Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota Faces: The musicians of Monroe Crossing July 3, 2015

Portrait #30: Monroe Crossing

Monroe Crossing musicians photographed during a 2013 performance at North Morristown.

Four of five Monroe Crossing musicians photographed during a 2013 performance at North Morristown.

They’re in the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. They’ve recorded 14 CDs to date. Twice they’ve appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York City. And in 2016, they will become the first Minnesota bluegrass band ever to perform in South Korea.

They are Monroe Crossing, a group of five musicians who rank as one of Minnesota’s favorite bluegrass bands.

On Saturday the performers, as they have many times in the past, take the stage at the oldest Fourth of July celebration in Minnesota, now in its 123rd year. That would be in North Morristown, a country church and school and a few homes clustered west of Faribault in the middle of farm fields.

The Trinity Lutheran Church and School festival grounds is the perfect setting for these musicians who present foot-stomping down-to-earth songs. They perform at 1:30 p.m. and then again at 4 p.m. And it’s free, although donations are accepted in on-grounds donation boxes.

Plan to arrive well in advance of Monroe Crossings’ concerts. The July Fourth celebration begins at 9 a.m., when food stands and games open. Yes, there’s plenty of great food including homemade pies, barbecued pork sandwiches, burgers and more. You can play bingo, hunt for a medallion, observe a flag-raising, bid on auction items, throw horseshoes, attend a parade (at 10 a.m.), listen to other musicians (The Jolly Huntsmen Polka Band, Sawtooth Brothers, Benson Family Singers and Downtown Sound), drink beer and more.

There’s also plenty of visiting. Old-fashioned handcrafted rides are available for the kids. This rural celebration is about as Americana grassroots wholesome goodness as you’ll find anywhere in Minnesota on the Fourth of July.

Ending it all is a 10 p.m. fireworks display.

FYI: Click here to reach the North Morristown Fourth of July website page for a schedule of events and directions.

You can also check out the event Facebook page by clicking here.

Click here to view a photo essay from the 2013 celebration.

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The Minnesota Faces series is featured every Friday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part IV: Touring the legendary Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa June 4, 2015

My husband exits the historic Surf Ballroom.

My husband exits the historic Surf Ballroom.

WHEN I MENTIONED to a friend that my husband and I were going on an overnight get-away to Clear Lake, Iowa, he immediately asked if we were touring the Surf Ballroom. We were.

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100.

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100.

The Surf is the focus for many visitors to this north central Iowa community. It wasn’t our main reason for traveling here. But we knew we couldn’t visit Clear Lake without seeing the famous Surf, site of Buddy Holly’s final Winter Dance Party performance before he, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a February 3, 1959, plane crash along with the pilot.

This display references "American Pie."

This display references “American Pie.”

It was, writes Don McLean in his song, American Pie, “the day the music died.”

Another tribute to the Surf's most memorable performed, rock n roll legend Buddy Holly.

Another tribute to the Surf’s most memorable performer, rock n roll legend Buddy Holly.

Now I’m not much of a music history person, nor a person with musical talent. I can’t read a note. I don’t have a particularly good singing voice. I typically cannot tell you who sings what and even had to ask my husband, before our arrival at the Surf, what songs Buddy Holly sang. He cited Peggy Sue and That’ll Be the Day.

The exterior ticket booth.

The exterior ticket booth.

Looking toward the interior lobby doors.

Looking toward the outside, this interior set of lobby doors are hefty and heavy. To the right is the original coat check area, not shown in this image.

This sign summarizes the importance of the Surf.

This sign summarizes the importance of the Surf.

Yet, even for someone like me who is rather musically illiterate, the Surf proved an interesting place. Built in 1948, the current ballroom (the first burned down) is on the National Register of Historic Places. And rightly so. From the exterior ticket booth to the heavy doors that lead into the dark lobby, where you can check your coat, the Surf holds that feel of yesteryear. It’s difficult to explain. But you feel that sense of entering a different world from a bygone era the minute you step inside. As if you’ve left Iowa. And today.

Just a sampling of those who have played the Surf.

Just a sampling of those who have played the Surf.

More historic memorabilia of Surf concerts.

More historic memorabilia of Surf concerts.

The lounge area features a stage, bar and lots more memorabilia.

The lounge area features a stage, bar and lots more memorabilia.

You'll spot numerous signed guitars on display.

You’ll spot numerous signed guitars on display.

Here you’ll discover a hallway museum of musicians’ photos, posters and history. And inside the lounge you’ll see stars’ guitars and more photos and other tributes to those who have performed here. If a musician’s picture is displayed, then he/she’s played/been here.

