Live from the hill: KSTO’s second wave

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How did students get their news in the 1960s? The Manitou Messenger was the main source, but events were also broadcast through KSTO, the radio station which went through several ups and downs in the past 60 years, and which now occupies the 93.1 air wave. Acting as KSTO’s assistant manager has led to my interest in the station’s history. What were the goals of the original staff, and what kind of music was broadcast? Putting together a more comprehensive history than our blog’s page is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and the Manitou Messenger seemed like a logical and reliable source. I tracked the first few years of KSTO’s history through Mess articles, and surprisingly, I found more information about the station’s managerial past than the musical catalogue. Ultimately, I found that the music and news came from the hill more than the Great Beyond. But still, culture and drama ensue! Read all about it:

KSTO’s official “History” page states that the station began broadcasting in 1957, beginning each day with “Fram! Fram! St. Olaf” and ending with “A Mighty Fortress.” The Mess began its coverage of KSTO in 1959, writing about the grand reopening of the station (songs played during the first day included selections by the Kingston Trio, the St. Olaf Choir, and “a smattering of mood music interspersed with Broadway show hits”). The paper reported that “Plans…provide for regular news broadcastings which will include information of scheduled Hill activities and side lights.”

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Early broadcasts kept students posted on campus activities, but “music of the type conducive to study” was played during evenings from 6-10 pm. The radio station occasionally advertised their events in a small box entitled the “KSTO Korner” (this only stuck around for a few years, maybe due to the unfortunate name that can only be attributed to the happy-go-lucky, “gee whiz!” tone of the 50s-era Mess). What we learn, however, is that KSTO supported live campus talent through its show “The Dessert Inn”–we can only assume that some of the campus talent involved music.

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KSTO underwent more changes in the early 1960s, installing a Current Carrier system that connected the station to the student dorms. Reports from the 60s are pretty sparing, although KSTO’s history page notes that the station had a weekly publication of top ten hits at the time. Large events in KSTO’s history–most notably a fire in 1970 that destroyed $3,000 worth of equipment–went unreported, but we know that debates and school sporting events were broadcast across campus.

KSTO has evolved significantly from its 1959 iteration, but there are still some similarities between the new and old station. There were budget proposals (despite the fact that the 1960 request of $125 is a far cry from our current budget), shows with student discussions, and a regular programming schedule. Interestingly enough, some of our current goals for the station–more campus involvement, a bigger focus on news, and field reporting from live events–resemble the focus back in the day. And luckily for us, the station’s connection with the Manitou Messenger is stronger now, with the paper reporting on upcoming concerts and publishing the station’s schedule every semester. We’d like to continue that partnership–even though we could potentially nix the impassioned editorials.

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“History.” KSTO 93.1 FM. Accessed April 20, 2015.

“Thursday Night Marks Grand Opening; Return of KSTO Station to Campus Radio.” Manitou Messenger, May 1, 1959. Accessed April 20, 2015.

Reinterpreting Billie

Billie Holiday

On the week of her 100th birthday, Billie Holiday’s influence on American music is clear. Her style, tone, and storytelling abilities paved the way for a strong vocal jazz tradition. As the narrator in the Creative Arts Television’s 1959 documentary “Portrait of Billie” puts it: “Today, if you sing jazz and you’re a woman, you sing Billie Holiday. There’s no other way to do it. She wrote the text.” The way that women, or any performers, choose to interpret that text, is just as important as Holiday’s original recordings.

Cassandra Wilson has put considerable thought into interpretation. The jazz vocalist, who has been lauded for “embracing a wide range of American music,” has taken on the Billie Holiday songbook as her latest tribute project. She will perform the collection of rearrangements, entitled “Coming Forth by Day,” on April 8th at the Kennedy Center; the vocals will be accompanied by rocker Nick Cave’s rhythm section. When discussing the album in an NPR interview, she stressed that her goal was to avoid cliches and reinvent the songs. In her words, “I couldn’t wait…to do some wild and crazy things to it.”

Cassandra Wilson

When reading the NPR article, I was initially struck by Wilson’s desire to sing the music so differently. With some tribute projects (see most classic rock tribute acts, for example), the goal is often to mimic the original artist as much as possible. But with jazz, change is necessary. Wilson comments: “It’s beyond improper–it’s considered rude, in jazz, to imitate someone. So for me to do a tribute to Billie Holiday and imitate her style or her context would be almost insulting.”

