What's In A Name?

Moe Thompson
Moe Thompson founded The Victoria Cafe

 

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

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 Also, because I'm constantly finding new insights, I'm painfully aware that anything I write will quickly seem outdated to me.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


I'm a Stern Old Bachelor

Stern Old Bachelor

Over the past few months, I've bought nine inexpensive 78 rpm records — the first 78's in my music collection.

Most of my 78's relate to my research into Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, although I don't yet have "The Moonshiner's Dance" (Gennett 6305) — if you own it, please contact me. One of the "extracurricular" records is by Chubby Parker, which I bought just because he's a denizen of Harry Smith's Anthology.

It's an odd buy, since the label is the same on both sides. It claims to be two helpings of the B-side, "I'm a Stern Old Bachelor," although playing the record reveals it actually has the correct A-side, "Oh Suzanna." And in fact, the "Oh Suzanna" side is considerably more worn than the "Bachelor" side, so I guess Gennett chose their A's and B's correctly. Presumably, somewhere in the world, there's a Chubby Parker 78 claiming to have two sides of "Oh Suzanna."

"I'm a Stern Old Bachelor" is a comic novelty song, which celebrates the delights of being unbound by holy wedlock. (I wish I could make an MP3 for you, but I don't have the technology.) Parker recorded it for Gennett on February 26, 1927 ... in a couple weeks from now, it will be the 80th anniversary of that recording, but I need something to write about TODAY.

It seems to have been one of Chubby's signatures on the WLS Barn Dance radio show, although "Nickety Nackety Now Now Now" was really his theme. (You may remember "Nickety Nackety" better from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds). Both were later reissued on Slivertone, the record label of Sears Roebuck (the worlds largest store, hence the WLS call letters).

Next, "Bachelor" showed up in John Lomax's 1934 book, "American Ballads and Folk Songs." In June 1938, the original Carter Family recorded the song on their last recording session before taking off for Texas and Mexico to be on border radio with XERA. Because the Lomax and Carter texts share a couple extra verses not found on Parker's recording, I assume the Carters got the song primarily from Lomax. In any case, it's an uncharacteristically silly performance by Sara and Maybelle.

Here are the lyrics to "Stern Old Bachelor". The lines in italics are sung by the Carters, but not by Chubby Parker.

I am a stern old bachelor
My age is forty-four
I do declare, I'll never live
With women anymore

I have a stove that's worth ten cents
A table worth fifteen
I cook my gruel in oyster cans
And keep my things so clean


[chorus]
Oh little sod shanty
Little sod shanty give to me
For I'm a stern old bachelor
From matrimony free

When I come home at night I have no fear
I smile and walk right in
I never hear a voice yell out
Or say where have you been

On a cold and stormy night
In a cozy little shack
I sing my songs and think my thoughts
With no one to talk back


I go to bed when ever I please
And get up just the same
I change my socks three times a year
With no one to complain

At night when I'm on peaceful sleep
My snores can do no harm
I never have to walk the floor
With an infant [a baby] in my arms

And when I die and go to heaven
As all good bachelors do
I will not have to grieve for fear
My wife will get there too
When I first heard Parker's recording — despite his high nasal voice and crisp banjo picking — I immediately thought of the Tom Waits song, "Better Off Without a Wife." You know the one:
I like to sleep until the crack of noon
Midnight howling at the moon
Going out when I want to
Coming home when I please
Don't have to ask permission
If I want to go out fishing
Never have to ask for the keys
They're more or less the same song ... well, I should say that "Better Off Without a Wife" could easily be a thorough re-imagining of "I'm a Stern Old Bachelor." I believe Waits used to do this often — take a good old folksong, boil it down to the essence of whatever makes it good, and then build an entirely new song around that same essence. See my post on "Cold Cold Ground."

Now, you may ask whether, in 1973, Tom Waits was listening to Chubby Parker or Sara and Maybelle Carter, or reading song books by John Lomax. It's a little-known fact that Waits started out at California folk clubs like the Troubadour and the Heritage. Apparently, Waits and Ramblin' Jack Elliott would occasionally hang out together in the 1970's (one suspects a nightcap or two may have been involved).

In any case, although my evidence for a direct link between the two songs is slim — and there must be dozens of other comic bachelor songs for Waits to take some cues from — there's no reason to doubt that Waits and the music of the Carters or Chubby Parker could easily have crossed paths in the early 1970's.

 

Editor's Note: This is the 8th day of my 28-day experiment. I'm trying to post something every day for the whole month of February. If it's something worth reading, well ... all the better.

 


Old Dog Blue

I often wonder what I'll do when my song-by-song series on Diamonds in the Rough comes to an end. I'd love to work on another album, but the only one that seems worthy is Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. But given the pace at which I've run through Diamonds, I calculate The Anthology would take me about ten years. Besides, what can I say about something like "Old Dog Blue" that hasn't been said before (and better)? For example, Robert Cantwell, in his book "When We Were Good," writes beautifully about it.

But today is the 79th anniversary of the recording of Old Dog Blue on February 2, 1928, in Memphis, Tennessee on the Victor label. To commemorate that great event, here's a couple notions ...

When I first heard Jim Jackson sing Old Dog Blue, my reaction was to regret its sexism. In the first verse, the singer off-handedly mentions the recent death of his wife, and then goes on to mourn the death of his dog, movingly, in verse after verse after verse:

I'm going back where I come
I'm going back where I come
I'm going back to Giles County
My wife died and left me a bounty
Me and them pretty girls ganged around
That's the reason I'm going to Giles County

Had an old dog whose name was Blue
You know Blue was mighty true
You know Blue was a good old dog
Blue treed a possum in a hollow log
You know from that he's a good old dog
Do we take this as a joke about the relative importance of wives and dogs?

I've seen (can't remember where) the explanation that the song is hard to sort out because it's really two or more songs spliced together. The line mentioning his wife is like a vestigial organ, left over from some previous stage in the song's evolution. There's some support for this view. Later, in the middle of everything, we get this strange non-sequitur:

Blue treed a possum out on a limb
Blue looked at me and I looked at him
Grabbed that possum, put him in a sack
Don't move, Blue, 'til I get back.

It rained, it rained, yeah
It rained, it rained, yeah

Who been here since I been gone?
Little bitty girl with the red dress on
Who been here since I been gone?
Little bitty girl with the red dress on
Is the dog wearing a dress? No, this verse about a girl in a red dress waiting for the singer appears often in old folk and blues songs — so, it's what's called a "floating stanza."

But I think it's slightly condescending, a little dismissive of Jim Jackson's artistry, to think as if he's just a passive antenna through which floating stanzas appear and disappear without rhyme or reason. I trust my own aesthetics here — this performance of this text is heartbreaking, and increasingly so each time I hear it, year after year. Jackson chose his words to move us, and it works.

Once you accept that the text is very deliberate, the song comes into focus as brilliant psychological observation. It's a study of grief, the way it really works in a real brain. It hits with the force it does because it mirrors sorrow as we actually experience it. Do we really always mourn the most obvious things, or do we sometimes focus on proxies, fetishes, or symbols instead?

Jackson's character's wife has just died, so he's decided to go back to a place of his youth, before he was married, to relive happier days. It seems rather optimistic, even desperate — Jackson's character doesn't sound so young now.

Blue, too, seems to have been gone for a long time — so long that you'd expect a grown man to have gotten over it a bit. And I suspect he has. What I hear is a mind returning to everything its ever lost, trying to reconnect with it all both physically and emotionally.

By so vividly recalling this dog, by revisiting that intense ENCOUNTER between species ("Blue looked at me and I looked at him"), the singer is tracing his own edges, the limits and contours of his own identity. He is refamiliarizing himself with his manhood and his humanity, through memory.

In this way, Jackson's character is like the later folk revivalists of the 1950's and after, about whom Cantwell writes so beautifully. They renounced their identities, abandoned all hope, denied their inheritances, and then — through song — rebuilt themselves. They invented themselves as a new cast of characters meant to inhabit a new world, which they then also built, on a foundation of reinvented memories.

 

Editor's Note: This is the second ... jeez, only SECOND? ... installment of an experiment — The Celestial Monochord is posting one entry every day during the month of February 2007.

Also, note that the lyrics to this song are notoriously hard to get exactly right.

 


The Harry Smith Project - Thoughts in Advance

Smithcover

In a lot of ways,The Celestial Monochord is a tribute to Harry Smith and the mesmerizing sampler of old recordings he edited in 1952, The Anthology of American Folk Music.

And so, this Tuesday will be an exciting day at Monochord headquarters. Four disks — two audio CDs and two DVDs — intended to pay tribute to Smith and his Anthology will be released on Tuesday (October 24). I don't have a reviewer's copy of the disks (unlike this putz, for example), so I'll anticipate the release by considering what I can tell about it from the label's advertising and what others are saying about it.

As the author of the first (and so far only) blog on the entire internet dedicated to the Anthology, my first comment is ... people! Treat your bloggers a little better!

-------------------

The bulk of the disks offer audio and video from a series of tribute concerts, called The Harry Smith Project, organized in 1999 and 2001 by a guy named Hal Willner. The performers — about half of whom are big stars like Lou Reed, Wilco, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello — do what might be thought of as "covers" of the songs on Smith's Anthology.

In exactly what sense such performances would constitute a tribute to Harry Smith is unclear to me. I can't get it sorted out in my head.

Smith's Anthology and the lessons it taught shaped the revivals that came after, and it defined the careers of some of the best musicians of the late 20th Century. The Anthology also became a milestone in the history of amateur musicianship in America. Those revivals, those careers, and we amateur musicians have paid tribute to Smith far beyond The Harry Smith Project's poor power to add or detract — the world will little note nor long remember what Sonic Youth says here ...

And there are other problems. Of course, Harry Smith was a mix-master, one of history's great juxtapositionists, so there's no such thing as a Harry Smith cover, per se. Thinking of the Anthology's songs as if they were Smith's babies only perpetuates the worship of the collector over the collected, the Lomaxes over the Leadbellies. Harry Smith himself was markedly dismissive of the Anthology and he considered his other projects, now largely forgotten, to be more important. I wonder how Smith would have felt about Tuesday's release.

In his strange interviews, Smith treats the songs on the Anthology as mere local embodiments of some larger patterns in the human collective unconscious. Although he clearly loved them (no matter what he might have said), he portrays the records in his collection as arbitrary, as if they may as well have been any other records, or even some tangled pieces of string, or some paper airplanes discarded in the gutters of Manhattan.

To me, the most immediately obvious way to pay tribute to Harry Smith is to carry on his work — to go on collecting little bits of culture that embody the most vital meanings animating human life. To work at becoming — ourselves — the embodied examples of such meanings. To investigate and love human culture independently, idiosyncratically.

But then ... what do you expect The Celestial Monochord to say?

-------------------

I knew about these Harry Smith Project concerts back when they happened, through a Tom Waits discussion list I belonged to. Although none of the list-members who attended the concerts knew or cared much about Harry Smith, their reaction to the concerts was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone seemed to agree something remarkable had happened there. And it's no wonder. Hal Willner seems to be the right man for the job of organizing these tribute concerts.

First, he's one of a smallish tribe of people who've had their lives overturned by this queer, bent little hypnotist, Harry Smith. At times, it seems there's about as many of us in the world as there are people who've walked on the Moon, or who've been struck by lightning more than once.

Willner personally knew Smith well enough to cast him as The King in a production of The Seven Deadly Sins, staged at the Naropa Institute. It was also Hal Willner who put together Allen Ginsberg's introduction to the catastrophically out-of-print collection of interviews with Smith, Think of the Self Speaking.

And very suggestively, Willner has used his time on Earth to collect amazing things and paste them together — giving him roughly as much insight into Smith's mind as we can hope for. The list of Willner's projects is dazzling, but he's best known for gathering together very dissimilar musicians for improbable tribute albums.

He's responsible for tributes to Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus, pirate ballads and sea chanteys, and music from Walt Disney's cartoons. Performers he's rangled together for these projects include Bono, Sting, Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, Dr. John, John Zorn, Sun Ra, Tom Waits, Ringo Starr, Keith Richards, and Elvis Costello. Along the way, he also collaborated with Robert Altman on Short Cuts and Robert Wilson on a show in Copenhagen.

To me, the drama of listening to The Harry Smith Project will be in watching Willner do battle with the poppycocky quality of his own project. He's in the best position anyone can be in to make a "tribute album" to Harry Smith actually pay tribute to Harry Smith. Given who he is, I don't much doubt Willner will succeed in some sense, and on some terms. But in what sense? On what terms?

