Adam Popovich, Serbian-American Tamburitza Musician and National Heritage Fellow, was 76 years old when interviewed by Robert Atkinson in 1985.
The enthusiasm, and the same environment that I had as a child are not prevalent now. So many diversifying activities, and different kinds of music can take a teenagers thoughts, and feelings, and judgments away in different directions. But you got to keep working with it.
It’s a voluntary choir, sixty-five kids, and they come when they wish. If this was attendance that you had every week the same way, then you could accomplish something. You could innovate, you could progress. This way you’re stymied. But you got to keep hanging in there. You got to put your whole body and soul in it. The primary reason that I’m staying with the choir, the history of it, the soul of it.
I’d like to let it go, and spend more time with my grandchildren, and on something like my metal sculpture. But because of my kids, and my family, I don’t. If you want something, you got to suffer with it. That’s the name of the game.
The reward, of course, is when they get on stage, like they did in Oakland. What they did for that colony of people over there is just mind-boggling, because they never had anything like that, they’d never heard anything like that in their lives. Not where it would concern Serbian music, you know. You can go down and hear a symphony or a top band anytime in the city, but to hear a group of kids that are born here that don’t know the Serbian language, and are not musicians, to hear them perform a good performance, it’s something else. Plus, the kinship that they feel for each other.
Just like each other ethnic group, you’re trying to survive with a certain identity, and a link with the past. That’s what makes it so profound.
My parents came here in 1902, to look for a better place to live, greener pastures. Of course you know the stories of those early days of the 20th century, that the streets of America were paved with gold, and that there was a lot of work here. It was a great place to live. So they came looking for it like everybody else.
They were married here. He was a coal miner, and they were living in Denver, Colorado at that time. Denver was like a hub for the Serbs. They saw each other like each other, and got married.
They were very transient. My dad worked in different mines all over Wyoming, Colorado, and Arizona. He even helped build a railroad through Missouri into Colorado.
Mother had sixteen kids in all. Three of us were born in Denver, one was born in Utah, one was born in Nevada, one was born later on in Colorado. The last one was born in Pueblo in 1928. My mother should have had a medal. She died in ‘57.
When we were growing up, they always talked about the old country, always. That was the entertainment. What the hell, there was no radio in those days.
I remember from 1916 on, when I was only 7 years old. I remember it vividly. My father worked at the mines. After he’d come home, he’d lay down, and we’d all gather around him. He told us about the heroic tales from Serbian history. It was a way of life, you see.
My mother taught us to sing folk songs. She taught herself to read and write. My father never did. He left home before he even got a good start to grammar school.
They couldn’t speak English at that time, so that’s what went on in the house. I learned how to speak Serbian and how to write Cyrillic before I went to grammar school. I’ve known it all my life.
So what they did after work, they’d come home every night, and they would sing. My father, and his relatives, and cousins, they’d sing far into the night. The next day they’d go down underneath the ground and work again.
And they had very little money. They had to scrape up the last bit of the house money to buy us the instruments when we started playing.
But we know how to sing all right. They gave us a very good start. As soon as we were able to talk we were taught how to sing. Really, it was that early.
None of us ever went to high school. Things were too tough with that many kids. We didn’t have the money to go to high school with. College was out of the question. We didn’t see any of our kids go to college until the grandchildren came.
My brothers and I first started performing together in 1924,1925. A young fella came from the east, from Chicago, out to the coal mines, with the idea of organizing a group of young people. He taught orchestras out here, beginners orchestras. See tamburitza, that was a rare thing way back then. There weren’t very many orchestras, except some stranglers that came from Europe, but very few young ones. So this guy made a living teaching young orchestras.
My mother jumped at the chance, and borrowed some money to pay for the lessons. It didn’t take very long. It was about one year when we were on the program at the West Theatre in Trinidad, Colorado. You see, his musical knowledge was limited, he could teach us fundamentals for about a year. By that time we knew about as much as he did. Lucky thing we continued, because I was taking violin lessons then, too. That helped me learn a little bit more. From there on, I studied by myself.
We toured all the western states. One time, in 1927, on the way to Rocky Ford, in southern Colorado, to perform at a Rotary function there, we had a flat tire. We were about 20 or 30 miles away. We didn’t have a jack, and we didn’t have a spare tire. It was a borrowed car, anyway. And they were wondering what happened to us, so they came out with two cars looking for us. We sitting on the fender, actually, fooling around and singing “Highways are Happy Ways.”
We came out here in ‘28. We were on tour, en route to the east, and stopped here and never went farther. This was the only place in the country you could get a job in the steel works. That was the first thing we did, was look for a job so we could help my dad through the depression. He had a house full of kids. He was working one day a week, and that prevented him from getting relief. So, I worked there for 41 years. We also played odds and ends, played for weddings sometimes $10, all five of us.