I immediately thought about quoting, or using another artist’s melody in a piece. This is common practice in jazz, but in the context of another song, the quoted melody hardly ever has the same tone. Wilson will change the music, but her main focus is on changing the context. Her rendition of “Don’t Explain,” a song about a cheating lover, will have a more empowered perspective, as opposed to being told from a victim’s viewpoint. In today’s context, the song should sound fresh, free from cliches, and open to interpretation.

The latter half of “Portrait of Billie” does some quoting of its own. At the 19-minute mark, the documentary features a modern dance set to Holiday’s music. Carmen De Lavallade plays a woman who becomes an iteration of Holiday; she’s soon joined by John Butler, who represents Billie’s various struggles in life–her abusive relationships, her troubles with alcohol and drug abuse. The dance was choreographed the year of Billie’s death; at the time, she had recently passed away at the age of 44. While the dance is a fine artistic representation of her life, it does seem somewhat dated. I’d like to see what it would become in the hands of a modern-day choreographer. Would the dance be as allegorical? What songs would be used instead? Or would covers of Billie’s songs, like Wilson’s reinvented ones, replace the original recordings?

If listeners find all this requoting offensive, it’s important to remember that Holiday herself didn’t stick to the original material. According to the documentary, early publishers mistrusted Holiday’s tendency to play with the melodies and change the text–essentially, putting an improvisational spin on jazz that was as scandalous then as it is celebrated now. As a rising star, she claimed to be influenced by Bessie Smith’s voice and Louis Armstrong’s style of trumpet playing. She didn’t copy them exactly, but they served as her biggest inspirations. Quoting and changing the music in this context is not disrespectful–in fact, it’s the highest form of tribute a musician can pay.



“Cassandra Wilson ‘Couldn’t Wait’ To Reinvent The Billie Holiday Songbook.” NPR. April 5, 2015. Accessed April 6, 2015.

Portrait of Billie. Performed by Carmen De Lavvallade, John Butler. U.S.: Creative Arts Television, 1959. Film. Found on Alexander Street Press.


The Devil and Robert Johnson

There are many disparities between the life and legacy of blues musician Robert Johnson. While he was known for playing street corners and juke joints instead of large venues, Yet he is widely (and somewhat mistakenly, according to author Elijah Wald) credited as one of the founding fathers of the genre, even earning the title, “King of the Delta Blues.” If Johnson had so little exposure during his lifetime, why is he the king of this genre?

Robert Johnson

Part of Johnson’s legacy can be accredited to the myth surrounding his success. Nearly every biography tells of a Faustian deal by which he acquired his talent. Johnson’s mentor, Son House, describes Johnson’s music pre-disappearance as a “racket” that drove the audiences “mad.” He disappeared to Arkansas for six to eight months; this is allegedly when he made his pact with the devil at the crossroads of Highway 49 and 61 in Mississippi. House of Johnson’s first concert upon returning: “When he finished, all our mouths were standing open” and, “He sold his soul to the devil to play like that.”

The belief is so intuitive to history’s representation of Robert Johnson that it’s included in his biographies as an almost indisputable fact, as evidenced in a quote from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

“Robert Johnson stands at the crossroads of American music, much as a popular folk legend has it, he once stood at a Mississippi crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar playing powers.” 


Some of the myth can be attributed to Johnson’s early death at 27 of unknown causes. However, the legend came to prominence after Johnson was rediscovered by white fans two decades after his death. Blues historian Pete Welding, who heard the Faust story from Son House, reported in a 1966 issue of Down Beat that it was taken quite seriously by many fans. Welding states that Johnson’s improvement as a guitarist actually spanned two years, but because of faulty reporting, there’s insufficient evidence to back it up.

Johnson certainly had the guitar “powers” to back up the claims. He’s ranked fifth in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time list. Eric Clapton, who recorded a cover album commemorating Johnson’s work, called him “The greatest guitarist who ever lived.”During his time, Johnson was revered for playing in a pan-American style, with songs that resembled Chicago and St. Louis blues more than Delta music. Still, it’s important to remember that while Johnson has widely influenced American (and British) rock n’ roll after the 1950’s, he had virtually no effect on the development of the blues. Elijah Wald writes, “As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure…” Johnson’s Faust tale is an example about the mythically proportioned inaccuracies that are often created around the musicians and their histories. In both cases, getting to the root of the story is necessary to learning the truth behind the music.