----------------

The fourth disk of The Project's 4-disk set makes easier sense to me. It's the hook that will snag me into plopping down my cash on Tuesday, although I suspect the reverse might be true for most buyers.

The fourth disk is a DVD with a documentary about the creation of the Anthology, along with selections from Smith's abstract films, which were influential in their own right. The documentary is by Rani Singh, the director of the Harry Smith Archives and Smith's friend and assistant in the last years of his life. It'll be interesting to see what kind of documentarian she is, but Singh's previous work perpetuating Smith's memory has been inspiring and important.

This last disk — the one with the best prospects for bringing us into communion with Harry Smith himself — brings me to something called The Harry Smith Connection ...

Willner's inspiration for the concert portion of this Project was, in part, two previous concerts marking the 1997 reissue of The Anthology on CD. From what I'm able to tell, the CD of those performances, The Harry Smith Connection, was widely disliked by critics. But if you judge solely by the "spin test" — how often it's in my player, spinning — it's one of my favorite CD's.

Perhaps my favorite cut is "His Tapes Roll On," which another reviewer has called "excruciating" and "unbelievably egregiously stinkerooin' nonsense." Unlike most of the other songs on the disk, "His Tapes Roll On" is not from the Anthology, but was written by Peter Stampfel, a Wauwautosa-born sometime member of The Fugs, whose first album was recorded by Smith. Stampfel's creaky, amateurish, stitched-together song is about Smith's obsession with recording sound — any, seemingly randomly chosen sound. Stampfel begins:

Harry recorded with a wire recorder
back in World War II
Harry recorded with a reel-to-reel
when the reel-to-reel was new
Harry recorded cassettes by the hundred
as the century rolled on
He even used a telephone answering machine
But Harry Smith is gone

Speed-rapping killers and jump-rope rhymes,
fireworks on the 4th of July
Complete early canon of Gregory Corso,
kittens, snowstorms, airplane trips
What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Where's tomorrow gone?
Most of his tapes are missing in action
And Harry Smith is gone
It's true that Stampfel's voice and guitar-playing will never rocket to the top of the charts, but neither will anything else Harry Smith chose to record — squeaking hinges, squealing brakes, the peyote songs of the Kiowa, or the death-rattles of bowery bums.

It's here, in Stampfel's "egregious nonsense," that we find the gravest contradictions and challenges in the concert recordings of The Harry Smith Project. At least on the face of it — again, sight unseen — the contradiction implied by bringing together popular, professional musicians to work up modernized, financially-viable, critic-pleasing versions of songs that (of all people) Harry Everett Smith collected ... well, that contradiction seems to unravel the very goal of paying tribute to him. That's what I'll be listening for — the drama, inherent in the very idea of the project, of how to resolve, or respond to, or transcend The Harry Smith Project's own contractions.

I'll try to have something written up in the next few months.

 


KFAI covers Frank Cloutier

Dakota Dave Hull has asked me to talk about Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra on his radio show.

I'm scheduled to appear on August 3rd. The show airs every Thursday from 9:00 - 11:00 a.m. (Central Time) and can be streamed live on the web. Each show is also archived for two weeks.

Or, if you live in the Twin Cities, just turn your radio dial to 90.3 or 106.7 FM. Maybe you can drive by the Victoria Cafe while you listen ...

 


Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra

Newshow

 

- Editor's note: This is the information I had after a couple weeks of research. The research had now gone on for years! See various updates. -

 

In recent weeks, I've discovered quite a lot of previously-unknown information about Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra.

Cloutier's orchestra recorded "The Moonshiner's Dance, Part 1" in 1927, and Harry Smith included it in his 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music (as entry #41). The liner notes to the 1997 reissue state:

The members of the Victoria Cafe Orchestra are unknown. [ The orchestra ] does not appear in any jazz or dance band discography, but is assumed to have been from the Minnesota area.
After many revelations during more than 100 hours of research, the phrase now seems almost comical — "assumed to have been from the Minnesota area."

When I first heard the Anthology in 1997, Cloutier's recording caught my attention. For one thing, I thought at the time if you slowed it down and played it in march-time, "The Moonshiner's Dance" could sound a bit like Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35." More importantly, I wondered whether I could find out more about its origin, given that so little was known about it and given that it was recorded in St. Paul, Minnesota (I live in Minneapolis).

But then, absolutely everything about the Anthology caught my attention. It took nine years to finally feel as if I'd exhausted the Anthology's deep well of distractions and drive, one Saturday morning, over to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. My first step was to look in the 1927 St. Paul city directory — a precursor to the phone book — and there was Frank Cloutier, musician, living two blocks from The Victoria Cafe. I've done a fairly thorough literature search of the kind I learned to do in grad school, and it seems as if nobody else knows what I've uncovered.

But why? Harry Smith's Anthology is surely the most influential anthology of sounds in history. It's widely regarded as the founding document of the 1960's Folk Revival, which so strongly defined popular music forever after. Many of those on the Anthology were sought out and found in the 1960's, had a second career, and have been written about seemingly endlessly. Why was NOTHING known about Frank Cloutier and his orchestra until May 13, 2006, when I looked him up in the phone book?

Frank Cloutier presents certain problems specific to him. Despite the heavy influence of jazz on "The Moonshiner's Dance," he's missing from Brian Rust's authoritative "Jazz Records, 1897 to 1942." The recording is a mish-mash of French-Canadian, Mexican, and Klezmer dance-band influences, but can't be found in Dick Spottswood's "Ethnic Music on Records." It's too ethnic and jazzy — perhaps — to have been included in Rust's "American Dance Band Discography." I don't really know why it has been so ignored, but I wonder if "The Moonshiners Dance" has fallen through nearly every crack there is because it is both everything and nothing in particular. No wonder it took a character like Harry Smith to rescue it from oblivion.

Another reason the recording seems never to have been researched before, I suspect, is that it's from Minnesota. As such, it doesn't fit the story we usually tell ourselves about American "roots music" (if you'll forgive the term). To an extent, interest in American music has been a subset of interest in the American South. Reasons, when given, usually involve the South's gumbo of races and ethnicities — a deep mix indeed, which necessitated and enabled profound musical innovations.

As a devotee of Southern music myself, I won't disagree. But what I hear in "The Moonshiner's Dance" is the arrival of the Jazz Age in St. Paul, and the adaptation of jazz to that city's "always-already" multiethnic musical environment. A Klezmerized, French-Canadian, red-hot Scanda-jazzian, beer-garden polka, the recording deserves the prominence given to it by its inclusion in the Harry Smith Anthology — even if Smith was roughly the last person to understand its role in the Anthology's argument.

One last thing is critical to understand about why this work seems to have waited until now. The US Census keeps personally-identifying data confidential for 72 years, so the full details of the 1920 census were released in 1992. The details that were collected in 1930, you might say, "swept through" the events of the 1920's — probably the critical decade in the history of American "roots music." And on the release side, the decade from 1992 to 2002 swept through the years of the information revolution. In other words, in 1992 all we had was 1920 and no computers, whereas in 2006 we have 1930 searchable on our desktops.

For those interested in the Anthology — or for any devotee of American music of the 1920's and 1930's — the information landscape has very recently been significantly improved. Those of us relying on discographies and other conscientious research from the 1940's through the 1990's should consider getting back to work all over again.

To be merciful, I've left an awful lot out. But below, I summarize the highpoints of what I've discovered about Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe, thus far. Much of it may seem mundane, but I keep remembering that six weeks ago, the best of our knowledge was a single, modest question mark in the Anthology's 1997 liner notes.

 

-------------------------------

 

Prior to 1926, hard facts about Cloutier are still few.

According to the 1930 United States Census, Frank E. Cloutier, the St. Paul orchestra musician, was born in Massachusetts to a French-Canadian mother. His father was born in New York and, considering his surname, I imagine he had a French-Canadian background too (although many Cloutier's immigrated from Ireland). Frank E. served in the military during World War I, and the census gives his age, in 1930, as 32. I haven't been able to find Frank E. in any previous census — at least not with confidence.

 

1930census
(Frank E. Cloutier and his family, from the 1930 Census)

Occupationindustry
(Frank E. Cloutier's "occupation" and "industry", respectively)

 

There is a 1917 WW I draft card signed in Manitowac, Wisconsin for a Massachusetts-born musician named Frank E. Cloutier, but he's four years too old to be the Frank E. of the 1930 census. Maybe the 1930 census taker underestimated our Frank's age (the census records contain a lot of errors and guesses). Maybe Frank E. was anxious to defend France and lied to the military about his age. Maybe they're just not the same guy, however unlikely that may seem.

In any case, in 1930, Frank E. has a wife, Olive (sometimes "Oline," maiden name probably Olson), and two young children — Alene (b. 1923) and Alden (b. 1926). Frank's wife and son were both born in Minnesota, but his daughter and mother-in-law were born in North Dakota. Maybe Olive and Frank E. met in Minnesota after the Great War, and then went in 1923 to stay with her family in North Dakota to have their first child.

From 1926 to 1933, the information is more easily available. Frank E. Cloutier first appears in the St. Paul city directory in early 1926, listed as a musician living in what's called the "West Side". In June, his son Alden is born.

From at least August to October 1926, Frank E. and musician Thomas M. Gates are the co-leaders of The Gates-Cloutier Metropolitans, the house orchestra for the Metropolitan Ballroom, an apparently short-lived, downtown dance hall. The Metropolitan, together with The Coliseum and the Oxford Ballroom, seems to be one of a few venues owned by one John J. Lane.

 

Gatescloutier
(From the September 1, 1926 St. Paul Daily News)

 

Lane would play an important role in Cloutier's life — and a lot of other people's lives — for the next several years. An Irish immigrant and former dance instructor, by 1926 Lane was a beefy, 46-year-old businessman who, on November 2, was elected to the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners. One wonders, among other things, whether having a dance hall owner as a county commissioner helped to maintain "high spirits" in St. Paul during Prohibition.

 

Johnlane
(John J. Lane, from a
November 3, 1926 article
reporting his election
as County Commisioner)

 

Of course, the year 1927 is the critical one for us, because of "The Moonshiner's Dance." By May 1927, Tom Gates is leading orchestras at John Lane's Coliseum and Oxford Ballrooms, and Frank E. Cloutier has moved to St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood (which got its name, in my opinion, from its history of French settlement).

 

Frogtown

 

Frank's new home is near two of Lane's dance halls, and is just two blocks from another venue, The Victoria Cafe at 825 University Avenue, near the corner of University and Victoria. Unlike all the other venues mentioned here, the building that housed The Victoria Cafe is definitely still standing today.

 

Victoria
(the former Victoria Cafe, near the corner of University and Victoria)

Victoriacafe
(the former Victoria Cafe, 825 University Avenue, St. Paul --
click for larger view)

 

It was built in 1915 as The Victoria Theater, one of St. Paul's early movie houses. It operated as a theater only until around 1921, and then stood vacant for several years. In 1925, a building permit was issued for the property, probably to convert it to The Victoria Cafe. The Cafe appears in the city directory the same year. Moe Thompson is listed as proprietor — so it was probably Thompson who dreamed up The Victoria Cafe.

 

Vic1926
(from the 1926 St. Paul city directory ...
telephone number Dale 4664)

 

About 37 years old in 1925, Moe Thompson was born in New York to Jewish parents. He was already in Minnesota by World War I, and married a Swedish girl from Iowa sometime before 1920. From 1917 through 1930, he lists his calling alternately as music and the theater.

In late 1926 or early 1927, Thompson moved to New York City. It's unclear if he remained the owner of The Vic or sold it to Lane, but the city directory gives the venue's manager as one Samuel E. Markowitz. Everybody associated with The Vic in 1927 is listed as his employee. Markowitz — who went by the last names Markus and Markhus during this period — was an auto mechanic, driver, and car salesman before and after his association with The Vic.

 

Victoria1928
(from the 1928 St. Paul city directory)

Cloutier1927
(from the 1927 St. Paul city directory ...
r = renter, h = homeowner)

 

The first newspaper ad I've found, so far, for The Victoria Cafe is from Saturday, April 23, 1927 (see the top of this entry). It announces the premier of a new revue starring "Cloutier's Victorians" and 10 pretty dancing girls. In all the ads for the venue, its dancers, bright lights, Chinese food, and affordability all seem more prominently highlighted than Frank E.'s band.

 

Tengirlrevue
(ad from May 21, 1927)

Chinesefood
(ad from May 14, 1927)

Dancers
(ad from June 19, 1927 — everyone named
is a dancer except, presumably, Cloutier)

 

Frequently, other dance bands appear with Cloutier's Victorians, such as Wally Erickson's and Tom Gates' Orchestras. These bands were from John Lane's venues just a few blocks away, perhaps signaling some financial involvement by Lane in the cafe — but I haven't confirmed this. Certainly, it hints at a closely-knit community among the neighborhood dance bands.

In May 1927, the label that recorded The Moonshiner's Dance, the Gennett record company, comes to town and begins recording local acts, including Erickson, Gates, and Cloutier. On May 29, the St. Paul Daily News carries a front page article announcing that recording sessions had begun at the Lowry Hotel the day before.

 

Souleslovetsky
(front page story, May 29, 1927, St. Paul Daily News —
the Minnesota historical society has a hard-copy original print
of the photo on file, and a good scan online)

 

Although the article doesn't mention Gennett, it does specify that the accompanying photograph shows Harold Soule at the controls of "the recording device." We know from archives housed today at the Indiana Historical Society that Soule was a Gennett employee.

I'm now working with the Indiana HS to get photocopies of the original company ledgers from the St. Paul sessions by Gennett. In the meantime, I must rely on redhotjazz.com for most of my information about those sessions -- but I can't determine precisely where they get any given piece of information.

Redhotjazz.com does not mention "The Moonshiner's Dance." However, it lists the personnel from a session by the Tom Gates Orchestra held on either May 28 or July 25 — maybe the line-up was the same for both dates.

Lee N. Blevins (trombone)
Earl Clark (banjo)
Frank Cloustier (piano, director)
Bob Gates (bass brass)
Tom Gates (tenor saxophone)
Tracy "Pug" Mama (clarinet, alto saxophone)
Victor Sells (trumpet)
Nevin Simmons (alto Saxophone, vocals)
Harold Stoddard (drums)
Note the mysterious "Frank Cloustier" who is listed, strangely, as the director of the Tom Gates Orchestra — wouldn't Tom Gates be its director?

We already know that Gates and Frank E. Cloutier were billed a few months before as the joint leaders of a single band, and that Gates and Cloutier continued to work together in the same venues on the same nights — indeed, they did precisely that at The Victoria Cafe six days before the May session. This should be proof enough that it was actually Frank E. Cloutier, not "Frank Cloustier" who played piano on at least one of the Gates Orchestra recordings.

But there is additional proof in the St. Paul and Minneapolis city directories. Nobody with the surname "Cloustier" appears in any directory of either of the Twin Cities from 1920 to 1936, nor any other year I've checked. Frank E. Cloutier, however, regularly presents himself.

Furthermore, searching the US Census from 1790 to 1930 — that is, in 15 consecutive decades of US history — nobody with the surname Cloustier was ever encountered by any census taker, anywhere. One family pops up in searches for the surname — a Rhode Island family in 1910 — but previous and subsequent census records list the same family as Cloutier. "Cloustier" is a spelling error.

The alternative possibility — that the only Cloustier in the history of the American Republic happened to be named Frank and happened to show up in St. Paul in 1927 to record with Frank E. Cloutier's partner, taking a one-day turn as the director of the band — is absurd.

This discovery of at least one "lost recording" by Frank E. Cloutier raises an issue that might be resolved in the next few weeks, when I get my hands on copies of the company ledger. I don't know the date of The Moonshiner's Dance recording (I've seen September 29, but there's contadicting evidence). If the recording was made on the same date the members of the Gates Orchestra were documented, there's a chance that Frank E. was not the only musician shared by the two outfits. There's some small hope that the recording members of The Victoria Cafe Orchestra could be — or now have been — discovered.

Frank E. seems to have been involved with The Victoria Cafe for a very short time. Although there's more research left to do, I've so far found strong evidence for an association only in April, May, and June of 1927. He's missing from a September 22 ad for The Vic, where the featured attraction that night was the broadcast of the Tunney-Dempsey boxing match. Mostly, The Vic itself is missing from the ad sections of the local newspapers.

 

Tunneydempsey
(ad from September 22, 1927)

 

The Victoria Cafe appears again in the 1928 city directory, but disappears in 1929. The property at 825 University Avenue is listed as vacant for the next five years.

By 1928, Frank E. is listed in the directory as a musician at the Coliseum Ballroom -- he's again clearly working for John J. Lane. In 1929, he's now a manager at Lane's Coliseum Amusement Company and he's moved west about six blocks to a home only a stone's throw from the Coliseum. In September 1929 (at least), Frank Cloutier's Orchestra is appearing on WCCO radio every Wednesday night at 10:30. Wading through newspaper listings could reveal when this radio gig began and ended.

 

Radio
(radio listings for Wednesday, September 11, 1929)

 

The 1930 census (discussed above) now finds Frank E. and his family right there, living next to the Coliseum. Frank E. remains in the same neighborhood for several more years, usually listed in the directories simply as "musician," but in 1933 as "musical dir." at the Coliseum Ballroom.

The 1933 directory contains Frank E. Cloutier's last known address, and I don't yet know what happened to him thereafter. ("Improvise, Frank E.!") There is pretty good evidence that the family moved to North Dakota, where his wife's mother was born.

A 1939 high school yearbook from Minot, North Dakota contains an entry for an Alene Cloutier. The name is the same as Frank E.'s 7-year-old daughter from the 1930 census, who would have been 16 in 1939. The entry is hard to interpret, but it appears the student has a connection with St. Paul's Central High School.

It's certain that Alene's younger brother, Alden M. Cloutier, was assigned a Social Security Number in the state of North Dakota, a strong confirmation that the family moved to that state. Alden went on to serve as an Army sergeant in the final year of World War II. He died in 1981, barely 55 years old, and is buried at Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In 1934 — the year after the Cloutier family disappears from St. Paul — activity resumes at the former site of The Victoria Cafe. The unfortunately-named La Casa Grande Cafe opens at the address, under the management of John McNulty, who was previously a chauffeur, cab driver, and then cab company owner.

In 1935, McNulty wisely changes the establishment's name back to The Victoria Cafe. Nevertheless, the property is vacant again in 1936, and McNulty goes back to driving a cab. He then works as a solicitor for a small local newspaper and soon moves in with several McNulty women — his widowed mother, apparently, and several of his sisters or possibly aunts. His wife and profession disappear from the listings.

It seems the property at 825 University has been associated with the Muska lighting company for most of the past 70 years and was, for a long time, a lighting fixture showroom. The "bright lights" of The Victoria Cafe shined on for a long time, one way or another.

The property is vacant today. In 2004, it was evaluated for possible eligibility for the National Registry (see the 4.6-MB PDF, pages 211-213). The evaluation was part of a survey conducted by The 106 Group Ltd. to evaluate the historical impact of a proposed light rail line running along University Avenue (see the 1.5-MB PDF). The report is very interesting and useful. However, the evaluation of 825 University Avenue completely misses the entire second half of the 1920's, as well as the building's close (but never studied) association with one of the most influential documents in the history of American music.

Although I was a copy editor and report production manager for a cultural resource management company for two years, I'm not qualified to say the report's recommendation of "not eligible" for the National Registry was appropriate or inappropriate. It's very clear, though, that the most historically and culturally important events and people associated with the property were entirely missed during the evaluation. I think the recommendation needs to be revisited by professionals — especially if the former site of the Victoria Cafe is to be negitively impacted by the project.

 

-------------------------------

 

Future Research
I didn't publish this now because I've squeezed out all the information that can be gotten. I had other reasons, including a degree of fatigue. Much more can be uncovered (or has been uncovered, but not discussed here) and I hope to continue my research, but perhaps at a more leisurely pace.

For example, my research on Frank's activities in St. Paul after the Gennett recordings is spotty, and light can be shed on his years from 1928 to 1933. It's possible some clues as to why he left Minnesota could be found. I also think I can discover more about Olive Cloutier's early life in Minnesota (and thus, when and where she met Frank E.).

Certainly, much more can be discovered about all of the characters recorded during Gennett's 1927 sessions in Minnesota (not to mention Vocalion's in 1929, etc.) and all of the venues in which they played. (I have seen, for example, the WWI draft card of the brother of Grace Slovetsky, the stenographer standing next to Harold Soule in the newspaper photo.) This is one reason for my choice to fixate exclusively on the obscure "Moonshiner's Dance" — the vast quantity (if not necessarily quality) of information available on other people and venues is staggering.

Again, I'm working with the Indiana Historical Society to get copies of some of their extensive archive on the Gennett record company.

It would be easy enough to trace more of the career of John J. Lane, including his term as a Ramsey County Commissioner — and were I to write a book (or long article, Master's thesis, etc.) about the Twin Cities music scene in the 1920's and 1930's, Lane would figure prominently. I don't know how likely such a book (etc.) is without additional funds or other enabling conditions.

Many resources located in North Dakota and Wisconsin would be of great interest and value in finding out about the Cloutier family before and after St. Paul. But without being both unemployed and divorced, it's hard to see how I'll be able to access them in person any time soon. I'm exploring various possibilities. Certainly, I would love to hear from music fans in these states who have the deep enthusiasm and skepticism needed to do this work well. Ditto if you live in Minnesota, by the way — there is a lot of work to do, and I'd love to have partners in getting it done.

I'll update The Celestial Monochord in the event any interesting discoveries are made.

 

-------------------------------

 

Acknowledgments
The resources at the library at the Minnesota History Center, especially city directories and newspapers on microfilm, have been extremely useful. So have the History Center's patient staff members, even when I've been a pain in the ass.

The census information, military records, veterans' cemetery information, and yearbook entry were all accessed through Ancestry.com. The site is available at many libraries that have institutional subscriptions, such as the MnHS. Individual home subscriptions can also be purchased at monthly or yearly rates. They're not cheap, but they're really useful.

Many sincere thanks to my wife, Jenny, for sharing her husband with various dead hillbillies — morning, noon, and night — for about a decade now. Thanks, especially, for listening ... and listening ... and listening.

 


"Old is the New New" is Old

Olddances

While looking through a local Minnesota newspaper from 1927, I happened to notice the two-sentence "filler" article above, buried on page 9.

Sure enough, listening to reissues of the old "hillbilly" 78's from the late 1920's, you can hear the performers trying to appeal to this trend. They often seem to be trying hard — occasionally to point of absurdity — to sound antique and to project a feeling of old-timey nostalgia.

You sit down to listen to an obscure old recording from the 1920's thinking you're going to hear some of that real, authentic, genuine, old-time music just like the miners and moonshiners used to play way up in the hills when things were real ... and at the start of the recording the leader of the string band introduces the song with something like "Yessir, we're gunna play some of that real, authentic, genuine, old-time music just like the miners and moonshiners used to play way up in the hills when things were real!"

And you think ... wwwwwait a minute ...

Clearly, the companies who recorded southern hillbilly music in the 1920's wanted to meet a demand for music that felt old-fashioned. Luckily, in doing so, they went out and unwittingly preserved a lot of American musical traditions that would've been otherwise lost.

Although I was aware of such an "old-time revival" of the 1920's, it still surprised me to read about it in real newspapers alongside articles on the floods in Mississippi and Louisiana, and Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic. Another 1927 article profiles a local record store owner who even uses the word "revival" to describe the situation of his day:

Bernstein

To me, it seems Bernstein might be describing songs from Tin Pan Alley — commercial music written by professionals — more than the kind of ancient, anonymously-composed songs we associate with old folk and blues music. But remember that performers we today consider "authentic" folk or blues musicians recorded such songs all the time. Bernstein could easily be thinking of recordings by The Skillet Lickers, Buell Kazee, and the Carter Family.

Reading all this, I was reminded of Robert Cantwell's remark about Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music," which collects commercial recordings mostly made in the late 1920's:

The music reissued on the Anthology was already selectively, conscientiously, and conspicuously revivalist when it was originally recorded. This quality had recommended it, at the height of the Jazz Age, to its various parochial and provincial listeners. The Anthology recovered that music ... converting a commercial music fashioned in the twenties into the "folk" music of the [1950's] revival. [p. 190, When We Were Good]
Among other interesting things about this passage, Cantwell hints that the 1920's revival was a reactionary response against the popularity of jazz. Could he be right? It's an uncomfortable suggestion in our ecumenical age, but it's hard to deny there's some truth to it.

