on "North Country: The Making of Minnesota"

Seal
A relief on the MN State Fairgrounds features the same motif used in the official State Seal.

 

 

My favorite Chinese take-out place has a map of its delivery area taped to the wall. 

I've studied it at least once a week for years, waiting for my order to be up. Because I live just a couple blocks away, it's a map of my Minneapolis neighborhood.

A few weeks ago, I was drawn into the map by the thrill of something truly new.  Suddenly missing its familiarity, the map was layered now with too many horrors and ironies and personalities to trace. 

It now covers about half the area Major Plympton cordoned off in 1839 for the Fort Snelling Military Reserve. Deciding that an "era of good feeling" was at an end, the Major slapped a ruler across a map of what is now the Twin Cities, and carved out the area he would command. 

Previous Fort Snelling commandants had encouraged French Canadians, mixed bloods, and various refugees to make their homes there, where I make mine today.  But in 1839, they suddenly had to vacate onto nearby land recently promised by treaty to the Mdewakantons. 

Plympton cited military necessity, but he and his fellow officers and the Fort's physician had all heavily invested in land claims within the boundaries of the new reserve. 

Apparently, they failed to anticipate that economic activity would halt as soon as the area was cordoned off, so that the nearest point on the Mississippi River outside their reserve would become St. Paul — the new State Capitol and regional center of trade.

And then, my Hunan shrimp and egg rolls were ready.

I had just finished reading Mary Lethert Wingerd's book, North Country: The Making of Minnesota.

I'd postponed reading it for a long time, partly because it's 3 lbs 9 oz — like a Webster's Collegiate Dictionary — and it actually hurt a little to hold and read.  I think those months of handling the thing softened its edges enough for me to finally take it up.

But then, reading it was never in doubt. Wingerd's only previous book was one of the best reading decisions of my life. 

Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul was a history of St. Paul's civic identity.  That is, it traced who the people of St. Paul saw themselves as being and how their identity evolved over time, shaped by economic, ethnic, and religious power.

After Claiming the City, the place I'd lived for 20 years seemed newer to me than the day I first arrived.  And the older the structures, the newer they seemed. 

You can't imagine the impact the book had on my Victoria Theater efforts and, especially, on my understanding of "Moonshiner's Dance."

Apparently, I wasn't alone. North Country was commissioned to mark the state's 150th birthday with A Big Serious History of Minnesota.  Such a tome hadn't been written in over 40 years. 

Given this grand opportunity to make a lasting mark, Wingerd chose the kind of modest approach that makes for good history. 

North Country asks how the State of Minnesota emerged out of the vast woodlands and prairies of the Dakota people.  To find answers, Wingerd focuses intently on the Native American-European encounter.  Minnesota was the product of a series of evolving interactions.

In Wingerd's telling, the particulars of those interactions dissolve any sense of inevitability in their outcome. 

For example, the book traces the rise and fall of Minnesota's border cultures, such as the Metis, who occupied a genetic and economic space between Native Americans and the French fur traders.  Such cultures flourished across North America for a little while, but Minnesota's formed very early and persisted very late, evolving into an important force in the state's making.

I was pretty struck by the Metis, who appear at first glance like some sort of forgotten 1700's steampunk enclave, especially in light of Kirsten Delegard's masterfully compiled and annotated illustrations.

Ultimately, the (real) Metis emerge as one of Minnesota's many roads not taken — once-viable alternatives to either the domination of Minnestoa's Native population by Europeans, or the preservation of some timeless prehistoric idyll. 

This is a recurring theme of the book — the abandoned options for a Euro-Native encounter that could have benefitted everybody more than it did, including the supposed victors. 

The book culminates with Minnesota's war between the Dakotas and US forces, and the state's subsequent genocidal reaction. By then, this lack of inevitability, those roads not taken, are a profound and agonizing subtext. "Cataclysm on the Minnesota" is the chapter title. 

I've always been vaguely aware that various place-names in the city of Minneapolis came from Longfellow's romantic poem Hiawatha. They're printed on that map in my Chinese take-out restaurant.

But in North Country's epilogue, the meanings of these place-names, and of the places themselves, telescope enormously.

I'd never quite appreciated that Minneapolis had used "a literary cult that attracted followers from all reaches of the globe" to help construct a new historical identity for the state.

The epilogue — "Pasts Remembered, Pasts Forgotten" — treats memory and amnesia about Minnesota's past as active projects undertaken in the service of specific goals.

I worry about potential readers assuming North Country is a depressing litany of genocidal crimes.  On so many levels, it is another project entirely, likely to enliven your relationship with your immediate environment, as it has mine.

Mostly, I'm grateful for its becoming, maybe inadvertently, the final event in its own story of forgetting and remembering, and of the common good abandoned and reclaimed.

 

 


Notes on Frank Cloutier's Grave

This past Thursday was the 55th anniversary of Frank E. Cloutier's death.  He died just over 5 years after the release of the Anthology of American Folk Music, for which he’s marginally remembered. 

Here's what his headstone looked like on my first visit, the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, 2006:

Frank Cloutier grave in autumn

It’s in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which is a beautiful drive from the Twin Cities, especially if you take Highway 61 through the Mississippi River valley. 

You pass through, or near, Red Wing and Rollingstone, Wabasha and Zumbro Bottoms, Frontenac and Trempealau.  There are often bald eagles, red-tailed hawks.

Frank Cloutier is buried "on a local heroes hill," to borrow John Prine's phrase, in La Crosse's Oak Grove Cemetery.  Frank's is one of about 200 headstones of veterans of each American war from the Spanish American through the Korean. 

Though basically from Rhode Island, Frank happened to be working as a piano player in Manitowoc when the US entered World War One — hence the “Wisconsin” on his Army-issued headstone. 

He arrived in France with the 311 supply train company in 1918, not long before the Armistice and too late to see fighting. 

But France was pretty out-of-sorts and needed supply trains, so Frank’s company stayed on after the war for about 9 months in wine country.  Less than six months after Frank returned to the states, Prohibition took effect.

Knowing he was both Catholic and a Freemason, I was curious to see whether his headstone would have a cross or a masonic square-and-compass.

Frank Cloutier contributed the Anthology's only Upper Midwestern music. Here's his headstone on March 1, 2009:

Frank Cloutier grave in winter

As the musical director of St. Paul's Victoria Cafe, Frank and his band made a 78 RPM record in September 1927 — "Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One". 

It was released that January, but by then the Victoria Cafe itself was already in Federal court, fighting for its life.  From the start, the record always represented a gone world.

"Moonshiner’s Dance" seems to have utterly vanished from history almost as soon as it was released.  When Frank died in 1957, he apparently didn’t know the recording had been reissued 5 years earlier in New York as part of the Anthology of American Folk Music.
 
But even then, nobody would've been able to predict the Anthology would become as important to America’s self-image as it’s become.

Frank Cloutier couldn't have foreseen that "Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One" would one day become the best known recording made in Minnesota during his lifetime.

Frank Cloutier grave in spring

Its hard to appreciate how deeply the country had changed between 1927 and 1957.  Indeed, much of the Anthology’s power derived from the way the alien sounds of Prohibition-era, pre-Depression, pre-WW2 America mystified young Cold War listeners.

Frank Cloutier died on a Friday morning in 1957. 

That very same morning, the Vanguard TV3 exploded on its launch pad in Florida.  Meant to meet the challenge of Sputnik with America’s own first satellite, the Vanguard TV3 was an embarrising, televised explosion.  Headline writers dubbed it Flopnik, Oopsnik, and Stayputnik.

The satellite itself was recovered from the wreckage and put on display at the National Air and Space Museum, where I took a picture of it in January 2005, not yet knowing the object was somehow about the Anthology

(I was in Washington for Mike Seeger’s concert marking the “Picturing the Banjo” exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery).

Note the light trespass fogging the film in my old battered 1970’s camera.  More than any other single photo, this one finally convinced me to get a digital SLR camera.

Vanguard TV3

In any case, that Friday morning in 1957 not many Americans were focused on the death of Frank Cloutier. 

Even by the time the Smithsonian reissued the Anthology on CD in 1997, there was exactly zero research on Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe to draw from while writing the liner notes.

It wasn't until Thanksgiving weekend 2006 that an Anthology listener finally showed up at Cloutier's grave, wearing earbuds to listen to his record graveside. 

In 2007, on the 50th anniversary of Cloutier's death, I had planned to be in La Crosse, but an opportunity suddenly arose to go to Chicago instead.  It took me a while to choose Chicago, but I made the right decision ... although I still do think about that now and then.


Let the Duquesne Whistle Blow

Duquesne
Picture on a blog of a picture on a shelf.
Dad's on the right.

 

The tracklist for Tempest, Bob Dylan's upcoming album, was released on Tuesday:

  1. Duquesne Whistle
  2. Soon After Midnight
  3. Narrow Way
  4. Long and Wasted Years
  5. Pay in Blood
  6. Scarlet Town
  7. Early Roman Kings
  8. Tin Angel
  9. Tempest
  10. Roll on John

In response, the armies of Dylan analysts went on red alert. The Expecting Rain discussion about the (as-yet-unheard) album suffered 500-posts in the first day.  With little to go on but song titles, I'll mostly keep my powder dry for now. 

Still ... I have to note the first track, "Duquesne Whistle," because my father was born in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, in 1925, according to his birth certificate.  My next earliest addresses for him are a couple miles up the Monongehela, in Clairton (where The Deer Hunter was set). 

For me, the title of the song is great news.  For one thing, it confirms that Bob Dylan is indeed sending me — and not you — subliminal messages through his song lyrics.  What a relief!  I was beginning to think I was just imagining things.

More importantly, Bob has thrown Duquesne to the Dylanologists like meat to ravening wolves.  Over the years, the song will provide an ongoing opportunity to know more about my dad's native town and the history of this particular corner of America. 

My father was the first child of immigrant workers, starting a family in a steel mill town full of other immigrant workers. His own father had just arrived two years before from Austria — aboard the SS President Fillmore, believe it or not. 

