A Geography of the Anthology
Three Vignettes on Music and Geography

Hey Hey Mister Larson! (part three)

This is the third 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 Two.

Bedlam Circus
Tonight, the Bedlam welcomes the Republicans with a circus (link)


At the start of the Moonshiner's Dance, the leader of The Victoria Café Orchestra grandly calls out to you, the listener, and he renames you "Mister Larson."

I've explained why I think Mister Larson was probably not a specific person but a cultural caricature — a generic audience member being welcomed into The Victoria Café.

He's a butter-and-egg man, in other words, getting a Texas Guinan routine in a 1920s speakeasy.

Hey hey, Mister Larson!

Thinking over questions like Mister Larson — trying to reconstruct the meanings the recording would have had in Minnesota in 1927 — has fundamentally rejiggered the Moonshiner's Dance in my imagination. 

And those reconstructed meanings, I've come to decide, reverberate across the meaning and argument of the Anthology itself.

Today, as the Republican National Convention slouches toward Saint Paul, I insist that Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra were definitely NOT "from the Minnesota area," as the 1997 liner notes to the Anthology "assumed."

They were not even from Minneapolis.  They were vividly, and elaborately, and specifically from the city of Saint Paul. Should it surprise us that the Moonshiner's Dance is about its place and time, and that the geographical specifics matter to the music?

As with Dylan and Hibbing, if we want to understand the Moonshiner's Dance, we need to understand a little about the history of Saint Paul.

In the early 1900's, the city of Saint Paul operated under a semi-official policy called the O'Connor System.  It's goal was to maintain the city as a safe haven for organized crime, with the understanding that major crimes would be committed outside city limits.

I've chosen these words carefully. They sound like they might be some sort of local jack-a-lope folklore of the sort fed to tourists visiting any city. They aren't.

The O'Connor System's method was this: protect all criminals from prosecution under the conditions that they (A) announce themselves upon arrival in the city, (B) pay protection money bribes, and (C) limit themselves to vice and conspiracy within city limits. 

Violators of this compact were treated harshly, either by the city's legal infrastructure, or by its criminal infrastructure, or both.

And benefit they did, for more than 30 years. In 1932, for example, 21% of all bank robberies in the USA occurred in Minnesota, but exactly zero occurred within Saint Paul's city limits.

Liquor, prostitution, and gambling (and so, music) flourished within the city limits, and residents enjoyed them with gusto and relative impunity.  So did visiting tourists. Larry Craig could have tapped his foot all day and all night.

Chief O'Connor's system was not a huge break from the past.

Saint Paul began as a little encampment on the Mississippi around Fort Snelling, providing the fort's soldiers with all the comforts not issued to them by the government. 

In 1838, thanks to "beastly scenes of intoxication among the soldiers of this garrison," the fort's administrators had had enough — especially of a moonshiner named Pierre Parrant, known affectionately as Pig's Eye.

The little village was burned to the ground and its residents were moved eight miles upstream.  The new location was called Pigs Eye for several years, until its first Catholic priest proposed the name Saint Paul.

As it grew, the city continue to focus on trade and transportation, unlike industry-heavy Minneapolis. Brewing was the main manufacturing activity in Saint Paul, and a vice economy was supported by, and supported, these other sectors.

Prohibition, in particular, did not go well for the Feds in Saint Paul.  The city — with its profoundly anti-prohibition population, its proximity to the Canadian border, and its great regional transportation system — was one of the wettest places in America.

Businessmen from all over the US knew Saint Paul was a good destination for business trips.  Truly, what happened in Saint Paul stayed in Saint Paul. 

It was Mister Larson, and not the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, who was from "the Minnesota area."

Saint Paul was insular — a cultural island — and thus a peculiar state capital. Most Saint Paulites had ethical qualms about traveling and spending money beyond city limits, with Minneapolis in particular being another planet, and a hostile one. 

Larger and wealthier Minneapolis was, especially in the popular imagination, a straight-laced, class-stratified, Republican town of Lutheran factory owners and non-union workers. The workers were Scandinavian, even more so than the rest of the state, and the owners were old-stock Yankees.

By contrast, especially in the popular imagination, Saint Paul was an island of drunken, unionized, Irish-Catholic Democrats who were not enamored of the law.

And the popular imagination was tolerably close to the truth.

Saint Paul's political machine was overwhelmingly Irish, and the city's many Yankees, Germans, and Scandinavians figured they may as well be Irish too, given the circumstances. In Saint Paul, ethnic diversity could have a strange way of drawing the city even closer together, increasing its insularity.

Hey hey, Mister Larson! 

