Music for Moonshiners - Whoopee John


Part of a series wherein I propose musical contexts for
"The Moonshiners Dance Part 1," aside from The Anthology

of American Folk Music,
and present illustrative sound files.


Whoopee John Wilfahrt


Older Minnesotans always seem to remember Whoopee John Wilfahrt — so much so that it's startling how little-known he is to everyone else.

Whoopee John made his first recordings in Minneapolis in September 1927 — just across the river and about a week before Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra recorded "The Moonshiners Dance."

He would later become hugely influential across the Upper Midwest, and because they circulated in a small world, Cloutier and Wilfahrt were probably aware of each other. Still, I don't see Whoopee John's influence in "The Moonshiners Dance." 

Instead, his early recordings can serve as a good example of the old time ethnic music being played across the region at the time.  "The Moonshiner's Dance" is also a good example of that music, and is partly a satire of it.

 • 

Explanations of Whoopee John's nickname differ, but it's pretty clear to my ears — Whoopee John whooped, just like Frank Cloutier's boys, except at very deliberately chosen moments in the performance.

Neither the whoops nor the nickname appear on Wilfahrt's 1927 recordings, but they're both firmly in place by 1933.  Perhaps "Moonshiners Dance" inspired Whoopee John to start whooping — but then again, similarly exuberant interjections were common across pre-War genres of vernacular social dance music.

Although Whoopee John's style doesn't sound much like "The Moonshiners Dance," it doesn't sound much different either.  To get from Wilfahrt to Cloutier, you mostly need a small shift in meter and tempo, and a huge change in attitude.  The Victoria Cafe Orchestra satirizes rural polka music like Whoopee John's from a cosmopolitan, Jazz-Age perspective. 

But keep in mind that old-time ethnic performers themselves relentlessly goofed on their own rustic, old-world personas.  "Whoopee John" was, in essence, a satirical character played by John Wilfahrt.  There's an economy of satirical exchange here ... with its liquidity provided by good times and bootleg alcohol.

Cloutier and Wilfahrt used similar instruments — after all, this is music from the "Brass Age" to which The Anthology otherwise turns its back. Both bands use instruments you'll also find in 1920s Chicago jazz bands, and most everywhere else at the time — trumpet, clarinet, bass horn, a little drum set.  A signature of Wilfarht's band was the addition of the German button accordion.

Wilfahrt's later stuff is much easier to find due to its great popularity. To my ears, it takes on a slightly slick big-band aesthetic that I find a bit bland and cloying.  I much prefer Whoopee John's early stuff from the 1920s and early 1930s — the New-Ulm, Knights-of-Columbus-hall-wedding Whoopee John. 

It's clearly played by a small, spirited combo of townspeople.  I like the hint of parlor, or even chamber music formality.  I don't know, maybe it's a DNA thing, given that this music's genealogy so closely mirrors my own.

 • 

The sound file is an MP3 of about 2.6 MB, and it chains together three abbreviated clips from early Whoopee John 78's.  I chose the cuts because I like them, and because they sound most like "The Moonshiners Dance."  Wilfahrt also recorded appealing waltzes, schottishes, marches, etc.

Download WoopeeJohn.mp3

 •  0:00 to 1:35 - "Old Time Polka #1" from October 1933.
 •  1:35 to 2:42 - "Kinder Polka" from September 1927.
 •  2:42 to 3:50 - "Linderman Polka" from October 1933.

The best source for Whoopee John's music seems to be his grandson, Dennis Brown.  His website has an order form you can print out, fill out, and snail-mail with a check or money order. 

I've done this several times with excellent results. It's great to have this music available in such a high-tech fashion — usually, I'm crawling around on the floor in the basements of used vinyl stores.

I recommend getting either the Whoopee John Historical Music CD #1, or #2, or both.





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Alchemist Transforms Breslin into Ace


Ace hotel

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

Allen Ginsberg reported:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Disk Sift Yields Smith-Newsie Link

Newsboy
(newsboy, 1921, Library of Congress photo)

            

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



_


The Old French Weird America

Fludd

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

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

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

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

Two thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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North Country Blues


 
A mural in the library of Bob Dylan's high school depicts Hibbing's multi-ethnic iron miners. What did their music sound like?