The other families on my dad's particular street had just arrived from Mexico, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Hungary, and Lithuania, according to the 1930 census.  Dad was an anchor baby, if you prefer. 

Some time in the late 1930's — that is, in the depths of the Depression — the family moved to Milwaukee, where dad met mom at a bowling alley.  She was a farm girl from just outside Port Washington, where Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded for Paramount.

It was a good move, I think, since the shock of the Depression seems to have been less sharp in Wisconsin.  Mom reports being largely unaware of it on the farm — they weren't rich, but then, they never had been.  Prohibition made a much bigger impact on her, because it brought a still into the house. 

Dylan's "Duquesne Whistle" will help illuminate my dad's side of the story.  That seems natural, since music was the main reason I got into family history at all. 

I had focused obsessively on "Americana" or "roots music" for 15 years before I tried to do any original research on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Its "Moonshiner's Dance" entry was the obvious place to start, as it was recorded right here in Minnesota.

But I soon understood it as the exception that proves the Anthology's rules — the only really Northern recording on the Anthology, for example, and the only cut making the sounds of recent immigration.

We are so satisfied by our dreams of a musical South that Duquesne and St. Paul (and even Hibbing) are a kind of terra incognita in America's musical imagination — so much so that my own geneaology has emerged as a critical source of information.  Let the Duquesne whistle blow.

I've long postponed my Duquesne research for when I can visit it and Clairton myself — maybe when I finally attend the Harry Smith Festival in Millheim, PA.  But now, I might not have to see the place at all — Bob Dylan and the internet may have just rendered my personal voyage of self discover entirely pointless!  Hallelujah!

Of course, the song may not even turn out to be about Duquesne, PA.  It may refer, for example, to the Pennsylvania Railroad train route the Duquesne that used to run from Manhattan's Penn Station to Harrisburg.  Or maybe it refers to the CSI Miami character, Calleigh Duquesne.  Bob likes the ladies, I think. 

But I'm not concerned.  A Dylan song not being about something doesn't mean that this something won't provide plenty of fodder for research and analysis.


PS:  Note that Earl Hines was also from Duquesne, PA.  There's a great chapter in William Howland Kenney's book, Jazz on the River, that deals with the musical environment/cultural history of Pittsburgh and its environs.


The Return of "Temperance & Temptation"

Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845
Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845, www.metmuseum.org
(founders of Hutchinson, MN, and abolitionist and temperance folksingers)

 

Celestial Monochord readers will be glad to know that the Rose Ensemble's upcoming season will include Songs of Temperance and Temptation

The show will be back in November for an eight-city tour of Minnesota and, in abbreviated form, for a Mississippi riverboat cruise on October 23.

This is great news.  The three performances of Temperance and Temptation that closed the Ensemble's previous season included the first known performances in over 83 years of a peculiar, foot-stomping composition known as "Moonshiner's Dance Part One."  This piece has been the axis around which my research, writing, and preservation efforts have revolved for more than five years. 

Hopefully, the Rose's upcoming November performances will give Minnesota another chance to catch an incredibly rare performance of "Moonshiner's Dance," a neglected and nearly forgotten landmark in the state's musical legacy.

But even for me, the hope of seeing more of "Moonshiner" isn't the best reason to look forward to this season's revival of Songs of Temperance and Temptation


Research as Amazing

The show is very amusing — packed with fresh songs (that is, new-to-you and very alive), sung by skillful, versatile, and charismatic vocalists. The show is also informative, immersing you in a kind of cultural history of alcohol that's likely to transform your understanding.

But the Ensemble's marketing materials reprint a blurb from a local paper saying, "No one makes scholarly research more entertaining than The Rose Ensemble." I think this subtly misses the main point, the best thing about the Rose and this show.

What I like most is the show's unwavering confidence that its surest bet in amusing the audience is to tell them something they didn't already know.  The Rose just assumes from the start, correctly and to great effect, that surprising information — learning something — is the among the wildest experiences the stage has to offer. 

To me, this approach felt courageous and just a shade radical in its sheer respect for the audience — a belief in the audience's intelligence, but even more in its willingness to be game for something new. My frenzied notes taken during the single performance I attended in June have grown cryptic with time, but at one point I simply wrote, "The amazing research." 

I'm fairly well versed in the history of pop music during and just before Prohibition. But the Songs of Temperance and Temptation were almost all completely new to me. And the photographs projected behind the performers were mostly new finds. And the collection of sheet music cover art was fantastic.

Andrew Volstead, Granite Falls. Big mustache, granite balls.

The show's stories of Minnesota's temperance movement will surprise most Minnesotans — the city of Hutchinson's founding, for example, by a family of protest singers dedicated to women's rights, the abolition of slavery, and men's liberation from alcohol.
 
The Andrew Volstead story may also surprise a lot of people.

The Congressman from Granite Falls was seen across the United States as the primary villain of the Prohibition era — an incompetent, humorless zealot who drove the nation to (furtively) drink. He's still remembered this way.

But the Rose Ensemble, perhaps following Daniel Okrent's recent book, invites us to see him in a far more nuanced and sympathetic light.

(My own research has been hinting to me that both Okrent and Rose are going a little far in rehabbing Volstead's reputation.  A proper assessment of Volstead isn't really available, so I think the guy is ripe material for a thorough biography.)


"I've Got the Prohibition Blues"

The members of the Rose Ensemble are trained veterans of choral music, and the Rose's seasons always lean toward a wide variety of "early music." 

The upcoming season, for example, includes one show on "ancient Mediterranean Jews, Christians, and Muslims" and another on "feasts and saints in early Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Bohemia."

So, of course, there's the question of how well they handle Songs of Temperance and Temptation — and the answer is pretty good news. 

The show's first half deals primarily with 19th century conflicts leading up to Prohibition, so a bit of reserve and formal training only improves the verisimilitude.  Rest assured, the show cuts loose early on and shows a lot of humor throughout.  When they approach something like a barbershop quartet style, they're clearly well prepared.

The real challenge comes during Prohibition, when American pop music fell in love with Jazz and the blues, and searched for something like an authentic "street" credibility.  The Rose does very well with it, but it's not surprising that swing and growl aren't its most convincing assets. 

But even in the slightly strained way the Rose Ensemble comes to grips with the 1920's, they remain true to the history. One of the great pleasures of listening to, for example, Archeophone's Phonographic Yearbook series is hearing the pop stars of the era grapple with those very same changes in public taste. 

The blues and jazz revolution ended a lot of careers, just as Rock & Roll did decades later. Those who survived often did so by learning, with widely varying artistic success, the African American-inflected stomp and swerve in the era's new sounds. 

The more you hear what was recorded at the time, the more you appreciate the Rose's mastery of this material today.


Moonshiner's Dance, Part One

And finally, I know some folks will want to know how they did "Moonshiner's Dance."  So here goes. 

It came late in a show filled with a lot of unfamiliar music, so to suddenly hear a band, right in front of me, strike up that familiar introductory riff followed by that oompah hopped up on goofballs ... it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

The only recording of the piece in existence — the one I've heard perhaps a thousand times — is trapped in the antique shellac of scratchy, store-bought 78s.  It has no other existence.  Hearing the piece played anew by a live band immediately in front of me was mind-bogglingly rare, and I felt it in every note.

Their approach was to hew quite closely to the original recording. The band was a little light on the beat and lacked the dance band insistence I'd expect, but otherwise tried to "play the record" as closely as possible.

In the recording, the third segment of the medley consists of a harmonica vamping some chords, possibly noodling a bit with an indeciperable tune. The blog Old Weird America claims the tune is "Turkey in the Straw," but this is almost certainly wrong. The Rose Ensemble went with this suggestion, enunciating the tune very clearly.

I think it was the right decision. "Turkey in the Straw" is familiar and rousing (as the whole medley would have been to its original audience), and fits the piece nicely.  It also dovetails (turkeytails?) with my thesis about the recording being something like a big-city parody of rural culture. 

During the "At The Cross" segment of the medley, the fiddler took up a small American flag and waved it haughtily, which I loved.  For one thing, it provided a light suggestion of the satirical stagecraft that I think was the real point of the "Moonshiner's Dance" recording. 

What we're hearing in the recording was the soundtrack to something we're not seeing. The Rose's performance, then, also necessarily missed the chaos of the recording's laughing, indecipherable voices, and generally ... thick atmosphere that gives the recording its particular and mysterious register. 

Certainly, I think the Rose's performance worked wonderfully on its own terms, and the piece is plenty sturdy to have a performance life of its own. 

But the challenges of performing it anew also highlight what I've come to focus on in my years of research — that the original "Moonshiner" recording has the power it has because it is so bursting with its very narrowly specific moment and place. To understand what this peculiar thing really is, then, we need to reconstruct the time and community from which it arose. 

The Rose Ensemble has gleefully run directly into the path of that time and place, seeking a new way to make a new kind of performance sense for this piece that so often seems bent on denying the very possibility of sense itself. 

In a way, that reinvention of new senses from old contexts is what The Rose Ensemble does for a living. These are brave people, and I want to see more of them.

 [See also my thoughts in advance of the show.]

_


Rose Ensemble to Perform Moonshiner's Dance

Rose_Ensemble
The Rose Ensemble will perform "Moonshiner's Dance" — for the first time, as far as I know, in 83 years

Thursday, June 16, 8 pm — Duluth, Weber Music Hall
Friday, June 17, 8 pm — Saint Paul, Fitzgerald Theater
Saturday, June 18, 8 pm — Saint Paul, Fitzgerald Theater


Minnesota's own Rose Ensemble, an internationally acclaimed music group, has notified me that they will perform "Moonshiner's Dance" at upcoming concerts called Songs of Temperance and Temptation: 100 Years of Restraint and Revelry in Minnesota.

This is stunning, partly because these just might be the first performances of Moonshiner's Dance in more than 83 years.

