A Guide to My Amnesia Theater

[ pinned post ] 

Victoria Cafe Coupon

Here at Monochord headquarters, we’ve been celebrating the publication of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music: America Changed Through Music, a collection of new essays about the mesmerizing and influential 1952 boxed set of late 1920s and early 1930s recordings.

Ordinarily, I'd be devouring this exciting addition to Smithalia cover-to-cover, and probably writing about it here. But so far, I've been busy rolling out my own essay in the book.

My contribution — the product of eleven years of research, thinking, re-thinking, and activism — is entitled "Smith's Amnesia Theater: 'Moonshiner's Dance' in Minnesota."

I have oceans of stuff to say about it, but for now, I'll just try to answer the simple question, "What just happened?"


The new book and essay: What are they?

It’s a book of essays by a variety of writers, musicians, and scholars, some of whom attended a 2012 conference in London marking the 60th anniversary of Smith's landmark boxed set.

I delivered a presentation at that London conference, and my talk became the seed of my essay. It focuses on just one recording in the Anthology, a cut otherwise neglected by historians and other researchers. The 1927 recording was "Moonshiner's Dance — Part I," recorded in St. Paul, Minnesota, by the Victoria Cafe Orchestra.

That recording is the Anthology's only Northern cut — the only recording unambiguously by musicians from outside the American South. I once made a map of the Anthology — seemingly the only such map anybody's ever made. It looks a lot like a map of the Confederacy.

For the first time, my essay releases a major chunk of my research into "Moonshiner's Dance." It turned out that asking simply "What is this object?" leads to a wide-ranging investigation into geography, history, identity, and meaning.

All this previously unknown information, the essay argues, matters to how we understand the Anthology and, indeed, to how we should encounter any expression left to us by a gone world.

The essay is also an impassioned plea for open-minded and imaginative curiosity about America's cultural geography.

I designed the essay to be a little like Monty Python's Flying Circus — that is, like a revue. The curtain opens on a scene that turns out to be another curtain that opens to reveal a different scene that also becomes a curtain, and so on. If you get bored with my essay, don't worry — it will take off in another direction soon.

So far, beside the scholarship being original, the most consistent comment I've received is that the writing is "beautiful." Certainly, there's humor in there, wise cracks, hidden Easter eggs, and a lot of pictures.


Where can a person read this essay?

This is a scholarly publication, so the authors don't get paid — I just want my truth out there, and I deeply appreciate your interest.

Please ask your public and university libraries to get the book. Don't be shy — providing you with materials that are difficult to get on your own is a big reason librarians exist. They want you to ask for exactly this kind of thing — do it! Besides, once they get the book for you, it will presumably be there for the rest of your community.

Please buy the book. For now, Routledge priced the hardback ($152) mainly for university and public libraries, profs in the field, etc. I'm currently seeing buying options on Amazon for around $100. There are Kindle and eBook options for $38-$55.

A paperback version of the book will be released in June 2018, I am told. It'll have a prettier cover and a more affordable price. How much more affordable, I don't know.

Email me. Holding the book in your hand, you can see a community thinking about the Anthology — there are other pieces in that book you'll definitely also want to read. But its current cost makes this book (and my message) a very rare object. So, if you email me for a copy of my essay, I will send you a PDF.

At the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, the book is now available for reading and photocopying at the Gale Family Library. That's where this whole adventure started for me in May 2006, so I find this very satisfying.

Also, watch this space for updates.


What's the deal with the Victoria Theater?

When I started all this, nobody who'd heard the Anthology could forget the sound of this eerily preposterous recording. It was, in its own way and degree, infamous around the world, partly for having mysterious origins.

At the same time, nobody in St. Paul understood that a familiar, vacant, and deteriorating old building down on University Avenue was responsible for an utterly unique contribution to an influential American masterpiece. Nobody had ever researched the building beyond architectural survey work and superficial literature searches.

I set about trying to reconstruct the meanings of the place, to see if I could get St. Paul to understand what it had, and to make Anthology fans understand that their mystery was solved by answers that really matter. I wanted to reconnect the lines and let the power flow.

Then, in 2008, the Victoria Theater's neighborhood association asked me to write the nomination to make the threatened Victoria Theater Building an official heritage preservation site.

I jumped at it, especially as I'd spent two years working for a Cultural Resource Management company, editing historic and archaeological survey reports. And I fought to get the city ordinance passed.

Finally, to complete the circuit, I got to work on this essay for the Anthology conference and book.

Despite some exhilarating successes, I still despair that my message will ever quite sink in, but I'm glad that I’ve at last sung my song.

Your questions, requests, or suggestions about the Victoria Theater's future should go to the director of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, Caty Royce at caty@frogtownmn.org.


What's next? A book on "Moonshiner's Dance"?

I wonder. I already look like "that guy" who won't stop talking about his polka record, but readers of my essay will hopefully appreciate that there really are worlds to explore here.

Only a tiny fraction of my findings made it into the essay. I've got stories.

If I died tomorrow, I'd be glad I got this essay into the world, but too many big connections and haunting details would die with me. And to my eyes, each story magnifies and multiplies the meaning of the others. I'm not sure what to do about that.

For now, I just hope to go back to what I was up to before the Victoria Theater Building and the London conference and essay took over my life. I think I'll try to write and research and get the stories to you, one way or another, before my time’s up.


Dry Manhattan in Minneapolis


My parents were both born in 1925, so their earliest memories formed during Prohibition.

Mom’s father had a moonshine still in a room of their rural Wisconsin farmhouse, behind a door she was not allowed to open. Now 91, she can still smell the still’s awful stench and she associates it with the more traumatizing parts of what was sometimes a very difficult childhood.

When I tell people that anecdote, I find they often have a hard time adjusting to the possibility that moonshine stills also existed outside of North and South Carolina. Yes, in the USA, Prohibition happened everywhere.

And it failed everywhere. I can almost guarantee that if you’re reading this within the United States and your digs were built before 1934, Noble Experiment moonshine was consumed between the walls of the room you’re in right now.

I’ve had Michael A. Lerner’s 2007 book, Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, on my shelf for almost a decade during which I’ve been pursuing, often with great intensity, a Prohibition-lated research project.

My procrastination in reading it was due to its geographic narrowness. Still, now that I’ve read it, I realize I hadn’t quite anticipated the book's New York provincialism. It's not just about NYC — it’s from a strictly NYC POV. Sometimes, it can barely see Hoboken from where it sits.

But point of view is a valuable tool for a writer (and even researcher). Dry Manhattan might be the best book I’ve read about Prohibition (I like it better than Okrent's excellent Last Call) and I was foolish not to read it immediately in 2007. It’s provided me with a lot of research leads and context for my own findings. It also has me thinking fresh thoughts about my own work, what its own provincialisms are, and what the hidden value of them might be.

Lerner repeatedly argues for NYC’s importance to any understanding of Prohibition — i.e., that the premise of the book is valid. He does it often enough that he seems unsure we’ll buy the premise. (Not a bad instinct, it turns out.)

