Iowa Roots exposes radio listeners to a wide array of artists

By Rachelle H. Saltzman

Iowa Roots is a 5-minute mini-documentary series and website that features music, stories, and talk with traditional artists from a variety of ethnic, geographic, occupational, and religious groups found in Iowa. Both the series and website debuted on July 4, 2003. A production of WOI Radio and the Iowa Arts Council, the spot is aired weekly every Friday at 7:35 a.m. during NPR’s “Morning Edition” on WOI (AM 640 and 90.1 FM), weekly during WOI’s “Midday,” and at various times on other public radio stations around Iowa and along the borders. The Iowa Arts Council, a Division of the Department of Cultural Affairs, has launched a companion website with audiostreaming, interview transcripts, artist biographies, photos, and links to other traditional arts programs and radio websites.

Iowa Roots was designed to expose listeners to the voices of people who carry on a variety of cultural traditions. This series focuses on the arts, skills, and knowledge that make us who we are in our communities. It is based on several years of fieldwork by folklorists Steve Ohrn, David Brose, Riki Saltzman, Karen Heege, and several contract fieldworkers. The theme music for Iowa Roots is from the “Highlandville Waltz,” performed by Foot-Notes and composed by Greg Dale and Erik Sessions, all from Decorah.

This project began because, for years, I’ve wanted to do some kind of radio series. After consulting over the years with colleagues Rick March, Phil Nusbaum, Nick Spitzer, and Lisa Richardson, I finally put a proposal together and contacted Dave Becker, Program Director at WOI Public Radio in Ames, Iowa. A month later, Dave called, said they were definitely interested, and invited me back to Ames to meet with Curt Snook, who is in charge of special projects at WOI. Curt and I brainstormed through possible formats, he listened to piles of festival tapes, and we finally came to the conclusion that, to have the right feel, we needed to do directed interviews specifically for this project.

We decided early on that Curt would do the sound engineering and editing, and that I would pick the people we interviewed, though there are a few whom Curt has suggested. These were very rarely “cold” interviews. In all but one case for the first set of thirteen recordings, I had known folks for several years and had interviewed them previously.

Jorge Morales was born in Mexico City where he learned to play the requinto, a small acoustic guitar, from older musicians and recordings.

The first set of Iowa Roots programs features fifth-generation musician Bill Melton of Ankeny; Lao storyteller Khampheng Manirath of Des Moines; Tai Dam community leader and dancer Somphong Baccam of Des Moines; Mexican guitarist and singer Jorge Morales of Des Moines; Italian ornamental ironworker Dominic Rizzuti of Des Moines; meat locker co-owner Rich Anderson of Stanhope; Greek Orthodox priest Father Peter Cade of Des Moines; Bosnian cultural worker and dancer Aldijana Radoncic of Des Moines; Italian-American Cultural Center Director, Patricia Civitate, Des Moines; Meskwaki tribal elder Everett Kapayou of Tama; Tai Dam community leader and musician Houng Baccam of Des Moines; Mexican community leader and dancer Sam Carbajal of Marshalltown; and Mexican food expert Martha Garcia of Marshalltown. Convenience, proximity, and scheduling issues for all involved turned out to be the primary factors in choosing those to be included in this first series.

Following the recommendation from Rick and Phil that we go for the NPR “break” slots, we decided on a five-minute format with a musical signature, brief introduction, and then a closing tag. Deciding on the tune took some time. We needed something recognizable and catchy but not too tied to any one culture group or region of Iowa. I didn’t want a “folkie” sound, and Curt wanted to make sure we had something neutral enough to fit all possibilities. When I played him Foot-Notes’ recording of the “Highlandville Waltz,” we both thought it did the trick.

Figuring out the format or structure of the show took a bit longer. We were lucky enough to have a wonderful intern, Sarah Hegland, who did quite a lot of the work. We knew we needed a general introduction and we needed to introduce each topic and speaker. In some cases, the interviewees said something that allowed us to use their voices. Sarah came up with a “cookie” that included some kind of opening hook, musical or other audio examples if they were appropriate, comments that illustrated one particular topic that significantly represented that person’s culture, particular tradition, or an encounter with American and/or Iowa culture. A final quote to create some kind of conclusion, the end credit, and our musical tag finished up each piece.

It sounds simple, and in some ways it is, but, as a folklorist, what I had to learn was how to do a 30-minute focused interview, which was then going to be edited down into at most two 3 ½ to 4-minute little documentaries. Any longer drove Curt and Sarah crazy with too much often extraneous and repetitious information. He’s recently advised me that I need to get the interviews down to 10-15 minutes, which means even more focusing on my part—as well as more communication between the two of us before the recordings actually take place.

Once Sarah and then Curt had created nearly final pieces, Curt and I (Sarah ran out of funding and left to share her talents with media folks in the UK) made the final edits. It’s been an interesting balance of us suggesting final cuts as we peer at the sound wave files of the WAV editing program. Enough distance from a particular interview makes it possible for us to take turns playing the heavy in deciding which of the other’s favorite bits needs be eliminated.

Dominic Rizzuti, born and reared in southern Italy, learned his craft by hanging around the blacksmith’s shop, where they shoed horses and donkeys and sharpened tools for farmers.

Once the editing was done, it was our turn again. Jill Hermann, the web designer for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs developed the Iowa Roots website. Photos needed to be added, and years of archiving slides paid off, as did those seemingly thankless hours of writing artists’ bios for NEA grants, festival programs, and the like. Interns, volunteers, and support staff did the first round of transcripts, and all interviewees were sent their bios and transcripts for final approval before we put them on the website.

DCA and WOI staff also met before the website was developed to determine the best time to launch the series and the website. A group of very kind colleagues graciously provided critiques on the website before it was launched. Finally, everything was done. The press releases were sent out, and information also appeared in the Iowa Arts Council's newsletter and WOI’s newsletter.

Feedback from the interviewees and their communities has been totally positive. Those who’ve been documented have had a positive experience, and they are thrilled to have the publicity. In some ways, this experience has been like a miniature version of Iowa’s sesquicentennial folklife festival. But I also believe the radio project has been positive because we have not rushed the process, and because everyone involved in it, including the tradition bearers, has been involved in the planning and implementation. We’ve taken care to make sure we have permission to include contact information (and note that some bios do not include it).

We are now done recording the interviews for the second series, and Curt is busily editing. I’ve started compiling the biographies and lining up transcribers. I continue to select photos, and I’m still rounding up language translations for several of the first series. This is definitely a work in progress, and we’re hoping to add curriculum material sometime in the next several months—an idea we stole shamelessly from the Wisconsin Folks website.

The next set of thirteen interviews and the companion website will be ready the second week in October. On our play list schedule are BBQ restaurant owner George Battle of Ames, several members of the Amana Colonies, rug weaver Dorothy Trumpold, quilter Caroline Trumpold, teacher and artist Gordon Kellenberger, tinsmith Bill Metz, broom maker Joanna Schanz, the African-American gospel group Psalms of Cedar Rapids, Eastern Iowa old-time fiddler Guy Drollinger, father-daughter folklorico dancers and teachers Arnulfo & Karina Camarillo, Norwegian cook Eunice Stoen of Decorah and her farmer/hunter husband Wilbur Stoen, and Norwegian wood carver Harley Refsal, also of Decorah.

Rachelle H. Saltzman, Ph.D., is the Folklife Coordinator for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

Published 2003 by the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. Do not reprint without permission.