The Iowa Folk Singer

Ran across an old friend the other day. Not in real time. On the radio. Surfing around the dial while driving through the cornfields of Iowa, I happened on an old Prairie Home Companion episode and heard the rich baritone of Greg Brown, “the Iowa folk singer.”

Greg grew up in southern Iowa and has had a pretty good career singing his original songs of the Heartland touring small clubs, town halls, and churches around the Midwest. He’s recorded mostly on his own label, but got his big break from Garrison Keillor which provided him with a larger audience around the country.

I used to listen to him for hours as I drove across that same Iowa landscape when I was bishop in this “Beautiful Land.” His poetry and music provided the background, and actually helped me understand, the delight and heartbreak of this complex and fascinating state I have come to love. A few song titles may give you a flavor of his work:

The Iowa Waltz…Counting Feedcaps…Out in the Country…Walking the Beans…King Corn

And this haunting lyric from Our Little Town:

“I don’t need to read the news, hear it on the radio; I see it in the faces of every one I know; boards go up, signs come down; What’s gonna happen to our little town.”

He tells the story of the economic devastation brought on by corporate farms and the “Walmart-ization” of Iowa. Little towns which used to depend on a dozen or more family farms surrounding them are drying up as huge farms, sometimes owned by out-of-state folks, use more technology (and chemicals), employ fewer people, and drive down the price of corn and soy beans by their enormous yields.

Walmart puts up its big box store on the outskirts of town and, by under-pricing local merchants because of the economy of scale, drive the small groceries, clothing and hardware stores, and small businesses out of business. Young people in rural areas, seeing the limited opportunities for employment, take their fine Iowa high school and even college educations and move to Des Moines, Minneapolis, Chicago or one of the coasts for jobs and a future.

That’s not the whole story of course. Like every other place, Iowa is adapting and will have to adapt, to advancing technologies and automation. But it does not come without a price. And Greg Brown catalogs the pain of that price in so many of his songs.

But there is also the beauty of small town and rural life, fishing in the local creek, and the priceless support of family and friends. Iowans are a strange mix of straightforward simplicity and sophistication; populist politics and global awareness.

I was adopted by this state and I have adopted it back. And, since I’m now a member of the family, I’m proud to get back in touch with my long-lost brother:

Greg Brown…the Iowa folk singer.


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