A Guide to My Amnesia Theater

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Victoria Cafe Coupon

Here at Monochord headquarters, we’ve been celebrating the publication of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music: America Changed Through Music, a collection of new essays about the mesmerizing and influential 1952 boxed set of late 1920s and early 1930s recordings.

Ordinarily, I'd be devouring this exciting addition to Smithalia cover-to-cover, and probably writing about it here. But so far, I've been busy rolling out my own essay in the book.

My contribution — the product of eleven years of research, thinking, re-thinking, and activism — is entitled "Smith's Amnesia Theater: 'Moonshiner's Dance' in Minnesota."

I have oceans of stuff to say about it, but for now, I'll just try to answer the simple question, "What just happened?"


The new book and essay: What are they?

It’s a book of essays by a variety of writers, musicians, and scholars, some of whom attended a 2012 conference in London marking the 60th anniversary of Smith's landmark boxed set.

I delivered a presentation at that London conference, and my talk became the seed of my essay. It focuses on just one recording in the Anthology, a cut otherwise neglected by historians and other researchers. The 1927 recording was "Moonshiner's Dance — Part I," recorded in St. Paul, Minnesota, by the Victoria Cafe Orchestra.

That recording is the Anthology's only Northern cut — the only recording unambiguously by musicians from outside the American South. I once made a map of the Anthology — seemingly the only such map anybody's ever made. It looks a lot like a map of the Confederacy.

For the first time, my essay releases a major chunk of my research into "Moonshiner's Dance." It turned out that asking simply "What is this object?" leads to a wide-ranging investigation into geography, history, identity, and meaning.

All this previously unknown information, the essay argues, matters to how we understand the Anthology and, indeed, to how we should encounter any expression left to us by a gone world.

The essay is also an impassioned plea for open-minded and imaginative curiosity about America's cultural geography.

I designed the essay to be a little like Monty Python's Flying Circus — that is, like a revue. The curtain opens on a scene that turns out to be another curtain that opens to reveal a different scene that also becomes a curtain, and so on. If you get bored with my essay, don't worry — it will take off in another direction soon.

So far, beside the scholarship being original, the most consistent comment I've received is that the writing is "beautiful." Certainly, there's humor in there, wise cracks, hidden Easter eggs, and a lot of pictures.


Where can a person read this essay?

This is a scholarly publication, so the authors don't get paid — I just want my truth out there, and I deeply appreciate your interest.

Please ask your public and university libraries to get the book. Don't be shy — providing you with materials that are difficult to get on your own is a big reason librarians exist. They want you to ask for exactly this kind of thing — do it! Besides, once they get the book for you, it will presumably be there for the rest of your community.

Please buy the book. For now, Routledge priced the hardback ($152) mainly for university and public libraries, profs in the field, etc. I'm currently seeing buying options on Amazon for around $100. There are Kindle and eBook options for $38-$55.

A paperback version of the book will be released in June 2018, I am told. It'll have a prettier cover and a more affordable price. How much more affordable, I don't know.

Email me. Holding the book in your hand, you can see a community thinking about the Anthology — there are other pieces in that book you'll definitely also want to read. But its current cost makes this book (and my message) a very rare object. So, if you email me for a copy of my essay, I will send you a PDF.

At the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, the book is now available for reading and photocopying at the Gale Family Library. That's where this whole adventure started for me in May 2006, so I find this very satisfying.

Also, watch this space for updates.


What's the deal with the Victoria Theater?

When I started all this, nobody who'd heard the Anthology could forget the sound of this eerily preposterous recording. It was, in its own way and degree, infamous around the world, partly for having mysterious origins.

At the same time, nobody in St. Paul understood that a familiar, vacant, and deteriorating old building down on University Avenue was responsible for an utterly unique contribution to an influential American masterpiece. Nobody had ever researched the building beyond architectural survey work and superficial literature searches.

I set about trying to reconstruct the meanings of the place, to see if I could get St. Paul to understand what it had, and to make Anthology fans understand that their mystery was solved by answers that really matter. I wanted to reconnect the lines and let the power flow.

Then, in 2008, the Victoria Theater's neighborhood association asked me to write the nomination to make the threatened Victoria Theater Building an official heritage preservation site.

I jumped at it, especially as I'd spent two years working for a Cultural Resource Management company, editing historic and archaeological survey reports. And I fought to get the city ordinance passed.

Finally, to complete the circuit, I got to work on this essay for the Anthology conference and book.

Despite some exhilarating successes, I still despair that my message will ever quite sink in, but I'm glad that I’ve at last sung my song.

Your questions, requests, or suggestions about the Victoria Theater's future should go to the director of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, Caty Royce at caty@frogtownmn.org.


What's next? A book on "Moonshiner's Dance"?

I wonder. I already look like "that guy" who won't stop talking about his polka record, but readers of my essay will hopefully appreciate that there really are worlds to explore here.

Only a tiny fraction of my findings made it into the essay. I've got stories.

If I died tomorrow, I'd be glad I got this essay into the world, but too many big connections and haunting details would die with me. And to my eyes, each story magnifies and multiplies the meaning of the others. I'm not sure what to do about that.

For now, I just hope to go back to what I was up to before the Victoria Theater Building and the London conference and essay took over my life. I think I'll try to write and research and get the stories to you, one way or another, before my time’s up.


Rare Medium: The Anthology on Cassette Tape


My last vehicle was a green & tan 1993 Dodge Dakota extended-cab pickup with a cassette player and somewhat blown-out speakers. I used that cassette player every day for years, generally without irony.

But you should’ve heard Tom Waits’ “Jesus Gonna Be Here” — the bassline was just a toneless rumble, and all you could really hear clearly was that monotonous slide guitar. It was beautiful.

That was a long time ago. Today, I’m not sure I still own a working cassette player.

But just last week, a label in the UK calling themselves Death Is Not The End (hereafter, DINTE) reissued the Anthology of American Folk Music on cassette tape. Of course, I’m tempted to pony up. It’s pretty affordable — £21 for the 3-volume set before transatlantic shipping.

But then, I don’t have anything appropriate to play them on. And if I had the equipment, I’d probably only use it to dub over to ones & zeros my tapes of some clawhammer banjo lessons from a decade ago.

Besides, I own two copies of Smithsonian-Folkways’ 1997 reissue of the Anthology on CD (since one set of CDs is apparently one too few). Plus, I’ve already bought more than a few other copies of that 1997 CD set as gifts for friends and for people who’ve been helpful in my research on “Moonshiner’s Dance.”

The 1997 CD set was the format in which I first met the Anthology.

I had stumbled across Greil Marcus’s book Invisible Republic at the Har Mar Barnes & Noble in late 1997. I read it voraciously, not quite realizing that the book was only a few weeks old. It convinced me to go buy the Anthology, so I hurried over to the Electric Fetus in south Minneapolis. There, I held the boxed set in my hands for the first time, again not fully appreciating that this had only been possible for a few weeks.

Because it was new, the Electric Fetus had it on sale. And I had an Electric Fetus coupon. And everything at the Fetus was 10% off that day. I remember asking a dude behind the desk which of these discounts would be applied. To my great surprise, they would all be applied. Still, it would be over $50, so I walked around the Fetus for an hour with the boxed set tucked under my arm before I screwed up my courage to pull out my wallet.

Looking back, I see they should’ve given me that first set *and* electrified my fetus for free. Folkways should’ve sprung my lizard for nothing. When I think of those fifty bucks now, after the countless tens of thousands in opportunity costs and hard currency I’ve blown thanks to buying that very first copy … damn! Still, of course, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

I didn’t bother getting the LP reissue Mississippi Records put out a couple years ago. I didn’t want to discourage Smithsonian-Folkways itself from doing a proper job of it instead. Besides, from what I can assume judging mostly from the total silence on the subject from Mississippi Records, their LPs were just burned off the Smithsonian CDs that I already own.

Some vinyl partisans claim that old LPs sound better than typical CDs because down-sampling the music for CD deletes information contained in the original analog recording. Could be — but you sure as hell don’t get that information back by burning a CD back onto vinyl. I have no problem with the Mississippi Records release, but buyer beware if you think you’re buying vinyl sound integrity and not just an accessory for your handlebar mustache … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The Mississippi Records LP release also would have been a different matter had they, for example, started with another batch of source 78s and reassembled the Anthology from scratch. What if Mississippi Records had been introducing us to dubs from completely different copies of the 78 RPM records that comprise the Anthology?

