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Compiling songs about Iowa — not ‘Ioway’

January 12, 2011

(Revised Jan. 20, 2019, to add "Keokuk" by Lori Lee Woods and "Iowa" by Susan Werner.)

(Revised Sept. 27, 2012, to add Iowa native Andy Williams.)

Friends of ours are in the process of moving from Iowa. They and their family are not native Iowans but in their time here, with all they did, they earned honorary native Iowan status. So as a going-away present, I compiled a mix CD full of Iowa-related songs, covering the gamut from the “Iowa Corn Song” to The Everly Brothers to Slipknot. Since others might be interested in the list (and have other ideas for different tunes to be included—leave a comment below), I wanted to share the list here.

Each song on the list is either about Iowa or was written or performed by an Iowan or someone with Iowa connections. Or by someone who knew someone who’s cousin once visited the state.

In compiling these songs, I noted a couple of things. In large part, they portray Iowa as either completely agrarian or depressingly desolate. As someone who has worked cutting rogue corn out of soybeans and standing in the middle of a field and not being able to see where my row started and where it will end because they are beyond opposite edges of the horizon, I can relate to both portrayals. But they make the state seem boring and one-dimensional. Where are the songs about Iowa’s other major industries, maybe a song about the rough-and-tumble, exciting adventures of the insurance actuary? Where?

The other thing I noted is that in many of the songs, especially songs of the early 20th century, the state is referred to not by its proper name of Iowa, but as “Ioway.” Apparently, we were so busy working endless hours on the farm that we didn’t have time to do no proper book learnin’ and became so dumb that we couldn’t even pronounce the name of our own state correctly. (OK, to be fair, we can’t properly pronounce our town names of Madrid (MAD-rid), East Peru (PEE-roo), Guttenberg (GUT-en-berg), or Keokuk (KIL-kook).) But we ain’t no hicks and rubes, usin’ double negatives and droppin’ our g’s. We know how to say “Iowa.” And I believe we’ve always said it that way. “Ioway” is just an affectation used to make us seem even more rural than we already were.

As a result, I called the CD mix I made, “This Ain’t Ioway: Songs of and by the folks people and state of Ioway Iowa.”

I believe Iowa’s own Meredith Willson, composer, conductor, and playwright, best known for his Broadway and movie musical “The Music Man,” was also bothered by this portrayal of our state as “Ioway” and actually, through his songs and plays, succeeded in quashing it in popular culture by the 1960s.

In fact, in the movie “The Music Man,” as Harold Hill arrives in River City, Iowa, he is greeted by town residents, who set him straight on the pronunciation of the state:

MAN STOPPING HAROLD HILL IN STREET: You are in Ioway. (Sung to the tune of the "Iowa Corn Song.")

HAROLD HILL: Ioway? Well, at least I know how to pronounce it. I always thought you folks preferred "Iow-uh."


HAROLD HILL: Well, he just said "Ioway."

WOMAN ON THE STREET: We say it now and then. But we don't like anybody else to.

Here’s a look at each track I included on the CD. Where possible, I’ve included links where you can hear samples of the songs or songs in their entirety. Sometimes, I’ve found You Tube links with video of the songs being performed, though not always by the original artists:

1. Iowa Corn Song

Could it be that this song, written in 1912, was the thing that started the whole denigrating “Ioway” thing? If so, then it was a self-inflicted wound. The song was written by Iowa Shriners to promote the state at a national convention in California. Cringe-inducing even when it was introduced to us native Iowans in elementary school, the lyrics seemed terribly embarrassing, full of “yo-hos” and “Ioways.” Not even realizing the stigma attached with “Ioway,” we would not sing that word. We sang “Iowa” and I know our teachers agreed. It’s not the official state song (there’s even a worse song they picked for that, hard to believe), but it is one that has stuck and become caked on.

Sheet music for the “Iowa Corn Song.”

The song is also performed in the  1948 movie “A Foreign Affair.” In a Berlin bar, an Iowa congresswoman played by Jean Arthur, is persuaded by a chanteuse played by Marlene Dietrich, to sing the state song before a group of boisterous soldiers. (Obvious fantasy since Iowa has never elected a female congresswoman.) (Or had not when this post was first written in 2011—we've since elected three as of 2019.)

2. All I Owe Ioway

From the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1945 film musical, “State Fair.” The portrayal of the state as “Ioway” persisted in popular culture. It seemed like a scheme of east coast songwriters to continue to stereotype and belittle Iowans. They are probably the same people who insist on patronizingly calling the people of Iowa “folks.” Unbeknownst to them, Iowa is and has always been a cosmopolitan place, full of men in tuxedoes and women in evening dresses, sipping martinis. 

A You Tube video of a middle school performing the song:


3. I Owe A Lot To Iowa Pot

Performed by Napoleon XIV (Jerry Samuels), probably better known for his Dr. Demento staple, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away (Ha Ha).” See, we’re pretty sophisticated in Iowa. In addition to growing plants, we can also—grow other plants.