After five years of work on the piece's origins and reception, I've never heard so much as a rumor of any other performance since the original — the September 1927 performance by the house band of Frogtown's Victoria Cafe, recorded by the Gennett Record Company and later reissued on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.

What the Rose Ensemble is about to do is rarer than any routine solar eclipse, black swan, or blooming corpse flower.

Moonshiner's Dance is actually a medley of even older tunes, mind you, and those have been performed and recorded countless times. But right now, I have no evidence that anybody has ever put them back together through that peculiar alchemy that makes them "Moonshiner's Dance." (Please write me if you have info.)

Naturally, there must have been other performances over the years. After all, learning and playing the songs and sounds of Harry Smith's Anthology has been a signature rite of passage for folk revivalists for half a century. 

During the 1950s/60s Folk Revival, even those musicians who'd never heard, or heard of, the Anthology learned its songs and musical figures. That is, the Anthology supplied the Folk Revival with a canon — a repertoire of texts that everybody knew, even if they didn't know why. In turn, the Anthology contributed heavily to the Revival's influential ideas about America, memory, and meaning.

But Moonshiner's Dance wasn't performed.  It never made it from the Anthology into the collective performance repertoire. What could this performance history of Moonshiner's Dance — the Upper Midwest's sole contribution to the 84 recordings of the Anthology — tell us about how we choose to embrace or ignore our own cultural inheritance?

There's a hell of a lot to say about that, and I hope to publish a book about it one day. These are questions just too big to blog.  They're so profound, they're almost ... untweetable.

Still, here are a couple things I'll be thinking about as I look forward to the Rose Ensemble's performances:

The original Victoria Cafe Orchestra was not as different from the Rose Ensemble as you might think. My evidence indicates they were musically literate, sight-reading professionals, members of the Saint Paul Musician's Union, and primarily big-city jazz musicians. So why, on Moonshiner's Dance, were they playing the oldtime ethnic dance music — proto-polka — more associated with rural, outstate Minnesota?

The 1927 Minnesota State Fair had just ended a few days before the recording, and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra must have been playing for a lot of out-of-towners — or for city folk who had themselves been rubbing elbows with those out-of-towners. The band appears to be riffing on that. In Saint Paul, good-natured joshing about Lake Wobegon has deep roots.

If this is right, Moonshiner's Dance is a product of Prohibition-era Saint Paul in its regional context — but it's also self-consciously about Prohibition-era Saint Paul in its regional context.  Like the newspaper, it was truly a first draft of history. 

It's also clear from my research that the Victoria Cafe was a cabaret-style night club. And it was perfectly commonplace for performers on a cabaret stage to develop simple themes or stories, such as the intermingling of rubes and slickers.  That is, we should have expected, all along, that Moonshiner's Dance might be programmatic.

Thus, we're hearing only the audible portion of an experience for all five senses. It's the soundtrack of a full American cabaret environment and, according to my findings, one very narrowly tailored to Saint Paul's University Avenue circa mid-September 1927.

I can't wait to see what the Rose Ensemble does with it. In a way, the ensemble's mission is to provide vivid translations, restating music that was meaningful in a very different time and place and giving it new significance in our time and our place. 

I don't know how rarely they translate across such a long span of time but such a short spatial distance. While Moonshiner's Dance is certainly a creature of a very different era, it represents a place less than two miles up the road from the Fitzgerald Theater. 

If we could tell the Victoria Cafe Orchestra that we'd be watching their tomfoolery recreated by the Rose Ensemble in the 21st century, I imagine they might ask us ... "What the heck do you see in it?"

[UPDATE: I've also posted a review of the show.]

 


Anthology's Victoria Cafe Honored by Saint Paul

Winter
The Victoria Theater in winter.  Its 1927 house band recorded the only unambiguously Northern recording of the Anthology of American Folk Music.

 —

It's official.  The Victoria Theater is now a Heritage Preservation Site of the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota. 

As a primary cause, the city's preservation commission cites the building's role in Harry Smith's influential Anthology of American Folk Music. The Victoria's 1927 house band recorded "Moonshiner's Dance Part One," now familiar from the 1952 Anthology.

The Victoria appears to be the first historic site— anywhere, at any level of government —protected by means of an Anthology connection.

Five years ago, I faced a different and rather depressing situation, being the only person alive who'd connected the dots between this building, "Moonshiner's Dance," and Harry Smith's Anthology

Nobody interested in the Anthology knew where the Victoria Cafe had been.  And Saint Paulites didn't know about the recording — including the historians who'd been commissioned over the years to survey the Victoria building.  Worst of all, the very day I understood this, the building seemed to be under imminent threat from multiple directions.  

Well ... now, things have changed.

The point of my work has never been to save any old buildings.  My project has always been to deeply understand the cultural context of "Moonshiner's Dance," and to develop ideas about what this fresh history really means to us, now.

And yet, when the Victoria Cafe itself — the recording's immediate context — was about to become a pile of bricks, I knew I had to set aside the microfilm and speak up.  I figured I could sleep at night if Saint Paul let the building be torn down — but only if I could have my say first.

In the past 18 months, I've attended dozens of hearings, written a slew of nominations and articles, been interviewed by journalists dozens of times, networked feverishly.  I've also thought a hell of a lot about Wordsworth's "Happy Warrior," and decided I am not he. 

Now, after a unanimous city council vote and the mayor's signature, I feel I've come out of a dark tunnel, blinking at the sunlight.  I intend to re-focus on my history research and writing, and on blogging.  

Still, there's more work to do on the Victoria's future.  It's a vacant building with an owner who doesn't respect its history — a point he's emphasized many times.  Until the building finds a respectful use, it will remain threatened.

I also can't help wondering ... would the Victoria's working-class neighborhood still have this cultural resource if I hadn't begun poking around at the Historical Society five years ago?

What other buildings, maybe in comparable neighborhoods down South, would benefit from somebody — particularly a fan of the Anthology — just showing up, doing some research, and doing a little writing? 

It's odd to consider how important, as tangible assets, "Moonshiner's Dance" and the work of Harry Smith have become to a hard-working neighborhood in the capital city of Minnesota.

Here's a little further reading:

History of the Victoria Theater — a short sketch at the Frogtown Neighborhood Association website.

Save the Victoria Theater — the Facebook group with nearly 700 members.

A Geography of the Anthology — a map of the influential Anthology, a reminder of the geographic element in the idea of American "roots music".

North Country Blues — thinking about the American musical canon, and what it means that the Upper Midwest is too often neglected.

Moonshiner's Parking Lot? — when the wrecking ball was coming for the Victoria, I shared a little of my thinking, at the time, on why I thought the building mattered.

Louis Armstrong at the Coliseum, 1939 — Frank Cloutier, the Victoria's bandleader, moved to the Coliseum at Lexington & University, where he became Musical Director.

Harry Smith Archives — the Victoria's preservation is announced at the Archives.

Email Me — if you have questions, or answers, about the Victoria or Moonshiner's Dance, or anything else. 

See also "Anthology of American Folk Music" links at the upper left of this blog.

 

_


Journal of American Folklore Features the Monochord

Jaf

 

Some weeks ago, we here at Monochord headquarters were pleased to find ourselves featured in the latest issue of The Journal of American Folklore.

The article, by Nicole Saylor (head of Digital Services at University of Iowa), surveys several blogs that are "interested in vernacular culture," and are of interest to folklorists.

Among other things she says about the Monochord, Saylor describes us as "an obscure but interesting midwestern vernacular music blog." 

The article focuses on three sites — Community, and Celestial Monochord, and The Art of the Rural — and the sites they include in their virtual communities, such as friend-of-the-Monochord, Old, Weird America, and the excellent Excavated Shellac.

Getting ahold of the full text of recent academic articles is often a headache for those not in academia.  If you need help with this one, you might contact me personally or consult your friendly public librarian.

Of course, honors like this one — or the occasional fan letter — always make me feel guilty about not writing both more and better.  I've developed a blogger identity crisis the last year or so, and nothing's duller to read (or write) about than a blogger's identity crisis. 

I suspect I'll feel more free to express myself once the Saint Paul City Council is done with its deliberations about the Victoria Theater. 

As the most prominent defender (possibly) of a whole neighborhood's most valuable architectural resource (conceivably), it's suddenly a little intimidating to just logon and go joshing blithely around about kitten astronauts and garbanzo beans named Dylan.

 

_


Harry Smith Anthology Site Before Saint Paul Council

Exterior

In May 2006, I was astonished to find the Victoria Cafe, still standing, right there in the Frogtown neighborhood of Saint Paul, MInnesota. Apparently, nobody had figured this out before.  

Although music fans around the world knew the 1927 recording made by the Victoria Cafe's orchestra, the Cafe's location was unknown. Meanwhile, the old building was familiar around the neighborhood, which seemed completely unaware of any recording associated with it  — much less what that recording represented, what place it held in American culture.

The Victoria — in which I see unparalleled significance for American music, and especially for the cultural history of the Upper Midwest — was just sitting there unnoticed, uncelebrated, and vacant, watching the traffic pass back and forth on University Avenue. 

Now, about 5 years later, the City Council of Saint Paul will decide whether to finally recognize this building as an official Heritage Preservation Site. The city has an opportunity to protect this cultural resource and keep the demolition crews away from this landmark. 

To my eyes, passing up this opportunity would reaffirm the Victoria's decades of anonymity and neglect, instead of finally acknowledging an important cultural contribution made by Minnesota, Saint Paul, and Frogtown.

RESIDENTS of Saint Paul, please contact your City Council member and urge them to strongly support the Victoria Theater's bid to become a Heritage Preservation Site. 

NON-RESIDENTS of Saint Paul, please contact them anyway!  You should email the entire council, or just the Victoria's councilmember, Melvin Carter III

And please, spread the word!

Links:

Now that the Victoria has reached the City Council, I'm tempted to tell the whole story all over again — explain it all, get it right, pin it down.  But, well ... the heart of the matter is out there in one form or another.  Here's a sampling.

 

History of the Victoria Theater — a short sketch at the Frogtown Neighborhood Association website.

