Posts Tagged: John Goodin

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.

Darkness to Light: Burning Bright

By Kristine Jepsen

Decorah’s winter solstice concert, Burning Bright, celebrates 20 years of bringing light in the darkness and giving back to the community. Choir member Kristine Jepsen chats with founding members and directors as they reflect on years past and prepare for this season’s performance.

“Oooh, that one’s my favorite,” fellow alto Emily Neal whispers as we open our binders to “The Parting Glass,” a traditional Scottish tune about toasting one’s friends. We’re sitting in choir rehearsal for Burning Bright, an annual winter concert that brings together singers and instrumentalists in the Decorah area.

Kathy Reed, who co-directs Burning Bright with Otter Dreaming, settles at the keyboard, ready to prompt us, as late-afternoon sun slants in through First United Methodist’s stained-glass windows. We’ve sung this rollicking, bittersweet song before, and that’s all the more reason we want to get it right.

In the deep of this winter, the Burning Bright chorus, along with instrumentalists and youth and children’s choirs, celebrates two decades of offering “light in the darkness.” The concert – two performances, actually – is a handmade gift of obscure carols, folk songs, and sacred world music. Each year, the pieces reflect a theme, and in this anniversary year, it’s “Exultation.” Some pieces honor Christmas, but more centrally, Burning Bright – BB, as members say – is about the winter solstice, the night on which our hours of darkness turn toward light.    

“You said ‘I Am Christmas’ was your favorite song on the concert,” I whisper back, kidding, as the opening accompaniment unfolds. “I know,” Emily says with a happy sigh. “I love them all. For me, this is it. This IS Christmas.” I get what she means.

Burning Bright itself started with just one song – “‘Twas on a Night Like This,” arranged for soprano, harpsichord, and oboe, to the hymn tune of “When Christ Was Born on Earth.” The first-ever performance was called “Songs of Christmas: A Concert for Harpsichord and Voice,” says Decorah business owner Ellen Rockne, the “voice” in question.

A child of the Lutheran singing tradition, Ellen was already a chronic music organizer and accomplished soloist when she moved to Decorah in 1996. She crossed paths with Kathy Reed through their young children’s homeschool activities and soon shared her dream of a winter concert to warm the cold Midwestern nights. Kathy, who is formally trained in musicology and harpsichord performance, felt their synergy immediately.

“I didn’t move here because of the potential to combine these different aspects of my musical life,” says Kathy, who is now an instructor of music at Luther College, “but one day our kids’ group met up and someone mentioned trains, and then someone jumped in and said, ‘Hey! We know some songs about trains!’ and we all spontaneously started singing, and I thought, ‘OK, this is a place where people sing. That’s fun.”

Ellen, by her own admission, sings all the time. “I don’t even know I’m singing, but my now-grown sons say I never stop,” she says. “The disconcerting thing is that as the years pass, I find myself making up little songs about every little thing,” she says, laughing and rolling her eyes. “The other day, I caught myself singing a tune to the phrase, “Now, here is my tea….”

Otter first got involved with the concert in 2002 as a singer, and joined its administrative ranks soon after, Kathy says. “At dress rehearsal that year, we sang everything end-to-end and realized the concert would be three hours long – a major problem, since we really wanted a two-hour program. At some point, Otter mentioned as tactfully as possible, ‘You know, you could identify a number of pieces – say, 20 – that will fill out the time, more or less, and aim for that each year,’ and I thought, ‘Oh! Now there’s someone we need organizing this thing.’ And he was right: That target number is 19 pieces,” Kathy concludes. “We’ve stuck to it ever since.”

The goal with Burning Bright, Otter and Kathy say, is making the concert accessible both to participants – ranging from professional musicians to debut choristers – and a diverse audience. Often, this means making the sound intentionally less “perfect” and more faithful to a song’s historical roots. “OK!” Kathy says, presiding with a smile over a section of skilled sopranos. “Now that you know your line, let’s make sure it isn’t that ‘pretty’ ever again. I need more ‘hale and hearty’ from the beginning.”

“You mean, lusty?” a choir member pipes up, gambling for a laugh.

“No, no,” says Kathy quickly, in her quietly irreverent way. “I mean….”

“Musty?” another member suggests. “Fusty?”

“Well, I’m not going to say lusty,” Kathy presses with a wry smile, “but, with more vigor.”

If none of these songs or techniques sound familiar, that’s by design. “This is never going to be a concert of familiar carols,” Kathy explains, though often there is one audience sing-along. She prepares pieces for the Burning Bright choir that resonate with her, sometimes arranging songs to fit the group. She did this for the Mary Chapin Carpenter lullaby, “Dreamland” – another piece to be revisited on the 2018 concert – by writing it for men’s voices, instead of a solo woman’s.

“Now Otter,” she continues warmly, “is a composer. He will come across a text he likes and write all four parts for it, or vice versa. He’s also more familiar with world music, bringing in pieces from Africa, from Syria, from musical traditions I’m not as fluent in.”

This is how Burning Bright keeps musicians and audiences coming back: By stitching together a colorful mix of lesser-known music, and welcoming darker themes – fear, grief, loss – along with those of light, hope, and joy.   

“One of the most rewarding and touching things for me,” Otter says, “was performing a short, very personal piece I composed reflecting on the deaths of several friends and family members. I received a thoughtful card from someone who had been in the audience that year, thanking me and telling me how it had helped her to accept her own mother’s death.

