Artist Profiles Part One: Americans Old and New

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Artist Profiles

Part One: Americans Old and New
One of the central American metaphors is that of the melting pot, but in the northern Midwest winters are long and melting does not happen easily. Along the banks of the northern Mississippi, one still finds the music of wave after wave of immigrants, people who came thousands, hundreds, or just a few years ago. Each group has been affected by its surroundings and its neighbors, but each has also retained a cultural cohesiveness that is much rarer as one moves south.


Chippewa Nation is part of a renaissance of Native American music taking place throughout the United States and Canada. A group of eight Ojibwe men from the Leech Lake and Red Lake reservations in northern Minnesota, it performs in the contemporary powwow drumming style, mixing Ojibwe rhythms and songs that have been passed on orally from generation to generation with songs and styles adapted from other Native American groups. Chippewa Nation (Chippewa is an alternate spelling of Ojibwe that is now largely out of favor, but still widely familiar) was formed some four years ago by Pete White and Randy Kingbird, and its members are all in their twenties and thirties. They travel to powwows throughout the northern midwest, performing in the central "drum arbor" while colorfully-garbed dancers circle, stamping and twirling.

The members of Chippewa Nation are not professional musicians. Their music is a spiritual expression of their heritage and their day-to-day interactions with each other and with the natural world. Along with the dance songs and the quiet, courting songs performed in River of Song, the members sing many pieces that are considered too sacred to be captured on film or recorded. The Ojibwe of the Leech Lake region came to the area more than 300 years ago, and they have been able to retain many aspects of their traditional way of life. For many years, these traditions were suppressed by the dominant Anglo culture, but since the 1960s they have been seeing a dramatic resurgence. The powwow movement is particularly strong, ranging from competition powwows modeled on western rodeos to smaller, more traditional events like the annual powwow in the small community of Inger, where River of Song filmed. Here, Chippewa Nation is in its element, and, every time it takes its turn in the drum arbor, people flock to the dance ground.

A Scandinavian massed fiddle orchestra, the Skål Club Spelmanslag includes some dozen fiddlers, as well as a double bass, a guitar and two accordions. They specialize in traditional Swedish and Norwegian dance tunes, some passed on in Minnesota Scandinavian traditions and others learned from recordings and musicians from the old countries.

The group was formed some six years ago by Paul Wilson, a folksinger and fiddler based in the Brainerd area. "I was thinking, as the generations get farther removed from their immigrant past, it might be better if we try to band together all the people who are interested in our Scandinavian heritage," he says. "We call it Skål Club, because 'skål' is a Swedish word that means 'to your health,' -- you usually have a little drink after saying it, but it could just be coffee or whatever. Then, 'spelmanslag' is a Swedish and a Norwegian word that means 'player's group,' but it has come to mean 'fiddler's group.'

The Skål Club is a nonprofessional social group that meets at members' houses to jam and enjoy each other's music, but over the years it has become popular enough that its concerts have raised funds to take the whole group to Scandinavia, where they have traded music with similar ensembles. Along with the waltzes, schottisches, and spingans, the group also keeps alive the comic vaudeville "Scandihoovian" tradition of the Midwest, Wilson singing funny songs in exaggerated dialect that poke gentle fun at his ancestors' immigrant past, accompanied by accordion, guitar, and sometimes an eerie musical saw.


The most successful band to emerge from the fertile Twin Cities rock scene of the Eighties, Soul Asylum started out as a hard-edged speed band called Loud Fast Rules. "We spent our formative years practicing in our bass player's mom's garage," guitarist Dan Murphy says. "We were there for two or three years. And you know, we didn't have any big aspirations or anything, it was just a hell of a lot of fun. We'd just get together and piss off the neighbors."

As Soul Asylum, the band retained some of its early edge, but added a new melodiousness that took it to the top of the alternative rock scene. Singer/songwriter Dave Pirner wrote complex, intelligent songs that he likes to place in a continuum reaching back to balladeers like Woody Guthrie. Despite its national success, Soul Asylum has remained proudly based in the Twin Cities, rehearsing in a looming warehouse on the Mississippi's east bank.

