Hidden in the hills, and living larger than life, Joni Welda marches to her own tune

Diana Hammell/The Caledonia Argus  Welda breaks out a romping Irish jig with incredible style.

Diana Hammell/The Caledonia Argus
Welda breaks out a romping Irish jig with incredible style.

By Diana Hammell

The Caledonia Argus

 

Joni Welda, who lives on a farm between La Crescent and Hokah,  has been playing the violin for 54 years.

Although the violin has been a large part of this concert-trained musician’s life, her life is larger than her musicianship, her horse riding and training abilities and her veterinary technician capabilities. It’s larger than her border collie training skills, her farm and farmhouse renovation work and her fiber artistry.

Well, her life is simply large.

 

Hal Leonard Band

Welda is originally from Winona. Her father was one of the founding fathers of the Hal Leonard Publishing Company.

It started as a musical band that played for years in vaudeville across the country.

“The Hal Leonard Band started in 1939 where they played ballroom gigs, which were where all the big bands played in those days,” Welda said. “They worked their way all over the country and often opened for bigger bands like Lawrence Welk. In 1941, they were featured in Billboard Magazine as one of the hottest new bands in the country.

“Then the war started. The three founders were my dad, Roger Busdicker; Ev Edstrom; and Harold Edstrom. The other band members came and went, but they were usually a 10-peice band. The name “Hal Leonard” came from  Harold’s nickname, Hal, and Ev’s middle name, Leonard.

“After the war, in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, they started the Edstrom music store, and then the Hal Leonard music company in 1947. In 1949, they moved forward into music publishing, and the rest is history,” Welda said.

The Hal Leonard publishing company was the largest publishing company in the world when her father and his partners sold it and still is today.

There are still branches in Japan and the United Kingdom and about 100 important international distributors in nearly every country in Europe as well as in Israel, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Hong Kong, Malasia and Korea. They publish music in 13 different languages.

A book about Hal Leonard was published in 2007 to honor Hal Leonard’s 60th year.

 

Engelbert Humperdinck and The Beatles

As a kid, with her dad being in the business, the family entertained the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck, Herb Alpert and the  manager for The Beatles.

When such company was in the house, Welda and her sisters would have to do a piano or organ recital to entertain the guests. When she was old enough to play the violin, they would entertain. One of Welda’s sisters became an opera singer and is now a retired music teacher. Welda’s other sister played in a band as a younger person.

Welda began playing the violin at 5 years of age.

“We had a music program in the middle school and I took private lessons first for awhile and then at school,” she said.

Actually, Welda had two passions: music and horses. She’s been a horse trainer and rider for 34 years. For years, her primary income came from her profession as an instructor and trainer,  primarily in dressage and hunters and jumpers.

“I also jockeyed for the track,” Welda said.

When she graduated from Northwestern University School of Music, she continued to play the violin while training horses and giving riding lessons.

Welda has two boys, and when she was raising them she played with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and sang with the Universty of Wisconsin, Madison choir and with the Madison Savoyards, a music troupe that performs Gilbert and Sullivan music exclusively.

After moving to this area, she played with The Rochester, Winona, University of Wisconsin and La Crosse symphonies, as well as working as adjunct faculty at Viterbo. She has always loved playing, but never wanted to teach the violin.

 

Music and horses and veterinarians, oh my

There was a period before the boys were born when the horse business wasn’t providing enough income, so Welda went to Madison Area Technical School to become a veterinary technician.

“I still managed to teach riding lessons during the evenings, coach at horse shows on weekends and perform in concerts,  whatever the weekend brought,” she said.

Sometimes it was music, or sometimes it was horses or both, but whatever came, Welda continued to do it all. She continued the vet tech work for about 18 years.

When she lived in Madison, she also did some jockeying for a couple of trainers, breaking out thoroughbred long yearlings for the race track. She had many riding students in Madison, and here in this area she developed clientele of 80 students with 10 to 12 of her own training horses.

 

Celtic music

Fiddling, on top of her concert schedule and other commitments, would precipitate a big change in her life.

Welda became interested in and studied Irish fiddling for two years before playing it in public. Welda found that the hardest thing about learning Irish style fiddling was not having music in front of her. Now she can listen to a tune and come out and play it.

“The Irish hear a tune at a pub or at a dance, listen to it and then play it,” Welda said. “That’s where most of the interpretation comes from; it changes from one to the next to the next. That’s how the Irish and Scottish tunes were learned. You can have several tunes that sound the same that have different names, and then you’ll have tunes that have the same name that have totally different sounds and that’s all due to the interpretation. That’s fun for the artist. For someone who is creative, you play what you feel. Just because someone does it one way doesn’t mean that it’s the only way.”

For those who would enjoy Celtic or bluegrass style music in an original setting, opportunities to listen are available locally.

“Every Wednesday night there are Irish sessions starting at 8 p.m. at Houghton’s in La Crosse,” Welda said. “The vocalists come at 10. I’ve made lots of great friends and have learned a lot from all those people.”

Welda has hundreds and more songs in her head and a lot of them she learned at Houghton’s.

