Robert Fludd's Celestial Monochord
(Robert Fludd's Celestial Monochord, 1618)


Who writes this stuff?
Kurt Gegenhuber. I live in Minneapolis and make my living as, essentially, the one-man Editorial Office for several science journals: tech editor, image editor, peer-review shepherd, advisor, marketing copywriter, webmaster. Before that, I edited and produced archaeological and historical survey reports for a Cultural Resource Management firm. I'm an amateur historian, and have degrees in astronomy (basically, a bachelor's in physics) and English (a master's). I can sort of play banjo, clawhammer style.


What is this blog about?
The Celestial Monochord tries to provide "think pieces" about history, music, and science. The original concept — which I still play with sometimes — was to write about astronomy and so-called "roots music." My best pieces are usually frank contemplations on what listening and thinking is like for me.

By early 2006, this blog became nearly impossible to write. I started doing history scholarship and preservation activism related to "Moonshiners Dance," recorded in St. Paul in 1927 by Frank Cloutier and The Victoria Cafe Orchestra, a Minnesota dance band. Suddenly, seeming authoritative and legitimate felt very important and I was no longer free to make a fool of myself. That freedom was essential to the blog's very premise; I've been trying to recover that in recent years.


What is "The Institute for Astrophysics and the Hillbilly Blues"?
The IAHB was a spurious think tank I founded in March 2005. Back then, a fake scientific research institute seemed funny. These days, they are calling all the shots and the joke has slipped through my hands for now.


How do I know when something new is posted?
The Celestial Monochord now has a mailing list to alert subscribers when new content appears. Of course, everybody has their own way of following blogs -- RSS feeds, Google Reader, checking back the old fashioned way, etc. If an email from me works best for you, let me know and I'll add you to the list. All the usual goodies apply -- I'll try to keep your address hidden from other subscribers, I'll never share your info with anybody for any reason, you can unsubscribe at any time, etc. Typically, I'll send the alert about 24 hours after an entry appears, since I often pick at new entries until I'm satisfied with them. After about a day, they're aged to perfection. Whatever your method, thanks for reading The Celestial Monochord.


How do I cite this stuff?
The Celestial Monochord has been sited in a few published works, which I like. Check with the publisher (or professor) to see if they have their own format preferences. Otherwise, I suggest something like: Gegenhuber, Kurt. 2006. Scientists say so. The Celestial Monochord. (online blog.) January 23, 2006.


What does "celestial monochord" mean?
A monochord is any one-stringed instrument. The "celestial" part ultimately goes back to Pythagoras (580-500 BC), who is said to have studied the mathematical patterns in a single, stretched, vibrating string, and saw evidence of underlying mathematical ideas in the Universe's functioning. Ever since, some people have believed the Universe is somehow rooted in music and that figuring out its harmonies mathematically is like reading the mind of God.

For the cover of his influential 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, eccentric record collector and mystic Harry Smith used a 1618 drawing by English mystic Robert Fludd. It shows the hand of God tuning the Celestial Monochord (see above, or go look at your own copy of The Anthology). To me, the Celestial Monochord symbolizes deep, idiosyncratic exploration of music and cosmology.


Who pays for this?
I do. It costs some money and I pay it out-of-pocket. In other words, at the moment, this site runs at a total loss as a matter of policy. My research into Moonshiners Dance is getting extremely expensive, however, and I'm thinking about adding a way to support it via PayPal. What to you think? (Someone once offered to give me a donation, but I turned them down.)


I have a suggestion for a Celestial Monochord entry. Do you want it?
Absolutely! I've written several posts in response to user suggestions, and I'd be happy to credit you. I have more ideas than I can get to, but it's stimulating to get suggestions, and I wanna know what people want to read about. So please send me your suggestion and I'll think it over carefully. Maybe include a link and why you think it fits The Celestial Monochord.


Where'd you get the design? Why isn't it better (or worse)?
The current design is intended to faintly evoke the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith. A blog inspired by an LP boxed set of 78 RPM records is not supposed to be cool, people. I mess with the look of the Monochord now and then, casually, as time permits. My priority is always content, content, content. 


Is The Celestial Monochord copyrighted? Can I quote it? Can I link to it?
Please quote it and please link to it often, but please also credit The Celestial Monochord for the words and ideas you get from it. The illustrations at The Celestial Monochord are almost always from somebody else. Whether they're public domain, or used by permission, or even used in a way I consider legal, varies. (I really try very hard to be legal, scrupulous, or just, and usually some combination thereof.) Check with me if you want to use them and I'll help you figure out what's the right thing to do. I think of each Celestial Monochord entry as an idea for another, larger, more lucrative project — a documentary, an article, a book, a CD. If you wish to create a commercial work based on something from The Celestial Monochord, please secure my prior permission. To be more specific, Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.    