Minneapolis has been a hotbed of alternative rock for two decades, but for sheer, abrasive energy, few groups can compare to the trio of young women known as Babes in Toyland, whose punk onslaught has spawned admirers and imitators around the world. One of the pioneering groups of the "riot grrrl" movement (Courtney Love started out in an early version of the band), Babes was founded by guitarist/singer/songwriter Kat Bjeland, who had moved out to the Twin Cities from the Pacific Northwest, and drummer Lori Barbero.

Barbero took up drums at Bjeland's urging and is entirely self-taught, and she provides the group's rhythmic heart, an incredible mass of flailing arms and legs that propels the band with irresistable energy and roots it in deep rhythms that she likes to describe as "tribal." Bjeland, meanwhile, grinds out sheets of wailing guitar noise, over which she sings in a voice that ranges from a pained, ominous whisper to a banshee howl. Maureen Herman, who has since left the group, was the bassist at the time of filming, and her solid sound held the middle together.

After some ten years, Babes in Toyland is still among the most uncompromising and dynamic of the riot grrrl bands. Loud, discordant and rebellious, but also generating a warmth that keeps the fans coming back year after year, it has enjoyed international success and several major-label albums, but remains firmly rooted in its native soil.


"Spider" John Koerner hit the folk-blues scene in 1963, together with his partners, Dave Ray and Tony Glover. Koerner, Ray and Glover (as the band was called) stormed out of the midwest and set the country on its ear with their rambunctious, freewheeling take on the blues tradition. Thirty-five years later, Koerner remains one of the most quirky and original performers on the American scene. After a brief retirement from music, he came back as a traditional folksinger, performing old chestnuts like "Shenandoah" and "Careless Love," but reshaping them into unique, personal statements that remain true to the tradition and yet have a funky, rhythmic drive that is Koerner's alone.

"In a sense, what I do is similar to something like Cajun music," Koerner says. "You've got a traditional thing, but it's not for just sitting around quietly, listening. I learn most of my stuff in the bars, and you've got to punch it out in the bars, and that picks people up and livens them up. I'm trying to not put them to sleep; I'm trying to have them feel the power of these songs."

River of Song filmed Koerner at his local hangout, Palmer's, where he tends bar between musical outings. He was accompanied by the cream of the Twin Cities' sidemen, musicians who have known one another for decades and came to the attention of a national audience with the success of public radio's Prairie Home Companion. This "Twin Cities Folk Summit" brings together Koerner's old partners Tony Glover on harmonica and Willie Murphy on bass and keyboards with western swing guitar virtuoso Dakota Dave Hull and violin and mandolin master Peter Ostroushko.


The Twin Cities has the second largest population of Southeast Asian immigrants in the United States (after Los Angeles). The tribal, hill-dwelling Hmong came here after being forced out of their homes in Laos, and their vibrant community exemplifies the continuing contributions of new peoples to the American cultural mix. While attempting to assimilate to modern-day America, they have retained cultural and musical traditions that reach back before the dawn of recorded history. Their instruments are a unique assemblage, from the simple leaf, on which masters will play complex, soaring melodies, to a variety of flutes and the qeej, a sort of reed mouth organ. As Hmong is a tonal language, the melodies are also a sort of language, and an adept musician can play a whole lyric without ever saying a word.

A number of elders spend their days at the Hmong Cultural Center, a small storefront in a grey, unimpressive shopping mall, passing on his lore to the young members of the Hmong-American community. He leads classes of teeny qeej players, honking and wheezing on their instruments while executing carefully choreographed dance steps. Some of the older students have built on the tradition of dance and music, playing qeej solos while spinning on the floor in moves adapted from inner-city break dancers.