Moonshiner's Parking Lot? — when the wrecking ball was coming for the Victoria, I spilled (some of) my guts about why I think the building matters.

A Geography of the Anthology — a map of the influential Anthology, and a reminder of the default Southern emphasis of the idea of American "roots music".

North Country Blues — thinking about the American musical canon, and what it means that the Upper Midwest has been neglected too often.

Louis Armstrong at the Coliseum, 1939 — Frank Cloutier, the Victoria's bandleader, moved to the Coliseum at Lexington & University, where he was Musical Director for 13 years.

Email Me — if you have questions, or answers, about the Victoria or Moonshiner's Dance, or anything else. 

Saint Paul City Council — please contact them!

Save the Victoria Theater — the Facebook group with over 600 members.

See also "Anthology of American Folk Music" links at the upper left of this blog.

    Moonshinersdance
an original copy of the 78 rpm record of the 1927 "Moonshiner's Dance,"
which Harry Smith included on the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music

_


Talkin' Michael Gray

 
  Gray
Gray contemplates Hibbing's open-pit iron-ore mine

 

A noted Dylan expert and critic offers his home in France (and himself) for conversation.

Early one morning in March 2007, I was riding in one of those tourist buses that deliver senior citizens to casinos — tinted windows, plush seats, TV screens in the ceiling.  That foggy Minnestoa morning, this bus was filled to capacity with about sixty Bob Dylan scholars.

The trip, from Minneapolis to Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, was the opening event of the largest scholarly Dylan conference ever held.

In my aisle seat, I talked to the stranger in the window seat next to me.  He turned out to be an evangelical Christian Tennessean researching Dylan's sprituality.  A smart guy — curious, thoughful, and original.

Still, it was hard to concentrate on the conversation.  If the first guy I met was THIS guy, who else might be slouching toward Hibbing on this infernal bus?

Immediately across the aisle, an Englishman and an American were engaged in a lively discussion (about Bob you-know-who).  Eavesdropping, I gathered that the Englishman — proper accent, eccentric dress, soul patch — was Michael Gray himself.

In 1972, Michael Gray authored the world's first critical study of Dylan's work and, in 2007, had recently completed The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, offering as much obsessive Dylan knowledge as any book ever published.  A kind of paper cinder block, The BD Encyclopedia comes at you like an authoritative reference but winds up snaring you in an idiosyncratic maze — the strategy reminds me of the Anthology of American Folk Music.

Recognizing a once-in-lifetime opportunity, I turned to Michael Gray and asked the obvious question:  Who threw the glass in the street?

It was a rhetorical question and a bit of a joke — after all, the answer represents the qunitessentially unknowable cypher that is the object of all Dylanology — so I was gob smacked when Gray actually knew the answer, and offered a couple minutes of historiography contextualizing both the answer and the question itself.

We talked, excitedly and with a lot of laughter, most of the way to Hibbing. During the long days of the Dylan conference, I'm not sure what I would've done without Michael Gray — I kept seeking him out whenever I felt like a wallflower and needed a friendly conversation.

Not the kind of Dylan author who doesn't suffer fools (I should know), he was generous with his time and knowledge, listened closely, laughed easily, gave useful advice when I asked for it, remembered my name.  I find myself repeating his anecdotes in my own conversations even today.

Days later, at the end of the conference, Gray gave the closing keynote address.

Built around a series of film clips of Dylan throughout his career, Gray described the "moment" that surrounded them — the atmosphere, the shocks and conflicts, the relationships and revelations going on in Dylan's life and work, and in the life of the United States and the globe.  He was contextualizing the clips, breathing new life into them, and the effect was moving and revealing.

That reconstruction of gone significance is at the heart of my own efforts at cultural history. The question for me is no longer "what does it mean?" but rather "what DID it mean?"  The change in tense seems to transform the entire landscape of possibility and impossibility.

I haven't had the opportunity to see him speak since, but Gray does speaking engagements — it would be interesting to see what he's doing now.

Given all of this, I've been very amused to see that Gray has been offering himself up as a conversationalist to paying Dylan fans. You get to talk (and talk) about Bob Dylan with one of the world's leading Dylanologists, and enjoy his wife's gourmet cooking, in his lovely home in southwest France.

It's one of those vacation ideas you read about occasionally in the "news of the weird" — it's utterly cracked, but you would surely do it if you had the chance.

Mostly, I keep chuckling about the mindset that makes it possible. Are authors who aren't assholes so rare that you can charge admission to talk to them?  

During the conference, I sought out Michael Gray because his very presence relaxed me, amused me, made me feel smart and attractive, and — most of all — because he had very interesting things to say. Who recognizes having this effect on people and thinks, "Hey, I can charge for this"?

I mean, I've been thinking about charging people to NOT talk to me!

 

For more information:

bobdylanwinterlude.blogspot.com

 


Sight and Suds, 1927

 

NormaShearer
Norma Shearer, as Kathi, introduces the central motif

 

Pardon this bit of throat-clearing.  Hope you had a good summer.

Twice in the past few weeks, TCM aired the 1927 silent film The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg.  Made in the same year the Victoria Cafe Orchestra recorded Moonshiner's Dance, and sometimes just as sodden with alcohol, the film might still retain the world's record for the most beers consumed in one movie — something like 500 steins worth. 

There are scenes that almost play like beer porn — a "Girls Gone Wild" in which beers instead of breasts are fetishized to the point of self parody.  (Incidentally, I've run across 1929 newspapers ads for an actual Fox studio film called Girls Gone Wild, although it doesn't yet appear to have been reissued.)  The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg even finds ways of involving alcohol in a wide variety of metaphors and plot points.

A clip from The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is currently available on YouTube. It's a well-chosen clip, featuring a bit of this beer-guzzling and illustrating some key plot elements.

In it, Prince Karl Heinrich watches from a balcony as his new love interest, Kathi the barmaid, delivers beer to grateful college students in Heidelberg.  A sheltered young prince of a fictional European nation, he longs to experience the pleasures and freedoms of normal life — and his time has finally come, now that he's been sent to Heidelberg, a notorious party school. 

The clip ends with Prince Karl pouring himself a glass of water and drinking it, but the clip ends a couple seconds too early to show the prince dashing the water glass to the floor in a fit of frustration. 

The 1927 audience out there in the theater seats was living under Prohibition, of course — for them, beer-guzzling violated the Constitution of the United States.  It must've been easy to identify with Karl's frustration, and with his voyeurism. 

On the other hand, the audience wasn't all that thirsty, since Prohibition had failed to keep virtually anybody sober.  In another scene, as the students hoist their steins and sing a drinking song, the song's sheet music suddenly appears onscreen much like a silent-film dialog card.  The sheet music stays onscreen a good long time, giving the audience time to strike up a sing-along right there in the theater.

The scene leaves the impression that the audience could not only get a drink if they wanted one, but might have been actually drunk at the time of the screening.  Hip flasks were everywhere, of course, and I'm reminded that the largest theater firm in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area was partly backed by the area's most prominent brewing family.  (I'll have to look into this ... anybody have info about movie theaters doubling as speakeasies?)

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is set in both Germany and a fictional Old World nation. 

The common folk in the film look a little less stereotypical than the lederhosen-clad townsfolk in early monster movies, but they are pretty quaint.  I've often seen such characters pictured in 1920's newspaper advertisements — always for liquor-related items such as malt sold for home brewing of strictly non-alcoholic "Old World" beverages (wink wink, nudge nudge!). 

It's clear to me that the German peasant image immediately brought beer to mind for Prohibition-era viewers — the dirndl as the era's "4/20."  Notably, the German immigrants who dominated the brewing industry were among the fiercest opponents in the battle against the ratification of the 18th Amendment. 

As the historian working on Moonshiner's Dance, all of this has me jumping out of my seat during The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg

Both documents are booze voyeurism — vicarious drinking binges for the already drunk — delivered with a Bohemian accent.  They both represent the way alcohol became much more than a drink during Prohibition. 

By 1927, booze had evolved into a signature experience and an organizing metaphor of the era.  At least in a lot of the cultural texts the era left behind, it was a pervasive medium that oriented and disoriented everything — even, or especially, when it wasn't around. 

   


Kevin Moist and the Anthology as Collage


 Rack
The fetishized harmonica rack from the 1952 liner notes (detail)



Harry Smith approached his 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music as a self-consciously avant-garde art project.  Knowing that the Anthology was going to be commercially released as a set of LPs, he nonetheless compiled a proto-post-modern collage.
 
And this turned out to be a source of its power — a catalytic feature.  The Anthology seduces you into hearing old-sounding, authentic-sounding poor-people's music as tomorrow's high art.
 
In the decade after its release, the early adopters and taste-makers in the small Greenwich Village folk music scene were staring deeply into this Anthology

And they got to work building a small world that had learned from the Anthology, where the next waves of young folkies could, for example, sit at the feet of Roscoe Holcomb and Skip James — very old, weird southern musicians indeed. 

Bob Dylan was one of those fresh new kids. 

Of course, a wide variety of brilliant people in different fields were already chipping away at the separation between high art and low culture.  But the most devastating blow to that barrier ultimately came from a veteran of this Greenwich Village folk scene, a fact that surprises us still.
 
Allen Ginsberg said it about his friend Bob Dylan, but he could have easily said it about his friend Harry Smith. "It was an artistic challenge to see if great art can be done on a jukebox. He proved it can."
 
 ---
 
Kevin Moist's article ("Collecting, Collage, and Alchemy: The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music as Art and Cultural Intervention") starts from essentially the same premise — that the Anthology derives its power to influence from high art sensibilities, which it helped to democratize.

But Moist takes the next step.  He opens up those sensibilities to see what they're made of, at least as Smith used them in the Anthology

Moist focuses on collecting, collage, and alchemy — not as "themes" or "conceits" in a work of art, or as Smith's personal quirks, but as practical concerns that shaped Smith's understanding of his task, as Smith would probably have wanted us to do.