Around 1965, Bob Dylan turned his back on folk music, confirming the break by "going electric" at the Newport Folk Festival. 

At once fact and fiction, the story has emerged as one of the more familiar parables from the 20th century.

But lately, I've been thinking about an earlier moment of decision when Dylan walked away from another set of folk music traditions — those of the Upper Midwest.  Today, that decision seems more consequential in the long run, all the more so the longer it goes unrecognized.

When Dylan walked away from Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range and the rest of the Upper Midwest, he left behind what was then a dying economy, as portrayed in his song "North Country Blues".  It was a dyin' town, it was a dyin' town, he chants in the album's liner notes. 

But Dylan was also walking away from dying forms of music as varied and complex as any in the world, including those of the American South.

At the time, old musical ways of life were changing just as fast in the South, of course, but important elements of the Folk Revival were bent on preserving Southern traditional music — and Dylan was about to help out.  

Suddenly, the critical difference between the traditional music of the North and the South hasn't turned out to be a matter of quality or inherent interest.  

Instead, it's that the music of the South — against all odds, and to our inexpressible benefit — was resuscitated when it needed it most.  Up North, in Zimmerman country, a comparable revival just never arrived.

I've been working on a study of the only recording on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music clearly representing northern music — "Moonshiner's Dance," recorded in Minnesota in 1927.  It has never been studied before.  

Early in my project, I knew I would eventually have to know — and I mean have to, and I mean know — the musical environment in the Upper Midwest before World War Two.

Consider the 1913 mural in the library of Hibbing High School depicting iron miners at work.  Each of its 16 human figures represents another ethnic group that mined the Mesabi Iron Range — a deep diversity of cultures that, presumably, intermingled to create distinctive new American sounds.  

Those miners were silent as they watched the young Robert Zimmerman browse the library books — but they must've danced to something sometime.

During the early phases of my research into "Moonshiner's Dance," I often thought about them, knowing I would need to hear their music in my head, loud and clear. 

Unfortunately, when I finally turned my attention to the problem, I saw there was going be trouble. 

I had first committed myself to traditional music 14 years prior, when there were already mountains of products on the market vying to help me navigate pre-War Southern blues and country.  But now, up North, even in 2008, I was pretty much on my own.

There is no such thing as, say, The Anthology of Northern American Folk Music (edited by Harry Smithovich).  There's no O Brother Where Art Ya Once?  There was no "Song to Otto Rindlisbacher" on Bob Dylan's first album.

Alan Lomax made a thousand recordings during fieldwork in the Upper Midwest in 1938, declaring it possibly "the most interesting country I have ever traveled in" with "enough material in the region for years of work".  But unlike every other region where Lomax conducted fieldwork, no release in any format has ever been devoted to his Northern journey.  The website of Lomax's foundation, its name apparently a bit of self-deprecating humor, makes no mention of it.

There is an amazing record store here in Minneapolis that sells only 78 rpm records, and it has hundreds of pre-War old-time ethnic recordings — cheap, in great condition, with unpronounceable titles.  But what do I buy?  And what sense do I make of it?

There's simply no ... there's no ...

There's no Northern canon.  Or worse, and more exactly, the canon of "American roots music" has bypassed my part of the country entirely. There are no names from the Upper Midwest like Dock Boggs, or The Carter Family, or Robert Johnson — names of musicians whose work everybody knows is great, even if they haven't actually bothered listening to it. 

How do you connect the dots when you have no dots to begin with? 

I spent much of 2008 trying to crack the case.

I've camped out in university and historical society libraries, scouring the footnotes of academic journal articles.  I've literally spent hours clutching photocopies of typewritten discographies while crawling on the floor in used vinyl stores — including one where the owner chain-smokes behind the register.  I've found music that's never been issued, is out of print, is on formats I can't play, lacks any intelligible context.

So far, there appear to be no easy solutions.  But I have found a few extremely valuable maps of this occult terrain — so valuable, in fact, that I hate to bury reviews of them this deep in an already too-long blog post.  

If I could press only three things into your hands today, they would be: (1) a brilliant box set, Down Home Dairyland, containing 40 episodes of a radio show about the traditional music of the Upper Midwest, and (2 and 3) a pair of absolutely essential books with unfortunate titles, Victor Greene's A Passion for Polka and James P. Leary's Polkabilly.  