From its origins as a student group at Macalester College to the top of the gospel charts, the 30-member ensemble known as Sounds of Blackness has explored the breadth and continuity of the African-American experience. "My goal was to establish a legitimate black music ensemble that performed the entire spectrum of African-American music in it's proper context," says founder and leader Gary Hines. "I wanted to do everything from West African music to field hollers, work songs, spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, reggae, ragtime, r&b, hip-hop, jazz, rock 'n' roll -- the full spectrum. Because it's all a family of music that emanated from an experience: You can't understand the 'Glory Hallelujah' of the gospel without knowing about the pain of the blues. And that's the meaning of the name: Each style of the music is a unique sound of blackness, and collectively they are the Sounds of Blackness."

Hines has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. After years as a popular group in the local community, known for its annual shows on Christmas and Martin Luther King Day, the group teamed up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, producers of everyone from Prince to Janet Jackson, and immediately hit both the gospel and r&b charts. Since then, every album has made the charts and the Sounds have toured all over the U.S., as well as to Europe and Japan. Along with their tight choral arrangements and smoking rhythm section, the members bring a message of African-American pride and self-reliance, doing their best to give something back to the community that originally produced their music.

The "Dutchman" style of polka is beer-drinking, good-time dance music, developed by German immigrants in rural Minnesota and Wisconsin (the name is derived from “Deutsch,” or German). Sometimes called "oompah," it is distinguished by the thumping bass sound of the tuba, and by its use of a distinctive member of the "free reed" family of instruments, the German concertina. Karl Hartwich is a concertina player and singer who leads one of the most popular current bands, the Country Dutchmen, based in the area around La Crosse. With the recent boom in polka music, he has been touring all over the central United States, from Wisconsin and Illinois down to the Southwest, filling dance floors wherever he goes.

Hartwich was a child prodigy on concertina, playing at dances between sets by his mentor, Syl Liebl, a legend in Dutchman music, and he has some of the nimblest fingers in the field. River of Song filmed both Hartwich and Liebl at a polka festival at the Hilltop Lounge, a dancehall high on the bluffs above the Mississippi River. As the dancers, many of whom spend the whole summer traveling from festival to festival, twirl and circle the floor, Hartwich leads his band through a rollicking selection of traditional and original polkas, with the occasional waltz or Dixieland jazz number thrown in for variety.

Davenport, a regular stopping place of the riverboats that brought jazz up the Mississippi and birthplace of the legendary jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, remains a mecca for enthusiasts of the music that has come to be known as Dixieland. Manny Lopez, the son of Mexican immigrants, grew up playing trumpet in local mariachi bands, but was inspired by Herb Alpert to stretch outside the traditional repertoire. Over the years, he has become a leading figure on the Quad City jazz scene, leading his five-piece band through regular sets in a local restaurant.

For the last decade, Manny has often been joined by his son Manuel III, better known as Dude, who plays drums and sings with the laconic ease of a latter-day Sinatra. River of Song filmed the Lopez band as part of its coverage of the annual Bix Weekend, which includes a huge road race and a jazz festival. The quintet played an outdoor set along the route of the race, and Manny even started the runners off by playing the call to post, twisting even the ordinarily prosaic bugle call into a swinging jazz phrase.

La Otra Mitad is a straight-ahead barroom dance band in the Mexican "norteño" style, which blends polkas, waltzes, brassy horn charts and bright accordion riffs with Mexican song forms like the corrido and ranchera, as well as such modern additions as Columbian cumbia and even the occasional burst of rap. The band was formed by Mexican-American youths whose parents came to the Quad Cities area around Davenport, Iowa, and Moline, Illinois, in the 1930s and 1940s to work on the area's farms, the railroad, and in the Moline meat-packing plants.

Workers by day, the members of La Otra Mitad get together on weekends to provide entertainment for the large local Mexican-America community, and also pride themselves on their ability to adapt to other audiences, playing Italian, Jewish, or rock 'n' roll music for parties and family celebrations throughout the region. They are the true bar-band tradition, musicians who play not because they are self-involved artists, but because they like to see people dancing and having a good time.

