By Chris Gray
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Ah, October, perhaps the most glorious month for Houston weather. What better way to while away a cool afternoon in the sun than hoisting a few beers and listening to German song? These days the Germans seem like just another of the legions of ethnic groups hosting festivals, but in fact Houstonians have been knocking back the pilsner to Teutonic tunes ever since there was a place called Houston and even before. Long before there was a Greek Festival, a Cinco de Mayo, a St. Patrick's Day Parade or a Juneteenth, there were German song fests.
After all, as related by University of Houston German professor Theodore Gish, it was Germans who brought music here, at least in the form of organized concerts. Emil Heerbrugger, a German, was H-town's very first concert promoter, bringing to the Allen brothers' yellow-fever-racked village on the bayou a program of piano, violin and French horn in May 1840. Later that same year, a primordial predecessor of Racket's at the Houston Morning Star(the Republic of Texas's Leading Information Source) exalted Herr Heerbrugger as "the most accomplished musician that has ever visited the country" whose Orphic efforts "were as sweet and delightful as ever broke the slumber of mortals." No doubt that clip wound up in Heerbrugger's press kit for his next tour through town.
Through Houston's first half-century, until America entered World War I, Germans were the most visible and numerous European minority in town. One account has it that throughout those years, the bulk of Houston's middle-class tradesmen were of German origin. Street names like Binz and Studemont, landmarks like Hermann Park, and institutions like Settegast-Kopf funeral home and Hofheinz Pavilion attest even today to the historical German presence in the city. No fewer than 15 German-language newspapers have come and gone from the Bayou City media scene, one of which -- Texas Deutsche Zeitung -- was in continuous publication from 1873 until the wartime crackdown on "The Hun" in 1917.
Through war and peace, however, the Houston Sängerbund has survived. It has been in continuous existence since 1883, which makes it exactly as venerable a Lone Star institution as the University of Texas. The Sängerbund (German for "singing society") reached its zenith around the turn of the last century, when the Houston chapter hosted massive multiday song fests starring Sängerbunds from across the state and nation. The 1903 (or 1913, sources vary) Sängerfest saw the entire St. Louis Symphony chug into town, along with a diva or two courtesy of New York's Metropolitan Opera. Around that time, the Houston Sängerbund had over 1,000 members, but the two world wars since dampened American enthusiasm for all things German.
Now, according to current Sängerbund president George Wiesner, the group has 28 singing members. Generally speaking, Wiesner says, Germans are great "joiners," and he was no exception. Within a week of his arrival in Houston from Giessen, Germany, in 1956, Wiesner was blending his voice with those of the boys (and girls, as the choir integrated in 1937) of the bund. Today the Sängerbund owns Garden in the Heights, which the group uses as a practice facility and rents out as a concert hall. In addition to performing at Oktoberfest this October 12-14 and 20-21, they also regale audiences throughout the year at the Houston International Festival, Lights in the Heights and Faschhing (German Mardi Gras).
But it's not just German music that Wiesner hopes to share with Houston. "We do primarily German folk songs," he says. "And some religious songs, madrigals, patriotic songs, of course -- though most of those are in English. We also try to further German culture, further the German language. We're trying to preserve some German customs, particularly around Christmastime and so forth. German culture mixes pretty well with ours here, and so we're trying to hold on to some old customs."
Indeed it does mix well. In Houston, as with the rest of America, much of what the Germans contributed to the culture is so assimilated that it seems as American as "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet," as the old jingle ran. Of those four bastions of Americanism, two -- hot dogs and apple pie -- are German in origin. If we add hamburgers and potato salad, virtually all the sausage types sold here and the dominant styles of beer (lager, pilsner, bock), we find that bedrock American cuisine is far more German than British in origin. Christmas trees are German too, and Wiesner posits that the American concept of Thanksgiving has its roots in German Dankefests, or "thanks feasts," which are held in autumn to celebrate the harvest.
What isn't German per se is Oktoberfest and lederhosen and yodeling. That stuff is Bavarian, which is as distinct from mainstream German culture as rodeos, Western swing and cowboy duds are from mainstream U.S. folkways. It says something that for a festival to seem German in America today it must reflect a cartoonish version of a subculture. Otherwise, it likely wouldn't seem foreign enough. It is no exaggeration to say that Germans have not so much been assimilated into American culture as they have helped create it.