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Get some music in your life this Driftless summer!

Them Coulee Boys will play at Hop Harvest Fest at Sweet 16 Farm and at Boats and Bluegrass in Winona!

Summertime in the Midwest means a lot of things, but special outdoor music events hit the top of our list each year! There are lots of great shows happening all season, but we picked out a handful that we’d definitely suggest adding to your calendar.


The Driftless Music Festival, July 13, Viroqua, Wisconsin – FREE! Join in this fantastic community festival as Eckhart Park becomes home to The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, Honky-Tonk Jump, Orquestra MAS, Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal, and the Brotherhood Singers. Music starts at 1pm and goes until evening, with snacks, food, and beverages on the grounds. This is a free, very family friendly event! www.driftlessmusicfestival.com


Seed Saver’s Benefit Concert, August 3, rural Decorah – Seed Savers Exchange is bringing back the ever-popular Benefit Concert this summer, featuring Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles, Lissie, Dave Huckfelt of The Pines, Pieta Brown, Michael Rosetto, and special guest Mr. Greg Brown. Gates open at 5 pm, show at 7 pm, and camping is available on-site. This is guaranteed to be one of the most amazing nights of the summer – see you there! www.seedsavers.org


Gray Area – August 9, rural Iowa City – Don’t miss your chance to hang out at the Flat Black Studio farm with William Elliott Whitmore, Appleseed Cast, American Cream, Catfish Keith, and more. Camping available and encouraged. www.flatblackstudios.com/grey-area


People Fest – August 8-10, Driftless Music Gardens near Yuba, Wisconsin – Join Todd Snider, Blackfoot Gypsies, People Brothers Band, Natty Nation, Pine Travelers, and many more at this special little corner of the world. Camping, community, and summer revelry at it’s finest. www.driftlessmusicgardens.com/people-fest


Hop Harvest Music Fest – August 24, Sweet 16 Farm near Houston, Minnesota – Head to this sweet (pun intended) farm for a family-friendly party! Check out Them Coulee Boys, The Lowest Pair, Driftless Sisters, My Grandma’s Cardigan, and Jaybone Bell. There will be vendors, craft beer, kids activities, and wood fired pizza too. Find more info and buy tickets at sweet16farm.com.


Boats &…… Bluegrass! Winona, September 26-29 – Ok, so technically Boats & Bluegrass isn’t until September, but we can’t help but plug this amazing local roots festival alongside the Mississippi river in Winona. 2019 is a Who’s Who of Midwest roots music, including Charlie Parr, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Shook Twins, Pert Near Sandstone, Dead Horses, Them Coulee Boys, Lowest Pair, Barbaro, Stanton West – all MC’d by regional poet and new-time roustabout, Pete Engen. Camping, music, boats & canoes, food, and tasty beverages on site. What are you waiting for? Get your tickets and make plans to be there! www.boatsandbluegrass.com

Steps Back in Time: Foot-Notes + Highlandville Dances

Highlandville in 1991 / Photo courtesy Beth Hoven Rotto

Foot-Notes Scandinavian Music Keeps Dancers Turning at Highlandville Schoolhouse

BY KRISTINE JEPSEN

As the summer sun dips behind the bluffs in Northeast Iowa, cars nudge along the shaley white gravel to Highlandville, a quiet hamlet on South Bear Creek, one of Iowa’s most pristine trout fisheries. Drivers who haven’t been here before take the turns cautiously – cell reception and GPS mapping having dropped off miles ago – drifting slowly by the historic hospital building-turned-B&B, past the landmark Highland General Store and Campground, ‘til you can see your destination – Highlandville Schoolhouse – just across the creek, its porch light shining like a beacon.

If your car windows are down as you drive in, you’ll hear the draw immediately: A fiddle, mandolin, guitar and upright bass – the acclaimed Decorah band Foot-Notes – are tuning up, and laughter and conversation spill through the open schoolhouse windows, where an eager crowd of all ages lines an open dance floor. Then, with a long draw across the fiddle strings, the first dance tune unfurls, in perfect time with the steps of partnered bodies. Another Highlandville dance is in motion.