Now *that* would be something. Not only have various technologies been advancing since the mid 1990s, every 78 RPM disc — not every title, every physical disc — is a unique object. You know this if you’ve ever played the same recording from two ostensibly identical copies of a 78, one after the other. You don’t just hear more or less, you hear different things in the two copies. They have lived alternate lives between 1920-something and the day they arrive together again on your turntable. Quality is qualitative, not quantitative (that’s quantity).

More recently, I ponied up a Clydesdale for a pristine, very early copy of the Folkways LP boxed set. I don’t know but I’ve been told it’s from 1952, the very year Folkways first released the Anthology. That original release was practically made by the hands of Harry Smith, Moe Asch, and Peter Bartok by spinning on the turntable 78s in Harry’s personal collection and dubbing them onto the master.

Then, 45 years later, Smithsonian-Folkways used a lot of that 1952 master to make the 1997 CD reissue. But for some cuts, they swapped in cleaner, newly-located 78s. They also did some noise reduction and fussed with speed/pitch.

That’s why having a copy of the 1952 LP opens up the possibility of observing the handiwork of the 1997 reissue team. What exactly did they do to 1952 to get the 1997 results? I’ll write about that here when I think I’ve got something to say. For now, DINTE’s cassette reissue seems likely to have been recorded off the 1997 CDs and seems unlikely to provide that sort of new insight.

What really interests me about DINTE’s cassette reissue is that it nearly unbreaks the circle of the Anthology’s historic formats. With a cassette tape being made available, the job of format revival is almost done.

The Anthology first appeared as a collection of LPs. Those eventually went out of print, but the Anthology never did. No Folkways recordings have ever been out of print — even when the company couldn't afford to press new vinyl of a title, Moe Asch kept it in print by any means necessary. The Smithsonian agreed to the same policy as a condition of acquiring Folkways.

For many years, the only way Folkways could sell the Anthology was as cassette tapes made on demand. I wish I’d known enough to order it during that period — I’d like to see what those tapes looked like. Did they have cover art? Were they typed? Mimeographed? Handwritten? Did you get Smith’s booklet?

Already in the early 1960’s, Smith’s original cover art (featuring the celestial monochord) had been replaced with Ben Shahn’s Farm Security Administration photograph of a farmer — it took the 1997 CD set to restore the long-abandoned celestial monochord cover art. So, given the specific cover art that was current at the time Folkways started fulfilling orders with on-demand cassette tapes, DINTE’s choice of Ben Shahn’s photo makes serious sense. That level of thinking stuff through is a good sign.

In any case, those days of on-demand cassette tapes were the dark ages that the 1997 CD reissue was designed to end.

If you want new LPs of the Anthology, I think you can still find the Mississippi Records reissue. And of course, the CD boxed set is still available from the Smithsonian-Folkways website. And suddenly, that in-between era of on-demand tape is now also covered, thanks to DINTE’s cassette reissue.

The only period in the Anthology's history not currently available as a reissue is its prehistory.

There was a time before Smith and Asch had even dreamed of creating such a collection. In that pre-Anthology period, all those 78s were just unrelated, scattered old records, even if today they look like scripture lost among dusty discs of apocrypha.

I’ve got to assume somebody is out there working to reissue the collection of 78 RPM records that Smith assembled to make the Anthology. I imagine each reissued disc would have to include its original B side, a subject often discussed by Anthology devotees.

I’d hope anyone considering such project would do it up right by starting from scratch and not simply burning to vinyl 20-year-old CDs from Document or the Smithsonian. And they could also consider comping some bloggers, or at least answering their questions.

Notes on Frank Cloutier's Grave

This past Thursday was the 55th anniversary of Frank E. Cloutier's death.  He died just over 5 years after the release of the Anthology of American Folk Music, for which he’s marginally remembered. 

Here's what his headstone looked like on my first visit, the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, 2006:

Frank Cloutier grave in autumn

It’s in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which is a beautiful drive from the Twin Cities, especially if you take Highway 61 through the Mississippi River valley. 

You pass through, or near, Red Wing and Rollingstone, Wabasha and Zumbro Bottoms, Frontenac and Trempealau.  There are often bald eagles, red-tailed hawks.

Frank Cloutier is buried "on a local heroes hill," to borrow John Prine's phrase, in La Crosse's Oak Grove Cemetery.  Frank's is one of about 200 headstones of veterans of each American war from the Spanish American through the Korean. 

Though basically from Rhode Island, Frank happened to be working as a piano player in Manitowoc when the US entered World War One — hence the “Wisconsin” on his Army-issued headstone. 

He arrived in France with the 311 supply train company in 1918, not long before the Armistice and too late to see fighting. 

But France was pretty out-of-sorts and needed supply trains, so Frank’s company stayed on after the war for about 9 months in wine country.  Less than six months after Frank returned to the states, Prohibition took effect.

Knowing he was both Catholic and a Freemason, I was curious to see whether his headstone would have a cross or a masonic square-and-compass.

Frank Cloutier contributed the Anthology's only Upper Midwestern music. Here's his headstone on March 1, 2009:

Frank Cloutier grave in winter

As the musical director of St. Paul's Victoria Cafe, Frank and his band made a 78 RPM record in September 1927 — "Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One". 

It was released that January, but by then the Victoria Cafe itself was already in Federal court, fighting for its life.  From the start, the record always represented a gone world.

"Moonshiner’s Dance" seems to have utterly vanished from history almost as soon as it was released.  When Frank died in 1957, he apparently didn’t know the recording had been reissued 5 years earlier in New York as part of the Anthology of American Folk Music.
But even then, nobody would've been able to predict the Anthology would become as important to America’s self-image as it’s become.

Frank Cloutier couldn't have foreseen that "Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One" would one day become the best known recording made in Minnesota during his lifetime.

Frank Cloutier grave in spring

Its hard to appreciate how deeply the country had changed between 1927 and 1957.  Indeed, much of the Anthology’s power derived from the way the alien sounds of Prohibition-era, pre-Depression, pre-WW2 America mystified young Cold War listeners.

Frank Cloutier died on a Friday morning in 1957. 

That very same morning, the Vanguard TV3 exploded on its launch pad in Florida.  Meant to meet the challenge of Sputnik with America’s own first satellite, the Vanguard TV3 was an embarrising, televised explosion.  Headline writers dubbed it Flopnik, Oopsnik, and Stayputnik.

The satellite itself was recovered from the wreckage and put on display at the National Air and Space Museum, where I took a picture of it in January 2005, not yet knowing the object was somehow about the Anthology

(I was in Washington for Mike Seeger’s concert marking the “Picturing the Banjo” exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery).

Note the light trespass fogging the film in my old battered 1970’s camera.  More than any other single photo, this one finally convinced me to get a digital SLR camera.

Vanguard TV3

In any case, that Friday morning in 1957 not many Americans were focused on the death of Frank Cloutier. 

Even by the time the Smithsonian reissued the Anthology on CD in 1997, there was exactly zero research on Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe to draw from while writing the liner notes.

It wasn't until Thanksgiving weekend 2006 that an Anthology listener finally showed up at Cloutier's grave, wearing earbuds to listen to his record graveside. 

In 2007, on the 50th anniversary of Cloutier's death, I had planned to be in La Crosse, but an opportunity suddenly arose to go to Chicago instead.  It took me a while to choose Chicago, but I made the right decision ... although I still do think about that now and then.

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.

Rose Ensemble to Perform Moonshiner's Dance

The Rose Ensemble will perform "Moonshiner's Dance" — for the first time, as far as I know, in 83 years

Thursday, June 16, 8 pm — Duluth, Weber Music Hall
Friday, June 17, 8 pm — Saint Paul, Fitzgerald Theater
Saturday, June 18, 8 pm — Saint Paul, Fitzgerald Theater

Minnesota's own Rose Ensemble, an internationally acclaimed music group, has notified me that they will perform "Moonshiner's Dance" at upcoming concerts called Songs of Temperance and Temptation: 100 Years of Restraint and Revelry in Minnesota.

This is stunning, partly because these just might be the first performances of Moonshiner's Dance in more than 83 years.

After five years of work on the piece's origins and reception, I've never heard so much as a rumor of any other performance since the original — the September 1927 performance by the house band of Frogtown's Victoria Cafe, recorded by the Gennett Record Company and later reissued on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.

What the Rose Ensemble is about to do is rarer than any routine solar eclipse, black swan, or blooming corpse flower.

Moonshiner's Dance is actually a medley of even older tunes, mind you, and those have been performed and recorded countless times. But right now, I have no evidence that anybody has ever put them back together through that peculiar alchemy that makes them "Moonshiner's Dance." (Please write me if you have info.)

Naturally, there must have been other performances over the years. After all, learning and playing the songs and sounds of Harry Smith's Anthology has been a signature rite of passage for folk revivalists for half a century. 

During the 1950s/60s Folk Revival, even those musicians who'd never heard, or heard of, the Anthology learned its songs and musical figures. That is, the Anthology supplied the Folk Revival with a canon — a repertoire of texts that everybody knew, even if they didn't know why. In turn, the Anthology contributed heavily to the Revival's influential ideas about America, memory, and meaning.

But Moonshiner's Dance wasn't performed.  It never made it from the Anthology into the collective performance repertoire. What could this performance history of Moonshiner's Dance — the Upper Midwest's sole contribution to the 84 recordings of the Anthology — tell us about how we choose to embrace or ignore our own cultural inheritance?

There's a hell of a lot to say about that, and I hope to publish a book about it one day. These are questions just too big to blog.  They're so profound, they're almost ... untweetable.

Still, here are a couple things I'll be thinking about as I look forward to the Rose Ensemble's performances:

The original Victoria Cafe Orchestra was not as different from the Rose Ensemble as you might think. My evidence indicates they were musically literate, sight-reading professionals, members of the Saint Paul Musician's Union, and primarily big-city jazz musicians. So why, on Moonshiner's Dance, were they playing the oldtime ethnic dance music — proto-polka — more associated with rural, outstate Minnesota?

The 1927 Minnesota State Fair had just ended a few days before the recording, and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra must have been playing for a lot of out-of-towners — or for city folk who had themselves been rubbing elbows with those out-of-towners. The band appears to be riffing on that. In Saint Paul, good-natured joshing about Lake Wobegon has deep roots.

If this is right, Moonshiner's Dance is a product of Prohibition-era Saint Paul in its regional context — but it's also self-consciously about Prohibition-era Saint Paul in its regional context.  Like the newspaper, it was truly a first draft of history. 

It's also clear from my research that the Victoria Cafe was a cabaret-style night club. And it was perfectly commonplace for performers on a cabaret stage to develop simple themes or stories, such as the intermingling of rubes and slickers.  That is, we should have expected, all along, that Moonshiner's Dance might be programmatic.

Thus, we're hearing only the audible portion of an experience for all five senses. It's the soundtrack of a full American cabaret environment and, according to my findings, one very narrowly tailored to Saint Paul's University Avenue circa mid-September 1927.

I can't wait to see what the Rose Ensemble does with it. In a way, the ensemble's mission is to provide vivid translations, restating music that was meaningful in a very different time and place and giving it new significance in our time and our place. 

I don't know how rarely they translate across such a long span of time but such a short spatial distance. While Moonshiner's Dance is certainly a creature of a very different era, it represents a place less than two miles up the road from the Fitzgerald Theater. 

If we could tell the Victoria Cafe Orchestra that we'd be watching their tomfoolery recreated by the Rose Ensemble in the 21st century, I imagine they might ask us ... "What the heck do you see in it?"

[UPDATE: I've also posted a review of the show.]


Anthology's Victoria Cafe Honored by Saint Paul

The Victoria Theater in winter.  Its 1927 house band recorded the only unambiguously Northern recording of the Anthology of American Folk Music.


It's official.  The Victoria Theater is now a Heritage Preservation Site of the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota. 

As a primary cause, the city's preservation commission cites the building's role in Harry Smith's influential Anthology of American Folk Music. The Victoria's 1927 house band recorded "Moonshiner's Dance Part One," now familiar from the 1952 Anthology.

The Victoria appears to be the first historic site— anywhere, at any level of government —protected by means of an Anthology connection.

Five years ago, I faced a different and rather depressing situation, being the only person alive who'd connected the dots between this building, "Moonshiner's Dance," and Harry Smith's Anthology

Nobody interested in the Anthology knew where the Victoria Cafe had been.  And Saint Paulites didn't know about the recording — including the historians who'd been commissioned over the years to survey the Victoria building.  Worst of all, the very day I understood this, the building seemed to be under imminent threat from multiple directions.  

Well ... now, things have changed.

The point of my work has never been to save any old buildings.  My project has always been to deeply understand the cultural context of "Moonshiner's Dance," and to develop ideas about what this fresh history really means to us, now.

And yet, when the Victoria Cafe itself — the recording's immediate context — was about to become a pile of bricks, I knew I had to set aside the microfilm and speak up.  I figured I could sleep at night if Saint Paul let the building be torn down — but only if I could have my say first.

In the past 18 months, I've attended dozens of hearings, written a slew of nominations and articles, been interviewed by journalists dozens of times, networked feverishly.  I've also thought a hell of a lot about Wordsworth's "Happy Warrior," and decided I am not he. 

Now, after a unanimous city council vote and the mayor's signature, I feel I've come out of a dark tunnel, blinking at the sunlight.  I intend to re-focus on my history research and writing, and on blogging.  

Still, there's more work to do on the Victoria's future.  It's a vacant building with an owner who doesn't respect its history — a point he's emphasized many times.  Until the building finds a respectful use, it will remain threatened.

I also can't help wondering ... would the Victoria's working-class neighborhood still have this cultural resource if I hadn't begun poking around at the Historical Society five years ago?

What other buildings, maybe in comparable neighborhoods down South, would benefit from somebody — particularly a fan of the Anthology — just showing up, doing some research, and doing a little writing? 

It's odd to consider how important, as tangible assets, "Moonshiner's Dance" and the work of Harry Smith have become to a hard-working neighborhood in the capital city of Minnesota.

Here's a little further reading:

History of the Victoria Theater — a short sketch at the Frogtown Neighborhood Association website.

Save the Victoria Theater — the Facebook group with nearly 700 members.

A Geography of the Anthology — a map of the influential Anthology, a reminder of the geographic element in the idea of American "roots music".

North Country Blues — thinking about the American musical canon, and what it means that the Upper Midwest is too often neglected.

Moonshiner's Parking Lot? — when the wrecking ball was coming for the Victoria, I shared a little of my thinking, at the time, on why I thought the building mattered.

Louis Armstrong at the Coliseum, 1939 — Frank Cloutier, the Victoria's bandleader, moved to the Coliseum at Lexington & University, where he became Musical Director.

Harry Smith Archives — the Victoria's preservation is announced at the Archives.

Email Me — if you have questions, or answers, about the Victoria or Moonshiner's Dance, or anything else. 

See also "Anthology of American Folk Music" links at the upper left of this blog.



Harry Smith Anthology Site Before Saint Paul Council


In May 2006, I was astonished to find the Victoria Cafe, still standing, right there in the Frogtown neighborhood of Saint Paul, MInnesota. Apparently, nobody had figured this out before.  

Although music fans around the world knew the 1927 recording made by the Victoria Cafe's orchestra, the Cafe's location was unknown. Meanwhile, the old building was familiar around the neighborhood, which seemed completely unaware of any recording associated with it  — much less what that recording represented, what place it held in American culture.

The Victoria — in which I see unparalleled significance for American music, and especially for the cultural history of the Upper Midwest — was just sitting there unnoticed, uncelebrated, and vacant, watching the traffic pass back and forth on University Avenue. 

Now, about 5 years later, the City Council of Saint Paul will decide whether to finally recognize this building as an official Heritage Preservation Site. The city has an opportunity to protect this cultural resource and keep the demolition crews away from this landmark. 

To my eyes, passing up this opportunity would reaffirm the Victoria's decades of anonymity and neglect, instead of finally acknowledging an important cultural contribution made by Minnesota, Saint Paul, and Frogtown.

RESIDENTS of Saint Paul, please contact your City Council member and urge them to strongly support the Victoria Theater's bid to become a Heritage Preservation Site. 

NON-RESIDENTS of Saint Paul, please contact them anyway!  You should email the entire council, or just the Victoria's councilmember, Melvin Carter III

And please, spread the word!


Now that the Victoria has reached the City Council, I'm tempted to tell the whole story all over again — explain it all, get it right, pin it down.  But, well ... the heart of the matter is out there in one form or another.  Here's a sampling.


History of the Victoria Theater — a short sketch at the Frogtown Neighborhood Association website.

Moonshiner's Parking Lot? — when the wrecking ball was coming for the Victoria, I spilled (some of) my guts about why I think the building matters.

A Geography of the Anthology — a map of the influential Anthology, and a reminder of the default Southern emphasis of the idea of American "roots music".

North Country Blues — thinking about the American musical canon, and what it means that the Upper Midwest has been neglected too often.

Louis Armstrong at the Coliseum, 1939 — Frank Cloutier, the Victoria's bandleader, moved to the Coliseum at Lexington & University, where he was Musical Director for 13 years.