None of us were full time musicians. My youngest two brothers, and the oldest brother, they were all iron workers, bridgemen. My brother Ted, he worked in the steel works for about 20 years, then he went to drive a beer truck for Blue Ribbon, until he got a heart attack. He got it in ‘77, and so did I. Then he had to retire, I retired in ‘76, a year before I got mine.
My brothers and I joined the Serbian Signing Society “Sloboda,” here, in 1928. There was a fella directing the choir then, he was an eminent pianist, and a Czech musician. He coached me after choir. And he would makes dates for me to meet him down in certain churches in the Hyde Park area, and he would coach me on composition and counterpoints and harmony, which was a big help. The I picked it up on my own from there on.
But I’m not gonna tell you, that was a hard thing to do. Playing every week end, choir in the evening, and working every day. How many times I’ve played for a New Year’s eve dance, and then go right from the job to work.
That was just before the depression, during it, and after it, too. Maybe one guy owned an automobile, he would take four or five guys. The rest of us would have to scrape up money to go on a street car to where we were playing. It was tough. But it was enjoyable.
I remember we had fun. We did. A whole bunch of us would go looking for work every morning. We sometimes played 500 rummy all night, and then would go out from one plant to another. It was useless, but we went. And we had a hell of a time while we were doing it.
One guy owned a model T Ford. We’d all pile in it and go downtown. Sometimes, after we looked for a job in the employment office, then we’d go through the plants like Swifts or Armour. They were at that time very big outfits.
We kept ourselves very active, so that it had no mental effects on anybody. The frustrating part was father and mother, who had to feed us.
But as I say, we had occasional jobs here and there. It helped a little bit. We squeezed through it.
I was laid off in 1930 at the Wisconsin Steel Mill plant and didn’t get back on the job til 1935. I was out for five years. Nothing. That’s a lot of hours.
I didn’t take over the choir until 1937. Then I had to step in, and of course I had to keep getting new stuff to keep their interest high, to keep it running.
Three of my brothers went off to the war. Two of them went early, to the South Pacific, and my older brother went into the corps of engineers and went off to training school and then he went into the OSS, and he became very famous for saving American flyers. He was 220 pounds, almost a giant. He had over 150 parachute jumps. The he went into the CIA. After that, in 1951, he went all over the world. He went to China. He was one of the guys that got General Wainwright out of China.
The other two, well, one of them came back with a bad stomach, the other one had malaria off and on all his life coming back. He died in ‘74, the other one died in ‘76.
My brother Ted and I worked in the steel works. We had very important jobs in the mechanical department, so we were exempt.
In ’43, Ted and I played in front of the Apollo Theatre for the opening of the “Chetniks” movie. There were three other choirs, Northside choir, our choir, and the Gary choir that sang with the group. People crowded around, and with the excitement, you know, and the bally ho, and all that, the music was kind of wasted on the desert air. But as a manifestation of sorts, it was a big thing. And then we sang for many and varied world war bond rallys.
In ‘47, we took a three year leave of absence from the choir, because we opened a tavern on the east side. Called it Club Selo, and it became sort of a legend among our people. Serbians, east and west, stopped there. We played there three nights a week. It was quite a live wire place.
And that took up all of our time. I was working in the steel mill, tending bar, and playing weekends on top of it. So I couldn’t handle the choir at that time. I came back to that in 1950.
I have two daughters, ten years apart. They’re both school teachers. I’ve got grandsons. It never did bother me, not having a son.
My daughters both studied piano. The both became very fine piano players. Piano players is an odd way of saying it. They weren’t pianists, per say, because they didn’t continue. The could have been, both of them, very good, after ten years. But each, in turn, after they got married, that was the end of it. Now they’ve got to insist on their kids to practice. None of them play tamburitza. They all love it, but they don’t play it.
My brothers and I, and the choir, went to the inauguration of Eisenhower in 1957. We drove there, the whole choir, 70 of us, and the tamburitza orchestra, in two buses. In those days, buses weren’t so hot. We broke down on the highway, in the dead of winter. It was cold.
We played for the international evening just before the inauguration. I know Nixon was there, Eisenhower wasn’t. But we had the senators and the congressmen, and the whole group of ‘em out in the lobby of that big hotel dancing the kola, something they never did. And of course, the choir just knocking ‘em dead, cause they were in top shape at that time. That was a highlight.
Another was the Bicentennial here, 1976, when we had our choir, which was almost 100 voices, and the Milwaukee choir, which was about 65. We sang in Orchestra Hall as part of the Chicago Symphony. That was quite something.