The ballroom stage.

The ballroom stage.

On the Friday afternoon we arrived at the Surf, we almost didn’t make it into the actual ballroom. Black curtains were pulled across two entrances and marked by “closed” signs. I peeked through the curtains to see musicians for Lee Ann Womack setting up inside. I failed to notice on the Surf website that the dance floor occasionally closes if a concert is scheduled. So be forewarned: Check the Surf calendar. Even better, call ahead.

But then, as luck would have it, Mark, who’s been working Surf security since 1978 and clearly loves this place and his job, parted the curtains and invited us inside with the admonition to keep our distance from the stage. He’d overheard our disappointment and said, “Since you drove a long ways…” We’d traveled only 85 miles. But another couple had driven nearly four hours from Omaha.

In the back are layers of booths, all original.

In the back are layers of booths, all original, and beach-themed murals.

Portraits

Portraits of Ritchie Valens, left, Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson hang inside the ballroom.

Signatures...

Signatures…

He led us onto the original maple floor dance floor, pointed us to the original booths (where I slid into one; it’s a tight squeeze), noted the beach themed décor (it is, afterall, the Surf), took us into a small room where musicians and others have signed the walls…

Each February, the Surf still hosts a Winter Dance Party.

Each February, the Surf still hosts a Winter Dance Party.

I wished I could have lingered longer in the ballroom, asked Mark to switch on more lights for better photos. But I didn’t press my luck. If not for his graciousness, I would have remained on the other side of those black curtains.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Shortly before our visit,

The day before our visit, the king of blues died. B.B. King’s promotional poster hangs in the lounge.

Lee Ann Womack's band was setting up on the afternoon of our visit.

Lee Ann Womack’s band was setting up on the afternoon of our visit. This was snapped just outside the front entry doors.

About a block away, this outdoor sculpture at Three Stars Plaza honors Holly, Valens and Richardson.

About a block away, this outdoor turntable/album sculpture at Three Stars Plaza honors Holly, Valens and Richardson. You can also visit the plane crash site about five miles from town. Because of rainy weather, we did not go there.

FYI: Please check back next week for the three remaining installments in this series of seven posts from Clear Lake, Iowa.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Play me a tune in Mason City October 9, 2014

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MY ENTIRE LIFE, I wished I could play the piano.

But opportunity never presented itself. Or more like limited finances never allowed for purchase of a piano or piano lessons. When you grow up in a large family without much money, piano lessons miss the budget. And when there are farm chores, time does not allow for piano lessons.

To this day, I cannot play a single musical instrument or read a note.

A sign invites pianists to sit down and play.

A sign invites pianists to sit down and play the public piano.

But I appreciate music and what a group of Mason City High School students, through Youth Investing Energy in Leadership Development (YIELD), have brought to their northeastern Iowa community via “Tunes for the Town.”

A "Tunes for the Town" piano located in Mason City's downtown Plaza.

A “Tunes for the Town” piano located in Mason City’s downtown Plaza.

Through this project, students painted four donated pianos which were then placed around Mason City in May. On a recent visit there, I discovered one of those public pianos outside Southbridge Mall in the downtown Plaza. The other three are located in Central Park, near KCMR radio’s studio and inside The Music Man Square.

This public piano project is especially fitting for Mason City, birthplace of “The Music Man” composer, Meredith Willson.

Beth Ann and Randy uncover the Plaza piano, revealing a color piano which mimics my friend's colorful shirt.

Beth Ann and Randy uncover the Plaza piano, revealing a colorful piano mimicking my friend’s colorful shirt.

On this quiet Sunday afternoon, my husband, Randy, and friend, Beth Ann, who lives in Mason City and served as our tour guide, uncovered the piano.

Randy has enough musical knowledge to play a short tune.

Randy has enough musical knowledge to play a short tune.

Then Randy pounded out some simple beginner’s tune and determined the piano needs tuning. His dad played piano and organ and even an accordion, before he lost his hand in a farming accident. But even after the accident, my father-in-law still tuned pianos.

The colorful back of the piano.

The colorful back of the piano.

No concert was performed that Sunday afternoon in the Plaza. But my unheard applause rings for those high school students and “Tunes for the Town.”

Just cover the piano once you've finished playing.

Just cover the piano once you’ve finished playing.

FYI: The pianos are locked at night and, as you can see, are covered to protect them from the weather. They will be moved indoors this winter.

A 22-year-old Des Moines man pled guilty recently to felony criminal mischief after he flipped and destroyed one of the pianos earlier this year. That piano has since been replaced.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

These youthful musicians give me hope July 23, 2014

Songs of Hope performers present a selection from India.

Songs of Hope performers present a selection from India.

IF EVER YOU DESPAIR in today’s young people, consider the youth participating in Songs of Hope, a six-week St. Paul based performing arts summer camp that is part of Sounds of Hope, Ltd.

Labeled suitcases were placed on the grass to inform the audience of the culture featured.

Labeled suitcases and stands denote countries of origin during featured songs.

Consider these young people who travel from all over the world—places like Vietnam, China, Italy, Turkey, Israel and Guatemala—to spread messages of peace, hope, understanding and more via song and dance.

As the sun sets, performers in traditional Vietnamese attire present selections from Vietnam.

As the sun sets, performers in traditional Vietnamese attire present selections from Vietnam.

These musicians lifted my spirits during a 90-minute outdoor concert last Saturday at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault.

Ready to perform in traditional Chinese attire.

Ready to perform in traditional Chinese attire.

They give me hope that, despite the unrest in the Gaza Strip, the tense situation in the Ukraine, the continuing war on terror in Afghanistan, the situation along the U.S. southern border, and, yes, even the gun violence in Chicago, we can resolve our differences, overcome cultural and other barriers, and live in peace.

Participating youth from all over the world paint their names on the underside of boxes upon which they perform.

Participating youth from all over the world paint their names  and hand prints on the underside of boxes upon which they perform.

Hope, though sometimes an elusive word, is worth believing in.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Featuring Albania...

Featuring Albania…

Waiting to perform.

Waiting to perform.

Song and dance from Vietnam.

Song and dance from Vietnam.

After the concert, goods from various countries and more were available for purchase. The young woman on the left is a native of Argentina who works as an opera singer in France. She's in the U.S. for a month with Songs of Hope.

After the concert, goods from various countries and more were available for purchase. The young woman on the left is a native of Argentina who works as an opera singer in France. She’s in the U.S. for a month with Songs of Hope.

A sample of the merchandise being sold.

A sample of the merchandise available for purchase.

From Italy...

From Italy…

FYI: Click here to learn more about Sounds of Hope, Ltd.

And click here to view my previous blog post on the Songs of Hope concert in Faribault.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Youth from around the world bring songs of hope to Faribault July 22, 2014

On a perfect summer night, Songs of Hope performed an outdoor concert at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault.

On a perfect summer night, Songs of Hope performed an outdoor concert at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault.

AS THE GOLDEN ORB of the sun shifted across the sky, as dragonflies dipped above the audience, as a distant train rumbled, Songs of Hope musicians performed before a rapt audience at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault on Saturday evening.

The performers focused on hope, like their name.

The performers focused on hope, like their name.

And the message they brought—in their dancing and in their singing—was hope.

Songs from Guatemala.

Songs from Guatemala.

Inspirational defines these performers who have been attending the St. Paul based international performing arts summer camp, Songs of Hope. Seventy musicians from 15 countries are currently on tour, presenting 33 concerts in 18 days.

Chinese youth perform as the sun sets.

Chinese youth perform as the sun sets.

Songs of Hope is “about people getting together and sharing culture and lives,” Program Director Tom Surprenant said as he introduced the group.

Performing outdoors at River Bend.

Performing outdoors at River Bend.

But with audiences, like the one in Faribault, they share so much more: possibilities, hope, peace, freedom, justice…

In nearly constant motion.

In nearly constant motion.

I was beyond impressed by these young people who sang with such force and enthusiasm and rarely stopped moving as they presented 90 minutes of songs spanning multiple nations from India to Jamaica to Guatemala to Italy to Russia and many other places.

The band provided upbeat music that made you want to dance.

The band provided upbeat music that makes you want to dance.

Even though I could not always understand, music bridges language and cultural differences.

Selections from Jamaica included "Linstead Market" and "Stand Up For Your Rights."

Selections from Jamaica included “Linstead Market” and “Stand Up For Your Rights.”

Truly, skin color, eye shape, height nor any other physical characteristic mattered as these youth performed.

Nevaeh, the daughter of friends, wore the perfect shirt for the concert.

Nevaeh, the daughter of friends, wore the perfect shirt for the concert.

They were to me just kids sharing a hopeful message through song and dance, showing us that we are all human beings who can get along if we make the effort, living in harmony and peace with one another.

Look at the fun these youth were having singing a song, "I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream" about ice cream.

Look at the fun these youth had singing “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream,” a song about ice cream, a universal treat.

Especially moving was the group’s performance of “I Am Malala,” based on the experience of the young Pakistani girl who was shot simply for pursuing education. “Fight for what you believe in…for education…infinite hope.”