Email Me — if you have questions, or answers, about the Victoria or Moonshiner's Dance, or anything else. 

Saint Paul City Council — please contact them!

Save the Victoria Theater — the Facebook group with over 600 members.

See also "Anthology of American Folk Music" links at the upper left of this blog.

an original copy of the 78 rpm record of the 1927 "Moonshiner's Dance,"
which Harry Smith included on the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music


Kevin Moist and the Anthology as Collage

The fetishized harmonica rack from the 1952 liner notes (detail)

Harry Smith approached his 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music as a self-consciously avant-garde art project.  Knowing that the Anthology was going to be commercially released as a set of LPs, he nonetheless compiled a proto-post-modern collage.
And this turned out to be a source of its power — a catalytic feature.  The Anthology seduces you into hearing old-sounding, authentic-sounding poor-people's music as tomorrow's high art.
In the decade after its release, the early adopters and taste-makers in the small Greenwich Village folk music scene were staring deeply into this Anthology

And they got to work building a small world that had learned from the Anthology, where the next waves of young folkies could, for example, sit at the feet of Roscoe Holcomb and Skip James — very old, weird southern musicians indeed. 

Bob Dylan was one of those fresh new kids. 

Of course, a wide variety of brilliant people in different fields were already chipping away at the separation between high art and low culture.  But the most devastating blow to that barrier ultimately came from a veteran of this Greenwich Village folk scene, a fact that surprises us still.
Allen Ginsberg said it about his friend Bob Dylan, but he could have easily said it about his friend Harry Smith. "It was an artistic challenge to see if great art can be done on a jukebox. He proved it can."
Kevin Moist's article ("Collecting, Collage, and Alchemy: The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music as Art and Cultural Intervention") starts from essentially the same premise — that the Anthology derives its power to influence from high art sensibilities, which it helped to democratize.

But Moist takes the next step.  He opens up those sensibilities to see what they're made of, at least as Smith used them in the Anthology

Moist focuses on collecting, collage, and alchemy — not as "themes" or "conceits" in a work of art, or as Smith's personal quirks, but as practical concerns that shaped Smith's understanding of his task, as Smith would probably have wanted us to do.

Moist's findings reveal that Smith's interests in collecting, collage, and alchemy were actually part of his coherent focus on cultural transformation — on the problem of how to rework the world through the meanings we ascribe to it. 

As a result, Moist's article reads like an anatomy of the Anthology's ability to change the perceptions of its listeners.  Accepting his 1991 Grammy Award, Smith said "I saw America changed through music," and Moist's article is a natural history of that power to affect change.

An associate professor of communications at Penn State Altoona, Moist seems to have a long-standing interest in the religious ideas of the 1960's counter-culture, and their role in the art and music of the era.  It makes sense, then, that Moist would think this carefully about Smith's very earnest interest in alchemical theory.

About the Anthology, two alchemical principles seem important, and Moist argues that the application of these two principles to culture, high and low, was a key element in Smith's thinking.
First, alchemy holds that "as above, so below" — the patterns and structures in the highest spiritual spheres are reflected in the lowest material orders.  If you want to know the mind of God, start with whatever common "stuff" happens to be at hand. 

(Look at the image of the celestial monochord on the Anthology's cover, with its hand of God tuning a string extending down through the nested spheres of creation.  It's an emblem of this harmony across the high and low orders.)

Second, alchemists believe that by stripping stuff of its original context — purifying or distilling it — and rearranging it, nature's true divinity can be exposed.  The alchemist doesn't turn lead into gold, but instead serves as "midwife" to an ever-present potential inherent in all of nature. 

Smith's interest in alchemy, it turns out, matters when we try to understand Smith as a collector — as we should, if only because every anthology starts with collecting. 

Collecting, Moist explains, is a fairly recent phenomenon in which the consumer acts as curator.  As such, the collector sees a larger cultural significance in his collection, and wants to intervene in the usual meanings that the broader culture ascribes to the objects he collects. 

In this sense, Smith was a kind of super-collector.  In multiple interviews, Smith describes his accumulation of objects as merely the first step in a larger reconsideration of culture as a whole.

So, as a collector and student of alchemy, Harry Smith sat down to edit his Anthology — although Moist finally convinced me to take literally Smith's insistence that his Anthology was a collage.  The "anthology" is really a metaphorical conceit of this collage artwork. 

Moist points out that collage — another type of collection — works by isolating pieces of the world and rearranging them, thus reshaping the meanings they bring with them into the new collage. Collage is "a process of reconstructing reality by reassembling pieces of it."

This vision of Smith's cultural transformation through collage, collecting, and alchemy is convincing and useful and full of exciting possibilities.  But the essay attempts a new reading of the Anthology that proves disappointing, maybe because a journal article just isn't long enough to do the job.

In a few paragraphs, Moist takes on the entire "lost" Volume 4 (first issued in 2000) without unearthing any surprises about the music or the Anthology.  The reader could conclude, I think incorrectly, that the exhilarating insights in the rest of Moist's essay aren't so useful after all.

The reading might have revealed much more with a much narrower focus, by dedicating those paragraphs to only one piece of Smith's collage, or to one transition between pieces. 

Let's see, I don't know which recording to suggest ... I guess I'll have to pick one completely at random here ...

"Moonshiner's Dance, Part One" is one of only two medlies on the Anthology

Not a tune but a collection of tunes, it is an anthology in the Anthology, a collage incorporated into a larger collage. 

Our understanding of "Moonshiner's Dance" therefore benefits from some of the same thinking we apply to the Anthology itself — if, possibly, on a different scale.  It’s, like, totally fractal, bro.

In the 4 years I've been investigating Moonshiner, I've come to understand it as a promiscuous set of juxtapositions, a collection of popular tunes that were mostly already old fashioned in 1927. 

Clearly, some of the meaning Moonshiner held for its 1927 audience would have derived from its aggressive and multi-leveled recontextualization of these earlier tunes.

Like the Anthology itself, the pieces that make up Moonshiner trailed some of their meanings with them into their new assemblage, where these meanings served a new agenda in a new context — in this case, that of the Victoria Cafe, a cabaret-style nightclub and speakeasy in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, MN. 

Part of what maintains my interest over the long haul is tracing the way Moonshiner (and, subsequently, the Anthology) transformed meaning into meaning, agenda into agenda, context into context.

For example, of the 112 selections in the four-volume version of the Anthology, Moonshiner is the only one that’s unambiguously from outside the American South. Basically, you get 111 southern recordings, and one from the capitol of Minnesota. 

Of course, the recording process always isolates (distills) music from its historical contexts.  And Smith's collage style maximizes this effect, which actually contributes to the Anthology's power and appeal. 

Even so, the regional geography of the Anthology uniquely decontextualizes Moonshiner even from the context-free space Smith created for it. 

Much of the pleasure of my project is in placing "Moonshiner's Dance Part One" back into context, often shedding light on the sources of Moonshiner's own power and appeal. 

The work is slow going, in part because related scholarship, reissues, revival activity, etc., has been sparse. Indeed, I've found no evidence that anybody had even bothered to look up "Frank Cloutier" in the St. Paul phone book. 

Thus, my interest in the Anthology's jazz-inflected Northern polka has me pondering the Anthology's contribution to the various chauvinisms of "roots music" and "Americana" — ironic, given Smith's radical eclecticism. 

The failure to follow up on this recording makes it seem prescient, to me, that the center of Smith's Anthology is the silence that follows Moonshiner.  I mean that mostly literally.

The mid-point of the original 3-volume Anthology falls between Moonshiner and the next cut, "Must Be Born Again," the first cut of Volume 2's second half.  Frank Cloutier's command to "Be seated!" introduces the silence at the center of the 1952 Anthology.

This placement also puts Moonshiner at the pivot-point between the secular and the sacred — by far, the most jarring transition in a collection of jarring transitions. 

Moonshiner was clearly chosen to end the secular half of Volume 2 with a bang — to achieve a kind of final paroxysm for the sequence.  Listen to it.  With Moonshiner, the secular body of Volume 2 finally exhausts itself, and the spirit rises.

Hearing it this way, it's not so surprising that Smith would find this break "elsewhere" — by reaching outside of the context the Anthology had established for itself, outside its system.

Given the Anthology's eclecticism, finding its "outside" isn't so easy.  So Smith reached out for Moonshiner, the exception that proves the Anthology's various rules.  It's intriguing that the piece chosen to play this role would itself be an anthology. 

"Moonshiner's Dance, Part One" is thus an excellent probe of the Anthology's meaning system, of Smith's method, and of their sources and consequences and limitations.  Then again ... maybe the same might be said of each of the other 111 entries of the Anthology, each its own universe in a grain of sand. 

I'm not sure, and given the time-consuming nature of the work involved, somebody else will have to confirm that hunch. 


Kai Schafft: The Monochord Interview


The second annual Harry Smith Festival is this Sunday, November 15.  Eight bands from Ithaca, NY, and central Pennsylvania will perform songs from The Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by the late avant-garde filmmaker and record collector Harry Smith.

The Festival is held in a town with less than 800 people — and one inspired brew pub.  It's organized by Kai Schafft of the band Chicken Tractor DeLuxe

Kai is also an assistant professor at Penn State, and directs Penn State's Center on Rural Education and Communities.  He's got a Ph.D. from Cornell. 

I emailed him questions, and he emailed me answers. Many sincere thanks to him!


The Celestial Monochord (CM): What happens at a festival about an anthology?  Please say there'll be PowerPoint slides — I love lectures by experts!

Kai Schafft (KS): No powerpoints, sadly. Last year we did show an experimental film inspired by Harry Smith. I had found an old 20 minute 16 mm Maryland Game Commission film in a junk shop and rigged up a contraption that would allow me to mount the film reels and create some under-lighting. I re-animated the whole thing with Sharpies, frame by frame, turning it into a kind of psychedelic game commission film. Then I recorded a soundtrack – an audio montage of found sound, bird noise, gospel music recorded on old 78 records (naturally), Baba Ram Das giving spiritual advice by telephone, sex noise off a weird slab of vinyl, echoey ambient noise from the lobby of an interstate rest area in Maine, and so forth. We set up a screen and projector halfway through and showed the film. I was a little worried that it might seem too esoteric, but people loved it – another successful social experiment! Our friend Elody Gyekis (who is returning this year) completed a pair of oil paintings as the bands played. The place filled up, lots of people ate food and drank beer. They seemed to feel that something special was happening.


CM: What kind of audience showed up for this on the first year?  What's the venue like?

KS: We didn’t know who would show up. The Elk Creek Café + Aleworks (www.elkcreekcafe.net) is located in Millheim, a small rural town located practically in the geographic center of Pennsylvania. It’s Amish country, with ridgelines and long flat farmed valleys. The venue is right in the center of town at the one stoplight in either direction for miles and miles. Amish buggies roll by. It’s an unlikely place for a craft brewpub and music venue, but the proprietor, Tim Bowser, is a pretty visionary guy and not afraid to take risks. He’s also a huge music lover and early on set his sights on establishing Millheim and the valley we occupy, Penns Valley, as a center of great (local) food, excellent craft beer, eclectic music and local culture. So he immediately took to the idea of the Festival. He didn’t need any convincing, and I knew he wouldn’t. And we ended up packing the place and not just with hipsters and folkies from State College (about 25 miles away), but all sorts of people from near and far. Tim books music at least 2 or 3 nights a week, so, especially now the place has quite a good reputation. But last year, it hadn’t even been opened for a year. So it was a bit of an experiment. But, like the film, it worked!


CM: The musical line-up sounds fantastic.  How do you rope all of these people into playing?  Are they all Anthology fans, or do they owe you money?

KS: They are all people that I know – or at least know of. Early on I thought about how great it would be to hand pick my favorite local-ish bands and musicians to play songs off the Anthology – turn it into a big benefit, have a happening, create a shared situation where really talented people are challenged to dig into the Anthology and reinterpret and re-encounter these chunks of American Collective Unconscious. Practically speaking, the only way to really do this was to turn it into a benefit. And really, this kind of thing should be done for love anyway. Everyone who I’ve asked, both years, has seemed genuinely honored to be asked and genuinely excited to participate. And, as a musician (albeit as one that doesn’t do it for a living) I know that some of the most boring, worthless and fucked up gigs have been the highest paying, while some of the craziest, most inspired and transcendent gigs have been those done for little or no dough. But maybe others have had different experiences. I don’t know. We do offer gas money for bands coming in from away. That was mostly or entirely turned down last year. I expect a similar thing will happen this year. The performers get free food and beer though and they can sell merchandise. The beer is great, so that’s a strong incentive. Plus the Elk Creek is a flat out special place to play. The vibe and the audiences are always tops. And, unless I am very much mistaken, Elk Creek will be packed this Sunday too.


CM: Every February, there's a battle of the jug bands in Minneapolis.  There are 20 bands, and it lasts over 8 hours ... by the end of the night, you can see into other dimensions.  Is the Harry Smith Festival like that?

KS: Yes. Or at least it was last year. The songs on the Anthology have some pretty heavy spiritual, emotional and aesthetic content. Eight bands playing this stuff for 6 hours can be a surprisingly affecting experience. I think a lot of people felt this way. It caught them off guard. It definitely was a case of the whole being way larger and more expansive than the sum of the parts. It’s a social, aesthetic and cultural experiment that makes all sorts of crazy stuff bubble up.


CM: The Anthology covers a huge range of southern music — blues, cajun, cowboy songs, sacred harp, square dance fiddling, etc.  It must be hard to match that kind of scope in the festival.

KS: Well, it’s always interesting to see what people pick. There are some obvious ones I think. And then there are some that I wish someone would step up to the plate and try to do. Like "Saut Crapaud" which almost seems to anticipate The Shaggs, albeit transported back 40 years and 40 time-space continua. Or, one of your favorites,"The Moonshiner’s Dance Part One." Nobody’s picked those yet. We have some great bands this year, though. The Evil City String Band is doing "Indian War Whoop" which I’m very excited to hear.


CM: How did you discover the old American music?  Was it part of your upbringing?

KS: I grew up in Washington DC near the Walter Reed Hospital. When I wasn’t listening to the "album oriented rock" stations, I listened to bluegrass music on WAMU, and the blues shows on WPFW where I was introduced to artists like Tampa Red and Leroy Carr (and also tripped out on Louis Farrakhan sermons and other non-mainstream stuff). And my parents used to take me to the Folklife Festivals down at the Mall in Washington near the Smithsonian. So, you might say I always had "predilections." But sometime in the early 1990s I came across the collection of field recordings John Cohen did in the mid-1960s that had been released on Rounder, "High Atmosphere." That was really my gateway drug. I heard for the first time people like George Landers, Wade Ward, Gaither Carlton, and Estil Ball and I felt like my neural structure had somehow been re-arranged. Literally. Then I lived in Ithaca for a long while and got steeped in that music scene. Lots of old-time and roots music, and interestingly an actual local music culture where people share certain kinds of understandings and sounds and aesthetics – not as an orthodoxy, but as a shared framework, a culture. And that’s what Harry Smith was interested in too, those regional cultural expressions. When I was up there I DJ’d a Sunday morning radio show for a number of years, along with some compatriots, the Salt Creek Show, which is devoted entirely to American roots music of varying levels of obscurity. I still listen to it online. (wvbr.com/saltcreek). So that also was a huge influence and really introduced me not only to rural music of the 1920s and 30s but also straight up classic country and honky tonk which I also love.


CM: When did you find the Anthology?  How did it change things for you?

KS: Well, I was certainly familiar with the Anthology, but I didn’t actually break down and buy it until I started thinking about doing this festival. It’s a bit of an investment! And of course you can probably figure out ways of accessing the anthology, but ultimately, the print catalog Harry Smith pulled together is indispensable. It really does establish the fundamental point that the Anthology – or rather this collection of music – has cosmological, mystical qualities. If anyone doubts that, listen to Bascomb Lamar Lunsford’s "Dry Bones." Or any number of other selections. Or the whole thing. Or whatever. You come away and you conclude, "This is not nothing. This is Something."


CM: Fans of the Anthology seem to struggle to react to it.  They launch a thousand ships, go on fantastic voyages, build impossible contraptions.  You and I certainly have.  Why?

KS: Well, with the festival, really because I could, because I thought it would be fun. Because I thought it would help build community in a variety of ways. Because I thought it would help bring this great and largely forgotten music and expression back to the light of day. But mainly, to be honest, I just thought it would be a kick. As it happens though, the Anthology has some real juju. So it turned out to be a lot more than just a kick. But it’s that too.


CM: How does your work in rural education connect to your Anthology interest?  I think of Bill C. Malone, who writes a lot about country music and southern working-class culture.

KS: I work in a university. A good friend of mine described universities as "temples of rationality." I’ve never heard a more apt description, with all the positive and negative that that implies. The Anthology is in some senses a temple (or altar?) of irrationality. So, it’s a balance thing really, balancing a life of rationality with a world – or many, many inner worlds – of IRrationality. Actually although a lot of my colleagues and some of my students know about this other part of who I am, for whatever reason I generally don’t broadcast it. As for Bill Malone’s stuff, yeah I’ve read it and I like it, a lot actually. But as for my own practice, I’ll keep my irrationality irrational!