Fricke, David. “100 Greatest Guitarists.” Rolling Stone, December 10, 2010.

“The 50 Albums That Changed Music.” The Observer, July 16, 2008.

The Search for Robert Johnson. Performed by Johnny Shines, David Honeyboy Edwards, John P. Hammond. United States: Iambic Productions, 1991. DVD.

Wald, Elijah. Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues. New York City, New York: HarperCollins, 2004.





“Juba This, Juba That:” the history and appropriation of patting juba

I took an interest in “patting juba,” a form of music-making created by African Americans in the 19th century, because of the patterns, the musicality, and the songs that accompanied it. There is little information on the specific type of dance, however, and the first primary source I encountered was a racist “example” of a juba text penned by a Boston-based writer. Juba has finally gained the appreciation of historians and musicians as viable folk music, but the dance form’s history serves as a reminder of that music as a way to stereotype African American traditions.

Juba came from dances in Africa (where it was called Giouba) and Haiti (known as Djouba). Another name for the dance is Hambone. This name, which also has origins in slavery, supposedly originated from “hand-bone,” the hard part of the hand that makes the most sound.

Juba is characterized by complicated patterns (they generally involve 3-over-4 rhythms), now-obscure steps like the ‘turkey trot’ and ‘pigeon step,’ and corresponding rhymes. Arguably, the most well-known rhyme, used by juba and hambone performers alike, is called “Juba Juba:”

Juba dis and Juba dat,
and Juba killed da yellow cat,
You sift the meal and ya gimme the husk,
you bake the bread and ya gimme the crust,
you eat the meat and ya gimme the skin,
and that’s the way,
my mama’s troubles begin.

 There are numerous variations to the lyrics, but the first two lines nearly always remain the same. Danny “Slapjazz” Barber explains the meaning as part of an apprenticeship project in Figure 1. He begins talking about the song at 2:02, continuing on to describe its history.

Figure 1

As was the case with slave songs, many spectators didn’t accurately record juba steps, often deeming the dances wild and immoral, or forgoing descriptions by stating that the movements were beyond words. It wasn’t until minstrel shows in the mid-1800s that juba became known to a larger white audience. Minstrelsy’s appropriated juba has a complicated relationship with the dance and its origins. Scholar Andrew Womack notes that minstrel shows hugely influenced American culture, and that the characters presented were dimensional, albeit offensive and highly stereotyped. One such character was Master Juba, played by free-born African American William Henry Lane. Lane’s character is easily one of the most recognizable personas in minstrel history, and the surname quickly evolved into a stock title for black characters. Traveling with an otherwise all-white cast, Lane performed his dance, described as a combination of juba and a jig, in America as well as Europe. He was seen as a novelty, but observers were nevertheless impressed by his skill. As The Manchester Examiner wrote:

“Surely he cannot be flesh and blood, but some special substance, or how could he turn and twine, and twist, and twirl, and hop, and jump, and kick and throw his feet with such velocity that one think they are playing hide-and seek with a flash of lightning!”

Master Juba

Figure 2: William Henry Lane

On the other hand, white writers commonly used juba as another opportunity for stereotyping African American dialect. In Figure 3, Frances E. Wadleigh uses slurs, an overexaggerated dialect, and offensive caricatures to showcase the “current literature” of black music.

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Figure 3

In spite (or, in some cases, because) of the appropriations, juba has remained in mainstream culture. Variations of the beats and rhythms have made their way into modern music, most notably in Bo Diddley’s song, “Bo Diddley’s Beat.” Hambone has been preserved and taught as a black folk melody, particularly in the south, and the dance steps are widely seen as a precursor to the jitterbug. Though juba was used as a vehicle for stereotypes, the dance and music have become an important part of American culture, and another example of how influential the songs–both original and appropriated–have become.


Crawford, Richard. “”Make a Noise!”: Slave Songs and Other Black Music to the 1880s.” In America’s Musical Life: A History, 409-410. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Wadleigh, Frances E. “Pattom’s Juba.” Current Literature V, no. 1 (1890): 70. Accessed February 21, 2015.

Welch, David Cranstoun. “Shave and a Haircut: Two Bits.” Perfect Sound Forever. August 1, 2008. Accessed February 19, 2015.

Womack, Andrew. “Ridicule and Wonder: The Beginnings of Minstrelsy in New York.” In Afro-Americans in New York Life & History, 94-95. 2nd ed. Vol. 36. Buffalo: Afro-Americans in New York Life & History.