What is American culture in North Dakota
Known for its vastness, North Dakota has both a vibrant cultural scene and an extraordinary number of practitioners of vanishing art forms, women and men who still tend small flickering flames.
Fargo is, as I note in the video above, "more than just the wood chipper" from the Coen brothers movie that made the city internationally famous. Thank you to Charley Johnson of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention & Visitors Bureau for speaking with me and letting me pretend to feed my violin into the wood chipper (viewable in the video above). In the background at the beginning of the above video, I'm playing my arrangement of Carter Burwell's theme from the movie named after the city.
The day I left, Fargo began to host its own TedX, organized by Emerging Prairie. Based on the opening event, it felt like a tremendous assemblage of smart, energetic, thoughtful young people committed to TedX's motto: ideas worth spreading. Thank you to Marisa Jackels for speaking with me.
The Plains Art Museum, directed by Andy Maus, does an outstanding job showcasing both contemporary and traditional Native American art, featuring pieces by Keith BraveHeart, David Bradley, Robert Nelsen, Walter Piehl, and others, pieces that will occasion much thought about the contemporary American West and the evolving set of issues facing Native American communities there.
The Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra offers imaginative programming (such as an academic-themed concert including Cho-Liang Lin playing the Bach Double with a former student, as well as the Sorcerer's Apprentice and the Academic Festival Overture) and thoughtful community outreach. Thank you to the symphony's executive director, Linda Boyd, for meeting with me.
Given the national conversation about policing, I interviewed Fargo police chief David Todd. Watch that interview here.
Also in Fargo, I enjoyed performing on Radio KFGO's "Unplugged with Dayna Del Val," who also wrote this kind blog entry about my visit. In Fargo, I also stopped in on Gary Paulsen to view his Norwegian troll carvings, emblematic of the region's Scandinavian heritage.
During the North Dakota week (July 18-24) of our "What is American culture?" project, I also visited five smaller communities in this huge state.
Standing Rock Sioux Reservation
While at the reservation, I interviewed renowned storyteller and historian Mary Louise Defender Wilson, as well as a Lakota friend of hers, who shared with me this heart-breaking insight about the current election.
I found myself in Underwood somewhat by accident: I did not look too carefully at Airbnb's recommendations for a place to stay in Bismarck, and the place, an abandoned nursing home, turned out to be an hour north of Bismarck in the town of Underwood, population 775. Determined to find what Underwood has to offer, I learned that there is one restaurant in town: a very enjoyable, all-American establishment called the Rusted Rail (Underwood used to be a railway town).
With the owner, Landon, I arranged to play violin there: on Saturday, July 23, I performed the National Anthem (everyone stood up), Love Me Tender, the Bach Ciaccona, Rhapsody by Jessie Montgomery, Caprice #5 by Mark O'Connor, Blues by David Baker, Amazing Grace, and Yankee Doodle Variations by Vieuxtemps. People loved it and interesting conversations about American culture ensued: with a fellow who drives a Kress coal truck with a 300-ton capacity, with the vice president of an oil union, with the owner of an agronomy business, and with a smart and ambitious medical administrator.
In addition to the Rusted Rail, Underwood has a saloon, because of course it does. I went there on my first night and found a big, unsmiling, muscular guy at the bar, with many tattoos, a ring on every finger, long gray hair, and tough leather skin turned red from too much sun. He's on a job resurfacing Highway 83. "I'm the first guy out there at 5 a.m., the last to leave at 9:30 p.m. It's my job to keep everyone safe." He told me he has to fight to expand the zone where you have to slow down before the work zone actually starts: the bigger the zone, the safer the workers will be. But as he places the signs indicating the initial slowdown, his work carries considerable risk.
I complimented him on the great new surface of the portion I drove over from Bismarck to Underwood. He sniffed the sniff a Juilliard student would sniff on being told that actually, Yanni was pretty good. "It looks like shit," he said succinctly. He went on to explain that in places where the road curves, the resurfacing should curve also, but instead, on this job they had created sloppy curves by just paving straight and then paving straight in another direction. I recognized his professionalism, his disdain, similar to what I feel when violinists don't even try Paganini's original bowing in the 5th caprice. #americancultureis learning to see yourself in others, even and especially when their lived experiences differ from yours.
MandanI interviewed acclaimed singer, songwriter, and farmer Chuck Suchy.
NapoleonThe German-Russian community is struggling to hold onto its identity. 92-year-old John Gross still speaks German and sings the old songs. If you ever pass through Napoleon, you can get a good lunch at the Napoleon Livestock barn on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but they don't advertise that at all.
EdgeleyI was grateful for the kind hospitality of artists Don and Theresa Paul. Incredibly, the 80-year-old Don met Henry Ford as a young boy, because he attended the school Ford started. The couple attends art shows by traveling in a 1928 Reo van that they have meticulously restored.
Finally, I'd like to thank Beth Klingenstein and Troyd Geist of the North Dakota Council on the Arts, and Dayna Del Val and MeLissa Kossick of the Arts Partnership, for their kind assistance.