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Let the Duquesne Whistle Blow

Picture on a blog of a picture on a shelf.
Dad's on the right.


The tracklist for Tempest, Bob Dylan's upcoming album, was released on Tuesday:

  1. Duquesne Whistle
  2. Soon After Midnight
  3. Narrow Way
  4. Long and Wasted Years
  5. Pay in Blood
  6. Scarlet Town
  7. Early Roman Kings
  8. Tin Angel
  9. Tempest
  10. Roll on John

In response, the armies of Dylan analysts went on red alert. The Expecting Rain discussion about the (as-yet-unheard) album suffered 500-posts in the first day.  With little to go on but song titles, I'll mostly keep my powder dry for now. 

Still ... I have to note the first track, "Duquesne Whistle," because my father was born in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, in 1925, according to his birth certificate.  My next earliest addresses for him are a couple miles up the Monongehela, in Clairton (where The Deer Hunter was set). 

For me, the title of the song is great news.  For one thing, it confirms that Bob Dylan is indeed sending me — and not you — subliminal messages through his song lyrics.  What a relief!  I was beginning to think I was just imagining things.

More importantly, Bob has thrown Duquesne to the Dylanologists like meat to ravening wolves.  Over the years, the song will provide an ongoing opportunity to know more about my dad's native town and the history of this particular corner of America. 

My father was the first child of immigrant workers, starting a family in a steel mill town full of other immigrant workers. His own father had just arrived two years before from Austria — aboard the SS President Fillmore, believe it or not. 

The other families on my dad's particular street had just arrived from Mexico, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Hungary, and Lithuania, according to the 1930 census.  Dad was an anchor baby, if you prefer. 

Some time in the late 1930's — that is, in the depths of the Depression — the family moved to Milwaukee, where dad met mom at a bowling alley.  She was a farm girl from just outside Port Washington, where Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded for Paramount.

It was a good move, I think, since the shock of the Depression seems to have been less sharp in Wisconsin.  Mom reports being largely unaware of it on the farm — they weren't rich, but then, they never had been.  Prohibition made a much bigger impact on her, because it brought a still into the house. 

Dylan's "Duquesne Whistle" will help illuminate my dad's side of the story.  That seems natural, since music was the main reason I got into family history at all. 

I had focused obsessively on "Americana" or "roots music" for 15 years before I tried to do any original research on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Its "Moonshiner's Dance" entry was the obvious place to start, as it was recorded right here in Minnesota.

But I soon understood it as the exception that proves the Anthology's rules — the only really Northern recording on the Anthology, for example, and the only cut making the sounds of recent immigration.

We are so satisfied by our dreams of a musical South that Duquesne and St. Paul (and even Hibbing) are a kind of terra incognita in America's musical imagination — so much so that my own geneaology has emerged as a critical source of information.  Let the Duquesne whistle blow.

I've long postponed my Duquesne research for when I can visit it and Clairton myself — maybe when I finally attend the Harry Smith Festival in Millheim, PA.  But now, I might not have to see the place at all — Bob Dylan and the internet may have just rendered my personal voyage of self discover entirely pointless!  Hallelujah!

Of course, the song may not even turn out to be about Duquesne, PA.  It may refer, for example, to the Pennsylvania Railroad train route the Duquesne that used to run from Manhattan's Penn Station to Harrisburg.  Or maybe it refers to the CSI Miami character, Calleigh Duquesne.  Bob likes the ladies, I think. 

But I'm not concerned.  A Dylan song not being about something doesn't mean that this something won't provide plenty of fodder for research and analysis.

PS:  Note that Earl Hines was also from Duquesne, PA.  There's a great chapter in William Howland Kenney's book, Jazz on the River, that deals with the musical environment/cultural history of Pittsburgh and its environs.