It’s easy to believe that New York helped set the cultural terms on which the rest of the country experienced Prohibition — at least in large cities. In defying the 18th Amendment, urbanites everywhere felt a specifically newyorkish sophistication. My own research on St. Paul’s “Moonshiner’s Dance” has produced many clear illustrations (a long essay to be published in the next six months or so will touch on this).

Lerner also argues for New York as perhaps the most important political turf for drys and wets alike. Just recall that Al Smith (who changed the national conversation) and FDR (who signed the national legislation) were both New York governors during their presidential bids.

And Lerner shows that the drys saw NYC as a test case. If they could make it there, they could make it anywhere — and inversely, if NYC didn’t sober up, Prohibition would flop nationwide.

His most transformative insight in that vein is that the drys failed to transform the USA because they could only conceive of it as a 19th century fantasy. New York City — with its energy, complexity, diversity, adaptability — was a better model for the real 20th century United States than anything the temperance folks could comprehend.

But there’s the rub. If New York City was too like everywhere else for Prohibition, then so was everywhere else.

Relentlessly, Lerner drops “in the city” or “in New York” into sentences that would’ve been about as true had they been said of any other American city (or, perish the thought, of any corner store at a farmland crossroads anywhere in flyover country). New York City, it often seems, is specified to keep the whole premise of the book from seeming moot.

Sometimes, there’s a blinding New Yorker’s vagueness about that big map “out there” in the middle of the country (where, incidentally, everybody is strangely familiar with New York).

After reading the chapter on Al Smith’s campaign, readers should google-up the 1928 presidential election results map. How that map and that chapter could coexist in the same universe is barely conceivable. What really happened in 1928?

And as a Twin Citian, I would also like to remind New Yorkers that the burning crosses greeting Al Smith were in Oklahoma. Even in Volstead’s rural Minnesota, such is scene is again barely conceivable. But that is a story for another book.

For my purposes, what the book does best also highlights the contradictions and missed opportunities of its premise. (Granted, that's a universal characteristic of books, which one learns to exploit as a weapon in grad school).

At times, the book turns sharply to what I think of as good cultural history — resuscitating meanings that have long ago stopped breathing, stripping familiar symbols of the inevitability of their symbolism. My own work on “Moonshiner’s Dance” has increasingly poked around at this.

Dry Manhattan, both because of its successes and its not-so-much bits, has me thinking anew that something like an … experiential or signification history of Prohibition still needs to be written. Maybe it’s been done, and I just haven’t found it yet.

Lerner is vivid about how young women in the 1920s got tired of the presumptuousness of older Progressive-era women who had secured their voting rights and took away their drinking rights. The younger generation felt just fine about pursuing other, and even opposing, agendas.

Lerner “brings home” especially well how the dry movement got their Amendment by demonizing immigrants, Jews, Catholics, and city folk. Subsequently, when Prohibition itself instantly flopped, the drys blamed the failure on immigrants, Jews, Catholics, and city folk.

People — my people, really — knew when they were being scapegoated, and violating the Constitution by drinking booze made them feel part of a new, more plausible, more American way of life. And there were, and are, a lot of us around these parts ... around-about here, locally ... in this area.

My dad was something like an “anchor baby.” His father and mother immigrated separately from Austria and Prussia in 1924, met each other over here (both were German-speaking Catholics, so …), and they had my dad in 1925.

Of the many go-to stories my dad repeated too often, his favorite was about an incident in the early 1950s:

He and Mom and the first of their seven kids were living in Moline, Illinois, in a dense thicket of dry counties. The only way to get a drink was to join some kind of fraternal organization, so Dad joined the Knights of Columbus in Davenport, Iowa, just across the Mississippi River.

One Sunday morning, Dad was drinking in the crowded K of C clubhouse, when the parish priest walked in and told the entire bar that he had a message from the bishop of the Diocese of Davenport himself, the Most Reverend Ralph Hayes.

Henceforth, the K of C clubhouse would be closed on Sunday morning so the men could attend church services instead.

The bar was silent for moment. Then the bartender shouted, “Alright, everyone in favor of closing the bar on Sunday morning, say ‘Aye’!”

Of course, the priest raised both hands, shouting “Hold on, hold on, wait a minute! This is not a democracy — the bishop says you’re closed on Sunday morning, and by God, you are closed on Sunday morning!”

My own relationship with booze was shaped by my upbringing, a fact that instantly and directly involves the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in every hangover I’ve ever had. And I was born during the Johnson administration, just outside Chicago.

I’ve been thinking lately that it’s wrong, this belief that we should study history because it has “lessons” for us. No, we should study it because it ain’t over yet and everybody is involved.

Our identities are built in conversation with the built environment — and both persist longer than anyone’s awareness of their having been built at all. We are historic artifacts like those under glass in a history museum, and with memories about as good.

So, especially out here in the historic borderlands of the Upper Midwest, we are vulnerable to, and politely tolerant of, the standard narratives — the regionalist cliches of musical or literary tastes, say, or the full-blast stereo megaphones blaring our culture at us from the east and west coasts.

Good history may do what Dry Manhattan does in defamiliarizing the past, but it should also interrogate the book’s assumption that history starts in the center and radiates outward toward the frontiers over time. Just as often, whether we ourselves know it or not, history starts here.

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.

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

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

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.



Harry Smith Anthology Site Before Saint Paul Council


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!


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.

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


Kevin Moist and the Anthology as Collage

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

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.


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.


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. ]

Music for Moonshiners - Whoopee John

Part of a series wherein I propose musical contexts for
"The Moonshiners Dance Part 1," aside from The Anthology

of American Folk Music,
and present illustrative sound files.

Whoopee John Wilfahrt

Older Minnesotans always seem to remember Whoopee John Wilfahrt — so much so that it's startling how little-known he is to everyone else.

Whoopee John made his first recordings in Minneapolis in September 1927 — just across the river and about a week before Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra recorded "The Moonshiners Dance."

He would later become hugely influential across the Upper Midwest, and because they circulated in a small world, Cloutier and Wilfahrt were probably aware of each other. Still, I don't see Whoopee John's influence in "The Moonshiners Dance." 

Instead, his early recordings can serve as a good example of the old time ethnic music being played across the region at the time.  "The Moonshiner's Dance" is also a good example of that music, and is partly a satire of it.


Explanations of Whoopee John's nickname differ, but it's pretty clear to my ears — Whoopee John whooped, just like Frank Cloutier's boys, except at very deliberately chosen moments in the performance.

Neither the whoops nor the nickname appear on Wilfahrt's 1927 recordings, but they're both firmly in place by 1933.  Perhaps "Moonshiners Dance" inspired Whoopee John to start whooping — but then again, similarly exuberant interjections were common across pre-War genres of vernacular social dance music.

Although Whoopee John's style doesn't sound much like "The Moonshiners Dance," it doesn't sound much different either.  To get from Wilfahrt to Cloutier, you mostly need a small shift in meter and tempo, and a huge change in attitude.  The Victoria Cafe Orchestra satirizes rural polka music like Whoopee John's from a cosmopolitan, Jazz-Age perspective. 

