Posts Tagged: polka

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.

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.

Probituary – A Notice of Life: Eleanor & Tilford ‘Tip’ Bagstad

Interview by Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Spring 2018 Inspire(d)

Eleanor and Tip Bagstad were both born on Norwegian-speaking farmsteads in the coulees of Vernon County. Eleanor recalls the farm life, tending nine acres of tobacco, playing piano, as well as playing “teacher” with her eight siblings. Tip grew up in Timber Coulee, and farmed his whole life, in addition to “two or three other jobs… always”. Tip also ski-jumped as a youngster, including a trip to the National Jr. Ski Jump Competition in the early 1950s. At age 48, Tip picked up the fiddle and started learning old time tunes by ear. Eleanor played piano most of her life, and family friend Beatrice Olson, a retired dairy farmer, also happened to be an accomplished accordion player. The trio started playing in 1982, after being invited to play at a Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center meeting. A small article was written in the local paper, asking “Could it be, ‘The Norskedalen Trio’?”

The trio went on to play all over the upper Midwest for three decades, including Westby Syttenda Mai, many trips to Nordic Fest in Decorah, community dances in La Crosse, and The Yankton Old Time Fiddlers festival. The group was invited to perform at the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. and the Wisconsin Folklife Festival in Madison, WI. They contributed several tracks to the album Deep Polka: Dance Music from the Midwest, put out by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and also produced their own albums.

Tip also took up Acanthus and chip carving later in life. He was awarded a gold medal in carving at Vesterheim Museum’s National Exhibition of folk art in 2000. The couple has two daughters, Bonnie and Kimberly, who are both accomplished in regional health care fields. Eleanor and Tip’s 62 years of marriage are a testament to hard work and the courage to take on new challenges at every step of life.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Tip
– My Dad always used to say that it isn’t always what you make in the year, its what you have left at the end of it.

Eleanor – We were always told from home to be friendly when you meet people.

Tip – It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice!

What did you want to be when you grew up? What do/did you do?
Eleanor
– I always knew I wanted to teach. When we were little we’d all play school, and I always liked to be the teacher! After normal school, I went on to teach at 5 of the country schools in Vernon County, and played and taught piano too.

Tip – Well, my brother and I did construction work for several years, building many tobacco sheds and such. I hauled milk in the coulee for a few years when we were first married. I later took a job leading up habitat restoration crews for the Wisconsin DNR. For 17 years I led crews to restore trout habitat. Our crew helped create the LUNKERS structure, and several trout stream restoration ideas. I also always had cattle on the farm.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you want with you?
Well, probably food and water. Maybe our instruments!

If you could eat anything every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?
We like lutefisk and lefse, but not every day! We enjoy if for special occasions though. And we’ve often had good trout to eat over the years.

Tell us about…

Your wedding day:
We were married June 2, 1956 at Coon Valley Norwegian Lutheran church. We had 600 people at the reception as we both had a lot of relatives. It was an afternoon wedding, and of course at that time there was no dance, as it wasn’t allowed – we just had a big reception in the church and then everyone went home.

Your First Job:
We’ve both done many things, but both of our families raised tobacco. Eleanor’s family had nine kids, and nine acres of tobacco, which is a lot of tobacco. It was a big job, growing, tending, and harvesting. And then there was the work in the tobacco houses – Bekkedal, Lorillard, King Edward – we did that for years.

Your favorite memory:
We’ve been fortunate to travel to Norway three times. Our daughters came along as well, and they spoke Norwegian because that’s all their grandparents spoke. And of course playing music all over the Midwest for 30 years – so many great people.