They're hardly the only materials available, but taken together (including their footnotes, discographies, etc.) they allow an incipient canon to emerge — a list of things you probably should recognize if you want to be taken seriously on the subject.  They also provide — most pointedly in the first and last chapters of Leary's Polkabilly — clues to explaining why these musicians and their work aren't more widely seen as part of the canon of American roots music.

Following various threads into and out of such material, I sometimes return to the mural in the library of Hibbing High School.  

Like the rest of present-day Hibbing, the mural was once moved to its current location from the ghost town of North Hibbing, "where even the markin stones were dead, an there was no sound except for the wind blowin thru the high grass," as Dylan described it. 

Slowly, as I've started to hear a few strains of music coming from those miners in that mural, what's begun to strike me most about the thing is how deadly silent it first seemed to me, and how silent it must have seemed to Dylan, there in that hushed library.  

Why wasn't there a revival of Northern folk music for Dylan to join?  And what would one have sounded like?  Until 2008, I would have faintly assumed the answer to the first question was the answer to the second.  The music down South was just better or more plentiful.

And maybe it was, I haven't quite decided.  But the reasons for the historical neglect of the Upper Midwest turn out to be far more complex than that — so much so they deserve their own research institute ... or at least their own blog post.  I do know it certainly wasn't just about the music.

If we want to keep thinking that Southern music is better, that's ok with me.  But shouldn't we be able to say, confidently and in specific detail, "Better than WHAT?

    

 

    

 

    

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

KerouacKerouac playing football, 1938

    

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

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

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

Now, I will have to rejigger yet again somehow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

----

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, a lot is angering. 

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

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

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

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

----

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       

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Rollingstone out on Highway 61

61EkosOiRLL._SS500_

Along Highway 61 on your way out of Minnesota, you pass two towns called Minnesota City and Rollingstone. Their histories began with a Utopian crackpot and his followers, who soon became his victims in one of the more ghastly episodes in the state's history.
 
The Rollingstone Colony was a little like the Donner Party, if a lot less famous. It also reminds me a bit of the Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre, and certainly adds a new dimension to the song "Like a Rolling Stone."
 
In 1851, a New York printer persuaded a group of New York professionals to join a Utopian community. They would start fresh in a well-planned city out west in the health-promoting climate of the new Minnesota Territory.  The town was to be called Rollingstone.

The leader went west first to found the beautiful city, and when 400 people followed him, they were surprised to find him stuck in a swamp. The women and children slept in a large tent, the men in gopher pits.  About three quarters of them soon died in the epidemics that swept the settlement.  

Wait. Come to think of it, that's more or less how I came to live here too ... 

Anyway, the survivors founded Minnesota City.  A small village two miles away is today called Rollingstone. Pinning down which of the two towns was the location of the Rollingstone Colony and how exactly they relate to each other historically would take more digging than I've done.

In any case, I'm thinking more about Bob Dylan and the mid-1960's.
 
It seems hard to believe that a Minnesotan would write a song called "Like A Rolling Stone" — a song about what it's like to find yourself all alone and boondoggled out on the new frontier — and that he'd put it on an album called Highway 61 Revisited without knowing anything whatsoever about the story of the Rollingstone Colony.  

But then, a lot of true things are also hard to believe. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that Dylan seemed preternaturally relevant — that his empathetic imagination would insinuate itself convincingly beyond what seems possible. I've written about that before.  

Maybe it's all a coincidence, but it's worth doing the legwork to understand how well-known this incident could've been to Dylan in the early 1960's. My research time is booked at the moment.

I also don't know if anybody has ever asked Bob when, if ever, he first heard about the Rollingstone Colony down on Highway 61.
    

     

Sources:

Cathy Wurzer's just-published book, Tales of the Road: Highway 61, provides an efficient telling in two pages.  She also talked about it today on Minnesota Public Radio.

Christopher M. Johnson's article in Minnesota History (49:140-148) provides much detail on how the community got to Minnesota.

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Barack Obama: Secret Banjoist? - UPDATE!

NLCR


In late July, I wrote a "fake news" item about Barack Obama trying to appeal to fans of Oldtime music.