But keep in mind that old-time ethnic performers themselves relentlessly goofed on their own rustic, old-world personas.  "Whoopee John" was, in essence, a satirical character played by John Wilfahrt.  There's an economy of satirical exchange here ... with its liquidity provided by good times and bootleg alcohol.

Cloutier and Wilfahrt used similar instruments — after all, this is music from the "Brass Age" to which The Anthology otherwise turns its back. Both bands use instruments you'll also find in 1920s Chicago jazz bands, and most everywhere else at the time — trumpet, clarinet, bass horn, a little drum set.  A signature of Wilfarht's band was the addition of the German button accordion.

Wilfahrt's later stuff is much easier to find due to its great popularity. To my ears, it takes on a slightly slick big-band aesthetic that I find a bit bland and cloying.  I much prefer Whoopee John's early stuff from the 1920s and early 1930s — the New-Ulm, Knights-of-Columbus-hall-wedding Whoopee John. 

It's clearly played by a small, spirited combo of townspeople.  I like the hint of parlor, or even chamber music formality.  I don't know, maybe it's a DNA thing, given that this music's genealogy so closely mirrors my own.


The sound file is an MP3 of about 2.6 MB, and it chains together three abbreviated clips from early Whoopee John 78's.  I chose the cuts because I like them, and because they sound most like "The Moonshiners Dance."  Wilfahrt also recorded appealing waltzes, schottishes, marches, etc.

Download WoopeeJohn.mp3

 •  0:00 to 1:35 - "Old Time Polka #1" from October 1933.
 •  1:35 to 2:42 - "Kinder Polka" from September 1927.
 •  2:42 to 3:50 - "Linderman Polka" from October 1933.

The best source for Whoopee John's music seems to be his grandson, Dennis Brown.  His website has an order form you can print out, fill out, and snail-mail with a check or money order. 

I've done this several times with excellent results. It's great to have this music available in such a high-tech fashion — usually, I'm crawling around on the floor in the basements of used vinyl stores.

I recommend getting either the Whoopee John Historical Music CD #1, or #2, or both.


North Country Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I spent much of 2008 trying to crack the case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







Hey Hey Mister Larson! (part three)

This is the third in a series about the first seven seconds of "Moonshiner's Dance," recorded in Saint Paul in 1927 by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra.  It was included in the Anthology of American Folk Music, sometimes called the Harry Smith Anthology.
See also Part One and Part Two.

Bedlam Circus
Tonight, the Bedlam welcomes the Republicans with a circus (link)


At the start of the Moonshiner's Dance, the leader of The Victoria Café Orchestra grandly calls out to you, the listener, and he renames you "Mister Larson."

I've explained why I think Mister Larson was probably not a specific person but a cultural caricature — a generic audience member being welcomed into The Victoria Café.

He's a butter-and-egg man, in other words, getting a Texas Guinan routine in a 1920s speakeasy.

Hey hey, Mister Larson!

Thinking over questions like Mister Larson — trying to reconstruct the meanings the recording would have had in Minnesota in 1927 — has fundamentally rejiggered the Moonshiner's Dance in my imagination. 

And those reconstructed meanings, I've come to decide, reverberate across the meaning and argument of the Anthology itself.

Today, as the Republican National Convention slouches toward Saint Paul, I insist that Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra were definitely NOT "from the Minnesota area," as the 1997 liner notes to the Anthology "assumed."

They were not even from Minneapolis.  They were vividly, and elaborately, and specifically from the city of Saint Paul. Should it surprise us that the Moonshiner's Dance is about its place and time, and that the geographical specifics matter to the music?

As with Dylan and Hibbing, if we want to understand the Moonshiner's Dance, we need to understand a little about the history of Saint Paul.

In the early 1900's, the city of Saint Paul operated under a semi-official policy called the O'Connor System.  It's goal was to maintain the city as a safe haven for organized crime, with the understanding that major crimes would be committed outside city limits.

I've chosen these words carefully. They sound like they might be some sort of local jack-a-lope folklore of the sort fed to tourists visiting any city. They aren't.

The O'Connor System's method was this: protect all criminals from prosecution under the conditions that they (A) announce themselves upon arrival in the city, (B) pay protection money bribes, and (C) limit themselves to vice and conspiracy within city limits. 

Violators of this compact were treated harshly, either by the city's legal infrastructure, or by its criminal infrastructure, or both.

And benefit they did, for more than 30 years. In 1932, for example, 21% of all bank robberies in the USA occurred in Minnesota, but exactly zero occurred within Saint Paul's city limits.

Liquor, prostitution, and gambling (and so, music) flourished within the city limits, and residents enjoyed them with gusto and relative impunity.  So did visiting tourists. Larry Craig could have tapped his foot all day and all night.

Chief O'Connor's system was not a huge break from the past.

Saint Paul began as a little encampment on the Mississippi around Fort Snelling, providing the fort's soldiers with all the comforts not issued to them by the government. 

In 1838, thanks to "beastly scenes of intoxication among the soldiers of this garrison," the fort's administrators had had enough — especially of a moonshiner named Pierre Parrant, known affectionately as Pig's Eye.

The little village was burned to the ground and its residents were moved eight miles upstream.  The new location was called Pigs Eye for several years, until its first Catholic priest proposed the name Saint Paul.

As it grew, the city continue to focus on trade and transportation, unlike industry-heavy Minneapolis. Brewing was the main manufacturing activity in Saint Paul, and a vice economy was supported by, and supported, these other sectors.

Prohibition, in particular, did not go well for the Feds in Saint Paul.  The city — with its profoundly anti-prohibition population, its proximity to the Canadian border, and its great regional transportation system — was one of the wettest places in America.

Businessmen from all over the US knew Saint Paul was a good destination for business trips.  Truly, what happened in Saint Paul stayed in Saint Paul. 

It was Mister Larson, and not the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, who was from "the Minnesota area."

Saint Paul was insular — a cultural island — and thus a peculiar state capital. Most Saint Paulites had ethical qualms about traveling and spending money beyond city limits, with Minneapolis in particular being another planet, and a hostile one. 

Larger and wealthier Minneapolis was, especially in the popular imagination, a straight-laced, class-stratified, Republican town of Lutheran factory owners and non-union workers. The workers were Scandinavian, even more so than the rest of the state, and the owners were old-stock Yankees.

By contrast, especially in the popular imagination, Saint Paul was an island of drunken, unionized, Irish-Catholic Democrats who were not enamored of the law.

And the popular imagination was tolerably close to the truth.

Saint Paul's political machine was overwhelmingly Irish, and the city's many Yankees, Germans, and Scandinavians figured they may as well be Irish too, given the circumstances. In Saint Paul, ethnic diversity could have a strange way of drawing the city even closer together, increasing its insularity.

Hey hey, Mister Larson! 

So Saint Paul welcomed a generic son of Lars — a pleasure-seeking visitor from the more culturally conservative city of Minneapolis or from the mining and farming communities across "the Minnesota area."

Here we are now — entertain us. 

After one strong whiff of cultural history, the Moonshiner's Dance morphs into the shape of countless other recordings, one after another.

