Peggy Lee’s work was influenced by this areaPeggy Lee — the glamorous, sophisticated jazz songstress even now remembered as one of the jazz greats — never forgot she was also Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota.
By: Kari Lucin, The Jamestown Sun
Peggy Lee — the glamorous, sophisticated jazz songstress even now remembered as one of the jazz greats — never forgot she was also Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota.
“I was born Norma Deloris Egstrom on May 27, 1920, in Jamestown, North Dakota, and I’m still growing up,” Lee wrote in “Miss Peggy Lee: An Autobiography” in 1989.
North Dakota is easy to find in Lee’s music — especially the pieces she wrote, but even some of the pieces she chose to sing. And in 1972, she even titled an album “Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota.”
“It definitely shaped who she was. It was a big part of her,” said Holly Foster Wells, Lee’s granddaughter.
Wells recalls Lee often spoke of a North Dakota work ethic, both having one herself and wanting other people to have one as well.
“She had very fond memories of (North Dakota), apart from some very difficult times as well,” Wells said, referring to Lee’s physical abuse by her stepmother, Min Schaumberg.
Lee wrote “One Beating a Day” about the experience for her biographical musical.
“Peg” included happier songs, too, some about her time in North Dakota, with lyrics by Lee and music by Paul Horner, published by Denslow Music Inc. and Cypress Tree Music.
In “That’s How I Learned to Sing the Blues,” Lee recounts working on the farm, plucking chickens, slicing bread in a hot kitchen, loading freight and milking cows.
“You may not believe me, sonny, I was good at makin’ money to keep myself in supper and new shoes, yeah … that’s how I learned to sing the blues,” Lee sings.
Wells remembers Lee talking about how she did things in rhythm when she worked on the farm as a child, and when she worked at the bakery, too.
“It shaped who she was,” Wells said.
There’s plenty of blues to be found on the prairie, or at least, Lee found it there.
“I remember the haunting sound of the whistle across the prairie, the smoke trailing behind — it sounded so lonely,” she says in the introduction to “Daddy Was a Railroad Man,” another song from “Peg.”
Wells has never been to North Dakota, although her family has visited the state several times. She plans to take a “Peggy Lee tour” and see some of the places where her grandmother learned to sing the blues.
“She talked about the North Dakota sky, and she talked about the prairie … she was this girl from North Dakota and had a rough childhood, no formal training, no music degree, no college background,” Wells said.
In “A Tribute to Peggy Lee,” a concert honoring Lee’s work slated for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Jamestown College Reiland Fine Arts Center, vocalist Stacy Sullivan, jazz pianist Jon Weber and bassist Steve Doyle will perform “The Folks Back Home.”
It’s a melancholy, affectionate tune originally written for “Peg,” though it wasn’t used.
“I think of the folks back home. Each time I see them, they’re so nice to me — they never change a bit, they’re still the folks back home,” the lyrics go. “And yes, I see them now and I remember lots of things, like the old railroad station and the schoolyard swings.
“And when that cold old wind would blow a blizzard, blowin’ snow around, it would cover all the houses ‘til we’d lose the ground — somewhere.”
“Folks” was written in 1983.
Earlier in her career, Lee had returned to North Dakota for a “statewide homecoming,” which was interrupted by a blizzard so severe it snapped telephone poles for 100 miles.
“Never mind the cold of the blizzard … it was a wonderful, warm reception,” Lee wrote in her autobiography. “I had just not realized that the people in North Dakota cared so much about their home grown girl singer.”
She never forgot her roots.
“Understand, I was, and still am, a girl from North Dakota, U.S. of A.,” Lee wrote.
Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at 701-952-8453 or by email at email@example.com