Moist's findings reveal that Smith's interests in collecting, collage, and alchemy were actually part of his coherent focus on cultural transformation — on the problem of how to rework the world through the meanings we ascribe to it. 

As a result, Moist's article reads like an anatomy of the Anthology's ability to change the perceptions of its listeners.  Accepting his 1991 Grammy Award, Smith said "I saw America changed through music," and Moist's article is a natural history of that power to affect change.

An associate professor of communications at Penn State Altoona, Moist seems to have a long-standing interest in the religious ideas of the 1960's counter-culture, and their role in the art and music of the era.  It makes sense, then, that Moist would think this carefully about Smith's very earnest interest in alchemical theory.

About the Anthology, two alchemical principles seem important, and Moist argues that the application of these two principles to culture, high and low, was a key element in Smith's thinking.
 
First, alchemy holds that "as above, so below" — the patterns and structures in the highest spiritual spheres are reflected in the lowest material orders.  If you want to know the mind of God, start with whatever common "stuff" happens to be at hand. 

(Look at the image of the celestial monochord on the Anthology's cover, with its hand of God tuning a string extending down through the nested spheres of creation.  It's an emblem of this harmony across the high and low orders.)

Second, alchemists believe that by stripping stuff of its original context — purifying or distilling it — and rearranging it, nature's true divinity can be exposed.  The alchemist doesn't turn lead into gold, but instead serves as "midwife" to an ever-present potential inherent in all of nature. 

Smith's interest in alchemy, it turns out, matters when we try to understand Smith as a collector — as we should, if only because every anthology starts with collecting. 

Collecting, Moist explains, is a fairly recent phenomenon in which the consumer acts as curator.  As such, the collector sees a larger cultural significance in his collection, and wants to intervene in the usual meanings that the broader culture ascribes to the objects he collects. 

In this sense, Smith was a kind of super-collector.  In multiple interviews, Smith describes his accumulation of objects as merely the first step in a larger reconsideration of culture as a whole.

So, as a collector and student of alchemy, Harry Smith sat down to edit his Anthology — although Moist finally convinced me to take literally Smith's insistence that his Anthology was a collage.  The "anthology" is really a metaphorical conceit of this collage artwork. 

Moist points out that collage — another type of collection — works by isolating pieces of the world and rearranging them, thus reshaping the meanings they bring with them into the new collage. Collage is "a process of reconstructing reality by reassembling pieces of it."

This vision of Smith's cultural transformation through collage, collecting, and alchemy is convincing and useful and full of exciting possibilities.  But the essay attempts a new reading of the Anthology that proves disappointing, maybe because a journal article just isn't long enough to do the job.

In a few paragraphs, Moist takes on the entire "lost" Volume 4 (first issued in 2000) without unearthing any surprises about the music or the Anthology.  The reader could conclude, I think incorrectly, that the exhilarating insights in the rest of Moist's essay aren't so useful after all.

The reading might have revealed much more with a much narrower focus, by dedicating those paragraphs to only one piece of Smith's collage, or to one transition between pieces. 

Let's see, I don't know which recording to suggest ... I guess I'll have to pick one completely at random here ...

 ---
 
"Moonshiner's Dance, Part One" is one of only two medlies on the Anthology

Not a tune but a collection of tunes, it is an anthology in the Anthology, a collage incorporated into a larger collage. 

Our understanding of "Moonshiner's Dance" therefore benefits from some of the same thinking we apply to the Anthology itself — if, possibly, on a different scale.  It’s, like, totally fractal, bro.

In the 4 years I've been investigating Moonshiner, I've come to understand it as a promiscuous set of juxtapositions, a collection of popular tunes that were mostly already old fashioned in 1927. 

Clearly, some of the meaning Moonshiner held for its 1927 audience would have derived from its aggressive and multi-leveled recontextualization of these earlier tunes.

Like the Anthology itself, the pieces that make up Moonshiner trailed some of their meanings with them into their new assemblage, where these meanings served a new agenda in a new context — in this case, that of the Victoria Cafe, a cabaret-style nightclub and speakeasy in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, MN. 

Part of what maintains my interest over the long haul is tracing the way Moonshiner (and, subsequently, the Anthology) transformed meaning into meaning, agenda into agenda, context into context.

For example, of the 112 selections in the four-volume version of the Anthology, Moonshiner is the only one that’s unambiguously from outside the American South. Basically, you get 111 southern recordings, and one from the capitol of Minnesota. 

Of course, the recording process always isolates (distills) music from its historical contexts.  And Smith's collage style maximizes this effect, which actually contributes to the Anthology's power and appeal. 

Even so, the regional geography of the Anthology uniquely decontextualizes Moonshiner even from the context-free space Smith created for it. 

Much of the pleasure of my project is in placing "Moonshiner's Dance Part One" back into context, often shedding light on the sources of Moonshiner's own power and appeal. 

The work is slow going, in part because related scholarship, reissues, revival activity, etc., has been sparse. Indeed, I've found no evidence that anybody had even bothered to look up "Frank Cloutier" in the St. Paul phone book. 

Thus, my interest in the Anthology's jazz-inflected Northern polka has me pondering the Anthology's contribution to the various chauvinisms of "roots music" and "Americana" — ironic, given Smith's radical eclecticism. 

The failure to follow up on this recording makes it seem prescient, to me, that the center of Smith's Anthology is the silence that follows Moonshiner.  I mean that mostly literally.

The mid-point of the original 3-volume Anthology falls between Moonshiner and the next cut, "Must Be Born Again," the first cut of Volume 2's second half.  Frank Cloutier's command to "Be seated!" introduces the silence at the center of the 1952 Anthology.

This placement also puts Moonshiner at the pivot-point between the secular and the sacred — by far, the most jarring transition in a collection of jarring transitions. 

Moonshiner was clearly chosen to end the secular half of Volume 2 with a bang — to achieve a kind of final paroxysm for the sequence.  Listen to it.  With Moonshiner, the secular body of Volume 2 finally exhausts itself, and the spirit rises.

Hearing it this way, it's not so surprising that Smith would find this break "elsewhere" — by reaching outside of the context the Anthology had established for itself, outside its system.

Given the Anthology's eclecticism, finding its "outside" isn't so easy.  So Smith reached out for Moonshiner, the exception that proves the Anthology's various rules.  It's intriguing that the piece chosen to play this role would itself be an anthology. 

"Moonshiner's Dance, Part One" is thus an excellent probe of the Anthology's meaning system, of Smith's method, and of their sources and consequences and limitations.  Then again ... maybe the same might be said of each of the other 111 entries of the Anthology, each its own universe in a grain of sand. 

I'm not sure, and given the time-consuming nature of the work involved, somebody else will have to confirm that hunch. 


_

Gennett Gets Remembered in Indiana

NORK
The New Orleans Rhythm Kings on the Walk of Fame

    

I recently made a one-day pilgrimage to a place called Richmond, a small Indiana town (pop. 39,000) on the Ohio border.

My reasons to do it were complex, but above all else I wanted to understand why the town hadn't preserved the Gennett Record Company’s recording studio when it had the chance.

Richmond, after all, was the home of the legendary Gennett Records, which released the first real masterpieces of recorded jazz – the influential early records of King Oliver with Louis Armstrong, the game-changing piano solos of Jelly Roll Morton, the first recordings of Bix Beiderbecke and of Hoagy Carmichael. 

In essence, it was Gennett that captured early jazz in exile in the Midwest.  Without knowing it then, Gennett preserved many of the critical coming-of-age moments that jazz experienced as it found its voice in the wide world outside of New Orleans.

And jazz isn’t even my main interest.  Gennett also recorded scads of other artists at the core of my sense of what the 1920’s were musically all about – Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, Ernest Stoneman, Fiddlin' Doc Roberts, Uncle Dave Macon. 

The company also made a few experimental mobile recording trips.  Their 1927 sessions in St. Paul, Minnesota, resulted in “Moonshiner’s Dance” by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra.

Visit Richmond if you can find the chance, and prepare by reading the work of Rick Kennedy, the guy who's done much of the heavy lifting on the history of Gennett and jazz in Indiana.

IAHB

In Richmond, I really saw how Gennett was a little side project of a major piano company in town.

In the office of the Starr-Gennett Foundation, they have a mind-boggling old photo showing the Gennett recording studio looking like a little rickety wooden shack tacked onto the ass end of the sprawling, brick factory complex of the Starr Piano Company.

At the site of the actual studio, you appreciate how inadequate the structure really was, especially for its intended purpose. 

Simply too much imagination would’ve been needed, at the right moment, to envision the site as a global tourist destination, or to anticipate the strong sense of sacredness that many visitors experience as they approach the site of the studio.

This should be a challenge to our own imaginations as we contemplate the demolition of St. Paul’s comparatively palatial Victoria Theater.

The Starr-Gennett Foundation, along with various boards and booster types, have spent a lot of funds commissioning a series of mosaic emblems for a “Walk of Fame” at the former site of its famous studio.

And their Walk is a pretty effective example of public commemoration.  It serves to take visitors the hundred yards or so from the remains of a factory building (stabilized and converted into a performance space) to the remains of the studio’s foundation. 

A number of these emblems stand out as especially successful visually, and the Walk invites contemplation and discussion – even on the cold February day when I saw it.

Enlightened individuals will of course want to see the marker honoring Moonshiner's Dance - so far, that noble effort is unrecognized.  While the recorded output of Frank and his band totaled just two sides, one of those sides is the only Gennett-label recording on the Anthology of American Folk Music.

The Starr-Gennett Foundation estimates the still-expanding Walk could ultimately feature 80 artists, so we'll see what happens. I imagine a scene in which the Walk features increasingly obscure artists – maybe a cow that once mooed on a Gennett sound effects record, say. Around that time, we would have to start a letter-writing campaign for Frank and his boys (although a check-writing campaign just might make a more lasting impression).

Gennett Mansion A member of the Starr-Gennett Foundation (you can join too) volunteered to take me on a whirlwind tour of Richmond, which was considerably more action-packed than you might imagine.  In fact, one day was clearly not enough time.