Hear a sample of this song.

4. Iowa Stubborn

Written by Mason City-native Meredith Willson for his 1957 musical “The Music Man.”

Clip from the 1962 film adaptation.

Music Man Iowa Stubborn by WarnerBrosOnline

5. It’s Time To Go To Iowa

From “Caucus! The Musical,” performed prior to the 2008 presidential election season. With a Calypso-beat, the song tells of the joys of presidential candidates skipping warmer climes to stay in Iowa to campaign for the all-important wintertime caucuses. It even includes a break during which—to the tune of The Beach Boys “Kokomo”—the names of Iowa towns are substituted for the list of Caribbean islands.

Sample of the song.

6. Sioux City Sue

Gene Autry’s cover version of a song that was a originally a hit for Dick Thomas, who wrote the song in 1945. Note the sadomasochism involving ropes and branding in the final verse. See? More than just agriculture. Iowans can be very worldly. Even in a country song. Here is a version of the song done by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians:

7. Dubuque Blues

Performed live by The Association, a ‘60s California pop group better known for its number-one singles, “Cherish” and “Windy.” This song was a single for them in 1970 on the back-end of their career that had limited chart activity.

8. Davenport Blues

Cornetist and Davenport-native Bix Beiderbecke died in 1931 at the age of 28. But he became a major influence in the early years of jazz and Dixieland. He performs this song dedicated to his hometown.

A You Tube video of a New York Jazz Repertory concert doing a tribute to Bix. It looks like late 1960s, early 1970s.

9. Templeton Rye

The Nadas, a Des Moines-based rock/folk group perform this song about rye whiskey made in Templeton, Iowa, during Prohibition.

Here’s video of Jason Walsmith of the Nadas singing an acoustic version of the song:

10. In The Mood

Iowans love to claim people as Iowans no matter how little time they spent in the state. Glenn Miller was born in Clarinda but moved away before he went to grade school. In the whole scheme of things, he probably spent only a little more time here than Buddy Holly did. Holly, of course, performed his last concert here before he died in a 1959 plane crash near Mason City. But then, we claim him, too, and all other celebrities who died in the state. Rocky Marciano? Died in plane crash near Newton in 1969. Therefore: Iowan. Cary Grant? Died of cerebral hemorrhage in Davenport in 1986. Yes: Hawkeye, through and through.

 11. Bye Bye Love

The Everly Brothers got their start in performing on KMA and KFNF radio in Shenandoah in the 1940s as youngsters. They lived in that southwest Iowa town through early high school, before breaking big in the late 1950s and becoming Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. 

12. Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite

Karl King, born in Ohio, settled in Fort Dodge in 1920 in his late 20s, and conducted the municipal band for the next 51 years. He also became a renowned composer of marches. Maybe it’s just because I’m from Iowa, but whenever I hear a march I know that if it wasn’t written by John Philip Sousa, it was probably one of Karl King’s.

13. End Credits (Field of Dreams)

“Field of Dreams” is the best movie ever. And I’m not saying that just because I’m from Iowa and it was filmed in Dyersville and northeast Iowa in the late 1980s. And I’m not saying that just because Susan and I saw this movie on our very first date. I’m not biased, OK? “Field of Dreams” IS THE BEST. MOVIE. EVER.

14. Iowa by Slipknot

This group of Iowa boys sing their tender melodies about growing up in rural Iowa during the farm crisis of the 1970s and 1980s and of their work walking beans and detasseling corn. Oh. Wait. That’s my experience growing up. I really don’t know what their problem is. They are shouting about something. Is it sex? Possibly? No. Not sex. Is it violence? No, not really. Are they angry? Maybe, maybe, but it’s not clear why and it seems very clean and non-threatening. Perhaps they are shouting because they are injured. But whatever the case, these Des Moines boys have taken their heavy metal act with masks to worldwide fame. Some might even say baffling worldwide fame. But whatever. At least they didn’t call the song “Ioway.” So, anyway, back to our regular programming …

15. Fly Away To I-Oway

Yet another song in which the state is referred to as “Ioway.” What is it with these people? It seems pretty dismissive to me. This is from the 1930s. Jimmy Durante sang it in the 1934 movie musical “Hollywood Party.” Richard Rodgers wrote this with Moss Hart. Rodgers also later co-wrote “All I Owe Ioway.” Did Rodgers have something against Iowans? Or did he simply not know how to say it right? 

Here’s a clip with a recording from Ted Fio Rito Orchestra:

Not on the CD, but … : Iowa, by Meredith Willson

I didn’t include this song on the CD but only because I couldn’t find a good copy of the song. But I want to include it here to get back to Meredith Willson and why I believe he helped get this “Ioway” thing stopped. He wrote another song called “Iowa” for the state centennial in 1946 that laments the improper pronunciation:

“I-o-way — I-o-way —

"That's how they sing it in the Tall Corn Song.

