Posts Tagged: luther college

October 2019 Calendar!

October 2019! The fall fun just keeps on coming! Start your planning with this handy-dandy October 2019 calendar (you can download the pdf here). Have a blast – here’s hoping we have a nice, long fall season! XO, Inspire(d)

LOOKING FOR MORE DETAILS ABOUT EVENTS ON THE CALENDARS?
Check out these great October 2019 activities! In chronological order, each event’s number coincides with its number on the calendar!

9. October 5: Visit the Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm for Harvest Festival. Activities and fun for all ages on the farm! Details: www.seedsavers.org/harvest-festival

10. October 11: Karen Savoca and Pete Heitzman live in concert at Lingonberry, 218 W Water St,  Decorah, 7:30pm. Tickets: Oneota Coop, or 563-419-2999. Sponsored by The Retreat on Maple and Rocket Dog Books.

11. October 12: Run the Driftless Half Marathon – Iowa’s Most Scenic Half Marathon in Lansing, IA. Takes place on Great River Road National Scenic Byway. Relay and 5k options. www.thedriftlesshalfmarathon.com

12. October 12: Mussels, snakes and beavers; each has a role! Families are invited to explore Mississippi River Animals, Decorah Public Library, 11am & 1pm www.decorah.lib.ia.us

13. October 12: Eagle Bluff Banquet on the Bluff Fundraiser. Fun games, auctions, & delicious food round out this festive evening. Proceeds support our outdoor environmental education programming. www.eagle-bluff.org

14. October 19: pertNear 20 Mountain Bike Race. Come ride pert’ near 20 miles of singletrack and county roads in beautiful Viroqua. Camping available at race site, families welcome, good times! Reg/Info: www.bluedogcycles.com

15.  October 26: Dance to the sounds of the Hunter Fuerste Vintage Big Band Orchestra at the Lakeside Ballroom in Guttenberg.  $20.adv/ $25. Door. 563-252-2095 (M-Sat., 9-5) for tickets.

16. October 26: Eagle Bluff Trick-or-Treetops. Trick or Treat 30 feet high as you traverse your way through wooden and wire elements that end with a zip line. www.eagle-bluff.org

17. October 29: Tattoo Talk – “Tattoos, Medievalism, and White Nationalism,” Lindsey Row-Heyveld, Luther College Prof. of English, 7:00 pm at Luther, with After Party at Vesterheim. www.vesterheim.org

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.

A 2010 Highlandville Dance / Photo by Ellen MacDonald

“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.

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.

Q&A with Mollie B!

INTRO AND INTERVIEW BY BENJI NICHOLS

Life in the Driftless just wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for all of the dance bands. Sunday afternoons filled with polkas, two-steps… a schottische here and there – gracefully (or maybe not so gracefully!) sliding across the well-worn wooden floors of the Upper Midwest.

It would be easy to call them “old-time” dance bands, but that would be wildly inaccurate, particularly in the case of Spring Grove, Minnesota’s own Mollie Busta (aged 39!). Having grown up singing and playing – eventually more than one instrument at once – with her Dad and family in the Jim Busta Band, then leading the way through middle, high school, and Luther College music programs, Mollie has become a preeminent Polka Front-Woman on a national (and international) level. You’ll hardly know it when you meet her, as her personality radiates not only great music, but an honest and authentic love of people and the dance floor.

Mollie B. growing up surrounded by music

Mollie B. shared a variety of images of her life growing up surrounded by music. Photos courtesy Mollie B.

It’s quite possible you’ve seen Mollie B with the Jim Busta Band, or Squeezebox (with her husband, Ted Lange), or on the “Mollie B Polka Party” (most recently aired on RFD-TV), or, perhaps, in the Warner Brothers movie The Mule, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood.

Well, we’re here to tell you that your chance to slide across the floor is just weeks away when Mollie B, SqueezeBox, and the Jim Busta Band play the Spring Grove Fest Building, May 11, 2019 from 1-5pm. The event will help celebrate local non-profit Giants of the Earth Heritage Center’s 10-year anniversary.

Inspire(d)’s Benji Nichols caught with with Mollie B. to ask a few fun questions!

Read on, and mark your calendars to see her in Spring Grove this May!

Mollie B. and Squeezebox with Clint Eastwood

Mollie B. and Squeezebox pose with Clint Eastwood after filming their scene in the Warner Brothers movie, The Mule. Photo courtesy Mollie B.

I: It’s been quite a year since the release of The Mule with Clint Eastwood. Any favorite moments stemming from your musical feature and on-screen appearance?

Mollie  B: The premiere, itself, with Diane Wiest three seats down from me, Tim Moore two rows in front of me, Clint Eastwood and his family behind me, and Toby Keith to the right side of me, across the aisle.

