A Guide to My Amnesia Theater

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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.


Go Johnny Go

Carlchuck(photo by J. R. Rost)

Until he died a week ago Saturday, the last time I’d thought about Chuck Berry had been a few weeks before that. I'd thought, as I usually do, about his lyrics as my emblem for information efficiency — for conveying a lot with very little.

I was re-watching an episode of Carl Sagan’s 1980 show, Cosmos — specifically episode XII, “The Persistence of Memory.” In it, Carl has a dandelion hidden in his hand and plays a game of 20 Questions:

With 20 skillfully chosen questions we could easily whittle all the cosmos down to a dandelion. In our explorations of the cosmos the first step is to ask the right questions. Then, not with 20 questions, but with billions, we slowly distill from the complexity of the universe its underlying order. This game has a serious purpose. Its name is science.

I remembered what Chuck Berry wrote:

Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods among the evergreens, there stood a log cabin made of earth and wood where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode, who never ever learned to read or write so well, but he could play the guitar just he’s like a ringing a bell.

In the first few lines of “Johnny B. Goode,” mostly without realizing it, we learn that Louisiana even has a Piney Woods at all, a bit about log cabin construction, the main character’s name and aspirations and his degree of literacy, and we're told how to hear his guitar style in our imaginations (to prime us for hearing it in our ears immediately after).

While he's at it, Berry situates you, the listener, on the song’s fictional map. Whether you’re actually listening to the song in Calabria or Tasmania, at McMurdo Station, or in the French Quarter, you are now somewhere from which Louisiana is “way down.”

Sagan’s “Persistence of Memory” episode ends with “Johnny B. Goode” becoming part of the music anthology on the 1977 Voyager Record, which so transfixed me as a kid. At some point during a more recent fixation, I realized Harry Smith’s earlier 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music had come to me later, out of sequence, like a prequel.

Reviewing the evidence — especially Sagan’s astonishing book, Murmurs of Earth — I see no reason to think the Voyager Record's design team was familiar with Smith’s Anthology. (Otherwise, they surely would’ve included “Moonshiner’s Dance.” I mean, it would've taught the aliens to count to four in English, right?). They consulted Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress, but seemingly not Moe Asch of Folkways.

Blind Willie Johnson — I first heard his collected works as an astronomy student in Tucson in 1984 — appears on both the Smith Anthology and the Voyager Record, but there’s an even more surprising connection between the two anthologies. Appearing on the Voyager Record is a field recording made in Peru by John Cohen.

Cohen’s band, the New Lost City Ramblers, had Harry Smith’s sensibilities all over it — Smith's twisted humor, his expressionist evocations, his taste for anything soulful but arcane, his ambivalent self-image as something that could be called a new, lost, city rambler.

If you found your first banjo or autoharp in the back of your parents’ or grandparents’ closet, they might never have heard Smith’s Anthology, but they almost definitely knew about The Ramblers. The band disseminated Smith’s attitudes about America’s musical identity more broadly than Smith himself did, by orders of magnitude.

After Smith’s vast personal collection of 78's was acquired by the NYC Public Library, Cohen’s bandmate Mike Seeger and the Anthology’s key booster, Ralph Rinzler, spirited out the non-circulating disks, taped them, and then secretly returned them to the library. This cache became a key source for The Ramblers' repertoire — their mother lode, as Rinzler called it.

Later, in 1969, Cohen interviewed Smith for Sing Out!, and the interview seems to have been the folk revivalist community’s first widespread introduction to the kind of mind they had followed over the cliff.

So, along with Willie Johnson’s, Cohen’s cut on the Voyager Record smuggled a bit of Smith’s spirit aboard that NASA rocket in 1977.

If an extraterrestrial civilization ever retrieves the Voyager spacecraft, the artifact of the vehicle itself would yield beautiful information about planet Earth and about the state of human technology as of the 1970s. To that civilization, the Voyager Record — with its technical textbook, ambient sound essay, spoken greetings, photos, and music anthology — would be a bonus, like the prize that used to come in a Cracker Jack box.