The Celestial Monochord now an "author blog"

A pidgeon contemplates St. Paul history atop the Victoria Cafe


I've always puzzled over how — and whether — to present my research into Frank Cloutier and Victoria Cafe here at the The Celestial Monochord.

My goal has always been to understand "the complete circumstances" surrounding the recording of the "Moonshiner's Dance" in 1927, knowing that "the complete circumstances" surrounding anything are ultimately unknowable. They're sure-as-hell too complicated to fit within the here's-what-I'm-thinking-today format of the blogosphere.

Well, after thousands of long hours of research, the picture I've uncovered is so sprawling, complex, and transformative that it's outgrown my ability to post it sensibly at The Monochord.

So here's my plan: I'm working toward a book to be published by somebody like the Minnesota Historical Society, Indiana University, or even myself. There may also have to be an article, or series of articles, for Minnesota History, or Minnesota Monthly, or Ramsey County History, or The Old Time Herald, or Sing Out, or your publication (contact me!).

I understand, by the way, that there is probably zero money to be made as the author of a book about an 80-year-old polka record.

Nonetheless, The Celestial Monochord is now officially an "author blog" — at least with respect to my history research. This might resolve some of my uncertainty about what to post here, what not to, and how often. And it gives me a genre of bloggery to work in, providing some models for how to proceed.

This could result in MORE of my research being posted, not less. I'll feel less of a need to be "complete" and "authoritative" when, in fact, that is a long quest I'm working on elsewhere.

And needless to say, I'll also continue posting other stuff too, about Dylan, Waits, Prine, banjos, symposiums, fulgurite, kittens, nickles, etc., etc., etc.


In Like A Lion


Ten years ago, I read Invisible Republic by Greil Marcus. Besides overturning my assumptions about the role of folk and blues in Dylan's music, it was also a shock to read intelligent, productive, tough-minded writing about a subject the writer loved.

I'd spent too many years in a graduate English program, which I didn't enjoy for many reasons. In retrospect, I mostly wish I'd been encouraged to do something with my writing other than knock things over, expose them as less than they seemed.

It was only AFTER leaving graduate school that I became interested in my own intellectual life again, as I had been in college. I gave myself permission to read what turned me on, and Marcus encouraged me to go ahead and love things, including their misdeeds and contradictions.

Then it was Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography of Elvis Presley and Robert Cantwell's When We Were Good in rapid succession. Both were amazingly benevolent and unguarded, and both the work of razor-sharp minds doing much-need labor under rigorous standards. I'd gained a lot of powerful intellectual tools in graduate school, but hadn't understood you could use them for this.

The Celestial Monochord grew partly out of that awakening.

But there were many more books and other amazing experiences first — jug band contests, a half-dozen Mike Seeger concerts, banjo lessons, banjo camp, the Black Banjo conference in Boone, NC, and on and on.

Around 2005, my knowledge was deepening to the point that it was becoming harder to find what I was looking for online and in books. None of it could be Googled, you might say. So I slowly began to feel like a "source" of some kind, to see my perspective as fresh. Maybe not authoritative, maybe not a lot of other nice things, but singular.

So that's where this came from. Not so much to report what I know, but to see what I could discover if I did a little writing on it — especially if more knowledgable people than I noticed what I was working on and said hello, which has certainly come to pass.

Editor's Note:

Total words written in February = 21,000
Average words per entry = 790
I hope to write more often than I was before this month's grand experiment, in which I've posted something every single day of the month of February.

For one thing, I will be "covering" the late-March Bob Dylan Symposium in Minneapolis. "Coverage" is not The Celestial Monochord's schtick, exactly, so we'll see what that exactly looks like. But I will definitely be there from gavel to gavel, notebook and camera in hand, business cards at the ready. I know it's no Battle of the Jug Bands, but ...

Thanks: Thank you for reading and writing back, both on and off the site. I have a lot of emails to respond to, and it'll take a little while to get to them.

Many special thanks to scholar Carol Mason, Brandy Snifter Lyle Lofgren, writer and musician Jerome Clark, and record collector/juggist Bill Boslaugh for their encouragement and tolerance. Thanks also to John Hinchey for the advertising.

None of this is these people's fault.

Most of all, thanks to my wife Jenny, who basically lost her husband this month. Thanks again for letting me print your poems. March belongs to you.

Jenny is generous, beautiful, brilliant, and steel-willed. But Celestial Monochord readers might appreciate this in particular — she's encouraged my interests to the point of paying my way to banjo camp, going with me to Boone, and giving me tall stacks of books, CDs, DVDs and concert tickets with breath-taking precision. She actually scolds me for not practicing my banjo enough around the house, and listens to me when I rave on and on about this hillbilly stuff. Several of this month's entries were suggested by her.




Back in March, a magazine called Exclaim! (which I take to be sort of a Canadian Mojo) published an article about the rising popularity among young folks of collecting 78 rpm records.

It was written by Jason Schneider, who seems to be a little like me — a turn-of-the-century convert to early 20th Century blues and country. Schneider's article is well worth the read, so I forwarded it to a Monochord reader who's a very experienced 78 collector.

He and I enjoyed picking at the article, finding various things to admire and attack in it. In particular, my correspondent would like to urgently warn new 78 collectors NOT to play their records on old "gramophones." You can, and should, buy a modern record player with a 78 rpm setting, instead of ruining your 78's with 100-year-old technology. These are not floppy disks — you don't need an out-dated playback device for this out-dated medium.

Another interesting passage in Schneider's article is this:

Robert Crumb especially has had a profound influence since the acclaimed 1994 documentary about his life fully illuminated his obsession with 78 collecting and old time music’s ongoing hold on his psyche. In fact, the best introduction to the music is still Crumb’s series of blues and country “trading cards” that provide bios of his favourite artists. [link added]
I wouldn't know where to start in confirming whether or not Crumb really has had any such profound influence ... and I wonder whether Schneider can confirm it, and how. The main difficulty of Schneider's article is his "authoritative" point of view. Instead of staying close to his experience, he wants to use an omniscient voice — and ironically, this can actually strip your writing of its most useful information.

So let me do what Schneider should have done, possibly, and ponder Terry Zwigoff's Crumb — which I saw early in my interest in the old music — as I, personally, actually experienced it.

A girlfriend suggested I see Crumb because R. Crumb and his family were so much like me and mine. Someone else suggested this was a stupid and cruel thing to say. So, I saw Crumb in a questioning frame of mind — How is this like looking into a mirror? Does it represent me? Misrepresent me? What here should I embrace? But, to an extent, maybe that's how we always go to the movies.

Over the previous year or two, I had bought a lot of CD reissues of old blues, but R. Crumb was the first 78 record collector I ever "met." There isn't much music heard in the film, the main exception being a moment with R. Crumb sitting on the floor listening to an old Geechie Wiley 78. But for me, that scene is the film's most persistent memory. When I think of Crumb, that's what I see.

Much more important, though, were his drawings of street lamps. At some point, R. Crumb says he and a photographer friend drove around taking photos of ordinary lamp posts and other municipal and commercial fixtures and structures — the only way he could later manage to draw them into his cartoons. We live in a civilization so soulless and ugly and forgettable that we can't even remember what it looks like.

And that was like looking into a mirror, so much so that I could almost feel my mind reorganizing itself to accommodate the experience of having these private thoughts so vividly projected onto the big screen. My previous experience with the old music had carried some of that sense — of these old musicians being forgotten by an ugly culture, of all the real greatness in the world collecting dust somewhere, of the lives of people like Harry Smith and the Crumb family being examples of what happens to the best minds of my generation and yours.

So it would be false, outright, to say Crumb introduced me to the old music. You might possibly say that the film made it "cool" to be into the music. It would be best to say that the film was one of several things that modeled for me a possible relationship with the music, a way of fitting the music into a worldview that mattered, a way the music could be employed in the job of making sense of things.

To make the strongest possible claim for it, maybe Crumb was the last straw — it aided and abetted, giving me permission to just go ahead and finally become that dusty old crank obsessed with old music who I'd begun to glimpse in the mirror.  


Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of my attempt to post something every damned day for a whole month ... it is not a coincidence that I chose the shortest month of the year. But is it short enough to preserve my sanity? Stay tuned!

Also, anybody know where the photo from this post is from?


A Brief Musical Memoir


A reader recently came across "Dreaming of the Hillbilly Blues" and commented:

Right on! But after sharing this with a like-minded friend, that like-minded friend wondered what on earth you were listening to *before* your "conversion."
I've often thought about posting a brief musical autobiography, but it's against our editorial standards. To distinguish The Celestial Monochord from most other blogs, I try to write as little about myself as possible. Besides, unless you've either killed a president or walked on the Moon, I don't believe in memoir. I just don't see how I, personally, am more interesting than your average sidewalk fulgurite or kitten astronaut.

Still ... let it never be said that the editors of The Monochord are unresponsive to reader enquiries.