Hands joined in hope.

Hands joined in hope.

After attending this concert, I am, indeed, hopeful.

My heart went out to this boy from Israel given the current situation there.

My heart went out to this boy from Israel given the current situation there.

And I expect so is the young soloist from Israel who sported a t-shirt reading “PEACE & HOPE from ISRAEL.”

FYI: CLICK HERE to see a schedule of the remaining performances in the summer concert schedule, which ends on July 27. The final concerts are in St. Paul, Roseville and Montgomery.

Please check back tomorrow for additional photos from the Faribault Songs of Hope concert. If you have an opportunity to attend a performance, do. Songs of Hope will inspire and uplift you.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Music and people-watching in Faribault’s Central Park July 2, 2014

The Minnesota State Band plays in the Central Park Bandshell in Faribault.

The Minnesota State Band plays in the Central Park band shell in Faribault.

WHEN THE OLDEST BAND in the state of Minnesota, The Minnesota State Band founded in 1898, performed in Faribault on a recent Thursday evening, the audience was bouncing and tapping and directing from benches and from their lawn chairs scattered across Central Park.

A snippet of the crowd listening to The Minnesota State Band.

A snippet of the crowd listening to The Minnesota State Band.

I love people-watching at concerts nearly as much as listening to the music.

To my right, an elderly man, hands waving, mouthed the words to Ferde Grofe’s “Over There Fantasie,” a World War I song otherwise known as “Ode to an American Soldier,” as the band kicked off its selection of half American and half British Isles tunes.

Before that, conductor Charles Boody bemoaned the loss of a time prior to and during WW I when folks would gather to sing. With the invention of the phonograph and radio, that musical era ended and he termed that loss “a shame.”

I expect that on this Thursday evening, more than a few of the mostly senior citizen audience members would have agreed with him.

As drums beat, feet tapped and swayed and I momentarily confused the drum beat with thunder. Rain threatened, but never fell.

Some audience members pulled out blankets.

Some audience members pulled out blankets.

The wind stirred a cool breeze through maple trees and forced some concert-goers to wrap wool blankets around themselves. Lily leaves seemed to dance to the music and a preschooler hip-hop-marched to the rhythm, Grandma keeping an ever watchful eye on her.

A few kids, like Emmett, attended the concert.

A few kids, like Emmett, attended the concert.

At the audience perimeter, Emmett’s sisters brushed chalk from the 20-month-old’s shorts after he plopped onto the sidewalk to roll his toy truck across chalk art created by children during Faribault’s recent Heritage Days.

And the band played on. Selections like “Chorale and Shaker Dance,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “”Knightsbridge March.”

Sirens wailed, more than a few times. A semi truck packed with caged turkeys rumbled by, destined for the Jennie-O Turkey Store blocks away. A biker zipped through the park and a walker walked the sidewalk around the park.

Barbara Sells of Mojoe 2 go prepares fresh lemonade for a customer.

Barbara Sells of Mojoe 2 go prepares fresh lemonade for a customer.

During a brief intermission, Barbara Sells of Mojoe 2 go squeezed lemons for fresh lemonade. It was her first time vending at the concert. She noted that her drive-through business, located by the Faribo West Mall at 190 Western Avenue Northwest, sells more than just coffee. You’ll find lemonade, too, and other cool summer treats. She’ll be back at the park.

Then the band played on.

When conductor Boody stepped up to introduce Arthur Sullivan’s music from the comic opera HMS Pinafore, the repeated shrill of a train whistle quelled his soft voice. He went with the moment, stating how much he likes trains.

Darkness began to fall as the band finished its performance around 8:30 p.m.

Darkness began to fall as the band finished its performance around 8:30 p.m.

And I appreciate evenings like this when I can take in the music of a fine band right here in my community as part of the free, yes, free, Thursday night Concerts in the Park series. The Faribault concert was partially funded by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. The Minnesota State Band’s other performances are all in the metro. (Click here to see the band’s schedule.)

The New Prague Community Band plays in Faribault this coming Thursday, July 3, presenting traditional band and German band music at the concert which begins at 7 p.m. (To see the complete concert series schedule, click here.)

A free outdoor showing of the movie, Monsters University, follows that performance. Outdoor movies are new to this year’s schedule with The Lego Movie slated to show after the July 24 concert.

I’d like to see more families at these concerts. When my three kids were growing up, we’d come nearly every Thursday evening to listen to the music. A relaxed park setting offers the perfect opportunity to expose kids to music in a venue where they needn’t sit. I observed numerous concert-goers swivel their heads to observe an active preschooler, smiles spreading across their faces. There’s something about kids and music and the outdoors…

For a $20 donation to support the band, concert goers received a teddy bear.