The most explicit proof I know of is that Henry Ford sponsored old-time fiddle contests with huge prizes to encourage the wholesome, clean-living values associated with old-time music. Such values made for good workers and customers, but I think Ford may also have wanted to disassociate — at least in the eyes of rural Southern folks — the Ford brand from the disruptive effects of the Ford product. To many, the auto stank of jazz, sex, alcohol, and economic turmoil, and Ford's support of an old-time revival helped to sanitize the auto's jazzy image.

Still, it's always easy to over-simplify history, and I distrust Cantwell's off-handed remark about the antagonism between these two musical trends of the 1920's. If Bernstein's customers listened to all the latest new musical fads, they'd be listening to BOTH jazz and old-time music, and I think there's some evidence that this is exactly what happened.

Dock Boggs, for example, drew heavily from female blues singers who would have been considered, at the time, intensely new, racy, glitzy, and commercial — and indeed, he built a brand-new style around them. The Harry Smith Anthology's "Moonshiner's Dance" by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra is a promiscuous mash-up of red-hot American jazz and Scandinavian, French Canadian, and Mexican dance music. Neither Dock Boggs nor Frank Cloutier were parochial and provincial, and I wouldn't be too quick to assume their listeners were either.

In another wrinkle, the old-time recordings made during the 1920's weren't exactly academic preservation efforts, although we often listen to the Harry Smith anthology (etc.) as if it were a direct pipeline to the distant past. To sell music that your average 1920's (or 2006) record buyer would hear as old-timey and traditional, you can't just offer traditional music. It's often too unexpected, too weird, too racy, too contemporary. What you need is new music that sounds like an immediately recognizable sign that MEANS "traditional."

This is what Bill Monroe developed as he created the bluegrass sound in the mid-1940's. According to Cantwell's book "Bluegrass Breakdown," Monroe learned the trick of inventing a traditional music for a contemporary audience from one of the most popular old-time bands of the 1920's revival, The Skillet Lickers:

In the Skillet Lickers ... we hear the raucous, brilliant, and spontaneous sound of southern mountain dance music played by men who understood that in the recording studio they were at liberty to play as they might after the dancers had gone home — that is, with heightened vitality and energy [for] an audience who could attend more closely to the music than actual dancers and who could imagine a dance more gay and wonderful than is usually possible for ordinary self-conscious mortals. [p. 52, emphasis is Cantwell's]
It's clear that the old-time revival of the 1920's preserved older traditions, even as it reworked those traditions and created new ones. Although we should keep this in mind as we listen to old records from the 1920's, it's not so strange. We know that folk revivals always curate and create at the same time — this is what happened in the 1950's and early 1960's in Greenwich Village, and in Chapel Hill around 1970, and it's clearly happening again in the full-on folk revival we're witnessing today.

Sometimes it seems the revivals come around so often they blend into one another, to the point where I begin to doubt the very idea of a distinct revival. There is near-constant churning and re-invention of America's musical traditions, blending the mass-produced and the home-made, the new and the old, to the point where the distinctions between them become as imaginary as they are potent.

 


Beyond The Anthology

 

Banjo_camp_rancher

A reader has asked:

I only recently discovered the Harry Smith Anthology but I'm already obsessed. Any further recomendations?
What a question! For the past eight years or so, my musical and intellectual life has revolved around my own discovery of the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music compiled and designed by Harry Smith. You could say The Celestial Monochord's own reason for being is to provide such "further recommendations."

But I also hesitate to answer. Much of the energy and diversity in a Folk Revival (which is what's happening today) seems to come from everybody struggling to find their own way. When I ask like-minded people how they found the old folk and blues music — and where they went from there — the answers almost always surprise me.

At the 2004 American Banjo Camp in Washington State, I met the guy pictured above (I can't recall his name). He was a rancher from arid eastern Washington near the Idaho pan handle. Several campers listened as he told about the time he traded his much sought-after banjo — an old Gibson Mastertone — for seventeen tons of hay. We all laughed and told him he'd been bamboozled. When the laughing died down, he said, "Do you know what seventeen tons of hay cost?" We all conceded that indeed we did not.

Anyway, point is, this guy seemed like a truly authentic folk character — The Genuine Article. So I asked him how he got into playing the banjo, hoping he'd say it was a family tradition going back centuries. Instead, he said "Well, when I was a kid, I was very heavily into the Rolling Stones. And their liner notes said they owed it all to Muddy Waters. So I got some Muddy Waters albums, and that got me into Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton records, and that got me to Harry Smith and Dock Boggs, which got me into bluegrass and ... well, twenty years later, here I am at Banjo Camp."

You just never know.

I'm happy to list some of the places I've been, but I wouldn't think of it as a road map. It's mind-boggling how much stuff is out there today, and how many paths there are into and out of The Anthology.

 

THE ANTHOLOGY

Harry_smith

Once you've memorized The Anthology and scoured its liner notes, you may want even more supporting material.

Anthology of American Folk Music is an invaluable but out-of-print book from Oak Publications. I found a hard copy from an online bookseller, but this electronic version at Tower of Babel will also do nicely.

Volume 4 was released in 2000 by Revenant, where it promptly went out of print (which is why I wish Folkways had done this, as nothing goes out of print there). Smith had long planned this fourth volume, but his attention span expired. It's wonderful — maybe you can find it used somewhere.

Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus. In a way, it's a book-length argument that the spirit of The Anthology deeply animates Dylan's vision — even more so AFTER he "went electric." I think you need to know this book to go any further. It's been renamed and revised, but I only know this first version.

When We Were Good: The Folk Revival by Robert Cantwell — especially Chapter Six, "Smith's Memory Theater." Cantwell's writing is often dense and difficult (in a postmodern cultural studies kind of way) but if you can figure out what he's saying, he'll change your life. I've returned to this beautiful chapter again and again over the years.

Think of the Self Speaking: Harry Smith — Selected Interviews is for the serious Smith-head. It's easy to forget that the highly honored and influential Anthology was put together by a border-line homeless weirdo whose main source of income was often small-time dope peddling. This collection of interviews is frustrating, hilarious, tedious, inspiring, illuminating. Mostly, it's a sad reminder that Allen Ginsberg was right about what becomes of the best minds of his (and your) generation.

 

THOSE ANTHOLOGIZED

Henry_thomas

Find out what ELSE the people on The Anthology recorded — that is, find out what Smith chose from to arrive at The Anthology. Here are my favorites so far.

The Carter Family: In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain. The fact that I laid out the cash for this Bear Family box set suggests how important I think the Carter Family is (it sure as hell doesn't mean I've got the money to spend — you might want to go for some of the box sets put out by JSP instead). You know ... sometimes I walk down a crowded street and am suddenly saddened, thinking "Most of these people don't know about the Carter Family."

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson and its liner notes. Johnson is a gospel musician, so the central themes of his work go back to African American slavery, and back through all of Western literature, and ultimately to Jewish slavery and the Torah. This may be why his artistry can seem to take on layer upon layer upon layer. It's DEEP. Don't screw around with any "selected" collection — go for the Complete.

The Complete Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas. Despite their wild differences, Thomas is like Willie Johnson in that a Great Theme gives his art a depth that opens up beneath you and swallows you up. Born less than a decade after the abolition of slavery, his theme is travel — the road's promises of freedom and its ever-present threats of sudden terror.

Dock Boggs: His Folkways Years, 1963-1968. Boggs is like the greatest old Irish storyteller you'll ever meet — you never know whether to laugh or cry. These years that Dock Boggs and Mike Seeger spent together have a mythic status in my mind — like Dylan and Guthrie at Greystone Hospital, or like Johannes Kepler at Tycho Brahe's bedside. The difference is that Seeger made recordings.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford: Ballads, Banjo Tunes and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina. After many weeks of listening exclusively to this, I stood on the shore of Lake Superior and tried an impersonation of Bascom Lamar Lunsford. To my surprise, what came out was a terrible Lunsford, but a great Bob Dylan. I think not only Dylan's voice, but his approach to imagery and meaning owes a large, mostly unrecognized debt to Lunsford.

Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962 documents one of the great moments of American music — Ralph Rinzler's simultaneous rediscovery of The Anthology's Clarence (Tom) Ashley, and his discovery of the young Doc Watson. The collection has the sound of music being reborn.

 

THE NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS + ALAN LOMAX

Black_texicans

Reading a song as sheet music is like looking at a roadmap of a city, while hearing an actual recorded performance of a song is like visiting that city and eating its gumbo. That's the big shift in which Harry Smith's Anthology participated. Technology and imagination allowed The Anthology, The New Lost City Ramblers, and Alan Lomax to put the true sound of real folk music right into people's ears — and it literally remade the world.

New Lost City Ramblers, 40 Years of Concert Performances. A great introduction to the Ramblers, with many stories told between songs, plenty of laughs, and brilliant musicianship. You can hear the guys grow to a venerable age right before your ears. Tracy Schwarz's introductory comments about "I've Always Been a Rambler" are alone worth the price.

New Lost City Ramblers: The Early Years, 1958-1962. Selections from the Folkways albums before Tom Paley left the group. Particularly surprising for these Patron Saints of Oldtime is all the bluegrass they played so capably. Particularly amusing are all the bawdy and politically questionable songs such as "Sales Tax on the Women" and "Sal's Got a Meatskin."

Out Standing in Their Field: The New Lost City Ramblers Volume II, 1963-1973. Selections from the albums recorded with Tracy Schartz in the line-up. I love the ever-timely Roger Miller song "Private John Q," the hilariously bad-news "Dear Okie," John Cohen's insanely shaggy shaggy-dog story "Automobile Trip Through Alabama," and the worryingly moving Freudian parable "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake." For more on the Ramblers see The New Lost Times.

Southern Banjo Sounds
Solo Oldtime Country Music
Third Annual Fairwell Reunion. I carry around these CDs by founding Rambler Mike Seeger like the American President's nuclear football — they're never far from my side. Mike has done more than any other living person to make the music of The Anthology a living reality in the hearts and hands of people like us. Like the Ramblers themselves, Mike is not a nostalgic impersonator of old records — he's very much a new thing, a creature of today and tomorrow.

The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler. A brilliant way to get a sense of what Alan Lomax preserved in his journeys through America, and during his McCarthy-era exile in Europe. A good third of these performances by longshoremen, patrons of taverns, and prisoners in work crews just don't seem possible — they're too beautiful and strange.

Deep River of Song: Black Texicans. The reason I choose these recordings of black Texans over all the other Lomax recordings I own is that they just happen to blow my mind so consistently. Lomax recordings have a startling immediacy — you feel like you're there watching the thing get recorded, every time you hear it. If I could sit down with you and spin some disks, I might just start you off with Butter Boy's freaky "Old Aunt Dinah."

 

INHERITORS OF THE ANTHOLOGY

Aereoplain

It's silly to list performers influenced by The Anthology, since just about everybody's world has been transformed by it, whether they know it or not. But here's a few people I happen to like, and who just seem to smell like Harry Smith — they have The Anthology and/or Lomax and/or the Ramblers written all over them.

There's a vast universe of incredible musicians who perform in old folk styles. They are world-class masters of their instruments, but when you see them in concert, you might be one of only a dozen people in the audience. It's insane, but ... hey, at least they do requests. I once told Ken Perlman that I've given his brilliant "Northern Banjo" CD to friends as gifts a few times. He gave me a puzzled look and said, "Where do you get them?" Lord help us all. I'm also crazy about Tom, Brad, and Alice, Mac Benford, and local boys Spider John Koerner, Charlie Parr, and Lonesome Dan Kase. (These last three are all fine songwriters, but I think of them as oldtime bluesmen.)

Then there's all the more popular (for better or worse) singer-songwriter acts who Smith-ites might like. Recordings I really like and tend to associate with the Anthology are Jolie Holland's Escondida, Gillian Welch's Time the Revelator and Revival, John Prine's John Prine and Diamonds in the Rough, John Hartford's albums, the great and unavailable Aereo-Plain and the very strange Mark Twang, Tom Waits' Mule Variations, and The Handsome Family's Through the Trees.

Also, for all that can be said about Bob Dylan's debt to The Anthology, Alan Lomax, and The New Lost City Ramblers, I think Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong are the Dylan albums that make the point most clearly. They're also among Dylan's best, it seems to me, and like his first album, they're heard far too rarely.

 


Adieu False Heart

Arthur smith
Fiddling Arthur Smith

 

Today is the sixty-eighth anniversary of the recording of Adieu False Heart, by Fiddlin' Arthur Smith and the Delmore Brothers on January 26, 1938 in Charleston. Readers of The Celestial Monochord will recognize Adieu False Heart, of course, as one of the few pre-War hillbilly recordings about astronomy and cosmology.

It's a "heart song" — a very sentimental parlor song. You might dismiss it entirely, until you actually bid adieu to an actual false-hearted lover, at which point you think, "Now, how did that old song go again?"

Here are the lyrics, near as I can tell:

 

ADIEU FALSE HEART

Adieu false heart, since we must part
May the joys of the world go with you
I've loved you long with a faithful heart
but I never anymore can a-b'lieve you

I've seen the time I'd-a married you
And been your constant lover
But now I gladly give you up
For one whose heart's more truer.

My mind is like the constant sun
From the east to the west it ranges
Yours is like unto the moon
It's every month it changes

When I lay down to take my rest
No scornful one to wake me
I'll go straight ways unto my grave
Just as fast as time can take me

 

I've always thought the last line of the third verse should be "It's every night it changes." After all, the moon's phases change from night to night — from month to month, they're pretty much the same.

But that third verse is great. For one thing, its astronomical imagery sets up the final verse's mention of a fairly technical idea in cosmology — the speed of time. Coming after the previous verse, it gives a touching sense of the singer caught up in nature's relentless, remorseless clockwork — he's as much a victim of Isaac Newton's conception of time as of a lousy girlfriend.

That theme is emphasized by the recording's pace, which is set by a firm, metronome-like guitar. As Arthur Smith sings the very last line ("Just as fast as time can take me"), the clockwork rhythm ... gradually ... slows ... to a ... halt.

I've mentioned before, in the context of Tom Waits and Stephen Foster, that people who are grieving often become morbidly fixated on nature's small details. Think also of Walt Whitman's When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom'd. In a sense, Adieu False Heart gives us yet another person in deep emotional pain who becomes acutely aware of the natural world — and in this case, the "nature" that the mourner struggles to come to grips with is the very character of space-time itself.

--

By the way, both Fiddlin' Arthur Smith and the Delmore Brothers were members of the Grand Ol' Opry around the time of this recording. Smith's fiddling (along with that of Clayton McMichen and Curly Fox) was hugely influential to Bill Monroe as he was inventing bluegrass. You can maybe hear a hint of this in the solid, driving 4/4 time of the Delmore Brother's guitars and in the novel, extended use of the "five chord." About Adieu False Heart, John Fahey writes:

Most songs go to the four chord and then the five chord and quickly back to home base. This construction is quite rare and makes for an unusually beautiful ballad.

You can find the song on the "lost" fourth volume of Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music," released on Revenant in 2000 for the first time. Chords and sheet music are available from Dylan Chords.

 


Fifty Miles of Elbow Room

Rev. Ford Washington McGee

I'm listening again to the original Carter Family's final, brilliant sessions of 1940 and 1941. It turns out they recorded "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room," which I mostly know from Harry Smith's Anthology, performed in 1930 by Rev. Ford Washington McGee and his congregation. It's currently also available at the great music blog Long Sought Home.

I never understood the song before because of the chaotic revival meeting atmosphere created by McGee and company, which makes the lyrics pretty impossible to decipher. I mean, what ABOUT fifty miles of elbow room?

Well, focusing on the version by Sara and Maybelle Carter — with all the loving orderliness and earnest precision we've come to expect from them — the words are easy to figure out.

It turns out the song has pretty much the same theme, or belongs to the same gospel tradition, as the Tom Waits song "Down There by the Train," which was recorded by Johnny Cash on his first American Recordings album. In this tradition, the purpose and the power of the song are in the limitless, extreme, radical inclusiveness of salvation.

Maybe a kind reader can help out this old Catholic-atheist with the terminology and a Biblical passage ... in any case, these songs insist that your station in life doesn't matter, your race or gender don't matter, and not even the gravity of your sins matter — NOTHING can keep you from living in paradise, so long as you repent, so long as you meet us "down there by the train."

The emotional power of these songs is in the radical character of the forgiveness they promise. They are all about the total and extreme nature of the idea that heaven is open to ANYBODY. There's so much room for absolutely everybody in Heaven that its gates are a hundred miles wide — entering Heaven, you have fifty miles of elbow room.

If you're in need of a reminder that there's something good in Christianity, turn off your TV and spin some old 78's.

FIFTY MILES OF ELBOW ROOM

Twelve hundred miles its length and breadth
The four-square city stands
Its gem-set walls of jasper shine
Not made with human hands
One hundred miles its gates are wide
Abundant entrance there
With fifty miles of elbow room
On either side to spare

Chorus:
When the gates swing wide on the other side
Just beyond the sunset sea
There'll be room to spare as we enter there
Room for you and room for me
For the gates are wide on the other side
Where the flowers ever bloom
On the right hand on the left hand
Fifty miles of elbow room

Sometimes I'm cramped and crowded here
And long for elbow room
I want to reach for altitude
Where fairer flowers bloom
It won't be long til I shall pass
Into that city fair
With fifty miles of elbow room
On either side to spare

Chorus
[ Recorded by the Carters, October 14, 1941 in New York, NY ]

I insist that Tom Waits' song "Down There by the Train" is loosely based on an old negro spiritual, "When The Train Comes Along." Versions of this earlier song were recorded by Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas and by Uncle Dave Macon. The lyrics below are from Uncle Dave Macon's recording in Richmond, IN on August 14, 1934. Macon provided the vocals and banjo, with Kirk McGee also on banjo and Sam McGee backing up on guitar.

WHEN THE TRAIN COMES ALONG

Some comes walkin' and some comes lame
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Some comes walkin' in my Jesus' name
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus:
Oh, when the train comes along
Oh, when the train comes along
Oh lord, I'll meet you at the station
When the train comes along

Sins of years are washed away
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Darkest hour is changed to day
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus

Doubts and fears are borne along
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Sorrow changes into song
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus

Ease and wealth become as dross
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
All my boast is in the cross
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus

Selfishness is lost in love
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
All my treasures are above
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along


Einstein and Folkways Records

Einsteinviolin

 

If a movie was ever made about the early years of Folkways Records, someone would have to play Albert Einstein.

It would only be a cameo and its true importance is hard to assess, but nevertheless there is an anecdote that links the father of modern physics with the label that brought us Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the New Lost City Ramblers.

—————————-

My research is in its early stages. But it keeps getting clearer and clearer to me that Folkways Records wasn't just a label that released folk records. It has been a significant force in shaping the way music listeners in the United States and beyond think about their culture and their past.

For example, Woody Guthrie has sometimes seemed to me, and others, as some kind of mythical legendary superfolk. Much of the reason is that Pete Seeger consciously set out to make sure he was remembered this way. But it seems very doubtful that either Pete or Woody would have had the careers they had without Folkways.

Also, as I understand it, Leadbelly had such a degrading experience under management of the Lomaxes that it's unclear how much recording he would have done if Folkways founder Moses Asch hadn't brought him into the studio.

And Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music came out on Folkways and continues to be a major conduit between Americans and their own musical heritage. But when Smith walked into the Folkways offices, all he wanted to do was sell them his old record collection. Having Harry put together an anthology was the idea of Moses Asch.

And remember that the very first LP of bluegrass music ever released was on the Folkways label.

And on page 15 of Bob Dylan's autobiography, Dylan tells us why he went to New York: "I envisioned myself recording for Folkways Records. That was the label I wanted to be on. That was the label that put out all the great records."

—————————-

Here's what I know about Einstein's role — plus a little of what I don't know.

Moe Asch was the son of Shalom Asch, perhaps the best-known novelist writing in Yiddish and a leading leftist intellectual. He and Albert Einstein were acquaintances. In the late 1930s, both men were actively trying to rescue German and other European Jews endangered by the Third Reich. They encouraged and enabled Jews to leave Europe and tried to get reluctant governments, including the U.S., to accept Jewish refugees.

The young Moe Asch had recently acquired a new "portable" audio recording machine (an enormous, weighty beast in the 1930s). At this point, accounts vary in certain details. Usually, Shalom Asch brings his son and his son's machine to Princeton, NJ to record a message from Einstein about European Jews for later radio broadcast. In one version, Einstein visits the Asches in their home for the same purpose.

At some point, Einstein apparently asked the young Asch what he wanted to do for a living, and Moe offered that he might like to be a mathematician. (I can imagine a young man answering this way in hopes of pleasing Einstein, then one of the most famous celebrities on Earth.) After the recording was finished, Einstein told Moe Asch that his recording machine was a better path to follow if he wanted a creative and prosperous future.

In some accounts, Einstein speaks expansively about the machine's potential to record and preserve global civilization. In some accounts, it's Asch who speaks of starting a company that would "describe the human race, the sound it makes, what it creates," and Einstein reacts encouragingly. According to Moe Asch himself, Einstein told him:

It's very important for the 20th Century to have someone like me who understood the intellect and who understood the changes of the 20th Century and who understood folk and dissemination.
Given the very real and immediate threat to Western Civilization that was the very reason for their meeting, it's not hard to imagine any of these scenarios.

—————————-

A little harder to imagine, in detail, is the account Pete Seeger liked to tell his audiences. Seeger was close to Moe Asch and knew him well, but he was also a better entertainer and myth-maker than he was a historian:

... and then over supper, Einstein says, "Well young Mr. Asch, what do you do for a living?" And Mo says, "Well, I make a living installing public address systems into hotels, but I've just bought this recording machine, and I'm fascinated with what it can do. And in New York, I've met a Negro musician named Leadbelly who's a fantastic musician but nobody's recording him. They say he's not commercial. But I think this is American culture and it should be recorded. Down in the Library of Congress they record things and just put it on the shelf there and only a few people ever hear them."

Well, Einstein says, "You're exactly right. Americans don't appreciate their culture. It'll be a Polish Jew like you who will do the job."

I doubt Pete Seeger's account, but mostly because there's too much truth packed into it.

The genius of Folkways Records was that it was the fabled "cool corporation." Asch turned his back on the risky business of making "hits" and instead focused on a sure bet — if you record something great and rare, somebody will want it eventually. So he recorded whatever seemed to be in the spirit of his conversation with Einstein, gave it excellent and exhaustive liner notes, and kept it in print forever. (The "Sounds of North American Frogs" has been available continuously since 1958 — and in 1998 it was even digitally remastered and released on CD.)

I've also recently come to really appreciate the vital roles that Europeans played in preserving American folk music, Northerners played in preserving the sounds of the South, whites have played in keeping black musical traditions alive and kicking ... and so on, ad infinitum. The Celestial Monochord is lousy with such stories if you know where to look. In researching these curious histories, one finds Folkways Records almost continuously at the center of the action.

Aschsonnybrownie
Moses Asch, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee in 1958 (from a 1-megabyte article from the National Yiddish Book Center, available as a PDF.)

 



Billy The Bum

Child_with_crutches

 

(This is part of an occasional series on John Prine's second album,
Diamonds in the Rough:   Everybody  The Torch Singer  Souvenirs
The Late John Garfield Blues  Sour Grapes  Billy The Bum  The Frying Pan
Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You  Take the Star Out of the Window  The Great Compromise  Clocks and Spoons  Rocky Mountain Time

 

About 15 years ago, a friend of mine wanted to cite an example of a bad John Prine song, so he chose Billy The Bum, calling it "a shambles of a song." At the time, it seemed like a good example to me, mostly because the song's shameless sentimentality made me cringe. But I've gone through a lot since then.

Around 1999, after I'd pretty much memorized the Anthology of American Folk Music, I was starving for more blues and hillbilly recordings from the 1920's. So I sought out recordings by many of the same performers Harry Smith had put in his collection. And there, beyond the Anthology, were many astonishing surprises for which the Anthology had not really prepared me.

Chief among them, initially, was how often these performers had recorded extremely sentimental 19th century "parlor songs," as I call them. These earnest, stiff numbers told tales full of pathos about drowning sailors, dying orphans, childhood cottages never seen again. Maybe Harry Smith had mostly ignored them because they weren't "folk songs" in a certain sense — most were relatively new compositions from the late 1800's, widely sold as sheet music for middle-class homes. In the late 1920's, white folk musicians made sound recordings of them for the first time, their original copyright status long forgotten.

