The Return of "Temperance & Temptation"

Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845
Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845,
(founders of Hutchinson, MN, and abolitionist and temperance folksingers)


Celestial Monochord readers will be glad to know that the Rose Ensemble's upcoming season will include Songs of Temperance and Temptation

The show will be back in November for an eight-city tour of Minnesota and, in abbreviated form, for a Mississippi riverboat cruise on October 23.

This is great news.  The three performances of Temperance and Temptation that closed the Ensemble's previous season included the first known performances in over 83 years of a peculiar, foot-stomping composition known as "Moonshiner's Dance Part One."  This piece has been the axis around which my research, writing, and preservation efforts have revolved for more than five years. 

Hopefully, the Rose's upcoming November performances will give Minnesota another chance to catch an incredibly rare performance of "Moonshiner's Dance," a neglected and nearly forgotten landmark in the state's musical legacy.

But even for me, the hope of seeing more of "Moonshiner" isn't the best reason to look forward to this season's revival of Songs of Temperance and Temptation

Research as Amazing

The show is very amusing — packed with fresh songs (that is, new-to-you and very alive), sung by skillful, versatile, and charismatic vocalists. The show is also informative, immersing you in a kind of cultural history of alcohol that's likely to transform your understanding.

But the Ensemble's marketing materials reprint a blurb from a local paper saying, "No one makes scholarly research more entertaining than The Rose Ensemble." I think this subtly misses the main point, the best thing about the Rose and this show.

What I like most is the show's unwavering confidence that its surest bet in amusing the audience is to tell them something they didn't already know.  The Rose just assumes from the start, correctly and to great effect, that surprising information — learning something — is the among the wildest experiences the stage has to offer. 

To me, this approach felt courageous and just a shade radical in its sheer respect for the audience — a belief in the audience's intelligence, but even more in its willingness to be game for something new. My frenzied notes taken during the single performance I attended in June have grown cryptic with time, but at one point I simply wrote, "The amazing research." 

I'm fairly well versed in the history of pop music during and just before Prohibition. But the Songs of Temperance and Temptation were almost all completely new to me. And the photographs projected behind the performers were mostly new finds. And the collection of sheet music cover art was fantastic.

Andrew Volstead, Granite Falls. Big mustache, granite balls.

The show's stories of Minnesota's temperance movement will surprise most Minnesotans — the city of Hutchinson's founding, for example, by a family of protest singers dedicated to women's rights, the abolition of slavery, and men's liberation from alcohol.
The Andrew Volstead story may also surprise a lot of people.

The Congressman from Granite Falls was seen across the United States as the primary villain of the Prohibition era — an incompetent, humorless zealot who drove the nation to (furtively) drink. He's still remembered this way.

But the Rose Ensemble, perhaps following Daniel Okrent's recent book, invites us to see him in a far more nuanced and sympathetic light.

(My own research has been hinting to me that both Okrent and Rose are going a little far in rehabbing Volstead's reputation.  A proper assessment of Volstead isn't really available, so I think the guy is ripe material for a thorough biography.)

"I've Got the Prohibition Blues"

The members of the Rose Ensemble are trained veterans of choral music, and the Rose's seasons always lean toward a wide variety of "early music." 

The upcoming season, for example, includes one show on "ancient Mediterranean Jews, Christians, and Muslims" and another on "feasts and saints in early Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Bohemia."

So, of course, there's the question of how well they handle Songs of Temperance and Temptation — and the answer is pretty good news. 

The show's first half deals primarily with 19th century conflicts leading up to Prohibition, so a bit of reserve and formal training only improves the verisimilitude.  Rest assured, the show cuts loose early on and shows a lot of humor throughout.  When they approach something like a barbershop quartet style, they're clearly well prepared.

The real challenge comes during Prohibition, when American pop music fell in love with Jazz and the blues, and searched for something like an authentic "street" credibility.  The Rose does very well with it, but it's not surprising that swing and growl aren't its most convincing assets. 

But even in the slightly strained way the Rose Ensemble comes to grips with the 1920's, they remain true to the history. One of the great pleasures of listening to, for example, Archeophone's Phonographic Yearbook series is hearing the pop stars of the era grapple with those very same changes in public taste. 

The blues and jazz revolution ended a lot of careers, just as Rock & Roll did decades later. Those who survived often did so by learning, with widely varying artistic success, the African American-inflected stomp and swerve in the era's new sounds. 

The more you hear what was recorded at the time, the more you appreciate the Rose's mastery of this material today.

Moonshiner's Dance, Part One

And finally, I know some folks will want to know how they did "Moonshiner's Dance."  So here goes. 

It came late in a show filled with a lot of unfamiliar music, so to suddenly hear a band, right in front of me, strike up that familiar introductory riff followed by that oompah hopped up on goofballs ... it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

The only recording of the piece in existence — the one I've heard perhaps a thousand times — is trapped in the antique shellac of scratchy, store-bought 78s.  It has no other existence.  Hearing the piece played anew by a live band immediately in front of me was mind-bogglingly rare, and I felt it in every note.

Their approach was to hew quite closely to the original recording. The band was a little light on the beat and lacked the dance band insistence I'd expect, but otherwise tried to "play the record" as closely as possible.