For a $20 donation to support the band, concert goers received a teddy bear.

And there’s something, too, about band members like trombone player Patricia Ireland, whom we applauded after conductor Boody noted that she’s been with the band for 50 years. Remarkable. The Minnesota State Band is the only remaining state band in the country. While once a state-funded group, the band today operates as a non-profit with all-volunteer membership.

And because we clapped with enthusiasm, the band played an encore while a helicopter thump-thump-thumped overhead, aiming toward the hospital.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Going strong for 122 years: Good old-fashioned Fourth of July fun in North Morristown July 1, 2014

JULY FOURTH in North Morristown is like a step back in time, a true grassroots celebration in the heart of rural southern Minnesota farm land.

A large crowd enjoys a free afternoon concert by Monroe Crossing.

A large crowd enjoys a free afternoon concert by Monroe Crossing on July 4, 2013. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Since 1892—that’s 122 years if you’re counting—Trinity Lutheran Church and School have observed our nation’s birthday, giving it the distinction as the oldest Fourth of July celebration in Minnesota.

The country church and school, and a cluster of several farm sites, are North Morristown, set among fields of corn and soybeans in Rice County west of Faribault.

The event is held at the North Morristown picnic grounds in southwestern Rice County.

The Fourth of July celebration is held at the North Morristown festival grounds, pictured here, in southwestern Rice County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

At 9 a.m. on July 4, stands and games open at the festival grounds across from Trinity. The grounds remain open until after the 10 p.m. fireworks.

This is an event which offers a day of good old-fashioned fun and memory-building for all ages, including the 10 a.m. parade that runs a block, or maybe two.

An overview of the novelties shoppe and games and rides building.

An overview of the novelties shoppe and games and rides building. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

I can’t recall how many times I’ve been to North Morristown on the Fourth. But enough that I’d recommend this celebration to anyone, especially those seeking a sense of simplicity, community, history, patriotism and Americana. All define the Fourth of July here.

A peek inside the ice cream shoppe.

A peek inside the ice cream shoppe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

From the parade to the flag raising to the patriotic program, medallion hunt, bingo, music, kids’ games and rides, silent auction and, let’s not forget the delicious homemade food, you’ll find it all.

Enjoying a pork sandwich and a beer.

Enjoying a pork sandwich and a beer at the 2013 Fourth of July celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The homemade pies are to die for as are the BBQ pork and hot beef sandwiches.

Blueberry pie.

Homemade blueberry pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

Just a tip. Don’t wait too long to order your slice of pie or you may not get the type you want. Pie sells quickly.

The vintage car ride for kids.

The vintage car ride for kids. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

I love everything about this celebration, but especially the kitschy kids’ rides that appear to have been around forever. I expect second and third generations are riding these rides. This event is definitely family-oriented.

The bluegrass band, Monroe Crossing, has performed at North Morristown the past seven years, presenting two concerts at the celebration.

The bluegrass band, Monroe Crossing, has performed at North Morristown the past seven years, presenting two concerts at the celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

Music comprises a major part of the festivities. The well-known bluegrass band, Monroe Crossing, is slated to perform at 1 p.m. and again at 5 p.m. on the main stage. Also on the main stage will be the Roe Family Singers at noon and 4 p.m. and the Mountain Lake Gospel Singers at 7 p.m. There will also be music in the beer garden.

Zinghoppers, a band focused on entertainment for the preschool and elementary-aged crowd, performs at 2:30 p.m.

The bingo callers.

The bingo callers. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

To see a complete schedule of the day’s events (because I can’t possibly list them all here), for directions to North Morristown and more, click here.

Visitors stopping by the ice cream shop can drop donations for the entertainment into a drop box.

Visitors stopping by the ice cream shoppe could drop donations for the entertainment into a drop box at last year’s celebration. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

Just a few other things you should know: Parking and entertainment are free, although I’d suggest you buy a $1 celebration button and/or donate monies to support the festival. Bring a lawn chair, just in case. There are picnic tables and bleachers but those can fill quickly.

Hot pork and beef sandwiches and cold beverages are served from this stand.

Hot pork and beef sandwiches and cold beverages are served from this stand. Burgers and other foods are also available.

Keep your food and alcoholic beverages at home as they are not allowed onto the church or festival grounds. There’s plenty of great food and drink available for purchase. Lock your vehicles. This may be in the middle of nowhere, but…

Homemade pies and ice cream are served from the pie building.

Homemade pies and ice cream are served from the pie building. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And did I tell you to order a slice of pie?

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 
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