Article about FFM in the Cedar Rapids Gazette

Diana Nollen wrote this article that was published in the Gazette on March 15, 2021

Like well-oiled gadgetry, Iowa City’s Family Folk Machine has found a way to switch gears, shifting rehearsals and concerts online. The final results will debut on YouTube at 3 p.m. Sunday.

The intergenerational choir was in the midst of preparing its 2020 spring concert when the global pandemic brought that to a screeching halt.

“It’s so weird to be at this anniversary,” said Jean Littlejohn, 49, of Iowa City, who founded the group in January 2013, conducts the choir and serves as the nonprofit organization’s executive and artistic director. “Every day I can remember exactly what I was doing a year ago.”

She and her family were in Germany, where her husband, University of Iowa sociology professor Michael Sauder, was on sabbatical. Their planned seven-month stay was cut short when they realized they would need to return to Iowa City before international borders closed. So Littlejohn contacted associate directors Gayla Drake and Jon Ranard, who had been directing the choir in her absence. Together, they drafted an email informing the members that rehearsals for the May 9, 2020, concert would be suspended.

“At first, we didn’t even know that we would have to cancel a concert,” Littlejohn said. That step came next, then the board met in May to figure out how to proceed.

“The choir put a lot of work into the songs, and the concert was going to be really cool,” Littlejohn said. “It was celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — and the songs were great and the arrangements were great.”

Virtual realm

They decided to postpone the concert until the fall. It wasn’t long before they realized that wouldn’t happen, either. When they started seeing other choirs using virtual technology, they decided to go the video route, too.

But instead of showing a virtual choir with a grid of performers in little boxes, one of the board members suggested having their choristers record their voices at home. Those individual voices would then be mixed to provide the soundtrack to visuals incorporating nature photos or animation. Members Aprille Clarke, Susan Stamnes and Susan Spears volunteered to handle the visual elements, and began learning animation.

“This has been one of the most amazing success stories,” Littlejohn said. “These three individuals ended up creating videos that were just way more creative and imaginative than anything I would have thought possible. …

“Once we could see that our process was going to work, we expanded and we ended up recording all 15 songs that would have been on the (May) concert. And then we decided to present them in three chunks to make it a little more manageable.”

The first video in the “Our Planet” series debuted on the group’s YouTube channel on Nov. 15, followed by the second section Jan. 1. Sunday’s final segment features songs by Dolly Parton, ELO and Billy Swan, as well as an original piece by Stamnes and another by the choir’s kids, about Hickory Hill Park. Littlejohn’s daughter, Claire Sauder, edited the children’s video.


Littlejohn brought the idea for the ensemble to Iowa City from Boston, where the family moved for two years for her husband’s research fellowship. While there, she and her children, Claire and Ben, participated in two intergenerational choirs.

“It was such a neat experience,” she said, “just having something you could do with young kids where you could be equal participants. When we moved back to Iowa City, I thought that idea would work really well in this community.

“I didn’t really know how to start an organization, but I talked to some people and we got it started about six months later (in 2013).

“The reason we were able to really get things going was because we teamed up with the (Iowa City) Senior Center. For the first five years of our existence, we were just part of the Senior Center’s programing. And then we became an independent nonprofit in 2018, which was another steep learning curve, but we’re feeling really good about that now, and it’s allowed us to expand our programing a lot and grow into new directions.”

The group has performed in several locations, including the Senior Center and the Old Capitol’s Senate Chamber, but as membership grew, the ensemble outgrew those spaces and moved performances to the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City. Musicians typically join them on a wide range of instruments, from piano, guitar, drums and bass to fiddle, banjo, mandolin, ukulele and other folk sounds.

All ages of singers are welcome to join, without auditioning. Before the pandemic hit, the ranks had swelled to 80 participants, ages 4 to 80, mostly from Iowa City, Coralville and nearby communities.

Rehearsals have been held at the Senior Center from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Youth participants had their own 30-minute rehearsals, then joined their parents. Children’s activities and a babysitter also were available. Teens and University of Iowa students have sung with the group, as well.

“We had a really robust group of teenagers the past few years,” Littlejohn said. “It’ll be interesting to see once we go back to in-person, if that has to be sort of reconstituted from scratch or if they’ll still be there.”

Participation fees generally are $50 for adults and $30 for children over age 5, with a cap of $125 per family, but during the pandemic, those fees have been optional.

“We just want to welcome everybody to participate, even if they can’t pay,” Littlejohn said. “We actually do that normally, as well.”

The organization’s operating budget is small, between $17,000 and $18,000, and donations typically are accepted at in-person concerts. The financial flow has changed with the pandemic, too, and Littlejohn is grateful that grants from several community organizations have helped cover costs for the equipment needed to stage virtual events.

Musical styles

The musical scope also has changed over the years.

“We have this word ‘folk’ in our name and I’ve had a lot of occasion to reflect on what that could possibly mean,” said Littlejohn, who has a master of music degree in organ performance from Indiana University and a Ph.D. in music theory from Northwestern University in Illinois.

“When we first started, I think what it meant was that we have this sort of foundation in the tradition of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and all these different strands of American folk music. But lately I’ve been thinking about the music that we perform — it spans a lot more genres than just that.

“In some ways, I think there’s this broader meaning of folk — that we perform music that gains something from group expression. … So that ends up including various strands of popular music and things like the Beatles. Sometimes we do some very recent music too, especially if it suits a particular theme that we’re working on,” she said.

“It’s actually a huge question and something we’ve talked about a lot on our board, because it’s very important to us to be inclusive, and so we’ve had a lot of discussion about it — is that word ‘folk’ actually making it seem like we’re only interested in certain types of music or certain parts of American culture?

“I feel like there’s a lot that’s good about the word, too, and so I guess I just want to advocate for a very broad interpretation of that word and hope that it works.”

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At a glance

• What: Family Folk Machine online mini-concert, “One Planet,” part 3

• When: YouTube premiere, 3 p.m. Sunday

• Where: Links at and

• Cost: Free

• Ensemble information: