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.

Talkin' Michael Gray

Gray contemplates Hibbing's open-pit iron-ore mine


A noted Dylan expert and critic offers his home in France (and himself) for conversation.

Early one morning in March 2007, I was riding in one of those tourist buses that deliver senior citizens to casinos — tinted windows, plush seats, TV screens in the ceiling.  That foggy Minnestoa morning, this bus was filled to capacity with about sixty Bob Dylan scholars.

The trip, from Minneapolis to Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, was the opening event of the largest scholarly Dylan conference ever held.

In my aisle seat, I talked to the stranger in the window seat next to me.  He turned out to be an evangelical Christian Tennessean researching Dylan's sprituality.  A smart guy — curious, thoughful, and original.

Still, it was hard to concentrate on the conversation.  If the first guy I met was THIS guy, who else might be slouching toward Hibbing on this infernal bus?

Immediately across the aisle, an Englishman and an American were engaged in a lively discussion (about Bob you-know-who).  Eavesdropping, I gathered that the Englishman — proper accent, eccentric dress, soul patch — was Michael Gray himself.

In 1972, Michael Gray authored the world's first critical study of Dylan's work and, in 2007, had recently completed The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, offering as much obsessive Dylan knowledge as any book ever published.  A kind of paper cinder block, The BD Encyclopedia comes at you like an authoritative reference but winds up snaring you in an idiosyncratic maze — the strategy reminds me of the Anthology of American Folk Music.

Recognizing a once-in-lifetime opportunity, I turned to Michael Gray and asked the obvious question:  Who threw the glass in the street?

It was a rhetorical question and a bit of a joke — after all, the answer represents the qunitessentially unknowable cypher that is the object of all Dylanology — so I was gob smacked when Gray actually knew the answer, and offered a couple minutes of historiography contextualizing both the answer and the question itself.

We talked, excitedly and with a lot of laughter, most of the way to Hibbing. During the long days of the Dylan conference, I'm not sure what I would've done without Michael Gray — I kept seeking him out whenever I felt like a wallflower and needed a friendly conversation.

Not the kind of Dylan author who doesn't suffer fools (I should know), he was generous with his time and knowledge, listened closely, laughed easily, gave useful advice when I asked for it, remembered my name.  I find myself repeating his anecdotes in my own conversations even today.

Days later, at the end of the conference, Gray gave the closing keynote address.

Built around a series of film clips of Dylan throughout his career, Gray described the "moment" that surrounded them — the atmosphere, the shocks and conflicts, the relationships and revelations going on in Dylan's life and work, and in the life of the United States and the globe.  He was contextualizing the clips, breathing new life into them, and the effect was moving and revealing.

That reconstruction of gone significance is at the heart of my own efforts at cultural history. The question for me is no longer "what does it mean?" but rather "what DID it mean?"  The change in tense seems to transform the entire landscape of possibility and impossibility.

I haven't had the opportunity to see him speak since, but Gray does speaking engagements — it would be interesting to see what he's doing now.

Given all of this, I've been very amused to see that Gray has been offering himself up as a conversationalist to paying Dylan fans. You get to talk (and talk) about Bob Dylan with one of the world's leading Dylanologists, and enjoy his wife's gourmet cooking, in his lovely home in southwest France.

It's one of those vacation ideas you read about occasionally in the "news of the weird" — it's utterly cracked, but you would surely do it if you had the chance.

Mostly, I keep chuckling about the mindset that makes it possible. Are authors who aren't assholes so rare that you can charge admission to talk to them?  

During the conference, I sought out Michael Gray because his very presence relaxed me, amused me, made me feel smart and attractive, and — most of all — because he had very interesting things to say. Who recognizes having this effect on people and thinks, "Hey, I can charge for this"?

I mean, I've been thinking about charging people to NOT talk to me!


For more information:



North Country Blues

A mural in the library of Bob Dylan's high school depicts Hibbing's multi-ethnic iron miners. What did their music sound like?

Around 1965, Bob Dylan turned his back on folk music, confirming the break by "going electric" at the Newport Folk Festival. 

At once fact and fiction, the story has emerged as one of the more familiar parables from the 20th century.

But lately, I've been thinking about an earlier moment of decision when Dylan walked away from another set of folk music traditions — those of the Upper Midwest.  Today, that decision seems more consequential in the long run, all the more so the longer it goes unrecognized.

When Dylan walked away from Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range and the rest of the Upper Midwest, he left behind what was then a dying economy, as portrayed in his song "North Country Blues".  It was a dyin' town, it was a dyin' town, he chants in the album's liner notes. 

But Dylan was also walking away from dying forms of music as varied and complex as any in the world, including those of the American South.

At the time, old musical ways of life were changing just as fast in the South, of course, but important elements of the Folk Revival were bent on preserving Southern traditional music — and Dylan was about to help out.  

Suddenly, the critical difference between the traditional music of the North and the South hasn't turned out to be a matter of quality or inherent interest.  

Instead, it's that the music of the South — against all odds, and to our inexpressible benefit — was resuscitated when it needed it most.  Up North, in Zimmerman country, a comparable revival just never arrived.

I've been working on a study of the only recording on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music clearly representing northern music — "Moonshiner's Dance," recorded in Minnesota in 1927.  It has never been studied before.  

Early in my project, I knew I would eventually have to know — and I mean have to, and I mean know — the musical environment in the Upper Midwest before World War Two.

Consider the 1913 mural in the library of Hibbing High School depicting iron miners at work.  Each of its 16 human figures represents another ethnic group that mined the Mesabi Iron Range — a deep diversity of cultures that, presumably, intermingled to create distinctive new American sounds.  

Those miners were silent as they watched the young Robert Zimmerman browse the library books — but they must've danced to something sometime.

During the early phases of my research into "Moonshiner's Dance," I often thought about them, knowing I would need to hear their music in my head, loud and clear. 

Unfortunately, when I finally turned my attention to the problem, I saw there was going be trouble. 

I had first committed myself to traditional music 14 years prior, when there were already mountains of products on the market vying to help me navigate pre-War Southern blues and country.  But now, up North, even in 2008, I was pretty much on my own.

There is no such thing as, say, The Anthology of Northern American Folk Music (edited by Harry Smithovich).  There's no O Brother Where Art Ya Once?  There was no "Song to Otto Rindlisbacher" on Bob Dylan's first album.

Alan Lomax made a thousand recordings during fieldwork in the Upper Midwest in 1938, declaring it possibly "the most interesting country I have ever traveled in" with "enough material in the region for years of work".  But unlike every other region where Lomax conducted fieldwork, no release in any format has ever been devoted to his Northern journey.  The website of Lomax's foundation, its name apparently a bit of self-deprecating humor, makes no mention of it.

There is an amazing record store here in Minneapolis that sells only 78 rpm records, and it has hundreds of pre-War old-time ethnic recordings — cheap, in great condition, with unpronounceable titles.  But what do I buy?  And what sense do I make of it?

There's simply no ... there's no ...

There's no Northern canon.  Or worse, and more exactly, the canon of "American roots music" has bypassed my part of the country entirely. There are no names from the Upper Midwest like Dock Boggs, or The Carter Family, or Robert Johnson — names of musicians whose work everybody knows is great, even if they haven't actually bothered listening to it. 

How do you connect the dots when you have no dots to begin with? 

I spent much of 2008 trying to crack the case.

I've camped out in university and historical society libraries, scouring the footnotes of academic journal articles.  I've literally spent hours clutching photocopies of typewritten discographies while crawling on the floor in used vinyl stores — including one where the owner chain-smokes behind the register.  I've found music that's never been issued, is out of print, is on formats I can't play, lacks any intelligible context.

So far, there appear to be no easy solutions.  But I have found a few extremely valuable maps of this occult terrain — so valuable, in fact, that I hate to bury reviews of them this deep in an already too-long blog post.  

If I could press only three things into your hands today, they would be: (1) a brilliant box set, Down Home Dairyland, containing 40 episodes of a radio show about the traditional music of the Upper Midwest, and (2 and 3) a pair of absolutely essential books with unfortunate titles, Victor Greene's A Passion for Polka and James P. Leary's Polkabilly.  

They're hardly the only materials available, but taken together (including their footnotes, discographies, etc.) they allow an incipient canon to emerge — a list of things you probably should recognize if you want to be taken seriously on the subject.  They also provide — most pointedly in the first and last chapters of Leary's Polkabilly — clues to explaining why these musicians and their work aren't more widely seen as part of the canon of American roots music.

Following various threads into and out of such material, I sometimes return to the mural in the library of Hibbing High School.  

Like the rest of present-day Hibbing, the mural was once moved to its current location from the ghost town of North Hibbing, "where even the markin stones were dead, an there was no sound except for the wind blowin thru the high grass," as Dylan described it. 

Slowly, as I've started to hear a few strains of music coming from those miners in that mural, what's begun to strike me most about the thing is how deadly silent it first seemed to me, and how silent it must have seemed to Dylan, there in that hushed library.  

Why wasn't there a revival of Northern folk music for Dylan to join?  And what would one have sounded like?  Until 2008, I would have faintly assumed the answer to the first question was the answer to the second.  The music down South was just better or more plentiful.

And maybe it was, I haven't quite decided.  But the reasons for the historical neglect of the Upper Midwest turn out to be far more complex than that — so much so they deserve their own research institute ... or at least their own blog post.  I do know it certainly wasn't just about the music.

If we want to keep thinking that Southern music is better, that's ok with me.  But shouldn't we be able to say, confidently and in specific detail, "Better than WHAT?


Chilicothe Schottishe with Intro - Erick Berg





Rollingstone out on Highway 61


Along Highway 61 on your way out of Minnesota, you pass two towns called Minnesota City and Rollingstone. Their histories began with a Utopian crackpot and his followers, who soon became his victims in one of the more ghastly episodes in the state's history.
The Rollingstone Colony was a little like the Donner Party, if a lot less famous. It also reminds me a bit of the Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre, and certainly adds a new dimension to the song "Like a Rolling Stone."
In 1851, a New York printer persuaded a group of New York professionals to join a Utopian community. They would start fresh in a well-planned city out west in the health-promoting climate of the new Minnesota Territory.  The town was to be called Rollingstone.

The leader went west first to found the beautiful city, and when 400 people followed him, they were surprised to find him stuck in a swamp. The women and children slept in a large tent, the men in gopher pits.  About three quarters of them soon died in the epidemics that swept the settlement.  

Wait. Come to think of it, that's more or less how I came to live here too ... 

Anyway, the survivors founded Minnesota City.  A small village two miles away is today called Rollingstone. Pinning down which of the two towns was the location of the Rollingstone Colony and how exactly they relate to each other historically would take more digging than I've done.

In any case, I'm thinking more about Bob Dylan and the mid-1960's.
It seems hard to believe that a Minnesotan would write a song called "Like A Rolling Stone" — a song about what it's like to find yourself all alone and boondoggled out on the new frontier — and that he'd put it on an album called Highway 61 Revisited without knowing anything whatsoever about the story of the Rollingstone Colony.  

But then, a lot of true things are also hard to believe. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that Dylan seemed preternaturally relevant — that his empathetic imagination would insinuate itself convincingly beyond what seems possible. I've written about that before.  

Maybe it's all a coincidence, but it's worth doing the legwork to understand how well-known this incident could've been to Dylan in the early 1960's. My research time is booked at the moment.

I also don't know if anybody has ever asked Bob when, if ever, he first heard about the Rollingstone Colony down on Highway 61.



Cathy Wurzer's just-published book, Tales of the Road: Highway 61, provides an efficient telling in two pages.  She also talked about it today on Minnesota Public Radio.

Christopher M. Johnson's article in Minnesota History (49:140-148) provides much detail on how the community got to Minnesota.



Hey Hey Mister Larson! (Part Two)

This is the second 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 Three.


Early in my research into "The Moonshiner's Dance," I knew the identity of Mister Larson would be easy to uncover.  It's the low-hanging fruit. 

After all, Frank Cloutier addresses him the instant the recording begins. Hey hey, Mr. Larson! 

I knew Larson would wind up being a musician in Frank's band, or the owner of the Victoria Cafe, and I'd write up a neat biography of this Larson guy and explain why he's so prominently placed at the start of Frank's only recording.
Today, deep into my third year of research, it hasn't turned out that way. 
I've seen hundreds of thousands of advertisements, newspaper articles, obituaries, theater programs, union newsletters, graves, birth and death certificates, draft cards, photos, letters, and much else.
I'm a resident of the Twin Cities of 1927.  Driving around St. Paul, I once saw a product of the WPA and caught myself thinking, "Hey, THAT'S new."

Living like this — hanging around the dance music scene of Prohibition-era Saint Paul— I keep encountering the same guys over and over.  I notice when their wives have kids.  I know when they finally get their own bands.  I hear about it when a good pitcher joins their kittenball team. 
And I'm sorry.  I don't know any Larson — at least nobody associated with Frank Cloutier or the local dance scene or the management of the Victoria Cafe. 

Maybe I'm not hearing the muffled 1927 recording correctly.  Maybe it isn't "Mister Larson" at all, but something else.  Here's an mp3 of the first few seconds.

I briefly considered whether Frank might instead be saying "Mister Nelson" as in Gordon Nelson, the drummer who seems to have played on "The Moonshiner's Dance."  For a bit longer, I considered the Cafe's manager at the time of the recording, Sammy Markus. 
But listening again to the recording, I find they just won't do.  Hey hey Mr. Markus.  Hey hey Mr. Markus.  Hey hey Mr. Markus. 
No.  It's "Hey hey Mr. Larson."

As a last resort, I scoured the entries for "Larson" and "Larsen" in the St. Paul and Minneapolis city directories, which they started to call "phone books" once everybody got phones. 
Ordinarily, I adore city directories, intimate and teasing as they are.  But searching every Larson in the Twin Cities directories is tedious work — there are roughly 2700 entries in the 1927 editions and they have to be scanned line by line, by hand and eye. 

St. Paul is striking for its lack of prospects. I found one music teacher named Bertha Larson who was presumably not a Mister. 

There are more prospects in Minneapolis.  There was a piano mover named Gustaf Larson and a piano tuner named Martin Larson — unlikely professions for Mister Larson, even though Frank Cloutier was a keyboardist. There was also a movie house manager, a cashier at a dance hall, a radio salesman, and another woman music teacher.

There was a family of musical Larsons, and I've done a longitudinal study of them — followed them around town like a shamus.  So far, none of these Larsons seems to have a connection to Frank or to the Victoria Cafe or even to St. Paul.  They were not well known, and other than their name, nothing seems relevant about them. 

The 1930 census counted about 11,900 individuals named Larsen or Larson in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, the counties of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Limiting myself to the right age and gender brings the number down, but I have to face the fact that I may never find the Larson that Frank had in mind.

One last prospect has occasionally troubled my mind for about two years.  In 1927, the leader of the Minneapolis Police Department's band was a cop called Curly Larson. 

I've tried to find out more about him, but so far, he's been a tough nut to crack, probably because of that Curly nickname. We know he was probably bald.  I'll keep searching.

But no matter the details, it's a delicious idea. 

Smack in the middle of Prohibition, the leader of the Minneapolis policeman's band puts on his uniform every Friday and Saturday night, crosses the river into St. Paul, and plays "The Moonshiner's Dance" at the Victoria Cafe with Frank Cloutier and his boys. 

Playing that soused polka in uniform on the bandstand ... I desperately want him to have done this. There is exactly zero evidence that he did.

But could he have?  Could a Minneapolis cop have played such a drunken, reeling tribute to bootleg liquor without being fired, or even arrested?  Especially if he was prominently featured on a 78 rpm record?  And might a St. Paul officer have made the same trip to Minneapolis, maybe in a pickled cop exchange program?

During many long days in archives and libraries, I've often bounced these questions about Curly Larson off my findings.  Partly thanks to that habit, I've slowly evolved from being the archivist of "The Moonshiners Dance" to being its cultural historian.

The shift felt complete the day I finally decided to trust my findings about all these Larsons.  There's always so much more work to be done, but so far, nobody has presented himself as the likely Mister Larson.

Therefore, according to my current research results, there probably was no Mister Larson. Or rather, there were many thousands of him.  I've come to suspect that Mister Larson is a product of Frank Cloutier's imagination.  He's the generic audience member — just your typical Minnesotan off the street. 

Hey hey Mister Larson!

If so, this would make him a founding citizen of Lake Wobegon. Like Garrison Keillor's townspeople, he's a caricature invented for the sake of Minnesota humor.  To this day, Mister Larson still lives next door to Pastor Inkvist and across the street from Carl Krebsbach.

It would also make Mister Larson an ancestor of Mister Jones, Bob Dylan's main character in "Ballad of a Thin Man."

Just as with Dylan's character, the inclination is to imagine Mister Larson as somebody other than you.  But Frank and Bob both address the listener — both are talking to and about you, no matter what name they give you.  You are Mister Larson.

Something is happening, therefore, and you don't know what it is.  To understand who Mister Larson was, we have to sort out what he might have meant to somebody like Frank Cloutier in a place like Saint Paul at a time like 1927. 

We have to reconstruct a meaning that no longer exists.  We have to do cultural history. 

I'll present some initial findings in Part Three.


Hey Hey Mister Larson! (part one)

This is the first 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 Two and Part Three.

Alessandro Carrera, Minneapolis Dylan Symposium
Alessandro Carrera
Bob Dylan Symposium in Minneapolis
March 27, 2007

At the 2007 Bob Dylan symposium in Minneapolis, Alessandro Carrera, the leading Italian translator of Bob Dylan's lyrics and prose, told a story about his first awareness of Dylan. I keep remembering it as I think about Mister Larson.

The gist of the story was this:

When Carrera was a teenager in Italy in the late 1960's, he was obsessed with American music — even though it was very difficult to get a hold of, and he could count all the words in his English vocabulary on one hand.

Listening to albums by Joan Baez, and by the Byrds, and by Peter Paul and Mary, what excited him most on each album was always the one or two songs that had been written by this guy — one "Bobe Dee-lahn", as Carrera pronounced it. 

Of course, he couldn't understand the lyrics at all — it was Bob Dylan's melodies that attracted him.

It took some doing, but Carrera finally got a hold of a recording by Bob Dylan himself — a 45 rpm single, one side of which was "Mister Tambourine Man."  He put it on the turntable, and was elated to hear that the first word out of Dylan's mouth was one of the few English words that the teenage Carrera knew. 


Carrera didn't just know what the word meant — that is, he didn't just know its Italian translation — he also deeply recognized the word.  He appreciated it.  It spoke to him. 


It meant, "You! LISTEN TO ME." And that was cool.

"The Moonshiner's Dance" begins with a 7-second spoken introduction. A prologue.

Here's an mp3:

Download MoonshinerIntro.mp3

In its first two seconds, someone — almost certainly the leader of the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, Frank E. Cloutier — practically shouts "Hey hey, Mister Larson!"

In the next five seconds, in the same declarative voice, he rattles off about 20 more syllables. But because of some rasping and, maybe, needle-bouncing at start of the recording, all but a few of these syllables are completely indecipherable. 

To just count the syllables in the introduction, I had to transcribe it phonetically, without worrying about its meaning.  The words sound something like this:

Hey hey, Mister Larson!  These boys geeky entwine anonymous spectacle play pen! That's it, go boys!

We may never know what Frank E. really said (and I doubt I've made a lucky guess).  Maybe the Gennett recording engineer in 1927 used a blank wax disc that was rough or soft near the outer edge. Preparing the wax was skilled labor and results could be slightly uneven. If that's the source of the noise, every released copy of the 78 is similarly indecipherable.

On the other hand, the Smithsonian-Folkways' reissue on CD is the only version I've heard.  It may be that their "source copy" of the 78 rpm record was damaged just there. Perhaps another copy of the 78 has a prologue that can be understood.

In any case, after this spoken introduction someone whoops "WAH hee!", and the band strikes up its reeling, careening medley of tunes played as one-steps.

I, and possibly you, listen to these old recordings to put our minds through an intense exercise.  It's, like, mind-expanding. 

We lean into the noise and try to tease out the delicate signal as it leaks across a divide as impenetrable as a world war, a depression, and a cold war.  The Mason-Dixon line.  The color line.  Class and gender and religious and educational and technological divides.  And, for us, those divides are not so much obstacles to our listening pleasure as they are at the root of the pleasure. 

Among the recordings on the Harry Smith Anthology, The Moonshiners Dance comes to me across the shortest distances. 

The first seven seconds are in English, it seems.  Frank E. would have had a Rhode Island accent, but his audience at the Victoria Cafe was an Upper Midwestern one — it still is, given that nobody is listening but me.  In fact, the Victoria Cafe is still standing, just a couple minutes' drive from my house.  Frank E. was even raised Catholic, like me — and unlike almost everyone else on the Anthology (except the Cajuns, who do not speak my language). 

You'd think I'd have a shot at understanding Frank E. 

Instead, I'm like Alessandro Carrera.  There's a world between me and the speaker, and I can only pick out a few translatable syllables.

But I recognize something in the gesture. Hey hey, Mister Larson!

Frank could hardly have imagined our existence.  We're eavesdropping on his message to Mr. Larson, but somehow the message seems intended for us. But what does it mean?


What's In A Name?

Moe Thompson
Moe Thompson founded The Victoria Cafe


My article on the links between "The Moonshiner's Dance" — one of the selections on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music — and Minnesota's Jewish communities has just been published at Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. None of that article's information has appeared here at The Celestial Monochord, or anywhere else, so Monochord readers and enthusiasts of "Anthology-type music" may want to check it out.

It's a little anxiety-producing to publish on a subject in which I am so inexpert — the history of Minnesota's Jews — especially for what must be Zeek's fairly erudite audience. Also, because I'm constantly finding new insights, I'm painfully aware that anything I write will quickly seem outdated to me.

But as soon as I began researching The Anthology's "The Moonshiner's Dance" in early 2006, I saw that the Jewish aspects of the story I was uncovering would need to be told somewhere, by somebody. The Jewish connections to the recording made me sit up straight and listen, because of a certain hazy constellation of issues I'd already been toying with for some time ...


In November 1963, Newsweek ran an infamous article "exposing" Bob Dylan as the middle-class son of a Midwestern appliance dealer. It included a photograph of Dylan with the caption "What's in a name?" — a sardonic reference to the revelation that Bob Dylan started life as Robert Zimmerman.

Exactly why this was presented as scandalous is open to interpretation. The article attacks Dylan for portraying himself as real and authentic while simultaneously hiding and misrepresenting his past. But as I read it, the article treats the specifics of Dylan's past as the real scandal, as what really undermined Dylan's authenticity. The implication was that Dylan turned out to be the least authentic things you can be — Midwestern, middle class, and Jewish. If a folksinger is supposed to be one of "The People," surely he can't be THAT.

And it wasn't just Newsweek. The post-War folk and blues revivals often seem to me pathologically obsessed with authenticity and commercialism, as abstractions, and the idea of Jewishness seems to have gotten drawn occasionally into those neuroses (in part, by conflating Jewishness and commerce — a conflation my own arguments have a habit of reproducing).

Those revered pre-WWII Southern musicians on The Anthology and so many other reissues actually played and loved quite a lot of Tin Pan Alley popular songs and tunes from the New York stage. Dock Boggs himself based much of his repertoire on "blues queens" who gave stridently commercial, nontraditional, and "inauthentic" performances.

Today, younger revivalists like myself have benefited from writers like Elijah Wald (Escaping the Delta) and Norm Cohen (Long Steel Rail) for whom boundaries between authenticity and artifice, between commerce and tradition, are pretty much gone from their world views. You might say it's the new orthodoxy among today's authorities. I think Bob Zimmerman and Elliott Adnopoz could have kept their birth names today.

I often think of Jon Pankake, who Dylan remembers unkindly in Chronicles Volume One ("a folk music purist ... breathed fire through his nose"). But you should read Pankake's liner notes to New Lost City Ramblers: Out Standing in their Field, dedicated as they are to showing a constant sloshing back and forth between professional popular music and supposedly pure amateur folk music — the permeability of those boundaries.

In a 2006 article in the New York Times, Jody Rosen wrote about his work to reassert the important influence that the professional and commonly Jewish music-makers of Tin Pan Alley have had on Rock n' Roll. The "roots" of Rock, he argues, run through the Brill Building as much as through Robert Johnson and his supposed crossroads.

He even takes a jab at the "rock snobs" who would not be caught "without Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and an Alan Lomax field recording or two" in their record collection.

At least in the text of that particular article, Rosen takes the wrong approach. He's absolutely right to assert the importance of Tin Pan Alley to today's popular forms, but in doing so, he lets The Anthology keep its "authenticity," the myth that it's the pure product of amateur, oral transmissions stretching back to antiquity.

Instead of trying to sweep The Anthology (etc.) off the table and replace it with Tin Pan Alley as the proper source of Rock, why not keep The Anthology on the table, and show that it's a much more commercial, worldly document than we've been told? To me, that's the more deeply transformative insight.

And so ... all of this, rightly or wrongly, was one of the threads running through my thinking on the day I first discovered that Moe Thompson, the Tin Pan Alley-style songwriter and vaudevillian, was behind the founding of The Victoria Cafe.


Oink Joint Road

Oink joint road


In central Minnesota, on US 10 between Verndale and Wadena, you'll see a sign for Oink Joint Road.

There must be a story there ... but I don't know what it is. Probably, a hog farm is up that road, and when the owner had a chance to name it, he experienced a flash of inspiration.

In any case, when I see the sign — and I pass it about twice a year on the way to a friend's cabin — I usually picture Tom Waits whipping out his note pad and jotting down ... Oink ... Joint ... Road.

Tom Waits has made a living by collecting colorful things people say and squeezing them into songs — he has said he's "in the salvage business":

Coulda been on Easy Street, coulda been a wheel
With irons in the fire and all them business deals
But the last of the big time losers shouted before he drove away
"I'll be right back, as soon as I crack the one that got away"
A lot of songwriters do that, of course — write lyrics by collage, basically. I happen to think of Waits because he's kind of obvious about it, and it usually works beautifully.

By contrast, Bob Dylan sometimes seems to collect phrases from the ordinary speech of ordinary people. Not the striking phrases that Waits might gather — Oink Joint Road, Little Red's Recovery Room, Beulah Land — but dull, dead things that come alive in Dylan's voice:

Someone's got it in for me
They're planting stories in the press
Whoever it is, I wish they'd cut it out quick
When they will, I can only guess
I'll always insist that Dylan learned his collage method from folk songs and the blues (and, in turn, everyone else mostly learned it from him). The "floating stanzas" that he found in those old songs act a lot like the cliches of everyday speech, in that they just hang in the air waiting to be snapped into place by a singer.
Who's a-gunna walk you side-by-side
And tell you everything's alright?
Who's a-gunna sing to you all day long
And not just in the night?
The result of stitching together a lot of floating stanzas can be, over the course of the song, a strange, nonlinear train of thought that begins to make a kind of sense only slowly, in the gradually accumulating mood of the song.

And, as it turns out, that's exactly the key to how Dylan modernized vernacular song, making it work as both pop culture and impressionist verse at the same time.

And ... well, anyway. It takes about four and half hours to get from Minneapolis to our friend's cabin, so you have plenty of time to over-think things ... and Oink Joint Road does present itself ...


Hollis Brown and The Monochord on the Radio


You may have seen the essays and comments about Bob Dylan's "Hollis Brown" here and here. Well today, Jerry Clark played three records on KFAI to illustrate some of those ideas — and gave The Celestial Monochord a big juicy plug, too.

You'll be able to hear the June 21 show online (for the next two weeks only) by streaming it from here. I think the Celestial Monochord section starts somewhere after 1:16 and ends around 1:38.

Jerry begins with "Pretty Polly" (which Greil Marcus says inspired "Hollis Brown"), playing a version by Ralph Stanley.

He then plays "Poor Man" by the Louisiana Honeydrippers. Jerry contends it was certainly a more direct inspiration for Bob Dylan's song — I'll be damned if he doesn't turn out to be right about that.

He then plays an unfamiliar recording of Dylan doing "Hollis Brown." At the end, Jerry and host Dakota Dave Hull ruin my reputation with very kind words and high praise for me and The Celestial Monochord. (When you stream the audio, you can skip right to that part if you want.) Thanks, Jerry and Dave!

Listen to this episode and, come to think of it, every episode you can of Dave Hull's radio show, where Jerry is a frequent guest. I always learn enormously from it and I enjoy it mightily. I've heard rumors that radio used to be good — that it used to be kinda like this. Nah, couldn't be!


Against Bob Dylan as Poet Laureate of Minnesota

Dylan writing
Daniel Kramer (?) photo that's almost as good as a painting


This week, Governor Tim Pawlenty said he'll finally sign a bill establishing a state poet position in Minnesota.

That's a reversal of Pawlenty's stand on the issue. The poet laureate position would cost nothing (it would be unpaid — who ever heard of a paid poet?), so the governor's previous opposition seemed to stem from his simply being a jackass. Explaining his 2005 veto of a similar bill, he warned "We could also see requests for a state mime, interpretive dancer or potter." Anyway, for whatever reason, it now seems the state will have its poet.

Bob Dylan is among the writers who've been suggested for the first Poet Laureate of Minnesota. When you consider the wet blankets who are the more likely choices — the bland and obvious Patricia Hampl and Robert Bly — the choice of Bob Dylan would be wonderful. I would be delighted. But then, not everything is about my happiness.

There are some philosophical and logistical problems with His Bobness occupying the role. For starters, I don't think Dylan would accept, and if he did, I don't think he would show up and read Robert Frost to third-graders with the gusto that Bly would bring to the task.

Back when my wife was teaching poetry at the University of Minnesota, students would frequently bring in favorite "poems" that turned out to be Bob Dylan songs — or Patti Smith or Leonard Cohen or Doors songs — stripped of their music. Oddly, any suggestion that these were not really poems, but rather lyrics to songs, was interpreted as denying their quality. To say that Dylan is a lyricist and not a poet was to say that he isn't very good at what he does.

As I remember it, my wife seemed most concerned that her students didn't know bad poetry when they saw it. I was more troubled by the idea that a great lyricist needs to be confused for a poet to get any respect.

Around the same time, we went to the opening of an exhibition of photographs by a friend of ours. During the Q&A session, someone gushed that his photographs were so wonderful they almost looked like PAINTINGS. I thought I saw our friend suppress a cringe. A great photographer is not merely a frustrated painter, an artist who can't draw. Painting and photography share certain principles, potentials and limitations, but photography can do many things — and mean in many ways — that painting can never hope to do or mean. Still, we don't think of Jackson Pollock as just a rotten photographer.

Similarly, the writing of song lyrics is an art that shares a few devices with poetry — rhyme, lines, metaphor — but its essence is entirely different. Lyrics stand in relation, like plot stands in relation to character and setting in a novel. Isolating plot from all the other elements of a novel leaves you with ... well, Cliff Notes. Even if it's a good plot.

Certainly, you can isolate lyrics from their music to see if they "stand on their own" — but that's not a test of their quality. Great lyrics can sound horrid without their music, and horrid lyrics can be OK on their own. Stripping the music away from song lyrics is like stripping a poem of its verbs. The poem might still work well on some level, but only by accident. To be a good poem, you don't have to hold up without your verbs.

Or ... well, how about yet another comparison ... how about lyrics as film, and music as projector? We would never say a film isn't great on the grounds that it doesn't "stand on its own" as a spooled-up strip of plastic in a can.

At the recent Dylan symposium in Minneapolis, Anne Waldman read a quote from Bob ... I wish I could locate it now, instead of repeating it from memory. Its essence was like this: "I decided I didn't want to write novels or poems or plays. Those had already been done, and I wanted a fresh field. I wanted to write songs. Nobody had ever written songs before. Not REALLY."

I took this desire to "really" write songs as meaning that no writer of popular songs had ever taken full advantage of the full set of literary techniques and attitudes available to poets and other writers — all the approaches to metaphor and image and plot and, most of all, meaning. Dylan exported, if you will, all of that poetic language and vision from poetry to popular song.

There may have been a time when Dylan seemed to severely test the boundary between poetry and lyrics — a moment of confusion. But I think he is a victim of his own success. Much of the rest of the songwriting world has learned the lessons he had to teach, adopted some of his approach, and now nobody doubts that Stop Making Sense and The Missing Years and Mule Variations are collections of songs, not poems set to music.

I've fidgeted with these ideas for quite a while because of Dylan's nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature. The day that Dylan's Nobel is announced will be one of the happiest of my life. I would be beside myself with joy. But if I were on the Nobel selection committee — not a very plausible counter-factual here, folks — I would vote against him.

I've been on committees, and it takes a very peculiar state of mind to serve on them well. You have to think like a committee member, tracking where your power is and where it is not, remembering that everything you do can undermine your own best intentions. As Bob himself said, " A lot of things can get in the way when you're trying to do what's right."

As a committee member, I would have to acknowledge that literature is something you write down on a piece of paper and then pass around for others to read. Dylan has done some of this, but his best work — the work we love him for — is sung. The experience of sitting alone in silence, reading, is the essence of literature, and this isn't where Bob has made his contribution.

Picasso didn't win the Nobel Prize for literature either, but not because he didn't "deserve" it — he just didn't write literature. Probably, there should be another category of Nobel Prize that gives other kinds of artists their due, but at present, there just isn't. If only there were a Minnesota State Lyricist ... or Mime ...

And so (remembering that brevity is what I love most about poetry), I'm afraid I have to vote for my own misery — more accolades for the poet responsible for Iron John, another snub to the lyricist responsible for Idiot Wind and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.


Editor's Note: In addition to the comments below, here's a discussion on the subject.


Dylan Symposium - Dave Marsh

Dave Marsh and the notes he didn't use


The Dylan symposium held late last month in Minneapolis could have been called "The Geography of Bob Dylan."

Organizer Colleen Sheehy told me that her original idea had been to stage a Minnesota-focused symposium on Dylan, to bring it all back home. But as things developed and grew, it was clear that the geography had to be extended south down Highway 61, and east to Greenwich Village, and across the globe. Nearly everything I saw in the four days of the symposium was focused on location, location, location.

Not long into the first day of the symposium, music writer Dave Marsh realized he needed to rethink the presentation he was scheduled to give the next day. He had planned to argue, as he'd been doing for much of the last 30 years, that Bob Dylan didn't just happen to come from the Midwest — he HAD to come from here. The Midwest matters if you want to understand Dylan's art.

But now, after seeing the first couple hours of the symposium, it had sunk in that he no longer needed to make this argument. The geography of the symposium was already centered squarely on Minnesota. Knocked off the mark he'd long ago grown used to occupying, Marsh seemed forced to reach into fresher, less familiar material. Throughout his presentation, his emotions seemed raw and his voice wobbly.

Here's what my notes and memory can recover of one of the symposium's most moving moments.

Marsh went back to his initial response to Dylan's music, back when Marsh was a kid growing up in Michigan. He associates the very first line of With God on Our Side with the largely invisible experience of growing up in what is now known as "flyover country."

My name it is nothing
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
There's an emptiness to America's imagination with respect to the Midwest — it's blank in a way The West isn't blank, in a way The South isn't blank. Marsh invested his hopes in Dylan, in the possibility that Dylan could help fill in that blank.

It wasn't just the place, it was the times. Growing up in the Midwest in the mid-sixties, there were huge slabs of the imagination that were forbidden zones, very many impermissible thoughts. Dylan, Marsh said, was a giant act of permission.

Bruce Springsteen famously said that Dylan freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body. Marsh says Dylan provided a way for a Midwesterner to imagine freedom. The syntax of freedom, he said, is especially hard to hear when you haven't ever been particularly oppressed. Dylan provided Marsh with a way to imagine his own liberation from confines that Marsh himself had had trouble identifying. Marsh wouldn't have known the route out of town if Dylan hadn't taken it first.

Finally (maybe in the Q&A session), Marsh talked about seeing in Dylan's demeanor — his way of occupying his own mind and body — a familiarity that might be unseen to somebody who didn't grow up in the here. I've long felt this too.

In the old footage of Dylan's 1960's press conferences, and in his later interviews, Marsh and I recognize the Midwestern sense that there are simply some things that are none of your f---ing business. When all the reporters snicker, Marsh and I often think he's not being ironic. It isn't funny. People said Dylan had given up singing protest songs, but we wonder what they were talking about. Bob Dylan's 115th Dream protests absolutely everything that ever happened on this continent in the last 500 years. Are they hearing a different song, or are they just coming from a different place?

I'm anxious to see how Marsh's extemporaneous talk will appear in the book based on this symposium. It was one of the high points ... certainly, Marsh has a very deep reservoir of history with Dylan's music, and decided to use his spot for a heart-to-heart, turning over fresh soil along the entire row.


Editor's Note: This is part of a series of entries about the Bob Dylan symposium held in Minneapolis from March 25 to 27, 2007. An authoritative book based on the conference is planned for early 2008, so I won't try to do justice to the conference or the papers delivered there. I'll just try to explain the most interesting stuff that wound up in my notepad.


Hollis Brown Revisited



Editor's Note: The following is a "guest entry" by Lyle Lofgren, written in response to my "Hollis Brown's South Dakota." Lyle is a member of the legendary Minneapolis stringband The Brandy Snifters (whose members also include Jon Pankake) and he's a frequent contributor to Inside Bluegrass. Thanks, Lyle!



I'm convinced that "Hollis Brown," like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," is based on a real incident that Dylan read about in a newspaper. Hollis Brown might not have been his real name and it might not have happened in South Dakota, but the isolation there provides a perfect poetic landscape. A major difference between the two songs is that the Hattie Carroll story, which happened at a time of national racial conflict, was widely reported. A Hollis Brown story would have been only of local interest because it's so common. Horrifying murder-suicides happen all the time.

When I was only a few weeks old, in 1936, my small community of Harris, Minnesota, was startled when the Albin Johnson farmhouse burned down in the middle of the night. Inside were the bodies of Mrs. Johnson and her seven children. Their heads were missing, later found buried in a field. Albin himself was never found, although there were reports from Montana and Canada of someone who looked like him. I haven't bothered to check the newspaper accounts, but I'll bet it was not front-page news in the metro newspapers, even though locals were still talking about it when I was old enough to understand what they were saying.

I grew up on a dairy farm where we had little cash, though we didn't need much because my grandfather had already paid for the farm. The truly poor people in the neighborhood were those with mortgages, because cash flow is a serious problem on a farm. People who lived in the country but worked in town were in even worse shape, because a downturn in the farm economy amplifies small-town unemployment. The government had no safety net for small farmers, small-town merchants, or the rural poor -- until the late 1950s, they couldn't even get social security, assuming they lived until age 65.

This left only two support avenues: family and church. But in a rural community, you couldn't ask for help from either: everyone knows you and your history, so, paradoxically, failing is an unforgivable sin. If you have any pride, you can't ask, and if you don't have any pride, they won't help. Besides, the churches at that time were obsessed with sending missionaries to convert the world, and so couldn't be bothered with local poverty.

Perhaps the strongest message society sent to the individual was that the basic definition of a man's worth (a woman's place was in the home) was his ability to provide for his family. If you failed at that, you failed the test of life. Some failed men pulled up stakes and took their families west for a new start. Others moved west without taking their families, although most did not follow Albin Johnson's example of killing them first. Others, such as my cousin (twice removed), killed only themselves, leaving the families to survive somehow. None of those options made the newspapers at all -- only the Hollis Brown solution could rate a sidebar on an inside page.

I regard "Hollis Brown" as one of Dylan's best early compositions. I wish more people would sing it, as it should enter the body of traditional ballads alongside its tune-mate "Pretty Polly." I would argue, though, that the stories are completely different. "Pretty Polly" is a standard pregnancy ballad of a callous murder, but the story, although first person narration, never gets inside the murderer's brain. You're correct in identifying the song's empathy. Dylan's song expresses a sense of doom and desperation that's not like any other composition I've heard.

It might be interesting to compare an analogous song, "The Murder of the Lawson Family," by the Carolina Buddies (Columbia 15537-D, recorded in March 1930). The song is based on a true story: on Christmas Day, 1929, Charlie Lawson murdered his wife and 8 (not 6) children near Lawsonville in Stokes County, NC. The waltz tune is close to that used for "Fatal Flower Garden" in the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music.

1. It was on last Christmas evening,
    a snow was on the ground,
    near his home in North Carolina
    where this murderer, he was found.

2. His name was Charlie Lawson,
    and he had a loving wife,
    but we'll never know what caused him
    to take his family's life.

3. They say he killed his wife at first,
    and the little ones did cry,
    "Please, Papa, won't you spare our lives,
    for it is so hard to die."

4. But the ragin' man could not be stopped,
    he would not heed their call
    and kept on firing fatal shots
    until he killed them all.

5. And when the sad, sad news was heard,
    It was a great surprise.
    He killed six children and his wife,
    and then he closed their eyes.

6. "And now farewell, kind friends and home.
    I'll see you all no more.
    Into my heart I'll fire one shot,
    then my troubles will by o'er."

7. They did not carry him to jail,
    No lawyers did he pay.
    He will have his trial in another world
    on the final judgement day.

8. They all were buried in a crowded grave.
    While the angels watched above.
    "Come home, come home, my little ones,
    to the land of peace and love."
This is almost the epitome of a conventional topical song with 19th century themes. Insanity is implied, but, in spite of the imagined dialogue, the composer never gets close to understanding what happened. It even has a happy ending in heaven. When I sing this song, it doesn't disturb me. I'm quite sure that, at the time he composed "Hollis Brown," Dylan had not heard the Carolina Buddies song (tape dubs of it didn't circulate much until late in the 1960s), but even if he had, there's no relation between the two.

In "Hollis Brown," Dylan's choice of subject matter, and his diction, owe a lot to Woody Guthrie, but the artistic stance is Dylan's own (I regard Dylan's "Song to Woody" as being, on one level, a declaration of independence). If Woody had written the song, he would have emphasized the class and economic conditions that led to Brown's plight, such as the rapacious bankers or the railroad tycoons. Dylan's version has no social or political commentary, but instead shows you alienation and depression from the inside. It's a second-person ballad that sounds like first person.

The last verse,

There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm (2)
Somewhere in the distance there's seven new people born
is probably the coldest piece of poetry I've ever heard, and it goes far beyond the "limits of empathy." It implies that, not only was Hollis Brown a failed breadwinner, he was a failed evolutionary experiment. Intentionally wiping out everyone in your progeny is a special kind of failure. Woody's socio-political explanations could never encompass such an idea.

I can't imagine how Dylan got the inspiration to suddenly shift from a view inside a doomed man's brain to God's view: it's over for them, but life renews itself, and there's always a new throw of the dice. The denouement reminds me of James Joyce's description of the artist's role after the work is done:

"The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails."
But as a listener, I can't be that indifferent, particularly given the coincidence of my birth with the Albin Johnson family deaths, with the implication that maybe I was one of the new people to take their places. You can imagine how impressed I was by Dylan's last verse.


Dylan Symposium - Hibbing Visit Revisited

C. P. Lee
(author C. P. Lee contemplates the world's largest man-made hole
— all photos by The Celestial Monochord)


See also Part One


The Minneapolis leg of the exhibit "Bob Dylan's American Journey" — and only that leg, if I understand right — begins with plenty of vivid stories and poignant artifacts about Dylan's early life in Hibbing and Minneapolis.