It’s fun, yes, and welcoming – partners glad-hand away from each other as dance steps pick up. But deeper is the feeling that these celebrated events create a live connection between this Scandinavian community’s heritage and its future, as the music is passed down, measure-by-measure, artist-to-artist.

According to Foot-Notes founding fiddler, Beth Hoven Rotto, Highlandville School dances started around 1974 – before Foot-Notes time – when fiddlers Bill Sherburne and Johannes Sollien (and their bands) crossed paths with artists Dean and Geri Schwarz, who ran a pottery school in Highlandville, and Luis Torres, a local history professor at Luther College in Decorah. Acclaimed poet Joseph Langland, originally from the area, and his brother Walter (and Maurice) Langland of rural Highlandville also had a hand in rallying the community to share traditional waltzes, polkas, two-steps, and schottisches. The schottische, which can baffle the first-timer, is a partner dance akin to American square-dancing, but with few called figures and more trading places – sometimes partners – as the whole dance turns counterclockwise around the room. Left and right steps, turning steps, and hop steps are its trademarks.

From top: 1. Foot-Notes – Beth Hoven Rotto, Jon Rotto, Bill Musser, and John Goodin. 2. A Highlandville Dance in 1990, with Bill Sherburne on fiddle. 3. Beth and Jon’s daughter, Ingrid, sleeps in Bill Musser’s bass case during a dance. (Photos courtesy Beth Hoven Rotto’s awesome scrapbook)

 

It was about mid-century, says Foot-Notes bass player and Spring Grove, Minnesota, native Bill Musser, that the, uh, reserved Norwegian Lutherans loosened up a bit about the ‘impropriety’ of partner dancing, and the Highlandville Dances became an intergenerational draw. Older dancers, including locals Arnold Munkel and Lester and Genevieve Bentley, taught younger ones, with a palpable urgency to ensure that new enthusiasts understand the freedom and festivity of folk dancing. Born into a very musical farm family, Bill attended the early events. “I remember dancing past midnight sometimes,” he explains. “Just couldn’t get enough of it!”

Foot-Notes rhythm guitar player Jon Rotto (married to Beth, above) agrees that the opportunity felt extraordinary from the very beginning. “When I first discovered the dances in Highlandville, it was a huge relief over the ‘sock hop’ stress of having to make up your own moves to the rock music of high school and college,” he says of his days drifting the back roads to the schoolhouse as a student at Luther College. “The simple set of moves for each type of dance is predetermined, yet your creativity can take you beyond the basic dance, once you’re familiar.”

Highlandville School itself, built in 1911 and in service until 1964, commands a kind of reverence, Jon continues. “It’s not unlike a church, with its high ceilings and pendant lights – a vestige of an earlier time, with its outhouses and lack of indoor plumbing. Soon a sense of adventure starts lifting you along.”

Writing from his current home in Lørenskog, Norway, Jim Skurdall, Foot-Notes’ original mandolin player, says he never got over the lucky happenstance that seemed to crop up around traditional folk music – and the people playing it – in this corner of the Driftless. As a stranger road-tripping through Decorah in 1990, he – and a mandolin rented from Kephart’s Music – were invited off the cuff by Jon’s sister-in-law, Liz Rog, to what would be the first ever Foot-Notes tune-tooling session.

From top: 1. A Highlandville Dance. 1. An illustration of a Highlandville Dance by Decorah artist Carl Homstad.

 

“After a potluck dinner, we struck up some music and exchanged a few tunes, but we didn’t know yet it was the start of something,” says Jim. The music itself convinced him to cancel his trek to the East Coast and stay – for what would be decades. Like the other members, he went on to pen tunes for the group and became beloved for his singing of old tunes in their native Norwegian. “I always enjoyed watching folks coming into the schoolhouse for the first time, usually with big grins on their faces, looks of amazement. The atmosphere says: ‘You’re new at this? So are we! Jump in!”

But – none of it happens without the live dance band, the music a bright torch passed on by Bill Sherburne and other old-timers. The person carrying that flame is fiddler Beth Rotto. In the 1980s, Beth was a violinist at Luther College and folk dance enthusiast. She sought out Sherburne directly when she heard murmurings of his retirement and asked to apprentice with him as part of an Iowa Arts Council grant.

