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.   

    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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  • When Great Works Come from Bad People

    • Posted on Mar 16, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

     Four years ago, I taught a UNI undergraduate film course on Woody Allen’s films.  Students watched, discussed, studied, and wrote essays about Allen’s films ranging from Annie Hall to Hannah and Her Sisters to Crimes and Misdemeanors to Vicky Cristina Barcelona. 

    Allen has since made four more films, the most recent of which, Blue Jasmine, garnered an Oscar for best actress for Cate Blanchett. Allen was nominated for his screenplay, as he as been for dozens of other Oscars, winning four. 

    Allen writes, directs, and acted in his films until age took its toll.  He’s still writing and directing a film a year, and has for some forty years. They’re still winning major awards worldwide. 

    In the game of filmmaking, Woody Allen plays in the same league as Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman, Orson Welles, among very few others.   

    Comes now the question:  Should I try to teach his films again, knowing about his

    stepdaughter Dylan’s recent accusations of childhood molestation and betrayal?  In fact, should I stop seeing and studying Allen’s films, many of which sit at the top of my all-time favorites list?  Should I urge a boycott of his films?

    Not an easy question, and it implies an even more difficult question:  Can bad people create good films, or good art of any kind?  Is there a relationship between personal decency and serious artistic creativity?   

    My answers:  Yes and no.  Yes to teaching Allen again, if possible, and no to moral goodness being related to creating great art.

    No matter what we might think about Allen and his stepdaughter’s accusations, his films won’t go away by being ignored.  They deserve attention and serious study, partly because they offer an array of engaging stories about people struggling with real issues that real people confront regularly:  Suicide, infidelity, family dysfunctions, meaningless work, finding joy in a dark world.    

    Does this mean that I condone child sexual abuse?  Of course not. 

    I have read Dylan Farrow’s angry denunciation of Allen as a hypocritical, monstrous child molester who has fooled everyone.  I’ve also read Allen’s reply, in which he cites the court’s investigation that cleared him of all the charges, saying unequivocally that there was no molestation.   

    And in fact, Dylan’s older brother, once estranged from Allen, now insists that Allen is innocent, and insists that their mother’s behavior toward Allen was inexcusable and likely led to Dylan’s accusation.  

    Then last week I watched The Hunt, a powerful Danish film about a small-town teacher who is falsely accused of molestation by a kindergartner, and how quickly his lifelong adult friends turned against him.  Hysteria lurks just around the corner when a child accuses an adult, it seems.   

    Incidentally, a shameful real life example occurred in 1983 in California.  The “McMartin Preschool Incident,” became an interminable criminal trial, ruined several lives, and led to all charges being dropped in 1990.  It’s a case study of the panic and groupthink that can overwhelm otherwise rational people.  

    So I don’t believe Allen is guilty of his stepdaughter’s accusation.  However, even if he were, I would still teach his films.  Unfortunately, great creators feel no obligation to follow the norms and rules of anything but their art. 

    Examples abound, and include terrible behavior by some of the world’s greatest artists.  The list of abhorrent behaviors is long and sordid, the names of artists familiar, and their works still beloved.  Google “bad people, great art” for the sad stories. 

    I wish only honest, morally upright artists created the novels, poems, paintings, music, and films we love and study.  Some do, of course. 

    But whether artists are good people or not seems to make no difference to their ability and desire to create lasting art.  

               

     

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