Press-Citizen column about Down By the Riverside


A version of this column appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on Sunday, April 27, 2014

“The heart of Iowa is its rivers.” So writes Jazmine Enriquez of the Iowa Youth Writing Project in a poem created to accompany the Family Folk Machine in “Down By the Riverside.” This concert, in which our intergenerational choir will perform songs about rivers and water, will be held Sunday, May 4, at 3 p.m. at the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center.

The concert program features a variety of perspectives on water: living, working, and playing along our rivers (“Proud Mary,” “Bamboo”); frustration about flooding (“Get Down, River”); ecstatic encounters with nature (“Loon”); and the richness of rivers and waters as metaphors for understanding important geographies and passages in our lives (“Bridges,” “Crossing the Bar,” “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”). We’ll sing the traditional favorite, “The Water is Wide,” and “Sailing Down My Golden River,” a song that Pete Seeger wrote when he started sailing on the Hudson River. Having opened the concert with a musical explanation of the water cycle (“The Wheel of the Water”), we close it with “Somos el Barco,” a song inspired by Seeger’s sloop Clearwater in which we ourselves have become the water (“We are the boat; we are the sea”).

We are pleased to welcome local songwriter Chris Vinsonhaler to join the Folk Machine for “Iowa River Call,” a song she wrote about the peoples who have made their home by our river. And the kids of the Family Folk Machine have written a song for the concert called “What if the river was clean?” They have been working for several months with Katie Roche in a songwriting workshop gathering ideas and creating melodies. The song they have written starts from the premise that “The river reflects how we live” and imagines the river as the place they wish it was: a place for fishing, swimming, boating, playing in the mud, and helping ducks catch crawdads. The image of all the fun we could have with the river gives us a strong incentive to get to work cleaning it up! This premiere performance will be accompanied by some of the kids on violins and cellos.

The music will be brought into focus and given a local perspective by poetic reflections on rivers from the students of the Iowa Youth Writing Project. We are grateful to Dora Malech and the IYWP for working with community students to generate river poems. Some poems will be read aloud between songs, and all will be printed in a booklet accompanied by river-themed prints created by the kids of the Family Folk Machine under the guidance of local artists and Folk Machinists Buffy Quintero and SunHee Oberfoell.

The concert is free and open to the public. We hope you can join us on May 4 at 3 p.m.!
The Family Folk Machine, a Senior Center group, is an intergenerational, non-auditioned folk choir directed by Jean Littlejohn. Future Family Folk Machine performances will be Saturday, June 7, 2:30 p.m. on the Family Stage at the Iowa Arts Festival and Saturday, June 28, 2:00 p.m. at the Englert Theater with the Voices of Experience. For more information, or to inquire about joining the Family Folk Machine, see