I was happy to learn recently that my story for The Iowan magazine, Indigo Rhythms, won the Gold Award in the category of Culture Feature at the International Regional Magazine Association’s 31st Annual Awards in Reno, Nevada.
After graduating with my masters in journalism from the University of Iowa in May 2009, I remained in Iowa City working on a series of stories concerning the burgeoning blues music scene that was present along Iowa’s eastern corridor and stretched west to Des Moines.
It always struck me as impressive the quality of music as a whole that was available in Iowa, considering the stereotype about how the place was one big cornfield, yet I found vibrant live music venues throughout the state. Getting out to see live music is something valued there. It’s part of the culture and people cherish and support it. This has resulted in Iowa having a strong, talented musical community.
That being said, it remains interesting to me how the predominantly African-American genre of blues music has established such a rich history in a state like Iowa, which is one of the most non-diverse and majority-white states in the country.
A mixture of factors is responsible for this occurrence. Iowa’s eastern border rests on the Mississippi River, and the exodus of African-Americans from the South to places like Chicago brought Delta Blues into Iowa’s landscape.
It also has to do with where Iowa is located. Geographically it’s in the middle of America, near a variety of large cities, like Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Omaha, and St. Louis. As popular blues touring acts from the 1950s-60s crisscrossed the country, musicians would spend time in and around Iowa as they came through to Chicago, since it was a good spot to score another show, and close to several other major cities.
Radio also played a big part in spreading blues music around Iowa. The stations out of these large metro areas reached into Iowa, and that brand of music is what many kids grew up around.
The flavor of blues in Iowa is more of a hybrid – like a farmer’s blues, and tends to reflect the surroundings and depict life on the farm, like the hardship of a lost harvest, the joy of a strong summer rain or cooking up a batch of sweet corn whiskey.
Even though Iowa’s brand of farmer blues is less edgy than what is found in Chicago, it’s entirely unique to the area and lacks none of the dark subject matter found in regions considerably more urban.
The credit for this appears to be Iowa artists taking traditional blues foundations and laying them like a template across their state, but instead of copying them, they adapt their own subject matter and create a sound specific to their experiences.
It was with these concepts in mind that I put together Indigo Rhythms for The Iowan magazine’s Jan/Feb 2010 issue.
Thanks in particular go out to: Beth Wilson, my editor, Don McLeese, my advisor at Iowa, Rick Zollo, who knows all, and musicians:
Joe and Vicki Price
William Elliott Whitmore
and David Zollo