“My heart sank, though, when I arrived at Bill’s door, and he looked less than enthused to see me,” she explains. “But everything changed when I brought Jon in on guitar, and suddenly, we had a band. Bill started preparing for our visits, often presenting tunes he claimed he hadn’t thought of in years. I attempted to copy everything about how he played – not just the music, but his bowing and sometimes even the set of his jaw. After our apprenticeship ended, I continued to play beside him for the rest of his life.”

Beth is Norwegian-modest about the music transcription she performs – a process she has mastered to Foot-Notes benefit, developing a shorthand for taking down tunes she hears on recordings, from other musicians, and at festivals. She’ll jot down chord progressions, writing the letters above or below the last to indicate which way the melody is moving on the scale. Then, as the tune repeats itself, she’ll sketch in how the measures break and other phrasing tips to jog her memory when she goes to reproduce it on her fiddle. “Usually by the third pass through – dance tunes tend to cycle in threes – I’ve got it,” she explains.

Beth Hoven Rotto’s music methods

A peek into Beth Hoven Rotto’s music methods / Photo by Kristine Jepsen

 

This skill is the key – it’s how folk music gets etched into recorded history and rejuvenated as new players take it up. All the Foot-Notes members are attuned to it, listening for pieces they haven’t heard before. “In the early days, Beth would call and leave messages on my home voicemail with a melody to a new tune,” Jim Skurdall says. “I would work up harmony lines and leave a message back. Then when we all got together to play, we had a new tune well underway.”

To date, Foot-Notes has more than 120 pieces on “active” recall, including polkas, waltzes, two-steps, schottisches, authentically Norwegian melodies, such as, “Orevalsen” and “Klemmet Ole,” and a group of songs they lovingly refer to as “miscellaneous.” Among them is the “Butterfly,” a tune that picks up in pace and intensity until dancers are fairly flying around the room. At one 1994 performance in the newly restored barn at Luther College, a dancer came down so hard he put his leg through the floor (unhurt, though!). “We refer to that dance as the time Foot-Notes brought down whole barns,” Jon jokes, though most performances – for private parties, weddings, anniversaries and other celebrations – don’t usually get so rowdy.

Foot-Notes at a 2019 Decorah graduation party

Foot-Notes at a 2019 Decorah graduation party / Photo by Kristine Jepsen

 

In 2015, commemorating 25 years together, Foot-Notes hosted the World’s Largest Schottische, with 1,881 registered dancers during Decorah’s annual Nordic Fest. See the video and purchase the World’s Largest Schottische dance tune at www.footnotes.dance/. The band has produced four full-length records so far, one of which, My Father Was a Fiddler, includes a companion tunebook. Foot-Notes also contributed to the 1996 Festival of American Folklife CD, Iowa State Fare: Music from the Heartland, a project of Smithsonian Folkways.

But the best introduction, if you’re so lucky, is to hear Foot-Notes in their native habitat – at a Highlandville Dance. As the night winds down and dancers begin to gather their discarded shoes and sweaters, or perhaps, to collect sleepy small children from the nests they’ve made in coats in the corner, you’ll hear one signature tune without fail: Highlandville Waltz. Penned by then-college-students, Greg Huang-Dale and Erik Sessions, this lilting dance signals the close of a sweet summer respite. It’s not the end, per se, but a gentle send-off, as for old friends. “Until next time,” it suggests, when no further words come.

“I can’t express it very well, but the value of community dancing is undeniable,” says current mandolin player John Goodin, who is beloved by his fellow band members for his ability to sub in and improvise on virtually every instrument between them. “Every single time, I come home a happier, healthier, and better person, thankful that I could be a small part of that special experience,” he says. “It is always a Good Thing.”


Kristine Jepsen is born-bred a Band Geek and considers the Highlandville dances, local contra dances, and other active musical treasures to be the most valuable assets of the Driftless community. When not barefoot on a wooden dance floor, she’s writing for literary journals and small businesses, with a deepening interest in life stories, end-of-life poetry, and other creative work as part of palliative care. More at kristinejepsen.com.