In the recording, the third segment of the medley consists of a harmonica vamping some chords, possibly noodling a bit with an indeciperable tune. The blog Old Weird America claims the tune is "Turkey in the Straw," but this is almost certainly wrong. The Rose Ensemble went with this suggestion, enunciating the tune very clearly.

I think it was the right decision. "Turkey in the Straw" is familiar and rousing (as the whole medley would have been to its original audience), and fits the piece nicely.  It also dovetails (turkeytails?) with my thesis about the recording being something like a big-city parody of rural culture. 

During the "At The Cross" segment of the medley, the fiddler took up a small American flag and waved it haughtily, which I loved.  For one thing, it provided a light suggestion of the satirical stagecraft that I think was the real point of the "Moonshiner's Dance" recording. 

What we're hearing in the recording was the soundtrack to something we're not seeing. The Rose's performance, then, also necessarily missed the chaos of the recording's laughing, indecipherable voices, and generally ... thick atmosphere that gives the recording its particular and mysterious register. 

Certainly, I think the Rose's performance worked wonderfully on its own terms, and the piece is plenty sturdy to have a performance life of its own. 

But the challenges of performing it anew also highlight what I've come to focus on in my years of research — that the original "Moonshiner" recording has the power it has because it is so bursting with its very narrowly specific moment and place. To understand what this peculiar thing really is, then, we need to reconstruct the time and community from which it arose. 

The Rose Ensemble has gleefully run directly into the path of that time and place, seeking a new way to make a new kind of performance sense for this piece that so often seems bent on denying the very possibility of sense itself. 

In a way, that reinvention of new senses from old contexts is what The Rose Ensemble does for a living. These are brave people, and I want to see more of them.

 [See also my thoughts in advance of the show.]


Journal of American Folklore Features the Monochord



Some weeks ago, we here at Monochord headquarters were pleased to find ourselves featured in the latest issue of The Journal of American Folklore.

The article, by Nicole Saylor (head of Digital Services at University of Iowa), surveys several blogs that are "interested in vernacular culture," and are of interest to folklorists.

Among other things she says about the Monochord, Saylor describes us as "an obscure but interesting midwestern vernacular music blog." 

The article focuses on three sites — Community, and Celestial Monochord, and The Art of the Rural — and the sites they include in their virtual communities, such as friend-of-the-Monochord, Old, Weird America, and the excellent Excavated Shellac.

Getting ahold of the full text of recent academic articles is often a headache for those not in academia.  If you need help with this one, you might contact me personally or consult your friendly public librarian.

Of course, honors like this one — or the occasional fan letter — always make me feel guilty about not writing both more and better.  I've developed a blogger identity crisis the last year or so, and nothing's duller to read (or write) about than a blogger's identity crisis. 

I suspect I'll feel more free to express myself once the Saint Paul City Council is done with its deliberations about the Victoria Theater. 

As the most prominent defender (possibly) of a whole neighborhood's most valuable architectural resource (conceivably), it's suddenly a little intimidating to just logon and go joshing blithely around about kitten astronauts and garbanzo beans named Dylan.



Harry Smith Anthology Site Before Saint Paul Council


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And please, spread the word!


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Paul City Council — please contact them!

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

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

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


Moonshiner's Parking Lot?


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

The Victoria Cafe produced a recording of absolutely unique importance

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

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

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

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

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

I have my own reasons. 


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

Moonshiners Dance - On the Air

(a relief in the Hibbing High School Library)
Tomorrow morning, May 21, I'll be on the radio to talk about my research on "The Moonshiners Dance, Part One," from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.  

There'll be more music than talk.  We'll be playing records that put Moonshiner into some sort of context   notably, the very rare and much speculated-about "The Moonshiners Dance, Part TWO."

The program is The Dakota Dave Hull Show, on KFAI from 9 to 11 central time.  You can listen live, and the show will also be archived online for two weeks ONLY:

Update: The show went beautifully  it really couldn't have gone better.  Here's the direct link. Remember that the show will become unavailable on the morning of June 4.

Barack Obama: Secret Banjoist?

Obama interrupts "Hopalong Peter" at a New Lost City Ramblers concert


In another clear sign that his campaign is in financial trouble, presidential hopeful Barack Obama is now fundraising among devotees of the southern Appalachian stringband music known as "oldtime." 

Apparently conceding bluegrass donors to his Republican rival, Obama's campaign is appealing directly to less affluent and less numerous oldtime contributors.

Senator Joe Biden, asked for comment while attending a joint New Lost City Ramblers concert / Obama rally, said "This makes perfect sense. I mean, you got the first mainstream oldtime stringband who is articulate and bright and clean and nice-looking guys. I mean, that's a storybook, man!"

According to John Edwards, also in attendance, "This is a great idea! You know, Kelly Harrell was a textile worker, just like my fath -- Ow! Hey! Ow! Not the face! Watch the hair! Security!"

The oldtime demographic has been ignored by major candidates ever since its support doomed the otherwise front-running candidacy of Henry A. Wallace in 1948. 

Understandably, Obama's sudden embrace of the clawhammer banjo-playing set has left even some campaign staff puzzled.

"You know how you tell the difference between a bluegrass band and an oldtime band?" asked a high-level adviser to the Obama campaign on the condition of anonymity.

"The oldtime band is skinnier than the bluegrass band," he said, citing the previous testimony of Garrison Keillor.