Viva Las Vegas, New York New York, I Love LA — the Moonshiner's Dance is an advertising jingle. 

In the shadow of its richer and more sober neighbor across the Mississippi River, Saint Paul knew its place and was not afraid to advertise. The name of the Victoria Cafe is right there on the record label, as are the cafe's main attractions of moonshine and dancing. 

Suddenly, I hear a lot of Rum And Coca-Cola — a lot of working for the Yankee dollar — in the Moonshiners Dance.  Whether the Andrew Sisters' version or Lord Invader's, who's to say?

It's a cynical thing — a small, casual violence — to rename your listener with a cultural stereotype. Living and working in a place like Saint Paul, a satirical ear must've come easily to a cafe musician like Frank Cloutier.

So Cloutier makes it seem natural to me, for the first time, that F. Scott Fitzgerald was from Saint Paul — both men must've seen the Jazz Age in something like the way a blackjack dealer sees Las Vegas.

Mister Larson now becomes Mister Jones, the unprepared square of Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man.  In the Moonshiner's Dance, you, Mister Larson, have sneaked into The Victoria Cafe the same way you, Mister Jones, were about to find yourself squarely in the middle of Woodstock.

Suddenly, as Larson and Jones stroll into the Victoria Cafe together, Cloutier's Jazz Age comes into view as Dylan's sixties, with their respective collisions of cultural whiplash and bootlegged intoxicants.

But for now, obviously, much of this oversteps the evidence I've shown you.  It's in the actual music later in the recording, for example, that you really get to know Cloutier's satirical cynicism.  All in good time.  For now, I think I know who Mister Larson is and what he meant in his place and moment. 

Now I have to write about the meaning of the other, unintelligible part of the introduction — and about the first seven seconds as a whole.  It has to be done before I put this series of entries to rest.  In the last installment, I'll try to work out some of what I can say about what I can't understand.


Selected References (more than any other blog!)

Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place
by Mary Lethert Wingerd — The best book on the Moonshiner's Dance so far, and she may not even know the recording exists.  Hugely important.  I've made Saint Paul sound more like a riot, but Wingerd emphasizes the compacts and balances and civic identities that made Saint Paul a great place to live.

John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936 by Paul Maccabee — The title makes it sound like it could be about any city.  Every place thinks it was an Al Capone hangout.  But Maccabee has written, in a sense, a chronicle of the consequences of the O'Connor System.  Fun read, too. 

They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State's Ethnic Groups edited by June Drenning Holmquist — An unbelievable, exhaustive treatment of every damned ethnic group that ever set foot in the state.  That it was done at all is dumbfounding. 



Hey Hey Mister Larson! (Part Two)

This is the second in a series about the first seven seconds of "Moonshiner's Dance," recorded in Saint Paul in 1927 by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra.  It was included in the Anthology of American Folk Music, sometimes called the Harry Smith Anthology.
See also Part One and Part Three.


Early in my research into "The Moonshiner's Dance," I knew the identity of Mister Larson would be easy to uncover.  It's the low-hanging fruit. 

After all, Frank Cloutier addresses him the instant the recording begins. Hey hey, Mr. Larson! 

I knew Larson would wind up being a musician in Frank's band, or the owner of the Victoria Cafe, and I'd write up a neat biography of this Larson guy and explain why he's so prominently placed at the start of Frank's only recording.
Today, deep into my third year of research, it hasn't turned out that way. 
I've seen hundreds of thousands of advertisements, newspaper articles, obituaries, theater programs, union newsletters, graves, birth and death certificates, draft cards, photos, letters, and much else.
I'm a resident of the Twin Cities of 1927.  Driving around St. Paul, I once saw a product of the WPA and caught myself thinking, "Hey, THAT'S new."

Living like this — hanging around the dance music scene of Prohibition-era Saint Paul— I keep encountering the same guys over and over.  I notice when their wives have kids.  I know when they finally get their own bands.  I hear about it when a good pitcher joins their kittenball team. 
And I'm sorry.  I don't know any Larson — at least nobody associated with Frank Cloutier or the local dance scene or the management of the Victoria Cafe. 

Maybe I'm not hearing the muffled 1927 recording correctly.  Maybe it isn't "Mister Larson" at all, but something else.  Here's an mp3 of the first few seconds.

I briefly considered whether Frank might instead be saying "Mister Nelson" as in Gordon Nelson, the drummer who seems to have played on "The Moonshiner's Dance."  For a bit longer, I considered the Cafe's manager at the time of the recording, Sammy Markus. 
But listening again to the recording, I find they just won't do.  Hey hey Mr. Markus.  Hey hey Mr. Markus.  Hey hey Mr. Markus. 
No.  It's "Hey hey Mr. Larson."

As a last resort, I scoured the entries for "Larson" and "Larsen" in the St. Paul and Minneapolis city directories, which they started to call "phone books" once everybody got phones. 
Ordinarily, I adore city directories, intimate and teasing as they are.  But searching every Larson in the Twin Cities directories is tedious work — there are roughly 2700 entries in the 1927 editions and they have to be scanned line by line, by hand and eye. 

St. Paul is striking for its lack of prospects. I found one music teacher named Bertha Larson who was presumably not a Mister. 

There are more prospects in Minneapolis.  There was a piano mover named Gustaf Larson and a piano tuner named Martin Larson — unlikely professions for Mister Larson, even though Frank Cloutier was a keyboardist. There was also a movie house manager, a cashier at a dance hall, a radio salesman, and another woman music teacher.

There was a family of musical Larsons, and I've done a longitudinal study of them — followed them around town like a shamus.  So far, none of these Larsons seems to have a connection to Frank or to the Victoria Cafe or even to St. Paul.  They were not well known, and other than their name, nothing seems relevant about them. 

The 1930 census counted about 11,900 individuals named Larsen or Larson in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, the counties of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Limiting myself to the right age and gender brings the number down, but I have to face the fact that I may never find the Larson that Frank had in mind.

One last prospect has occasionally troubled my mind for about two years.  In 1927, the leader of the Minneapolis Police Department's band was a cop called Curly Larson. 

I've tried to find out more about him, but so far, he's been a tough nut to crack, probably because of that Curly nickname. We know he was probably bald.  I'll keep searching.

But no matter the details, it's a delicious idea. 

Smack in the middle of Prohibition, the leader of the Minneapolis policeman's band puts on his uniform every Friday and Saturday night, crosses the river into St. Paul, and plays "The Moonshiner's Dance" at the Victoria Cafe with Frank Cloutier and his boys. 

Playing that soused polka in uniform on the bandstand ... I desperately want him to have done this. There is exactly zero evidence that he did.

But could he have?  Could a Minneapolis cop have played such a drunken, reeling tribute to bootleg liquor without being fired, or even arrested?  Especially if he was prominently featured on a 78 rpm record?  And might a St. Paul officer have made the same trip to Minneapolis, maybe in a pickled cop exchange program?

During many long days in archives and libraries, I've often bounced these questions about Curly Larson off my findings.  Partly thanks to that habit, I've slowly evolved from being the archivist of "The Moonshiners Dance" to being its cultural historian.

The shift felt complete the day I finally decided to trust my findings about all these Larsons.  There's always so much more work to be done, but so far, nobody has presented himself as the likely Mister Larson.

Therefore, according to my current research results, there probably was no Mister Larson. Or rather, there were many thousands of him.  I've come to suspect that Mister Larson is a product of Frank Cloutier's imagination.  He's the generic audience member — just your typical Minnesotan off the street. 

Hey hey Mister Larson!

If so, this would make him a founding citizen of Lake Wobegon. Like Garrison Keillor's townspeople, he's a caricature invented for the sake of Minnesota humor.  To this day, Mister Larson still lives next door to Pastor Inkvist and across the street from Carl Krebsbach.

It would also make Mister Larson an ancestor of Mister Jones, Bob Dylan's main character in "Ballad of a Thin Man."

Just as with Dylan's character, the inclination is to imagine Mister Larson as somebody other than you.  But Frank and Bob both address the listener — both are talking to and about you, no matter what name they give you.  You are Mister Larson.

Something is happening, therefore, and you don't know what it is.  To understand who Mister Larson was, we have to sort out what he might have meant to somebody like Frank Cloutier in a place like Saint Paul at a time like 1927. 

We have to reconstruct a meaning that no longer exists.  We have to do cultural history. 

I'll present some initial findings in Part Three.


Hey Hey Mister Larson! (part one)

This is the first in a series about the first seven seconds of "Moonshiner's Dance," recorded in Saint Paul in 1927 by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra.  It was included in the Anthology of American Folk Music, sometimes called the Harry Smith Anthology.
See also Part Two and Part Three.

Alessandro Carrera, Minneapolis Dylan Symposium
Alessandro Carrera
Bob Dylan Symposium in Minneapolis
March 27, 2007

At the 2007 Bob Dylan symposium in Minneapolis, Alessandro Carrera, the leading Italian translator of Bob Dylan's lyrics and prose, told a story about his first awareness of Dylan. I keep remembering it as I think about Mister Larson.

The gist of the story was this:

When Carrera was a teenager in Italy in the late 1960's, he was obsessed with American music — even though it was very difficult to get a hold of, and he could count all the words in his English vocabulary on one hand.

Listening to albums by Joan Baez, and by the Byrds, and by Peter Paul and Mary, what excited him most on each album was always the one or two songs that had been written by this guy — one "Bobe Dee-lahn", as Carrera pronounced it. 

Of course, he couldn't understand the lyrics at all — it was Bob Dylan's melodies that attracted him.

It took some doing, but Carrera finally got a hold of a recording by Bob Dylan himself — a 45 rpm single, one side of which was "Mister Tambourine Man."  He put it on the turntable, and was elated to hear that the first word out of Dylan's mouth was one of the few English words that the teenage Carrera knew. 


Carrera didn't just know what the word meant — that is, he didn't just know its Italian translation — he also deeply recognized the word.  He appreciated it.  It spoke to him. 


It meant, "You! LISTEN TO ME." And that was cool.

"The Moonshiner's Dance" begins with a 7-second spoken introduction. A prologue.

Here's an mp3:

Download MoonshinerIntro.mp3

In its first two seconds, someone — almost certainly the leader of the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, Frank E. Cloutier — practically shouts "Hey hey, Mister Larson!"

In the next five seconds, in the same declarative voice, he rattles off about 20 more syllables. But because of some rasping and, maybe, needle-bouncing at start of the recording, all but a few of these syllables are completely indecipherable. 

To just count the syllables in the introduction, I had to transcribe it phonetically, without worrying about its meaning.  The words sound something like this:

Hey hey, Mister Larson!  These boys geeky entwine anonymous spectacle play pen! That's it, go boys!

We may never know what Frank E. really said (and I doubt I've made a lucky guess).  Maybe the Gennett recording engineer in 1927 used a blank wax disc that was rough or soft near the outer edge. Preparing the wax was skilled labor and results could be slightly uneven. If that's the source of the noise, every released copy of the 78 is similarly indecipherable.

On the other hand, the Smithsonian-Folkways' reissue on CD is the only version I've heard.  It may be that their "source copy" of the 78 rpm record was damaged just there. Perhaps another copy of the 78 has a prologue that can be understood.

In any case, after this spoken introduction someone whoops "WAH hee!", and the band strikes up its reeling, careening medley of tunes played as one-steps.

I, and possibly you, listen to these old recordings to put our minds through an intense exercise.  It's, like, mind-expanding. 

We lean into the noise and try to tease out the delicate signal as it leaks across a divide as impenetrable as a world war, a depression, and a cold war.  The Mason-Dixon line.  The color line.  Class and gender and religious and educational and technological divides.  And, for us, those divides are not so much obstacles to our listening pleasure as they are at the root of the pleasure. 

Among the recordings on the Harry Smith Anthology, The Moonshiners Dance comes to me across the shortest distances. 

The first seven seconds are in English, it seems.  Frank E. would have had a Rhode Island accent, but his audience at the Victoria Cafe was an Upper Midwestern one — it still is, given that nobody is listening but me.  In fact, the Victoria Cafe is still standing, just a couple minutes' drive from my house.  Frank E. was even raised Catholic, like me — and unlike almost everyone else on the Anthology (except the Cajuns, who do not speak my language). 

You'd think I'd have a shot at understanding Frank E. 

Instead, I'm like Alessandro Carrera.  There's a world between me and the speaker, and I can only pick out a few translatable syllables.

But I recognize something in the gesture. Hey hey, Mister Larson!

Frank could hardly have imagined our existence.  We're eavesdropping on his message to Mr. Larson, but somehow the message seems intended for us. But what does it mean?


Louis Armstrong in Minnesota, 1939

Louis Armstrong, Satchmo, in St. Paul, Minnesota, Spokesman-Recorder, used by permission
used by permission of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder
and the Minnesota Historical Society


As a side trip from my regular research, I've spent a week or so of evenings and weekends looking into the facts surrounding Louis Armstrong's appearance at the Coliseum Ballroom in St. Paul on Friday night, July 28, 1939. Please forgive any errors, and let me know what you think.

The 1939 show was advertised as Armstrong's first appearance in the Twin Cities — a point repeatedly stressed in the twin African American newspapers, the Minneapolis Spokesman and the St. Paul Recorder.

But he might also have appeared in Minneapolis in the spring of 1931. That earlier show is mentioned in Jones and Chilton's Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story, but I haven't been able to confirm it despite a grueling newspaper search.

Regardless, today we know Armstrong had visited the Twin Cities about 20 years earlier. From 1918 to 1921, he'd played for the Streckfus line of riverboats — paddle-wheelers that were still (or already) trading on nostalgia for the Mississippi's 19th Century heyday with picturesque excursions up and down the river. That's the gig that brought Armstrong through St. Paul and Minneapolis for the first time.

For Armstrong, then, his 1939 appearance in Minnesota might have been a kind of nostalgic excursion of his own.

