Posts Tagged: nordic fest

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.

Read the Summer 2018 Inspire(d)!

Lots of fun things to look forward to in the Summer 2018 Inspire(d):

4-H • Dunning’s Spring bridge / Stonemason Ted Wilson • Viroqua’s Growing for Good • Adventures in the Driftless • Summer “Fill Your” Bucket List • Wabasha’s LARK Toys • Sum of Your Business: WW Homestead Dairy, Paper Butterflies, & More!

A note from Aryn:

Thinking back on my childhood, summer was all about adventures. Oftentimes, those adventures were just exploring the woods in my backyard or going down to the nearby creek with my cousins to squish cold mud between our toes.

So there’s nothing that brings me more joy than watching my kid run around our backyard, barefoot, hiding behind ferns and playing silly made-up games with her friends, or climbing up the rocks at Dunning’s Spring in Decorah. (Read Kristine Jepsen’s story about the new Dunning’s Spring bridge, and stonemason Ted Wilson on page 42 – it is fascinating!)

This is the stuff of summer, you guys!

Need a little inspiration to get you started? You clearly came to the right place! Check out our Summer Fill Your Bucket List, and some great events you might want to add to your Adventure Calendar this season (ever heard of the Catgut Paddle? It looks awesome!). Adventuring Ideas start on page 34, plus there’s a nice round up of resources available for exploring our little corner of the Driftless (pg 64), compiled by recent Luther grad Elizabeth Bonin.

CLICK HERE to read the Summer 2018 issue of Inspire(d) Magazine!

I know one adventure we’re adding to our list for sure: LARK Toys in Wabasha, Minnesota. How is it that I’ve never been to this giant (seriously, it’s 21,000 square feet!) toy store? Reading Maggie Sonnek’s story about how the current owners took on this “Willy Wonka-style” job – and how it connects to a slower pace of life – was truly beautiful (pg. 55).

Another big part of my childhood summer was 4-H. At the end of the school year, I would pick a pattern with my mom, and together we’d sew a project (inevitably we’d run right up on the fair deadline in July – an early sign of my aversion to deadlines?). I would often submit a photograph or another craft too, or maybe even do a presentation (I got to go to Cattle Congress as a junior member!). I remember painting awesome trash cans with our 4-H club name (the Cherry Valley Chums) for the Allamakee County Fair and working the food booth with fellow members.

(Sidenote: I totally could have entered something crafty with the Paper Butterflies Project Roxie and I put together on page 21.)

So yes: Fair time was the best! I think the Einck kids featured in this issue of Inspire(d) think the same thing (pg. 14)! Sara Friedl-Putnam tagged along with these three Decorah siblings as they took care of some of the animals they’re showing at the Winneshiek County Fair – from chickens to dogs to sheep to goats! Going through the livestock barns (and the 4-H building) is one of my favorite parts of the fair, and it was fun to get the background on what it takes to get there, and learn some of the history behind my beloved 4-H organization as well (pg. 14).

We’ve got lots of other great stories woven throughout this issue too – Growing for Good in Viroqua, Wisconsin (pg. 26), WW Homestead Dairy in Waukon (pg. 51), a wonderful probituary, and more.

We hope you have a great summer, friends, and that this magazine helps inspires you to get out adventuring!

Looking forward,

Aryn Henning Nichols

CLICK HERE to read the Summer 2018 issue of Inspire(d) Magazine!

Nordic Fest Celebrates 50 Years!

NordicFest_Top

By Sara Friedl-Putnam • Originally published in the Summer 2016 Inspire(d)

It’s the last Saturday in July, and thousands of men, women, and children – some wearing bunads, the traditional Norwegian folk costume, others sporting silver Viking helmets – crowd Water Street in picturesque Decorah, Iowa. Norwegian and Scandinavian flags flap gently in the wind as a Hardanger fiddle resonates its spellbinding melody along the car-free street. The irresistible aroma of griddle-warmed lefse and piping-hot varme pølser wafts through the air; mischievous-looking wooden nisses peer out from glass storefronts; and residents and visitors alike exchange hugs and hellos (or hallos!).

Welcome to Nordic Fest, Decorah’s celebration of all things Norwegian.

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Nordic Fest 2016 button artwork by Lauren Bonney

Each July since 1967, this scenic small town has hosted a surprisingly big Norwegian celebration of treasured customs and traditions. Every year, the Fest and its numerous volunteers have improved upon the last, but there are certain – one might say “perfekt” – things that never change. Just as Decorah’s Nordic Dancers delighted crowds with Norwegian folk dances at the first Nordic Fest, so too will they at this year’s event. Just as ’60s-era Fest-goers strolled down Water Street to sample Norwegian fare such as lefse, kringla, and varme pølser (then just 50 cents a pop!), so too will this year’s visitors. Just as Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum hosted world-acclaimed rosemalers, weavers, and whittlers through its Folk Art School at the first Fest, so too will it at this year’s 50th. And just as talented musicians – many roaming freely along Water Street – entertained the estimated 35,000 people who flocked to the inaugural fest, so too will musicians highlight Nordic Fest 2016.

“The Nordic Fest of today is very similar to the Nordic Fest of 1967 – it’s actually remarkable how true it has stayed to its roots,” says Decorah native (and unrivaled Nordic Fest expert) Dawn Svenson Holland, daughter of fest founder Gary Svenson and author of the soon-to-be published “Nordic Fest: 50 Years Strong” coffee-table book (see below for book details).

It was late July 1966 when actress and screenwriter Helga Lund Algyer – then working with Vesterheim and enjoying life in her husband’s hometown of Decorah – read a “New York Times” article about a Scandinavian Festival in Junction City, Oregon. She approached her longtime friend, Decorah businessman Mike Dahly, with a copy. It was this simple nudge got Nordic Fest, year one, rolling.

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“Helga loved Decorah and thought that this was something the town could do to promote tourism,” recalls Dahly, a founding Nordic Fest board member. “I thought the idea had real promise, so I talked to Marion Nelson, then Vesterheim’s executive director, to get his read on it. He liked the idea a lot, with the stipulation that it be an educational, family-friendly event.”

Soon Dahly was pitching the festival to his fellow Jaycees. They were on board from the start.

NordicFest_CrowdShot“As young Jaycees, we didn’t know how to say ‘no,’ never mind all the hard work or the fact that we had never done anything like this before,” recalls Jerry Aulwes, longtime Decorah city councilman and an active Jaycee at the time. “The Luther College Woman’s Club, which ran Syttende Mai, was also pushing for a more community-wide Norwegian-themed event so the timing seemed right.”

In August 1966 a small group of Jaycees – Dahly, Aulwes, Svenson, Darrell Pierce, and Harry Olson (Nordic Fest’s first president) – began meeting weekly at the Tap Room of the old Hotel Winneshiek to plan the very first Fest. The five men – along with Nelson and Phyllis Leseth, a tireless community volunteer affectionately called “mom” by her fellow Fest planners – are recognized as the event’s founders, though countless volunteers and supporters played major roles in bringing the first Fest to life.

Among those individuals were the board members’ spouses, many of whom worked long hours themselves to prepare for the first and following fests; Betty Hacker, who directed the first group of Nordic Dancers; Jane Norris, who spent countless hours working with Dahly and Leseth to publicize the Fest throughout the Midwest and beyond; Betty Seegmiller, Nelson’s assistant, who typed (and retyped and typed again!) the first Fest program; and Dr. Gale Fletchall, founder of Junction City’s Scandinavian Festival. “Dr. Fletchall offered a lot of great advice,” recalls Dahly, who called and corresponded with the Fletchall on several occasions. “He strongly advised that Nordic Fest be a family-friendly, nonprofit, community-wide celebration. And he stressed the importance of authenticity.”

With that vision in mind, the Jaycees, Vesterheim, and a dedicated group of community-minded volunteers set to work turning a town of 8,000 tucked into the wooded ridges and limestone bluffs of Northeast Iowa into a little slice of Norway for four summer days. The founders worked for nearly a year to hammer out the details of launching a community fest on a budget of little more than $2,600. These funds were raised through the selling of $50 Fest founders’ memberships and $10 sustaining memberships.