To appeal to oldtime jammers, the campaign has even changed its official theme song more than forty-two times. 

"First it was Sally Ann, and then we changed it to Sally Goodin, and then Sally in the Garden," said the exasperated campaign insider. "But the oldtimers didn't even notice! Apparently, they can't even tell their own songs apart!"

"Barack has got to put an end to this!  He has to lift his foot up!"


  Editor's Note: There is a (real-life, no joke) update to this article!


Milwaukee Soldiers Home


Maybe the Milwaukee Soldiers Home astounded me so because I was unprepared for it. I had no impression of the place, beyond a few lines on a map, until I found myself suddenly in the middle of it. Then I wanted to call everyone I knew and tell them to go there immediately.

My only thought originally was to visit the grave of Frank E. Cloutier's son — Alden, a sergeant during World War Two. The soldiers home, where Alden died, is surrounded by the Wood National Veterans Cemetery, where he's buried.

I realized long ago I can learn a lot by visiting the graves of the various characters I encounter in my research. Often, the headstone's inscription teaches me about the person's military service, or relatives I hadn't heard of are buried nearby. Sometimes, I discover a musician was a dedicated Freemason. Occasionally, the adjacent plot for the widow never quite got filled.

Once, explaining all this to a coworker, he said, "Just imagine how much you'd learn if you dug them up." I thought seriously about this for a few more seconds then you might imagine before coming to my senses. I think it's possible he could have been making fun of me.

Anyway, the grounds of the Milwaukee Soldier's Home are mind-boggling. Approved by Abraham Lincoln, they have the most impressive Victorian (I guess) architecture I've ever seen — overly massive and extremely dramatic. After more than forty years of visiting Milwaukee, I somehow had no idea such a place even COULD exist there, much less that it actually did, and very deep in the heart of the metro area.

And the buildings are all dilapidated. I later learned that a concerted effort is underway to preserve and renovate the place, but it is currently in a surreal state of disrepair. Peeling paint, broken boards, shattered windows, yellow police tape everywhere. Any movie studio would gladly pay a small fortune to make pristine grounds look this neglected. Sadly, paying to make neglected grounds look pristine is a harder sell.

Strange and disorienting as the visitor's experience is, it's intensified by the overwhelming, looming presence of a cynical and majestically trite metaphor — Miller's Stadium. The unimaginable scale of the stadium, just across the street, gives the impression that you could almost touch it from every point on the grounds. The rows of headstones feel like the stadium's parking lot.

It's impossible to walk there, at this stage in the renovation project and at this stage in American history, and not see the irony. A crumbling veterans hospital shadowed by a violently expensive baseball stadium.  (According to my research, Miller's Stadium was built at a cost of 87 godzillion dollars. For the mathematically disinclined, that's an 87 followed by six ass-loads of zeros.)

The casual visitor will definitely be reminded of the scandal that put Walter Reed in the headlines a while back. Of course, it should be said — emphatically — that I have no clue about the medical care and other services currently offered veterans in Milwaukee. A knowledgeable veteran, for example, recently told me the veterans hospital in Madison is truly world-class. I was surprised to hear this because I know nothing about it.

Since visiting this veterans home, I learned that my father's mother volunteered there for many years, helping care for World War Two veterans around the time of the Vietnam War. Maybe my grandmother knew Alden Cloutier.

But I wouldn't have known any of this had I not made the effort. I've visited a lot of locations across the Upper Midwest for no reason other than some musician happened to pass through there 80 years ago. The effect is a little as if a Star Trek transporter beam had gone haywire and dropped me off at a random place and time. I highly recommend it.

Here is a Flickr set I took there (it begins with rather too many shots of Alden's headstone) and here are some shots by other Flickr subscribers.

When My Willie Come Home


Recently, Hillary Clinton made a cutesy Lockhorns-ish joke about her husband Bill being a bad and evil man, presumably thinking of the Monica Lewinsky incident, among others. And, you know, all the pundits got busy on it.

Personally ... maybe it's me ... what I thought of was a cut on Mike Seeger's "Southern Banjo Sounds" — the one called "Last Night When My Willie Come Home." It's one of my favorite cuts on a CD full of brilliant recordings.

It's a lively performance, sweet and funny, punctuated by quills — bamboo pan pipes, basically, which Mike wears the way Bob Dylan wears his harmonicas. At the same time, Mike accompanies himself on banjo, sounding absolutely effortless, natural. But the liner notes inform us that he's alternating between SIX different styles of banjo picking based on the playing of Sam McGee, Virgil Anderson, Maybelle Carter, and Charlie Poole.

The lyrics begin:

Well, it was late last night when my Willie come home
Heard a mighty rappin' at the door
Slippin and a-sliding with his new shoes on
Oh Willie, don't you ramble no more
Of course, Bill Clinton was called "Slick Willie" back in 1992, and the Willie in Seeger's song is "slipping and sliding". Maybe that's more than enough of an association.

But when Seeger refers to "my Willie" in the first line, it always carries an unfortunate penile image for me, and I have to remind myself that the speaker is Willie's long-suffering woman. Then again, the Starr Report conjured a lot of similarly unfortunate images, and the experience of trying to shake them from my head only reiterates the association, in my twisted mind, between these Willies.