I was often reminded of my reaction to first seeing Hibbing, Minnesota. Although Hibbing is considerably more disorienting, both places left me a little ashamed that I had expected so much less of them than I actually found. 

Does the “anonymous little nowhere” in my imagination exist at all?  The suburb I knew in my childhood certainly seemed like nowhere at the time, which might be my problem.

Anyway, I wish I had the time and stamina to write up the things I did have time to see in Richmond:

  • the Murray Theater, where this community has supported live performance continuously for more than a century;
  • the 1902 train station designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham;
  • the Gennett family mansion, which has recently seen a miraculous resurrection thanks to inspired restoration efforts;
  • the Starr-Gennett Gallery, a gift shop occupying donated space in a corner of a huge furniture store;
  • Little Sheba’s restaurant, which has a good Rueben sandwich – and where I lobbied for the addition of a “Carmichal Hoagy” sprinkled with some sort of stardust;
  • and the Wayne County Historical Museum is brilliant … I’ve seen my share of county historical societies, and none had a museum as impressive as Wayne’s. 

GalleryMy mind keeps returning to the Historical Museum’s beautifully preserved Conestoga wagon, emblematic of the period when Richmond was at the western frontier of American expansion. 

I used to associate Indiana's identity as the “crossroads of America” with the Indianapolis 500, but today I'm more likely to think of that Conestoga wagon in Richmond.  I wonder if the Rollingstone Colony passed through there on the way to Minnesota.

Certainly, Gennett employees undertook a trip from Richmond to Minnesota in 1927.  In the coming weeks, I’ll report a little of what else I learned about Gennett’s activities in St. Paul during the rest of my week-long stay in Indiana.


_


Kai Schafft: The Monochord Interview

Harrysmithfestsecond

The second annual Harry Smith Festival is this Sunday, November 15.  Eight bands from Ithaca, NY, and central Pennsylvania will perform songs from The Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by the late avant-garde filmmaker and record collector Harry Smith.

The Festival is held in a town with less than 800 people — and one inspired brew pub.  It's organized by Kai Schafft of the band Chicken Tractor DeLuxe

Kai is also an assistant professor at Penn State, and directs Penn State's Center on Rural Education and Communities.  He's got a Ph.D. from Cornell. 

I emailed him questions, and he emailed me answers. Many sincere thanks to him!

 

The Celestial Monochord (CM): What happens at a festival about an anthology?  Please say there'll be PowerPoint slides — I love lectures by experts!

Kai Schafft (KS): No powerpoints, sadly. Last year we did show an experimental film inspired by Harry Smith. I had found an old 20 minute 16 mm Maryland Game Commission film in a junk shop and rigged up a contraption that would allow me to mount the film reels and create some under-lighting. I re-animated the whole thing with Sharpies, frame by frame, turning it into a kind of psychedelic game commission film. Then I recorded a soundtrack – an audio montage of found sound, bird noise, gospel music recorded on old 78 records (naturally), Baba Ram Das giving spiritual advice by telephone, sex noise off a weird slab of vinyl, echoey ambient noise from the lobby of an interstate rest area in Maine, and so forth. We set up a screen and projector halfway through and showed the film. I was a little worried that it might seem too esoteric, but people loved it – another successful social experiment! Our friend Elody Gyekis (who is returning this year) completed a pair of oil paintings as the bands played. The place filled up, lots of people ate food and drank beer. They seemed to feel that something special was happening.

 

CM: What kind of audience showed up for this on the first year?  What's the venue like?

KS: We didn’t know who would show up. The Elk Creek Café + Aleworks (www.elkcreekcafe.net) is located in Millheim, a small rural town located practically in the geographic center of Pennsylvania. It’s Amish country, with ridgelines and long flat farmed valleys. The venue is right in the center of town at the one stoplight in either direction for miles and miles. Amish buggies roll by. It’s an unlikely place for a craft brewpub and music venue, but the proprietor, Tim Bowser, is a pretty visionary guy and not afraid to take risks. He’s also a huge music lover and early on set his sights on establishing Millheim and the valley we occupy, Penns Valley, as a center of great (local) food, excellent craft beer, eclectic music and local culture. So he immediately took to the idea of the Festival. He didn’t need any convincing, and I knew he wouldn’t. And we ended up packing the place and not just with hipsters and folkies from State College (about 25 miles away), but all sorts of people from near and far. Tim books music at least 2 or 3 nights a week, so, especially now the place has quite a good reputation. But last year, it hadn’t even been opened for a year. So it was a bit of an experiment. But, like the film, it worked!

 

CM: The musical line-up sounds fantastic.  How do you rope all of these people into playing?  Are they all Anthology fans, or do they owe you money?

KS: They are all people that I know – or at least know of. Early on I thought about how great it would be to hand pick my favorite local-ish bands and musicians to play songs off the Anthology – turn it into a big benefit, have a happening, create a shared situation where really talented people are challenged to dig into the Anthology and reinterpret and re-encounter these chunks of American Collective Unconscious. Practically speaking, the only way to really do this was to turn it into a benefit. And really, this kind of thing should be done for love anyway. Everyone who I’ve asked, both years, has seemed genuinely honored to be asked and genuinely excited to participate. And, as a musician (albeit as one that doesn’t do it for a living) I know that some of the most boring, worthless and fucked up gigs have been the highest paying, while some of the craziest, most inspired and transcendent gigs have been those done for little or no dough. But maybe others have had different experiences. I don’t know. We do offer gas money for bands coming in from away. That was mostly or entirely turned down last year. I expect a similar thing will happen this year. The performers get free food and beer though and they can sell merchandise. The beer is great, so that’s a strong incentive. Plus the Elk Creek is a flat out special place to play. The vibe and the audiences are always tops. And, unless I am very much mistaken, Elk Creek will be packed this Sunday too.

 

CM: Every February, there's a battle of the jug bands in Minneapolis.  There are 20 bands, and it lasts over 8 hours ... by the end of the night, you can see into other dimensions.  Is the Harry Smith Festival like that?

KS: Yes. Or at least it was last year. The songs on the Anthology have some pretty heavy spiritual, emotional and aesthetic content. Eight bands playing this stuff for 6 hours can be a surprisingly affecting experience. I think a lot of people felt this way. It caught them off guard. It definitely was a case of the whole being way larger and more expansive than the sum of the parts. It’s a social, aesthetic and cultural experiment that makes all sorts of crazy stuff bubble up.

 

CM: The Anthology covers a huge range of southern music — blues, cajun, cowboy songs, sacred harp, square dance fiddling, etc.  It must be hard to match that kind of scope in the festival.

KS: Well, it’s always interesting to see what people pick. There are some obvious ones I think. And then there are some that I wish someone would step up to the plate and try to do. Like "Saut Crapaud" which almost seems to anticipate The Shaggs, albeit transported back 40 years and 40 time-space continua. Or, one of your favorites,"The Moonshiner’s Dance Part One." Nobody’s picked those yet. We have some great bands this year, though. The Evil City String Band is doing "Indian War Whoop" which I’m very excited to hear.

 

CM: How did you discover the old American music?  Was it part of your upbringing?

KS: I grew up in Washington DC near the Walter Reed Hospital. When I wasn’t listening to the "album oriented rock" stations, I listened to bluegrass music on WAMU, and the blues shows on WPFW where I was introduced to artists like Tampa Red and Leroy Carr (and also tripped out on Louis Farrakhan sermons and other non-mainstream stuff). And my parents used to take me to the Folklife Festivals down at the Mall in Washington near the Smithsonian. So, you might say I always had "predilections." But sometime in the early 1990s I came across the collection of field recordings John Cohen did in the mid-1960s that had been released on Rounder, "High Atmosphere." That was really my gateway drug. I heard for the first time people like George Landers, Wade Ward, Gaither Carlton, and Estil Ball and I felt like my neural structure had somehow been re-arranged. Literally. Then I lived in Ithaca for a long while and got steeped in that music scene. Lots of old-time and roots music, and interestingly an actual local music culture where people share certain kinds of understandings and sounds and aesthetics – not as an orthodoxy, but as a shared framework, a culture. And that’s what Harry Smith was interested in too, those regional cultural expressions. When I was up there I DJ’d a Sunday morning radio show for a number of years, along with some compatriots, the Salt Creek Show, which is devoted entirely to American roots music of varying levels of obscurity. I still listen to it online. (wvbr.com/saltcreek). So that also was a huge influence and really introduced me not only to rural music of the 1920s and 30s but also straight up classic country and honky tonk which I also love.

 

CM: When did you find the Anthology?  How did it change things for you?

KS: Well, I was certainly familiar with the Anthology, but I didn’t actually break down and buy it until I started thinking about doing this festival. It’s a bit of an investment! And of course you can probably figure out ways of accessing the anthology, but ultimately, the print catalog Harry Smith pulled together is indispensable. It really does establish the fundamental point that the Anthology – or rather this collection of music – has cosmological, mystical qualities. If anyone doubts that, listen to Bascomb Lamar Lunsford’s "Dry Bones." Or any number of other selections. Or the whole thing. Or whatever. You come away and you conclude, "This is not nothing. This is Something."

 

CM: Fans of the Anthology seem to struggle to react to it.  They launch a thousand ships, go on fantastic voyages, build impossible contraptions.  You and I certainly have.  Why?

KS: Well, with the festival, really because I could, because I thought it would be fun. Because I thought it would help build community in a variety of ways. Because I thought it would help bring this great and largely forgotten music and expression back to the light of day. But mainly, to be honest, I just thought it would be a kick. As it happens though, the Anthology has some real juju. So it turned out to be a lot more than just a kick. But it’s that too.

 

CM: How does your work in rural education connect to your Anthology interest?  I think of Bill C. Malone, who writes a lot about country music and southern working-class culture.

