Small Iowa Town, after World War Two

Nostalgia may be cheap, but none-the-less, we feel it. Perhaps by “cheap,” we mean “common,” and if so, should artists always flee that, the common experience? Interrogating the common may verge on an obligation in many answers to that question. What is it in our mundane experience that we may share with others, that we can bring something else to?

Here’s an attempt I made a few years ago to do that, accompanied by some music I wrote and performed earlier this year. I think it’s an example of some principles and risks in this approach. What are they?

How common is your common? On one hand we often enjoy and seek out the exotic, and art can help us explore that too. I’ve spoken here before about how the exoticism of some of Keats attracted me as a teenager, and the strangeness of Surrealism and the gnomic statements of Wallace Stevens attracted me before I could understand all that they were on about. But just as well we may be attracted as readers and listeners to things that speak to our own parochial experiences. Why would we read or listen to work about ourselves? Are we hoping to learn something just beyond what we already know? Or is it, as it was once said about the readers of small-town newspapers, that they’re read by the townspeople to see what the editor missed?

In these ways you may be helped if your common is shared by a lot of people, who know they share that commonness, or it may be best if your experience is novel enough to not be very common at all, and where the attraction is that common human motivation: curiosity.

How important is your common? Some works spend a good deal of effort making the case that the reader or listener is wrong in not thinking that the common experience the creator is examining is important. Others have a lighter load to lift: those who’ve witnessed momentous events or taken part in widely recognized essential activities.

The degree of difficulty for the former is considerable. You may bore your reader or listener with making your case for the value of the seeming unimportant—or not make your case vividly enough and have them give up with a “who cares” shrug.

Why would one then choose to explore something generally considered unimportant? Well, a good deal of art doubts hierarchies of experience. Societies invest a lot in hierarchies, and artists like to overthrow them. Societies are often wrong, cruelly wrong sometimes, in those constructs. Artists aren’t always right in their alternatives, or completely right, but we are tempted by angels and devils to try.

Rules of the Game 1080

Back in 1973 I hosted a visiting German artist in New York. The musical souvenir he was bringing home was a copy of Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider,” a novelty hit single about a long hair at a redneck bar.** German appreciation of American music was it’s own approximation. This picture: “Rules of the Game” is by Renée Robbins, taken in Iowa in 1977. The player in it seemed sort of Charlie Daniels-ish to me.

 

What do you bring to this common experience? Why does your expression, your examination of some common experience need to exist? As a matter of political and social persuasion, the second dozen or even the second hundred similar account of a similar experience and evaluation of it may add weight to the scales of attention or justice. An atrocity like George Floyd’s needless death gains some of its power and value not because it’s unique, but because it’s not. It’s not the first or the second, or the hundred and first. We ask, we view, in a way that it be considered as if it’s the first, as if it’s an only. We ask too, fervently, that it be considered as if it should be the last. But in the world of the arts, of chosen creation, we have a burden in making the same point over again worthwhile.

But of course, we do take up this challenge. How many poems, how many songs are about the flush of love and desire? How many works of art are about the absences of death? By some accounts, all of them that are any good. I think there’s a great middle range between love and death that is open too to artistic expression, the range of how we see, feel, hear experience between those two poles. It may seem trivial compared to the existential fact of death or the powerful urge of joined fertility—but great or small, your charge is to bring something else to this common experience large or small, call it beauty, call it a frame, call it music, call it a vibration that we can feel together.

Now, let me exit the high falutin and get down to today’s piece and see how I dealt with an element of my common in “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two.”

Small Iowa Town after WWII

I had my own mondegreen moment listing to this today. I heard myself saying in line 23-24 “Seeing the storefronts in their row inhaling silently the adults…” instead of what I wrote above. I may keep the unintended revision.

 

First off, the subject matter is problematic. The experience I speak of here is shared by few even of my age cohort, and every day by fewer, as older generations pass on. Yet, it also has little appeal of exoticism. In my grandfather’s time and before this culture, the small rural American town, was common, and a considerable amount of art (much of it not high-art, and much that was aimed at the cultured market was critical) dealt with it. As I said in starting this post, a sentimental or wistful nostalgia is considered cheap and if it’s also not even considered common to the reader/listener, there’s no path to success.

