Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.



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  • True Story: How Bonnie Koloc Got Her Start

    • Posted on Apr 20, 2014 by Scott Cawelti
    I was giving  beginning guitar lessons regularly in the summer of 1963  in my family's living room In Cedar Falls to anyone who signed up. One day, a young woman showed up who could strum, knew a few chords, and wanted to learn finger picking and chord patterns.   Nothing too unusual there. 

    Then she sang.  I had never heard such a perfectly modulated, on-pitch,  pure female high alto voice.  Bonnie Koloc in her late teens was singing better than most professionals, and with virtually no vocal training.   

    By 1978, when I wrote this, Bonnie Koloc was in fact a well-established professional singer in Chicago.  

    This is how she bagan.   


    America, as we all know  is a land of humble origins. And Iowa is certainly the heart of that story. . The Everly Brothers began quietly in Shenandoah, Johnny Carson started lowly in Corning, John Wayne commenced meagerly in Winterset, Cloris Leachman awoke slowly in Des Moines, and Bonnie Koloc arose humbly in Waterloo and Cedar Falls.

    For those of you who don't notice such things, Bonnie Koloc is just finishing her sixth album; she has sung to rave reviews in Chicago and New York, she has appeared on Dick Cavett, in concert with Gordon Lightfoot, John Prine, Steve Good­man, Tom Rush and others. The audience for her music (and her wonderful performances) has grown steadily. And Bonnie deserves it all; she knows and believes in quality work.

    Anyway, Bonnie Koloc has been a friend for years, and she was in town for a visit last week. Seeing her reminded me of her own lowly musical origins. I know, because I helped give Bonnie her start, right in my own humble living room. 

    I'M SITTING in my living room waiting for my next guitar student. It's a hot summer day, 1963, and I'm tired and grouchy from watching 10- year-old boys named Ronald or Gerald or Jamie try to finger the D chord while their proud  mothers look on.

    I look at my list and see that the next student is Bonnie Koloc. I remember the name because she has been singing off and on for parties and variety shows in the area. I've never heard her sing, though. She is late, but finally tumbles in, out of breath, and takes out a big Harmony Sovereign guitar.

    She smiles sweetly and strums a chord, slightly out of tune. She says, "I can play a little, but my rhythms are off, and I want to play more with my fingers and less with my thumb."

    I GROAN quietly inside and think:  A long lesson. Oh well, at least she knows some chords.

    I suggest that she play the D progression and she looks at me like I'd just suggested she play "Malaguena." Yup, it's going to be a long lesson. 

    I say, "You know—D to G to A7—those three chords?"

    She says, "Well, I know D and G, but does A7 go with them?"

    She smiles sweetly, and I suggest that she forget the D progression and just play a song—any song she knows well.

    She begins to play and sing the first verse to "John Riley"—a beautiful old English ballad. Suddenly I look up, wide awake. This voice, where is it coming from? I literally look around the room, for it is absolutely a stun­ning sound—clear, liquid, right on pitch with a perfect natural vibrato. Then I see Bonnie looking at her hand, trying to figure out a way to use her thumb less. But the voice is hers.

    I stop her. "Good God," I say, "Where'd you get that voice? Let me play behind you." I begin, and she sings all of "John Riley." It is so beautiful I want to cry. She has a natural sense of phrasing, and her voice does everything she wants it to. I'm sick with envy, but overjoyed to hear this all-but-perfect voice.

    "Bonnie, have you ever made any money with your singing?" She says no, and I suggest that she call Clair Bruce, who runs the Cypress Lounge downtown where I played with Waller last summer. 

    She says, "Do you think I'm ready? I'll have to use my thumb an awful lot when I play."

    "Just sing. Play your guitar with your elbow, but sing. Don't let that voice go unheard any longer."

    She calls Clair Bruce, who hears her sing, and gives her her first singing job for money, at the Cypress Lounge..  [Now the Stuffed Olive in the Black Hawk Hotel]
    The rest, as they say, is history, or rather herstory. 

    It was nice to be there, humble though it was.

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    Posted in
    • Personalities
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Arts
  • Twe New God Films Provoke Thought

    • Posted on Apr 13, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    Here's is today's (Sunday, April 13) Courier column. Rare to have two films out at the same time with the idea of God at the center, so they deserved a column, I thought.    

    Two feature fiction films just out deserve a look.    Or one of them, for sure.

    One is epic, complete with villains, heroes, monsters, mob violence, and a violent climactic knife fight, and one is good old-fashioned propaganda.  Both deal with God. 

    Noah and God’s Not Dead each put “God” at the heart of the characters and actions, and show characters who believe in a higher deity.  Both end somewhat happily, though not without casualties.  Both are entertaining, though for me, Noah wins hands down on that count.  

    Aside from those similarities, these God-focused movies could hardly be more different.  Noah amounts to an expanded, action-adventure version of the Biblical flood story, with added fantasy bad guys, a villain-hero conflict, and superpower creatures who help build the ark and defend the good guys.

    God’s Not Dead, however, offers a story about God that will likely please mostly conservative Christians--all but the cult of hard-core anti-evolutionists.  It accepts evolution and the Big Bang as scientifically accurate and acceptable realities.     

    The film tells the story of how a Christian university freshman during his first semester makes a fool of his atheist-bully philosophy professor by convincing a roomful of fellow freshman in class that God’s not dead.  

    This is significant because the atheist professor had forced those students to write and sign a declaration that “God is Dead”—and the freshman, who refuses to sign, is given an opportunity to make his case for God to his class, which he does successfully.  

    The lecture-room of freshmen gets converted to believing in God, thanks to the power and eloquence of this young Christian believer.  Actually, they’re converted to believing in his faith, since he admits that it’s impossible to prove God exists.  Faith in God gets supported in the film, not proof of God.  

    As the film proceeds, a Chinese exchange student converts, as does a Muslim woman and the atheist professor’s girlfriend.  They all see the light of faith in Jesus and end up together at a Christian rock concert.    Really.

     Everything and everyone in God’s Not Dead bows to the power of the filmmaker’s narrow vision of Christianity, thanks to an impossibly manipulated plot.  It’s basically a propaganda film for evangelicals, who will cheer its outcome—unless they struggle with huge plot improbabilities. 

    Other potential viewers, such as warm-hearted and kind non-believers, needn’t bother.  It’s a ham-handed attempt to proselytize for evangelical Christianity.     

    Which brings me back to Noah himself, who struggles mightily with God in the film Noah.  This film’s God-centered plot raises a powerful and disturbing question: Where is God?  Is he out there, commanding and waiting for us to obey as we seek His signs?  That’s where He first exists for Noah, who feels compelled to build the Ark.  

    Then Noah discovers that he can’t continue to obey that commanding God without harming his family, so he turns to his (Noah’s) conscience.  Here’s the problem:  To follow his conscience, he has to disobey the ark-commanding God. 

    Which one is the true God?  You can’t follow both.   Noah doesn’t know, and feels as though he has disobeyed God by not wiping all mankind. So he falls into drunkenness and despair.   

    However, Noah’s family believes he made the right decision, and in fact they finally convince Noah to believe that his conscience was God, too.

    Thanks to Noah’s conscience, all of humanity gets to start over, cleansed by the flood. The doves arrive, the rainbow appears, and mankind repopulates the earth.  Of course humanity has improved since Noah and the flood. Fewer sinners, more righteous people.  Right? 

     Viewers leave with a happy ending, but a nagging question:  Which God should be obeyed when they conflict?   The commander or the conscience?  

     I do recommend Noah because it raises that question so memorably. 


    Posted in
    • Religiosity
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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