The Coliseum

One of the only facts you might still hear about the Coliseum Ballroom is that a lot of famous acts played there — Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Jack Teagarden, Ben Pollack, Lawrence Welk, the Andrews Sisters.

During its 38 years, the Coliseum was a quirky, unavoidable, and irreplaceable center of St. Paul's night life, love life, and imagination. It's rarely remembered today, but Garrison Keillor provided a gratifying exception a few months ago, 22 minutes into a speech for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

I began thinking about the Coliseum two years ago, on my first day researching the Victoria Cafe, the orchestra of which recorded the strange "Moonshiner's Dance," which eventually found its way onto Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.

It turned out that the leader of the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, Frank Cloutier, later acted as the leader of the house orchestra of the Coliseum, four blocks to the Cafe's west. He worked there for thirteen years.

It must have been a good gig. The Coliseum boasted the world's largest dance floor, and offered $100 to anyone who could prove otherwise. Its floor was a rebuilt hockey rink with a 250 x 90-foot playing surface, so a packed house at the Coliseum Ballroom could mean more than 3000 dancers at one time. Leading the Coliseum Orchestra regularly brought Frank Cloutier to the radio all across the Midwest.

The Coliseum's owner — the husky, gregarious, and scrappy John J. Lane — was widely known as "The Musician's Friend." He was also a Ramsey County commissioner at the time Frank Cloutier took the job.

Satchmo Returns Triumphant

In the late 1930's, national fame had only just come to Louis Armstrong.

A front page article in the African-American weekly Spokesman-Recorder credited Armstrong's sudden wave of popularity to his film appearances. An ad featured a photo of Armstrong goofing around with Bing Crosby.

And indeed, in 1936, Armstrong had played a fairly substantial role in Crosby's Pennies From Heaven. The next year, he was in both the Jack Benny musical comedy Artists and Models and Mae West's Every Day's A Holiday. In 1938, Armstrong sang "Jeepers Creepers" to a horse in Going Places, with Dick Powell, Anita Louise, and Ronald Reagan. A New York Times film critic didn't think much of Going Places, but it left him wanting more of Satchmo.

On the day of the Twin Cities show, a wry editorial in the Spokesman-Recorder described how Walter Winchell himself, "the 'Patron Saint' of many an American column reader," had declared Louis Armstrong the King of Swing. The paper seemed to almost grudgingly agree that Armstrong "has brought something to modern music that defies definition, and reams of paper and tons of ink have been used trying to describe it."

Jazz was now being taken seriously as an art form and scholarly work had begun to appear about it. Scarcely three months after his show in St. Paul, Armstrong appeared at Manhattan's enormous Center Theater portraying Bottom in Swingin' The Dream, a jazz adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Benny Goodman co-starred, and Walt Disney designed the sets.

Things To Do Around The Twin Cities


There were plenty of other things to do around town without paying 80 cents to see Louis Armstrong on that clear, mild summer night.

Several area theaters were showing Dark Victory with Bette Davis for 25 cents. Or you could see Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, and Ann Sheridan in Dodge City, or the W. C. Fields comedy You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, with Edgar Bergen and the somewhat wooden Charlie McCarthy.

Alternately, there was the "Melodies Around The World" ice show at the St. Paul Auditorium — 25 cents in the bleachers, 50 cents to sit at a table. The Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus wasn't scheduled to arrive for another week.

And the Streckfus line ran the paddle-wheel steamer Capitol out of the dock at the foot of Jackson Street. You could take day trips down to the lock and dam at Hastings, or one of the "moonlight dance trips" leaving every night at 9:00 pm. Armstrong had worked on the Capitol in his youth — there's even a 1919 photo of him aboard that boat.

So far, I don't see that the Streckfus excursions were racially segregated in Minnesota in 1939 as they had been elsewhere, before and long after. Maybe, while he was in town for the Coliseum show, Armstrong could have taken a ride on the Capitol, this time as a passenger. Nor do I know for sure if the idea would have appealed to him.

In spite of these other temptations, the 1939 appearance was a rare opportunity for Twin Cities jazz fans. It was their chance not only to see Louis Armstrong, but also to vote with their dollars. On the day of the show, an editorial in the Spokesman-Recorder stated:

Somewhat off the beat theatrically, the Twin Cities seldom have an opportunity to see and hear internationally known Negro artists. When they do come along, we think we should support them.
The week after the show, the Spokesman-Recorder reminded its readers how lucky they were to have Armstrong play here.
In St. Louis, where there are 100,000 Negroes to draw a crowd from, the Missourians pay $1.10 to hear the same band Twin Citians heard for 80 cents.
It must have helped that jazz, and Armstrong in particular, had a fast-growing white audience nationwide — the 1940 census found fewer than 9000 African Americans in Minneapolis and St. Paul combined.

The Trio Club

The 1939 concert was sponsored by either the Trio Club or the Tri Club, depending on whether you believe a news article in the Spokesman-Recorder or ads appearing on the day of the show in St. Paul's mainstream papers. A Spokesman-Recorder columnist describes the club as "three St. Paul men who invested several hundred dollars."

Beyond that, I don't know much about the Tri or Trio Club. There's no entry for them in the 1939 St. Paul city directory — either in the yellow or the white pages, as we would say today — and my search of the records of Minnesota's Secretary of State showed no clear sign that they ever incorporated.

The Spokesman-Recorder did report that the three investors barely made a profit from Armstrong's appearance, thanks to a rumor circulating prior to the show.

Rumor Cuts Attendance

A thousand people saw Armstrong at the Coliseum that night, according to a follow-up article in the August 4 Spokesman-Recorder. Hundreds more would have attended, had it not been for an apparent act of sabotage:

Some irresponsible individual several days before the date of the dance spread the rumor that the Armstrong band would not appear. Attempts are being made to ascertain the guilty party.
On the day of the show, the Spokesman offices in Minneapolis and Recorder offices in St. Paul got more than 100 calls from people trying to find out if the show was really canceled.

We'll never know the motives behind the rumor. For me, the natural hunch would be racism and an accompanying hatred of jazz, although whatever I know about that isn't very specific to late 1930's Minnesota.

Certainly, Armstrong's sudden fame must have made his shows an obvious target for reactionaries along the tour's route. And two years earlier, a scene in Artists and Models with Martha Raye had drawn controversy for its hints that Armstrong's trumpet made the white actress horny.

Closer to home, I can say that 16 years earlier, the St. Paul musicians union experienced friction over the popularity of jazz, and I've stumbled upon a series of 1927 news articles detailing Klu Klux Klan meetings about a mile east of the Coliseum. These sightings seem underscored — literally — by a note appearing immediately below the Spokesman's article about the cancellation rumor. It reports that The Minneapolis Star, a major paper, had used the word "pickaninny" on its front page a few days before.

So it's interesting that the Coliseum's owner, John J. Lane, had a strong ethic of tolerance, according to his daughter: "there was no color line in our house, we had Fats [Waller] over for dinner." Lane often loaned the Coliseum free of charge to organizations needing a place to hold fund-raisers — the musicians union, the Knights of Columbus, the Urban League, the B'nai B'rith. Probably, he called in these favors during his successful bid for County Commissioner in 1926 and his abandoned campaign in 1938.