We still keep the traditional holidays. Serbs, each family has a patron saint day. It goes all the way back to when they first accepted Christianity. And depending on what saints day they accepted, they celebrate that day every year. Ours is Saint Nickolas on December 19. So we celebrate that in as much splendor, and with food and what not, as Christmas.
That continuity with the past is what it’s all about. And that’s why it get tougher. You see, each generation loses a little bit along the way. It’s being usurped by the environment and the world as it goes so fast. There are so many things that keep drawing the kids away, you know. They want to come, but there’s still something. Like, you say, “Where were you?”
And they say, “Oh, the high school had a basketball game.”
So, where’s your loyalty going there? You see, basketball games, and a million other entertainment things that follow. Plus the idiot box there. It poisoned the whole damn world. Really, it’s a great thing, but it’s also as much of a bain as it is a boon.
Same thing applies now to our orchestra. As we play, we play more according to what the songs were 50 years ago, the folk songs and everything, than any other orchestra does.
But this is dying out, too. You see, modern tamburitza orchestras are acquiring more and more music from the old country, and it’s becoming more and more, should I say, westernized, in that a lot of the music is night club music, a different pattern, a different mood. It doesn’t have the heart and soul that real nitty-gritty Serbian, or Slavic – they’re very close – songs do.
Some of the songs are very haunting. And they’re all very melancholy, or they could be happy and melancholy at the same time.
With a bunch of kids, it really gets to be pretty hairy. They really try your patience, although they are on the whole a very beautiful group of people. We never had a calamity, a social calamity. We’ve never had a blow-up of any kind, in any of these 60 years.
You got to learn to bend up backwards 90% of the time. They say every guy in over 90% of his life, he does the thing he has to do that he doesn’t want to do, and about 10% of his life is trying to do the things he’d like to but can’t. Really.
Right now, I’m in limbo. I’ve got next summer’s programs to organize yet and arrange for. I got so many things happening.
I am not a musician only. It takes a lot of concentration to do the metal sculptures. I would like to get back to doing a few of those. I still have a lot of ideas, and a lot of material to do those, and still a lot of relatives who have not been, ah, endowed by one of gifts, although I got them in nearly all of my nephews and nieces homes, but there are still a few bases to touch.
So sometimes I do that, and I do a lot of drawing. I do all the posters for the choir. I got a million of those things that I’ve done. It all takes a lot of work.
And as much as it helps you, it also takes away from your other work. When I would like to do the iron work, that takes away my desires to do more music work. If I did nothing but music, I’d sit at that piano and I’d keep writing, I’d keep composing and arranging. But I have all the other interests, too.
I don’t have as much energy as I should have. I’m a very lazy person now in my old age. I don’t do as much arranging and I don’t do as much researching as I used to. But my enthusiasm, when I’m working with the choir and when I’m playing, that has never waned, because while I’m doing it, I do it with the same fervor I did when I was a kid. I guess that keeps me going.
I’ve discovered as you get older that you’re not as spry, that your patience grows a little thin, and you’re more sensitive to a lot of things.
We played til 2 o’clock the other night. And when we play at Rafter’s, we play til 3. By then, I’m not back to normal til about Wednesday, really. I get back from there about 4 o’clock, I buy a Saturday paper and I read til almost 6 o’clock before I can fall asleep. Cause you get all wound up, you know, playing, and with the people you see, the excitement of it.
Nothing is more enjoyable that when you’re playing in a house full of people that absolutely enjoy it. And you can feel that. In fact, on stage, when the choir is in its top form, and you reach the audience, it becomes electrical, you know. You can feel them. You can feel what you’re doing, and it’s right. That’s the sheer enjoyment of it.
If I had it to do all over again, I’d go back over the same road. I never went past 8th grade in grammar school. I went to the 8th grade twice. I was a rambunctious student. I played hookey most of the time. I didn’t have any trouble learning my lessons, I just wasn’t there. But I would go over the same route again.
A lot of people said, “Well, too bad you didn’t go away to college, or to a conservatory and become a professional musician in the outer world.”
But it just never pleased me. I would go the same way. If I had done that, then I wouldn’t have been among the people, I wouldn’t have been among the choir, I would have been separated from them. The family, the friends, that is the biggest thing in my life.
I never made a lot of money in my life. I spent 41 years in the steel works, but I was never money oriented. I never sold a single one of my metal sculptures. That didn’t interest me, and I wouldn’t.
If I were to be remembered for something, I guess just being friendly to everybody. In my youth, I was quite a clown, always horsing around and making people laugh, and feel good. That, and a couple of the Serbians compositions that I did. I hope that they will live on.
This is my 76th year, what more could anybody ask for longevity? I’m satisfied that I’m in fairly good health right now. I have no aspirations of any high falooting goals so I bide my time trying to do as much as I can for my kids, and helping other people at times, and things like that.