But even after studying that material at the Weisman Art Museum for a couple of hours, I still somehow didn't "get" Dylan's home town of Hibbing. I had to travel there physically to understand that it's a stunning place that really MATTERS if you're to understand Bob Dylan. It was not the anonymous little speed-zone I had imagined — if you grew up in Hibbing, you grew up in an absolutely singular place of brutal extremes and mind-bending ironies. You grew up in Dylan Country.

Hull-Rust-Mahoning Iron Mine
(the pit of the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Iron Mine)

Consider the world's largest man-made hole. This open pit, the result of iron strip-mining, is not an attraction near Hibbing so much as it is a boundary at the ever-shifting town limits. It's part of Hibbing. Nearly four miles long, two miles wide, and 180 yards deep, it supplied a quarter of the iron mined in the 1940's for WWII.

Every Wednesday at 11 a.m., the mine conducts dynamite blasting — colossal explosions that bow the windows along the town's main street and rattle Abraham Lincoln's photo hanging on the wall in the high school classrooms. When Dylan was living here, the blasts were a much more frequent than that — it's reasonable to imagine Dylan's first reading of Walt Whitman interrupted by a bone-rattling dynamite explosion that was literally an act of war.

North Hibbing  North Hibbing
(North Country Blues: streets going nowhere, doorsteps without doors)

Before Dylan was born, the pit grew so big that the whole town had to be lifted off its foundations and physically moved a couple miles down the road to a brand-new Hibbing. The Hibbing that Bob's mother knew was known to Bob as a wasteland — a grid of streets that went nowhere, front porch stairs that led to no porch and no home, foundations with no buildings on top of them. The place looked like Yucca Flats after the blast.

(on a glass table, the mine's main product — taconite pellets)

Understandably, the politics and culture that led to these events — and to possibly the most spectacular public school in the United States (the subject of my previous entry) — were themselves singular and extreme. They're unlikely to be central to any tour you'll receive if you visit Hibbing, but be sure to ask about the political culture of the region.

If there is a more leftist rural population anywhere in the United States, I would like to know about it. When Greil Marcus was told, a few years ago, that there are communists and socialists in the working-class bars along Hibbing's main street having arguments that've gone on for 100 years, he immediately planned his first trip to the Iron Range. It is no more a coincidence that the region produced Bob Dylan than Gus Hall, or that it was the epicenter of support for Paul Wellstone.

(the main drag of Hibbing, Minnesota)

Besides the iron mine and Hibbing's high school — both jaw-dropping sights — there's plenty more in Hibbing for a Dylan fan to see. There's the home of Echo Helstrom, who Dylan says brought out the poetry in him. There's the auditorium where Dylan played his first paying gig. There's the Moose Lodge where Dylan used to practice on their piano. There's the hotel where Dylan had his bar mitzvah. There's the synagogue he attended. And, of course, there's his boyhood home. After all this, you'll want to drink and think. The natural place would be Zimmy's, a Bob Dylan-themed bar and restaurant.

I'm embarrassed to say that I lived in Minneapolis for 19 years without very much questioning the prevailing impression that Dylan grew up in some forgettable little town — it hardly mattered which. (In fact, I'm embarrassed by thinking ANYBODY grew up in such a place.) I'm thankful to the organizers of the Dylan Symposium (particularly Colleen Sheehy) for providing the incentive to go to Hibbing personally. In my experience, that's the only way its importance can "sink in."

Until you can get there, look for a great article by Greil Marcus about Hibbing High School to appear soon (I think in the spring issue of Daedalus).


Editor's Note: This is part of a series of entries about the Bob Dylan symposium held in Minneapolis from March 25 to 27, 2007. An authoritative book based on the conference is planned for early 2008, so I won't even try to do much justice to the conference or the papers delivered there.

Instead, I'll try to explain the most interesting stuff that wound up in my notepad, with little of The Celestial Monochord's customary contemplative ruminations. The writing on the symposium will be a little more like "covering" an event, citizen-journalist style.


Dylan Symposium - Hibbing High School

Relief in Hibbing High School Library
(a bas relief in the Hibbing High School library
— all photos by The Celestial Monochord)


See also Part Two


During 19 years in Minneapolis, I had never been to Hibbing. My first trip was on Saturday, the day before the start of the Bob Dylan symposium, the day 60 symposium participants took a tour bus to Bob Dylan's home town.

During my life in the Twin Cities, I'd always figured that I've already been to — and through — hundreds of small towns across the Upper Midwest. I knew it would be false to say that all small towns are the same, but one does start to "get the idea" after the first 200 or so. I figured Bob Dylan came from one of those places.

But I was wrong. I was not prepared for Hibbing, and immediately regretted not having visited the place during the previous two decades. It is a startling place in its own right — the most singular small town I've ever been to, even outside of its connection to Bob Dylan.

Consider Hibbing High School, the public school that Dylan attended. I don't know if there's a more spectacularly opulent or elegant high school — public or private — anywhere in the world. There might be. It seemed perfectly reasonable when Greil Marcus said, in his keynote address the next day, "It is the most impressive public building outside of Washington DC that I have ever seen." Marcus is often said to write opaque prose, but he kept that sentence simple.

Fallout shelter sign at Hibbing High School
(a fallout shelter sign at Hibbing High School)

Hibbing High School was built in 1920-1922 for just under $4 million. This figure is not adjusted for inflation — in 1920 dollars, it cost about four million dollars. There is a grand marble staircase inside its front entry, flanked on either side by imposing brass hand railings and hand-painted murals depicting the histories of Minnesota and the United States.

The walls of the school library are decorated with about eight hand-carved bas reliefs depicting children joyously singing and playing musical instruments. The most striking artwork in the library is an enormous hand-painted mural depicting the process of iron mining, with workers representing all the ethnic groups living in northern Minnesota at the time. On either side of the mural are lines of poetry.

chandelier in Hibbing High auditorium
(a chandelier in Hibbing High auditorium)

Adjacent to the library is an 1800-seat auditorium at least as opulent, stately, and big as any of the dazzling old theaters in the Twin Cities — the State, the Orpheum, the Fitzgerald. Its exit signs are made of hand-cut stained glass. Its seven-foot diameter chandeliers were imported from Austria and cost $4,000 each in 1920 dollars. The factory that made them was destroyed in WWII — they are irreplaceable.

view from the stage of the Hibbing High School auditorium
(a view from the stage of the Hibbing High School auditorium)

This is the auditorium where young Bob Zimmerman pounded out a Little Richard song, and the audience greeted him with such loud boo's that the principal closed the curtains on this performance. Or so the story goes.

Neither this school nor the rest of Hibbing (which will be the subject of my next entry) provided any simple keys to how Zimmerman became the Dylan we know. I found no easy way to map the town's coordinates directly onto Dylan's later art — it's not as if Zimmerman lived at the corner of Subterranean Homesick Boulevard and Tears of Rage Street. Well ... not literally.

What was plain to everybody on that bus tour was that Bob Dylan DID NOT come from an ordinary place, some anonymous little nowhere. Hibbing is, in a number of ways, a jaw-dropping place that has to be seen up close if it — or Bob Dylan — are to be understood.

Greil Marcus, March 25, 2007
(Greil Marcus, March 25, 2007)

Standing in the auditorium, I wondered if I would ever find attention span, intelligence, and room-of-my-own enough to sort out what this astounding experience might mean. Luckily, the very next morning, on the first day of the Bob Dylan symposium in Minneapolis, Greil Marcus delivered a keynote address that felt like some kind of deja vu in advance — its title was Hibbing High School and "The Mystery of Democracy." Marcus had already been there, with his formitable concentration and intelligence very much in attendance.

When that address appears in print, I urge you to read it with all the attention you can give it. Even more emphatically, I urge you to GO TO HIBBING. It will take you back to the beginning — back to Dylan's and back to square one in your thinking about him.


See also Part Two


Editor's Note: This is part of a series of entries about the Bob Dylan symposium held in Minneapolis from March 25 to 27, 2007. An authoritative book based on the conference is planned for early 2008, so I won't even try to do much justice to the conference or the papers delivered there.

Instead, I'll try to explain the most interesting stuff that wound up in my notepad, with little of The Celestial Monochord's customary contemplative ruminations. The writing on the symposium will be a little more like "covering" an event, citizen-journalist style.


Summer of '88

Spider John Koerner listens to the The Phleshtones
at the Battle of the Jug Bands, Minneapolis, February 11, 2007


As I write, we're socked in here this morning with the biggest snowstorm in many years. Big drifts, lace in the trees, shovels everywhere, cars rocking back and forth. Whenever I see such scenes, strangely enough, I think of my first summer here in Minneapolis.

I moved here from Tucson in the summer of 1988, a miserably, scorchingly hot summer in the Twin Cities. The drought was so severe that nobody knew if the water level of the Mississippi River would drop below the intakes — if it did, a million people would suddenly have no running water. As if it weren't miserable enough, it was also an election year.

My move to Minnesota probably magnifies my memory of that summer. But it felt as if the whole state knew the same existential dread, almost as if we could all sense it was the first season of the end of the world (which, in fact, may not turn out to be so far from the truth).

More than a decade later, I first saw Spider John Koerner in concert, and was surprised to find this legendary Minnesota musician had written a great song about the summer of 1988. It sure seemed like he'd seen the same summer I had.

Good profiles have been written about John Koerner and I can't top them, not today. Even Bob Dylan himself — The Great Written About — wrote about Koerner at some length in his Chronicles autobiography. For one thing, Dylan says Koerner introduced him to the albums of the New Lost City Ramblers.

It's said that Koerner wrote "Summer of '88" after many years of not writing anything at all, and it does sound like something you'd say after a long silence. Koerner casts his eye on everything on planet Earth and pulls it all into the song — liberal-conservative left-right wingers, crop prices, fools in the local water hole, money boys, nasty boys, science boys, religion boys, a girl named Lou ...

A red-tailed hawk when he's flying up high
Can see a little bitty snake with his razor-sharp eye
And an eight-hooter owl with her sensitive eye
Can see a hundred-thousand stars more than you or I
Spider John was thinking about the Apocalypse that summer, too — quite a bit, it seems — only what he thought about it was that it didn't seem to be going on at the moment ... at least not around the West Bank of the University of Minnesota, where he's still playing his gigs, sounding better than he ever has in his life ...
Well the moon hangs low and the moon hangs high
And the good old Earth hangs in the sky
Well the sun never rises and the sun never sets
And you know it ain't over yet
You can get a recording of the song on his Raised By Humans CD. I remember there was footage of Koerner performing the entire song — and nine others, I believe — in the documentary about him, Been Here ... Done That, although it's hard to know how to get a hold of the DVD. I saw it in the theater.

The best thing is to see Koerner in person. I don't have his complete recordings, but from what I can tell, that's where the strange beauty of his guitar style strikes home best. He plays in ragged phrases that lurch, like a long deep breath, and then fall silent for a couple beats, and then start again. These wonderful pauses say a lot, and allow him the opportunity to just change tempo or meter, or key or song — whatever it takes — for as long as he pleases. It's an unmistakeable style. His voice is rough but high and clear, and is perfect for his playing and perfect for singing folk songs for people drinking bourbon. They say there was a time when people used to give him crap for not being "authentic," although it's hard to imagine now.

Well, there's a coda to this story. The first winter I was in Minnesota, I sat in an ice cream shop in Dinkytown, looking down 14th street just after that winter's first really deep snowfall. It dawned on me that I had seen that exact same street buried in that exact same snowfall before — big drifts, lace in the trees, shovels everywhere, cars rocking back and forth. But this was my first winter in Minnesota, so how could this be? I had not seen it in a dream, and this was not déjà vu.

It took about five minutes of puzzling to realize that, back on the hottest day of the summer of 1988, I had sat in the same ice cream shop and looked down the same street, anticipating what it would be like to experience winter for the first time after spending four years in Tucson. It was on that blisteringly hot day that I had IMAGINED how that snowy Dinkytown scene would look during my first Minnesota winter. I'd seen it before, but only in my mind's eye. So ... there was something about that summer of 1988, the way it played games with my memory and imagination, and maybe Spider John's too.



Editor's Note: This is installment 25 of 28 entries in which I seek to post something to The Celestial Monochord every day for the entire month of February. Around here, that's quite a feat.


Bob Dylan Disappointed Folk Music Purists

Like a lot of bloggers, I'm unnaturally drawn to my site statistics. Of course, I like it when the number of visitors spikes up higher than usual — as it certainly has this month. But the real attraction is seeing where visitors come from, how they got to The Celestial Monochord.

You see when somebody's linked to you. I get a lot of hits from Boney Earnest's Suburban Hilltop Tent Revue, Cowtown Pattie, BanjoBanjar, and a lot of other places, especially BoingBoing, who once picked up an entry about my cats. The other day, I noticed somebody from the Weird Al Yankovic discussion list linked to that cat entry. Now and then, something about Dylan is picked up by Expecting Rain, which perks things up considerably.

Mostly, visitors come from Google. There are times when I can tell somebody has seen one of my entries somewhere and they can't remember where. So, they go to Google and they type in whatever they can remember. Why else would you search for something like "hillbilly fulgurite"?

Sometimes, it seems someone is looking for information and I'm gratified to see that they came to the right place — maybe they've searched for "einstein moe asch folkways" or "what causes sundogs". Other times, it's clear they've come to my site hoping to find a certain kind of information and it seems very likely they were disappointed, as when someone was searching for information on the 2006 winner of the Stanley Cup and got this.

But for nearly a year now, somebody's been pissing me off. For some reason, about twice a month EVERY month, somebody goes to Google and types in "In July of 1965, Bob Dylan disappointed folk music purists by "going electric" at their annual gathering in what city.

Apparently, the person would REALLY like to know in what city this occurred, and they have a long-standing curiosity about the answer. However, despite never receiving a satisfactory result, it does not dawn on them that maybe they should change their search terms. Or maybe they should go to a damned library. I can't think of any other reason someone would type the same question into Google over and over and over again, for months. Apparently, this person is waiting for someone to put something on the internet with that exact string of characters, and then answer the question.

Well, that day has arrived, buddy boy. Since I can't think of anything else to write today, let me put a decisive end to this person's curiosity. (And — gentle reader of the Monochord — I'm sorry you have to witness this.)


Question: In July of 1965, Bob Dylan disappointed folk music purists by "going electric" at their annual gathering in what city?




Now knock it off, you idiot!

HERE! Now you can find all kinds of interesting links to articles and other resources having to do with this over-blown, irrelevant, piddly little flap that happened FORTY TWO YEARS AGO! Read every single last one of them extremely closely and then drop dead!


Thank you for your forbearance, gentle reader.


Editor's Note: This is installment 23 of a 28-installment marathon. I don't know ... maybe it shows. In any case, I'm trying to post something to The Celestial Monochord every day during the month of February.


Bob Dylan's American Journey

Lord Growing


Last night (as I write this), my wife and I had dinner at one of our regular spots, the Loring Pasta Bar in Dinkytown. During my first 13 years in Minneapolis, it was a drug store. And Bob Dylan lived above that drug store 30 years before that.

Today, I went to the Bob Dylan exhibit a few blocks from there at the Weisman Art Museum. To my eyes, it has two sections. The first puts Dylan into the social context of Hibbing, Minnesota and the Dinkytown neighborhood where he nominally went to college. The second part displays cool and undoubtedly expensive collectibles from Dylan's later career.

When I visited Washington DC a year ago, I promised myself I would really try to learn something by studying the "social context" type exhibits. But after a lot of traveling and schlepping bags around and figuring out the Metro system, I was more than happy to just gawk at the actual gun that killed Lincoln, Archie Bunker's actual chair, Wilbur Wright's actual mandolin.

The Weisman exhibit's Minnesota section will not be traveling with the exhibit to other parts of the country (if I understand correctly), but it gives us the best of both types of museum experiences — insight into the Iron Range world Dylan was born into and what kind of environment he walked into in Dinkytown, as well as piles of "actual" stuff.

We get a couple actual pages of a high school term paper Bob Zimmerman wrote on the Grapes of Wrath (the paper is entitled "Does Steinbeck Sympathize With His Characters?" and we can see that the teacher felt Bob had over-used the phrase "You can't help but like ...").

We get a couple actual copies of Little Sandy Review, the folk music magazine founded by Paul Nelson and Jon Pankake. It turns out the magazine was actually LITTLE — about 4 x 7 inches. I imagine it was sandy, too. I should have named this blog The Big Tidy Review.

There's a copy of the real Anthology of American Folk Music — the analog thing you dropped a needle on. I've never seen it before.

And movingly, there's a little white t-shirt with "Greystone Park Hospital" stenciled on it. The card next to it reads "Woody Guthrie wore this t-shirt during the five-year period from 1956 to 1961 that he was confined to Greystone State Hospital — he called it 'Gravestone' ..." But it's roughly at this time that the revealing historical context starts to slip away and we're left with little else but these kinds of neat artifacts ... not that there's anything wrong with that. I like actual stuff, too.

We see the familiar "Mickey Mouse ears" camera with which Pennebaker filmed Don't Look Back, uncorrected galley proofs of Tarantula, Bruce Langhorne's actual tambourine (i.e., THE tambourine). There's a genuine Lovin Spoonful souvenir spoon (which looks like a mighty small spoonful, in my experience). I half expected to see Lord Growing stuffed and mounted.

I spent two hours on it and needed another, especially if I was going to listen to the audio clips and watch the videos, at least some of which came from Scorsese's recent documentary.

It's an excellent exhibit, really. If you're in — or can get to — Minneapolis before April 29, definitely do it and give it three hours. Then go have pasta at the Loring in Dinkytown. Most important, see some live music -- check my Monochord Minnesota links, for example. There's also a decent chance the brilliant Spider John Koerner is in town, and he is very much worth the trip from wherever you happen to be.


Editor's Note: This is installment 19 of this thing where I'm trying to post something every day, all month long. Or was it all day, every month long?


Achilles Is In Your Alleyway


When I first started hitting the old stuff hard, I mostly listened to blues from the 1930's through the 1950's. And some of my favorite recordings were things like Memphis Minnie's "Keep On Eating":

Every time I cook, looks like you can't get enough
Fix you a pot of soup and make you drink it up

So keep on a-eating
Oh, keep on a-eating
Keep on eating
Baby till you get enough

I know you're crazy about your oysters and your shrimps and crabs
Take you round the corner and give you a chance to grab

I've cooked and cooked till I done got tired
Can't fill you up of my fried apple pie

I know you got a bad cold and you can't smell
I ain't gonna give you something that I can't sell
And then there was another favorite, Sonny Terry's spirited rendition of "Custard Pie":
I'm gunna tell you something, baby, ain't gunna to tell no lie
I want some of your custard pie.

Well, I want some of it
Yes, I want some of it
You gotta give me some of it
Before you give it all away.

Well, I don't care if you live across the street
When you cut your pie please save me a piece
Now, when you listen to such songs metaphorically and creatively, if you read between the lines and against the grain, as it were, if you try to catch their double meaning ... it's almost as if these songs could also be about FOOD! And actually, they're kind of sweet as food songs. Maybe it's me.

Of course, my joke here is how these raunchy blues tunes supposedly fooled somebody at some point (who or when, I don't know) into thinking they were only about food (or deep sea divers, or horse jockeys), when in fact they were also "secretly" about sex. Today, anyway, most of us have to use our imagination and concentrate to hear them literally. The literal and figurative meanings have switched places — the "vehicle" has become the "tenor," as I'm supposed to say, sitting here with my masters degree staring down at me.

There's some old songs about sex that are on the other extreme. They do such a good job of hiding their meanings that the metaphors barely take place at all. The literal (non-sexual, tenor) images and the figurative (sexual, vehicle) meanings are connected by gossamer threads so tenuous, thin, and indirect that they almost snap. You're left with a set of nearly free-floating, abstracted images with little particular connection to anything — you're left with something like modern poetry:

The Old Man At The Mill

Down set an owl with his head so white
Lonesome day and a lonesome night
Thought I heard some pretty girls say
Court all night and sleep next day

Well, the same old man sittin' at the mill
Mill turns around of its own free will
One hand in the hopper and the other in the sack
Ladies step forward and the gents fall back

I spied a woodpecker sittin on a fence
Once I courted a handsome wench
She got saucy and she from me fled
Ever since then, well, my head's been red

"Well," said the raven as he flew,
"If I was a young man I'd have two.
One for to get and the other for to sew
I'd get another string for my bow, bow, bow."

Well, my old man's from Kalamazoo
He don't wear no yes-I-do
First to the left and then to the right
This old mill grinds day and night
Like a lot of other 20th Century modern art, Bob Dylan's poetics were inspired by "primitive" folk sources. Just as Picasso and T. S. Elliot and Brancusi and Stravinsky were inspired by folk art around the world (African masks, etc.), Dylan figured out the trick of modernism from folk music. He cracked the case of how to make a popular music (I mean music very large numbers of people wanted to hear) that was also modernist art -- abstract, with unstable and open-ended, shared meanings. Set the raunchy "Old Man At The Mill" beside Dylan's raunchy "Temporarily Like Achilles," for example:
Well, I rush into your hallway
And lean against your velvet door
I watch upon your scorpion
Who crawls across your circus floor
Just what do you think you have to guard?
You know I want your lovin'
Honey, but you're so hard.
But to give credit where credit is due, the idea really settled itself into my head while I was thinking about John Prine's "Forbidden Jimmy." It's a bawdy song in which the sexual symbols are so unattached to their literal meanings that they're free-floating, they operate as modern poetry:
Forbidden Jimmy, he's got a mighty sore tooth
From biting too many dimes in a telephone booth
He's got half of his bootlace tied to the dial
Thank you, operator, for getting Jimmy to smile
"Call out the Coast Guard," screamed the police
Forbidden Jimmy, he's got three water-skis
He put two on his wavelength and gave one to his girl
She's a mighty fine person, it's a mighty fine world
I got caught cooking popcorn and calling it hail
They wanna stick my head inside a watering pail
Ya know, they're gonna be sorry, they're gonna pay for it too
Forbidden Jimmy, he's coming straight at you
John Prine and Tom Waits were from that first generation of songwriters to learn the trick of modernism from Dylan. Of course, both have also reached around Dylan ... let me rephrase that ... both have gone directly to the same source Dylan did, by listening to and responding to the old American blues and country.


Editor's Note: This is the sixteenth installment of my frenzied attempt to post something or other to The Celestial Monochord every day for the entire month of February without winding up like Katerina Ivanovna. This thing is more than half done! It's supposed to get up above 10°F in Minneapolis this weekend! There is light at the end of the tunnel! Go towards the light, Celestial Monochord!


First Lady of the Air



The first review of a Bob Dylan concert ever published in the New York Times (maybe the first ever published anywhere) was written by Robert Shelton in September 1961, and it's become a minor legend all its own. When Dylan first met producer John Hammond, Dylan immediately slapped the review into Hammond's hand. By the end of that first meeting, Dylan was a "Columbia recording artist," as they still declare at the start of his concerts today. If I have my lore correct.

I just realized today that, in that 1961 review, Shelton ends with a short description of the headliner of the bill that night -- a Greenwich Village bluegrass band called The Greenbriar Boys. I got into them a few years go because the band's mandolin player, Ralph Rinzler, went on to rekindle Bill Monroe's career as his manager, and then went on to become one of the most important folklorists of the century.

Shelton even mentions one of the songs in the Greenbriar Boys' repertoire, "Farewell, Amelia Earhart, First Lady of the Air" (the correct title is "Amelia Earhart's Last Flight"). The song is one of those tragic, tear-jerkin' country ballads I always make fun of by adopting a phony southern accent and saying "That song always makes me cry!"

But in this case, it really does always make me cry. It's become a real favorite of mine over the past two years -- I even played it on the radio when I was on Dave Hull's show in August. The Ditch Lilies, an all-woman Minnesota oldtime/bluegrass band, sometimes do their rendition of it at their gigs ... if the audience is lucky. Here are the lyrics as the Greenbriar Boys sing them on their "best of" collection:

A ship out on the ocean, just a speck against the sky
Amelia Earhart flying that sad day
With her partner, Captain Noonan, on the second of July
Her plane fell in the ocean, far away

There's a beautiful, beautiful field
Far away in a land that is fair
Happy landings to you, Amelia Earhart
Farewell, First Lady of the Air

Well, a half an hour later an SOS was heard
The signal weak, but still her voice was brave
Oh, in shark-infested waters her plane went down that night
In the deep Pacific, to a watery grave. [Chorus]

Well, now you have heard my story of that awful tragedy
We pray that she might fly home safe again
Oh, in years to come though others blaze a trail across the sea
We'll ne'er forget Amelia and her plane. [Chorus]

OK now -- here, at long last, is the real point. A biography of Charles Lindbergh's wife has recently been released, and the author is making the rounds -- I heard her on Minnesota Public Radio recently, for example. The book is called "Anne Morrow Lindbergh: First Lady of the Air."

Hey! Amelia Earhart already has a claim on the knickname of First Lady of the Air! It's right there, prominently placed as the hook in the chorus of a great song! Anne Morrow Lindbergh is a skunk! ... why, if Anne and Amelia had met back in 1929, I'd imagine they'd have a tremendous wrestling match! The Lindbergh-Earhart SMACKDOWN! ... maybe wearing jodhpurs and those boots ...

Anyway, no, seriously, maybe Anne Morrow Lindbergh was called "the first lady of the air" too -- possibly with the idea that her husband Charles was a kind of President of the air? And a little Googling suggests neither Earhart nor Lindbergh can claim to be the "first" First Lady of the Air. It seems one Harriet Quimby was given this title immediately upon becoming the first woman to fly across the English Channel back in 1913, at least 15 years before Lindbergh and Earhart became famous.

And so I ... Is it only February 3? Thank God it's not a leap year!


Editor's Note: This is the third installment of The Celestial Monochord's historic attempt to post every day during the month of February -- almost like a REAL blog!