Longtime Bemidji resident, teacher, performer brings his talents to promoting, producing shows
BEMIDJI — Mike Tangen is just a guy from Grand Forks, who has made it “big time” in Bemidji, sort of like “Cheers,” a place where everybody knows his name.
And it’s not only because he is a retired Northern School teacher of the famed “Mike and Maggie” duo who paved the way for entertaining and teaching children at the same time.
Or it could be from playing folksy music and acoustical string along with Judy Lunseth and Ron Arsenault at the old Union Station.
Well, it is all of the above, and that passion to bring musicians and happy audiences together that describe Mike Tangen.
And that’s just what Tangen will be doing when he brings in the band Monroe Crossing, a bluegrass band set to perform Saturday at the Chief Theater in Bemidji.
The early years
If you could find the neighbors from years ago, they’d tell you that the Tangen family was a musical lot; someone was always playing one instrument or another.
“My mom, Helen, was an exceptional piano player; she played “Kitten on the Keys,” boogie woogie style,” Mike said. “Dennis, my dad, played the clarinet Dixieland style. They’ve been married 67 years and call Bemidji home.”
In addition to musical parents, Mike’s siblings also had an ear for music. His brother Steve plays the trombone and introduced him to jazz, he said, while his sister Laurel went on to get her degree in music and jazz studies and started a school in Idaho. Another brother, David, who is now deceased, also played trombone and was a vocalist, Mike said.
The family would play together and I have fond memories of that,” he said. Tangen was surrounded by music from a young age and people told him that music came “easy to him.” Tangen started the guitar in middle school and played French Horn in a church band.
Tangen played guitar in folk groups and local coffee houses, forming friendships with players from around the area, including Bemidji and Fargo, he said. He graduated from Grand Forks Central in 1967 and attended UND on a music scholarship. He wanted to major in music theory, but that wasn’t available at UND, so he enrolled in secondary school music education with a vocal emphasis. But since that wasn’t really what he wanted, he said he dropped out of school for awhile and went on the road to perform. However, he became acutely aware that he would never make it “big time.” He also did not like the lifestyle that goes along with being an “on-the-road musician.” So he decided to return to UND to finish the degree and tack on an elementary education degree, as well
“Tom Clifford was president of UND and a wonderful man” Tangen said. “I was having a little problem getting into the program and he helped me out. He told me to get my papers together and figure out what to do and then come back to see him and ‘we’ll see what we can do.’ I repeat he was a wonderful, caring man….influential in my life and very understanding.”
Tangen started his teaching career in East Grand Forks and then moved back to North Dakota, where he taught at several Grand Forks elementary schools, and was even the president of Grand Forks Education Association for a time. Tangen’s future wife, Shannon, was finishing up her degree in physical therapy at UND at the time, he said.
“I always used music as an incentive (in the classroom) and if we needed to make up a little bit of time, I could pull out the guitar,” said Tangen. “I also used it as an educational tool.”
‘Mike and Maggie’
After moving to Bemidji, Mike recalled the story of how “Mike and Maggie” came to be.
At Northern School, administrators and teachers wanted to celebrate the students for their good behavior.
“Someone said, ‘Why don’t we get Maggie Carlson the kindergarten teacher and Mike Tangen the fourth-grade teacher to sing for the kids?,’” he said.”We got together and swapped ideas and put on a little show for the kids; everyone was enthusiastic and our principal was bragging to the other principals about us. So, the next thing I know, we were touring the school district. We both believed that music was very important in teaching young children and we pretty much stuck to the heartbeat rhythm where it starts slow, builds up in the middle and then tapers down again.”
Soon others, including the former owners of the Melody Shop in downtown Bemidji, Pat and Don Campbell, the duo was asked why they didn’t record their own music, he said.
“The audiences were asking for product, and we were lucky to have Gary Burger in the area so we recorded a couple of different cassette tapes. We went out to Burger’s home — in those days we were taping in his bedroom and he was recording in the living room; that’s before he built his studio,” he said. “We made two major changes at that point, Carlson put down her guitar and worked on movements to go with the songs and we picked up bassist Gary Broste who was willing to make animal sounds, and move his body and added a lot of harmony. Coincidentally, our two oldest two boys were in the kindergarten when we started, and we kept playing together until our daughters were in high school.”
“Mike and Maggie” recorded two albums, the first “Mike & Maggie: Music for Children” came out in 1987. The second was titled “Animal Tracs: Gnu Songs for Ewe,” and the duo continued to perform throughout the region.
Bringing music to others
In the later years, the allure of bringing live music to audiences, a longtime goal, became his main focus at eMTee Productions. Tangen is devoting his music talents and life to now — as promoter/producer of live concerts, primarily at the Chief Theater, for jazz. bluegrass, country, western and Celtic, with a little gospel thrown in for good measure.
Next up is Monroe Crossing, a bluegrass band who practically “cut their teeth” on Bemidji audiences. The band dresses up and play in the style of Bill Monroe, one of the best known mandolin players of 1930s and considered by many to be the father of bluegrass.
“It’s just plain hard work and dedication,” said Lisa Fuglie, fiddle and lead singer. “We all share a love for bluegrass music and for performing on stage. We appreciate every audience, large or small and (we) understand that we’re there for them, not the other way around.”
“There really is a lot of work on the front end in producing,” said Tangen, “but there is that feeling when you see people after the show — when everybody is happy, audience smiling and humming a little bit and the band is packing up, that’s where I get the biggest kick out of it.
“There is a great feeling of accomplishment when you see live music in your hometown.”
If you go:
What: Monroe Crossing, a Bluegrass band.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Historic Chief Theater, downtown Bemidji.
Tickets: $20 at Kelsey’s Jewelry, Overbeek’s Music, Brigid’s Pub.