UPCOMING DANCES

June 22:

Highlandville School Dance, 8-11pm
Directions: Map/GPS “Highlandville General Store” at 3497 Highlandville Rd, Decorah, Iowa
Wear layers (dances get warm!) and shoes you can turn/spin in (or take off, if it suits you!)

July 27:

Nordic Fest Street Dance, 8:30-10:30pm
Courthouse Square, Main Street,
Decorah, Iowa
More at www.nordicfest.com.

July 28:

Nordic Fest Street Dance, 7-10pm
Canopy 2 – Intersection of Water and
Washington streets, Decorah, Iowa
More at www.nordicfest.com

To keep time with Foot-Notes performances, join the public group on FaceBook: www.facebook.com/groups/footnotesfans/

Or find them online: www.footnotes.dance

The New Ole Hendricks Orchestra

Fiddler Beth Hoven Rotto is also in another band, The New Ole Hendricks Orchestra. Watch for their CD release concert in Decorah later this summer.

The recording features tunes rediscovered in a most amazing tale stretching across continents and generations painstakingly researched and reimagined by a surprising assemblage of far-flung performers.

Master fiddler Ole Hendricks (born 1851 in Norway – died 1935 in Minnesota) left a dancehall full of rare tunes in his 97-page, handwritten tunebook, which has miraculously survived and is now revived by Norwegian fiddler Vidar Skrede, local musician Beth Hoven Rotto, and seasoned performers Amy Shaw, Chris Bashor, David Tousley, and special guest, Bob Douglas.

CDs for both The New Ole Hendricks Orchestra and Foot-Notes are available at Vesterheim Museum Store and Oneota Community Co-op in Decorah or by contacting bethrotto@gmail.com.

Paper Project: Heart Mobile!

Our friend Evelyn (and her sister Hazel along with Roxie) helped make this paper project for the Summer Inspire(d). It’s fun because you get to forage for the perfect sticks first, then put the rest of the project together. Check out our how-to here, and have fun!

Supplies:

• Paper of whatever color you’d like
• Paper trimmer (optional – it works great for even sized strips of paper)
• Foraged sticks (cut down to size for the mobile size you’d like)
• Branch cutter for cutting said sticks (the big one was the best for this)
• Stapler
• Scissors
• Yarn, string, or similar

Cut your paper into strips – I had 12 x 12 paper, but you could use 8.5 x 11, and just cut the strips the long way. I cut mine into 1.5-inch strips. The smaller you cut your strips, the smaller your hearts can be.

Once you’ve cut a good number of strips, fold them directly in half, and cut on the fold. (The pieces at the top of the paper trimmer have been cut, the bottom papers have not been cut.)

Now it’s time to make your hearts! Take one of your cut strips, and fold it in half.

Round the top parts and bring the two edges together to form the heart.

Grab the bottom of the heart, and make a good crease. Open the top, rounded part of the heart, and put a piece of string in the middle, and hold that part again. (Evelyn and I discovered it’s best to cut your strings long enough to tie to the mobile, but not too long that it’s hard to know which string is which. The length of the string will depend on your mobile size.)

The goal is to staple the heart so the staple also holds the string in place.

Slide the inside top of the heart out (while the string is still in place) to staple.

Once it’s stapled, roll it back into a heart form. You can adjust the heart a fair amount to your liking.

It should look like the above photo!

Now it’s time to set up your mobile! Play with your sticks ’til it looks how you want it to. Make sure you have enough hearts to balance the mobile out. Tie the top string on with a loop so you can hang the mobile.

Tie the rest of the strings to attach the sticks to each other and form the mobile base.

Lay out the hearts and play with how you’d like them to look. (See what we mean about the strings being too long? Next time we’d trim them while they’re on the ground.)

Hang the mobile up so you can start balancing your hearts. We clipped ours to the bottom of our deck! It might take some doing to get it balanced – move the hearts from the inside to the outside of the sticks, or make the strings shorter, etc, to get the balance just right.

Here it is before we trimmed the strings!

And here it is all done! Thanks to Evelyn, Hazel, and Roxie for the help on this! Hang yours up to twirl slightly in the breeze, or in the window to brighten a gloomy day! Enjoy!