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 — "The 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 "The 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?"