For them, the music portion would be easy to play back but challenging to comprehend and likely to initiate deep debates across hundreds of generations.

In that music, I’m sure they’d recognize strings being stretched and vibrated, and gas being made to resonate in tubes. They’d know it was some kind of communication, possibly more for us than for them, maybe communication we valued and thought was somehow good for us, maybe something we were proud of.

But I can’t see that they could ever grasp any those details in “Johnny B. Goode” — the fledgeling string-vibrator vying for wide-spread awareness within in his civilization. No matter how advanced the ET’s technology or philosophy, the contexts and meanings of the recording would be unrecoverable.

I argued in my recent “Amnesia Theater” essay that meaning without context and content takes on a special intensity. Maybe the lostness of 20th century Earth would lend a powerful aura to the recordings — music from outer space, music from a gone world, music from entirely other spheres of creation heard resonating in the celestial monochord. I bet they'd think those sounds were some of the best music in the entire universe.

Rare Medium: The Anthology on Cassette Tape


My last vehicle was a green & tan 1993 Dodge Dakota extended-cab pickup with a cassette player and somewhat blown-out speakers. I used that cassette player every day for years, generally without irony.

But you should’ve heard Tom Waits’ “Jesus Gonna Be Here” — the bassline was just a toneless rumble, and all you could really hear clearly was that monotonous slide guitar. It was beautiful.

That was a long time ago. Today, I’m not sure I still own a working cassette player.

But just last week, a label in the UK calling themselves Death Is Not The End (hereafter, DINTE) reissued the Anthology of American Folk Music on cassette tape. Of course, I’m tempted to pony up. It’s pretty affordable — £21 for the 3-volume set before transatlantic shipping.

But then, I don’t have anything appropriate to play them on. And if I had the equipment, I’d probably only use it to dub over to ones & zeros my tapes of some clawhammer banjo lessons from a decade ago.

Besides, I own two copies of Smithsonian-Folkways’ 1997 reissue of the Anthology on CD (since one set of CDs is apparently one too few). Plus, I’ve already bought more than a few other copies of that 1997 CD set as gifts for friends and for people who’ve been helpful in my research on “Moonshiner’s Dance.”

The 1997 CD set was the format in which I first met the Anthology.

I had stumbled across Greil Marcus’s book Invisible Republic at the Har Mar Barnes & Noble in late 1997. I read it voraciously, not quite realizing that the book was only a few weeks old. It convinced me to go buy the Anthology, so I hurried over to the Electric Fetus in south Minneapolis. There, I held the boxed set in my hands for the first time, again not fully appreciating that this had only been possible for a few weeks.

Because it was new, the Electric Fetus had it on sale. And I had an Electric Fetus coupon. And everything at the Fetus was 10% off that day. I remember asking a dude behind the desk which of these discounts would be applied. To my great surprise, they would all be applied. Still, it would be over $50, so I walked around the Fetus for an hour with the boxed set tucked under my arm before I screwed up my courage to pull out my wallet.

Looking back, I see they should’ve given me that first set *and* electrified my fetus for free. Folkways should’ve sprung my lizard for nothing. When I think of those fifty bucks now, after the countless tens of thousands in opportunity costs and hard currency I’ve blown thanks to buying that very first copy … damn! Still, of course, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

I didn’t bother getting the LP reissue Mississippi Records put out a couple years ago. I didn’t want to discourage Smithsonian-Folkways itself from doing a proper job of it instead. Besides, from what I can assume judging mostly from the total silence on the subject from Mississippi Records, their LPs were just burned off the Smithsonian CDs that I already own.

Some vinyl partisans claim that old LPs sound better than typical CDs because down-sampling the music for CD deletes information contained in the original analog recording. Could be — but you sure as hell don’t get that information back by burning a CD back onto vinyl. I have no problem with the Mississippi Records release, but buyer beware if you think you’re buying vinyl sound integrity and not just an accessory for your handlebar mustache … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The Mississippi Records LP release also would have been a different matter had they, for example, started with another batch of source 78s and reassembled the Anthology from scratch. What if Mississippi Records had been introducing us to dubs from completely different copies of the 78 RPM records that comprise the Anthology?