More to the point, this is a rounder song — a song about a wastrel, "one who," according to my desk dictionary, "dissipates resources foolishly and self-indulgently." Willie's slippery new shoes are the central theme of all rounder songs — he lives high, spends a lot of capital on all the wrong things, and is ultimately a tragic figure. His shoes are new, but he's dangerously rootless.

Like a lot of these old songs, the point of view careens from one character to another recklessly and without warning. In the chorus, Willie speaks:

And it's "Oh me" and it's "Oh my"
What's gunna become of me?
For I'm down in town just a-fooling around
No one's gunna stand my bond.
The song is sympathetic to Willie's wife, but also to Willie — it understands his fear and regret:
Well the last time I seen my own true love
She was a-standing in the door
She threw her arms all around my neck
Saying "Honey, don't you go"
I don't have a "message" here, at least not about politics. Seeger's "Last Night When My Willie Come Home" is ill-suited to the politics you typically find today on TV and, come to think of it, in blogs. The point of view shifts (and is shared) among the characters, and the song doesn't bother much to identify the guilty and innocent. The song's affectation is light and comic, but the emotional lives of the characters are intense, sincerely felt (the inverse of what you might find on FOX chat shows).

Presidential candidates always promise to change the tenor of political debate and Hillary frames her campaign as a "conversation" — just the form in which this song comes at you. I wonder if she's looking for a campaign song ...

I'll love you, dear girl, till the sea runs dry
Rocks all dissolved by the sun
I'll love you dear girl till the day I die
And then, Oh Lord, I'm done


Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a grand experiment! The Celestial Monochord will attempt to post one entry EVERY DAY during the month of February 2007. Pray for Mojo!


One Post Every Day in February!


Attention ladies and gentlemen! Hear ye, hear ye!

Next month, The Celestial Monochord will conduct an unprecedented experiment in the history of the internets!

We hereby announce and commit, against our better judgement as well as the laws of physics, that there will be ONE ENTRY posted to the Monochord EVERY DAY during the ENTIRE DURATION of the month of February in the year of 2000 and 7!

Neither your ears nor your eyes deceive you!

Never before has any proprietor of an electronic journal-keeping service attempted a feat of such dizzying blogospheric daring-do! Do not try this at home! Individuals of weak constitution such as ladies and nervous persons are forewarned!

Tell your friends and neighbors! It's absolutely free! An event you will never forget!

[ Quality entries are not guaranteed. The publishers of The Celestial Monochord are not responsible for lapses in good taste, civility, research rigor, insight, nor any other editorial standard ordinarily aspired to by this blog. ]


Hollis Brown's South Dakota


When Bob Dylan was 13 years old, one of the century's worst epidemics of black stem rust struck the upper midwest — particularly North and South Dakota and Minnesota. Up to 75% of the wheat harvest was lost to the disease, which blackens the crop with a powdery, sooty fungus. The economic consequences were severe, and the incident became legendary within the science of plant pathology. There's no way young Bob Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota wouldn't have heard about it.

But there were plenty of other diseases to blacken your crops, or kill your animals or you. I'm not an expert in any of them. Ergot can blacken wheat, barley, and other cereals and causes "bad blood" in cattle and humans — convulsions, gangrene, derangement. An invisible fungus in a common grass leads to tall fescue toxicosis, with grotesque symptoms like "fescue foot" and nasty birthing problems. Maybe Bob had heard of such diseases as well.

Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown" is an exercise in empathy — its power is in the vividness of its vantage point within the head of a desperately bad-luck South Dakota farmer, and in the way the song dares you to turn away. Having lived in Minnesota for almost 20 years, or about as long as Dylan did before he moved to New York, and I can almost see how the young songwriter might have found the empathy to write such a convincing song.

Even in fairly cosmopolitan Minneapolis and St. Paul, farming is always a presence — to this day, grain mills and breweries (or their ruins) are lined up along the Mississippi River. They're a constant reminder that the cold climate used to limit the viable crops to stuff you could grind or brew, plus animal feed — wheat, barley, oats, alfalfa, sorghum, various kinds of hay. When you fill your gas tank in Minnesota, you have a good chance of being reminded that farmers have more options today, such as President Bush's switchgrass. Fully 200 of the nation's 600 ethanol ("E-85") gas pumps are in Minnesota.

A few years ago, a friend of mine moved from the University of Minnesota to New York — just like Dylan, you might say, only forty years later. On her first day in Manhattan, a shopkeeper mentioned the lack of rain, and my friend, forgetting herself, asked if the farmers upstate were suffering. The shopkeeper gave her a look as if she'd just evidenced a severe case of Tourette's Syndrome.

But that awareness and empathy, which so animated Dylan's "Hollis Brown" in 1964, has its limits. In fact, "Hollis Brown" is primarily about those limits. For that reason, it's convenient for Minnesotans that the song is set next door, in South Dakota.

South Dakota's leaders have worked to make the state's economy, and perhaps its conscience, better insulated from the booms and busts of farm life. In 1980, South Dakota was in desperate financial straits and took action by eliminating all laws against usury. Citibank, among other credit card companies, moved operations to the state almost immediately, leading to an explosion of growth in Sioux Falls and, some say, to a lot of South Dakota farmers declaring bankruptcy.

