My Book Report About "On the Road" Which I Read By The Celestial Monochord
The Old French Weird America

North Country Blues

A mural in the library of Bob Dylan's high school depicts Hibbing's multi-ethnic iron miners. What did their music sound like?

Around 1965, Bob Dylan turned his back on folk music, confirming the break by "going electric" at the Newport Folk Festival. 

At once fact and fiction, the story has emerged as one of the more familiar parables from the 20th century.

But lately, I've been thinking about an earlier moment of decision when Dylan walked away from another set of folk music traditions — those of the Upper Midwest.  Today, that decision seems more consequential in the long run, all the more so the longer it goes unrecognized.

When Dylan walked away from Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range and the rest of the Upper Midwest, he left behind what was then a dying economy, as portrayed in his song "North Country Blues".  It was a dyin' town, it was a dyin' town, he chants in the album's liner notes. 

But Dylan was also walking away from dying forms of music as varied and complex as any in the world, including those of the American South.

At the time, old musical ways of life were changing just as fast in the South, of course, but important elements of the Folk Revival were bent on preserving Southern traditional music — and Dylan was about to help out.  

Suddenly, the critical difference between the traditional music of the North and the South hasn't turned out to be a matter of quality or inherent interest.  

Instead, it's that the music of the South — against all odds, and to our inexpressible benefit — was resuscitated when it needed it most.  Up North, in Zimmerman country, a comparable revival just never arrived.

I've been working on a study of the only recording on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music clearly representing northern music — "Moonshiner's Dance," recorded in Minnesota in 1927.  It has never been studied before.  

Early in my project, I knew I would eventually have to know — and I mean have to, and I mean know — the musical environment in the Upper Midwest before World War Two.

Consider the 1913 mural in the library of Hibbing High School depicting iron miners at work.  Each of its 16 human figures represents another ethnic group that mined the Mesabi Iron Range — a deep diversity of cultures that, presumably, intermingled to create distinctive new American sounds.  

Those miners were silent as they watched the young Robert Zimmerman browse the library books — but they must've danced to something sometime.

During the early phases of my research into "Moonshiner's Dance," I often thought about them, knowing I would need to hear their music in my head, loud and clear. 

Unfortunately, when I finally turned my attention to the problem, I saw there was going be trouble. 

I had first committed myself to traditional music 14 years prior, when there were already mountains of products on the market vying to help me navigate pre-War Southern blues and country.  But now, up North, even in 2008, I was pretty much on my own.

There is no such thing as, say, The Anthology of Northern American Folk Music (edited by Harry Smithovich).  There's no O Brother Where Art Ya Once?  There was no "Song to Otto Rindlisbacher" on Bob Dylan's first album.

Alan Lomax made a thousand recordings during fieldwork in the Upper Midwest in 1938, declaring it possibly "the most interesting country I have ever traveled in" with "enough material in the region for years of work".  But unlike every other region where Lomax conducted fieldwork, no release in any format has ever been devoted to his Northern journey.  The website of Lomax's foundation, its name apparently a bit of self-deprecating humor, makes no mention of it.

There is an amazing record store here in Minneapolis that sells only 78 rpm records, and it has hundreds of pre-War old-time ethnic recordings — cheap, in great condition, with unpronounceable titles.  But what do I buy?  And what sense do I make of it?

There's simply no ... there's no ...

There's no Northern canon.  Or worse, and more exactly, the canon of "American roots music" has bypassed my part of the country entirely. There are no names from the Upper Midwest like Dock Boggs, or The Carter Family, or Robert Johnson — names of musicians whose work everybody knows is great, even if they haven't actually bothered listening to it. 

How do you connect the dots when you have no dots to begin with? 

I spent much of 2008 trying to crack the case.

I've camped out in university and historical society libraries, scouring the footnotes of academic journal articles.  I've literally spent hours clutching photocopies of typewritten discographies while crawling on the floor in used vinyl stores — including one where the owner chain-smokes behind the register.  I've found music that's never been issued, is out of print, is on formats I can't play, lacks any intelligible context.

So far, there appear to be no easy solutions.  But I have found a few extremely valuable maps of this occult terrain — so valuable, in fact, that I hate to bury reviews of them this deep in an already too-long blog post.  

If I could press only three things into your hands today, they would be: (1) a brilliant box set, Down Home Dairyland, containing 40 episodes of a radio show about the traditional music of the Upper Midwest, and (2 and 3) a pair of absolutely essential books with unfortunate titles, Victor Greene's A Passion for Polka and James P. Leary's Polkabilly.  

They're hardly the only materials available, but taken together (including their footnotes, discographies, etc.) they allow an incipient canon to emerge — a list of things you probably should recognize if you want to be taken seriously on the subject.  They also provide — most pointedly in the first and last chapters of Leary's Polkabilly — clues to explaining why these musicians and their work aren't more widely seen as part of the canon of American roots music.

Following various threads into and out of such material, I sometimes return to the mural in the library of Hibbing High School.  

Like the rest of present-day Hibbing, the mural was once moved to its current location from the ghost town of North Hibbing, "where even the markin stones were dead, an there was no sound except for the wind blowin thru the high grass," as Dylan described it. 

Slowly, as I've started to hear a few strains of music coming from those miners in that mural, what's begun to strike me most about the thing is how deadly silent it first seemed to me, and how silent it must have seemed to Dylan, there in that hushed library.  

Why wasn't there a revival of Northern folk music for Dylan to join?  And what would one have sounded like?  Until 2008, I would have faintly assumed the answer to the first question was the answer to the second.  The music down South was just better or more plentiful.

And maybe it was, I haven't quite decided.  But the reasons for the historical neglect of the Upper Midwest turn out to be far more complex than that — so much so they deserve their own research institute ... or at least their own blog post.  I do know it certainly wasn't just about the music.

If we want to keep thinking that Southern music is better, that's ok with me.  But shouldn't we be able to say, confidently and in specific detail, "Better than WHAT?









This is a great conversation to get going. Looking forward to further dispatches, hope to contribute what I can.

Jerome Clark

Your is an exceptionally interesting posting, which could easily engender a booklength's response. I'll spare you and everyone and won't even attempt one, but I will drop a few random observations:

Anybody who reads about the minstrel shows of the early to mid-19th C. can see a link to the notion of folk-music revivals. The music parodied in those performances was Southern and rural, played on the appropriate instruments. Some of the songs ("Old Dan Tucker," "Turkey in the Straw" et al.) themselves entered, or in some cases reentered (if sometimes in altered form), the traditional repertoire. A number of songs originally of minstrel origin became standard American tunes, known as much to middle-class, urban audiences as to poor, country ones. These provided a template for a broad popular concept of "folk music." I've run into people who insist that "Oh Susannah" is what a folk song sounds like.

Second, influential mid-20th-C. performers such as the strangely forgotten Burl Ives drew on Midwestern ballad and other Northern traditions as much as, maybe more than, Southern ones. You'd have a hard time arguing that Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Paul Clayton, and the like were particularly Southern, certainly not in performance style, and only occasionally in song choice.

What made the New Lost City Ramblers seem so radical when they appeared on the scene initially was that they did sound Southern, unlike all those other "folk singers," with the arguable exception of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who sounded like Woody Guthrie, who was as much Western as Southern. (Even Jean Ritchie, who had genuine Kentucky roots, didn't sing remotely like, say, Aunt Molly Jackson.) Dylan himself -- I would dispute your suggestion, by the way, that he ever really abandoned folk music, but that's a discussion for another day -- was an anomaly because of his Southern sound, or anyway his strange approximation thereof.

The Southern thread was, and is, only one in the continuing folk revival. There were New England singers (Margaret MacArthur, Gordon Bok) who drew on that region's traditions, along with Western performers who went on to establish a distinctive, lively folk subgenre of their own (the "cowboy culture" movement of Ian Tyson, Michael Martin Murphey, Don Edwards -- all with roots in the '60s revival). Not to mention the Irish pub acts like the New York-based Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, from whom the American equivalent of the Celtic-music revival owes its first inspiration and from whom the early Dylan stole melodies.

I might mention, too, the obvious: that the "ethnic" recordings with "unpronounceable titles" aren't in English. Only a small hard-core listenership is drawn to songs in languages they don't understand. If you're not an immigrant yourself (or a child of immigrants) or an ethnomusicologist, chances are you aren't going to seek out Norwegian or Hungarian or Italian or Polish songs for your listening pleasure (even if therefore you miss some very fine music).

From my own listening I don't think it is self-evidently true, in short, that the revival should be seen as overwhelmingly Southern and Dylan. Both, of course, have been significant presences, but hardly defining ones.

The Celestial Monochord

Thanks for the comment, Jerry. I think it's basically correct, but only so far as it goes.

Let's see ...

This post took a month to write, mostly because I cut so much out of it. Brevity is very time-consuming. I wanted to deliver nuance, but also a jab to the jaw, and I think I got that done. But there are oceans of issues it raises without resolving.

