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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  • Midwestern Style, a la Gary Kroeger

    • Posted on Apr 28, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    This was first published on March 8, 1987, and it seems to hold up pretty well, given the passage of 27 years or so.  Gary Kroeger in fact has returned Cedar Falls, Iowa, --ever the Midwesterner.  He does seem perfectly suited to the "land in its working clothes," as poet James Hearst once called Iowa.  

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    There’s no denying this: we’re all Midwesterners. How do we know that? Because we all act alike, as anyone from California knows.

    So when Midwestern characters show up in television programs, they behave in the expected fashion. Otherwise, don’t you know, the audience would get confused.

    A case in point is “Spies,” the new CBS adventure/comedy that stars Cedar Falls native Gary Kroeger and Mr. California Tan himself, George Hamilton as “Ian Stone.”

    Kroeger plays “Smythe,” a new spy for “the company” who idolizes Ian Stone, and through a series of plot strains, gets to be his partner.

    Smythe hails from the Midwest, (Kansas) and boy, and does it show? Let us count the ways:

    • His clothes. “If you’re going to work for me,” Stone tell him, “you’ve got to stop looking like an Amway salesman.” Stone buys Smythe (from their expense account) two thousand bucks worth of designer clothes.

    Oddly enough, pre-fashion wardrobe Smythe looks great to me: button-down shirts that almost fit, run-down loafers, semi-baggy pants. Smythe complains that he prefers Sears to Ralph Lauren. Ian Stone sniffs, “You think Cheryl Tiegs really wears that stuff?”
    So from now on, Smythe won’t look much like a Midwesterner. Instead, he’ll look like a Midwesterner in California clothes.

    • His language. He says “darn” a lot. “DARN?” asks Stone. “Where’d you get that expression?”

    “Kansas,” replies poor Smythe. “We say that a lot out there.” He also says “a lot” a lot. And if he had been writing it, he would have spelled it “alot.” That’s how my Midwestern writing students spell it.

    Smythe also speaks with the voice of a parent. Every other sentence contains “should” or “must” or “have to.” That’s the Midwest, through and through.

    • His conscience. This is the trait that “Spies” plays up the most. Ian Stone amounts to an American James Bond, always with the women, always seeming to put pleasure before business. He’s a playboy, an irresponsible high-living, big spending rake.
    Smythe, however, worries constantly about Stone’s wasteful lifestyle. “Couldn’t you drive a nice Pinto?” he whines, as they sit in Stone’s Ferrari. By way of reply, Stone shoots Smythe a withering glare. 

    Every Midwesterner who’s gone to California has seen such glares. I saw it several times last summer when I asked Riverside natives why they can’t use the municipal swimming pools, (instead of wasting precious water for backyard pools) or why they can’t build a decent mass transit system. I played Smythe to their Stones on a daily basis.

    • His frugality. Smythe constantly worries about money, counts up their expenses, calculates their budget. Stone, meanwhile, brings in blindfolded musicians to play for his private parties, rents whole skating rinks for his date, and draws ahead on his company salary. (He’s been paid ahead until 1997.)

    Smythe insists that they pay as they go. Stone seizes the day, and lets tomorrow take care of itself. Come to think of it, the federal deficit comes by way of a former Californian. It all makes sense.

    We can moan about having to live down these Midwestern stereotypes all we want, yet when people hear where we’re from, they see Gary Kroeger’s Smythe fashion-blind, conscience-stricken, frugal to a fault.

    Darn it all, anyway.  A lot.  
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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.   

    04/14/78

    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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