Iowa native creates musical inspired by “The Song of Iowa”


Darrell Johnston hadn’t heard the Iowa State song until 2020 while stuck inside due to the pandemic and looking for something to inspire him. What he discovered led him to create a musical imagining how the 110-year-old state song was originally created.

“I was studying for the law school entrance exam and needed a creative outlet.” I was lucky and it was bad. “

Johnston describes the melody as identical to “Oh, Christmas Tree” and found the word “purple” to describe the state’s sunsets as curious.

Now an actor and producer, Johnston graduated from Graceland University at Lamoni, where he majored in acting before attending graduate school to act at the University of South Carolina. He is also director of the Denali Film Festival in Alaska.

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Johnston – who wrote “And a Guitar,” a jukebox musical he created and trained in his alma mater – took “The Song of Iowa” to write his “State Song” musical. In the fictional story, Johnston imagines how three passionate musicians with a passion for Iowa are hired by the governor to write a song about the state.

“It starts with a phone call from the governor saying, ‘Hey, maybe you don’t have that much time,’” said Johnston. “So they suddenly find themselves with a delay (of two weeks) that they hadn’t foreseen.”

The trio race against the clock while avoiding hypoglycemia and bad song ideas in an effort to write something worthy of the state they love.

Johnston noted that he avoided examining too deeply the actual origins of state song in order to avoid the idea that he was making fun of whoever is responsible for “The Song of Iowa.”

“In the end, it’s a bad song, but someone’s relative wrote it,” he said. “I didn’t want them to feel too bad about this and for it to be something personal.”

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A promotional graphic for "State song," a musical directed by Iowa-born musician / actor Darrell Johnston.  The musical, a fictionalized historical comedy, is still in preparation.

Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers – a poet born in Pulaski, Pennsylvania, in 1838 before his family finally moved to Iowa in the early 1850s, a few years after Iowa was granted statehood – has to the origin writes the state song.

Byers enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War and wrote the poem “Sherman’s March to the Sea” while a prisoner of war. Another prisoner set the poem to music. He has also written about the war in documents such as “What I Saw in Dixie: Or Sixteen Months in Rebel Prisons” and “Iowa in War Times”, as well as other poems on the state of Iowa. Among his writings is “Song of Iowa,” which the Iowa Legislature declared the official song of the state in 1911.

While audiences likely won’t hear any mention of Byers when Johnston returns to Iowa to host the musical, he has sprinkled other historical tidbits into his work, facts such as the inventor of the sliced ​​bread is from the state or a French-style song referencing the unclear origins of the name “Des Moines”.

“I hope people think it’s funny. I finally want people to laugh. I would also like people to remember a fact, ”said Johnston.

Johnston plans to host a “State Song” workshop at Carol Hall in Lamoni during the first full week of January 2022. The exact dates and times of the performances are still pending. During those shows, he wants audience commentary to be incorporated into the show when he stages it at the Manhattan Theater Club studio in New York City later this month.

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While Johnston knows that every song in his 24-song musical is unlikely a masterpiece, he ends the show with a song simply titled “Iowa,” which he imagines as an alternate pitch for a song by State. The song includes phrases such as “The people of Iowa are famous for their charms” and “We are the people of the land between two rivers. It is our home and happiness will be there. “

“It’s not a fight song or anything, but I think it’s pretty cool,” he said, before adding jokingly. “If the people of Iowa like it, maybe I’ll send an MP3 to the governor’s office.”

Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at Des Moines Register. Contact him at [email protected] or 319-600-2124, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.

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