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The decisions that year were seemingly endless. How many days should the Fest run? (Four, later shortened to three.) Should Water Street be closed to vehicular traffic? (Yes.) What should the first Fest theme be? (“This is Norway.”) Who should “profit”? (Only nonprofits, which, in turn, would use funds raised through food sales for community betterment.) Would there be a parade? (Yes, and, in fact, there were four that first year.) Who should provide the food? (Community groups like the sorority Beta Sigma Phi “manned” food booths, while local church congregations served up full Norwegian smorgasbord dinners.) How should directors “run” messages and other updates back and forth throughout the fest? (By riding bicycles.) Would there be fireworks? (No, not initially, but a Sutr “Norse fire giant” celebration replete with a torchlight parade and bonfire did take place.) Should alcohol be served? (No.)

The decision to hold the fest the last weekend of July was easy, says Aulwes.

“Marion Nelson did a study to find the summer weekend with the best weather in Decorah,” he says. “It turned out it was the last weekend in July.” That doesn’t mean Mother Nature has always cooperated. During one of the early Fests, strong winds toppled pressurized Pepsi Cola tanks and sent jets of Pepsi spouting 20 feet in the air. Another year early on, pouring rain soaked thousands of Grand Parade spectators. “We had had a very dry summer, and everybody was so thrilled to get that rain,” recalls Aulwes. “No one moved – they were going to enjoy that rain, and that parade, no matter what.”

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There have, of course, been some major changes to the Fest in the 50 years since its founding. A beverage garden offering beer was established (much) later, in 2001. Other additions like the Elveløpet “river race” (launched in 1978, with little nisses as distance markers) and button sales (begun in 1995) as well as free activities like the Troll Walk, fireworks, rock throw, and lutefisk-eating contest have provided diversified entertainment and additional revenue streams that have allowed the Fest to survive and, in fact, prosper over the last 50 years, drawing well more than a million attendees since its founding.

But still, this year is an anniversary Fest founders never imagined they would see.

“We had no idea it would last this long,” says Aulwes candidly. “We had a lot of hopes, but, no, we had no idea. A lot of people said it would never work, and we really didn’t know what we were doing, but somehow it worked, and worked really well.”

For more information on Nordic Fest 2016 – to be held July 28-30 – visit www.nordicfest.com.

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Sara Friedl-Putnam experienced her first Nordic Fest in 1997 and, ever since, has enjoyed being a “little bit Norwegian” for the last weekend in July as an Elveløpet runner, lefse booth volunteer, and overall fest enthusiast.

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Order ‘Nordic Fest: 50 Years Strong’ ­– and help preserve fest history!

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into by committing to this book,” admits Dawn Svenson Holland, author of the book “Nordic Fest: 50 Years Strong.” “It’s been more time-consuming than I ever expected, but it has also been more rewarding – it’s felt like a labor of love.”

Svenson Holland, daughter of longtime Nordic Fest historian Gary Svenson, drew heavily upon her father’s work preserving the Fest’s history in researching the book. “I could not have completed this project without the clipping books my father put together,” she says. “And I do believe that had he been alive, he would have written this book.”

Proceeds from the 300-plus-page coffee-table book will support the permanent placement of the Nordic Fest archives at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah. The book includes 22 chapters of Fest history, as well as a section for recording personal Nordic Fest memories. It also includes a DVD with archival footage of the first Nordic Fest and a promotional video made for the 25th Nordic Fest.

Orders may be placed online at www.nordicfest.com. The pre-Nordic Fest cost for each book is $50, with a limit of five books per person. The cost increases to $65 per book at Nordic Fest.

What’s on tap for Nordic Fest 2016

The following entertainment schedule is subject to change.

NordicFest_NordicDancersHeadliners
Thursday, July 28
Absolute Hoot

Friday, July 29
Time Machine

Saturday, July 30
Chris Avey and Jeni Grouws
Anthony Gomes

Theatre production
“Ole and Lena’s 50th Wedding Anniversary”

Additional entertainment

Kyle and Dave, Jim Busta Band with Mollie B, Foot-Notes, OK Factor, Miles Adams Band, 2Tall4U, The Silos, John Goodin and Erik Sessions, Luren Singers, Nordic Dancers, Jason Huenke (comedy juggler), Kevin Lindh (balloon artist), ArtHaus (children’s activities), and the Trolleri Players (roaming trolls and drama troupe)