CM: How did you get interested in Gypsy, or Roma communities in Hungary?  And, of course, have you followed the resurgence of gypsy music?

KS: I lived and worked in Budapest in the early 1990s and then went back to work with rural Gypsy communities. I was interested in Hungary’s system of local minority self governments and what that meant for marginalized Gypsy communities. How they could use it as a leverage point for political and economic power and cultural autonomy. I spent a lot of time out in some pretty rural villages, living and working. But there wasn’t much music happening that I saw, at least where I was. A lot of the Roma music is associated with particular groups of Roma, especially in urban areas, wealthier, higher status groups. I was pretty far from that. But I imagine there are some analogies to be drawn, like Hungary’s Kali Jag is to the Carolina Tar Heels, as The Gypsy Kings are to Garth Brooks, as Muzsikas is to New Lost City Ramblers … ? But I don’t know. I haven’t followed Gypsy music that much.


CM: You live up there at the top end of the Appalachian range.  Do you think there's a kinship with people living further down on the same range?  Have you explored music closer to Pennsylvania and New York cultural history?

KS: Well, I don’t know. Except in pockets, regionally-specific musical expression seems largely non-existent. But there are certainly pockets, and even very strong pockets of people tapping into local/regional musical expression, rural music and so forth, old time, and what have you. Ithaca has been a real hot bed. There’s good stuff around Morgantown and further south into West Virginia, North Carolina. I would like to be one of those people who goes to Clifftop and Mt Airy, but I don’t. And maybe I’m not looking in the right places, turning over the right rocks. Sifting through piles of 78s around here you find a lot of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. He used to have a banjo orchestra and was pretty popular for a while. He actually died at a show when he was in his 80s – a friend of mine was actually at that show! But he was more of a jazz guy I think. Much of my efforts these days seem to be more with creating, or reinvigorating, or strengthening a local musical-cultural presence than digging into what came before. But, then again, there’s not much evidence of what came before, at least as far as I can tell. It’s like a cultural amnesia, the Clear Channelization of popular consciousness. To that extent the Harry Smith Festival is a subversive act – and it’s meant to be.


CM: Did you attend any of the Harry Smith Project concerts — the concerts by Philip Glass, Wilco, Beck, Elvis Costello, etc?  

KS: No, and in fact, I didn’t even know about these till we started planning the first one here in Millheim. I have the Harry Smith Project DVD. There’s some great stuff on that, although it’s a little hit or miss too.


CM: There's something called the "Harry Smith Frolic" held annually in Greenfield, MA.  It seems to be a weekend of oldtime stringband jam sessions.  Have you been in touch with them?

KS: I didn’t know about this either. I’ll have to check it out.


CM: What's your favorite ancillary Anthology-related stuff?  What book, CD, DVD, and/or movie?

KS: Well, the Celestial Monochord is actually a big favorite of mine, and the website run by that French guy is absolutely amazing! I also love the site you have linked with the visual art of the different anthology songs. Perhaps farther afield there’s a great Motorhead documentary, "Ace of Spades," that I really enjoyed. I like Harry Smith’s catalog. One of these days I’ll get around to reading some of John Fahey’s stuff. I have read and re-read the booklet that comes with the High Atmosphere disc. I recently read a book called Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia. There’s an excellent CD that goes with it. I really enjoyed that. And most recently I’ve been really freaking out about Michael Hurley. Really, really freaking out. The next "fest" might have to be Michael Hurley themed, I don’t know. I’m still figuring that one out. And Karen Dalton has also recently left a pretty strong impression – "Green Rocky Road" (her robotic voice intro to Green Rocky Roads: "This * song * recorded * in * two * tracks"). So these are all ancillary to the Anthology in my mind.


CM: It's a painful fact that a man is rarely asked to talk about his banjo.  Please, Kai, tell me about your banjo.

KS: I used to live in an old farm house in Upstate New York. One day by happenstance I found an old gun in the wall of the house. It was a WWII German Mauser. We had it around the house for a while, and a friend borrowed it, cleaned it and got bullets for it. I went over to his house and we shot it a bunch and blew apart some old clay flowerpots. He got really excited about it and really wanted it for his own. He said, "I have an old banjo – I’ll trade you the gun for the banjo." So we struck a deal and I took the banjo home. Some months later, with prodding from my wife, I screwed up my courage and took some lessons from Richie Stearns, a phenomenal musician and clawhammer banjo player from the Ithaca area who plays with The Horseflies, plus a ton of other projects, plus has played with a crazy list of musical luminaries from Mike Seeger and Tony Trischka to Natalie Merchant and Jim Lauderdale. But he’s also just a really nice and humble guy. A mutual friend said, "Oh Richie, he’s common as dirt!" So, I learned some stuff off him and started playing in a zydeco-electric old time band called The MacGilllicuddies, who I still play with a bunch of times a year, but these days I mainly play with my local band Chicken Tractor Deluxe, the band that’s hosting the festival. Last year we were preparing to record our CD, Tin Can Holler, and the Austin band The Gourds came through and played at Elk Creek. Kev Russell did an a capela version of Butcher’s Boy, which slayed everyone in the house. I talked to him about it afterwards and we geeked out about the Anthology. He told me that he played a gig in Arkansas where the audience pissed him off, and when they clamored for an encore he played them My Name is John Johanna! So we ended up playing Butcher’s Boy and John Johanna in last year’s Festival and they ended up on our CD, Tin Can Holler, along with I’m On the Battlefield for My Lord, and Country Blues. But I’m getting off track. About the banjo and all, Richie plays with Evil City Stringband, so I’m hoping that we can get him to sit in with us when we do the Coo Coo Bird. It all comes around in the end!


Moonshiner's Parking Lot?


A piece of St. Paul's cultural history may be torn down for a parking lot.

The Victoria Cafe produced a recording of absolutely unique importance

In May 2006, I realized that an internationally notorious recording from 1927 — "Moonshiner's Dance, Part One" — was the work of the house band of a nightclub at 825 University Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

Nobody had understood this before, so I was astonished and overjoyed to find the building still standing 79 years later.  Since then -- since early 2006 -- I drive by it often, and each time my heart skips a beat until I see that the Victoria Theater is still there.

But now, not even 4 years into my research for a book on "Moonshiner's Dance," the Victoria building is being eyed for demolition to make way for a parking lot. 

What disturbs me most is that, while my findings are enormously suggestive, the building's historical importance is not yet well understood.  Like a species allowed to go extinct before biologists are even able to describe it, the Victoria Theater may be destroyed in the near-total absence of knowledge. 

Other community members have great reasons to want the building saved.  

I have my own reasons. 


[ NOTE: Most of the information previously presented in this space has been superseded by my subsequent writing and research efforts. For this reason, I've deleted the text. Please visit this more recent post for better information on my mission to express the many stories I've encountered while trying to understand the meanings of this place. ]

"Minglewood Blues" Sweetly Sings of Anthology


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Anthology and Carbine Williams

Banjo and rifle


OK, I'm officially a Turner Classic Movies fan.

Lately, movies hardly seem worth watching if Robert Osborne isn't there, just before and after, to give a cheery commentary about them. Bruno could be OK, but I'll wait until it comes to TCM so Osborne can tell me who ALMOST played Bruno before they finally cast Sacha Baron Cohen.

More seriously, the relentless march of old films has mattered to my development as a cultural historian. I live much of my life in a pre-WWII "immersion program" of my own design, and it helps that movies carry a lot of dense and very palatable cultural information. 

Consider the relatively obscure Jimmy Stewart movie Carbine Williams — a biopic about an inventor who helped create the M1 carbine rifle, a standard gun used in WWII.

Aside from this seemingly unpromising subject, TCM's viewer guide said that Williams was a bootlegger in the 1920's and created his invention while in a North Carolina prison. I figured hillbilly stringband music had to appear somewhere, right? 

Also, the movie was released in 1952, the same year Folkways Records released Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Maybe the movie would shed light on ... say, the prevailing attitudes about southern Appalachian culture that greeted The Anthology upon its release.

I hunkered down to watch TCM's broadcast. What blew my mind turned out to be the way the filmmakers tried to compensate for the dry subject matter — how they tried to draw you into the biography. 

The film begins "now" — in 1952 — with the son of Carbine Williams having had schoolyard fights about his father's criminal past. The son is otherwise a typical 8-year-old of 1952, with the greasy kid stuff in his hair, the rolled up jeans, the horizontal-striped t-shirt.

