The Roaring 20s, Donnie Iris, and 2032–What Will Be Classic?


In class recently, my students and I dove into the “Roaring 20s” and concentrated on all that Jazz. Hail to Billie and Ella and the Duke! What fun to introduce students to the Cotton Club, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. Each year, I am shocked most students are unfamiliar with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. At first this saddens me, like a few years back when a freshman of mine did not know who George Harrison was. Really? An hour ago, I heard the Donny Iris “classic”, “Ah, Leah” for the hundredth time.

I still think it’s a great pop song and wish my name were Leah instead of Cindy. The point is, I have to remember that I don’t know or appreciate much of the music my students listen to today. Why should they care about Jazz or my favorite pop songs? The singers of today will become sentimental heroes of my students tomorrow. In thirty years, their music will be classic. That I still love Donny’s silly, simple, delicious song is perfectly okay. The emotional connection adds a powerful dimension to the song. It makes me happy and transports me back in time and I’m instantly seventeen. Does the song compare with the Beatles or Benny Goodman? Of course not, but I still jump up and dance around the room to Donny, so I say, thanks, for that one-hit wonder. It’s been a companion of mine for 30 years.

I have blind faith introducing the classics to the next generation.  Whatever medium, whatever art form, if it’s universally appealing, it will stand the test of time. I believe Jazz is better than most music forms–it’s a shinier, richer, influential treasure swinging on the chestnut tree.

Well, trying to explain the essence of Jazz and tracing its roots to cover the evolution of Jazz is a daunting task. I’m a big Ken Burns fan, so I showed my students the intro to his Jazz documentary. I love how trumpeter Wynton Marsalis glorifies Jazz in a way that anyone can appreciate. As students worked on their classroom activities over the week, I played different Jazz pieces and heard students comment “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of that” or tried to mimic Ella Fitzgerald’s scat in “Blue Skies”. They loved the lilting voice of Holliday’s voice and I caught most of the class tapping to “Sing, Sing, Sing” or smile to Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”. One could say pop-culture is born in the 20s. What could be bigger than Walt Disney, Babe Ruth, and the movies? It was endearing to hear the students of today understand the importance of the Jazz Age and how it influenced, well, everything thereafter!

All week, all I seemed to hear and notice was everything Jazz. I happened to catch Chicago on a movie channel and there was Queen Latifa on stage in all her glory. I got it this time around; she was Bessie Smith.


Jazz is the musical symbol of America. It’s certainly one of our best inventions. When one of my students completed her investigation of Jazz, she requested I play “Sing, Sing, Sing” and concluded shaking her head, “I know now I was born in the wrong decade.” How heartwarming coming from a fifteen year old.

Ken Burns, Jazz introduction

If you haven’t seen this documentary by Ken Burns, take a look at his introduction. Why is Jazz important? Take a look….

Hail to the Litvak, the Pole, the Italian

Who’d have thought that boring, North Central Illinois could be so interesting? I sure didn’t.

I was working on my Master’s thesis at ISU back in 2004, and when it came time decide on a topic, out of convenience, I decided to research two counties for which I associated myself, Bureau and LaSalle. Commuting to work or school, unappreciative of the flat, boring landscape, I kept passing random slag piles made from coal miners in the late 1800s. It was incongruous, these pyramids in the middle of the corn fields. As I analyzed the 1900 U.S. Census of the these two counties, the neighborhoods of these inauspicious villages became alive for me. Swedish, Norwegians, Germans, and Irish had settled the region in the 1830s and 40s.  By 1890, the second wave of immigrants migrated through the area. Polish, Lithuanian Russians, Italians—these primary groups arrived and worked as miners. By the 1920s, the coal mining industry headed south.  Those who remained did so because of their ethnicity. That is, villages which began as coal mining towns, either flourished, declined, or died depending upon the families who remained. Their ethnicity established the small towns like Seatonville, Spring Valley, Cherry, and Ladd, to name a few. How so? Each ethnic group had their own Catholic church. Each group had their own saloon. Each group held on to their traditions and leaned on each other for support. That was 1900.

I’ll go ahead and say it: one’s ethnicity doesn’t matter much at all in 2012. This is both good and bad.  What do you think?