Initially, I was a little impatient with them — a bit embarrassed, disappointed and amused by their commercialism and their hokiness. But after listening closely to dozens of them, researching the origins of several of them, and having a few conversion experiences with them (I guess you'd say), I've come to love them. There's Charlie Poole's "Baltimore Fire":

It was on a silver falls by a narrow
That I heard a cry I ever will remember
The fire sent and cast its burning embers
On another faded city of our land

Fire! Fire! I heard the cry
On every breeze that passes by
All the world was one sad cry of pity
Strong men in anguish prayed
Calling loud to Heaven for aid
While the fire in ruin was laying
Fair Baltimore, our beautiful city

There's Buell Kazee's "If You Love Your Mother":

In a lonely graveyard many miles away
Lies your own dear mother slumbering 'neath the clay
Or have you forgotten all her tears and sighs
If you love your mother, meet her in the skies

She is waiting for you in that happy home
Turn from sin's dark pathway to no longer roam
Give your heart to Jesus, upward lift your eyes
If you love your mother, meet her in the skies

And then there's the Carter Family, whose influence now seems to me ubiquitous in John Prine's music (and who provided the title song for Diamonds in the Rough). The Carters recorded these sentimental parlor songs more often and more movingly than anybody ever has. Their "Engine 143" did make it onto The Anthology:

Georgie's mother came to him with a bucket on her arm
Saying my darling son be careful how you run
For many a man has lost his life in trying to make lost time
And if you run your engine right you'll get there just on time

Up the road he darted, against the rocks he crushed
Upside down the engine turned and Georgie's breast did smash
His head was against the firebox door the flames are rolling high
I'm glad I was born for an engineer to die on the C&O road

I've come to appreciate these songs as beautifully written and recorded, often, but also as an important part of the roots of American music. In no small part through the influence of the Carter Family, country music is heavily based on them (what do you get when you play a country record backwards?).

Billy The Bum, which I've known for over 30 years, is today a completely new song to me. I hear it within a tradition that's well over a hundred years old and that I've taken deeply, if cautiously, into my emotional, intellectual, and maybe spiritual life.

——————

Billy The Bum is another of Diamonds In The Rough's country waltzes. The first verse again establishes John Prine's firm flat-picking, accompanied by David Bromberg on a second acoustic guitar. Bromberg plays mostly bass runs, but strums often to help keep the beat. I'd say he plays "oldtime guitar" — an art that's been essentially lost to the upright bass, on the one hand, and bluegrass guitar on the other.

With the first statement of the chorus, Bromberg begins dubbing over (I assume, unless he's playing with his toes) the sliding dobro that gives the song much of its countrified twang. Also on each chorus Dave Prine enters, turned down very low in the mix, singing back-up vocals in a strained, high-lonesome wail, like a far-off cry in the wilderness.

As I understand the lyrics, Billy always fantasized about riding the rails as a hobo, but because his legs had been twisted by polio, he could only hop a train in his imagination:

Billy the Bum lived by the thumb
Sang of the hobo's delight
He'd prove he could run twice as fast as the sun
By losing his shadow with night

He loved every girl in this curly-headed world
But no one will know, it seems
For two twisted legs and a childhood disease
Left Billy just a bum in his dreams

It's interesting that even in the 20's and 30's — presumably the heyday of hobo culture — films and songs romanticized the lifestyle, seducing many young people into riding the rails. In other words, hobos were already a dream even back when they were still a reality. Billy was only one of millions who dreamed of riding the blinds. There's a sad irony and richness here — his polio made him a bum in his own eyes, unable to attain his dreams, which included being a real bum on the open road:

He lived all alone in a run-down home
Near the side of the old railroad track
Where the trains used to run carrying freight by the ton
And blow the whistle as Billy waved back

It seems fairly clear to me that John Prine has always believed in Jesus Christ, that he's a christian. But if this is right, his work presents us with a rare and fearsome portrait of a blazingly angry and disappointed, public-spirited, and wildly playful faith. Prine's first album is all about spirituality, if you look at it just so, and is big enough to contain everything from "Eat a lotta peaches, try to find Jesus" to "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes — Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose."

If Prine were an atheist like myself, it would be a different matter. But given Prine's long and powerful history of working out his thoughts about faith in song, I don't take lightly his portrait of the song's townspeople, whose children "seemed to have nothing better to do than to run around his house with their tongues from their mouths."

Now some folks'll wait and some folks'll pray
For Jesus to rise up again
But none of these folks in their holy cloaks
Ever took Billy on as a friend

For pity's a crime and ain't worth a dime
To a person who's really in need
Just treat 'em the same as you would your own name
Next time that your heart starts to bleed

It's easy enough, if you prefer, to hear easy platitudes and a certain self-righteousness in this indictment. But given Prine's body of work and the religious themes he's explored so frankly, I think we're bound to take this portrait seriously. Trapped among such people by his physical disabilities and his shame, Billy, a real fluorescent light, cried pennies on Sunday morning.

By this point, I've come to decide that it's a defense mechanism, this tendency not to really hear the lyrics of these old-style sentimental songs. If we took them literally, pictured them, read them over, took them at their word, they'd cut too close to the bone. They'd go places we've decided, as a culture, we don't want to go.

It's no wonder that generation after generation of Americans experience a recurring "Folk Revival" in which young people rediscover acts like the Carter Family. And, regardless of what else might be said about them, it's no wonder that these Revivals are continually experienced by their participants as a burning away of some vast, heavy haze of sanitized corporate nonsense to reveal something that finally, at long last, matters.


Harry Smith, Bob Dylan, and
"The Ramblers Step" (Part 2)

(See also Part 1)


The New Lost City Ramblers and Harry Smith

Reading a song as sheet music is like looking at a roadmap of a place.  Hearing an actual recorded performance of a song is like is going to the place and eating its gumbo. Both the Ramblers and the Anthology grew out of this critical historical shift:

The locus of collecting, preserving, and disseminating folklore changed from the printed page to the electronic media. In the first half of the twentieth century, folklorists began to use disc, tape, wire, and film rather than writing to collect and preserve sung and played folk music, and a parallel documentation was carried out by the fledgling entertainment industry which inadvertently preserved some dying folkways among its ... phonograph records. [John Pankake, liner notes to NLCR: The Early Years, 1958-1962]

The Ramblers and the Anthology made this transformation matter desparately after WWII, when the LP brought the actual sound of America's folk musicians into the ears of young urban musicians.

Mike Seeger's ears were full of these sounds long before the Anthology. His parents had been turned on to Dock Boggs, for example, by Thomas Hart Benton in the early 1930's.  They turned away from the European museum pieces that meant "folk musc" to American intellectual leftists and musicologists. Instead, Mike grew up in a house with fresh field recordings by the likes of the Lomaxes, and with lively commercial recordings. Mike's dad even played for a time in Benton's hillbilly-style stringband (see Charles Seeger: A Life in American Music). But it is important to remember that this was not the mainstream American view of folk music until well after Moe Asch asked Harry Smith to compile his Anthology (with the intent of changing that mainstream view, I imagine). This explains the odd fact that when the Ramblers first appeared, a great many folk purists considered them "inauthentic."

Tom Paley, too, had anticipated the Anthology's message. In the late 1940's, he'd already been "an admired virtuoso on guitar and banjo," according to Philip Gura:

By the early 1950s, Paley and a few others began to steer an important segment of [East coast] urban musicians away from the then popular English ballads and political songs toward country music. The shift was crucial, for it distinguished Paley and Cohen from such proponents of the "art" folksong as Richard Dryer-Bennet and John Jacob Niles, on the one hand, and politically motivated artists like Pete Seeger and the Weavers, on the other.

Although Paley and Seeger knew some of the terrain covered by the Anthology, they very much welcomed it as a guide for themselves and their audience. Tom Paley:

When Folkways issued Harry Smith's Anthology, those three albums (six 12" LPs) hit us like thunderbolts ... The impact on those of us already interested in the music was terrific. [Harry Smith Tribute]

Interestingly, Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler (a protege of Mike Seeger's, I think it's fair to say) found much of the Rambler's material in Harry Smith's record collection, which Smith had sold to the New York Public Library (see Cantwell's book, When We Were Good).

The influence of the Anthology on John Cohen is even more clear-cut:

Raised in the suburbs where the Hit Parade (the top forty) dominated musical taste, I first became aware of a world outside my musical milieu when I heard the old commercial records on Harry Smith's Anthology, issued by Folkways in 1953. The Anthology, along with Alan Lomax's "Listen Tour Our Story, Mountain Frolic & Smoky Mountain Ballads," made me more receptive to the sounds that spawned bluegrass, Cajun, and rhythm & blues. It was very different from what filled the folk song marketplace of the 60s.

Over the years, Cohen has been a significant force in keeping the Anthology in the public imagination. For three decades, Cohen's 1969 interview with Harry Smith was just about the sole source of information about Smith that folk enthusiasts had available to them. Moe Asch reports that Cohen had been among those who had tried and failed to get the final "missing" volume of the Anthology released (see the 1997 notes to the Anthology).

In a certain sense, the Ramblers influenced the Anthology as much as the other way around by embodying its spirit, asserting its definitions of folk music, and putting it "in currency" among folk music enthusiasts. The Ramblers and the Anthology shared the same project of not only exhuming the old recordings, but resurrecting them — giving them new life in new contexts with new meanings and functions.

"Anthologizing" Dylan: The Ramblers Step

Bob Dylan didn't need the Anthology — he had the Ramblers. More importantly, before Dylan even showed up, the Folk Revival itself had already been crafted by the Anthology and the powerfully reenforcing efforts of the Ramblers. Let's go back to a quote from Dylan we saw earlier, in which he denies being strongly influenced by the Anthology:

... those recordings were around — that Harry Smith anthology — but that's not what everybody was listening to ... mostly you heard other performers. All those people [Griel Marcus is] talking about, you could hear the actual people singing those ballads. You could hear Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, Furry Lewis. You could see those people live and in person. They were around.

But Dylan could sit at the feet of these musicians only because, in the years immediately before Dylan showed up in New York, devotees of the Anthology had gone south in search of the musicians it featured. At Mike Seeger's strong urging, Ralph Rinzler traveled in 1960 to the Union Grove, NC Fiddler's Convention where Rinzler's research into the Anthology enabled him to recognize a musician prominently featured on the Anthology, Clarence Ashley. Rinzler soon returned to record Ashley, at which point Ashley introduced Rinzler to a young, blind guitarist named Arthel Watson, who everyone called "Doc":

I had brought the six-record collection [the Anthology] with me to give to Ashley as a way of making clear to him why I understood his importance. Doc Watson and I reviewed the list of performers and songs on the album covers. To my astonisment, he was familiar with many of them, having heard the recordings and some of the performers themselves in his childhood and having known others as neighbors. [from Rinzler's liner notes to "Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley: The Original Folkways Recordings, 1960-1962"]

Thanks to Rinzler's apprenticeship to the necessary combination of Mike Seeger and the Anthology, Clarence Ashley and Dock Watson made their first appearance in Greenwich Village only a couple of months before Dylan arrived from Minneapolis.

The Ramblers were, according to Philip Gura, "among the first to bring on stage with them living exemplars of the southern folk tradition, a very significant innovation." It was Seeger, for example, who "rediscovered" Dock Boggs and brought him to New York in 1964. If I understand Gura correctly, the Ramblers spearheaded the founding of the New York Friends of Old Time Music, a major force in bringing Southern musicians to urban audiences. Gura's essay — particularly its last section — provides a stirring summary of the enormous impact the Ramblers had on generations of traditional musicians in the United States, and Dylan was simply part of the first such generation. The streets of Dylan's Greenwich Village were simply paved with what Greil Marcus calls "The Old Weird America."

I believe the lesson Dylan learned best of all in those early years was the startling modernism of the Anthology's form and (most surprisingly) its contents, which were reinforced, I think, by the particular styles and personalities of the Ramblers. Cohen's experience with the avant-garde clicked with the Anthology. The Ramblers, like Dylan, had a mischievous attitude toward their own identity, sometimes telling audiences that their music originated in a place called New Lost City and impishly calling one album "Tom Paley, John Cohen, and Mike Seeger Sing Songs of the New Lost City Ramblers." I especially recognize Dylan in John Pankake's description of John Cohen:

John Cohen was the groups's William Blake, a visionary role befitting his artist's traning and talents. In retrospect, he seemed ... most aware that the group was about something more than entertaining, was carving out some yet unknown place in history and inspiring many of its audience to become a new kind of musical community, and he often struggled to articulate this evovling vision both onstage and in the poetic essays he wrote for the Rambler's albums.

