This past Thursday was the 55th anniversary of Frank E. Cloutier's death. He died just over 5 years after the release of the Anthology of American Folk Music, for which he’s marginally remembered.
Here's what his headstone looked like on my first visit, the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, 2006:
It’s in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which is a beautiful drive from the Twin Cities, especially if you take Highway 61 through the Mississippi River valley.
You pass through, or near, Red Wing and Rollingstone, Wabasha and Zumbro Bottoms, Frontenac and Trempealau. There are often bald eagles, red-tailed hawks.
Frank Cloutier is buried "on a local heroes hill," to borrow John Prine's phrase, in La Crosse's Oak Grove Cemetery. Frank's is one of about 200 headstones of veterans of each American war from the Spanish American through the Korean.
Though basically from Rhode Island, Frank happened to be working as a piano player in Manitowoc when the US entered World War One — hence the “Wisconsin” on his Army-issued headstone.
He arrived in France with the 311 supply train company in 1918, not long before the Armistice and too late to see fighting.
But France was pretty out-of-sorts and needed supply trains, so Frank’s company stayed on after the war for about 9 months in wine country. Less than six months after Frank returned to the states, Prohibition took effect.
Knowing he was both Catholic and a Freemason, I was curious to see whether his headstone would have a cross or a masonic square-and-compass.
Frank Cloutier contributed the Anthology's only Upper Midwestern music. Here's his headstone on March 1, 2009:
As the musical director of St. Paul's Victoria Cafe, Frank and his band made a 78 RPM record in September 1927 — "Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One".
It was released that January, but by then the Victoria Cafe itself was already in Federal court, fighting for its life. From the start, the record always represented a gone world.
"Moonshiner’s Dance" seems to have utterly vanished from history almost as soon as it was released. When Frank died in 1957, he apparently didn’t know the recording had been reissued 5 years earlier in New York as part of the Anthology of American Folk Music.
But even then, nobody would've been able to predict the Anthology would become as important to America’s self-image as it’s become.
Frank Cloutier couldn't have foreseen that "Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One" would one day become the best known recording made in Minnesota during his lifetime.
Its hard to appreciate how deeply the country had changed between 1927 and 1957. Indeed, much of the Anthology’s power derived from the way the alien sounds of Prohibition-era, pre-Depression, pre-WW2 America mystified young Cold War listeners.
Frank Cloutier died on a Friday morning in 1957.
That very same morning, the Vanguard TV3 exploded on its launch pad in Florida. Meant to meet the challenge of Sputnik with America’s own first satellite, the Vanguard TV3 was an embarrising, televised explosion. Headline writers dubbed it Flopnik, Oopsnik, and Stayputnik.
The satellite itself was recovered from the wreckage and put on display at the National Air and Space Museum, where I took a picture of it in January 2005, not yet knowing the object was somehow about the Anthology.
(I was in Washington for Mike Seeger’s concert marking the “Picturing the Banjo” exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery).
Note the light trespass fogging the film in my old battered 1970’s camera. More than any other single photo, this one finally convinced me to get a digital SLR camera.
In any case, that Friday morning in 1957 not many Americans were focused on the death of Frank Cloutier.
Even by the time the Smithsonian reissued the Anthology on CD in 1997, there was exactly zero research on Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe to draw from while writing the liner notes.
It wasn't until Thanksgiving weekend 2006 that an Anthology listener finally showed up at Cloutier's grave, wearing earbuds to listen to his record graveside.
In 2007, on the 50th anniversary of Cloutier's death, I had planned to be in La Crosse, but an opportunity suddenly arose to go to Chicago instead. It took me a while to choose Chicago, but I made the right decision ... although I still do think about that now and then.