I: We’ve had the great fortune to watch your continued success over the past decade or two from afar, but what’s the best part of coming ‘home’ to Southeast Minnesota?

Mollie B: The people – I have always loved the people, particularly my long-time friends! And the beautiful country side.

I:  We know you grew up in a “Polka Family”, but do you remember your first-ever polka dance, or have a specific early memory?

Mollie B: I loved dancing the polka a lot more than being on stage. Yes, it was fine to make the music, but dancing to it made my heart soar!!! I was simply on Cloud Nine every time I could go to a festival, or even a dance. I didn’t realize how unique my childhood was. Easily two-thirds of my weekends growing up were at dances and festivals. I danced with my siblings, mom, polka friends, and even lots of people I didn’t know. The joy this music and dancing brought to me was simply indescribable. My favorite festival from age four until 13 was Gibbon Polka Days. It took place the last weekend of July in Gibbon, Minnesota. There were times I would arrive at the festival on a Thursday and dance every day through Sunday. It may sound a bit stretched, but I really danced for 12 hours – each day – then I’d sleep on the grounds in our tent or rented pop-up camper. There were up to six locations with polka music on the grounds and as soon as one band finished playing a set of polkas, my brother and I would RUN to the next location where the band was playing polkas and would dance until they finished the set of polkas, then run again. This pattern would last for 12 hours every day. Our breaks were only for food about one time a day – an ice cream cone – and for the daily 4:00 parade, in which I usually played drums or trumpet in.

Mollie B.'s unique childhood of growing up at dances and festivals

“I didn’t realize how unique my childhood was. Easily two-thirds of my weekends growing up were at dances and festivals. I danced with my siblings, mom, polka friends, and even lots of people I didn’t know.” – Mollie B.

I: How did you ever discover you could play multiple instruments at the same time?!? It seems like some sort of sorcery!

Mollie B: Sorcery – ha! I have never heard it called that 🙂 In all honesty, it’s not difficult. I already was playing piano with two hands, why couldn’t I play two different instruments with two hands? So I did. Yes, when I am playing in the key of G in my left hand on the piano; my lips, breath, and fingers are playing in key of A on my trumpet, since the trumpet is a Bb instrument.

It was NEVER my dad suggesting any of my music ‘craziness.” He hired me as his trumpet player when I was 11, for in his eyes, that is what the band needed. Of course, I saw things differently. When I was eight, it was my idea to play my keyboard in the band for I thought the band needed it. When I was 14, it was my idea to play sax and clarinet, again because the band needed variety. Also, when I was 14, I felt the band needed to put on more of a show, so I added a little choreography. And yes, when I was 16, I really confused my dad by bringing a keyboard with me. I told my dad to trust me when he made the comment that he hired me to play trumpet, not piano.  So, I did it – I played my first gig on piano and trumpet – at the same time – when I was 16-years-old. And, the instruments kept multiplying. But I must admit, after playing three, the rest simply made sense.

I: We know you spend an incredible amount of time on the road – do you have a standout location that is somewhere you are always hoping to get to (or get back to!)?

Mollie B: I want to get to New Zealand someday – but I don’t need to play there. I have been told Brazil has wonderful music, and I would like to experience that. I would jump at the chance to return to the Dominican Republic with Tony Guzman and an ensemble again (I went twice with the Luther College Jazz Orchestra) And lastly, I play often in Texas, but since my first time there in 2009 – I have loved Texas. It’s like the Midwest, but warmer.  And I get called ma’am and miss down there, even by perfect strangers and long-time friends.  Who doesn’t love good old-fashioned manners?

I: Butter, sugar, or brown sugar on your Lefse?

Mollie B: Brown Sugar 🙂


Benji Nichols met Mollie B around 1994, thanks to the amazing Emily Engen, also from Spring Grove. Benji met Emily because of one Paul Scott, then owner of KRDI Radio in Decorah, IA – where somehow we were hired to be on-air announcers while we were in high school. Ain’t life funny? Now go dance a polka!


See you on the dance floor!

Mollie B with Squeezebox and the Jim Busta Band
Saturday, May 11, 2019, 1-5 pm – Spring Grove Fest Building
Tickets are $15 at the door, and $12 in advance at
www.mollieb.com or by calling 507-498-5070.

But wait, there’s more!

• Come learn the polka-hop (and other fun dances) with Mollie B and the Squeezebox team. There will be lessons at the Spring Grove Fest Building from 11:30 to 12:30, with dance instructor Patsy Linehan.

• All students 12 and under get free admission to the show, & teenagers are $5 (with a paid adult). Luther College student admission is also $5 (must present Student ID).

• There will be food and drink for sale at the Fest Building.