The Beat movement and the Folk Revival grew up together in Greenwich Village, and developed a kind of shared culture (see Robert Cantwell's When We Were Good). Dylan, of course, explored this intersection more brilliantly than anyone. His stage was certainly set by the Anthology, with its improvisational plan, its prescient racial integration, and its flat-out weirdness. But Dylan was not alone. According to Gura, Cohen "had financed his first field trip to Kentucky in 1959 by selling Life magazine his photographs of Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others whom he had known in Greenwich Village." Somewhere, I recall a story in which the Ramblers ran across the street to a notorious Beat hangout to drag Ginsberg and others to see a concert by a Southern musician they'd brought to the city.

Finally, I simply hear the Ramblers in Dylan, most clearly in his first album, which I think remains shamefully underrated and too rarely heard. Although the Ramblers are often mistaken for simply imitating the old records, they instead deeply absorbed their spirit and idiom and then fearlessly created a new, vibrant art in response. Dylan's first album does nothing less. It comes off as pure Dylan in both its profound respect for tradition and (already) its almost reckless thrusting beyond tradition. It brings vividly to mind something John Cohen wrote in Sing Out! a full year before the album's release:

There are certain qualities we demand from the music. A sense of immediacy, of personal involvement, a sense of tradition as well as appreciation for that which carries things to a point where they can go no further ... a rejection of compromise ... an obsession ... with the song material and a sense of an event with every performance.


Harry Smith, Bob Dylan, and
"The Ramblers Step" (Part 1)

John Cohen's Dylan

(See also Part 2)


Greil Marcus did a fine and important thing with "Invisible Republic," a book which has overturned the way a lot of Bob Dylan's fans think of Dylan's career and music.

Rarely do Dylan fans still think of him as starting out as a folkie and then "going electric," leaving folk music behind in the transition. Marcus showed (very convincingly and much to our surprise) that the true influence of folk music on Dylan's imagination deepened, intensified, and reached a kind of maturity during and after Dylan's turn to rock and roll — instead of before.

However, at the center of his argument, Marcus places the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music edited by Harry Smith.

After about seven years trying to retrace and "fill in" this picture, I've decide that Marcus is right about folk music and Dylan's imagination, but he's only half right about Harry Smith and Dylan. Dylan did not learn Harry Smith's lessons directly from the Smith Anthology. He got them mostly second-hand — that is, he learned them, but mostly in translation. I'm now convinced that the single most important vehicle delivering Harry Smith's peculiar message to Dylan in those early days — the widest pipeline between Harry and Bob — was The New Lost City Ramblers. I'm also convinced that it matters, this missing what I think of as "The Ramblers Step."

Bob Dylan and Harry Smith

Like Harry Smith himself, the Anthology of American Folk Music was peculiar — perhaps even a bit insane. It was not a neutral, representative overview of folk music in America, but rather an idiosyncratic work of kaleidoscopic art that had little to do with folk music as it had previously been understood. Released in 1952, the Anthology was a collection of scarcely 20-year-old commercial recordings that few folklorists saw as folk music at all — one cut is even from a Hollywood singing-cowboy movie. But the music sounded (and still sounds) strange, wild and wooly, intensely immediate, and was presented with a modernist, mystic sense of collage that, today, is hard not to see as "Dylanesque."

Marcus' Invisible Republic established the Smith-Dylan connection, and the consequences are vast —but the details are fuzzy and shifting. Momentous but uncertain ... you can understand what made me want to confirm and describe the connection, sort of as a historian might. After years of trying, I'm come to feel that Marcus seems more persuasive the "bigger" he thinks — that is, he is a master of teasing out what matters, what has significance, what is at stake. Writing in this mode, he still has me entirely conviced of why the Anthology matters to Dylan, and why both should matter to you. But like a painting by Georges Seurat, the closer you get to the details, the more the picture breaks apart.

Really specific historical evidence that Dylan knew the Anthology well in the 1960's — that is, that it "was Bob Dylan's first true map" — is measly. Dylan did rewrite "Down on Penny's Farm" twice, and he recycled a line from "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" for "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again." But both these Anthology songs were "covered" often by Greenwich Village street and coffeehouse singers. Admittedly, "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" does sound suspiciously like "Moonshiner's Dance" (except played as a march), but this would never stand up in court.

I'm sincerely sorry to admit it, but I think we have an intellectual obligation to take Dylan seriously when he told Rolling Stone (November 22, 2001):

[Marcus] makes way too much of that ... those recordings were around — that Harry Smith anthology — but that's not what everybody was listening to. Sure, there were all those songs. You could hear them at people's houses. In know in my case, I think Dave Van Ronk had that record ... but mostly you heard other performers. All those people he's talking about, you could hear the actual people singing those ballads. You could hear Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, Furry Lewis. You could see those people live and in person. They were around.

But Dylan was deeply and directly affected by the New Lost City Ramblers, and the NLCR, in turn, were powerfully infuenced by Harry Smith's Anthology. Just as importantly, in the years between the release of the Anthology and Dylan's arrival in Greenwich Village, the Ramblers were a major force in spreading, far and wide, the same kind of lessons taught by the Anthology, so that by the time Dylan showed up on the scene, the Folk Revival that shaped Dylan had itself been thoroughly "Anthologized." Happily, the historical evidence for these claims is hard, over-lapping, deep, and dense.

Bob Dylan and the New Lost City Ramblers

Clearly, the New Lost City Ramblers were crucial to the early development of Dylan's self-image as a performer. Among the earliest photos ever taken of Dylan as a young musician is a fine photo set by a member of the NLCR, John Cohen. In them, you see the young Dylan adopting various poses and personas, experimenting with his image, trying to please the eye of the Rambler's camera. Cohen was a student of the fine arts and a sophisticated image-maker — it had been John Cohen who had come up with the name "New Lost City Ramblers," and he was thus the first person among many to admire the ambiguous, ambivalent, self-referential irony in the band's name. A few years later, Dylan addressed Cohen directly in the liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited (referring to, among other things, Cohen's apartment which had just been demolished to make room for the World Trade Center):

you are right john cohen — quazimodo was right — mozart was right … I cannot say the word eye any more … when I speak this word eye, it is as if I am speaking of somebody's eye that I faintly remember … there is no eye — there is only a series of mouths — long live the mouths — your rooftop — if you don't already know — has been demolished … eye is plasma & you are right about that too — you are lucky — you don't have to think about such things as eye & rooftops & quazimodo. [punctuation and capitalization are Dylan's]

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dylan dedicates a lenghty passage of his recent autobiography to the importance of Rambler Mike Seeger to Dylan's sense of himself as an artist:

He was extraordinary, gave me an eerie feeling. Mike was unprecedented. He was like a duke, the knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula's black heart ... It's not as if he just played everyting well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them ... it dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns ... the thought occurred to me that maybe I'd have to write my own songs, ones that Mike didn't know. That was a startling thought.

Perhaps to partly repay this debt, Dylan later recorded a banjo-guitar duet with Seeger for one of Seeger's albums.

Invisible Republic points to "Henry Lee" as opening both the Anthology and World Gone Wrong, one of two great albums of old folksongs Dylan recorded in the early 1990's. But in the liner notes to World Gone Wrong, Dylan again points to a Rambler, Tom Paley, as the song's source instead of the Anthology. Indeed, World Gone Wrong's version bares very little resemblance to that on the Anthology, either lyrically, melodically, or emotionally. The two songs share the same subject matter, but they are different songs entirely — Dylan's version is Paley's.  (Actually, the song appeared on a 1965 album by Tom Paley and Peggy Seeger, Mike's sister.)  In confusing the Anthology's version with Paley's, Marcus has erased the Ramblers from the trail of evidence. Nevertheless, it's clear to me that Dylan, at least based on his word, wants to be associated with the Ramblers and is at best indifferent to his association with the Anthology.



See also Part 2




The Meaning of the John Henry Story

Steel Driving Kitten
my kitten Henry (is not a steel-drivin' man)

I first heard the John Henry story from the public schools, I guess, or maybe from my family, some of whom were involved in the Scouts. And I'd gotten a very specific impression of what the story meant.

But once I grew up and started listening to the music of the 1920's, I found very little support there for the interpretation I'd grown up with. I had always thought it was a story of Man against Machine, where human virtues like bravery, nobility, vulnerability, and the work ethic did battle against technology and heartless Progress.

But that's not quite what I hear on the old records. Take the version Mississippi John Hurt recorded on December 28, 1928, on that same Christmas trip to New York when he recorded "Avalon Blues." It's called "Spike Driver Blues":
Take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Tell him I'm gone
Just tell him I'm gone
"I'm sure he's gone"

This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won't kill me
But it won't kill me
Ain't gunna kill me

John Henry was a steal driving boy
But he went down
But he went down
That's why I'm gone
Hurt's delivery isn't comic, it seems to me, but sweet, sincere, and thoughtful. There's no mention of any steam drill at all, just a killer hammer which the singer renounces.

J. E. Mainer and his Mountaineers did a version on June 15, 1936 in which the young John Henry issues a prophesy:
John Henry was a little boy
Lord, he sat on his pappa's knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Said this hammer'll be the death of me
This hammer be the death of me
This version does mention the contest with the steam drill, but as always, it's the hammer that's the cause of John Henry's death.

When I first started listening to the old recordings, the biggest surprise about the message of John Henry was that there didn't seem to be much of a message at all — folk music, it turned out, isn't nearly as preachy as Folk Music. Stranger still was that insofar as there was a message, it seemed to be that hard manual labor just plain sucks and should be avoided.

The story of John Henry seems to have taken hold around, maybe, 1910 or so, and everybody seems to agree that Henry was a black man. So originally the story was, partly, a complaint against working conditions for African Americans during Reconstruction.

But when I encountered it in the post-WWII suburbs, the story was being made to reflect the conflicts and concerns of that time and place. It seemed to assure us of the dignity of hard work. At the same time, it seemed to reflect our middle-class anxieties over the idea of technology rendering our jobs obsolete. Maybe today John Henry would be in a steel-driving race with 30 tech workers from Bangladesh.

There's a lot of good information on the John Henry story. Check out Norm Cohen's Long Steel Rail for more on John Henry (I keep intending to do so myself). I recently discovered Brett Williams' interesting John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography at a used bookstore. And Harry Smith's anthologies of folk music (the original Volumes 1 though 3 from Folkways and now Volume 4 from Revenant) are crammed to the gills with songs about hammers.


Orphan Songs, Part 8:
Motherless Children Have a Hard Time

Blind_willie_johnson

Much as in yesterday's story of misheard lyrics, Columbia recording engineers misunderstood the title of Blind Willie Johnson's 1927 recording "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" to be, instead, "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time," which is how it appeared in their notes and on the label of the publicly-released record.

The background to this story is perhaps less amusing than yesterday's. Willie Johnson's mother died when he was only a baby, probably just before 1905. His father's second marriage didn't go well — to punish Willie's father, his stepmother dashed a pan of lye into 7-year-old Willie's face, blinding him permanently. Willie soon dedicated his life to singing spirituals, and is today often considered one of the best ever recorded.

"Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" is arguably his most widely-known recording. Just on the face of it, the performance is great — its vocals are intense, and its slide "blues" guitar is dazzling. But in light of Johnson's biography, it's one of the most amazing 3 minutes in all of audio recording history. I actually find it a little shocking, as if it's perhaps too intimate a glimpse into Johnson's life. Here are the lyrics, as best as I can tell:

Well, well, well ...
Motherless children have a hard time
Motherless children have a hard time,
When Mother's dead
They'll not have anywhere to go,
Wanderin' around from door to door
Have a hard time

Nobody on earth can take your mother's place
When Mother is dead, Lord
Nobody on earth takes Mother's place
When Mother's dead
Nobody on earth takes Mother's place,
When you were starting, she paved the way
Nobody treats you like Mother will

Your wife, your husband may be good to you
When Mother is dead, Lord
Be good to you, when Mother's dead
Your wife, your husband may be good to you,
But they'll find another and prove untrue
Nobody treats you like Mother will when,
When Mother is dead, Lord

Well some people say that sister will do
When Mother is dead, Lord
Sister will do when Mother's dead
Some people say that sister will do,
Soon as she's married, she'll turn her back on you
Nobody treats you like Mother will

Father will do the best he can
When Mother is dead, Lord
Well, the best he can, when Mother's dead
Father will do the best he can,
But so many things a father can't understand
Nobody treats you like Mother will

Motherless children have a hard time
When Mother is dead, Lord
Motherless children have a hard time, Mother's dead
They'll not have anywhere to go,
Wanderin' around from door to door
Have a hard time

The misreading of "motherless children" as "mother's children" is no great sin. Johnson is admittedly hard to understand — I challenge you to confirm my transcription of the lyrics. It ain't easy.