Well ... now Barack Obama really is, in fact, trying to appeal to fans of Oldtime music (my consulting fee is in the mail, I'm quite certain).  

To wit, Ralph Stanley  best known as the elderly "Oh Death" guy on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack  has recorded a radio endorsement to run in southwestern Virginia.

The area is hotly contested in the presidential race, and was also the home of many pioneers of the style today called "Oldtime" Tommy Jarrell, Henry Whitter, The Carter Family, The Stonemans, and many, many, more.

I wrote that dorky fake news item because I kept doing double-takes at photos of Obama at a meeting of NCLR, which looks a hell of a lot like NLCR, which to Oldtime fans is as immediately recognizable as NASA or FBI. After a little slap-dash Photoshop work (above), I was in business.

Several years ago, I drove to Moorehead, Minnesota, and stayed at a Red Roof Inn just to see my first concert by Mike Seeger, cofounder of the NLCR.  At the end of the concert, Mike said he was going to go sit at the CD table and press the flesh. 

He'd just been touring with Ralph Stanley, you see, who stays at the CD table until the last dog dies and Seeger saw that Stanley sells a lot of CDs that way.  After about 50 years in show business, Mike was apparently still learning from old Ralph Stanley. 

_


Three Vignettes on Music and Geography

JohnCohen 

John Cohen signs his book of Dylan photos, Young Bob
Minneapolis, April 15, 2007


  

#1
  
I heard John Cohen tell a story.  It was at a private party, so I'm not certain it's appropriate to write about here. But ... but ... it was such a GOOD story.

As I remember it, at least, he was teaching or lecturing a couple years back at a college in North Carolina.  There, he discussed his work in the late 1950s, finding old people in the hills of Madison County, North Carolina, who still sang very old ballads without instrumental accompaniment.  They just opened their mouths and sang 500-year-old songs, all alone.  It had a spooky, lonesome, ancient-sounding effect.  

And in those 1950's, that style seemed to be dying right before Cohen's eyes as the old folks themselves died and their grandchildren were passionately seized by jukebox rock 'n roll.  Cohen, he felt sure, was capturing this music's death mask at the instant of its extinction.

After the lecture, a young woman in the class came up and told Cohen that her family was from rural North Carolina and was still singing these old ballads in this same way.  The tradition had, in fact, survived and was thriving, having been passed down to her through many generations of her family.  She even sang a little for Cohen to show him what she meant.

Cohen was puzzled, knowing that he and people who took an interest in this work had scoured every inch of those hills, looking under every rock in all of Appalachia trying to find the last remnants of this folk tradition.  Those hills had been picked absolutely clean decades ago.

On a wild hunch, Cohen asked her if anybody in her family had ever gone to the University of California at Berkeley, where Cohen's work on these ballads became very popular.  Oh sure, she said.  Everybody in her family went to Berkeley — her dad, all her aunts and uncles, her grandparents, her family pets, and so on and so forth, etc.  I seem to remember she was about to go there herself.

This young woman and her family were indeed from North Carolina, and this style of singing was indeed a folk tradition from their part of the country.  And it was indeed being passed down to her via her family, one generation to the next.  Being young, and perhaps not a history major, she neither knew nor much cared that the singing style had gone into exile in Berkeley for a little while before coming back home to the North Carolina hills.  

And she was not wrong.  The authentic bearers of real folk traditions — if you wanna talk that way — almost never know exactly how the music comes down to them.  In her case, this folk music is thriving in her family as a folk tradition, just as sure as it ever did in anybody else's family.  She had plenty reason to be proud.  She was not wrong.  She was right.

#2

In the 1950's and 1960's, Barry Ancelet grew up in Louisiana speaking Cajun French.  He studied the French language in Louisiana high schools and colleges, where teachers always insisted that Cajun French wasn't French at all — that it literally had nothing to do with the French language.  Ancelet accepted this without too much worry.  

And he never paid much attention to Cajun music, even though (or because) it was always around.  In many similar stories I've heard, the protagonists often think of the traditional music they grew up with as low — a weakness of ignorant country trash.  In his article in the great collection Sounds of the South (which is where I get this information), Ancelet isn't explicit about his own early attitudes toward the music.

In any case, in the early 1970's he spent an academic year in France, where he felt homesick and isolated.  One momentous night in Paris, at a concert of Cajun music, he underwent a shattering conversion experience.  He realized that he'd been systematically trained to be ignorant of himself and his own surroundings.  Everything he thought he knew about his own language and his own culture turned out to be crazy.

He immediately sensed what he should do with the rest of his life — he went back to Louisiana and ultimately became one of the founders of the academic study of Cajun and Acadian culture.  Tonight, I see that Wikipedia tells us he's from Louisiana and what he does now, but doesn't mention any conversion experience — least of all in France.

#3

In the past several months of my research into the Moonshiners Dance, the trail has finally led me to the mostly unknown, yet much-maligned traditional music of my various homelands.

In the past few weeks, for example, I've been listening with mounting enthusiasm to Down Home Dairyland.  Originally a radio show, I know it as 40 episodes released on CD, with an accompanying listener's guide. 
 
The hosts are Jim Leary and Rick March — the Gilbert and Gubar of polka music — two folklorists who've been exploring the traditional and ethnic music of the Upper Midwest since the late 1970s. 

Their work, and that of other musicians and scholars in their field, is rapidly being hauled aboard here at the Institute for Astrophysics and the Hillbilly Blues. 

For now, I draw your attention to program #21 of Down Home Dairyland, which deals with the ethnic music of Stevens Point, Wisconsin.   Apparently, if you walked into a hall in Stevens Point today, you'd have a good chance of hearing polka that's audibly and vividly Polish, feeling a little like the crooked-metered concertina recordings made by Polish immigrants in the 1920's. 

And why not?  The area was heavily settled by Poles in the mid-1800's and again in the early 1900's.  Wouldn't the ethnic music of Stevens Point sound pretty damned Polish?

Not necessarily, it turns out.  In the mid-20th century, the sound that dominated among Stevens Point polka bands was the German-sounding oompah style popularized by Minnesota bandleaders Whoopee John Wilfahrt and Harold Loeffelmacher.  Their styles influenced bands far and wide as Whoopee John, especially, became a kind of regional hero like Charlie Poole did in the southeast.

By the late 1950's, though, some younger Stevens Pointers grew weary of the "arranged and mannered" German sound and the sedentary stage presence of the bands.  The more authentically European Polish styles they found among bandleaders from Chicago and Milwaukee were aggressive, improvised, visceral — they felt more like rock 'n roll, and more authentic at the same time.  

So, there was a Revival — Leary and March call it a "resurgence" and a "revitalization" — of explicitly Polish music among Polish bands around Stevens Point.  I imagine that, today, those mid-century revialists are easily old enough to have great grandchildren who might know only that their family came from Poland in the 1850's, and that they're learning to play Polish styles from great grandpa. 

I won't try to squeeze my own sudden attentiveness to the ethnic-American styles of the Upper Midwest into a little vignette.  Maybe that's for you to do.  But I've been brought back north precisely because I wanted to contribute to the understanding of Harry Smith's influential collection of southern music
 
I've seen that pattern over and over again in other people, and one of the things that surprises me most is my own surprise that it's happening to me.  


_


Hey Hey Mister Larson! (part three)

This is the third in a series about the first seven seconds of "Moonshiner's Dance," recorded in Saint Paul in 1927 by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra.  It was included in the Anthology of American Folk Music, sometimes called the Harry Smith Anthology.
See also Part One and Part Two.


Bedlam Circus
Tonight, the Bedlam welcomes the Republicans with a circus (link)

         

At the start of the Moonshiner's Dance, the leader of The Victoria Café Orchestra grandly calls out to you, the listener, and he renames you "Mister Larson."

I've explained why I think Mister Larson was probably not a specific person but a cultural caricature — a generic audience member being welcomed into The Victoria Café.

He's a butter-and-egg man, in other words, getting a Texas Guinan routine in a 1920s speakeasy.

Hey hey, Mister Larson!

Thinking over questions like Mister Larson — trying to reconstruct the meanings the recording would have had in Minnesota in 1927 — has fundamentally rejiggered the Moonshiner's Dance in my imagination. 

And those reconstructed meanings, I've come to decide, reverberate across the meaning and argument of the Anthology itself.

Today, as the Republican National Convention slouches toward Saint Paul, I insist that Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra were definitely NOT "from the Minnesota area," as the 1997 liner notes to the Anthology "assumed."

They were not even from Minneapolis.  They were vividly, and elaborately, and specifically from the city of Saint Paul. Should it surprise us that the Moonshiner's Dance is about its place and time, and that the geographical specifics matter to the music?

As with Dylan and Hibbing, if we want to understand the Moonshiner's Dance, we need to understand a little about the history of Saint Paul.

In the early 1900's, the city of Saint Paul operated under a semi-official policy called the O'Connor System.  It's goal was to maintain the city as a safe haven for organized crime, with the understanding that major crimes would be committed outside city limits.

I've chosen these words carefully. They sound like they might be some sort of local jack-a-lope folklore of the sort fed to tourists visiting any city. They aren't.

The O'Connor System's method was this: protect all criminals from prosecution under the conditions that they (A) announce themselves upon arrival in the city, (B) pay protection money bribes, and (C) limit themselves to vice and conspiracy within city limits. 

Violators of this compact were treated harshly, either by the city's legal infrastructure, or by its criminal infrastructure, or both.

And benefit they did, for more than 30 years. In 1932, for example, 21% of all bank robberies in the USA occurred in Minnesota, but exactly zero occurred within Saint Paul's city limits.

Liquor, prostitution, and gambling (and so, music) flourished within the city limits, and residents enjoyed them with gusto and relative impunity.  So did visiting tourists. Larry Craig could have tapped his foot all day and all night.

Chief O'Connor's system was not a huge break from the past.

Saint Paul began as a little encampment on the Mississippi around Fort Snelling, providing the fort's soldiers with all the comforts not issued to them by the government. 

In 1838, thanks to "beastly scenes of intoxication among the soldiers of this garrison," the fort's administrators had had enough — especially of a moonshiner named Pierre Parrant, known affectionately as Pig's Eye.

The little village was burned to the ground and its residents were moved eight miles upstream.  The new location was called Pigs Eye for several years, until its first Catholic priest proposed the name Saint Paul.

As it grew, the city continue to focus on trade and transportation, unlike industry-heavy Minneapolis. Brewing was the main manufacturing activity in Saint Paul, and a vice economy was supported by, and supported, these other sectors.

Prohibition, in particular, did not go well for the Feds in Saint Paul.  The city — with its profoundly anti-prohibition population, its proximity to the Canadian border, and its great regional transportation system — was one of the wettest places in America.

Businessmen from all over the US knew Saint Paul was a good destination for business trips.  Truly, what happened in Saint Paul stayed in Saint Paul. 

It was Mister Larson, and not the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, who was from "the Minnesota area."

Saint Paul was insular — a cultural island — and thus a peculiar state capital. Most Saint Paulites had ethical qualms about traveling and spending money beyond city limits, with Minneapolis in particular being another planet, and a hostile one. 

Larger and wealthier Minneapolis was, especially in the popular imagination, a straight-laced, class-stratified, Republican town of Lutheran factory owners and non-union workers. The workers were Scandinavian, even more so than the rest of the state, and the owners were old-stock Yankees.

By contrast, especially in the popular imagination, Saint Paul was an island of drunken, unionized, Irish-Catholic Democrats who were not enamored of the law.

And the popular imagination was tolerably close to the truth.

Saint Paul's political machine was overwhelmingly Irish, and the city's many Yankees, Germans, and Scandinavians figured they may as well be Irish too, given the circumstances. In Saint Paul, ethnic diversity could have a strange way of drawing the city even closer together, increasing its insularity.

Hey hey, Mister Larson! 

So Saint Paul welcomed a generic son of Lars — a pleasure-seeking visitor from the more culturally conservative city of Minneapolis or from the mining and farming communities across "the Minnesota area."

Here we are now — entertain us. 

After one strong whiff of cultural history, the Moonshiner's Dance morphs into the shape of countless other recordings, one after another.

Viva Las Vegas, New York New York, I Love LA — the Moonshiner's Dance is an advertising jingle. 