All this being said, in my experience, the "natural hunch" about history is usually wrong. I simply don't know why the rumor started. Maybe the Tri or Trio Club had enemies I haven't imagined. Certainly, John J. Lane had both friends and enemies in many walks of life, accumulated during his decades-long, high-profile life in the politics and commerce of the Twin Cities. One of Lane's other nightclubs had even been bombed by mobsters a decade earlier.

Armstrong on the Coliseum Stage

So far as I know, there are no detailed accounts of Armstrong's show that night, but I've pieced together a few clues.

Identical ads in two of St. Paul's mainstream papers on July 28 claimed that the "Trumpet King of Swing" would be backed by "17 Swing Artists."

The Spokesman-Recorder repeatedly promised Luis Russell — an arranger and pianist, and a pioneer of "swing" who led the band that Armstrong was indeed working with at the time. Also mentioned is the innovative trumpet player Henry "Red" Allen. This squares, so far as it goes, with the personnel for Armstrong's 1939 recording sessions for Decca, including those in New York on June 15 and December 18:

piano and arrangements: Luis Russell
trumpet: Shelton Hemphill, Otis Johnson, Henry Allen
trombone: Wilbur de Paris, Geo. Washington, J.C. Higginbotham
clarinet and alto sax: Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes
tenor sax: Joe Garland, Bingie Madison
guitar: Lee Blair
string bass: Pops Foster
drums: Sidney Catlett
But the Spokesman-Recorder also names three other veterans of Luis Russell's band. One of the great jazz drummers, Paul Barbarin, was presumably touring in place of Sidney Catlett. There was also the "romantic tenor" vocalist Sonny Woods, and two articles mention the "petite song stylist" and "torch singer" Midge Williams — little remembered today, but a much-admired, rising radio star at the time.

The number of backing musicians listed for the Decca recordings, plus Woods and Williams and Armstrong himself = 17, the number of swing artists given in the July 28 ad in the major papers.

The following week, a columnist for the Spokesman-Recorder wished "a million scallions" to the rumor monger who cut attendance, but wished orchids for the audience that did attend, which he found refreshingly peaceable. "Maybe the presence of one of Chief Hackert's skull-busters had something to do with it, but we think not." Brawls and other unseemly behavior appeared to be going out of style, the columnist said. Another follow-up article in the Spokesman-Recorder comes to a trustworthy conclusion:

Armstrong Great Showman

Armstrong gave the crowd its money's worth and the people left the Lexington Avenue dance palace in good humor feeling that they had enjoyed a treat.

— — —


Thanks to the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder — this year celebrating its 75th anniversary — for kind permission to reprint the article at top.

The excellent staff of the library at the Minnesota History Center is forever essential to my work. Thanks also to the Minneapolis Public Library, and the University of Minnesota's Wilson and Music Libraries.

My wife Jenny is unbelievably kind and patient, as you might imagine.

Selected References — More Than Any Other Blog!

St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 28, 1939 ad "Tri Club Presents Louis Armstrong" and "Moonlight Dance Trips" p. 9

St. Paul Dispatch, July 28, 1939 ad "Tri Club Presents Louis Armstrong" p. 8

"Moonlight Dance Trips" and other ads for rides on the Capitol were ubiquitous in the warm seasons of 1939 in the Twin Cities. The one above happens to be from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 28, 1939, from the University of Minnesota newspaper collections.

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, 1939:

— July 21 "Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong Coming to Coliseum Ballroom, Friday, July 28" p 1
— July 21 ad with Crosby/Armstrong photo, p 3
— July 28 "Louis Armstrong and Band Play at the Coliseum Ballroom Tonight for Swing Fans" p 1
— July 28 "Hear a Noted Artist Tonight" p 2
— Aug 4 "Crowd Applauds Louis Armstrong Band; Rumor Cuts Attendance" p 1
— Aug 4 "Twin Town Talk" p 4
Bergreen, Laurence. 1997. Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. Broadway Books.

Jones, Max, and Chilton, John. 1988. Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story, 1900-1971. Da Capo.

Kenney, William Howland. 2005. Jazz on the River. U of Chicago.

Maccabee, Paul. 1981-1995. Research collection for John Dillinger Slept Here. MN Historical Soc. library.

Rust, Brian A. L. 1978. Jazz Records, 1897-1942. Arlington House Publishers.


What's In A Name?

Moe Thompson
Moe Thompson founded The Victoria Cafe


My article on the links between "The Moonshiner's Dance" — one of the selections on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music — and Minnesota's Jewish communities has just been published at Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. None of that article's information has appeared here at The Celestial Monochord, or anywhere else, so Monochord readers and enthusiasts of "Anthology-type music" may want to check it out.

It's a little anxiety-producing to publish on a subject in which I am so inexpert — the history of Minnesota's Jews — especially for what must be Zeek's fairly erudite audience. Also, because I'm constantly finding new insights, I'm painfully aware that anything I write will quickly seem outdated to me.

But as soon as I began researching The Anthology's "The Moonshiner's Dance" in early 2006, I saw that the Jewish aspects of the story I was uncovering would need to be told somewhere, by somebody. The Jewish connections to the recording made me sit up straight and listen, because of a certain hazy constellation of issues I'd already been toying with for some time ...


In November 1963, Newsweek ran an infamous article "exposing" Bob Dylan as the middle-class son of a Midwestern appliance dealer. It included a photograph of Dylan with the caption "What's in a name?" — a sardonic reference to the revelation that Bob Dylan started life as Robert Zimmerman.

Exactly why this was presented as scandalous is open to interpretation. The article attacks Dylan for portraying himself as real and authentic while simultaneously hiding and misrepresenting his past. But as I read it, the article treats the specifics of Dylan's past as the real scandal, as what really undermined Dylan's authenticity. The implication was that Dylan turned out to be the least authentic things you can be — Midwestern, middle class, and Jewish. If a folksinger is supposed to be one of "The People," surely he can't be THAT.

And it wasn't just Newsweek. The post-War folk and blues revivals often seem to me pathologically obsessed with authenticity and commercialism, as abstractions, and the idea of Jewishness seems to have gotten drawn occasionally into those neuroses (in part, by conflating Jewishness and commerce — a conflation my own arguments have a habit of reproducing).

Those revered pre-WWII Southern musicians on The Anthology and so many other reissues actually played and loved quite a lot of Tin Pan Alley popular songs and tunes from the New York stage. Dock Boggs himself based much of his repertoire on "blues queens" who gave stridently commercial, nontraditional, and "inauthentic" performances.

Today, younger revivalists like myself have benefited from writers like Elijah Wald (Escaping the Delta) and Norm Cohen (Long Steel Rail) for whom boundaries between authenticity and artifice, between commerce and tradition, are pretty much gone from their world views. You might say it's the new orthodoxy among today's authorities. I think Bob Zimmerman and Elliott Adnopoz could have kept their birth names today.