I happened to hear "Hollis Brown" on the same day the South Dakota governor (born the very year of the black stem rust epidemic) signed the bill designed to ban almost all abortions in the state, and ultimately, to overturn Roe v. Wade nationwide. That's what got me thinking about the song again. It seemed like yet another example of Dylan's uncanny foresight that he set the song in South Dakota even though, in 1964, Mississippi played the role in folksong that South Dakota now seems eager to play.

Dylan got the melody of Hollis Brown from "Pretty Polly," as Greil Marcus has pointed out. "Pretty Polly" is about a young man named Willie who murders his girlfriend for reasons which the song leaves completely unaddressed and which therefore seem to take on a menacing profundity. But as Rennie Sparks points out, at least one of Pretty Polly's 16th-century sources explains the motive simply and without ambiguity: She was pregnant and Willie doesn't want the birth to take place. At least partly, this is the origin of "Hollis Brown" — a story about the murder of a woman as a de facto abortion.

The best-known version of "Pretty Polly" (the version Rennie Sparks calls "cold as a cockroach") was recorded by Dock Boggs in 1927. In 1963, Boggs was rediscovered by Mike Seeger who then recorded and traveled extensively with him. In 1993, Bob Dylan made a studio recording of "Hollis Brown" accompanied by Mike Seeger playing banjo in Dock Boggs' very singular style. Really, the banjo part on the recording is basically just a sped-up version of Boggs' "Pretty Polly." The effect of the recording is to return "Hollis Brown" to its family tree, to explicitly situate it within its lineage.

In writing "Hollis Brown," then, Dylan surely wasn't looking ahead to 2006. He was looking back to the old Appalachian murder ballads, which the song so convincingly resembles. Marcus seems to claim the song was also inspired by a newspaper report of a mass murder in South Dakota, but I haven't been able to track that down (Charles Starkweather?). Perhaps the more inspiring history took place at Wounded Knee, South Dakota's most notorious mass murder and part of the Indian Wars in which Minnesota also played an unfortunate role. Given the history of this South Dakota farm — where the buffalo no longer roam — I wonder if Hollis Brown and his family aren't merely the most recent seven people to have died there.

It makes little sense to try to enlist "Hollis Brown" in a contemporary political fight. Or anyway, that's simply not The Celestial Monochord's schtick. Besides, the song is striking as an early hint of the full-blown poetic strategies Dylan was about to unleash — strategies that revolve around undecided meaning, meaning as an unfinished art for the listener to complete, meaning not as autocratic rule but as democratic process. To claim that "Hollis Brown" is somehow against South Dakota's new abortion law is to pretty much miss the song entirely.

Still, it's in the character of Dylan's art to keep coming around, over and over, asserting itself in new contexts. I think this uncanny relevence comes from reaching as deep into empathy as he can, and from his willingness to share with us the work of meaning. Or, maybe the more you're able to encounter the world with the past very much alive in you, the more you're able to anticipate the future. Maybe this is why Dylan continues to mystify, particularly in America where memory is notoriously short and empathy often runs thin.


Editor's Notes: The following is transcribed from the 1993 recording with Mike Seeger. Also, the coyote is the official state animal of South Dakota.



Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
With his wife and five children and his cabin breaking down

You looked for work and money and you walked a ragged mile
You looked for work and money and you walked a ragged mile
Your children are so hungry, man, that they don't know how to smile

Your babies' eyes look crazy there, a-tuggin' at your sleeve
Your babies' eyes look crazy there, a-tuggin' at your sleeve
You walk the floor and wonder why with every breath you breathe

The rats have got your flour, bad blood it got your mare
The rats have got your flour, bad blood it got your mare
Is there anyone that knows, is there anyone that cares?

You prayed to the Lord above, "Oh please send you a friend"
You prayed to the Lord above, "Oh please send you a friend"
Your empty pockets tell you that you ain't a-got no friend

Your babies are crying louder, it's pounding on your brain
Your babies are crying louder, it's pounding on your brain
Your wife's screams are stabbin' you like the dirty drivin' rain

Your grass is turning black, there's no water in your well
Your grass is turning black, there's no water in your well
You spent your last lone dollar on seven shotgun shells

Way out in the wilderness a cold coyote calls
Way out in the wilderness a cold coyote calls
Your eyes fix on the shotgun that's hangin' on the wall

Your brain is a-bleedin' and your legs can't seem to stand
Your brain is a-bleedin' and your legs can't seem to stand
Your eyes fix on the shotgun that you're holdin' in your hand

There's seven breezes blowin' all around your cabin door
Seven breezes blowin' all around your cabin door
Seven shots ring out like the ocean's pounding roar

There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
Seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
Somewheres in the distance there's seven new people born


Darwin and Relativism

In a recent NPR segment on religious anti-Darwinism, a young person-of-faith declared that evolution could never be finally, completely proven, whereas Creationism has already been completely proven — "because the Creator," she explained, "is in my heart."

Of course, I puzzled over how this could be understood as proof. What if something else — Darwin, maybe, or perhaps The Destroyer — is in MY heart? Or what if her "heart" changes and she loses faith? How then are we supposed to decide how the biological world came to be the way it is? It would seem that proof based on "hearts" leaves us standing on awfully shaky ground.

The religious opponents of evolution frequently accuse evolution of encouraging "relativism," although I've never heard an explanation of just what this means, as if it were self-evident. It's not self-evident. Science has an awfully firm bedrock foundation for its knowledge — the world, the physical universe, the empirical field. Science changes its mind about things more often than, say, the Vatican because its understanding of the universe deepens and expands, and because it openly corrects its mistakes.