But the well-heeled, white male recordists from up North apparently heard the song as mourning the fact that children have a hard time because they are "Mother's." Their misunderstanding, however unintentional, was neither random nor neutral. It replaced the story that already existed in the song with one that already existed elsewhere — in the ideas of race and gender that they took with them into the recording session. In doing so, they took the high regard for motherhood actually expressed in the song and turned it almost exactly up-side down.


Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8


Misheard Lyrics:
Cave Love Has Gained the Day

Kelly Harrell
Kelly Harrell

Many massive volumes could be written about the musician-recordist relationship, but my favorite stories about these worlds colliding in the 1920's are about the engineers misunderstanding the song titles.

In the 1920's, record companies took a keen interest in southern "folk" musicians — by that, I mean generally amateur musicians who couldn't read music and who learned mostly traditional songs from family members or neighbors. These musicians were typically poor, rural people.

Now, the guys who showed up to record them came from a very different set of worlds — urban, middle- or upper-class, well-educated, and often with rather high-brow musical tastes. Legend has it that they were sometimes appalled at the music they were recording, and mystified that these records often sold extremely well.

At a February 1929 recording session for Victor records, Kelly Harrell sang a song entitled 'Cuz Love Has Gained the Day, but his pronunciation sounds more like 'Caze Love Has Gained the Day.

The engineers recording him that day apparently misunderstood and rather underestimated Harrell, possibly reflecting their attitude toward this Virginia textile factory worker. Their paper work (as well as the label of the record that was actually released to the public) identifies the song as "Cave Love Has Gained the Day." Despite what Harrell actually sang, here are the lyrics that the Victor representatives thought they heard:

Go find your lover like I did
Go find your lover like I did
Go find your lover like I did
Cave love has gained the day

I'd give ten cents to kiss her
I'd give ten cents to kiss her
I'd give ten cents to kiss her
Cave love has gained the day

I'd walk fifty miles to see her (3x)
Cave love has gained the day

I've got some candy to give her (3x)
Cave love has gained the day

I'll try to take it over Saturday (3x)
Cave love has gained the day

I got her a whole dime's worth (3x)
Cave love has gained the day

That's the way I beat the other fellow (3x)
Cave love has gained the day

We'll fly to get married at Christmas (3x)
Cave love has gained the day

 


Blind Willie Johnson: Revival

Blind Willie Johnson
The first musician of the 1920's I ever took an interest in was Blind Willie Johnson, and my interest grew directly from my interest in astronomy.

When I had just turned 16, PBS first aired Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series. Music was central to the show's mission, so I bought its soundtrack album and listened to it constantly. It included an excerpt of Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (On Which Our Lord Was Laid)." Sagan had earlier edited an LP that was bolted to the side of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. The LP was a kind of timecapsule, designed to introduce the species that built the spacecraft to any civilization that might find it millions of years from now. It was Earth's greatest hits, and it included the full version of Johnson's "Dark Was the Night."

When I went off to college, I visited the University music library and listened to The Complete Blind Willie Johnson closely and repeatedly, and I was very moved by it. Johnson's voice was shreaded and harsh, sort of like Tom Waits or Louis Armstrong, but was capable of a huge range of tone and emotion. His guitar-playing — typically slide guitar — was extraordinarily expressive and could act as a rhythm section at the same time it played melody.

I read then, in college, that Willie Johnson was blind because his stepmother (his mother had died when he was very young) blinded him with a pan of lye. She did it to punish Willie's father for having beaten her, which he did after finding her in bed with another man. Like many blind black men then, Willie learned to play guitar on streetcorners to sustain himself. His father had always wanted his son to be a preacher, and Willie played religious songs exclusively. He was not a bluesman, but a gospel guitarist and singer — indeed, he's often thought of as the greatest ever recorded. Probably his best-known song is "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time."

For reasons I don't understand, this was the last collection of 78's I would hear for another 12 years. When I finally started buying such CD's in early 1996, The Complete Blind Willie Johnson was the first one I got.

The liner notes to that collection are written by the well-known jazz and blues historian Samuel Charters, who had owned a copy of "Dark Was the Night" as a teenager in the late 1940's. They are a riveting read:

For anyone who has grown up after the '60s, already knowing about singers like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt ... Memphis Minnie, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, there's no way to understand what so much of the American musical heritage meant to us when it was almost completely a mystery. The few records we knew about, the handful of names that we knew, were like a faint, distant light through a mist, and we had no idea what the light meant.

In 1953, Charters set off for Texas to try and find out about Blind Willie Johnson (this was very early in the history of such expeditions). When he finally found Johnson's home, Charters was informed that he had died only a few years before. Charters writes, "If I had known the way to the run-down house in Beaumont when I first heard Dark Was the Night, I could have asked him to play it for me."

I usually think of Willie Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt at the same time, precisely because their biographies are so profoundly different from one another — especially the end of their biographies. For Johnson, there was no Folk Revival. Its absence in Willie's life vividly shows us what the Folk Revival really accomplished when it rediscovered 1920's musicians like Dock Boggs and John Hurt. Willie Johnson's widow Angeline describes the death of her husband in Beaumont, TX so soon before the young Samuel Charters knocked on her door, looking for his hero:

He died from pneumonia ... We burnt out there in the north end, 1440 Forrest, and when we burnt out we didn't know many people, and so I just, you know, drug him back in there and we laid on them wet bed clothes with a lot of newspaper. It didn't bother me, but it bothered him. See, he'd turn over and I'd just lay up on the paper, and I thought if you put a lot of paper on, you know, it would keep us from getting sick. We didn't get wet, but just the dampness, you know and then he's singing and his veins open and everything, and it just made him sick. [The hospital] wouldn't accept him. He'd have been living today if they'd accepted him. 'Cause he's blind. Blind folks has a hard time.

See also:
Dock Boggs: Revival
Mississippi John Hurt: Revival


Mississippi John Hurt: Revival

Robert Cantwell
drawing of Mississippi John Hurt by Robert Crumb

In the mid-1960's, Dock Boggs told Mike Seeger that if he had his life to do over again, he'd learn to play guitar like Mississippi John Hurt. Around the same time, Dave Prine's little brother asked him for guitar lessons, so he gave John Prine a Carter Family record (so he'd know what good songwriting was), and a John Hurt album (so he'd know what good guitar playing sounded like). A college student at the time reports that he'd go to John Hurt concerts because all the best looking girls flocked to them, but he soon found that their eyes and attentions were focused exclusively on this 71 year old black man.

It's hard to grasp how profoundly unlikely all of this would have been only a few years before. John Hurt was a tenant farmer in Mississippi and considered himself an amateur musician. He'd recorded just 13 songs in 1928 and they didn't sell particularly well. The record industry shrank as the Depression set in and Hurt continued farming, apparently thinking little of his brief recording gig.

After WWII, the old records cut by southern musicians in the 1920's were not commercially available. They made the rounds mostly as bootleg tapes among a tiny subculture of obsessive, cranky collectors and a few college kids who took an interest in very obscure music. Hurt's records were particularly rare, since few had been manufactured in the first place. But Harry Smith put two John Hurt cuts on his influential 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, causing some of these hobbyists to go looking for him. They always failed.

Then in 1963, Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart, two young white folkies, got a tape of Hurt's Avalon Blues through their informal network of tape traders. Hurt had recorded Avalon Blues at the end of a week-long stay in New York that spanned Christmas 1928. Homesick in the big city, Hurt slipped in a line about his home in Avalon being always on his mind.

Hoskins and Stewart figured Mississippi John Hurt might have meant an Avalon, Mississippi. So, they grabbed a current atlas and studied the state. There was no Avalon on the map. So they found an 1878 atlas and there, between Greenwood and Grenada, was Avalon. They packed some clothes, guitars, and a tape recorder and drove south to look for Hurt, though they figured he was probably dead.

When they arrived in Avalon, they found it was basically just a tiny general store. They approached the men sitting on its porch and asked if anyone knew a guitarist named John Hurt. One man lifted an arm, pointed a finger, and said, "Down that road, third mailbox up the hill." Hoskins and Stewart drove, and found a little black man around 70 years old driving a tractor, looking startled by the sudden appearence of two white men who looked like they meant business. When they insisted he follow them back to Washington DC, Hurt decided he'd better go "voluntarily," suspecting they were the "police or the FBI or something like that."

Folk festival gigs back east were easily arranged for Hurt, and he was an enormous hit. Hurt played in a technically dazzling but graceful and gentle ragtime style, his thumb playing bass lines to take the place of a piano player's left hand, and two fingers picking out melodies like a pianist's right hand. Hurt's voice and demeanor were witty and heartbreakingly sweet. The crowds literally lurched forward to be close to him. When Hurt played the Johnny Carson show, he had never owned a television himself.

He died in his sleep at home in Mississippi, only three years after being rediscovered.

"The Folk Revival" of the 1950's and 1960's was a revival of interest in certain songs or styles, but it was also a revival of many talented artist's lives — or at any rate, of their music careers. Nobody is more closely associated with that aspect of the Revival than John Hurt. When I hear his recordings and wonder at the all-consuming benevolence of their sound, the generosity of Hurt's presence, and his virtuoso guitar picking, I'm swept up in gratitude for the Folk Revival. It went out and found John Hurt, made him one of the most deeply (if not widely) loved Americans of his day, and was able to tell him so in the last months of his life.

See also:
Dock Boggs: Revival
Blind Willie Johnson: Revival


Orphan Songs, Part 5:
Row Us Over The Tide

Kelly Harrell, a Virginia textile factory worker, never learned to play an instrument. But when he heard Charlie Poole's popular stringband records of 1925, Harrell decided he could sing better than Poole. He took some musicians with him to audition for the Victor label.

The resulting 43 records over the next 4 years are wildly uneven. As I hear them, two-thirds just don't stand up over time — not well chosen, awkwardly arranged, listlessly sung. But sometimes ... sometimes something magical happens in the recording room. Everything comes together, and those recordings are some of the best ever recorded. It is a mysterious and wonderous thing.

On August 12, 1927, Harrell recorded "Row Us Over The Tide" as a duet with Henry Norton, a tenor he had never met before and would never meet again. They're accompanied by banjo, guitar, and the strange and beautiful fiddling of Lonnie Austin. The vocals are corny and maudlin, even humorous. But I also find them uncannily moving.

The song seems to have been a widely-known gospel tune, dating from around the Civil War. In it, two children beg a mysterious boatman to row them over a mysterious tide. It's hard to avoid the interepretation that the exhausted Orphans are begging to be taken to Heaven — that is, they're begging to die:

Two little children were strolling one day
Down by the river side.
One stepped up to the boatman and said,
"Row us over the tide."

Chorus:
"Row us over the tide,
Row us over the tide,"
One stepped up to the boatman and said,
"Row us over the tide."

"Be kind to us, mister, dear Mother is dead;
We have no place to abide.
Our father's a gambler and cares not for us,
Please row us over the tide."

"The angels took Mother to her heavenly home,
There with the saints to abide.
Our father's forsaken us, he's left us alone,
Please row us over the tide."

"Mama and Papa told Willie one day,
Jesus would come for their child.
We are so tired of waiting so long,
Row us over the tide."

Thinking of this song, with its dream-like detachment from any specific time and place, I'm often reminded of Abraham Lincoln's recurring dream. He talked about it at his last cabinet meeting, only hours before he was shot at Ford's Theater. In the dream, according to Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, "he seemed to be in some singular, indescribable vessel, and he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore."

As a money-saving measure, record labels increasingly preferred to pay for solo acts instead of bands. But as a matter of pride, Kelly Harrell refused to learn an instrument, which ended his recording career.

On July 9, 1942, to show his co-workers how fit he was despite being 52 years old, Harrell hopped out of the first-story window of the textile factory where he worked onto the sidewalk below. He took a couple steps, collapsed, and died. According to his wife, Lula, "He never was a farsighted man."

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8