KS: I work in a university. A good friend of mine described universities as "temples of rationality." I’ve never heard a more apt description, with all the positive and negative that that implies. The Anthology is in some senses a temple (or altar?) of irrationality. So, it’s a balance thing really, balancing a life of rationality with a world – or many, many inner worlds – of IRrationality. Actually although a lot of my colleagues and some of my students know about this other part of who I am, for whatever reason I generally don’t broadcast it. As for Bill Malone’s stuff, yeah I’ve read it and I like it, a lot actually. But as for my own practice, I’ll keep my irrationality irrational!

 

CM: How did you get interested in Gypsy, or Roma communities in Hungary?  And, of course, have you followed the resurgence of gypsy music?

KS: I lived and worked in Budapest in the early 1990s and then went back to work with rural Gypsy communities. I was interested in Hungary’s system of local minority self governments and what that meant for marginalized Gypsy communities. How they could use it as a leverage point for political and economic power and cultural autonomy. I spent a lot of time out in some pretty rural villages, living and working. But there wasn’t much music happening that I saw, at least where I was. A lot of the Roma music is associated with particular groups of Roma, especially in urban areas, wealthier, higher status groups. I was pretty far from that. But I imagine there are some analogies to be drawn, like Hungary’s Kali Jag is to the Carolina Tar Heels, as The Gypsy Kings are to Garth Brooks, as Muzsikas is to New Lost City Ramblers … ? But I don’t know. I haven’t followed Gypsy music that much.

 

CM: You live up there at the top end of the Appalachian range.  Do you think there's a kinship with people living further down on the same range?  Have you explored music closer to Pennsylvania and New York cultural history?

KS: Well, I don’t know. Except in pockets, regionally-specific musical expression seems largely non-existent. But there are certainly pockets, and even very strong pockets of people tapping into local/regional musical expression, rural music and so forth, old time, and what have you. Ithaca has been a real hot bed. There’s good stuff around Morgantown and further south into West Virginia, North Carolina. I would like to be one of those people who goes to Clifftop and Mt Airy, but I don’t. And maybe I’m not looking in the right places, turning over the right rocks. Sifting through piles of 78s around here you find a lot of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. He used to have a banjo orchestra and was pretty popular for a while. He actually died at a show when he was in his 80s – a friend of mine was actually at that show! But he was more of a jazz guy I think. Much of my efforts these days seem to be more with creating, or reinvigorating, or strengthening a local musical-cultural presence than digging into what came before. But, then again, there’s not much evidence of what came before, at least as far as I can tell. It’s like a cultural amnesia, the Clear Channelization of popular consciousness. To that extent the Harry Smith Festival is a subversive act – and it’s meant to be.

 

CM: Did you attend any of the Harry Smith Project concerts — the concerts by Philip Glass, Wilco, Beck, Elvis Costello, etc?  

KS: No, and in fact, I didn’t even know about these till we started planning the first one here in Millheim. I have the Harry Smith Project DVD. There’s some great stuff on that, although it’s a little hit or miss too.

 

CM: There's something called the "Harry Smith Frolic" held annually in Greenfield, MA.  It seems to be a weekend of oldtime stringband jam sessions.  Have you been in touch with them?

KS: I didn’t know about this either. I’ll have to check it out.

 

CM: What's your favorite ancillary Anthology-related stuff?  What book, CD, DVD, and/or movie?

KS: Well, the Celestial Monochord is actually a big favorite of mine, and the website run by that French guy is absolutely amazing! I also love the site you have linked with the visual art of the different anthology songs. Perhaps farther afield there’s a great Motorhead documentary, "Ace of Spades," that I really enjoyed. I like Harry Smith’s catalog. One of these days I’ll get around to reading some of John Fahey’s stuff. I have read and re-read the booklet that comes with the High Atmosphere disc. I recently read a book called Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia. There’s an excellent CD that goes with it. I really enjoyed that. And most recently I’ve been really freaking out about Michael Hurley. Really, really freaking out. The next "fest" might have to be Michael Hurley themed, I don’t know. I’m still figuring that one out. And Karen Dalton has also recently left a pretty strong impression – "Green Rocky Road" (her robotic voice intro to Green Rocky Roads: "This * song * recorded * in * two * tracks"). So these are all ancillary to the Anthology in my mind.

 

CM: It's a painful fact that a man is rarely asked to talk about his banjo.  Please, Kai, tell me about your banjo.

KS: I used to live in an old farm house in Upstate New York. One day by happenstance I found an old gun in the wall of the house. It was a WWII German Mauser. We had it around the house for a while, and a friend borrowed it, cleaned it and got bullets for it. I went over to his house and we shot it a bunch and blew apart some old clay flowerpots. He got really excited about it and really wanted it for his own. He said, "I have an old banjo – I’ll trade you the gun for the banjo." So we struck a deal and I took the banjo home. Some months later, with prodding from my wife, I screwed up my courage and took some lessons from Richie Stearns, a phenomenal musician and clawhammer banjo player from the Ithaca area who plays with The Horseflies, plus a ton of other projects, plus has played with a crazy list of musical luminaries from Mike Seeger and Tony Trischka to Natalie Merchant and Jim Lauderdale. But he’s also just a really nice and humble guy. A mutual friend said, "Oh Richie, he’s common as dirt!" So, I learned some stuff off him and started playing in a zydeco-electric old time band called The MacGilllicuddies, who I still play with a bunch of times a year, but these days I mainly play with my local band Chicken Tractor Deluxe, the band that’s hosting the festival. Last year we were preparing to record our CD, Tin Can Holler, and the Austin band The Gourds came through and played at Elk Creek. Kev Russell did an a capela version of Butcher’s Boy, which slayed everyone in the house. I talked to him about it afterwards and we geeked out about the Anthology. He told me that he played a gig in Arkansas where the audience pissed him off, and when they clamored for an encore he played them My Name is John Johanna! So we ended up playing Butcher’s Boy and John Johanna in last year’s Festival and they ended up on our CD, Tin Can Holler, along with I’m On the Battlefield for My Lord, and Country Blues. But I’m getting off track. About the banjo and all, Richie plays with Evil City Stringband, so I’m hoping that we can get him to sit in with us when we do the Coo Coo Bird. It all comes around in the end!



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Moonshiner's Parking Lot?

 

A piece of St. Paul's cultural history may be torn down for a parking lot.

The Victoria Cafe produced a recording of absolutely unique importance

In May 2006, I realized that an internationally notorious recording from 1927 — "Moonshiner's Dance, Part One" — was the work of the house band of a nightclub at 825 University Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

Nobody had understood this before, so I was astonished and overjoyed to find the building still standing 79 years later.  Since then -- since early 2006 -- I drive by it often, and each time my heart skips a beat until I see that the Victoria Theater is still there.

But now, not even 4 years into my research for a book on "Moonshiner's Dance," the Victoria building is being eyed for demolition to make way for a parking lot. 

What disturbs me most is that, while my findings are enormously suggestive, the building's historical importance is not yet well understood.  Like a species allowed to go extinct before biologists are even able to describe it, the Victoria Theater may be destroyed in the near-total absence of knowledge. 

Other community members have great reasons to want the building saved.  

I have my own reasons. 

 

[ NOTE: Most of the information previously presented in this space has been superseded by my subsequent writing and research efforts. For this reason, I've deleted the text. Please visit this more recent post for better information on my mission to express the many stories I've encountered while trying to understand the meanings of this place. ]


"Minglewood Blues" Sweetly Sings of Anthology

Sivartha


If you expect to be in Wisconsin in the next few weekends — or can arrange to be — I urge you to see Minglewood Blues at the Broom Street Theater in Madison.  Inspired by The Anthology of American Folk Music, this new play must be among the most amusing, heartfelt, and original responses to that influential document in quite a few years.   

In the flesh-and-blood medium of the stage, Broom Street has made manifest the strange pleasures and confusing revelations most people go through after discovering this collection of early 20th century recordings. 

The play should interest anyone with a passing acquaintance with a few of the old American legends — maybe Casey Jones, or John Henry, or Stagger Lee, or the froggie who went a-courtin' a mouse.  But the play's depth and wit do "telescope" with audience knowledge, and it really excels as an introduction to the Anthology's strange mindset, and as a sort of luxury spa for Anthology veterans.

In Minglewood Blues, the events, images, and characters scattered throughout the Anthology rise up in Broom Street's humble little space and take over the joint, much as they do in our minds — with birds and trains and mountains and murderers vying for our confused attention, exchanging gunfire and one-liners, exposing one another's crimes and pleading one another's case.

Becoming Anthology-obsessed makes you dizzy like that.  Playwright Doug Reed has taken that dizziness seriously as part of the Anthology's aesthetic and made it the basis of his play.

In bouncing motifs off one another and splicing narratives together, the script performs one illuminating stunt after another, proposing dozens of fascinating possibilities. 

Why moles are blind is explained, as is the nature of lawyers. The deep geology and the whole ecosystem of a place called Minglewood are made to mingle with Scandinavian immigrants and Southern labor history. The sheer body count makes the play a kind of Hamlet-meets-Wisconsin Death Trip.

There are so many new angles to see, in fact, that a law of diminishing returns eventually sets in (even if rather later than you might imagine).  Once Minglewood Blues blows your mind many times, and then many more, and then some more, your mind is neatly blown. 

Some moderate editing would be welcome in the second half — perhaps Frankie and Albert's wedding could be deleted, or some bits about Alan Catcher's business dealings.  I would hate to miss the rebellion of Free Labor, but the resulting sharper focus on John Henry's regrets might be worth it.

A death-row scene between Alice Frye and Frankie, intended to be a culmination and summation, tries to accomplish too much on too many levels.  I wanted to see these two actors switch roles, but it's unlikely that better acting or directing could carry all the weight packed into the scene.

Incidentally, Harry Smith's Anthology was history's first great case of "color-blind casting" and I would have been interested to see this somehow integrated into Minglewood Blues.  As things actually played out (perhaps out of practical necessity), I sometimes wondered if Broom Street hadn't actually worked against the progressive intent of Smith's treatment of race, which remains ahead of its time to this day.

