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Robert Fludd's Celestial Monochord
(Robert Fludd's Celestial Monochord, 1618)


Who writes this stuff?
Kurt Gegenhuber. I live in Minneapolis and make my living as, essentially, the one-man Editorial Office for several science journals: tech editor, image editor, peer-review shepherd, advisor, marketing copywriter, webmaster. Before that, I edited and produced archaeological and historical survey reports for a Cultural Resource Management firm. I'm an amateur historian, and have degrees in astronomy (basically, a bachelor's in physics) and English (a master's). I can sort of play banjo, clawhammer style.


What is this blog about?
The Celestial Monochord tries to provide "think pieces" about history, music, and science. The original concept — which I still play with sometimes — was to write about astronomy and so-called "roots music." My best pieces are usually frank contemplations on what listening and thinking is like for me.

By early 2006, this blog became nearly impossible to write. I started doing history scholarship and preservation activism related to "Moonshiners Dance," recorded in St. Paul in 1927 by Frank Cloutier and The Victoria Cafe Orchestra, a Minnesota dance band. Suddenly, seeming authoritative and legitimate felt very important and I was no longer free to make a fool of myself. That freedom was essential to the blog's very premise; I've been trying to recover that in recent years.


What is "The Institute for Astrophysics and the Hillbilly Blues"?
The IAHB was a spurious think tank I founded in March 2005. Back then, a fake scientific research institute seemed funny. These days, they are calling all the shots and the joke has slipped through my hands for now.


How do I know when something new is posted?
The Celestial Monochord now has a mailing list to alert subscribers when new content appears. Of course, everybody has their own way of following blogs -- RSS feeds, Google Reader, checking back the old fashioned way, etc. If an email from me works best for you, let me know and I'll add you to the list. All the usual goodies apply -- I'll try to keep your address hidden from other subscribers, I'll never share your info with anybody for any reason, you can unsubscribe at any time, etc. Typically, I'll send the alert about 24 hours after an entry appears, since I often pick at new entries until I'm satisfied with them. After about a day, they're aged to perfection. Whatever your method, thanks for reading The Celestial Monochord.


How do I cite this stuff?
The Celestial Monochord has been sited in a few published works, which I like. Check with the publisher (or professor) to see if they have their own format preferences. Otherwise, I suggest something like: Gegenhuber, Kurt. 2006. Scientists say so. The Celestial Monochord. (online blog.) January 23, 2006.


What does "celestial monochord" mean?
A monochord is any one-stringed instrument. The "celestial" part ultimately goes back to Pythagoras (580-500 BC), who is said to have studied the mathematical patterns in a single, stretched, vibrating string, and saw evidence of underlying mathematical ideas in the Universe's functioning. Ever since, some people have believed the Universe is somehow rooted in music and that figuring out its harmonies mathematically is like reading the mind of God.

For the cover of his influential 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, eccentric record collector and mystic Harry Smith used a 1618 drawing by English mystic Robert Fludd. It shows the hand of God tuning the Celestial Monochord (see above, or go look at your own copy of The Anthology). To me, the Celestial Monochord symbolizes deep, idiosyncratic exploration of music and cosmology.


Who pays for this?
I do. It costs some money and I pay it out-of-pocket. In other words, at the moment, this site runs at a total loss as a matter of policy. My research into Moonshiners Dance is getting extremely expensive, however, and I'm thinking about adding a way to support it via PayPal. What to you think? (Someone once offered to give me a donation, but I turned them down.)


I have a suggestion for a Celestial Monochord entry. Do you want it?
Absolutely! I've written several posts in response to user suggestions, and I'd be happy to credit you. I have more ideas than I can get to, but it's stimulating to get suggestions, and I wanna know what people want to read about. So please send me your suggestion and I'll think it over carefully. Maybe include a link and why you think it fits The Celestial Monochord.


Where'd you get the design? Why isn't it better (or worse)?
The current design is intended to faintly evoke the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith. A blog inspired by an LP boxed set of 78 RPM records is not supposed to be cool, people. I mess with the look of the Monochord now and then, casually, as time permits. My priority is always content, content, content. 


Is The Celestial Monochord copyrighted? Can I quote it? Can I link to it?
Please quote it and please link to it often, but please also credit The Celestial Monochord for the words and ideas you get from it. The illustrations at The Celestial Monochord are almost always from somebody else. Whether they're public domain, or used by permission, or even used in a way I consider legal, varies. (I really try very hard to be legal, scrupulous, or just, and usually some combination thereof.) Check with me if you want to use them and I'll help you figure out what's the right thing to do. I think of each Celestial Monochord entry as an idea for another, larger, more lucrative project — a documentary, an article, a book, a CD. If you wish to create a commercial work based on something from The Celestial Monochord, please secure my prior permission. To be more specific, Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.    

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.