Musician making a connection

By Roz Weis,

Beth Hoven Rotto of Decorah is connecting Scandinavian folk arts with Midwestern students in a novel Musician-in-Residence program this spring.

Beth Hoven Rotto of Decorah is connecting Scandinavian folk arts with Midwestern students in a novel Musician-in-Residence program this spring.
The Sustaining Scandinavian Folk Arts in the Upper Midwest Project, under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, is hosting the Decorah-based fiddler at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
A popular musician in the Decorah area, Hoven Rotto helped found the popular, old-time dance music band Foot-Notes here in the early 1990s. Before that time, she immersed herself in the music of the Norwegian American settlers in the Driftless region through an apprenticeship with renowned fiddler William “Bill” Sherburne of Spring Grove, Minn., and through friendships she made with many musicians carrying fiddle tunes of their fathers when no one else seemed interested.
The residency is focused on a very broad body of music unearthed from a collection of Arnold “Charlie” Munkel. The Arnold Munkel Collection is part of the Mills Music Library, and it features music from the Spring Grove and Decorah area, including some recordings from past Nordic Fest folk music events held in Decorah.
“I remember Mr. Munkel would come to Highlandville and Decorah with his microphone and recorder and tape the music being played,” Hoven Rotto commented.
“I always wondered what happened to all those recordings and now we know,” she continued. “He was recording in Highlandville dances, at Nordic Fest, Steam Engine Days, wherever there was an event. He recorded the music for himself to listen and put the recordings onto reel-to-reels.”
As part of the residency, the Decorah musician is delving into the digitized reel-to-reel tapes (this lengthy process was completed by library staff at UW-Madison) and is developing a system for identifying the history of the homespun folk music. She has taken some 72 pages of notes from listening to the hours of recordings, and is attempting to identify the tunes, as well as the artists who had performed them so many years ago.
“My mom is 90 and lives in Rochester,” Hoven Rotto continued, “sometimes I’ll get on the telephone with her and play a song and ask if she knows the specific tune or artist. She’s been very helpful.”
She also credits Bill Musser of Decorah with his help in locating the Munkel collections.
In her efforts to engage participants, she is teaching dances, visiting classes to discuss being a part of a folk-dance band, and more.
She discusses the music of the open-air dances from the turn of the century, and the music which aired on local radio stations, and the music traditionally played at weddings, anniversary parties and at the popular Saturday night dances in the Driftless region. It is said to be the music the people played when the neighborhoods gathered for dancing, fun and fellowship.
Her focus is on a specific body of music of the Upper Midwest, the unique blend of primarily Scandinavian tunes, popular American songs and English and Irish melodies making up the musical landscape of the Driftless area.
According to directors of the UW-Madison Musician-in-Residence Program, this is a notable residency in that it doesn’t often happen that the University selects folk artists for residencies.
“Folk arts often suffer from being hidden in plain sight, and residencies like this highlight and celebrate the amazing skills, creativity and rich traditions existing within all communities, among all people,” one organizer said.

Spring dance
Hoven Rotto is not actually teaching an academic course to students while on the campus this spring. Instead, she has formed a Scandinavian American Old-Time Dance Music Ensemble. The group meets weekly and is open to both students and community members. She is teaching her repertoire of old-time tunes common to the Decorah area and tunes she discovered in the music archives at the Mills Music Library at the University of Wisconsin.
Hoven Rotto said her students are learning to play the tunes by ear and will perform on campus this spring. 
Highlights of the residency are a spring dance (held April 18 at the Great Hall Memorial Union on the UW-Madison campus) and a barn dance tentatively scheduled in mid-May after the semester concludes.
The featured tunes are meant to be danced to, so she and her husband, fellow Foot-Notes band member Jon Rotto, are teaching performance techniques specific to playing for dancers.
She is enthusiastic in her description of this first “musician-in-residence” experience.
“I’d like to listen to everything in the collection,” she said, “and I’m about half-way through … I think I’ll be working with this material for some time.”
For now, she is content to connect with a community of students, musicians and enthusiasts from Madison and beyond, sharing an appreciation for old-time Scandinavian folk music in the Midwest.

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