So Saint Paul welcomed a generic son of Lars — a pleasure-seeking visitor from the more culturally conservative city of Minneapolis or from the mining and farming communities across "the Minnesota area."

Here we are now — entertain us. 

After one strong whiff of cultural history, the Moonshiner's Dance morphs into the shape of countless other recordings, one after another.

Viva Las Vegas, New York New York, I Love LA — the Moonshiner's Dance is an advertising jingle. 

In the shadow of its richer and more sober neighbor across the Mississippi River, Saint Paul knew its place and was not afraid to advertise. The name of the Victoria Cafe is right there on the record label, as are the cafe's main attractions of moonshine and dancing. 

Suddenly, I hear a lot of Rum And Coca-Cola — a lot of working for the Yankee dollar — in the Moonshiners Dance.  Whether the Andrew Sisters' version or Lord Invader's, who's to say?

It's a cynical thing — a small, casual violence — to rename your listener with a cultural stereotype. Living and working in a place like Saint Paul, a satirical ear must've come easily to a cafe musician like Frank Cloutier.

So Cloutier makes it seem natural to me, for the first time, that F. Scott Fitzgerald was from Saint Paul — both men must've seen the Jazz Age in something like the way a blackjack dealer sees Las Vegas.

Mister Larson now becomes Mister Jones, the unprepared square of Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man.  In the Moonshiner's Dance, you, Mister Larson, have sneaked into The Victoria Cafe the same way you, Mister Jones, were about to find yourself squarely in the middle of Woodstock.

Suddenly, as Larson and Jones stroll into the Victoria Cafe together, Cloutier's Jazz Age comes into view as Dylan's sixties, with their respective collisions of cultural whiplash and bootlegged intoxicants.

But for now, obviously, much of this oversteps the evidence I've shown you.  It's in the actual music later in the recording, for example, that you really get to know Cloutier's satirical cynicism.  All in good time.  For now, I think I know who Mister Larson is and what he meant in his place and moment. 

Now I have to write about the meaning of the other, unintelligible part of the introduction — and about the first seven seconds as a whole.  It has to be done before I put this series of entries to rest.  In the last installment, I'll try to work out some of what I can say about what I can't understand.


Selected References (more than any other blog!)

Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place
by Mary Lethert Wingerd — The best book on the Moonshiner's Dance so far, and she may not even know the recording exists.  Hugely important.  I've made Saint Paul sound more like a riot, but Wingerd emphasizes the compacts and balances and civic identities that made Saint Paul a great place to live.

John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936 by Paul Maccabee — The title makes it sound like it could be about any city.  Every place thinks it was an Al Capone hangout.  But Maccabee has written, in a sense, a chronicle of the consequences of the O'Connor System.  Fun read, too. 

They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State's Ethnic Groups edited by June Drenning Holmquist — An unbelievable, exhaustive treatment of every damned ethnic group that ever set foot in the state.  That it was done at all is dumbfounding. 




Lyle Lofgren

Excellent essay, Monochord. The only problem I can see with such a detailed analysis is if someone feeds the recording into an analyzer specifically designed to decode recorded band introductions and finds that the phrase has nothing to do with anyone named Larson. Then again, we don't know for sure who Mr. Jones is, either. I knew Bobby back in the early 1960s, so maybe I'm Mr. Jones. On the other hand, I was never confused by the songs he was singing back then (Odetta and Woody).


The Celestial Monochord

Oh, you're Mr. Jones, alright. Now give me some milk or else go home! Before I post the final entry, I'll be doing some heavy digital analysis to see if I can tease out the syllables a little better. I find it helps if you put each word on a loop. Larson! Larson! Larson! Larson! Larson! Larson! Larson! It'll never crack the Billboard charts, but it suits my purposes.


Fabulous. Where is Part 4?

Lee S

"Hey hey, Mr. Larson!" is clear. I'm fairly certain the next few words are "Seems like if we get fined" - which might fit in with your O'Connor context. The next few syllables are garbled to me. The last two before "That's it go boys" I'm fairly certain are "pay check" (it sounds like "play", but my ears hear the "l" as an artifact of surface noise). My craving for continuity wants to make the sentence "Seems like if we get fined no-one expects the paycheck" - which might make sense although I don't know if anyone would have said it quite that way - but I can't make myself actually hear those words. Those "no-one" syllables sound like "Otto" (?) and the following two syllables are more like "inspects".

I don't know: "If we get fined no-one inspects the paycheck." In other words, "If we get busted, it's just a formality; give 'em any old piece of paper to 'pay' the ticket." Maybe?

I can't wait for the book to come out. One, because I want to read it. Two, because with any luck you'll return to more regular blogging. Thanks, Kurt.

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