How is science somehow more "relative" than other forms of knowledge, particularly those based on faith (that is, "the heart")? Although Christianity has The Bible (actually, a wide variety of Bibles) to turn to for continuity, it's difficult to see that Biblical study has brought great consistency to Christian thought, either between sects or within a given sect over time. To base belief (that is, what one holds to be the case), on what amounts to culture and desire is relativism so extreme as to make me dizzy.

On July 9th, I had to re-read a paragraph on the front page of the New York Times three or four times.

It was in an article about an editorial written by the archbishop of Vienna, a close confidant of Pope Benedict XVI, in which he asserted, in essence, that Darwinian evolution is not true, and belief in it might not be compatible with Catholic faith. This assertion was apparently encouraged by Benedict, in a betrayal of Pope John Paul II's general friendliness to evolution and science.

What made me stop and re-read, over and over, was the NYTimes article's seventh paragraph, which reads, in its entirety:

Darwinian evolution is the foundation of modern biology. While researchers may debate details of how the mechanism of evolution plays out, there is no credible scientific challenge to the underlying theory.
What's so startling is that these facts were printed in an American newspaper as facts. Most news venues would cut this paragraph on the grounds that "sounds" biased. But it only sounds biased because the facts it contains ordinarily go unreported, or are reported only as the assertions of an expert who is, in turn, contradicted by an opposing expert.

So American journalism has its own trouble with relativism in its tendency to "seem" objective while actually measuring that objectivity by its appearance. It would be better to BE objective regardless of appearance — as the New York Times has done in this case — or even to be openly biased. To be both biased and to pretend to offer objective journalism results in a relativism unlike anything Darwin would have tolerated.

Terri Schiavo and Science in the News

Robert Fludd

At some point during the Terri Schiavo fiasco, I saw a right-wing spokesmodel on CNN say something like, "I was in a coma once and I'm sure glad they didn't kill ME!" So, the neurologist she was debating pointed out that she didn't have the same condition that Schiavo had. CNN's host didn't bother to get this little confusion sorted out during the segment — not even close. But the science did matter, desparately.

Although the science of neurology was the core of the case, all the thousands of hours of coverage did not add up to America's education about the brain. That was a lost opportunity. A great thumbnail discussion of the science behind the Schiavo case was on NPR's Talk of the Nation's Science Friday, but I'm not sure Americans listen to NPR a heck of a lot ...

To my ears, the great unspoken core of the story was the anxiety most people seem to feel around the idea of the brain as the organ of awareness. I find most people dislike the idea that your awareness, wakefulness, personality, emotions, identity, spirituality, consciousness, and soul are all artifacts generated by the meat inside your skull. When the meat goes bad, there's no more "you." As neurology advances, I bet we're going to face increasingly counter-intuitive brain conditions and even more vexing medical and moral decisions. We better get ready, in part by facing the facts.

None of this is to say that the main conflict was between science and religion — after all, Americans of faith were mostly on science's side on this one. As I watched Shiavo's parents fight to keep Terry hanging around, I kept hearing the Carter Family sing "Don't you want to go to heaven? Don't you want God's bosom to be your pillow when the world's on fire?" Perhaps Pete Seeger's re-writing of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes might have been more persuasive, but I didn't think of it until recently.

Star Pix Wow Space Fans

Hubble Deep Field

The Hubble Deep Field project uses the Hubble Space Telescope to take a kind of "core sample" of the Universe's development. It always comes to mind when I think of the tempestuous relations between science and journalism.

The project requires the Space Telescope to stare into a tiny part of the sky, chosen for its lack of foreground stars, for something like 10 days and nights — that is, it takes a million-second exposure. The result is a photo that looks, at first glance, like an ordinary field of faint stars, but when you lean in to look at the details, you realize the "stars" are all galaxies.

The Hubble Deep Field images provide random samplings of galaxies as they appeared in successively younger eras of the Universe, stretching back to when it was only about 6% of its current age. There are hundreds of ways to tease information out of such photos, and they've been a gold mine for astronomers interested in the evolution of galaxy structure and distribution, dark matter, the big bang, etc., etc., etc.

When the first such image was revealed to reporters in 1996, typical headlines were "NASA Discovers Thousands of Galaxies" or "New Galaxies Discovered, Wowing Astronomers." It's true that most of the galaxies in the images had not been seen before, but what happened was no more the discovery of new galaxies than the discovery of new pebbles would be when geologists take a core sample of interesting geological strata. Astronomy is not about increasing the count of known galaxies, but rather, understanding how the Universe works and evolved, so at least some journalists completely missed the most rudimentary facts of the story.

When you read a newspaper article about something you really understand well, it can make you very suspicious of the article next to it, about which you know almost nothing. On the other hand, I understood what had actually happened — what the news stories should have said — because some journalists actually did get it right. You just had to know where to find them.

What You're Not Interested In

"It's amazing, the human capacity to not notice things that you're not interested in," Bram Gunther said. He's New York City's deputy director of forestry and horticulture and recently gave reporter Andy Young a tour of NYC's urban forest for an article in the May 23 New Yorker.

