- Catherine Hiebert Kerst and Rachelle H. Saltzman
Local musical traditions are an expression of community life—they also contribute to a community's vigor and growth. Music-making by community members commemorates and fosters the values, local aesthetics, and common experiences that bring people together. In celebration of Iowa's 150th year of statehood, this recording presents some of the music played in families, churches, and social gatherings throughout the state and represents the remarkable breadth and diversity of Iowa's communities and the vitality of their traditions. This recording was produced as part of an Iowa Sesquicentennial project at the 1996 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, Iowa-Community Style.
Iowans inhabit the heart of the Heartland, both physically and culturally. Iowa is central and centered—a place where the balance of the components that make up community is celebrated and nurtured. Family, neighborhood,
town, school, work site, place of worship, community center, and state, county and local fairs all create the networks that tie Iowans together and provide the sense of community that makes Iowa what it is today.
A Carroll County pancake breakfast in a church basement raises money for the local volunteer fire-fighting association and its ladies' auxiliary, the Fire Bells. A lutefisk supper in Bode (population 335) serves over a thousand people on the Thursday before Thanksgiving in celebration of a common Norwegian heritage. Associations and clubs abound in Iowa, from 4-H, sit-and-knit clubs, volunteer fire-fighting organizations and soccer clubs, to fiddlers' picnics, groups promoting polka dancing, and community bands and choruses.
We live in a time when Americans often have few positive expectations and are fearful of the future, yet yearn to belong and feel grounded on the local level. They search for traditions that are alive and meaningful. The term community is used widely to communicate well-being, continuity, and hope, but in Iowa community is more than a cliche—it is a way of life, eagerly undertaken and energetically encouraged.
Iowa is a state of small towns on a gently rolling plain. Even the metropolitan centers of Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, and Sioux City function as clusters of small towns. Houses of worship occupy many street corners; public libraries and schools are the norm, and a high school's sports team is the town's team. In cafes in nearly every neighborhood in Iowa, groups of farmers, business people, students and coffee-club members gather each day at well known but unscheduled times to discuss crop prices and political candidates, to share personal problems, plan events, play cards, or just plain gossip over, home-cooked fare. Coffee and cinnamon rolls, assorted pies, and the ubiquitous pork tenderloin sandwich are served nearly everywhere. Menus vary somewhat by region, with fish available at river cafes along the Mississippi, flæskesteg (pork loin embedded with prunes) and rodkål (red cabbage) at the Danish Inn in Elk Horn, bagels and cream cheese at Jewish delis in Des Moines, savory soups at Southeast Asian gathering places in Ames, Dutch marzipan-filled pastry "letters "in the Dutch-settled towns of Pella and Orange City, German sausage in Manning, and tamales and tortillas in the Hispanic neighborhoods in Muscatine and Storm Lake. But it is not solely the selection and style of food that matter at these local eating places—it is the camaraderie, conversation, and "visiting" that they make possible. The same is true of the regional musical occasions around the state.
Home-grown community music-making is vibrant and alive in Iowa. People gather in homes to play together and to listen, in community centers or school-houses for dance parties, in religious settings to sing praises, or at regional or ethnic festivals to celebrate their heritage. Many of the performing groups are family-based and rooted in traditions brought from other places and handed down through time, adapted to new situations and adjusted to new styles.
The Sesquicentennial year offers a chance to recognize the value of an Iowa that nurtures neighborliness in groups of people—no matter how diverse—who share common concerns and hopes; an Iowa that supports the vital social fabric of relationships on the local level; and an Iowa that validates an underlying belief in the viability of a democratic community—all of which have provided a prominent legacy of the state.
This essay is adapted from a longer essay entitled, "Community Matters in Iowa," published in the 1996 Festival of American Folklife Program Book by the C.F.P.C.S., Smithsonian Institution.