Now *that* would be something. Not only have various technologies been advancing since the mid 1990s, every 78 RPM disc — not every title, every physical disc — is a unique object. You know this if you’ve ever played the same recording from two ostensibly identical copies of a 78, one after the other. You don’t just hear more or less, you hear different things in the two copies. They have lived alternate lives between 1920-something and the day they arrive together again on your turntable. Quality is qualitative, not quantitative (that’s quantity).

More recently, I ponied up a Clydesdale for a pristine, very early copy of the Folkways LP boxed set. I don’t know but I’ve been told it’s from 1952, the very year Folkways first released the Anthology. That original release was practically made by the hands of Harry Smith, Moe Asch, and Peter Bartok by spinning on the turntable 78s in Harry’s personal collection and dubbing them onto the master.

Then, 45 years later, Smithsonian-Folkways used a lot of that 1952 master to make the 1997 CD reissue. But for some cuts, they swapped in cleaner, newly-located 78s. They also did some noise reduction and fussed with speed/pitch.

That’s why having a copy of the 1952 LP opens up the possibility of observing the handiwork of the 1997 reissue team. What exactly did they do to 1952 to get the 1997 results? I’ll write about that here when I think I’ve got something to say. For now, DINTE’s cassette reissue seems likely to have been recorded off the 1997 CDs and seems unlikely to provide that sort of new insight.

What really interests me about DINTE’s cassette reissue is that it nearly unbreaks the circle of the Anthology’s historic formats. With a cassette tape being made available, the job of format revival is almost done.

The Anthology first appeared as a collection of LPs. Those eventually went out of print, but the Anthology never did. No Folkways recordings have ever been out of print — even when the company couldn't afford to press new vinyl of a title, Moe Asch kept it in print by any means necessary. The Smithsonian agreed to the same policy as a condition of acquiring Folkways.

For many years, the only way Folkways could sell the Anthology was as cassette tapes made on demand. I wish I’d known enough to order it during that period — I’d like to see what those tapes looked like. Did they have cover art? Were they typed? Mimeographed? Handwritten? Did you get Smith’s booklet?

Already in the early 1960’s, Smith’s original cover art (featuring the celestial monochord) had been replaced with Ben Shahn’s Farm Security Administration photograph of a farmer — it took the 1997 CD set to restore the long-abandoned celestial monochord cover art. So, given the specific cover art that was current at the time Folkways started fulfilling orders with on-demand cassette tapes, DINTE’s choice of Ben Shahn’s photo makes serious sense. That level of thinking stuff through is a good sign.

In any case, those days of on-demand cassette tapes were the dark ages that the 1997 CD reissue was designed to end.

If you want new LPs of the Anthology, I think you can still find the Mississippi Records reissue. And of course, the CD boxed set is still available from the Smithsonian-Folkways website. And suddenly, that in-between era of on-demand tape is now also covered, thanks to DINTE’s cassette reissue.

The only period in the Anthology's history not currently available as a reissue is its prehistory.

There was a time before Smith and Asch had even dreamed of creating such a collection. In that pre-Anthology period, all those 78s were just unrelated, scattered old records, even if today they look like scripture lost among dusty discs of apocrypha.

I’ve got to assume somebody is out there working to reissue the collection of 78 RPM records that Smith assembled to make the Anthology. I imagine each reissued disc would have to include its original B side, a subject often discussed by Anthology devotees.

I’d hope anyone considering such project would do it up right by starting from scratch and not simply burning to vinyl 20-year-old CDs from Document or the Smithsonian. And they could also consider comping some bloggers, or at least answering their questions.

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.

Llewyn Davis, Inside Out



I just read The Mayor of MacDougal Street, a memoir of the Greenwich Village folk scene of 50 years ago, written by the late Dave Van Ronk with engineering by Elijah Wald.

I bought my copy when it was published in 2005, and began the long process of moving it from one stack of books symbolizing my various intellectual ambitions to another. Now that a Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, has been loosely inspired by it, the book moved to the stack symbolizing "read the book already, Einstein."