Greg Brown is the preeminent singer/songwriter on the contemporary midwestern folk scene, and became a national figure in the 1980s as house songwriter for Prairie Home Companion. Brown's music is a surprising fusion of midwestern roots and a searching, quirky imagination that took him east to New York's Greenwich Village in 1969, west on the Beatnik-hippie trail, and on to Las Vegas, where he had a job ghost-writing pop songs. All the sounds he heard along the way combined with the church music and country fiddling he had heard growing up in southern Iowa, and the result is a hip, funkily rhythmic blend that somehow retains its rural innocence.

After his stint on Prairie Home Companion, Brown returned to Iowa City, and he has become the center of a small but vibrant music scene. In recent years, he has teamed up with a local blues-rocker, Bo Ramsey, who has added a new, raw edge to the music. River of Song found the two in Brown's living room, jamming and revisiting old times in southern Iowa. The walls were lined with bookshelves, a testament to Brown's literary bent, but the music was anything but self-consciously intellectual. Brown's songs are startling in their directness, acuity and wry humor. Whether remembering the feeling of walking down to the country store on a summer evening or exploring the dark underbelly of urban America, he creates a world populated with living, breathing characters, and frames their stories with rootsy guitar riffs and a gruff, jazz-inflected baritone. Raw and tender, unashamedly country and off-handedly cool, Brown is a mass of contradictions that somehow blend into something completely natural and heartfelt.

Part Two: Midwestern Crossroads
The land bordering the Mississippi as it runs through Missouri and Illinois is where the old river highways, the Missouri, Des Moines, Illinois and Ohio, join the mainstream of the river for the journey south to the main port of New Orleans, and its towns were defined by the river traffic. By this history, if not by geography, this region became for many people the center of the United States. In the nineteenth century, it was the divide between east and west, and traces of that division still hold good. West of the river, the prairies begin, the land of cowboy boots, cattle and myth. East is white America's version of the "old country," the towns that liked to consider themselves as centers of civilization on the border of the barbarous wilderness. In later years, when the national migration pattern became as much south to north as east to west, this area was once again an important point on the journey, and a place where some travelers would choose to remain.


John Hartford has made a career of the Mississippi River. Though best known as the writer of "Gentle On My Mind" and as one of the most innovative and quirky bandleaders and musicians in the country/bluegrass world, he has long maintained a parallel existence as a Mississippi riverboat pilot. Hartford grew up in St. Louis listening to stories and songs of the old steamboating days. His musical impulse came from seeing Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs's trendsetting bluegrass band, and from the old-time dances that were still being held in the area during his youth in the 1950s. He later moved to the West Coast, where he became a regular on the Smothers Brothers television show, and on to Nashville, where he put together a band featuring Vassar Clements and Norman Blake that became the cutting edge of a "new traditionalist" movement on the country scene.

Today, Hartford lives most of the year in Nashville, still writing songs and touring on the concert circuit. Every summer, though, he comes back to the river. "Working as a pilot is a labor of love," he says. "After a while, it becomes a metaphor for a whole lot of things, and I find for some mysterious reason that if I stay in touch with it, things seem to work out all right."

Along with his own compositions, Hartford is a voluminous repository of old river songs, calls, and stories. He can spend hours talking about the glory days of steamboating, or demonstrate the lead calls that the river's most famous chronicler took as his name, "Mark Twain" (or "two fathoms"). A virtuoso fiddler and banjo player, Hartford remains simultaneously an innovative voice on the country scene and a thrilling reminder of a vanished era.


Bluegrass is popular throughout the United States, and there is nowhere it is more enthusiastically appreciated than in the prairie country of northern Illinois and Missouri. This is the area that produced the music's current standar-bearer, Alison Kraus, and local fans still remember her debut as a child prodigy, setting the region's festivals on fire with her blazing fiddle breaks. At the Western Illinois Bluegrass Days, old and young players come together to trade licks, eat watermelon, watch an array of popular bands, and jam into the wee hours of the night.
One group of old-timers, players in their 60s and 70s, travel from festival to festival through the summer, then relocate to the Mexican border region for the winter, parking their RVs together and keeping alive an old-time country music tradition that mixes gospel and c&w standards with songs that hark back to the Victorian parlor tradition.

