Part of a series wherein I propose musical contexts for
"The Moonshiners Dance Part 1," aside from The Anthology
of American Folk Music, and present illustrative sound files.
Older Minnesotans always seem to remember Whoopee John Wilfahrt — so much so that it's startling how little-known he is to everyone else.
Whoopee John made his first recordings in Minneapolis in September 1927 — just across the river and about a week before Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra recorded "The Moonshiners Dance."
He would later become hugely influential across the Upper Midwest, and because they circulated in a small world, Cloutier and Wilfahrt were probably aware of each other. Still, I don't see Whoopee John's influence in "The Moonshiners Dance."
Instead, his early recordings can serve as a good example of the old time ethnic music being played across the region at the time. "The Moonshiner's Dance" is also a good example of that music, and is partly a satire of it.
Explanations of Whoopee John's nickname differ, but it's pretty clear to my ears — Whoopee John whooped, just like Frank Cloutier's boys, except at very deliberately chosen moments in the performance.
Neither the whoops nor the nickname appear on Wilfahrt's 1927 recordings, but they're both firmly in place by 1933. Perhaps "Moonshiners Dance" inspired Whoopee John to start whooping — but then again, similarly exuberant interjections were common across pre-War genres of vernacular social dance music.
Although Whoopee John's style doesn't sound much like "The Moonshiners Dance," it doesn't sound much different either. To get from Wilfahrt to Cloutier, you mostly need a small shift in meter and tempo, and a huge change in attitude. The Victoria Cafe Orchestra satirizes rural polka music like Whoopee John's from a cosmopolitan, Jazz-Age perspective.
But keep in mind that old-time ethnic performers themselves relentlessly goofed on their own rustic, old-world personas. "Whoopee John" was, in essence, a satirical character played by John Wilfahrt. There's an economy of satirical exchange here ... with its liquidity provided by good times and bootleg alcohol.
Cloutier and Wilfahrt used similar instruments — after all, this is music from the "Brass Age" to which The Anthology otherwise turns its back. Both bands use instruments you'll also find in 1920s Chicago jazz bands, and most everywhere else at the time — trumpet, clarinet, bass horn, a little drum set. A signature of Wilfarht's band was the addition of the German button accordion.
Wilfahrt's later stuff is much easier to find due to its great popularity. To my ears, it takes on a slightly slick big-band aesthetic that I find a bit bland and cloying. I much prefer Whoopee John's early stuff from the 1920s and early 1930s — the New-Ulm, Knights-of-Columbus-hall-wedding Whoopee John.
It's clearly played by a small, spirited combo of townspeople. I like the hint of parlor, or even chamber music formality. I don't know, maybe it's a DNA thing, given that this music's genealogy so closely mirrors my own.
The sound file is an MP3 of about 2.6 MB, and it chains together three abbreviated clips from early Whoopee John 78's. I chose the cuts because I like them, and because they sound most like "The Moonshiners Dance." Wilfahrt also recorded appealing waltzes, schottishes, marches, etc.
• 0:00 to 1:35 - "Old Time Polka #1" from October 1933.
• 1:35 to 2:42 - "Kinder Polka" from September 1927.
• 2:42 to 3:50 - "Linderman Polka" from October 1933.
The best source for Whoopee John's music seems to be his grandson, Dennis Brown. His website
has an order form you can print out, fill out, and snail-mail with a check or money order.
I've done this several times with excellent results. It's great to have this music available in such a high-tech fashion — usually, I'm crawling around on the floor in the basements of used vinyl stores.
getting either the Whoopee John Historical Music CD #1, or #2, or both.