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Milwaukee Soldiers Home


Maybe the Milwaukee Soldiers Home astounded me so because I was unprepared for it. I had no impression of the place, beyond a few lines on a map, until I found myself suddenly in the middle of it. Then I wanted to call everyone I knew and tell them to go there immediately.

My only thought originally was to visit the grave of Frank E. Cloutier's son — Alden, a sergeant during World War Two. The soldiers home, where Alden died, is surrounded by the Wood National Veterans Cemetery, where he's buried.

I realized long ago I can learn a lot by visiting the graves of the various characters I encounter in my research. Often, the headstone's inscription teaches me about the person's military service, or relatives I hadn't heard of are buried nearby. Sometimes, I discover a musician was a dedicated Freemason. Occasionally, the adjacent plot for the widow never quite got filled.

Once, explaining all this to a coworker, he said, "Just imagine how much you'd learn if you dug them up." I thought seriously about this for a few more seconds then you might imagine before coming to my senses. I think it's possible he could have been making fun of me.

Anyway, the grounds of the Milwaukee Soldier's Home are mind-boggling. Approved by Abraham Lincoln, they have the most impressive Victorian (I guess) architecture I've ever seen — overly massive and extremely dramatic. After more than forty years of visiting Milwaukee, I somehow had no idea such a place even COULD exist there, much less that it actually did, and very deep in the heart of the metro area.

And the buildings are all dilapidated. I later learned that a concerted effort is underway to preserve and renovate the place, but it is currently in a surreal state of disrepair. Peeling paint, broken boards, shattered windows, yellow police tape everywhere. Any movie studio would gladly pay a small fortune to make pristine grounds look this neglected. Sadly, paying to make neglected grounds look pristine is a harder sell.

Strange and disorienting as the visitor's experience is, it's intensified by the overwhelming, looming presence of a cynical and majestically trite metaphor — Miller's Stadium. The unimaginable scale of the stadium, just across the street, gives the impression that you could almost touch it from every point on the grounds. The rows of headstones feel like the stadium's parking lot.

It's impossible to walk there, at this stage in the renovation project and at this stage in American history, and not see the irony. A crumbling veterans hospital shadowed by a violently expensive baseball stadium.  (According to my research, Miller's Stadium was built at a cost of 87 godzillion dollars. For the mathematically disinclined, that's an 87 followed by six ass-loads of zeros.)

The casual visitor will definitely be reminded of the scandal that put Walter Reed in the headlines a while back. Of course, it should be said — emphatically — that I have no clue about the medical care and other services currently offered veterans in Milwaukee. A knowledgeable veteran, for example, recently told me the veterans hospital in Madison is truly world-class. I was surprised to hear this because I know nothing about it.

Since visiting this veterans home, I learned that my father's mother volunteered there for many years, helping care for World War Two veterans around the time of the Vietnam War. Maybe my grandmother knew Alden Cloutier.

But I wouldn't have known any of this had I not made the effort. I've visited a lot of locations across the Upper Midwest for no reason other than some musician happened to pass through there 80 years ago. The effect is a little as if a Star Trek transporter beam had gone haywire and dropped me off at a random place and time. I highly recommend it.

Here is a Flickr set I took there (it begins with rather too many shots of Alden's headstone) and here are some shots by other Flickr subscribers.

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?