To my surprise, I laughed my ass off reading Mayor — my wife was happy I finally read something funny. I want to repeat certain of its stories the rest of my life, but several are chapter-length psychodramas that start funny, and build and build with running gags and all the trimmings.

A story about absinthe smugglers is one of those stories that's almost too good to be told, never mind whether it's true. A chapter about Van Ronk's cross-country trip to California certainly seems smarter and funnier than anything in On the Road … maybe it's me.

And then there's that brief anecdote about a Greenwich Village rat.  Similar stories helped end my fantasies of having been there for the Golden Age. (I can't remember how I know a story about Mike Seeger scrawling "roaches roaches roaches" on the wall in John Cohen's apartment.) But Van Ronk's vermin story is the best yet, maybe owing to his matter-of-fact delivery.

In essence, Mayor is an oral history of the mid-century Folk Revival.

The book shows just how good oral histories can be as literature, and how important they are to reviving the past as lived reality. Robert Shelton's role in booking acts at Gerde's Folk City, and John Mitchell dodging bullets from all directions … those stories reorganized my understanding of that time and place, and they could only have come to me through oral history.

And Van Ronk's memories constitute arguments about the past that some readers will find challenging.

At some point over the past 20 years, I realized that there wasn't one Folk Revival, but instead an ongoing, rolling revival impulse running through American culture, changing shape and location and agenda. New revivalists keep being born, always with fantastic notions in their heads about the past:

They all seemed to go to Music and Art High School, and their parents all seemed to be dentists. I remember once coming across a covey of them sitting cross-legged around a bespectacled banjoist who struck a dramatic chord and earnestly explained "This is a song the workers sing when they're oppressed."

Van Ronk's street-level memories, refined over some very eventful decades, would make a great education on what it was really like, what people were really thinking about, and which romantic ideas you should abandon and which you should hold on to.

Not that Van Ronk couldn't be full of it, or that Elijah Wald's handiwork doesn't occasionally shine through. But the quality is such that these function as layers of complexity a wise reader will appreciate.

Here Van Ronk is the stereotypical New Yorker feeling superior to fly-over country, but there he's marveling at the depth of talent flowing into the Village from Hibbing and Detroit.

Here he insists that song lyrics need to make literal sense on the page ("along" a watchtower?), but there he praises Francois Villon specifically for using slang that no longer means anything.

Here he rolls his eyes at the insipid tourists who associated Greenwich Village with the horror genre (both were weird, he guessed), but there he argues that science fiction was a perfectly natural association (both are weird, I guess).

I know from Lewis Erenberg that theme restaurants like the spooky Cafe Bizarre had been features of Greenwich Village at least as early as 1915. It raises the question of just how important selling "a version of Greenwich Village that never existed" has always been to the existance of Greenwich Village. Much of it was created by landfilling with garbage in the 1700s — its very ground was established by Clydes.

Rigorous peer-review might have cleared and screwed all of this up completely. Visions like Van Ronk's — both observation and misperception — were driving forces behind the Greenwich Village Folk Revival and, for that matter, all historical events, past, present, and future. The fog of war *is* the real war, not a veil that obscures it.  

As for my own fog, Dave Van Ronk had been one of those people I'd had a recurring appointment with, and I never managed to keep it. I knew his face, his voice, and his rap sheet, but he always was mostly the guy Dylan stole the "House of the Rising Sun" arrangement from.  

Indeed, because I knew he was a key figure in a key time-and-place (maybe the in the), it meant there was no hurry. His story and music would always be around when I was finally ready for them. That attitude is one reason I'm not good at collecting oral histories.

Now, after Mayor, I have what feels like a relationship with the guy, and I get why people's feelings about him are often profound in a full sense of the term.  

His music seems urgent to me now, and I see the mark of his music and mind on a lot of people who understood him long ago. For example, his friend Dakota Dave Hull is a friend of mine, and I've always nodded sagely when he talks Van Ronk, which is often. Probably, I'll do less nodding and closer listening in the future, when I get the chance.