I was born the youngest of five boys and two girls, in 1964 in the Chicago suburbs. My older brothers were heavily into John Prine, Steve Goodman, David Bromberg, Leo Kottke, Dylan, The Beatles, Zappa, Simon and Garfunkel, Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon), King Crimson. We all started listening to Prairie Home Companion as soon as it hit Chicago public radio, around 1978, I guess.

One brother had played tenor sax and was thus into jazz and Chicago blues. Another was one of that tribe of fine amateur bluegrass multi-instrumentalists that seems to magically materialize at festivals. So Miles Davis, BB King, The Blues Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, John Hartford, and David Grisman were also in the house. That was my education.

My brothers, I eventually thought, tended to dismiss whatever was popular, almost without regard to what it was. They even got drawn into the xenophobic "Disco Sucks" fad. Looking back, they were somehow agressively closed-minded and yet very eclectic. All their music was before my time, in a sense, and I was uncomfortable with their distrust of one of the most pervasive aspects of life — contemporary American pop culture. Or anyway, that's what I perceived at the time.

When I left home to go to college in 1984, I strove to develop my own musical tastes, to distinguish myself from my up-bringing. Tom Waits, Paul Simon, and Dylan were the only family heirlooms I held on to. I learned a lot and had a lot of fun that I would've missed had I not turned my back on my origins so decisively. But I also spent the years from about 18 to 32 kind of lost in the wilderness, musically.

I learned to dance during many years of aerobics classes, by tagging along with a gay friend to his favorite discos, and by hitting the college clubs. It turned out that knowing how to move proved helpful once I developed a deep enthusiasm for meeting women. I loved the music — Madonna, the Pet Shop Boys, Billy Idol, The Talking Heads. In the early 1990's, I danced to Nine Inch Nails, Public Enemy, and whatever else the DJ's happened to be spinning — mostly various "house" and one-hit dance groups like Black Box, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, Deee-Lite, and Greater Than One — whatever.

I learned from one girlfriend who The Smiths were, The Charlatans UK, The The, Joy Division, The English Beat, and strangely, Dwight Yoakam and The Knitters. A roommate from New Jersey turned me on to Springsteen's Nebraska, and Marxist-Feminist grad students got me into the only "folk music" I thought I knew — Billy Bragg, Michelle Shocked, and Suzanne Vega. I eventually married the girl who introduced me to Joan Jett and the Pogues.

Along the way, I'd owned and (at least briefly) loved "Never Mind the Bullocks" by the Sex Pistols, "Survival" by Bob Marley, the banana album by the Velvet Underground, several albums by The Cure, a friend's compilation of David Bowie hits, and I've always thought Joni Mitchell's "Blue" is one of the best records EVER. I somehow soaked up a little Blind Willie Johnson, some Lee Morgan, and some Memphis Slim, but they didn't seem to fit into my life any better the classical and medieval early music I'd also flirted with.

But by about 1994, I found myself walking into huge record stores that sold absolutely every kind of music imaginable, standing near the entrance for a few moments, and then turning around to leave. I was bored and saddened by the very idea of music. I knew there had to be something I wanted to hear, but couldn't even imagine what.

Just then, a girlfriend dumped me — left me in just about the rudest, most damaging, and thoughtless fashion possible. She felt just barely guilty enough to buy me a guitar as a parting gift. She owed me an entire orchestra ... Anyway, I wondered what I might learn to play on this new guitar, and the blues seemed to fit the circumstances.

I figured I should start at the beginning, reasoning that the earlier stuff must be easier to play. Right? So, I bought the CD that I felt marked The Beginning — Bob Dylan's first album, the one with House of the Rising Sun and See That My Grave is Kept Clean. And there, in Song To Woody, he mentions Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly too.

So I went and found out who they were, and soon found myself listening to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Memphis Minnie, Sonny Boy Williamson (the first), Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy. After about two years, I bought Greil Marcus' book about Dylan's Basement Tapes, and marched off to the record store to buy the Harry Smith Anthology on CD (not yet grasping that it had only been reissued a few weeks before).

The Anthology reminded me of my brothers' music, the music I'd grown up with. But it was the music BEHIND the music, which my brothers had never heard. It was like turning to the back of the textbook and finding the answer to every excercise. It was as if I'd had some book laying around all my life and had only looked at the few pages of pictures bound into the book's middle — but now, I had finally sat myself down and read the book from cover-to-cover, at last making deep sense of its pictures.

Since then, I've never been at a loss for music to listen to — in fact, I always have a list of about $2000 worth of music I'm dying to get my hands on, from almost every genre from all corners of the Earth. Everything makes sense. Ironically, it turns out that my mother had taken a few lessons in Hawaiian-style slide guitar in 1935 or so — a fact she never bothered to mention until I got heavily into the music of that very era.

As Harry Truman said, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."