Jim Leary, in Polkabilly and elsewhere, is much more careful about including the East and West in his critique of the neglect of the Upper Midwest, and I think you'd find his work more challenging in that way, among others.

I agree that it's possible to find, everywhere you look, a trail of breadcrumbs leading north. For example, you'll find Great Lakes work songs and lumberjack songs in Sandburg's American Song Bag. But go ahead, I dare you -- go to iTunes or Amazon and try to get an education in the folk music of North Carolina. Now try Minnesota.

I think someone with your grasp of the material - which is rather far-reaching - and your level of involvement over so many decades can lose track of the experience of newbies and the more casual listener (meaning almost everybody). I mean, since when do the experts control the narrative? A suggestion that there is no emphasis on Anglo and African American music of the South would be just plain unreasonable.

The whole mystique of Americana, or of American Roots Music, certainly revolves around a story about The South, despite the historical facts you (quite correctly) cite. You can live a very full life of music listening and still think that all the good stuff comes from the South - and one hell of a lot of people do exactly that. The south and Dylan are indeed powerfully definitive, I must report from the field -- and not very unhappily, since I love them both.

I also detect a certain effect in which important music is south-ified -- e.g., the British Isles are associated with the Southern Appalachians. There have always been Brits everywhere on this continent, not just the South, but it sounded odd to me when I first realized there was Scottish fiddling on Prince Edward Island (how did it get up there from the Carolinas?). I first heard it about 4 years ago, but only because the great clawhammer banjo player Ken Perlman pulled me there by the ear lobe.

And there has always been a WASP bias (duh!) that Ango = American. It still seems odd to think that "Barbara Allen" is just as alien to North America as "Ach du Lieber Augustine," and not because I'm crazy - almost nobody is ever invited to see it that way.

I think I could send you to quite a few canonical documents - let's start with the Harry Smith Anthology - to look at who is and is not represented there. It's the same old characters Cecil Sharp found. Maybe you can send me your copy of Rounder's release of Lomax's Northern Journey ... I can't seem to locate mine.

Dude! Meet me at the upcoming jug band competition at the Cabooze - we'll collaborate on a little geo-statistical analysis of the repertoire ...

Anyway, as you (and I) say, this is a big subject. Check out the paragraph that starts "If I could press only three things into your hands today ..." Thanks again.

Jerome Clark

Kurt, Thanks for your (as always) thoughtful comments. You make some good points, though I continue to disagree with the greater thrust of your argument. In any event, I hope others will throw in their insights as well. This has the makings of a worthwhile -- maybe even needed -- discussion.

I think that Pete Seeger, who (unlike half-brother Mike, not incidentally much less known to the broader public) is not notably Southern in his musical approach, has had far more to do with shaping popular perceptions of traditional folk music than Harry Smith. Smith's Anthology provided songs and styles for some early revival performers, especially the more serious, committed ones, but the popular folk music of the revival drew on a much wider range of material. Moreover, little of it was Southern in performance style.

I believe that the latter-day literary rediscovery of Smith's work (chronicled interestingly if hyperbolically by Greil Marcus and earlier by Robert Cantwell) has distorted the more complicated, messy historical reality. (But then historical realities are always complicated and messy, aren't they?) Of course Smithsonian Folkways' excellent 1997 reissue project has played a role in romanticizing the history as well.

On the matter of folk music in Minnesota, I might refer you to my earlier observation that in a society where English is far and away the dominant language, songs in other languages are unlikely to attract a popular audience. Most folk-music traditions in Minnesota were carried over by the non-English-speaking immigrants (Scandinavians, Germans, and Poles mostly) who came here.

Even so, I might mention a memorable Minnesota folk-music experience (English-language division) in my own life. In the mid-1960s, while attending college in Moorhead, I had a girl friend who at one point mentioned casually that her mother knew old songs taught her by her own (deceased) mother. When I met the woman, I asked her if she remembered any. She sang me one she described as a favorite, which I instantly recognized as a variant of the broken-token ballad "John Riley."

E T Hoffman

Might want to think about Norteno/Tex-Mex as a musical collision between northern German/Czech polka music and Hispanic music. The lack of the same kind of cultural collisions in the pre-war northern mid-west might explain it's lack of representation in the folk canon. The immigration from the old country was just too recent for the music to have developed much. I know the best thumbless (corn picker accident) accordion player in the Dakota's (Leo Schumacher) and he talks about the charge he got hearing Flaco Jimenez for the first time. Flaco talks about his dad hearing the accordion at a German dance, but thought the playing was too stiff so he spiced it up. That sort of thing probably didn't happen much in the north.

