Memories of Mike and Maggie: Teachers-turned-'edutainers' brought joy to audiences of all ages
From 1985 until 2001, Mike Tangen and Maggie Carlson performed for audiences throughout the region. It all started when they both were teachers at Northern Elementary in Bemidji.
BEMIDJI — Mike Tangen and Maggie Carlson are grandparents in their 70s now, but the songs they brought to audiences of all ages still resonate some 22 years after they left the stage.
Mention the names Mike and Maggie and you might send a retiree into a quick chorus of “The Cat Came Back,” one of the most popular tunes the duo sang. That elderly gent might have grandchildren of his own now, but memories of concerts with his now-grown child still dance in his head.
From 1985 until 2001, Tangen and Carlson performed for audiences throughout the region and it all started when they were both teachers at Northern Elementary.
A fellow teacher suggested that they sing together at an assembly to reward students for good behavior. She knew that both were talented musicians with a knack for singing songs that helped children learn.
Northern Principal Jim Lahti enjoyed the concert so much that he told other Bemidji administrators about the duo.
“He wanted us to sing at every school in town so he could show off his teachers,” Tangen said with a grin.
Carlson added, “He got substitutes for us so we could go to every school.”
They didn’t rehearse much for that first performance.
“I had my song list and Maggie had hers,” Tangen said. “As the demand grew we got together and worked up some stuff.”
That stuff became so popular that the duo was in demand, not only in Bemidji, but all over the region. Eventually, they added bass player Gary Broste, whose son Phil was in the same grade as Tangen’s son, Adam, and Carlson’s son, Eric.
Although Broste added talent and humor to the group, he preferred to stay in the background.
“It got to the point where Gary was such a big part of the group that we thought his name should be included,” Tangen said. “He said ‘No, it's Mike and Maggie.’ But he was with us at every gig.”
Broste, who still plays bass regularly with Corey Medina and Brothers, said playing with Mike and Maggie gave him a different perspective on the impact of music.
“It was such a different thing for me because I would play weekends with blues bands and country bands, and then run off with Mike and Maggie," Broste recalled. "Sometimes we’d do a show for children and I’d get home in time to switch gears and go play at a bar. It was fun for me to get some insight from two teachers. It opened my eyes to just how music can really enhance education.“
Music in their blood
Tangen and Carlson were teachers first, but both enjoyed playing guitar and singing, especially for their growing families. Tangen and his wife, Shannon, have three children and seven grandchildren. Carlson and her husband, Dave, have two children and two grandchildren.
Tangen grew up in a musical family in Grand Forks, N.D. He taught music and started playing and singing there before moving to Bemidji in the 1970s.
“When I came here I had a couple of music friends who said 'If you don't use it you're going to lose it,'” Tangen said. “So I went to Union Station, auditioned and got hired to sing there. My first night I remember getting halfway through a (Gordon) Lightfoot song and forgetting the lyrics, and halfway through a (James) Taylor song and forgetting the chords. My friends were right. You have to play or it just goes away.”
It didn’t go away, and Tangen enjoyed performing with people like Judy Lunseth and Ron Arsenault. But with a full-time teaching job, two young children and another on the way, Tangen decided to leave the group.
“I was rolling in from gigs at three in the morning, and Shannon was taking care of the kids,” Tangen said. “I just really got tired of the bar scene.”
Music also was part of Carlson’s life from a young age. She grew up in Wichita, Kan., and sang in high school, at talent shows and coffee shops. One summer during college, she got a job at a resort in the Brainerd area, where she would sing at cocktail hour.
“On weekends they had a professional come in and I would sing with him,” she said.
Blending their talents
That first Mike and Maggie performance at Northern Elementary created a spark that lasted for 16 busy years.
“There is something that happens where the kids respond so positively to live music,” Tangen said.
Carlson added, “It was magical when we would have a whole school sing ‘This Pretty Planet’ in rounds. It was just like, wow.”
Once on a fellow teacher’s birthday, Tangen said he and Carlson would entertain all the students so the staffers could have cake and coffee.
“We had 400 kids with no supervision,” Tangen recalled, “and the (physical education) teacher kept poking his head in to check on us, and there was no misbehavior.”
That’s because the children were enthralled with the music, the movements and the antics of the duo (and Broste). The group recorded two cassette tapes titled "Mike and Maggie: Music for Children" and "Animal Tracs: Gnu Songs for Ewe."
“There was a feeling in town that we were the first and only children's musicians,” Tangen said. “With Maggie and I doing live concerts, that was a chance for parents to bring kids to a performance where they learned behavior and applause.”
The music also inspired a number of Bemidji youngsters to become musicians.
“People like Lance Benson, Eric Carlson and Brian Miller started hearing and watching in kindergarten,” Tangen said, “and I really do think that one of our influences was ‘if they can do it, I can do it.’”
Carlson remembers being approached in recent years by a teenage boy with purple, spiked hair.
“He came up to me and went, 'Maggie, you were the first live music I ever heard, and now I play rock and roll,'" Carlson recalled. "That's so cool.”
An impact on families
Tangen retired from the Bemidji school district in 2008, and Carlson retired in 2011 after finishing her teaching career at Bemidji State. The pair now mainly sing at home with kids, grandkids and friends.
But they have such fond memories of their time on stage, watching as children and adults delighted in the songs they performed.
“We were a visual group," Tangen said. “The quality in our performance was really in the interaction with the audiences. I think if we would have tried to sell ourselves using the cassette tapes we were just another bunch of players and singers.”
Carlson added, “I think relationally with kids we were special. They were part of it with us and we were interrelating.”
Kevin and Ann Cease and their children, Brett and Allison, were some of the duo's biggest fans.
“They were just able to capture in the most beautiful way kids’ imagination and their sense of fun and their sense of rhythm,” Kevin said. “The Mike and Maggie cassette tape was a constant in our car. We will still break out in a Mike and Maggie song as a family. They’re part of our lives. We thought they were as famous as any rock star. It was because their music was so accessible, and they performed it with such glee and energy. What’s not to love about Mike and Maggie?”
Hear more songs from Mike and Maggie: