on "North Country: The Making of Minnesota"

A relief on the MN State Fairgrounds features the same motif used in the official State Seal.



My favorite Chinese take-out place has a map of its delivery area taped to the wall. 

I've studied it at least once a week for years, waiting for my order to be up. Because I live just a couple blocks away, it's a map of my Minneapolis neighborhood.

A few weeks ago, I was drawn into the map by the thrill of something truly new.  Suddenly missing its familiarity, the map was layered now with too many horrors and ironies and personalities to trace. 

It now covers about half the area Major Plympton cordoned off in 1839 for the Fort Snelling Military Reserve. Deciding that an "era of good feeling" was at an end, the Major slapped a ruler across a map of what is now the Twin Cities, and carved out the area he would command. 

Previous Fort Snelling commandants had encouraged French Canadians, mixed bloods, and various refugees to make their homes there, where I make mine today.  But in 1839, they suddenly had to vacate onto nearby land recently promised by treaty to the Mdewakantons. 

Plympton cited military necessity, but he and his fellow officers and the Fort's physician had all heavily invested in land claims within the boundaries of the new reserve. 

Apparently, they failed to anticipate that economic activity would halt as soon as the area was cordoned off, so that the nearest point on the Mississippi River outside their reserve would become St. Paul — the new State Capitol and regional center of trade.

And then, my Hunan shrimp and egg rolls were ready.

I had just finished reading Mary Lethert Wingerd's book, North Country: The Making of Minnesota.

I'd postponed reading it for a long time, partly because it's 3 lbs 9 oz — like a Webster's Collegiate Dictionary — and it actually hurt a little to hold and read.  I think those months of handling the thing softened its edges enough for me to finally take it up.

But then, reading it was never in doubt. Wingerd's only previous book was one of the best reading decisions of my life. 

Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul was a history of St. Paul's civic identity.  That is, it traced who the people of St. Paul saw themselves as being and how their identity evolved over time, shaped by economic, ethnic, and religious power.

After Claiming the City, the place I'd lived for 20 years seemed newer to me than the day I first arrived.  And the older the structures, the newer they seemed. 

You can't imagine the impact the book had on my Victoria Theater efforts and, especially, on my understanding of "Moonshiner's Dance."

Apparently, I wasn't alone. North Country was commissioned to mark the state's 150th birthday with A Big Serious History of Minnesota.  Such a tome hadn't been written in over 40 years. 

Given this grand opportunity to make a lasting mark, Wingerd chose the kind of modest approach that makes for good history. 

North Country asks how the State of Minnesota emerged out of the vast woodlands and prairies of the Dakota people.  To find answers, Wingerd focuses intently on the Native American-European encounter.  Minnesota was the product of a series of evolving interactions.

In Wingerd's telling, the particulars of those interactions dissolve any sense of inevitability in their outcome. 

For example, the book traces the rise and fall of Minnesota's border cultures, such as the Metis, who occupied a genetic and economic space between Native Americans and the French fur traders.  Such cultures flourished across North America for a little while, but Minnesota's formed very early and persisted very late, evolving into an important force in the state's making.

I was pretty struck by the Metis, who appear at first glance like some sort of forgotten 1700's steampunk enclave, especially in light of Kirsten Delegard's masterfully compiled and annotated illustrations.

Ultimately, the (real) Metis emerge as one of Minnesota's many roads not taken — once-viable alternatives to either the domination of Minnestoa's Native population by Europeans, or the preservation of some timeless prehistoric idyll. 

This is a recurring theme of the book — the abandoned options for a Euro-Native encounter that could have benefitted everybody more than it did, including the supposed victors. 

The book culminates with Minnesota's war between the Dakotas and US forces, and the state's subsequent genocidal reaction. By then, this lack of inevitability, those roads not taken, are a profound and agonizing subtext. "Cataclysm on the Minnesota" is the chapter title. 

I've always been vaguely aware that various place-names in the city of Minneapolis came from Longfellow's romantic poem Hiawatha. They're printed on that map in my Chinese take-out restaurant.

But in North Country's epilogue, the meanings of these place-names, and of the places themselves, telescope enormously.

I'd never quite appreciated that Minneapolis had used "a literary cult that attracted followers from all reaches of the globe" to help construct a new historical identity for the state.

The epilogue — "Pasts Remembered, Pasts Forgotten" — treats memory and amnesia about Minnesota's past as active projects undertaken in the service of specific goals.

I worry about potential readers assuming North Country is a depressing litany of genocidal crimes.  On so many levels, it is another project entirely, likely to enliven your relationship with your immediate environment, as it has mine.

Mostly, I'm grateful for its becoming, maybe inadvertently, the final event in its own story of forgetting and remembering, and of the common good abandoned and reclaimed.



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:



My Book Report About "On the Road" Which I Read By The Celestial Monochord

KerouacKerouac playing football, 1938


I was extruded out the other end of the 2008 presidential election like John Goodman birthing himself from the mud in Raising Arizona. I clawed my way out, hollering, triumphant, relieved — but in the middle of nowhere, wondering "NOW what do I do?"

Much of my intellectual life during the Bush years has been an escape and a rummaging around for some kind of SENSE

At the start of Bush's second term, I dove head first into trying to understand every last thing about "The Moonshiner's Dance," a recording from another time — practically from another planet — the main theme of which is alcohol delirium and the razzing of meaning itself.  It had to be sorted out.  Somewhere along the line, I even quit drinking. 

Now, I will have to rejigger yet again somehow.

So with Palin sent back to Alaska, I felt it was time to clear my mind.  Cleanse my palate.  Get a little fresh air and perspective before beginning anew.  It seemed a good time to finally read Kerouac's On the Road.

I'd recently started reading classics I hadn't read before, ones I now think I should've read before getting that Master's Degree in English Literature I have framed on my wall. 

Last winter, for example, I'd finally read The Great Gatsby — oh, so THAT'S the answer to that GRE question! 

Besides, I'd always liked the idea of it.  Kerouac's sad and feverish and lost patriotism, his REAL "real America" Americanism.  It looked good on the menu after nearly two years of 21st-century stump speeches and echo chambers.

One of my many brothers — the one who'd used Kerouac as a roadmap throughout his early adulthood — had given me a copy of On the Road when I was 18 and he was 30.  I must've lost it during a move over the years. 

I bought my current copy a few years ago as a tourist in San Francisco, when my wife Jenny and I stopped by City Lights bookstore.  I knew it was the most obvious purchase to make, felt sheepish handing it over to the clerk. 

I felt the urge to tell him I'd already taken varying-sized doses of Ginsberg, Borroughs, Ferlinghetti, Corso, even Bob Kaufman — just never really Kerouac.  But it would've only made matters worse.


I can't remember reading another book that relies so heavily on the reader to romanticize it, to buy into it.  The presumption somehow gives it the feel of "young adult fiction" — my brother had given it to me at the right time.

At some point, for example, narrator Sal Paradise assures us that this next trip across the country was the gonest, most profound, most epically heroic yet!  Yass yass, whoop, harumph! 

That trip's high points, to my memory, turn out to be getting a speeding ticket, picking up a hitchhiker with one arm longer than the other, getting stuck in the mud, and stealing some cheese. 

Ordinarily a quick read, it took me a month to get through, so evanescent was my romanticization. 

One tension that's supposed to sustain interest is a kind of low-simmer debate — Dean Moriarty: saint or demon?  But today, On the Road reads more like a muck-raker exposing the limited treatment options available to the mentally ill.  It's angering to know there were no good pills for the guy.

Actually, a lot is angering. 

Kerouac wonders faintly at his urge to murder gay men.  The absolute greatest wife they encounter is the one who stays in bed and silently smiles when they rudely wake her up to drink until dawn with her husband. 

"The Beats were single-handedly responsible for feminism," Jenny quipped.  But I think measuring the exact distance from that quip to the unsnarky truth would be a good senior thesis topic, if you're looking for one.

Part 3 Chapter 4 details the performance of an African American jazz trumpet player in San Francisco — how he commits himself body and soul to his performance, transfixes his audience, eventually finds the essence of the global moment as embodied in the room at that instant, and everybody recognizes it.

Moriarty and Paradise get to hang with the guy for a few precious minutes, during which Moriarty wants the black musician to go find his wife and hand her over to them — these drunk white tourists — to fuck.  The musician politely declines and the meeting comes to an end.


My will flagging, I was close to giving up with only 30 pages to go, so Jenny offered to read the next chapter to me aloud.  It turned out to be Part 4 Chapter 5 — the whorehouse chapter.

Wise wife.  If you need to read On the Road, go with someone on a long car trip and take turns reading and driving.

When read aloud, of course, Kerouac's lyricism greases the skids a bit.  His voice is unmistakable in the book's grander passages on the meaning of the land and the night and the road, but the more mundane plot points — how much money we had, who drove, where we found a pay phone — have a rhythm of their own.

And read aloud, the deadpan jokes are funnier.  Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise are idiots, and Kerouac seems to acknowledge this more readily as you roll the language on your tongue. Ask your wife to help you.

"Man," said Dean to me, "ain't this a nice way to spend an afternoon. It's so much cooler than Denver poolhalls. Victor, you got gurls? Where? A donde?" he cried in Spanish. "Dig it, Sal, I'm speaking Spanish."

When it came out in 1957, this spoken quality of On the Road must've been one of its many startling elements that aren't as startling today. 

As another survival strategy to get me through the reading, I went back to Tom Waits' early stuff, listening to that startle that so animated Waits in the 1970's.  Foreign Affairs, for example, careens between Kerouac and Raymond Chandler — sometimes from line to line. 

Jenny, who is vastly better read than I am, nodded.   She noted that if you go back and read some of the books that got Pulitzers at mid-century, and the books they thought were The Great Novels of the past, they're often horrible.  Unreadable, ponderous, stultifying.  She always keeps some genre fiction around — mysteries, detective novels, horror. 

The Beats and the pulp writers, Jenny reminds me, wrote books you actually want to read.  I think Tom Waits and Bob Dylan before him were beneficiaries of that democratization of artistically ambitious writing.  They also vastly expanded it beyond poetry and the novel.

Allen Ginsberg famously said Dylan took on "an artistic challenge to see if great art can be done on a jukebox. And he proved that it can."  In some sense, it was Ginsberg and Kerouac themselves who had proved it can.  The song "Jack & Neal" from Foreign Affairs is almost like Cliff Notes for On the Road set to music. 

If you wanted to write an album for the ears of Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg — one that would actually impress those men personally — you could do worse than Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde.  Then again, those albums have held up better than On the Road over time, so maybe their goal was to surpass rather than impress.

As soon as it hit the streets, On the Road was apparently made to carry more baggage than it could bear — like Kerouac himself, they say. He didn't know what he was unleashing when he typed it out and, like most books, it's better the more you can see it as a gesture made in its moment. It's an innocent thing, On the Road, for all its malfeasance. 

It again brings me face-to-face with the mindset of young people after WWII, possessed as they were by the knowledge that the whole damned century so far had been badly muffed, a gutter ball, and the options looking forward were pretty vapid.

Everybody could see that young people's disillusionment was about to hit the fan, and the Beats were either lucky or unlucky enough to be there, trying to capture where their heads were at.  Though they worked hard to get famous, they were more sucked into their fame by prevailing anxieties.

There are agonies involved in reading On the Road, but the past needs more attention and explication as it recedes, not less. 

The book broke open several crates of valuable material I'd almost forgotten I had — early Waits, Elaine Tyler May's Homeward Bound, Robert Cantwell's When We Were Good, and much else.  My earliest toddler-memory of the public life of the nation pertains to the Funky Chicken dance craze, and I feel a need to revisit the lessons of earlier eras again and again.

It also turns out that Jack Kerouac and Frank Cloutier were born in the same town, and I'm now wondering if, God help me, the next book I read might be Visions of Gerard.



A Geography of the Anthology

Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music as a Google Map
by The Celestial Monochord

For two and a half years, I've tried to explain to people why I'm dedicating so much time, energy, and earnings to researching "The Moonshiners Dance," recorded in Minnesota by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra in 1927. 

It's impossible to express in a few words.

Usually, I've waved my hands in the air, describing a hypothetical Google Map showing the geographical origin of each cut on Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music

On such a map, "The Moonshiners Dance" would stand out like a sore thumb, completely alone as the only selection from anywhere near "us" — me and the person I'm boring.  In the past week, I asked myself, seriously, why does it have to be hypothetical? 

And so, Google Maps and I present A Geography of the Anthology.

The Methodology of a Geography of the Anthology

In creating the map, I used the 1997 Anthology liner notes and some Wikipedia to choose a location that most shaped each Anthology selection.  This was not easy, especially limiting myself to one "pin" per recording. 

But I gave it a shot and didn't much fret about it.

For example, Henry Thomas' work is a profound contribution exactly because it's so richly about being unstuck from any particular place — it's all about the road.  I put him in his home town in the state of Texas.

Many of the Memphis performers were from other communities in the same region, but it matters that the Memphis Jug Band is from Memphis, regardless of where its members were born.  So there they are on Beale Street.

I've made an attempt to be accurate but not precise.  Look very closely at Memphis.  Nine Anthology selections belong in Memphis, in all fairness.  I've stuck my pins every block or two all the way down Beale Street, even though I don't really know where in Memphis these people did their thing.

Sometimes, it was tempting to emphasize the isolation of "The Moonshiners Dance" by skooching my decisions southward. 

The leader of the Cincinnati Jug Band, according to the 1997 liner notes, "was apparently from around the Alabama-Georgia state border." But it would've been too absurd to follow such vague instructions just to keep the Cincinnati Jug Band out of Cincinnati.  

The two selections by Chicago church congregations complicated my visual argument.  Those congregations and their recordings are products of the "great migration" of African Americans from the South to the great industrial cities of the North.  In a sense, they illustrate how far north the southern culture represented in the Anthology managed to flow.

I could have placed those congregations in the southern states where their leaders were born, but that would have been so wrong on too many levels.  For one, the music came out of a very distinctly Chicago experience.  I decided to trust the viewer to understand what those pins represent.

Ken Maynard was probably the hardest to place.

He was raised somewhere in Indiana, but "claimed Texas as his home," according to the liner notes.  He traveled around as a rodeo and circus performer, worked as a real cowboy, and went to Hollywood in 1923, where he was billed as "the American Boy's Favorite Cowboy."  His photo makes him look like a little Midwestern kid playing dress-up.

So where do you put Ken Maynard?  A random spot in Indiana?  A random spot in Texas or in "The West"?  In Hollywood?  I decided that his song describes an image of the West in the mind of somebody who was from somewhere else.  I placed him as an Indiana boy dreaming of cowboys and Indians.  Maybe you have another idea.


The Devil in the White City


... all his stories are decorated with flamboyant draperies, intended by him to strengthen the plausibility of this statements. In talking, he has the appearance of candor, becomes pathetic at times when pathos will serve him best, uttering his words with a quaver in his voice, often accompanied by a moistened eye, then turning quickly with a determined and forceful method of speech, as if indignation or resolution had sprung out of tender memories that has touched his heart.
This is a police detective's description of H. H. Holmes, the masterful liar and serial murderer of Erik Larson's book — one of the devils in his white city. The description comes late in the book, by which time it comes off as a wonderfully perverse joke shared between Larson and you, the reader who has by now come to think of Larson in exactly these terms. Larson is a very slippery and hypnotic liar. Like the guards who mourn when Holmes is executed for his murders, you wish Larson could go on lying to you much longer than he does.

Larson's misdeeds are not serious, and I probably care about them only because of my own struggle to learn the lost details behind The Moonshiner's Dance. Often, I would sell my soul to the Devil to discover the level of detail Larson seems to have for events that took place 35 years before the subject of my own research.

Early in the book, Larson describes the first meeting between Holmes and one of his victims. As if to torment me personally, Larson places the meeting in a music shop in Minneapolis:

Minneapolis was small, somnolent, and full of Swedish and Norwegian farmers as charming as cornstalks. Holmes was handsome, warm, and obviously wealthy, and he lived in Chicago, the most feared and magnetic of cities. Even during their first meeting he touched her; his eyes deposited a bright blue hope. When he left the store that first day, as motes of dust filled the space he left behind, her own life seemed drab beyond endurance. A clock ticked. Something had to change.
A wonderful passage, but ... but DID a clock tick? IS that what the dust did? Did ANY of this really happen? No footnote is provided. It is clear, though, that Larson has studied late 19th-century Chicago much more closely than Minneapolis, which was not "full" of farmers of any description. It was a pretty rough place, and about as densely populated with prostitutes, drunks, businessmen and laborers of all ethnicities as Chicago was. Ask anyone from Lake Wobegon — they'll tell you about Minneapolis.

More substantial stretches of fiction get footnoted as such. Larson describes Holmes' tour, with his wife and sister-in-law, of the Union Stockyards —

Holmes was unmoved; Minnie and Anna were horrified but also strangely thrilled by the efficiency of the carnage.
On the same day, they also saw the 1893 Columbian Exposition, known as the White City —
Minnie and Anna rapidly grew tired. They exited, with relief, onto the terrace over the North Canal and walked into the Court of Honor. Here once again Anna found herself nearly overwhelmed. It was noon by now, the sun directly overhead.
The footnotes acknowledge that the description, while long and detailed and vivid, is entirely bogus, except that it traces the SORT of tour that Chicago residents often gave to visiting relatives.

I love this book, and find the paperback edition's blurbage to be mostly well earned. It is indeed a gripping page-turner, thanks to Larson's use of every tool in the novelist's bag. I have enough interest in urban geography to have taken a half-dozen graduate-level courses in the subject while I was in academia (which Larson seems to detest). Reading The Devil in the White City, I often wished I'd had it in grad school to get a much better feel for this Columbian Exposition that everyone thought was so important. Likewise, I grew up in the Chicago area and often visited the Museum of Science and Industry without ever grasping that it was the last remaining structure of a history-making fair [see Comments]. I wish The Devil in the White City had been published in 1976 and placed in my hands then.

As a developing writer of history, there's a great deal to learn from Larson's work that I haven't often found in the, let us say, "less imaginative" histories I ordinarily read. Now and then, I wanted to slap myself on the forehead and say "Of course!" For example, I know very well what the weather was like on the night of Christmas 1924, when the Victoria Cafe opened in St. Paul, but Erik Larson reminded me that — and how — that weather matters.

The Devil in the White City, like any other measuring device, is useful precisely because it goes too far. You can use it to get a fix on how far you'd like to go in contriving history only because Larson's dial leaves a few more tick marks to the right of your own level. To me, much of the drama in this very engrossing book is in watching as both Holmes and Larson get away with murder, and in following the details of exactly how they succeed so well.


A Guest of Honor

King of ragtime


One night in Tucson in April 1988, on a whim, I turned on a TV. I hadn't owned one for the previous four years, and wouldn't for another six, so anything I saw that night would have made a strong, if dream-like, impression.

By chance, what happened to be on PBS was the Houston Grand Opera's production of John Adams' minimalist opera, Nixon in China.

I remember having no idea what to make of it. I was 23 and had recently seen Koyannisquatsi, with its score by Philip Glass — my first exposure to minimalism. My deepest immersion in opera to that point had been an afternoon at a University of Arizona production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.

I no longer have any recollection from that night of Nixon in China's music — maybe I couldn't make enough sense of it at the time to register an imprint. What I do remember was a colossal Air Force One taxiing onto the stage. Now THAT made an impression ... which I guess is what Air Force One is for, no matter where it turns up.

Mostly, I recall feeling ill-at-ease with the idea of a grand opera about Nixon's trip to China. Was the composer a Republican? Was this propaganda? Wasn't high art a liberal thing? And wasn't opera supposed to be about the olden times, not something that happened in 1972? I would have had no qualms about PBS airing Wagner's Parsifal — but Nixon in China?

Today, I'm reading Edward Berlin's great King of Ragtime, a biography of composer Scott Joplin. It's not an ordinary bio. Before this book, much of what was known about Joplin was legend and assumption. Berlin conducted and collected the most minutely meticulous research available and his book catalogs the many questions raised by the new information. When Berlin takes a position, it is the most cautious, cool-headed judgment possible. I find the approach intensely gripping and beautiful ... maybe it's me.

Anyway, it turns out that Joplin wrote and staged the world's first ragtime opera, entitled A Guest of Honor. Its subject was the 1901 visit of African American leader Booker T. Washington to the White House, where he dined with President Teddy Roosevelt. (Note: A reader suggests some controversy over the subject of this opera. See comments to this post.)

The visit was politically risky for the President, according to Berlin [euphemism added by me]:

Newspapers in the South condemned the invitation as an unwarranted attempt to place the black man on the same social plane as the white man; Roosevelt's act put him in a category with Ulysses S. Grant, and he would never be forgiven. The Sedalia Sentinel printed a poem on page one entitled "[N-word]s in the White House," which concludes with a black man marrying the President's daughter.
Scott Joplin seems to have had kinder feelings toward the event. That a black educator would participate in that symbolic ritual of advancement, The White House dinner, seems to have meant a lot to the composer, who was then working to elevate ragtime — widely disparaged at the time as degenerate black noise — to a high art form.

In 1902, he named his latest two-step, "The Strenuous Life," after a phrase in one of Roosevelt's speeches. He staged the ragtime opera A Guest of Honor in 1903 — barely two years after the events it depicted.

So this was an opera about events as contemporary as Katrina's landfall is today, in a form about as new as gypsy punk. In comparison, Nixon in China was conservative, portraying events of 15 years before in a 20-year-old music genre.

Working out these comparisons in more depth might bare a little fruit. While A Guest of Honor was probably meant to elevate a "low" form, some might say Nixon in China went the other direction, increasing the public's (including my own) awareness of minimalism, a high art "descending" into popularity.

And so on ... when Booker T. Washington visited Teddy Roosevelt, who was Nixon and who was China?

But, for anyone seeking to compare the two operas, the biggest obstacle would be our collective amnesia — the same universal, maddening, heart-sickening forgetfulness I've encountered since beginning my own original research into music history.

Joplin brought A Guest of Honor to less than a dozen stages across the Midwest in September 1903, but — according to the best speculation Berlin can support — the production was robbed of its receipts in Springfield, Illinois. Unable even to pay the bill for the touring company's stay at a Springfield boarding house, Joplin was forced to leave behind a trunk as collateral. It contained some of his personal effects, including unpublished manuscripts that may have included the score of A Guest of Honor. Those items were never recovered. Although a copyright for A Guest of Honor was applied for, the copyright office never received the customary copies of the score for its files.

In a book full of careful modifiers and provisional judgments, one sentence stands out for its disheartening brevity: "A Guest of Honor is lost."

Of course, various productions of Nixon in China are available from Amazon and iTunes in a variety of formats. Its memory is safe, despite having been composed in what I think of as our forgetful era. John Adams himself seems on track to be long remembered as one of the 20th Century's major composers.

Though we're more likely to learn about him on Antiques Roadshow or History Detectives than on Great Performances, the researcher who stumbles across an overlooked copy of A Guest of Honor would be remembered at least as long as Adams. Like Berlin's King of Ragtime itself, the thought puts me in the mood to work.


Oysters Monochord


It's a measure of my laser-like focus on Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe that The Celestial Monochord has gone without any mention of oysters until this month. For you see, not only do I love raw oysters, I've also read two — count 'em, TWO — books about oysters since last spring.

The first was M. F. K. Fisher's Consider the Oyster. Fisher seems to have been almost a food-focused Dorothy Parker or Edna St. Vincent Millay — you know, a brilliant writer, and an independent, bohemian, bisexual, martini-swilling raconteur. More or less.

Her Consider the Oyster is a beautifully-written, tiny little book — elegant and kind and wickedly funny, if sometimes a bit too silly. Open the book to any paragraph and you'll see. Here she is early in the first chapter, discussing the early life of an oyster:

He is small, but he is free-swimming ... and he swims thus freely for about two weeks, wherever the tides and his peculiar whims may lead him. He is called a spat.
   It is to be hoped, sentimentally, at least, that the spat — our spat — enjoys himself. Those two weeks are his one taste of vagabondage, of devil-may-care free roaming. And even they are not quite free, for during all his youth he is busy growing a strong foot and a large supply of sticky cementlike stuff. If he thought, he might wonder why. [all original punctuation, etc.]

She gives many oyster recipes, and her ability to splice them seamlessly into a great story is dazzling. Writing before 1941 with an intimate eye for detail, her stories are vivid views of all sorts of gone worlds — fancy restaurants in France, roadside shacks in Maine, a girl's school in Michigan, if I remember correctly. It's only 76 pages long, and even I — slowest reader on Earth — finished it in a weekend. I'm even tempted to re-read it before the months without R's begin.

By the way, Fisher says refrigeration had already rendered oysters safe to eat even in Oskaloosa, Iowa in any month of the year. Avoiding the R-less months might help the oyster farmer, since oysters lay their eggs during the warm months, but no season renders them dangerous to eat. Besides, some say summer oysters taste better.

I do recommend the other oyster book I read last year ... it's not Mark Kurlansky's fault that a world-class stylist got to the subject first, and it's even less his fault that I read Fisher's book immediately before The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell.

Kurlansky writes those pop history books where some very improbable thing changed the world forever — 1968, cod, salt. Stylistically, he's as workmanlike and kitchen-sinky as you might expect. But his oyster book did transform my view of both New York and oysters, and made me enjoy the education.

The Big Oyster begins with Europeans sailing into New York Harbor for the first time, which allows Kurlansky to show how beautiful, bountiful and sweet-smelling its waters used to be — how much New York's very existence was ABOUT those qualities. For me, it was an opportunity to finally wrap my mind around the confounding geography of New York City, and beginning with the estuary in its natural state turned out to be key.

But The Big Oyster has organizational issues, and can feel frustratingly directionless. I frequently thought of the fish in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life — the ones who complain there isn't much in the movie about the meaning of life. Still, there are moments when your mind spins. Do you know why Manhattan city fathers laid out two hundred streets going from side to side (the short way) but only about twelve the long way (Bronx to Battery)? Because they thought the main flow of traffic would be between the two riverfronts. New York used to know where it was situated.

Kurlansky does leave us much more savvy about oysters than Fisher does. You can read Fisher closely without really realizing that all oysters you're ever likely to eat have been seeded, grown, and harvested by farmers — and it's been like this for at least 150 years. There hasn't been a natural, unmolested oyster bed essentially anywhere for more than a century. If there were, you wouldn't want to eat oysters from it. Natural oysters tend to get huge, and eating them is like "eating a baby."


Editor's Note: Well, here I am! The Celestial Monochord is trying to post an entry every day during the month of February. This here is installment 21 of 28. Whoo-hoo!


M.o.M.A. Don't Allow It

(photo from The Bizargrass News Network)

Musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson has been telling a story lately in interviews and during her stage show. She wanted to make an opera out of the novel Gravity's Rainbow, written by the notoriously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon:

I wrote him a letter proposing doing an opera based on "Gravity's Rainbow". I got a beautiful letter from him saying he'd be delighted, but with one stipulation: that it be scored for solo banjo. Some people have a great way of saying "no way". At some point I'd like to try again to see if he's expanded the instrumentation.
Now, I try to use The Celestial Monochord to talk about things I like, in hopes of understanding them better and helping them grow. And I certainly don't know what Thomas Pynchon may have been thinking — or certainly there's no good evidence that I know better what he was thinking than Laurie Anderson does. Nor, for that matter, am I certain just how facetious Ms. Anderson may have been in recounting the story ...

but ... but ...

IS SHE OUT OF HER MIND? It seems obvious — at least given the little information I have, which is Anderson's own multiple descriptions of the incident — that had she accepted the challenge, we would have an opera of Gravity's Rainbow, written for banjo. How perfect is that?

It's well to remember that Pynchon is a considered one of the most innovative living artists, but he doesn't hang with the literary or high-art crowd ... for some reason. Perhaps he finds them too closed-minded, too predictable. Some reports have him as some kind of aerospace engineer working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I think it was.

My theory is he was not politely saying "No." He was saying, "Yes, but only if you make an effort to broaden your imagination. You've been doing the same schtick since the 1970's. Why not try something else?" The fact that Anderson interpreted Pynchon's proposal as a solid "No" suggests (to me, anyway) that Pynchon knew exactly who he was dealing with and how she would react. I can think of at least a half-dozen brilliant, innovative, and versatile banjoists who should follow up on this signal from the mysterious Mr. Pynchon. I wonder if playwright and banjoist Sean Dixon of BanjoBanjar knows about this ...

And Anderson's a fiddler! She should know better.