In the shadow of its richer and more sober neighbor across the Mississippi River, Saint Paul knew its place and was not afraid to advertise. The name of the Victoria Cafe is right there on the record label, as are the cafe's main attractions of moonshine and dancing. 

Suddenly, I hear a lot of Rum And Coca-Cola — a lot of working for the Yankee dollar — in the Moonshiners Dance.  Whether the Andrew Sisters' version or Lord Invader's, who's to say?

It's a cynical thing — a small, casual violence — to rename your listener with a cultural stereotype. Living and working in a place like Saint Paul, a satirical ear must've come easily to a cafe musician like Frank Cloutier.

So Cloutier makes it seem natural to me, for the first time, that F. Scott Fitzgerald was from Saint Paul — both men must've seen the Jazz Age in something like the way a blackjack dealer sees Las Vegas.

Mister Larson now becomes Mister Jones, the unprepared square of Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man.  In the Moonshiner's Dance, you, Mister Larson, have sneaked into The Victoria Cafe the same way you, Mister Jones, were about to find yourself squarely in the middle of Woodstock.

Suddenly, as Larson and Jones stroll into the Victoria Cafe together, Cloutier's Jazz Age comes into view as Dylan's sixties, with their respective collisions of cultural whiplash and bootlegged intoxicants.

But for now, obviously, much of this oversteps the evidence I've shown you.  It's in the actual music later in the recording, for example, that you really get to know Cloutier's satirical cynicism.  All in good time.  For now, I think I know who Mister Larson is and what he meant in his place and moment. 

Now I have to write about the meaning of the other, unintelligible part of the introduction — and about the first seven seconds as a whole.  It has to be done before I put this series of entries to rest.  In the last installment, I'll try to work out some of what I can say about what I can't understand.

_


Selected References (more than any other blog!)

Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place
by Mary Lethert Wingerd — The best book on the Moonshiner's Dance so far, and she may not even know the recording exists.  Hugely important.  I've made Saint Paul sound more like a riot, but Wingerd emphasizes the compacts and balances and civic identities that made Saint Paul a great place to live.

John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936 by Paul Maccabee — The title makes it sound like it could be about any city.  Every place thinks it was an Al Capone hangout.  But Maccabee has written, in a sense, a chronicle of the consequences of the O'Connor System.  Fun read, too. 

They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State's Ethnic Groups edited by June Drenning Holmquist — An unbelievable, exhaustive treatment of every damned ethnic group that ever set foot in the state.  That it was done at all is dumbfounding. 

  

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A Geography of the Anthology

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



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

It's impossible to express in a few words.

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

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

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

The Methodology of a Geography of the Anthology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Maynard was probably the hardest to place.

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

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



_


Hey Hey Mister Larson! (Part Two)

This is the second in a series about the first seven seconds of "Moonshiner's Dance," recorded in Saint Paul in 1927 by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra.  It was included in the Anthology of American Folk Music, sometimes called the Harry Smith Anthology.
See also Part One and Part Three.


Spmusician

Early in my research into "The Moonshiner's Dance," I knew the identity of Mister Larson would be easy to uncover.  It's the low-hanging fruit. 

After all, Frank Cloutier addresses him the instant the recording begins. Hey hey, Mr. Larson! 

I knew Larson would wind up being a musician in Frank's band, or the owner of the Victoria Cafe, and I'd write up a neat biography of this Larson guy and explain why he's so prominently placed at the start of Frank's only recording.
 
Today, deep into my third year of research, it hasn't turned out that way. 
 
I've seen hundreds of thousands of advertisements, newspaper articles, obituaries, theater programs, union newsletters, graves, birth and death certificates, draft cards, photos, letters, and much else.
 
I'm a resident of the Twin Cities of 1927.  Driving around St. Paul, I once saw a product of the WPA and caught myself thinking, "Hey, THAT'S new."

Living like this — hanging around the dance music scene of Prohibition-era Saint Paul— I keep encountering the same guys over and over.  I notice when their wives have kids.  I know when they finally get their own bands.  I hear about it when a good pitcher joins their kittenball team. 
 
And I'm sorry.  I don't know any Larson — at least nobody associated with Frank Cloutier or the local dance scene or the management of the Victoria Cafe. 
 

