The grit of women is one thing to admire. And the grit in passionate pop singer Melissa Etheridge’s voice is yet another element that has attracted its share of admirers.

So Sarah Harpring is pumped about the latest incarnation of the American Pie rock concert series unfolding May 13 at the Judson Erne Auditorium at Columbus North High School.

The Columbus East High School senior will belt out Etheridge’s passionate 1993 hit “I’m the Only One” as part of “The Magical Her-story Tour” — a play on words since the show will focus on musical history from women’s perspective with songs recorded by or about women. The normal subtitle through the years has been “The Magical History Tour.”

“I love the whole idea of girl power,” said Harpring, marking her fourth year as a performer in the educational concert that packs the 1,067-seat venue.

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And she now loves the vocals of Etheridge, an artist with whom she previously had been unfamiliar.

“Her voice has kind of a gravelly sound,” Harpring observed.

About 150 area high school students — singers, musicians, set designers, marketers — have joined with founder and former Columbus North social studies teacher Ed Niespodziani to bring the extravaganza to the stage, reminding people that elements of life lessons and sociology can be wrapped around a frolicking guitar solo and an irresistible song hook.

The 28-tune set list for the 31st annual performance will range from the sweet-and-demure 1963 Paul and Paula tune, “Hey Paula,” to the Taylor Swift’s no-nonsense, critics-be-damned 2014 smash, “Shake It Off.” Niespodziani sees the evolution of female voices in pop music as a journey of evolving identity and growing independence, much like in modern society.

“The focus will examine where American women were as far back as 1959, and where they are today,” Niespodziani said.

He termed women’s role changes reflected in music over six decades as dramatic. Even a cursory glance at pop-rock lyric sheets over that period will show females then as fragile people seemingly to be protected to today’s strong leaders rising to make their way in the workplace.

Through the years, Niespodziani has noted the progress and growth of a number of past show performers, and sometimes, their continued success in music.

“They sometimes will tell me that American Pie was a huge influence on them,” he said. “They walked offstage after a performance and said, ‘Yeah! I can do this.’”

And they can look the part doing it, too.

Some student acts depicting artists from the 1960s often flaunt psychedelic shirts, headbands or period sun glasses. Those highlighting mid-1970s artists frequently have sported a disco look.

This year, many of the singers’ mothers are assuming historical narrator/commentary duties in place of Niespodziani, who always has filled that role as he has highlighted national events such as Vietnam and voting, demonstrations and disillusionment. The retired social studies department chairman never dreamed his original idea to make history come alive for students would expand to such popularity — and now inspire high schools in Westfield, Hilton Head, South Carolina, and elsewhere to develop a taste for their own recipes of rock.

“Had no clue,” Niespodziani said with a chuckle. “Especially had no clue it would last until 31 years later.”

The band for the show regularly includes “American Pie” veterans such as guitarist Nick Niespodziani, the retiree’s son, now a full-time guitarist with nationally touring pop-rock act Yacht Rock Revue. Other generations are reflected in the ongoing musical tradition.

Ken Patton, the first drummer for “American Pie,” will attend this year to see son Nathan Patton sing the duet of “Hey Paula” as one of four male vocalists. Dad has noted the event’s growth from an afternoon, single social studies class inspiration to a full-blown happening.

“It’s a phenomenal idea,” Ken Patton said. “And I guess that’s the big reason it has caught on so well.”

The show's set list

1. “I Am Woman”

2. “Sweet Nothins’”

3. “Hey Paula”

4. “Leader of the Pack”

5. “The Beat Goes On”

6. “Rescue Me”

7. “I Only Wanna Be With You”

8. “Love Will Keep Us Together”

9. “Oh, Pretty Woman”

10. “To Sir With Love”

11. “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”

12. “Ode to Billy Joe”

13. “American Woman”

14. “Lady Madonna”

15. “Black Velvet”

16. “Flashdance (What A Feeling)”

17. “Black Magic Woman”

18. “Can’t You See”

19. “Baby It’s You”

20. “Harden My Heart”

21. “Goodbye To Love”

22. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”

23. “Give Me One Reason”

24. “I’m The Only One”

25. “Don’t Stop”

26. “9 To 5”

27. “Everlasting Love”

28. “Shake It Off”

Get ready to rock

What: 31st annual “American Pie: The Magical Her-story Tour,” featuring students, parents, teachers and community members presenting songs and commentary about elements of history from 1959 to the present. The show often stretches three hours.

When: 7:15 p.m. March 13

Where: Judson Erne Auditorium at Columbus North High School, 1400 25th St. in Columbus

Tickets: $15. Available at Columbus North and Columbus East high schools bookstores. Event normally sells out.

Information: Columbus North American Pie Facebook page.

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at or 812-379-5672.