“You never know who will be there. There are a lot of people who bring their instruments and they just show up from all parts of the country.”

 

Father, Son and Friends

In 2006, Father, Son and Friends, a Celtic band out of Dayton, Ohio, came to La Crosse to play at Condordia Ballroom. Three of the band members, Joey Hall (father), Shawn (son) and drummer, Randy Bloom, flew out of Dayton on an early flight, while their fiddle player never made it out of the Dayton airport because of a blizzard.

Upon reaching La Crosse, they asked around if there was a good Irish fiddler in the area.

“Oh, you need to call Joni,” they were told.

“I was at a horse show when the call came,” Welda said, “but as soon as I returned, off went the boots, shirt and breeches and I went to Concordia.”

Three fellows in kilts approached her; they worked through a quick practice of what pieces Welda knew that they knew and they proceeded to put on a three-hour concert.

“It was such fun,” Welda said.

After the concert, Welda was asked if she would like to join the band and she said OK.

“The biggest difficulty was distance – they had to fly me everywhere because their venues were in Dayton and the east – New York, the Carolinas,” Welda said. They would fly her out on a Thursday night, pick her up at the Dayton airport and take her out to where they were playing, then on Sunday put her on a plane to La Crosse so she could go to work on Monday. At the same time, she was doing a lot of local playing at festivals, re-enactments, weddings, funerals – that kind of gigging. At that point, she was doing music full time and doing horses in the after hours.

FS&F never really had a fiddler that did Celtic music before Welda, and she had a classical background, so they were on the road 37 weekends out of a year.

“We did three CDs and a ton of stuff, but two years ago, my body broke down. I literally fell apart. I couldn’t move my neck or back; I had pain all over and was in very poor shape.”

On top of all the other symptoms, Welda has developed arthritis in five vertebrae. The last time she played with FS&F was two years ago at the La Crosse Irish Fest. It was heartbreaking for her to quit.

 

Recovery

A lot has happened in the past two years. Although Welda can’t ride horses anymore, she can still teach, and she has started playing the violin again. She went through every kind of therapy there is available – including strain, counter strain and miofacial release  – but the biggest thing she needed was to wind down from the heavy schedule of playing and being on stage so much.

After undergoing a lot of therapy and not being able to play her violin for so long, on her own, Welda rigged up a contraption, using her violin stand and towels for padding, to lift and hold her arm so she could hold a violin without pain. With this, she could support her arm and thus hold up a violin.

Welda took her invention to her doctor, who gave her a referral to occupational therapy. They took her to their orthotic professionals who had a splint to help people with rotator cuff surgery, and they modified it for her. After four more trips for refittings, they fixed Welda up with something that would put all the weight of Welda’s arm and violin on her hip.

Now, being able to relax her back, she retaught herself to play. She plays with a local band, Fame Rochelle & the Waxwings, who play bluegrassy, Americana style music, and has done several CDs with them as well.

“It’s great to be back on stage again,” she said.

 

One thing leads to another

Weaving in and out of all that Welda did all this time, she always had dogs too. She got into training border collies and stock dogs in 1988. The collies got her into raising sheep and the sheep  engendered her interest in fibers.

She trained a lot of local dogs and also got into border collie rescue. She would place the rescued dogs on a farm, working with the farmer for a little bit, after putting 30 to 60 days of stock training on each dog.

Few dogs are as work-oriented as the border collie, she said; he’s a bundle of mental and physical energy that needs lots of activity every day to satisfy his quest for work. Dealing with the mental states these beautiful dogs can develop was exhausting for Welda.

“They’re bred to work and do something, but by the time I got them, they were so messed up in the head that I wasn’t sure how they going to come back. Physically, they could work, and they had the breeding, but their neuroses kept them from excelling,” she said.

Diana Hammell/The Caledonia Argus  Welda must always have a dog. When Jack, on the right, turned 10 years old, Welda brought Jill home. Both border collies are well trained cattle and sheep dogs. Jack is a veteran of many sheep dog trials.

Diana Hammell/The Caledonia Argus
Welda must always have a dog. When Jack, on the right, turned 10 years old, Welda brought Jill home. Both border collies are well trained cattle and sheep dogs. Jack is a veteran of many sheep dog trials.

She also trialed her own dogs at stock dog trials durng this time.

Welda now has 12 Katahdin sheep, which is a hair or meat breed, and they were bred to not require shearing.

“They’re like goats as far as their coats; they shed, and I have them just for pasture maintenance,” Welda said.

In the past, she did breeding with Border Leicesters, Suffolks and Cheviots while she was training her dogs. Using her own wool, and now wool she purchases from other venues, Welda makes beautiful rugs by braiding or locker hooking. These rugs decorate her turn-of-the century farmhouse, which she is restoring. She’s made just about everything decorwise in the house.

Welda’s farm and house are passions of hers. She and her husband, Jon, restored almost all the outbuildings, thanks to the great-granddaughters of the people who homesteaded the farm and supplied pictures of all the buildings, including the house, from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“Even though I feel that I’ve hit the pinnacle in all of my careers, I hope to be able to continue to play music and stay connected with all of my passions for another 54 years,” Welda said.

 

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