Time Machine

If Linn County history had a playlist, these songs would be on it

Early musicians left behind memorable songs

The Decca label released six songs in 1934 by Joe Fisher and His Concertina Orchestra. The songs on the three 78-rpm rec
The Decca label released six songs in 1934 by Joe Fisher and His Concertina Orchestra. The songs on the three 78-rpm records were “Springtime,” “Helena Polka,” “Circling Pigeons, “Happy Go Lucky Polka,” ”Suitor's Waltz” and “Tinker Polka.” (The Internet Archive)
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Any greatest hits playlist celebrating notable musicians and moments in Linn County music history is likely to invite criticism, debate and howls of omission.

Understood.

But here’s a start to what such a playlist might look like.

• “Dore Wahredua” — This indigenous people’s song and dance told the story of Dore and Wahredua, mythical twin brothers who slayed the monster that killed their mother. Sung in Chiwere and characterized by a melody in perfect fourths, the Ioway Indians sang this song in Eastern Iowa, their final location in their namesake state, before treaties drove them south and west in the late 1830s.

• “Time Speeds Away” — A performance ofthis hymn is described in George R. Carroll’s book, “Pioneer Life In and Around Cedar Rapids,” an account of the area’s growth from 1839 to 1849. A Wesleyan minister in blue pantaloons and “large, substantial boots” took delight in singing this song in a key that was “far beyond the reach of common mortals.”

Fun fact: In 1837, Carroll’s neighbor, reputed horse thief Osgood Shepherd, built the first log cabin on what would become the original plat for Cedar Rapids.

• “Morning Star” This Moravian carol was popular in the late 1840s when the first Czech families came to Eastern Iowa. It is said that all of the early Bohemian settlers were musicians. The term “Bohemian” was used to refer to people from the entire Czech territory, which also included Moravia and Czech Silesia. There were about 100 Bohemian families in the Cedar Rapids area by 1868.

• “Corn Juice” — Performed in the 1890sby the worst act in history — or ingenious performers who were in on the joke, depending on how you look at it — the Cherry Sisters of Marion were famous for singing songs like this on vaudeville stages across the country.

Constantly catcalled and pelted by rotten fruit, the sisters sued newspaper critics who made sport of their shows, leading to a landmark Iowa Supreme Court decision confirming the right to critical analysis by the press.

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• “Entrance of the Gladiators” — This quintessential circus song, written by Czech composer Julius Fucik, actually represents the kind of non-polka Czech music played by many Bohemian brass bands in Cedar Rapids from the 1870s into the early 1900s.

Notable bands and various iterations among them include the Light Guard Brass Band, The Bohemian American Band, the Cedar Rapids National Band, the Frank Kouba Band and the Firemen’s Saxophone Band.

• “Springtime” This classic polka wafted through open windows into the streets of Czech Village when Bohemians played the 78-rpm shellac record on their gramophones. Released by Joe Fisher and His Concertina Orchestra in 1934, the band included multi-instrumentalist Rudolph “Ralph” Vavra, who would later form his own band, Ralph Vavra and His Gloom Chasers.

• “Five Guys Named Moe” Louis Jordan credited a 1942 run at the Fox Head Tavern in Cedar Rapids as the turning point of his career. Owner Rod Kenyon welcomed African-American patrons and was known for hiring acts like the Nat King Cole Trio and Coleman Hawkins.

Kenyon let Jordan and his band, the Tympany Five, rehearse during the day. That’s when Jordan innovated his signature jump blues blend of upbeat jazz and R&B with humorous lyrics. Music historians credit Jordan with influencing rock ‘n’ roll pioneers who followed.

• “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please ... Come Home” This Dixieland standard was beloved by Ralph “Howdy” Roberts, a WMT radio personality for 40 years starting in 1935. He also was a bandleader and appeared often with groups of radio station employees sometimes known as the WMT Rangers. The band played this song often, live on the radio and at regional events.

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• “Washington Grays” — This up-tempo and almost wacky sounding march by Claudio Grafulla filled the night sky at Bever Park in 1955 during a Cedar Rapids Municipal Band performance when “what must’ve been a 30-mph gale struck from nowhere,” according to Gazette arts writer Donald Key. Music stands were toppled and sheet music ended up in the audience. Attendance for the year’s schedule of 22 concerts was estimated at 50,000 people.

• “Sophisticated Lady” — Al Jarreau, a 23-year-old University of Iowa graduate student, sat in on this Duke Ellington standard with the J.R. Monterose quartet at Cedar Rapids’ Tender Trap jazz club in 1963. Luckily, it’s on YouTube. Jarreau served the song’s melody boldly with the vocal range, scatting and smooth glissandos that would earn him seven Grammys.

Preceding his major label debut by 12 years, this club recording is replete with tingling bar glasses and vibey background chatter that bring the sultry night back to life. Club owner Joe Abodeely, an ace with brushes, is on drums.

Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids. Comments: coffeygrande@gmail.com

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