The Lewis Family, by contrast, includes players who are barely into their teens. Bob Lewis set out to raise a family band, and he has met with startling success. His son, Lil' Bob, is a virtuoso on fiddle and bass, and his daughter Joy was recently given a new mandolin by the Gibson company in recognition of her brilliant instrumental skills. With the rest of the family singing, playing, clog dancing, and even tossing in some cornball comedy routines, the Lewises are favorites throughout the midwestern circuit. The family still travels together in a bus, and a toddling third generation promises to keep the family tradition alive for a long time into the future.

When it comes to non-professional musicians performing regularly for large crowds, no musical style even approaches the popularity of marching bands. Village bands have been a center of social gatherings in the Midwest since at least mid-18th century. They played everything from light classical music to waltzes and other dance tunes. It was John Phillip Sousa, "The March King," who first put a uniquely American stamp on brass music, making the first commercially successful band recordings in 1890.
School bands, playing during football games, have become a ubiquitous tradition throughout the United States, and many professional musicians got their start taking "band" for high school credit. The St. Charles High School Band is typical of contemporary marching bands, playing everything from band standards to modern show tunes, and "Louie, Louie." The musicians start practicing in the spring, and work through the summer to be ready when football season hits. Then they take the field, marching in intricate formations while playing precise, brassy arrangements.
Though the Midwest hosts many hot band competitions, that is not where the St. Charles players feel most comfortable. "We're not really a competition band as much as we are just an audience band," says one teenage player. "You stick us in front of our home audience, we perform twenty times better because we've got them all yelling for us and all cheering for us. At competitions, they're just out there judging you the whole time. It's not as fun."


Fontella Bass grew up on the gospel highway, then made a side trip to the top of the soul charts before coming home to the church. By the time she was in her teens, she was touring across the Midwest and the Southwest, playing piano for her grandmother and her mother, Martha Bass, a member of the groundbreaking Ward Singers. She broke out in her late teens, joining Little Milton's band as a pianist. One day, when Milton was off the bandstand, she took a vocal solo, and her career was launched. Soon she was up in Chicago, at Chess Records, cutting "Rescue Me," one of the defining hits of the soul revolution.

Bass married jazzman Lester Bowie, living first in Chicago and then in Paris, France, and singing both r&b and jazz. In the end, though, she came back to St. Louis and the church. She, her mother, and her brother David made several successful gospel albums, and she became choir director at her local church. River of Song filmed Bass with her mother, now 75, singing together over Fontella's strong gospel piano chording just as they used to do in the old days. The older woman's rough power and the younger's soaring soul shout combine in a duet that exemplifies the majesty and power of gospel music.

"All music is about feeling," Fontella says. "And in gospel you have to feel the Lord. Now, if I do blues I send out the blues message. I have had plenty of things touch down in my life that can give me the blues, but I get happy when I do the blues. And jazz, I'm feeling just mellow and I want to send that kind of feeling out. But in gospel I want the people who are listening to me to know the Lord. I have to feel Him myself and the only way I can feel him is to terminate a lot of the other things in my life, and present that gospel out."


Oliver Sain encompasses in his memories the entire history of the blues. His grandfather was Dan Sane (sic), partner with Frank Stokes in Memphis's legendary Beale St. Sheiks, among the first blues stars of the 1920s. Raised around Greenville, Mississippi, he came north with Little Milton, and worked as Milton's bandleader through the glory days of St. Louis r&b. As other local stars got famous and moved away, he built a recording studio and set himself the task of keeping St. Louis r&b alive.

Over the years, Sain has established himself as the heart of St. Louis r&b, supporting the old guard and nurturing young talent. His Oliver Sain Revue makes an annual appearance at the St. Louis Blues Festival, and throughout the year he can be found working in local clubs. Far from living in the past, he is always immersed in new projects, recording with old friends like piano legend Johnny Johnson or training up a new singer. His saxophone playing is as strong as ever, and, though he is likely to be modest about his vocal abilities, when he sinks his teeth into a blues lyric he shows a mastery that the genre's young hotshots may never attain.