As you've noticed, The Celestial Monochord is on a brief vacation. It will be back very soon, I promise! In the mean time, I'm upgrading my workstation so I don't have to upload from work, nor from my wife's computer. I also have two new kittens, and several other distractions ... including ...

I'm finally reading Robert Cantwell's first book, Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. I haven't read it before because I'm not very interested in bluegrass and when I did read the first two chapters, I found them somewhat peculiar. Now that I'm a little further, I realize the error of my ways. It's great, a worthy predecessor to Cantwell's brilliant When We Were Good: The Folk Revival.

Bluegrass Breakdown will no doubt get a lot of airplay here in the future. For now, I'll briefly commment on the subtitle, "The Making of the Old Southern Sound."

Bluegrass is not an old music, not an ancient folk form. It did not exist before 1945 or 1946, when it was unleashed by Bill Monroe. It's the personal style of that one very original musician — but bluegrass was so widely, enthusiastically, and creatively imitated that it came to be seen as a genre unto itself. Monroe invented bluegrass at the same time others were inventing Rock & Roll.

Nor — in certain significant ways — is it particularly Southern. Monroe grew up on a Kentucky farm, but his family sent him north, in 1929 when he was 18 years old. It was during this long removal from the South, living among other exiles from Appalachia, working in a factory washing out barrels using gasoline, listening to Chicago radio stations, that Monroe began to dream of a contemporary sound that would thrive (or help him thrive) in the environment he occupied.

Bluegrass is nevertheless heard by its audiences as both old and Southern, so Cantwell's book traces "The Making of the Old Southern Sound" — that is, how and why this thoroughly modern music came to be "about" certain times and places from which it did not arise and which it had never actually occupied.

Families of Trees

Leaf shapes (don't have much to do with families of trees)

After five years of working for a professional society of plant biologists, I am finally educating myself about plants. My mother-in-law gave me The Golden Field Guide to Trees of North America. It is an excellent book, and I've spent many hours staring at the 1950's-era color drawings of trees, leaves, fruits, bark, etc.

I'm struck by the "families" of trees. You may know about the classification systems for living things — the basic level being species, such as the oregon crab apple (Malus fusca) or the Biltmore crab apple (Malus glabrata). The next highest level is genus, such as apple (Malus), ash (Sorbus), and hawthorn (Crataegus) — each having various species within them. Genus and species has always made sense to me.

The next level up (that is, the first of the "higher taxa"), the families, has always been something of a mystery to me — although I've heard of some families and I've even seen them mentioned in articles I've worked on for a living, it hasn't mattered to me what family a living thing belongs to. Now I get it, thanks to a very small amount of study.

When you say a tree belongs to the family Rosaceae, you mean it's part of a sprawling, dizzyingly varied, historically pivotal family of plants that includes more than 3,000 species and dozens of genuses, including the roses we get on Valentines Day, all apples, cherries, plums, pears, almonds, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, ashes, hawthorns, and more.

When you say a tree belongs to the family Platanaceae, you mean it's a sycamore, also known as a plane tree. The family contains only one genus (Platanus) and about six species.

Now I understand that when one biologist says that such-and-such is in this-or-that family, this may be hugely significant information to an informed listener. This confirms the assertion (of the movie Animal House) that "Knowledge is Good."

Banjos, Stars, and Creative Commons

How to play banjo

In elementary school, when we sang "This Land is Your Land" and the teacher told us about Woody Guthrie, it seemed like Guthrie must've been around before the USA was founded. He must've been a contemporary of ... of Paul Bunyan's. But to my great surprise, it turns out Guthrie had just died when I was 3 years old — and when he was only 55. I won't tell the whole story of how Guthrie came to hold such a mythical status so quickly — but if I were to tell it, it would mostly be a story about Pete Seeger. Seeger made building the Woody Guthrie myth into one of his major projects.

The more you know about Pete Seeger, the more you realize he wasn't just "famous" or "influential," he really helped engineer what "folk music" means, and even the terms on which "the folk" themselves exist.

Anyway, here's the point. His book, "How to Play the 5-String Banjo" has been known to virtually every banjo player in the world for about half a century. Seeger mimeographed the first edition himself while on the road in 1947, working for the Henry Wallace presidential campaign. He refused to copyright it, believing a copyright would hinder the spread of banjo-playing.

More recently, a guy named Pat Costello has written some excellent and entertaining instruction books, and declared them part of the "creative commons." According to Costello, sales of his books increased spectacularly after the books went copyrightless. The books are worthy successors to Seeger's landmark book — and I think the writer of "This Land is Your Land" would have appreciated them as well.

Star map

A collection of fine star charts has also now gone online (here too) as part of the creative commons.

Philosophy of Science, Part 2 of 2

I got to meet a philosphy of science hero of mine, Joseph Rouse, and talk with him at length. At the end of the conversation, I asked him to sign my copy of one of his books. For a moment, he looked very puzzled — apparently, philosophers of science do not regularly have fans who ask to have their books signed. Once he got the idea, though, he seemed to relish the opportunity.

