Chatterbox Visits the Cradle of Rap Music

Chatterbox, who is in Iowa, took a break from the serious reporting that brought him here to visit the boyhood home of Meredith Willson, the white Iowan who, Chatterbox believes, may have invented rap music. (See “Did a White Iowan Invent Rap Music?”) Chatterbox awoke this morning in Mason City , which Willson renamed River City in The Music Man , the classic Broadway musical he created during the 1950s. (Mason City has five small rivers and three creeks running through it.) After gassing up his rental car in front of the Kum & Go, which sounds like a whorehouse but is really a chain of convenience stores, Chatterbox was about to leave town when he saw signs for the Willson home and resolved to take a brief detour. The house, a stately green clapboard Victorian, was, sadly, closed (it’s open only on weekends from 1-4 p.m.). Chatterbox did take note, however, of a sign on the lot next door announcing the “Future Site of the Music Man Square and Meredith Willson Museum .” Construction of the steel frame is, in fact, well under way. When completed, it will include a museum containing memorabilia from Willson’s musical career, and a three-quarters-of-a-block exterior streetscape designed to look like downtown Mason City in 1912. This will include a working soda shop, barbershop, the inevitable pool hall alluded to in the song “Trouble,” and the even more inevitable gift shop. The Mason City Foundation, which is building Music Man Square, has also received permission from Warner Bros. to reproduce the outside of Marian the Librarian’s house as depicted in the movie. The entire project is expected to cost $10.2 million, all of it to be raised privately, with Meredith Willson’s widow contributing $5 million for capital costs and $2 million for a future endowment.

Chatterbox was especially interested in the “exploratorium” that the foundation plans to include in the complex. This will be a childhood learning center for music education. It follows something called the “Mozart theory of teaching” that was developed at the University of Michigan. “It’s getting youngsters as early as 2 and 3 years of age working with woodwinds,” Carl Miller, the foundation’s executive director (and a former Mason City mayor) told Chatterbox. Gee, Chatterbox thought aloud, that sounds a little like Prof. Harold Hill’s “think system” (the con Hill perpetrates on the citizens of River City to get them to pay him to start a boy’s band). “Well, it goes along with it,” Miller said cheerily.

Chatterbox, feeling that Mason City was the one place where his own harebrained theory–about the origins of rap music–might find some acceptance, tried it out on several people there. The first was Jocelyn Alexander, 34, of Warrenton, Va., who was taking a look at the Meredith Willson house at the same time as Chatterbox because her grandmother, Marjorie Sale, grew up in the house next door (which is now being converted by the foundation into a tea house). Alexander told Chatterbox that when Marjorie Sale and Meredith Willson were young children, Marjorie, in the very front yard we were standing in, pulled Meredith’s hair, and he retaliated by twisting the head off her teddy bear. This struck Chatterbox as an appropriately violent act by the future inventor of an outlaw art form like rap music, and Chatterbox was emboldened to share his theory that the opening song in The Music Man, recited to the rhythm of a moving train, was the first rap song ever composed. Alexander listened politely, said she didn’t think her grandmother would be much of an authority on rap music, and tactfully avoided endorsing Chatterbox’s theory herself (though she did offer that she’d been listening to Snoop Doggy Dog on the drive over). Chatterbox next tried the theory out on Steve Musson, proprietor of the future tea house. “I don’t know,” he said. “I never thought about it. I don’t like rap music much.” Approaching despair, Chatterbox finally posed the question to the Mason City Foundation’s Miller (with whom Chatterbox spoke by phone, because by then he’d moved on to Charles City). “I haven’t heard that before,” Miller allowed, “but there’s some truth to that.” He said that Willson composed the opening song from The Music Man while having his first wife imitate the sound of a train: “It sounded a lot, as you say, like modern-day rap.”