River of Song recorded Sain in the intimacy of his weekly gig at BB’s Blues, Jazz & Soup along the riverfront, and at a sold-out day-long Tribute to Oliver Sain--a benefit concert organized to help Sain pay medical expenses resulting from a major operation in 1997.


East St. Louis is one of the fabled midwestern cities that, with its largely African-American population, nurtured some of the hottest players in jazz, blues, and r&b. One of the oldest blues songs tells how the singer "walked all the way from East St. Louis," and, in the 1950s, the city nurtured the rough-hewn showbands of Chuck Berry, Little Milton, and Ike and Tina Turner. Miles Davis grew up here, sneaking into local jazz clubs to hear the latest sounds.

Today, East St. Louis seems at times like a city under siege, but African-American artists are still working hard to instill a sense of pride and history in the younger generation. Two of the guiding lights of the local scene are the drummer Sylvester "Sunshine" Lee and the poet Eugene Redmond. Both have been associated with the arts association headed by dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham, and it was with Dunham that Lee started out studying the African drumming tradition. He has since trained several generations of African drummers, reminding black youngsters of their roots in the old continent.

Eugene Redmond is a widely published poet, a major figure in the cultural blossoming of the 1960s. While many of his peers headed for the coasts and their more visible literary scenes, Redmond has opted to remain here, on his home turf, and his poems are deeply rooted in his environment. He writes of what he sees in the streets of East St. Louis, of local heroes and heroines, and of the history that has shaped the city's African-American community. In a world that many community leaders have all but abandoned, he and Lee remain beacons of optimism and hope.


Three high-school buddies grew up in Festus, Missouri, an industrial town downriver from St. Louis, listening to Buck Owens records and Aerosmith. Eventually, they put together a band, playing honky-tonk music. There was only one problem: "We have this natural inclination to get excited when we play, and we'll just turn around and turn the amps up," guitarist/singer Brian Henneman says. "We just can't help it. So we were louder than we should have been, more abrasive than we should have been, and we weren't doing anybody any favors." Rejected by their hometown crowd, the boys kept playing for themselves. "We eventually evolved into the Bottle Rockets and went into St. Louis, and nobody told us to turn down; I think everybody is deaf up there. We turned the amps up, and it turned into a whole new thing. There we were, rocking like Aerosmith, playing country songs basically, and that's the thing we have been mining ever since."

The Bottle Rockets came to national attention along with such other midwestern roots bands as Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and Son Volt, and made their reputation as one of the hardest-edged and most iconoclastic alternative country/rock bands around. Their lyrics are particularly strong, solid storytelling in the classic country tradition, but infused with wry, contemporary insights and underpinned with full-throttle electric power. Their songs cast a harsh and funny light on both small-town life and big city trends, and their recent major-label debut has garnered raves from both alternative rock and country fans.

Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, lays claim to being the first permanent European settlement west of the Mississippi. Founded by French traders, it remained for centuries a French enclave in the midst of an increasingly Anglophone Midwest. Today, the last generation of native French speakers is disappearing, but old traditions still remain. The most visible is La Guignolée, a medieval tradition analagous to the English custom of wassailing. Every New Year's Eve, the descendants of St. Genevieve's French settlers don bizarre and archaic costumes and wander from bar to bar, singing a begging song that harks back to the Middle Ages.

"The song asks for a piece of meat -- forty feet long, if I remember right," says Duke Blechler, leader of the current Ste. Genevieve Guignolée singers. "And if the people didn’t have a piece of meat to give them, they would ask for their eldest daughter. Take her out, wine her and dine her -- which doesn’t sound very good, you know."

In every bar, the singers are welcomed with a drink and, as the night wears on, they begin to sway a bit and the French lyrics become harder and harder to understand. The spirit of the musical tradition keeps coming through loud and clear, though, until the last singer stumbles home to catch a few hours sleep before New Year's morning mass.

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