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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.


Barack Obama: Secret Banjoist?

Obama interrupts "Hopalong Peter" at a New Lost City Ramblers concert


In another clear sign that his campaign is in financial trouble, presidential hopeful Barack Obama is now fundraising among devotees of the southern Appalachian stringband music known as "oldtime." 

Apparently conceding bluegrass donors to his Republican rival, Obama's campaign is appealing directly to less affluent and less numerous oldtime contributors.

Senator Joe Biden, asked for comment while attending a joint New Lost City Ramblers concert / Obama rally, said "This makes perfect sense. I mean, you got the first mainstream oldtime stringband who is articulate and bright and clean and nice-looking guys. I mean, that's a storybook, man!"

According to John Edwards, also in attendance, "This is a great idea! You know, Kelly Harrell was a textile worker, just like my fath -- Ow! Hey! Ow! Not the face! Watch the hair! Security!"

The oldtime demographic has been ignored by major candidates ever since its support doomed the otherwise front-running candidacy of Henry A. Wallace in 1948. 

Understandably, Obama's sudden embrace of the clawhammer banjo-playing set has left even some campaign staff puzzled.

"You know how you tell the difference between a bluegrass band and an oldtime band?" asked a high-level adviser to the Obama campaign on the condition of anonymity.

"The oldtime band is skinnier than the bluegrass band," he said, citing the previous testimony of Garrison Keillor.

To appeal to oldtime jammers, the campaign has even changed its official theme song more than forty-two times. 

"First it was Sally Ann, and then we changed it to Sally Goodin, and then Sally in the Garden," said the exasperated campaign insider. "But the oldtimers didn't even notice! Apparently, they can't even tell their own songs apart!"

"Barack has got to put an end to this!  He has to lift his foot up!"


  Editor's Note: There is a (real-life, no joke) update to this article!


The Anthology as Tarot Deck

(a modern Tarot deck by John Coulthart)


Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music is so well established as a canonical text that you'd think Smith must've had tenure somewhere like Harvard ... he didn't.  And it's easy to miss how perverse an idea the Anthology originally was. 

As Greil Marcus wrote in the book that launched a thousand ships, Invisible Republic:

... the Anthology was disguised as a textbook; it was an occult document disguised as an academic treatise ... This was in Harry Smith's grain.  A polymath and an autodidact, a dope fiend and an alcoholic, a legendary experimental filmmaker and a more legendary sponger, he was perhaps most notorious as a fabulist.  He liked to brag about killing people.

For generations before him, Smith's family was deeply involved in the more marginalized traditions of American mysticism — the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Theosophists.  Smith often claimed to be Aleister Crowley's illegitimate son. 

Smith brought this sensibility to the design for the Anthology, which comes across as having been ordered by some unknowable, arcane, lost cosmological system.  His liner notes include the following quote meant to help the reader understand his decisions:

"In Elementary Music The Relation Of Earth To The Sphere of Water is 4 to 3, As There Are In The Earth Four Quarters of Frigidity to Three of Water."  -- Robert Fludd

All of this matters desperately, for reasons I'll mention in my series of posts on the first seven seconds of entry #41 of the Anthology, "The Moonshiner's Dance Part One."

For now, I'm just pointing out that someone named Zac Johnson has invented a way of using the Anthology for something resembling a Tarot reading.  Harry becomes your oracle.

You use an ordinary deck of playing cards to generate a random number from 1 to 84, which gives you an entry number for a cut on the Anthology, according to Harry's mysterious and iconic numbering system. 

You then go to that corresponding song, and use it as a basis for an interpretive reading.  The extremely evocative recordings on the Anthology should serve as an endlessly rich source for readings by any reasonably sharp fortune teller who knows the collection.  The Anthology for fun and prophet.

I think Harry would have loved this.  And then hated it.  And then failed to understand it.  And then forgotten about it.  And then hated it.  And then dismissed it as uninteresting.  And then hated it.  And then loved it ...

Here's a blog entry and podcast that explain the details of the card system.


Fake Headlines Mesmerize Music Geeks

When you first read the fake newspaper headlines in Harry Smith's liner notes for Volume One of his Anthology of American Folk Music, you're forced to stop what you're doing, sit down, and read them all very closely.

Harry knew what he was doing. 

Those headlines are great devices of seduction — or a fishhook through the mouth.  In turn, his liner notes, as a whole, have helped make his 1952 collection of 1920's records one of the most influential documents in American music. 

This morning, for the first time, I read something that finally made real sense of these queer little jokey headlines.  It was in William Howland Kenney's description of the various ways record companies got records into the hands of consumers in the 1920's:

... the newsboys of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Defender regularly carried copies of the latest records of the week along with their newspapers.  They sold the disks at $1 apiece; for many customers the records were as important as the news.  As one newsboy recalled: "You'd go to one customer and she'd get all excited over a new blues and start telling you all about her girl friend or some relative who was sure to buy one, too."
Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930, p 123

It's perfectly sensible, then, to suppose that a corner newsboy might literally have shouted something like "Extra! Extra! Mamie Smith's man don't treat her right! Has Crazy Blues!"

If so, the newsboys and Harry Everett Smith shared the same technique for drawing attention to the records, as does the Anthology itself to this very day.

Whether Harry understood this, I don't know — but it would be worth looking into. He was born in 1923 in Washington state and grew up mostly in Bellingham, where I doubt corner newsboys were a common sight. This sales method appears to have been little-known among researchers until it was described by William Howland Kenney in his (mind-blowing) 1993 book. Harry Smith died in 1991. 

Smith's headlines have been posted by someone named Joshua, at someplace called "Dinner on the Molly."  He also helpfully includes links to the songs at YouTube. 

It would be great if, someday, a really well-made interactive replica of the Anthology, closely based on Harry's liner notes, were legally available online.  Joshua's blog entry and the YouTube piracy are evocative how this might work.

See also my entry about the availability of the liner notes from Smithsonian.