I was usually impressed with the quality of the actors, musicians, direction, and production standards at this humble venue.  In fact, some of the rough edges left on this particular material only served to magnify its meaning and emotional impact.

The actors and operators of the Broom Street Theater are unpaid volunteers — the hat is passed for the cast before the show.  Still, ever since its birth in the cultural ferment of 1968, the theater has been a very small animal with big artistic ambitions.

As a result, an especially deep and moving kind of sense gets made when this particular group takes on Harry Smith's Anthology, which achieved very high art through a collage of folk art. 

And they've gone to extraordinary lengths to do it.  As a keepsake for the audience, the playwright himself has lovingly designed the program for this production by hand, borrowing elements of Smith's original hand-made liner notes. 

The theater has sacrificed perhaps a third of its already-scarce audience space to make way for a bandstand.  Its musicians competently play autoharp, clawhammer-style banjo, fiddle, accordion, jew's harp, harmonica, two guitars, and jug. 

Very appropriately, this music is intimately involved, top to bottom, in the play's action and themes — not only punctuating and bridging scenes, but deeply involving itself in the action and meaning of the story.

In fact, the band is composed largely of cast members, and visa versa.  Its fiddler grows wings and accompanies a character to heaven.  After a young boy is lured to his death in a flower garden, he gets up and straps on the accordion.  And Satan, it turns out, plays a mean harmonica.


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Mike Seeger's Legacy: To Be Continued


I've been out of town the last few days — at a funeral, coincidentally — so you presumably knew before I did that Mike Seeger has died. 

I don't see a heck of a lot on the web that seems to capture Seeger's significance, and it may take a long time before his true importance is widely and well understood.  Maybe Bill C. Malone's rumored biography will advance that project.

I like quoting what Bob Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles, says about Mike — not only to borrow Dylan's clout, but because nobody else has expressed it so vividly, before or since.  Buy Chronicles and read it. 

Only in Dylan's writing about Mike do I really recognize the guy I encountered — maybe only Bob and I saw it, but I bet a lot of people have the same feeling.

Here's a small sample of the thirteen-page ode dramatizing the impact Mike Seeger had on the young Dylan's sense of himself as an artist:

Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change, but you can only feel it ... But then something immediate happens and you're in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it — you're set free ... Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door — something jerks it open and you're shoved in and your head has to go into a different place. Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it. Mike Seeger had that affect on me.

He was extraordinary, gave me an eerie feeling. Mike was unprecedented. He was like a duke, the knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula's black heart ... It's not as if he just played everything well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them ... it dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns ... the thought occurred to me that maybe I'd have to write my own songs, ones that Mike didn't know. That was a startling thought.


The main thing I want to add tonight (because it might otherwise go unsaid) is how much I admired Mike's ethics as an intellect. 

He understood that trying to understand and explain things is difficult, and carries an ethical burden.  You OUGHT to be careful and humble in drawing conclusions, and you SHOULD get your facts right.  Be mindful of what you know to be the case, and what you don't. 

When he spoke, and when he wrote his liner notes, you could hear his great care in selecting words that said exactly what he knew, nothing less and nothing more.  I respected that in him.


Here's a round-up of selected previous writings about Mike Seeger.

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Mike Seeger: Articles at The Monochord


Mike Seeger Southern Banjo Sounds

Mike Seeger has entered hospice care and members of his family are gathering at his home in Virginia, according to media reports. 

Over the years, the Celestial Monochord has written about Mike often, sometimes obsessively, because he's a hero of mine.

Below are links to my most substantial essays dealing with Mike Seeger. They're mostly in order of writing quality and/or relevance to Mike.



• How the Folk Revival affected Dock Boggs (indebted to Seeger's liner notes and Invisible Republic by Greil Marcus):

Dock Boggs: Revival  


• On innocence and experience, in the context of Mike Seeger:

The Young Musicologist


• A two-part screed in which I realize that Bob Dylan (and his generation) were not directly influenced by Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music as much as they were second-hand, through the New Lost City Ramblers:

Harry Smith, Dylan, and "The Rambler's Step"


• How Mike turned a simple love song into a contemplation about the relationships between art, and death, and love:

Little Birdie


• Thoughts about Hollis Brown, mentioning the version Bob Dylan did with Mike:

Hollis Brown's South Dakota


• Mike's version of a song about Slick Willie:

Late Last Night When My Willie Come Home


• With my facts a little rumpled around the edges, the vast importance and tiny reputation of the New Lost City Ramblers:

Math and Memory in New Lost City


• "Suggested listening" for fans of the Harry Smith Anthology:

Beyond the Anthology


• About my favorite cut on Mike's brilliant collection of field recordings:

A Talk on the World



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The Anthology and Carbine Williams


Banjo and rifle

    

OK, I'm officially a Turner Classic Movies fan.

Lately, movies hardly seem worth watching if Robert Osborne isn't there, just before and after, to give a cheery commentary about them. Bruno could be OK, but I'll wait until it comes to TCM so Osborne can tell me who ALMOST played Bruno before they finally cast Sacha Baron Cohen.

More seriously, the relentless march of old films has mattered to my development as a cultural historian. I live much of my life in a pre-WWII "immersion program" of my own design, and it helps that movies carry a lot of dense and very palatable cultural information. 

Consider the relatively obscure Jimmy Stewart movie Carbine Williams — a biopic about an inventor who helped create the M1 carbine rifle, a standard gun used in WWII.

Aside from this seemingly unpromising subject, TCM's viewer guide said that Williams was a bootlegger in the 1920's and created his invention while in a North Carolina prison. I figured hillbilly stringband music had to appear somewhere, right? 

Also, the movie was released in 1952, the same year Folkways Records released Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Maybe the movie would shed light on ... say, the prevailing attitudes about southern Appalachian culture that greeted The Anthology upon its release.

I hunkered down to watch TCM's broadcast. What blew my mind turned out to be the way the filmmakers tried to compensate for the dry subject matter — how they tried to draw you into the biography. 

The film begins "now" — in 1952 — with the son of Carbine Williams having had schoolyard fights about his father's criminal past. The son is otherwise a typical 8-year-old of 1952, with the greasy kid stuff in his hair, the rolled up jeans, the horizontal-striped t-shirt.

To help the son understand him, Carbine Williams brings the boy to his old prison warden, who tells the boy — and us — the remarkable story of how a convict in his prison went on to win WWII for America.

In the end, the boy now understands and appreciates his father's experiences as a Prohibition outlaw, a convict in the Depression, and finally an engineer of the military-industrial complex that won the war. A heart-warming hug closes the film.

The appeal of the framing storyline is direct: the events of the first half of the century will be incomprehensible, or at least misunderstood, by the baby-boom generation. The movie proposes and fulfills a dream that the catastrophic experiences of two World Wars and the Depression (if not the fiasco of Prohibition) could somehow be appreciated and acknowledged by the children of The New Prosperity.

That this yawning divide in experience could somehow be bridged someday was, and is, an entertaining fantasy.

About the musicians whose 1920's recordings were reissued in 1952 on The Anthology, Greil Marcus wrote:

In 1952 [they] were only twenty or twenty-five years out of their time; cut off by the cataclysms of the Great Depression and the Second World War and by a national narrative that never included their kind, they appeared now like visitors form another world, like passengers on a ship that had drifted into the sea of the unwritten. "All those guys on that Harry Smith Anthology were dead," Cambridge folkies Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney wrote in 1979, recalling how it seemed in the early 1960's, when most of Smith's avatars were very much alive. "Had to be."

The Anthology derived some of its power from exploiting the same radical break in memory that Carbine Williams uses as a dramatic frame. To young people the age of the Williams boy — that is, Bob Dylan's or Joan Baez's age — the world that created their parents and the recordings on The Anthology alike seemed about as distant in time and place as any world could.

At some level, the cataclysms of the first half of the century were not only events Carbine Williams witnessed, they were projects he undertook. As a suggested path for the boy himself to follow, his father's life could reasonably be seen as a nightmarish sentence.

Carbine Williams never hints at the possibility that the son might be less interested in the life his father had lived than in the world his father had created and would leave as the boy's inheritance. And in 1952, that world looked like an awfully mixed bag.

A lot baby boomers came to see the entertainment industry that produced Carbine Williams — the one that failed to anticipate their perspective — as a purveyor of bad dreams thin enough to be transparent. They were drawn to cultural alternatives that were more opaque and thus less easily churned out by the efficient new systems for the manufacture and distribution of culture.

The most committed Folk Revivalists of the early 1960's traded their father's M1 carbine rifle for their grandfather's banjo. Staging a kind of identity insurrection, kids like the Williams boy would try on identities that their fathers seemed to have abandoned to become architects of the Cold War — identities inspired by Woody Guthrie, Charlie Poole, Jessie James, or Henry Lee's jilted lover.

Or Harry Smith — whoever he was. His Anthology was like a Ouija board for receiving and sending messages from and to the millions of souls Carbine Williams and his invention had left for dead.

Some of the Williams boy's generation tried to reenact the Anthology's obsolete performances. Some tried to retrace the occult thinking that organized the collection. Many tried to discern, in the most obsolete songs they could find, the stories their fathers either didn't know or had decided not to pass along.

 

Williams and Hearst
Patty Hearst's famous rifle was an M1 carbine.

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Moonshiners Dance - On the Air

Dance
(a relief in the Hibbing High School Library)
 
 
Tomorrow morning, May 21, I'll be on the radio to talk about my research on "The Moonshiners Dance, Part One," from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.  

There'll be more music than talk.  We'll be playing records that put Moonshiner into some sort of context   notably, the very rare and much speculated-about "The Moonshiners Dance, Part TWO."

The program is The Dakota Dave Hull Show, on KFAI from 9 to 11 central time.  You can listen live, and the show will also be archived online for two weeks ONLY:


Enjoy!
 
 
Update: The show went beautifully  it really couldn't have gone better.  Here's the direct link. Remember that the show will become unavailable on the morning of June 4.
 
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