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The Iowa Caucuses Explained ... By Broadway?

Shirley Jones and Robert Preston star in 1962's <em>The Music Man,</em> about a con man who poses as a band leader.
Warner Bros.
The Kobal Collection
Shirley Jones and Robert Preston star in 1962's The Music Man, about a con man who poses as a band leader.

Like many — perhaps most — Americans, I've never been to Iowa. But I and much of my generation learned a lot about Iowans years ago from a classic American musical. I knew from the age of 8 that Iowans are stubborn. I learned that from the song "Iowa Stubborn" in Broadway's The Music Man. My folks had seen the show and told me how, when traveling salesman Harold Hill got to River City, Iowa, everybody followed him around because he was an outsider — but they were kind of weird and standoffish. And when the movie came out in 1962, it was just like they had said.

"Good morning, neighbor," Hill (played by Robert Preston) tells a man on the street. "I'm a stranger in your town. What do you folks around here do for excitement?"

"Mind our business," comes the reply.

A lesser man might take the next train out of town. But like a politician, Hill has to sell himself to these folks, so he does what politicians do: He listens and says pleasantly noncontroversial things as he tries to figure out how to get them to buy what he's selling.

When one person pronounces the state "I-oh-way" and he expresses surprise, he's told it's OK for Iowans to pronounce it that way but "we don't like anyone else to." File that away, he figures, and keep smiling, because once Iowans get comfortable around outsiders, they open up. And when they do, he gets an earful:

There's nothing halfway
About the Iowa way to treat you,
When we treat you,
Which we may not do at all.
There's an Iowa kind of special
Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude
We've never been without
That we recall.

The chip-on-the-shoulder image they're conjuring is Grant Wood's painting American Gothic — that farming couple with a pitchfork. And a moment later, there's a line that has always stuck with me:

We're so by-God-stubborn
We could stand touching noses
For a week at a time
And never see eye-to-eye.

That is exactly how I've pictured the Iowa caucuses in my head: a lot of principled Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters glaring at each other nose-to-nose but not eye-to-eye. Iowa-born Meredith Willson, who wrote The Music Man, once called the show "an Iowan's attempt to pay tribute to his home state." He made its characters strong-minded but fair, and generous in their way, though not necessarily fans of what would, years later, be called the welfare state:

Join us at the picnic.
You can eat your fill
Of all the food you bring yourself.

And then, there was another lyric that stuck with me:

You really ought to give Iowa a try.
Provided you are contrary.

That last line is sung in a deep voice that made a big impression on me as a kid. That guy later appears in the barbershop quartet that salesman Hill uses to distract the town while he's promoting his "big-government" idea — a town-sponsored brass band.

The idea that Iowa's denizens like "contrary" people maybe explains their embrace of outsiders in some election cycles. They're skeptical right up until they take someone — candidate or salesman — to their collective bosom. Writer Willson turns their expression of charity toward someone they had accepted into what sounds like a church chorale:

We'll give you our shirt
And a back to go with it
If your crops should happen to die.

Who wouldn't want support from that sort of contrarian? Salty sure, but salt of the earth. And for candidates who want to hit every precinct in what politicians call the "full Grassley," Willson even suggests a few must-visit stops. No doubt tonight's winners visited every one. Here they are:

Des Moines
Mason City
Clear Lake
You ought to give Iowa a try!

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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