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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 Also, because I'm constantly finding new insights, I'm painfully aware that anything I write will quickly seem outdated to me.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.

 

Comments

Jerome Clark

It seems to me that another point badly in need of being made here is that non-rock forms of music do not and should not have to validate themselves by their connections, real or fanciful, to rock. I believe the technical term for this sort of rock-music imperialism is rockism.

Whether it's old ballads or Delta blues or whatever, these largely rural musics have their own validity, their own meaning, and their own points of reference. As I was reading your words, I happened to be listening to Josh White's recording of the traditional "Blood Red River." I was led to reflect that he and it are what they are: a superb performer and a gripping song that require nothing from anybody except an attentive listening.

The Celestial Monochord

Editor's note: Yeah, that's a great point. Almost everything ever reissued dating from before the 1950's makes some claim that it "influenced" rock, as if that's some kind of recommendation. Besides, those claims are often rather dubious, historically. Thanks for the reminder, JC.

But on the other hand, I don't paint Jody Rosen with that brush. Go directly to his work — he writes for Slate, wrote a book on Irving Berlin, and curated the CD "Jewface." You'll find that he doesn't push this "roots of rock" business routinely. He does a bit in the New York Times article, which drew my attention and ire because of his decision, there, to specifically antagonize Anthology freaks. As discussed above, I think that strategy misses a golden opportunity to bring so-called "rock snobs" up to date on the current thinking about folk, blues, authenticity, and commerce ...

LostChords

Thank you very much for the fascinating article about "The Moonshiner's Dance" and the equally interesting article in the blog.

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.
This was not that different from what happened to Irving Berlin when he published "God Bless America" in 1938 but he was confronted with much more mean-spirited attacks because he got a lot of problems with people who thought that an immigrant shouldn't write a "patriotic" song. Contemporary critics from the right side of the political spectrum wrote against "those pseudo-Americans who are now wrapping themselves in the flag, noisily singing ‘God Bless America’".

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).
In its early stages the so-called "Folk Revival" was a conservative counter-model against the urban "commercial" popular music of the day produced by immigrants and African-Americans. This juxtaposition between "authenticity" and "commercialism" has been retained until today.
[Jody Rosen] lets The Anthology keep its "authenticity," the myth that it's the pure product of amateur, oral transmissions stretching back to antiquity.[...]why not keep The Anthology on the table, and show that it's a much more commercial, worldly document than we've been told?
It is of course simply a matter of definition: what is a "Folk song" and what is "commercial". The Blues & Country music of the 20s and 30s was first and foremost popular music that has been redefined by Folklorists and music critics as some kind of "Folk Music". Recently I wrote an article about "Mary From The Wild Moor", a 19th century popular song that is today used by artists to prove their "roots"-credentials: www.morerootsofbob.com/Ballads/Mary/mary.html

A lot of so-called "Folk songs" have made similar trips.

[Rosen is] absolutely right to assert the importance of Tin Pan Alley to today's popular forms.
Yes, but it is, for example, somehow difficult in Dylan circles to discuss the question if and how Bob was influenced by pre-60s popular music.

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