all of his students with respect.

“My mandolin playing was very cringe-worthy — and still is,” Wachter said. “But he was always gracious.”

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.

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