To help the son understand him, Carbine Williams brings the boy to his old prison warden, who tells the boy — and us — the remarkable story of how a convict in his prison went on to win WWII for America.

In the end, the boy now understands and appreciates his father's experiences as a Prohibition outlaw, a convict in the Depression, and finally an engineer of the military-industrial complex that won the war. A heart-warming hug closes the film.

The appeal of the framing storyline is direct: the events of the first half of the century will be incomprehensible, or at least misunderstood, by the baby-boom generation. The movie proposes and fulfills a dream that the catastrophic experiences of two World Wars and the Depression (if not the fiasco of Prohibition) could somehow be appreciated and acknowledged by the children of The New Prosperity.

That this yawning divide in experience could somehow be bridged someday was, and is, an entertaining fantasy.

About the musicians whose 1920's recordings were reissued in 1952 on The Anthology, Greil Marcus wrote:

In 1952 [they] were only twenty or twenty-five years out of their time; cut off by the cataclysms of the Great Depression and the Second World War and by a national narrative that never included their kind, they appeared now like visitors form another world, like passengers on a ship that had drifted into the sea of the unwritten. "All those guys on that Harry Smith Anthology were dead," Cambridge folkies Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney wrote in 1979, recalling how it seemed in the early 1960's, when most of Smith's avatars were very much alive. "Had to be."

The Anthology derived some of its power from exploiting the same radical break in memory that Carbine Williams uses as a dramatic frame. To young people the age of the Williams boy — that is, Bob Dylan's or Joan Baez's age — the world that created their parents and the recordings on The Anthology alike seemed about as distant in time and place as any world could.

At some level, the cataclysms of the first half of the century were not only events Carbine Williams witnessed, they were projects he undertook. As a suggested path for the boy himself to follow, his father's life could reasonably be seen as a nightmarish sentence.

Carbine Williams never hints at the possibility that the son might be less interested in the life his father had lived than in the world his father had created and would leave as the boy's inheritance. And in 1952, that world looked like an awfully mixed bag.

A lot baby boomers came to see the entertainment industry that produced Carbine Williams — the one that failed to anticipate their perspective — as a purveyor of bad dreams thin enough to be transparent. They were drawn to cultural alternatives that were more opaque and thus less easily churned out by the efficient new systems for the manufacture and distribution of culture.

The most committed Folk Revivalists of the early 1960's traded their father's M1 carbine rifle for their grandfather's banjo. Staging a kind of identity insurrection, kids like the Williams boy would try on identities that their fathers seemed to have abandoned to become architects of the Cold War — identities inspired by Woody Guthrie, Charlie Poole, Jessie James, or Henry Lee's jilted lover.

Or Harry Smith — whoever he was. His Anthology was like a Ouija board for receiving and sending messages from and to the millions of souls Carbine Williams and his invention had left for dead.

Some of the Williams boy's generation tried to reenact the Anthology's obsolete performances. Some tried to retrace the occult thinking that organized the collection. Many tried to discern, in the most obsolete songs they could find, the stories their fathers either didn't know or had decided not to pass along.


Williams and Hearst
Patty Hearst's famous rifle was an M1 carbine.


Alchemist Transforms Breslin into Ace

Ace hotel

Avid fans of Harry Smith will recognize the name of the Hotel Breslin.  For one thing, it was one of the many roach motels he called home until he was thrown out for lack of payment. 

Allen Ginsberg reported:

Then Harry went into a funny kind of amphetamine tailspin.  He got really paranoid and got moved out of the Chelsea, I think, or expelled or something.  He couldn't pay his rent, and wound up in a series of other hotels, including the Breslin Hotel, by 1984.  But he wouldn't talk to anybody, wouldn't talk to me, maybe because I didn't supply him with money, because I was broke at the time ...

I didn't see Harry for a long while and began visiting him again at the Breslin Hotel, on 28th Street and Broadway.  Same problem, still wanting money ...

In that room at the Breslin, the whole room was taken up with shelves of books and records, then a movie editing table, and a tiny bed.  I have some photographs of that, of him pouring milk, The Alchemist Transforming Milk into Milk

In that bathroom he had a little birdie that he fed and talked to, and let out of his cage all the time.  When his little birds died, he put their bodies in the freezer.  He'd keep them for various alchemical purposes, along with a bottle, which he said was several years' deposits of his semen, which he was also using for whatever magic structures.
[ introduction to Think of the self Speaking, pages 7-8 ]

His evictions from such places must have been difficult for Smith, of course, but they're also an on-going tragedy for all of us. 

They often resulted in catastrophic losses of Harry's original artwork, as well as his inspired collections of objects much more interesting than what he kept in that freezer.  We're all somewhat impoverished by Harry's housing problems.

In a sad irony, Harry's chronic homelessness also had a small upside. As I understand it, he sometimes sold his stuff to keep a roof over his head a little while longer — typically to buyers who preserved it better than Smith could have, or would have, given that he sometimes intentionally destroyed is own artwork.

He first approached Moses Asch of Folkways Records to try and pawn his 78 collection.  Asch had the idea of instead paying Smith to edit the Anthology of American Folk Music, using Smith's own collection as its basis.

Smith later sold that 78 collection to the New York Public Library, where Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler were allowed to copy the whole thing in exchange for cataloging it.  Those bootlegs were a wellspring for the repertoire of the New Lost City Ramblers, one of the most influential bands in history. 

Anyway, point is, the Hotel Breslin is now being opened as the "gleaming new super-hip Ace Hotel," according to the Observer.  If you have enough money, you can stay where Harry couldn't. 

My wife and I love to stay in old renovated hotels — most recently, the Palmer House in Chicago and the Biltmore in Los Angeles — in part because it's possible to get some surprisingly good prices in some of these amazing places at the moment. 

Therefore, I can't hold my snout too high about the Breslin/Ace project.  I would like to stay there. 

But if you have heretofore missed the ironies that gentrification sometimes presents, the Breslin/Ace project is a good place to get up to speed.

The hotel management is hoping to incorporate some of Smith's artwork into the interior design.  They also hope to offer his pioneering abstract animated films on the hotel's pay-per-view TV system. 

Some rooms feature turntables and selected vinyl, and the management hopes to get permission to press new vinyl copies of The Anthology for the enjoyment of guests. 

( This raises an intriguing question I've been wondering about too.  Could Smithsonian/Folkways re-issue The Anthology on vinyl to the general public? 

Vinyl is back, at least among a certain segment, and I think it's probably the same segment that would love to own The Anthology on LP. 

For the 1997 CD reissue of The Anthology, Smithsonian/Folkways worked hard to approximate, as much as possible, the experience of encountering The Anthology in its original form.  Well, what better way to approximate it than to actually, in fact, reissue The Anthology in its original form?  Eh?  Hello? )

The Breslin/Ace Hotel project has been controversial, in part because there are many "legacy" residents in the building, until recently a rent-controlled apartment building. 

Some residents haven't appreciated the hassles of living in a construction zone, and some presumably just don't like hipsters, tourists, rich people, and whatnot.  There's a little uncertainty over just how well residents and guests will mix in the building.

The same investors also recently renovated the Chelsea, where Harry Smith died on November 27, 1991. 

Disk Sift Yields Smith-Newsie Link

(newsboy, 1921, Library of Congress photo)


I was wading through the Archeophone catalog yesterday, planning my next purchase. 

... It's an incredible record label.  Everything I've gotten from them has been a hoot to listen to, and has revolutionized my perceptions and tastes ...

And I finally noticed their series of reissues of "Hit of The Week" records.  As the Archeophone website describes them,

They sold on newsstands during the Great Depression for 15 cents and quickly became the best-selling records of the early 1930s: the laminated flexible cardboard records known as "Hit of the Week." Featuring the top songs of the day, performed by some of the most noted jazz and dance musicians (often under pseudonyms), Hit of the Week records provided just that — one hit, once a week — to an American public with hardly a dime to spare but hungry for great music by great artists.

As always, it seems, I thought of Harry Smith and the Anthology.

Back in July, I first realized that phonograph records were once distributed on city streets at newsstands and by newsboys. 

Those tough, tragic little kids in short pants and floppy caps hollering "Extra! Extra!" sometimes sold 78's along with newspapers. 

As William Howland Kenney wrote in his brilliant Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930:

... the newsboys of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Defender regularly carried copies of the latest records of the week along with their newspapers.  They sold the disks at $1 apiece; for many customers the records were as important as the news.

Something now made real sense for the first time.  The funny, fake headlines Harry Smith wrote for his liner notes to volume one of the Anthology of American Folk Music may have been based on actual experience. 