Dan B. Velleman

Flaco talks about his dad hearing the accordion at a German dance, but thought the playing was too stiff so he spiced it up. That sort of thing probably didn't happen much in the north.

Mighta happened more than you think. I mean, not a collision with Hispanic culture in particular, but cultural collision in general.

I'm thinking, for instance, of the ethnic mix that went on in northern Michigan — Cornish, French-Canadian, Swedish and Finnish. None of them are stereotypically spicy, sure, but each of those groups had a strong folk music tradition with a *very* different feel, and the collision between them must have been fascinating.

I say "must have been" because, despite being a trad-folk fan who grew up in Michigan, I know basically nothing about the state's folk music — and hadn't really thought about it until reading this post. Chalk me up as another bit of evidence that a lot of us really do think of American folk music as essentially Appalachian and Southern, even if we oughta know better.

Jesse Walker

your level of involvement over so many decades can lose track of the experience of newbies and the more casual listener

Many of whom, just to complicate this even further, encounter folk music via a public radio show devoted to a fictional town in...Minnesota.

Lyle Lofgren

I've been trying to think of how to comment on your post (mainly how to comment in 5000 words or less), and I'm still not sure how to go about it. So for the nonce I'll just limit myself to your question about how Scottish fiddling got to Prince Edward Island (Cape Breton, to be precise).

The last quarter of the 1700s was the Enclosures Period in Scotland, where land that was previously considered to be owned in common was fenced off and farmed as private property. The result was that a large number of Scottish peasants were displaced, and, for some reason, almost all of them moved to Cape Breton. Since this was before American independence and the push westward, the American colonies were basically full. Also, I suppose the climate in the area of PEI was similar to Scotland. That seems to be why my grandparents moved to Minnesota -- it was just like Sweden, even including all the rocks in the fields.

So the fiddling didn't get there from the Appalachians. It came directly from Scotland. The similarity is because Scottish fiddling hadn't changed much between 1675 and 1775.


Richard Beckwith

Hi Kurt,

Saw a pointer to CM from RD, read that and decided to see what you were up to. Brilliant things, as it happens. All I can offer is a comment from the woefully ill-informed but feel a need to comment, nonetheless.

I was taken by your mention of the silence of the mural and how those people must have danced, how each of those peoples would have contributed to the music. Beyond that, I love the question of what upper midwest music would have sounded like. I have to believe that the Walloons in Wisconsin may have brought to the fore something different from the Germans in Minn. or the French Canadians in North Dakota.

On that note, I wanted to ask whether you have found much on Metis music. I heard it on the Turtle Mountain radio station and couldn't believe how foreign it sounded to me.

I found a description here:

I also found this (includes 1930s-40s field recordings from Wisc, some of which are banjo tunes: two Cripple Creeks and one Sour Mountain):

In any case, I would also like to make a comment. I was recently reading (in Harpers) John Jeremiah Sullivan's review of American Primitive v.2, Escaping the delta, and In Search of the Blues. In it, he described some blues as, essentially, chamber music, not meant for dancing (e.g., Dark was the night, Cold was the Ground (which brought me here)). On reading Jerome Clark's wonderful comment above, I wondered whether dance music and chamber music might be quite different in the extent to which language (English, Waloon, or German, for example) would really make much of a difference. When we dance, the words seem not to matter.

Further, with your own concern for music and its evolution before recorded media began to define our experience, I have to believe that the creolization of folk musics, the contact between traditions, that you suggest in the upper midwest might not have been deaf to language in some cases, loving only what was great music when it came time to dance.

Bruce Triggs

Hi Kurt,

Dropping in while working on my Accordion Uprising book project. Much progress, due date 2013?

I think the language issue is interesting. It's hard to listen to Viola Turpienen when I don't speak Finnish, and yet, she was hugely popular, and filled a cultural role probably equivalent to a Bessie Smith of the Northern ethnic listeners. Tons of records, even during the Depression after the crash of most of the record industry.

Much of her audience didn't speak English, but, we have today folk/roots musics that are mostly non-English. Zydeco, Cajun, Tex/Mex, Celtic – these all come from non-English roots. Sometimes artists have switched to English, but the music is living. There's no reason there couldn't have been a bunch of young solo accordionists back in 1963 singing Finnish anarchist/union songs in English, and then writing their own words and etc.

There are a number of reasons for the elimination of this Northern music from the Canon of Am. folk music. Asking the questions is a great start. Thanks,

Jaq Spratt

Well, is this the end of the discussion? Whats happened to the Finnish anarchist unionist accordion players, just when we need them?

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