“I’ve also been blindsided by emotional reactions to pieces related to my daughter’s arrival in my family and in the community,” he continues. “One Stephen Foster lullaby, ‘Slumber My Darling,’ that Kathy arranged for tenor and bass voices, took me by tearful surprise at the first performance of our concert. I knew it was coming in the second concert and wasn’t expecting the same emotional response, but – surprise, again!”

On a lighter note, Burning Bright members gladly anticipate being caught off-guard by the wit of founding member-singer and sometime-banjo accompanist Dale Kittleson. Known for telling dad jokes when rehearsals get tense, Dale has reportedly encouraged chuckle-inducing costumes and lyrics, such as to the 2017 performance of, “Farewell, my friends, I’m leaving FaceBook…,” a satirical anthem about digital-device dependence. On another concert – without the knowledge of, let alone permission of, the conductors – Dale orchestrated a coup in the bass section. As the song’s verses lilted along, Dale and his cohort stood up and sang their part, “…five for the oxen standing by…” – in their highest falsetto.

“The entire church just erupted in laughter,” Dale says of the packed-to-capacity audience (almost always the case for Burning Bright performances). “I can’t remember who was conducting, but their jaw was on the floor. Then we basses sat down like nothing at all was out of the ordinary, and the sopranos, who followed us in the song, were cracking up, but somehow the beat went on. Now,” he says, with mock seriousness, “in what other group can you pull that off and know, even before you risk it, that your fellow performers will not excommunicate you?

“But that’s all concert stuff – the things the audience sees,” he continues. “Really, I keep coming back for this,” he says, gesturing to the rehearsal that’s just ended, “the privilege of getting together with this group – of catching up with really quality people and working hard on a rich program every year.”

Close to show-time each season, the Burning Bright choir is joined by local instrumentalists – bass, violin, guitar, clarinet, hand drums, recorder, harp, and more. Retired Luther College librarian and professional mandolin player John Goodin was among the first to perform on the concert. He now arranges music for mandolin and writes manuals for Mel Bay Publications – along with scouting out a reel or jig to play on the concert with Decorah violin teacher/performer (and professional vegetable grower) Erik Sessions. Their duet has become a Burning Bright tradition, almost always ending in a blazing, fast-as-they-can-play finale that rouses thunderous applause.

“Here in Decorah, musicians are treated with great respect,” John says, “but the Burning Bright audience is the best. Most years we don’t even know what we will play until the last week or two, so it’s a little bit like stage-diving – where you know that the audience will catch you.”

Proceeds from ticket sales for each Burning Bright concert go to non-profit organizations – usually shedding light on underserved populations at home or abroad. In addition to Decorah Community Food Pantry, the flagship beneficiary each season, choir members nominate and vote on charitable organizations with which they have personal involvement. 2018 beneficiaries are: Neighbors Helping Neighbors of Decorah; Northeast Iowa Peace & Justice Center; Re-Member of Pine Ridge, South Dakota; and The New Hope Jeremiah Project of Cape Town, South Africa.

So it happens that, each midwinter, a concert in the spirit of true community comes together. Performers wear no robes or formal dress – just “jewel-toned” concert attire that might “glow” in the soft light of the chancel. Adult singers steward younger ones, making sure they can see the conductor and be seen by the audience, amidst their shuffle into place, their sly little hands waving to family in the pews. There will be moments, without doubt, when the music makes space for sadness, doubt, or hurt – making the rising aura of peace and joy feel whole and true.

“When I look back and think of the beautiful voices and musical talents that each person has added to the Burning Bright concert, it makes me realize how unique each year is depending on who we are lucky enough to have performing,” says founding singer Betsy Peirce. “Vocal jazz scats, rich trained voices, tuba, and oboe – it’s so fun coming to the first practice each year, discovering new people who add to our tapestry of sound. The love that flows from the choir, to our directors, to the audience and back again is as palpable as it is audible – the joy on their faces as they listen – that makes it worthwhile.”

Like Burning Bright founder Ellen Rockne, Kristine Jepsen grew up in the Lutheran singing tradition and so loves performing on this winter concert. Outside of the alto section, she writes for literary journals and small businesses – more at kristinejepsen.com.

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Beneficiaries of Burning Bright Concerts Through the Year

Decorah Community Food Pantry
Decorah Public Library Youth Programs
Decorah Volunteer Fire Department
Domestic and Sexual Abuse Resource Center
Decorah Power
NAMI NE Iowa (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
Partners in Health, Haiti
Heart River of Hope, Mandan, North Dakota
Thistle Farm & Magdalene Residence, Tennessee
Project Care
Path to Citizenship
Thunder Rode Therapeutic Riding
Mother Health International’s Uganda Ambulance Fund
Decorah Community Free Medical Clinic
The Northeast Iowa Peace & Justice Center
Rushford Flood Relief Fund
Winneshiek Farmers’ Market Association
Postville Community Support
St. Bridget’s Catholic Church Hispanic Ministry Program, Postville, Iowa
Greater Area Pantry, Calmar, Iowa
Sunrise Foundation, Nicaragua
Postville Children’s Health Fund
Decorah Diversity Appreciation Team
People for Animal Welfare (PAW) of Northeast Iowa
Decorah Community Education and Arts Center

Exultation: Celebrating 20 Years of Burning Bright – a concert to benefit:

Saturday, December 15, 2018 at 4pm and 7 pm

First Methodist Church
302 W Broadway St
Decorah, IA 52101

Advance tickets recommended – available at Oneota Community Food Co-op .