Newsboys might really, in fact, have yelled something very much like "Georgie runs into rock after mother's warning!  Dies with the engine he loves!" 

Interestingly, two of the performers on Archeophone's "Hit of the Week" CDs — Vincent Lopez and Rudy Vallee — have loose connections to The Victoria Cafe. 

Therefore, I might have to buy these ... although, times being what they are, I may have to wait until this music is finally released on cheap pieces of Durium.


The Old French Weird America


Someone has started an amazing blog about Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.  If he keeps going along these lines, it will end up being one of the most important things to happen to the Anthology since its reissue on CD in 1997.

Apparently the work of an obsessive French collector, The Old Weird America (TOWA) is posting at least one entry on each Anthology cut, with large zip files containing wonderful batches of mp3s. These mp3s are other recordings by each Anthology artist, as well as other "covers" of the same song.

TOWA also provides a little writing of his own about the Anthology artists, although that text is often the standard, sturdy, reliable consensus view of the subject.  Very nice, but not usually new.  The real eye-popping, one-of-a-kind value of this blog is the audio files.

Really, the project comes off a lot like the interactive, online version of the Anthology-with-notes that I dreamed of at the end of this post back in July — except for its, let's say, "independent" attitude toward copyright law. 

Two thoughts:

Of course, I'm dying to see what TOWA does with "The Moonshiner's Dance" ... and whether he bothers to contact me to see what I have up my sleeve.  He is not good about citing his sources of information or audio, so I don't know if he swings that way.

Also, I've always wondered what I'd do after my Diamonds in the Rough series is finished.  I guess I've dragged my feet about writing that last entry because I have no substitute for the series.

One idea has been to write one piece on each of the 84 entries in the Anthology.  At my usual pace, the project would take nearly a decade.

Well, in a way, TOWA has beaten me to it.

Certainly, his contribution is these amazing audio collections he's posting, whereas I would do my usual Carl Sagan meets Robert Cantwell routine. 

I would really have new things to say about these cuts ... long, dense, ponderous, new things to say ...


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 Anthology as Tarot Deck

(a modern Tarot deck by John Coulthart)


Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music is so well established as a canonical text that you'd think Smith must've had tenure somewhere like Harvard ... he didn't.  And it's easy to miss how perverse an idea the Anthology originally was. 

As Greil Marcus wrote in the book that launched a thousand ships, Invisible Republic:

... the Anthology was disguised as a textbook; it was an occult document disguised as an academic treatise ... This was in Harry Smith's grain.  A polymath and an autodidact, a dope fiend and an alcoholic, a legendary experimental filmmaker and a more legendary sponger, he was perhaps most notorious as a fabulist.  He liked to brag about killing people.

For generations before him, Smith's family was deeply involved in the more marginalized traditions of American mysticism — the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Theosophists.  Smith often claimed to be Aleister Crowley's illegitimate son. 

Smith brought this sensibility to the design for the Anthology, which comes across as having been ordered by some unknowable, arcane, lost cosmological system.  His liner notes include the following quote meant to help the reader understand his decisions:

"In Elementary Music The Relation Of Earth To The Sphere of Water is 4 to 3, As There Are In The Earth Four Quarters of Frigidity to Three of Water."  -- Robert Fludd

All of this matters desperately, for reasons I'll mention in my series of posts on the first seven seconds of entry #41 of the Anthology, "The Moonshiner's Dance Part One."

For now, I'm just pointing out that someone named Zac Johnson has invented a way of using the Anthology for something resembling a Tarot reading.  Harry becomes your oracle.

You use an ordinary deck of playing cards to generate a random number from 1 to 84, which gives you an entry number for a cut on the Anthology, according to Harry's mysterious and iconic numbering system. 

You then go to that corresponding song, and use it as a basis for an interpretive reading.  The extremely evocative recordings on the Anthology should serve as an endlessly rich source for readings by any reasonably sharp fortune teller who knows the collection.  The Anthology for fun and prophet.

I think Harry would have loved this.  And then hated it.  And then failed to understand it.  And then forgotten about it.  And then hated it.  And then dismissed it as uninteresting.  And then hated it.  And then loved it ...

Here's a blog entry and podcast that explain the details of the card system.


Fake Headlines Mesmerize Music Geeks

When you first read the fake newspaper headlines in Harry Smith's liner notes for Volume One of his Anthology of American Folk Music, you're forced to stop what you're doing, sit down, and read them all very closely.

Harry knew what he was doing. 

Those headlines are great devices of seduction — or a fishhook through the mouth.  In turn, his liner notes, as a whole, have helped make his 1952 collection of 1920's records one of the most influential documents in American music. 

This morning, for the first time, I read something that finally made real sense of these queer little jokey headlines.  It was in William Howland Kenney's description of the various ways record companies got records into the hands of consumers in the 1920's:

... the newsboys of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Defender regularly carried copies of the latest records of the week along with their newspapers.  They sold the disks at $1 apiece; for many customers the records were as important as the news.  As one newsboy recalled: "You'd go to one customer and she'd get all excited over a new blues and start telling you all about her girl friend or some relative who was sure to buy one, too."
Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930, p 123

It's perfectly sensible, then, to suppose that a corner newsboy might literally have shouted something like "Extra! Extra! Mamie Smith's man don't treat her right! Has Crazy Blues!"

If so, the newsboys and Harry Everett Smith shared the same technique for drawing attention to the records, as does the Anthology itself to this very day.

Whether Harry understood this, I don't know — but it would be worth looking into. He was born in 1923 in Washington state and grew up mostly in Bellingham, where I doubt corner newsboys were a common sight. This sales method appears to have been little-known among researchers until it was described by William Howland Kenney in his (mind-blowing) 1993 book. Harry Smith died in 1991. 

Smith's headlines have been posted by someone named Joshua, at someplace called "Dinner on the Molly."  He also helpfully includes links to the songs at YouTube. 

It would be great if, someday, a really well-made interactive replica of the Anthology, closely based on Harry's liner notes, were legally available online.  Joshua's blog entry and the YouTube piracy are evocative how this might work.

See also my entry about the availability of the liner notes from Smithsonian.


Harry Smith's Liner Notes Available for Download


The first time I went to a racetrack — Canterbury Downs in Chaska, Minnesota around 1999 — I picked up the horse-racing program and felt a jolt.

"So THIS is where Harry Smith got the design of his liner notes to The Anthology of American Folk Music!"

Wherever he got his ideas for them, those liner notes were so weird — so peculiar and particular and captivating — that listening to The Anthology without getting to know its liner notes seems a little perverse.  

From the beginning, those liner notes have massively multiplied the force of the blast that's slowly gone off in American culture thanks to Harry Smith's Anthology — a 1952 collection of old recordings from the late 1920's and early 1930's. 

Well, now the Smithsonian has put those notes online for download by anybody for free.  Maybe this is just the first time I've noticed it, I'm not sure. 

In any case, it's a big honking 62 MB PDF, so watch out.  Also note that they start with the new liner notes from the 1997 reissue before getting on to Harry's original notes.

The posting of this PDF seems to be part of a site redesign, eliminating the Smithsonian's old Anthology site and replacing it with a new one that looks rather like their Global Sound commerce site. 

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this change means that the individual entries of the Anthology will soon be available for purchase as mp3's. 

Of course, I think it's time to stop chippying around and kidding yourself and get the box set on CD.  You'll never regret the expense, believe me.


The Anthology at Tom Waits Concerts


from "KPFK Will Air Folk Fest"
The Pasadena Star Bee, July 3, 1974

Tom Waits is on tour — a rare enough news story in itself. 

But note that the music piped into the theater before and after the shows, to date, has been The Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith. 

I've often pointed out the folk lineage of various Tom Waits songs, showing connections between:

Cold Cold Ground and Stephen Foster,

Georgia Lee and Blind Willie Johnson,

Swordfishtrombones and Bascom Lamar Lunsford, 

Better Off Without A Wife and Chubby Parker, The Carter Family, and John Lomax, and,

Down There By the Train and Uncle Dave Macon and Henry Thomas (although I really "buried the lead" on that one — scoll down).

... I have a lot more of these up my sleeve and I may get some of them written up some day ...

Anyway, it's interesting to see Waits tip his porkpie to The Anthology so explicitly. 

But it would be absurd to say I've finally been "proven right."  Waits has often been pretty generous in acknowledging his debts to other musicians, and folk has always been in the mix. 

Thanks to Ray for pointing out the use of The Anthology at the recent concerts, and to TCCBodhi and Dave R. at the Raindogs discussion list for providing independent confirmations.