The city of New York has five million trees, a half million of which are "street trees" not associated with parks or yards. There are fowering cherry, honey locust, silver linden, pin oak, ginkgo, Japanese zelkova and pagoda, London plane, Kentucky coffeetree, dawn redwood — seventy species in all.

Beginning in June, more than 1,000 volunteer "tree stewards" — tree geeks, the article calls them — will take the first census of NYC trees in a decade. Driving along one block, Gunther points out to his reporter some of the reasons the tree population turns over so quickly: "Subway! Grate! Bus stop! Garage! Canopy! Grates! Vaults! Driveway! Awning! Light pole! Again with the canopy!" Along the way, they find injuries due to bikes chained to trunks, dog urine, lovers carving their initials, and Asian long-horned beetles.

Over the last few months, and after more than five years of working for an organization of plant scientists, I've finally begun learning to identify trees (so that's what a maple leaf looks like!). If my eye for the various species ever develops, I know it'll be one of those experiences that makes the world come alive for me all over again, much like when I learned about atmospheric optics.

I suppose learning about the urban forest has that same character that draws amateur folklorists, conspiracy cranks, poets in American, amateur scientists, certain varieties of bloggers. It's a way of turning your back on cable news, American Idol, the runaway bride, publicly-funded stadiums, Clear Channel, and inventing your own culture, your own way of seeing the world. ("There are 8 million stories in the naked city ...") It often seems that simply controlling your own attention and finding your own stories to tell is, increasingly, an act of civil disobedience.

Billboards in Space

Advertising in Earth Orbit
"Blogger Logo-rise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941"

The idea of creating very large advertisements and placing them into Earth obit has been very seriously considered. Such "space billboards," it's usually estimated, would be about the size and brightness of the full moon and would be visible for hours on end to something like a quarter or half the world's population at a time. Potentially, no sky on Earth would lack an ad for something.

Current technology is more than enough to do the trick, and actual companies have offered the service (for example, Space Marketing, Inc. of Roswell, Georgia, proposed space advertising for the 1996 Summer Olympics).

It seems that the only obstacles to actual space billboards are:

(1) Public opposition. Any company making use of such advertising would probably (or hopefully) be subject to intense and widespread public criticism. Indeed, I myself can think of few other causes for which I would be willing to go to war.

(2) National laws. At least in the U.S., a law prohibits the deployment of space advertising. Whether, and for how long, the law would stand up to challenges brought to the World Trade Organization, as well as domestic First Amendment challenges, I can't say. In any case, last week, the FAA asked Congress for the authority to enforce those existing U.S. laws (see's story in their "funny news" section). I believe this is happening now because private space ventures are making rapid progress in the U.S., and the FAA — not NASA — enforces laws relating to private space travel.

Around 1998, I toyed with the idea of writing a screenplay about an underground group that sabotages a mission to install some space advertising. They were not the bad guys, either ...

Einstein Takes A Test

Bohr Einstein
Niels Bohr and Einstein think about it

In physics, there are often different equations for the same phenomenon, but you can usually do a little algebra and show that the different equations actually come from the same source. This is considered good and normal.

So, it's a lot more than a bit embarrassing that the two most important ideas in modern physics — quantum mechanics, which are used to describe teeny tiny things, and General Relativity, which is used to describe big-ass things — have no connection at all. They don't match. To go from one to the other, you have to close one book, put it away, and open another.

For example, Einstein showed that gravity is really just geometry. Mass warps space, and so objects tend to slide down the geometrical warps that other objects create, moving closer together. When we look at this, it looks like gravitational attraction. Unfortunately, quantum mechanics thinks of gravity as an effect generated when masses pass little particles back and forth between them. These ideas are no more compatible to physicists than they are to me or you.

Generally, the conflict can just be ignored, but in certain cases, the two worlds collide. When you want to talk about teeny tiny spaces with HUGE gravitational fields — like black holes, or the Big Bang — you're in real trouble. You need physics that hasn't been invented yet — you need "quantum gravity" or a "Grand Unified Theory". People are working on some interesting ideas (like string theory) in trying to develop this new physics, but it's not clear whether anyone is on the right track or not.

Check your local bookstore for a good article in the July 2005 Sky and Telescope, describing experiments designed to help break the log jam. In terms of the margin of error, quantum mechanics has been confirmed with a lot more precision than General Relativity has. If Einstein's work could be confirmed way, way down to the umpteenth digit, and if this work revealed some difficulties with the theory, it might help unravel the curtain separating the physics of the very large and the very small. Astronomy is at the forefront of the effort, hence the article in Sky and Telescope.

The Mount Graham Controversy, 1988


In the 1980s, I studied astronomy (actually, physics and mathematics was all it was) at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I also did a lot of hiking and camping in the mountains and deserts of the southwest, compelled by the same love of nature that brought me to astronomy.

So, I found myself in the company of both astronomers and environmentalists on a daily basis. I thought nothing of it, since so many amateur astronomers prefer to see dark, clean skies than strip malls, and often have to camp in the wilderness to escape light pollution. Similarly, environment-conscious hikers and campers always seem intensely aware of the night (and day) skies they get to experience.

But then came the Mount Graham controversy. In its early stages, the debate mostly revolved around a rare species of red squirrel that some feared would go extinct if a large observatory complex was built on top of the mountain. There was a lot to consider, and I tried hard to consider it. Unfortunately, I found no colleagues willing to help.