I will note that I consider the experiences I recount in this piece as exotic. I’ve spent over half a century away from it, it seems strange/familiar to me now, an unusual construction. I make in my defense a common plea of the artist being accused of trafficking in cheap nostalgia: I’m really talking about how memory, change and experience work.

Is it important? I’m not sure. That I’m writing this generalized essay says that I doubt you will think it so. I plowed this field early in this project with one of the least popular pieces ever presented here: “Homeopathic Hometown,”  and this may not fare any better. I plead the audacity of the artist that wants to tilt at hierarchies of importance.

Right now there’s a good deal of mistrust in America between the generalized* remaining rural citizens and it’s urban and suburban centers. Even though I’ve been away from small-town Iowa for so long, I can understand loss and aggrievement.

So, what can I, what did I, bring to this problematic subject to make it worthwhile? I tried to talk about the strangeness of the change, that part I find exotic, that far-away world that assumed permanence of a kind. I leaned on the slowly evolving music a good deal today. As in “Homeopathic Hometown”  there’s a linkage that I feel viscerally between a certain kind of German music of the late 1960s through about 1990 or so, a melding of the then new synthesizer sounds with a particular European interpretation of progressive rock music, and my experience of these changed small towns. When I listen to the Bowie Berlin trilogy I get nostalgic not for a Berlin I’ve never known, but for a rural Iowa I think I know. It’s one of those odd links I can’t quite explain, but feel. Long rolling songs about long rolling hills and valleys. Small as a palpable absence. Grant Wood as a German Expressionist.

The player gadget to hear “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two”  is below. It’s a bit longer than most things here, but I had to give it some time so the music could expand. Perhaps the music will work even if the words don’t succeed.

 

 

 

*Well, there’s a good deal of mistrust, period. And the residents of country and remaining small towns are not monolithic stereotypes. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now—and nobody likes to be reduced to a type—but generalizations of a divide and a mutual dislike and attribution of bad motives aren’t baseless.

**At the conclusion of the song, singer Daniels states that he wishes he’d taken his misbegotten car trip west on a route (across Iowa) through Omaha instead of through Mississippi.

The Ferris Wheel (a childhood vision)

In Minnesota there’s this thing, The State Fair, that’s hard to explain. Up to a couple-hundred thousand folks show up each day to it, for various hard to describe reasons. There are events, exhibitions, livestock judging, sales booths, musical acts, lots of fried and sweetened food that can be eaten by hand. You could describe it as an overgrown county fair, and as with those, there’s a midway with clanking and spinning rides and games of chance.

Rural and farm folks come to it from around the state, but it’s held in the Twin Cities, a thoroughly urban place, and most of the attendees that fill much of the fairgrounds are from The Cities. Some like me would be once rural folks, or children of rural folks. A place like the Twin Cities is full of those, people remembering that place not present in location or time, À la recherche du temps perdu,  “In search of lost time.”

I came to the Twin Cities in the 70s, not directly from the small-town Iowa of my youth, but from New York, where there are fewer intimate thoughts of farmlands. Shortly after arriving, a woman I was in love with told me there was this guy on the local classical music radio station, who was no longer playing Liszt and lieder, but rather other stuff—Beach Boys, folk music, whatever. And she said: he tells stories about this small town he’s made up.

I stopped her there. I admired her smarts, the things she knew, but I know how those stories go I said: We’re ignorant and out-of-touch, those rude mechanicals. As the urban-cool Bart says in Blazing Saddles  when introducing the Waco Kid to the little town: “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”

“No, he’s different. If you listen, you’ll see.”

He had a 6-9 morning show. We listened together. He’d spin humorous stories of invented events and institutions between records. Some of it was sort of like Jean Shepherd’s shtick, still playing in New York on WOR radio when I left, but as she had said his take on small town life was different. His stories then often had a delicate balance between young Twin Cities residents, some of them college students with literary aspirations such as myself, and their hometown folks. He was generationally close to the former, but he often had them play their pretentions toward great changes for humor against the set in their ways but caring older generation back at the hometown. From my seat then between those two worlds, this was a high-wire act, and he stayed out of falling into the netting or sawdust.

