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ONAWA, Iowa | Dwight Lamb removed a vintage Hohner button accordion from a black book bag, inside the music room of his modest home in Onawa.

Seated on a sewing chair that once belonged to his mother, the 83-year-old Moorhead, Iowa native took the squeezebox, playing a brisk, festive tune that had been written by his Danish-born grandfather more than a century ago.

"I love the way this accordion sounds," Lamb said, critiquing his performance. "It plays real sharp because that's the way the music should sound."

A fourth-generation accordionist who is equally adept at playing the fiddle, he's been keeping a musical legacy alive.

Indeed, Lamb has devoted more than 60 years, playing and recording traditional Danish folk music while mentoring generations of regional and international students.

This is why he's one of only nine individuals to be honored with the 2017 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Since 1982, the NEA has given 422 National Heritage Fellowships. Lamb will be joining an exclusive club that includes such legendary recipients as blues guitarist B.B. King, bluegrass performer Bill Monroe and soul singer Mavis Staples.

In addition, he will become only the fifth Iowan to achieve this honor. The state's last National Heritage Fellow was Dorothy Trumpold, a rug weaver from East Amana, Iowa, who picked up the prize in 2001.

On Sept. 14, Lamb will receive a $25,000 check and be honored by the NEA during an awards ceremony at Washington, D.C.'s Library of Congress. He will be one of the performers in a concert at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium the next day.

This is all pretty heady stuff for Lamb, who learned to play accordion from his grandfather. 

"My grandfather (Chris Jerup) immigrated from Vendsyssel, Denmark to start a new life in America," Lamb said. "His father (Kraen Jerup) was already a famous musician in Denmark but my grandfather wanted to settle down and become a farmer in Iowa."

That didn't mean that Lamb's grandfather gave up folk music. After retiring, he moved in with the then 12-year-old Lamb and Lamb's parents.

"I had this wonderful opportunity to learn my grandfather's repertoire of Danish music," he said. "And I took full advantage of that opportunity."

By the time he turned 19, Lamb also began playing the same fiddle his dad originally purchased from a Montgomery Ward catalog when he was a teenager.

"I still have that fiddle," he said, removing the now century-old fiddle from its case. "It has some age on it but it plays fine for me."

Working in hardware stores as a young man, Lamb served a tour of duty in the U.S. Army before settling down to a 30-year career, working for the U.S. Post Office in Onawa.

But like his grandfather, Lamb could never give up the music that he loved.

Becoming a protege of Uncle Bob Walters, a legendary radio musician from Tekamah, Neb., he developed a distinct Missouri Valley form of fiddling that combined sounds of Scandinavia, Germany and the Upper Midwest.

After winning numerous fiddle and accordion contests, Lamb became a respected mentor to younger musicians, as well as a much in-demand recording artist for such prestigious labels as Rounder Records. 

That is, when he isn't playing numerous folk festivals throughout the United States.

But it wasn't until 2010 that he became a popular musician in Denmark.

"Even though Denmark was where my grandfather and great-grandfather were from, I had never been there before I did a music tour with (the popular Danish duo of) Jensen & Bugge," Lamb said. 

Teaching accordionist Mette Kathrine Jensen and violinist Kristian Bugge to play songs originally written by his grandfather, Lamb has had four successful musical tours through Denmark, including one that just ended in May.

"Everyone thought that this would be my last tour of Denmark," he said, shaking his head. "But I think I'll doing another one."

Which makes perfect sense since Lamb is introducing the music of his grandfather to a younger generation of folk music fans.

"They're teaching my grandfather's music in universities throughout Denmark," he said, smiling. "My grandfather would be so pleased to be remembered."

Chances are that Chris Jerup would also be pleased with the late-in-life popularity of his grandson.

"I'd like to think he'd be proud of me," the modest Lamb said with a shrug. "It would be nice to think he'd be."

Picking up his fiddle, Lamb plays a riveting version of "Coming Down from Denver."

"That's the first song I played on the fiddle as well as the toughest," he said. "I figured if you learned to play a hard song, the rest will come easy."

To be honest, Lamb can play the most difficult song in the world with the greatest of ease. He doesn't have to show all the discipline or the years it took to become a world class musician.  

At this point of his life, Lamb is content to simply show the passion and the beauty of folk music from a different time and a different land.

"There aren't too many people who play the folk music from Denmark," he said. "I want to keep it going for a while longer."


Food and Lifestyles reporter

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