Northern Minnesota to Douds, Iowa
In northern Minnesota, the Mississippi River is a narrow stream, running through lakes and marshes. The Ojibwe (Chippewa) named it "Mizi Zipi," "the great river," and we find members of the tribe still poling their canoes along its banks, harvesting a fall crop of wild rice. At a small-town powwow, they gather to socialize and celebrate their ancient but still vital culture. We focus on a local drum group, Chippewa Nation, as they play for gaily-clad dancers at the powwow, and we join two members at the riverbank as they sing intimate, courting songs and talk about their lives and music.
By the time it reaches Brainerd, the river has passed the lake region, and is a clear, free-flowing stream. On a winter evening, we visit the Skål Club Spelmanslag at a rehearsal in a thickly wooded cabin, the home of a local fiddle maker. A large, loosely-knit group of Scandinavian immigrants, they play the fiddle tunes of the old country, a dozen or more musicians joining together in a rich tapestry of sound. At his home, we visit group leader Paul Wilson who sings an American comic song in "Scandihoovian" dialect and describes the importance of music as an avenue for the rediscovery of his heritage.
Coming into the Twin Cities, the river broadens, and the music follows suit, showcasing the range of contemporary sounds. The metro area is home to a fertile rock scene, and the most successful band to emerge onto the national stage is Soul Asylum. We visit their rehearsal loft in an old warehouse district, and hear them talk about the low-key comforts of the Minneapolis scene. They hang out later with post-punk riot grrrl pioneers Babes in Toyland at a bowling alley, then catch the Babes' show at a downtowm club. Balancing the ebullient energy of drummer Lori Barbero and the tortured cry of guitarist and singer Kat Bjeland, the Babes is an angry, tough, and surprisingly appealing band. Sitting in a local cafe, the three members are thoughtful and funny, laughing about the abrasiveness of their sound while explaining something of its power.
The Twin Cities have also boasted a proud folk tradition, stretching back to the days when Dylan started playing here in the early Sixties. In a rowdy bar in the university district, folk legend Spider John Koerner is joined by an all-star band of Prairie Home Companion regulars, including old partner Tony Glover, Dakota Dave Hull, Willie Murphy, and Peter Ostroushko. They stomp out a set of acoustic folk and blues, then adjourn to Hull's house to trade tunes.
On a quiet street in St. Paul, we visit the Twin Cities' growing Southeast Asian community--a Hmong cultural center, where a large group of Hmong qeej players, children learning to play a bamboo reed instrument used in rituals in the Laotian mountains where their parents were born. They dance as they play, a dozen small boys in perfect choreography. Two teenage boys talk about the discipline required to learn the qeej, then show off their performance styles, looking like break dancers as they twirl, tumble, somersault, and roll into a headstand, without ever missing a note.
In a far larger rehearsal studio, we join Sounds of Blackness, the 30-member group that has ranged from top gospel hits to soul dance numbers. In a shouting, dancing performance, they trace two centuries of African-American music, from slave-time spirituals to rap. We visit the group's founder and leader, Gary Hines, in his office, decorated with Grammys and other awards, then drive around town with him, seeing the neighborhoods where he got his musical roots. We also talk with younger members, hearing how they went from local church groups to international success.
South of the Twin Cities, the country gets more hilly, and the river broadens, running through a series of locks and dams. On the Wisconsin bank of lock number four, we find Karl Hartwich pulling his boat up to a floating tavern, the Dam Saloon, then sitting over a couple of beers on the saloon deck to talk about the German immigrant style known as "Dutchman music," running over examples on his button concertina. On a nearby hilltop, Hartwich and his band, The Country Dutchmen, perform in an outdoor tent at a polka festival, with Karl's mentor and polka legend, Syl Liebl, sitting in for a few tunes. As the dancers twirl, the Dutchmen stomp out a rollicking beat that mixes German oompah tuba with accordion polka and a touch of country guitar.
Downriver, in Davenport, Iowa, trumpeter Manny Lopez grew up playing Mexican music, but switched over to jazz in his 20s. Heir to a local jazz tradition that reaches back to the days when New Orleans bands on the riverboats inspired young locals like Bix Beiderbecke, Lopez is seen playing at a road race and in a nightclub during the annual Bix Festival. With his powerhouse son on drums, he blows his way through a jazz set that climaxes as he is given one of Bix's old cornets and recreates the master's solo on "Jazz Me Blues."
Just across the river, in Moline, Illinois, a very different polka band is playing a Mexican dance. La Otra Mitad sings the ranchera songs of the Mexican immigrants who for three generations have been working in Moline's railyards and meat-packing plants. Over the years, the various immigrant groups have mixed, and the band is led by an Italian accordionist, while its Mexican members recall playing as a fake Italian band in their youth, and boast that they can play full nights of anything from country to Slovenian music.
Greg Brown, one of the most successful folksingers in the country, brings the first episode to a close, with his rare mix of hip urbanity and country roots. He hangs out with an old friend, in the living room of his house in Iowa City, and Brown sings "Flat Stuff," his wry ode to the prairie. He talks about growing up in southern Iowa, with the range of musics that traveled up the river from the south. Then we wander down to his family farm, the rundown plot of land that inspired many of his most rooted regional songs, and conclude the hour with "Canned Goods," Brown's loving portrait of his grandmother.
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