"Other people call it I-'O'-WA

"And they're both just a little bit wrong.


“It’s a beautiful name when you say it like we say it back home

“It’s a robin in the willow

“It’s a postmaster's friendly hello.”


16. Iowa Indian Song (I-O-Wuh)

As if to emphasize the proper way to say the name, Meredith Willson wrote another song in which the pronunciation is spelled out in the subtitle—I-O-Wuh. Sure, it does a great job of setting that right, but it is fairly offensive to Native Americans. So it’s kind of a wash. But Bing really swings it.

Hear a sample of the song here.

17. Interstate 80 Iowa

There are a lot of songs about how outsiders see how terrible life is in Iowa. This one is at least kind of funny. And true. It’s performed by comic song artist Heywood Banks.

18. It Sure Can Get Cold in Des Moines

Tom T. Hall, the country balladeer of “I Love,” and “I Like Beer” fame, also has a song about our sometimes chilly city.

Cover version:

19. Des Moines

A song by a Texas-based country group, The Drams.

Hear the song at their MySpace page.

Video clip of performance, joined in progress mid-song:

20. Stranded

This song came out when I was a teen-ager. It got a lot of play on the eastern Iowa and western Illinois radio stations I listened to. I really don’t know if it got any national airplay at all or was just a local novelty. My friends and I were kind of offended by it, yet agreed with its message. “How dare you say you’re stranded in my home state? There is abundant opportunity and plenty of things to do in your leisure time—oh, I see, well, yes, maybe you do have a point.” Also, I always questioned the opening: If you’re stranded in Iowa, how are you hearing a lovely woman with an English accent giving what seems to be the British shipping report?

21. In Des Moines (Eh La Bas)

Yes, the name of the city of Des Moines comes from the French. It translates roughly to “My Lovely Lady Lumps.” When public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” came to Des Moines for a performance, they brought along the Louisiana Cajun music group BeauSoleil. They took a Louisiana French Creole standard, “Eh La Bas,” and made it into a song about the “French” town of Des Moines.

You can hear selections from that show here.

22. Till There Was You

An encore from Meredith Willson, one of his best-known songs from “The Music Man.”

 Here it is performed by Kristin Chenoweth, who later played Marian in a TV remake:

Here it is performed by Ray Charles. I don’t believe Brother Ray ever played Marian, but I haven’t cross-checked that:

And here it is performed by the Beatles:

Legend has it that the Beatles performance of this single song earned Meredith Willson and his estate more in royalties than the entire run of “The Music Man.”

23. The Iowa Waltz

I chose to end the CD with one of my favorite songs about Iowa. It was written and performed by Greg Brown, an Iowa City folksinger and guitarist, who came to fame as a regular on public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” in the 1980s. This song came out on his 1981 album by the same name. There has been some effort to get this song named as Iowa’s official state song. Maybe it’s not too late.

Here is a clip of Brown’s recording from MySpace.

Here is a clip from an old Warren County friend of mine, the Rev. Blake Blakesley. I first heard him cover Brown’s song in September 1992, as he and his folk group entertained the crowd prior to a campaign stop by Bill Clinton in Indianola. In this clip, he is performing in a living room:

Here is another version of the song, an acoustic cover by Doug Newman:

There were many other songs I could have added. Czech composer Antonin Dvorak spent three months in Spillville, Iowa, in 1893 composing several works. I left them out. Local bands have written songs about the geography and culture of Iowa. I left them out. ABBA wrote a song about “Waterloo.” I left that out.

There was no Andy Williams, no Roger Williams, no Simon Estes, no Marilyn Maye.

I even left this out, The Iowa Town Song:

Late addition — Sept. 26, 2012:

With the death of Andy Williams on Sept. 26, 2012, I have belatedly added the Wall Lake, Iowa, native to the compilation. Everyone knows "Moon River," his standard. But upon his passing, I include his version of "My Way."

Keokuk (added Jan. 20, 2019):

Lori Lee Woods, who performs the song, "Keokuk"

Here's a song brought to my attention by Keokukian Steve Swan, a friend from college at the University of Iowa. Performed by Lori Lee Woods and it appears it was released in 1981 from her album, "Touch Me (If You Care)," which includes other songs with town names—McAlester, Okla., and Alamogordo, N.M. Not a lot of info about Woods, but the album looks like it was the only release by Legs Records out of Wickenburg, Arizona, and there are publicity photos of Woods surrounded by cacti, so I'm guessing that was her address, too. The song includes references to Burlington, Fort Madison and Quincy, Illinois, so I'm not sure whether she had connections to Keokuk or whether she was just looking at a map.

Iowa by Susan Werner, added Jan. 20, 2019

One of my newer favorite song about Iowa was written and recorded by Manchester, Iowa, native Susan Werner on her great 2013 album, "Hayseed," which includes songs about growing up rural Iowa. This is intended as a children's sing-along song, but it does include references to marijuana and "freezing your European ass off.

Additional information came from this Famous Iowans piece on

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