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"Minglewood Blues" Sweetly Sings of Anthology


If you expect to be in Wisconsin in the next few weekends — or can arrange to be — I urge you to see Minglewood Blues at the Broom Street Theater in Madison.  Inspired by The Anthology of American Folk Music, this new play must be among the most amusing, heartfelt, and original responses to that influential document in quite a few years.   

In the flesh-and-blood medium of the stage, Broom Street has made manifest the strange pleasures and confusing revelations most people go through after discovering this collection of early 20th century recordings. 

The play should interest anyone with a passing acquaintance with a few of the old American legends — maybe Casey Jones, or John Henry, or Stagger Lee, or the froggie who went a-courtin' a mouse.  But the play's depth and wit do "telescope" with audience knowledge, and it really excels as an introduction to the Anthology's strange mindset, and as a sort of luxury spa for Anthology veterans.

In Minglewood Blues, the events, images, and characters scattered throughout the Anthology rise up in Broom Street's humble little space and take over the joint, much as they do in our minds — with birds and trains and mountains and murderers vying for our confused attention, exchanging gunfire and one-liners, exposing one another's crimes and pleading one another's case.

Becoming Anthology-obsessed makes you dizzy like that.  Playwright Doug Reed has taken that dizziness seriously as part of the Anthology's aesthetic and made it the basis of his play.

In bouncing motifs off one another and splicing narratives together, the script performs one illuminating stunt after another, proposing dozens of fascinating possibilities. 

Why moles are blind is explained, as is the nature of lawyers. The deep geology and the whole ecosystem of a place called Minglewood are made to mingle with Scandinavian immigrants and Southern labor history. The sheer body count makes the play a kind of Hamlet-meets-Wisconsin Death Trip.

There are so many new angles to see, in fact, that a law of diminishing returns eventually sets in (even if rather later than you might imagine).  Once Minglewood Blues blows your mind many times, and then many more, and then some more, your mind is neatly blown. 

Some moderate editing would be welcome in the second half — perhaps Frankie and Albert's wedding could be deleted, or some bits about Alan Catcher's business dealings.  I would hate to miss the rebellion of Free Labor, but the resulting sharper focus on John Henry's regrets might be worth it.

A death-row scene between Alice Frye and Frankie, intended to be a culmination and summation, tries to accomplish too much on too many levels.  I wanted to see these two actors switch roles, but it's unlikely that better acting or directing could carry all the weight packed into the scene.

Incidentally, Harry Smith's Anthology was history's first great case of "color-blind casting" and I would have been interested to see this somehow integrated into Minglewood Blues.  As things actually played out (perhaps out of practical necessity), I sometimes wondered if Broom Street hadn't actually worked against the progressive intent of Smith's treatment of race, which remains ahead of its time to this day.

I was usually impressed with the quality of the actors, musicians, direction, and production standards at this humble venue.  In fact, some of the rough edges left on this particular material only served to magnify its meaning and emotional impact.

The actors and operators of the Broom Street Theater are unpaid volunteers — the hat is passed for the cast before the show.  Still, ever since its birth in the cultural ferment of 1968, the theater has been a very small animal with big artistic ambitions.

As a result, an especially deep and moving kind of sense gets made when this particular group takes on Harry Smith's Anthology, which achieved very high art through a collage of folk art. 

And they've gone to extraordinary lengths to do it.  As a keepsake for the audience, the playwright himself has lovingly designed the program for this production by hand, borrowing elements of Smith's original hand-made liner notes. 

The theater has sacrificed perhaps a third of its already-scarce audience space to make way for a bandstand.  Its musicians competently play autoharp, clawhammer-style banjo, fiddle, accordion, jew's harp, harmonica, two guitars, and jug. 

Very appropriately, this music is intimately involved, top to bottom, in the play's action and themes — not only punctuating and bridging scenes, but deeply involving itself in the action and meaning of the story.

In fact, the band is composed largely of cast members, and visa versa.  Its fiddler grows wings and accompanies a character to heaven.  After a young boy is lured to his death in a flower garden, he gets up and straps on the accordion.  And Satan, it turns out, plays a mean harmonica.


Mike Seeger's Legacy: To Be Continued

I've been out of town the last few days — at a funeral, coincidentally — so you presumably knew before I did that Mike Seeger has died. 

I don't see a heck of a lot on the web that seems to capture Seeger's significance, and it may take a long time before his true importance is widely and well understood.  Maybe Bill C. Malone's rumored biography will advance that project.

I like quoting what Bob Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles, says about Mike — not only to borrow Dylan's clout, but because nobody else has expressed it so vividly, before or since.  Buy Chronicles and read it. 

Only in Dylan's writing about Mike do I really recognize the guy I encountered — maybe only Bob and I saw it, but I bet a lot of people have the same feeling.

Here's a small sample of the thirteen-page ode dramatizing the impact Mike Seeger had on the young Dylan's sense of himself as an artist:

Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change, but you can only feel it ... But then something immediate happens and you're in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it — you're set free ... Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door — something jerks it open and you're shoved in and your head has to go into a different place. Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it. Mike Seeger had that affect on me.

He was extraordinary, gave me an eerie feeling. Mike was unprecedented. He was like a duke, the knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula's black heart ... It's not as if he just played everything well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them ... it dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns ... the thought occurred to me that maybe I'd have to write my own songs, ones that Mike didn't know. That was a startling thought.

The main thing I want to add tonight (because it might otherwise go unsaid) is how much I admired Mike's ethics as an intellect. 

He understood that trying to understand and explain things is difficult, and carries an ethical burden.  You OUGHT to be careful and humble in drawing conclusions, and you SHOULD get your facts right.  Be mindful of what you know to be the case, and what you don't. 

When he spoke, and when he wrote his liner notes, you could hear his great care in selecting words that said exactly what he knew, nothing less and nothing more.  I respected that in him.

Here's a round-up of selected previous writings about Mike Seeger.


Mike Seeger: Articles at The Monochord

Mike Seeger Southern Banjo Sounds

Mike Seeger has entered hospice care and members of his family are gathering at his home in Virginia, according to media reports. 

Over the years, the Celestial Monochord has written about Mike often, sometimes obsessively, because he's a hero of mine.

Below are links to my most substantial essays dealing with Mike Seeger. They're mostly in order of writing quality and/or relevance to Mike.

• How the Folk Revival affected Dock Boggs (indebted to Seeger's liner notes and Invisible Republic by Greil Marcus):

Dock Boggs: Revival  

• On innocence and experience, in the context of Mike Seeger:

The Young Musicologist

• A two-part screed in which I realize that Bob Dylan (and his generation) were not directly influenced by Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music as much as they were second-hand, through the New Lost City Ramblers:

Harry Smith, Dylan, and "The Rambler's Step"

• How Mike turned a simple love song into a contemplation about the relationships between art, and death, and love:

Little Birdie

• Thoughts about Hollis Brown, mentioning the version Bob Dylan did with Mike:

Hollis Brown's South Dakota

• Mike's version of a song about Slick Willie:

Late Last Night When My Willie Come Home

• With my facts a little rumpled around the edges, the vast importance and tiny reputation of the New Lost City Ramblers:

Math and Memory in New Lost City

• "Suggested listening" for fans of the Harry Smith Anthology:

Beyond the Anthology

• About my favorite cut on Mike's brilliant collection of field recordings:

A Talk on the World