The environmentalists I met saw visions of chemical and radioactive spills, noisy research, great tracts of asphalt, and throngs of tourists in a pristine wilderness. I tried to explain that telescopes just bend light with mirrors and today require only electricity, not photochemicals. They also like native plants around them to absorb image-blurring heat, and tourists are only marginally tolerated at a serious research facility. Mount Graham already boasted a road system, a Bible camp, and an artificial lake. Nothing of the sort was in the least bit interesting to the environmentalists I discussed it with — this information was greeted as evidence alright, but only of the fact that my heart was not in the right place. The facts seemed to prove only that I didn't care.

I will say that they were somewhat more willing to engage than the astronomy students I tried to talk to — at least when those students were in all-male groups. There was no hope of even suggesting that accomodations might be made for the observatory's impact on animal habitats, or that a better understanding of the ecosystem up there might be interesting, or that mutual education between astronomers and environmentalists might lessen the tensions over the issue. I mostly remember one very brief, bruising conversation in which it was suggested that the group go squirrel hunting.

I eventually stopped paying attention to the Mount Graham debate, mostly because I doubted a real debate was possible. Being somewhat wet behind the ears, I was shocked that my interests could be aligned with people who were so obviously wrong and unwise. It would be many years before I really came to accept that even your ideological brethren can be routinely hostile to the truth and to the common good. I came to accept it as a fact, but I still find it rather unpleasant.

Classifieds: Biosphere 2


Biosphere 2 was an attempt at creating a sealed-off, self-sustaining ecosystem of the kind astronauts would need for Moon or Mars bases, or for extremely long trips into deep space. The name implies that the Earth itself is Biosphere 1.

The $200 million venture was mostly funded by a Texas oil billionaire. With a lot of TV cameras aimed at them, the first crew was sealed up in 1991, but oxygen levels plummeted, crops failed, the isolated crew grew testy and weak, and no animals survived except abundant ants and cockroaches. It wasn't long before outside food and fresh oxygen were quietly brought in.

After a flurry of mission changes and lawsuits, the complex just north of Tucson is now up for sale:

"This is not all about the highest bidder," [general manager of company that owns Biosphere 2] said. "All things being equal, we'd certainly like to see an appropriate reuse of the Biosphere and associated buildings, but ultimately, it comes down to what the market will bear."

I gather that some good science came out of Biosphere 2, and its certainly better to fail in Southern Arizona than halfway to Alpha Centauri. Still, Biosphere 2 may be best remembered as an especially bizarre example of America's (and The American West's) doomed utopianism.

It's also a dramatic example of something I've mentioned before — the intimate and often troubling relationship between American space science and the mass media. I'll do some exploring of that long history in future entries of the Monochord.


Classifieds: The Yerkes Observatory

The Yerkes Observatory is for sale. Possibly one of the most beautiful observatories in the world, Yerkes is located on 77 acres of prime lakeside real estate in the charming resort community of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

To those who appreciate the history of astronomy, Yerkes is also one of their best loved shrines. Yerkes was the last observatory to be built during what I think of the first space race — a drive to build larger and larger refracting telescopes (those with a big lense in the front and a little eyepiece in back, like a sailor's spyglass). Finished in 1897, Yerkes hosted some of the greatest astronomers and telescope builders of its era — E. E. Barnard, Ritchey, George Ellery Hale, Otto Struve, Kuiper, Chandrasekhar, and the young Carl Sagan.

Apparently, the University of Chicago (one of the most richly endowed universities in the world) thinks the most promising buyer at the moment is a New York developer who'd like to (at best) make Yerkes the centerpiece of a gated community of oversized suburban mansions.

If I were a rich man, daidle deedle daidle daidle daidle deedle daidle dum ...

Deep Impact: NASA and Performance Art


On July 4th, NASA is going to bash a large plug of copper into a comet (discovered in 1867 by Ernst Temple). Nobody's sure exactly what will happen — which is the main reason to do it — but it should make a sizable crater in the comet and generate a plume of ejecta.

NASA seems to like to schedule landings and other such events to coincide with holidays (July 4, December 24, etc.). Not only are people at home and watching TV, but NASA's copywriters often try to manage some sort of tie-in. The resulting headllines can be agonizing.

In 2000, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft arrived at an asteroid (basically, a large rock) named Eros. A 1999 encounter had failed, and the spacecraft had to take more than a year to swing around again, so I believe the February 14th date of the encounter was a coincidence. But it generated endless headlines about Romancing the Stone in a Valentine's Day NEAR-Eros tryst, etc., etc. I shudder to imagine the headlines this year's unprovoked Independence Day attack on Comet Temple might generate in the USA or abroad.

In part, NASA designs its missions as public performace art and then tries to spin the missions to appeal to headline writers — but the agency is simply an inept storyteller. NASA's unmanned robotic missions are incredibly cheap, completely safe, visually and conceptually dazzling to the public, and hugely productive scientifically — especially when compared to the wasteful and dangerous manned space program. Nothing NASA has done in the last 30 years has inspired more interest and support than missions like Voyager, Viking, the Mars rovers, or the Hubble Space Telescope. The credit for these successes goes not to the cleverness of the PR department or the cuddliness of the astronaut corps, but to the skill and creativity of NASA engineers and scientists. Just go with what you do best.