A minor point in that book keeps coming back to me. Imagine, if you will, that you and a friend are walking along and happen upon two people who are having an argument.

One is insisting, "Snow is white."
The other insists, "Snow is NOT white."

I don't know why — maybe they're artists, or meteorologists, or, maybe ... zoologists?

Anyway, you and your friend are philospophers of science. You eavesdrop for a while and then get into your own argument.

You insist, "The statement 'snow is white' is true."
Your friend insists, "The statement 'snow is white' is false."

Now ... the question is, what are you two philosophers contributing to this debate that the two orginal debaters could not contribute on their own? Unless you're very much more careful, the answer is: Diddly Squat.

The problem has to do with what philosophers can do for (or do about) science without either becoming scientists on the one hand or, on the other, being totally irrelevent. If you want to debate whether quarks "really exist," or whether scientist's conclusions really follow from the evidence they've gathered, you are likely to repeat the same arguments scientists themselves debate very regularly and with a much better command of the complications involved than philosophers usually enjoy.

Thinking about this deeply left me finally agreeing that science — if well done — is something I ultimately trust to answer its own questions. It also left me feeling that I should leave the question of the value of the philosophy of science to others.

Philosophy of Science, Part 1 of 2

I studied a lot of philosophy of science in grad school, and I'm very glad I did — it deepened the way I understand a lot of things that are very important to me personally. Still, looking back, most of the big questions I thought I was grappling with then no longer seem important to me, and ring a bit hollow. But two details do seem to keep coming back to me ... and if they keep following me around, they must matter somehow.

We spent a lot of time talking about how much the stuff scientists talk about are "social constructs" — stories scientists tell each other as a group of folk that make up a culture — and how much they're something else having more to do with the universe they study.

Always, during these discussions, some guy or other would get rather aggressive and try to prove that "things exist" by banging his fists on desks, kicking chairs, thumping his chest like an ape, etc.

Eventually, it became clear to me that whether or not desks are, in fact, hard is rarely a question that real scientists debate for very long. More typically, they debate things like, say, how to reconcile two experiments that give different answers for the precise magnitude of dark energy, or whether a certain experiment in a particle accelator really did create a certain particle for a miniscule moment, thereby implying some new form of energy field, and so on. There's no need for philosophers of science to go around slapping themselves. The real questions are much more subtle.

You can draw whatever Moral of the Story you please. I suppose one lesson is that the most vivid, dramatic, immediately impressive arguments are very often not correct.

Thanks go to "The Bottom Line: The Rhetoric of Reality Demonstrations" by Ashmore, Edwards and Potter, in Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology.

Dark Was The Night: Candles

Candle flame

Night used to be dark — really dark. When the sun went down, you pretty much couldn't see your own hand in front of your face, unless there was a moon in the sky, a display of aurora, or lightning. Or you could get light from some kind of open flame. To accept this as fact is easy enough, but to imagine it as a reality is hard for people living in the 21st century.

Consider the problem of trying to imagine living by candlelight. Candles used to be made of tallow (essentially animal fat) and bee's wax. Both cast a dim, yellow, flickering light. Sometimes a tallow candle would spatter hot fat on someone nearby.

The first major challenge to deep darkness at night was from gaslight in major cities, made possible by late-19th century coal and oil refining. To respond to the challenge presented by the great steadiness and brightness of gaslight, the candle industry developed the paraffin candle, which produced much brighter, whiter, and steadier light than wax or tallow candles ever did.

But paraffin is a byproduct of the same refining technology that produces gaslight. So the candle itself has been modernized to respond to the challenges of technology.

If you want to imagine life before Night was banished, it won't work to simply light some candles and turn off all your lights (don't forget the VCR display and the clock radio and the light from your neighbor's porchlight leaking into your windows!). The candles you're likely to be usings are already modern lighting techology.

The Revolution Will Not Be Heavenly

Today, I bought a copy of Nicolaus Copernicus' book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in an edition edited by Stephen Hawking. The original 1543 book helped inspire people to give up the idea that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and that the Earth circles the Sun, not visa versa.

As I understand it, the change was such a shock and so deeply altered the way people saw the hierarchy of things, in both the heavens and on Earth, that for centuries, whenever people talked about similar upheavals, they would call them another Revolutions, meaning Copernicus' book. After a while, the association of the term with the book got forgotten — hence the word "revolution".

Trouble is, in the original title, De revolutionibus orbium colestium, the word means "spinning around and around in circles," as in, "the going around of the celestial orbs." So the root word of "revolution" is not "revolt," it's "revolve" — to wind up exactly where you started and have to do it all over again.

And all too often, that's how revolutions have gone, at least outside of science. You wind up with the same cast of characters, at best, and you have to stage another revolution, over and over and over.

I swear, the fact that this is Tax Day is PURE COINCIDENCE!