He was also forming up a weekend radio show, that graveyard of radio without the reliable drive-time slots. He’d perform them live anywhere locally there was room for the hundred or so attendees. He modeled it on the radio country music variety show, something that still existed in my youth, but except for the Grand Ole Opry had died out. But instead of country music acts, most of which would have little interest to a metropolitan public radio audience then, he stocked his traveling stage with young musicians that played the West Bank bars and coffee houses around the Twin Cities. Some of these players played trad jazz or blues, some were folkie singer-songwriters, some were from the more museo-wings like Leo Kottke or bluegrass revisionists, others from a variety of old-time-music revivals. In recent decades everyone knows what to call this mixed-bag: Americana. But in the 70s no one did. This weekend show, Prairie Home Companion,  sort of helped make that category up.

A man I knew once charged with programming a radio network liked to say regarding the success that show eventually had: “Prairie Home Companion  is a lousy idea for a show—except for a show with Garrison Keillor.” A lot of folks doubted that thought, and while some attempts to do “something like, only….” have had decent runs, no one else ever made it work to the degree Keillor did.

There seems to have been a reason that the younger, moved to the cities generation in his stories often had writerly ambitions, because Keillor continuously worked a side career as an author of short stories, poems, novels, columns and opinion pieces. The thing that connected that side and the radio show was “The News from Lake Wobegon,”  a varying length monologue that came near the end of each show.

This wasn’t standup, it was storytelling. Unlike the comic and parodistic skit elements that became an increasing part of the show over its run, it wasn’t read direct from a script radio-drama-style, but told, and written entirely by the host. This was the small town and its history he’d made up in its most concentrated and alive form. It had that live performance immediacy. Occasionally there’d be short dead air pauses, some intended. There’d be things repeated, some as intended refrains. Moods and directions would be mixed, sometimes turning within the course of a sentence as it does in ordinary recounting. Is he thinking, and that thought interrupting his story?

Sometimes it was a rousing tale, a good-hearted shaggy dog story on some foible. Other times along with the humor was sentiment, mood pieces buffered inside rueful rural characters. Occasionally, framed through some youthful ambition, there’d be poetic asides and lines such as the passage I bring to your attention today.

Even with the framing, it was a very pure thing, and like most things of that sort, some loved it and others found it somewhere between meh and tiresome. Keillor had a slow, even-voiced recitative, a sighing oboe that could reassuredly uncoil some from a basket while leaving others sleeping inside.

Say it with me, long-time readers: “All Artists Fail.” I last posted 5 minutes of wailing electric guitar arpeggios over my fresh translation of a hundred-year-old French avant garde poem. I’m not going to throw shade based on either some idea of universal criteria for art or a proper recipe for entertainment.

I remember hearing a version that included the passage I perform today. Did I hear it live on the radio on a Saturday night decades ago? Did I hear it later, on a distributed recording? I can’t say for sure, but as this ending summer was beginning, I was on the northern shores of Lake Superior. The cabin I was in, when some spitting rain opened the pores and raised white hairs on the smooth surface of the lake, had a couple of books. One was a book length collection of pieces from the radio show re-cast as linked short-stories and published after Keillor’s first retirement from live performance in the 1980s.*  Reading them was a good afternoon, but only this single small passage was drenched in déjà vu.

Leaving Home book jacket and author photo

Still raining, still dreaming. Keillor reframed monologues from the show he’d ended into a book for my rainy afternoon years later.
The ‘80s jacket author photo surprised me. Neither the bearded ‘70s guy with the light suit nor the older man I remembered.

The State Fair in Minnesota means the end of summer, a lost time that can be returned to and can’t be returned to. Here are a few sentences that a man once wrote and spoke on the radio. I’ll speak them today. Gave them a title of convenience and the music I composed on my naïve piano and then performed with a small orchestra setting using three woodwinds, a flute, and a few strings. My thought is that Keillor’s words could sound different to you when not performed by him, illuminated differently in the Parlando Project manner. The player is below.

 

 

*The book where I re-met this passage is called Leaving Home.  It’s available here or through other booksellers.