Did a White Iowan Invent Rap Music?

Chatterbox is driving around Iowa this week. He has never been to the state before. It is very flat, and does not appear to have any trees. Chatterbox would describe Iowa as a rural state, one that grows a lot of corn. (He also understands that it has a lot of cattle and hogs, but he has to take that on faith. From the road he’s seen mostly corn.) Last night Chatterbox sampled “broasted” chicken at a greasy spoon in Algona. He thought it was a typo on the menu, but apparently it’s a local delicacy–a kind of deep-fried chicken. Chatterbox wishes he could say it was delicious, but it wasn’t.

Feeling that what must be the Real Iowa wasn’t coming across to him, Chatterbox, during a stopover in Boone, bought a book called Iowa Pride by Duane Schmidt. There he learned that Iowans invented Roto-Rooter (Samuel O. Blanc, 1883-1964), modern polling (George Gallup, 1901-1984), sit-down dentistry (John L. Naughton, b. 1915), and the trampoline (George P. Nissen, b. 1914).

Iowa also claims to have invented the digital computer. According to Iowa Pride (which attributes the story to Clark Mollenhoff, 1921-1991, a celebrated investigative reporter for the Des Moines Register and the Washington Times), a professor at Iowa State named John Vincent Atanasoff (1903-1995) invented the digital computer in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Atanasoff got drafted before he had a chance to get a patent on his machine, Schmidt writes, and meanwhile Atanasoff showed another scientist, John Mauchly, “detailed drawings, plans, theories, and the working model of this first computer.” Mauchly then built his Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, popularly known as ENIAC, the forerunner to UNIVAC, for the U.S. Army.

In the next edition of Iowa Pride, Schmidt might want to consider the possibility that Iowa also invented rap music. Schmidt fails to note this in his write-up of Meredith Willson (1902-1984), the Iowan who wrote “It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas” and, more significantly, the great Broadway musical The Music Man. Chatterbox spent last night in Mason City, which, he’s grateful to learn from Schmidt, is where Willson grew up and what Willson had in mind when he invented River City, the town that gets gulled by Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man. Until now, Willson’s shaky reputation for hipness has rested solely on the fact that the Beatles once did a cover of “Till There Was You.” But Chatterbox invites Schmidt to consider the song, “Trouble,” and, especially The Music Man’s opening song, whose name escapes Chatterbox at the moment. The latter is set on a train to River City, and consists of Hill’s rival traveling salesmen talking in a rhythmic patter that mimics the chugging of the train:

He’s a music man.
He’s a what? He’s a what?
He’s a music man, and he sells clarinets
To to the kids in the town …

This is rap music, no? Chatterbox understands that this is likely to be a sensitive issue. White people stole rock ’n’ roll and jazz and nearly every other indigenous form of popular music from blacks, and the black community is right to be annoyed about that. But Chatterbox invites readers to consider that African-Americans exacted revenge by stealing rap music from Meredith Willson, possibly the whitest man who ever lived.