Well, it’s that time of year again: all over the country, prize pies and blue ribbon bulls from county fairs are going to compete at State Fairs. But unless you’re a long-time member or advisor of your local chapter of FFA, that’s probably not why you attend. I never chased a prize pig around the pen so judges could compare it to next year’s other pork chops on a stick, but some of my friends did. I did, however, love fairs of all kinds as a kid, and I still do. Today I got a chance to tell Neal Conan and the rest of the country a little bit about why.
My answer was predictable: it’s about the soundscape. Conan’s guest today was Garrison Keillor, who also commented on hawkers and barkers as essential elements of the Fair experience. But my memories of fairs both local and state would not be complete without music wafting through the midway from the carousel or, later in the day, popular tunes shouted from loudspeakers at the teenagers getting cheap thrills while trying to keep their corn dogs down.
I only went to the Iowa State Fair a few times, and there are two musical experiences that stick out in my mind. The first is the one that I mentioned on Talk of the Nation today: the Iowa State Fair Singers and Jazz Band. I first saw this group in a high school gym in Pocahontas, Iowa. An ambitious young musician with interests in jazz and singing, I was floored by the quality of the musical product. I saw them the next year at the Fair, and it was even more polished. A couple years later, I saw their show and then went to a larger stage with some of the cast members to see the Count Basie Orchestra. Among a cacophony of ambient sounds that generally characterize the Fair, these eclipsed the noisy atmosphere during their brief performances.
The State Fair Singers and Jazz Band don’t perform at the Iowa State Fair anymore. Now they’re called Celebration Iowa. They still take their show on the road each summer to many communities throughout the Tall Corn State, and they still produce a fantastic show. So today on my first and so far only successful NPR call-in, I had to come up with another artistic favorite from memories of the Iowa State Fair: the butter sculpture. It was supposed to be Michael Jackson, but apparently the idea has been “vetoed,” as Conan put it. The butter sculpture of a cow will be there as always.
I missed the Fair again this year, though I have just spent a week in Iowa. One of these years I’ll get my timing right and behold the great butter cow before consuming roughly half that much animal fat in the form of corn dogs and funnel cakes. For now I’ll have to be content with an old Oscar winner and some other good Iowa memories. More to come on the latter tomorrow…