I often think of Jon Pankake, who Dylan remembers unkindly in Chronicles Volume One ("a folk music purist ... breathed fire through his nose"). But you should read Pankake's liner notes to New Lost City Ramblers: Out Standing in their Field, dedicated as they are to showing a constant sloshing back and forth between professional popular music and supposedly pure amateur folk music — the permeability of those boundaries.

In a 2006 article in the New York Times, Jody Rosen wrote about his work to reassert the important influence that the professional and commonly Jewish music-makers of Tin Pan Alley have had on Rock n' Roll. The "roots" of Rock, he argues, run through the Brill Building as much as through Robert Johnson and his supposed crossroads.

He even takes a jab at the "rock snobs" who would not be caught "without Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and an Alan Lomax field recording or two" in their record collection.

At least in the text of that particular article, Rosen takes the wrong approach. He's absolutely right to assert the importance of Tin Pan Alley to today's popular forms, but in doing so, he lets The Anthology keep its "authenticity," the myth that it's the pure product of amateur, oral transmissions stretching back to antiquity.

Instead of trying to sweep The Anthology (etc.) off the table and replace it with Tin Pan Alley as the proper source of Rock, why not keep The Anthology on the table, and show that it's a much more commercial, worldly document than we've been told? To me, that's the more deeply transformative insight.

And so ... all of this, rightly or wrongly, was one of the threads running through my thinking on the day I first discovered that Moe Thompson, the Tin Pan Alley-style songwriter and vaudevillian, was behind the founding of The Victoria Cafe.


The Celestial Monochord now an "author blog"

A pidgeon contemplates St. Paul history atop the Victoria Cafe


I've always puzzled over how — and whether — to present my research into Frank Cloutier and Victoria Cafe here at the The Celestial Monochord.

My goal has always been to understand "the complete circumstances" surrounding the recording of the "Moonshiner's Dance" in 1927, knowing that "the complete circumstances" surrounding anything are ultimately unknowable. They're sure-as-hell too complicated to fit within the here's-what-I'm-thinking-today format of the blogosphere.

Well, after thousands of long hours of research, the picture I've uncovered is so sprawling, complex, and transformative that it's outgrown my ability to post it sensibly at The Monochord.

So here's my plan: I'm working toward a book to be published by somebody like the Minnesota Historical Society, Indiana University, or even myself. There may also have to be an article, or series of articles, for Minnesota History, or Minnesota Monthly, or Ramsey County History, or The Old Time Herald, or Sing Out, or your publication (contact me!).

I understand, by the way, that there is probably zero money to be made as the author of a book about an 80-year-old polka record.

Nonetheless, The Celestial Monochord is now officially an "author blog" — at least with respect to my history research. This might resolve some of my uncertainty about what to post here, what not to, and how often. And it gives me a genre of bloggery to work in, providing some models for how to proceed.

This could result in MORE of my research being posted, not less. I'll feel less of a need to be "complete" and "authoritative" when, in fact, that is a long quest I'm working on elsewhere.

And needless to say, I'll also continue posting other stuff too, about Dylan, Waits, Prine, banjos, symposiums, fulgurite, kittens, nickles, etc., etc., etc.


My Dodo

(photo from Wikipedia)

The January 22 issue of The New Yorker featured an article on the dodo, the large bird that became extinct around 1690. Its only habitat was the island of Mauritius, on which no human beings ever lived until the Dutch landed in 1590. It therefore took just one century of carelessness, and wee bit of malice, to wipe the species out. "Nor were they afraid of us," a contemporary wrote, "but just remained sitting, allowing us to beat them to death."

The New Yorker article mostly concerns the history of dodo skeletons and the men who love them. But just as with most pieces in that magazine, other stories come rushing in once the door is left open. Well-meaning scientists are caught up in post-colonial cultural politics. Local politicians argue that the dodo's extinction was the best thing to ever happen to the Mauritius tourist trade. A lone, obsessive amateur tries to redirect the wide world's attention toward his curious little plot of ground.

Naturally, it was this last story with which I identified most:

Alan Grihault, a retired teacher ... was surprised to learn that there was no standard glossy dodo book ... He began to gather material for one. He, too, found his way to the Mare aux Songes [a site with many underground dodo skeletons] and, in his mind, became the site's unofficial caretaker. "It was my place, a tranquil place," Grihault said ... [His wife] told me that her husband's dodo interest "sometimes gets to be a bit too much. Only two of us at home, so I hear everything, and sometimes twice, when he explains it to friends. Luckily I have the ability to switch off."
And believe me, my wife identifies with this story, too. She and I both immediately recognized that Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra are like this for me — they are my dodo.

After my hundreds of research hours and all the conclusions I've drawn, my most pressing conclusion that almost nothing is known about virtually everything — certainly these old musicians remain almost wholly ignored. I would have guessed, for example, that there would be several people in the United States working on each and every performer on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. There isn't.

When I bought the Anthology in 1997, the authoritative heft of the thing left me with the sense that there was little more to say. Surely, the Smithsonian must be delivering to us the limits of what is knowable, particularly given all those citations to scholarly journals. That's really why it took me nine years to finally try a little research on my own. But when I did, I was stunned to realize that nobody had bothered to do even the laziest, most casual investigation. Even after discovering a second researcher interested in Cloutier and the Victoria, I still find that ... well, I'm it. I'm the world's leading expert.

Mountains of undiscovered material are waiting to be unearthed about an infinite variety of the past's important people and events. One reason for all this ignorance may be we've been tricked into thinking it's been researched. We picture Sherlock Holmes, with the hat and the pipe, or we Google up all sorts of interesing sites, and we think everything's been sorted out already. Well, it hasn't.

Maybe this sad, universal forgetfulness is due to everybody trying to make a living and reproduce themselves. Who's got the time? More likely, I think it's just a rare personality trait, to want to know everything that is knowable about one thing.

Minnesota Public Radio recently broadcast an interview with the author of an illustrated biography of Django Reinhardt. You can almost hear MPR reporter Tom Crann struggling to understand how someone can focus on one idea — one story — for most of his life. He seems to ask Michael Dregni the same sort of question, over and over, again and again, finding new ways to ask it until he finally blurts out, "Why do you care about him so much?"

It could easily be my imagination, but what I hear is a reporter — someone who tells at least one new story every day — struggling to come to terms with why someone would choose to know everything about one subject. Dregni is very gracious in his response, but I want him to just say, "Look, Crann. Django's my dodo, OK?"


Editor's Note: Today was the coldest day in three years here in Minnesota. And you wonder why I chose February to sit behind my computer and try to write one post every stinking day all month long. This is the sixth installment. Do you hear those helicopters?


KFAI covers Frank Cloutier

Dakota Dave Hull has asked me to talk about Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra on his radio show.

I'm scheduled to appear on August 3rd. The show airs every Thursday from 9:00 - 11:00 a.m. (Central Time) and can be streamed live on the web. Each show is also archived for two weeks.

Or, if you live in the Twin Cities, just turn your radio dial to 90.3 or 106.7 FM. Maybe you can drive by the Victoria Cafe while you listen ...