 
Maybe I'm not hearing the muffled 1927 recording correctly.  Maybe it isn't "Mister Larson" at all, but something else.  Here's an mp3 of the first few seconds.

I briefly considered whether Frank might instead be saying "Mister Nelson" as in Gordon Nelson, the drummer who seems to have played on "The Moonshiner's Dance."  For a bit longer, I considered the Cafe's manager at the time of the recording, Sammy Markus. 
 
But listening again to the recording, I find they just won't do.  Hey hey Mr. Markus.  Hey hey Mr. Markus.  Hey hey Mr. Markus. 
 
No.  It's "Hey hey Mr. Larson."

As a last resort, I scoured the entries for "Larson" and "Larsen" in the St. Paul and Minneapolis city directories, which they started to call "phone books" once everybody got phones. 
 
Ordinarily, I adore city directories, intimate and teasing as they are.  But searching every Larson in the Twin Cities directories is tedious work — there are roughly 2700 entries in the 1927 editions and they have to be scanned line by line, by hand and eye. 

St. Paul is striking for its lack of prospects. I found one music teacher named Bertha Larson who was presumably not a Mister. 

There are more prospects in Minneapolis.  There was a piano mover named Gustaf Larson and a piano tuner named Martin Larson — unlikely professions for Mister Larson, even though Frank Cloutier was a keyboardist. There was also a movie house manager, a cashier at a dance hall, a radio salesman, and another woman music teacher.

There was a family of musical Larsons, and I've done a longitudinal study of them — followed them around town like a shamus.  So far, none of these Larsons seems to have a connection to Frank or to the Victoria Cafe or even to St. Paul.  They were not well known, and other than their name, nothing seems relevant about them. 

The 1930 census counted about 11,900 individuals named Larsen or Larson in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, the counties of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Limiting myself to the right age and gender brings the number down, but I have to face the fact that I may never find the Larson that Frank had in mind.

One last prospect has occasionally troubled my mind for about two years.  In 1927, the leader of the Minneapolis Police Department's band was a cop called Curly Larson. 

I've tried to find out more about him, but so far, he's been a tough nut to crack, probably because of that Curly nickname. We know he was probably bald.  I'll keep searching.

But no matter the details, it's a delicious idea. 

Smack in the middle of Prohibition, the leader of the Minneapolis policeman's band puts on his uniform every Friday and Saturday night, crosses the river into St. Paul, and plays "The Moonshiner's Dance" at the Victoria Cafe with Frank Cloutier and his boys. 

Playing that soused polka in uniform on the bandstand ... I desperately want him to have done this. There is exactly zero evidence that he did.

But could he have?  Could a Minneapolis cop have played such a drunken, reeling tribute to bootleg liquor without being fired, or even arrested?  Especially if he was prominently featured on a 78 rpm record?  And might a St. Paul officer have made the same trip to Minneapolis, maybe in a pickled cop exchange program?

During many long days in archives and libraries, I've often bounced these questions about Curly Larson off my findings.  Partly thanks to that habit, I've slowly evolved from being the archivist of "The Moonshiners Dance" to being its cultural historian.

The shift felt complete the day I finally decided to trust my findings about all these Larsons.  There's always so much more work to be done, but so far, nobody has presented himself as the likely Mister Larson.

Therefore, according to my current research results, there probably was no Mister Larson. Or rather, there were many thousands of him.  I've come to suspect that Mister Larson is a product of Frank Cloutier's imagination.  He's the generic audience member — just your typical Minnesotan off the street. 

Hey hey Mister Larson!

If so, this would make him a founding citizen of Lake Wobegon. Like Garrison Keillor's townspeople, he's a caricature invented for the sake of Minnesota humor.  To this day, Mister Larson still lives next door to Pastor Inkvist and across the street from Carl Krebsbach.

It would also make Mister Larson an ancestor of Mister Jones, Bob Dylan's main character in "Ballad of a Thin Man."

Just as with Dylan's character, the inclination is to imagine Mister Larson as somebody other than you.  But Frank and Bob both address the listener — both are talking to and about you, no matter what name they give you.  You are Mister Larson.

Something is happening, therefore, and you don't know what it is.  To understand who Mister Larson was, we have to sort out what he might have meant to somebody like Frank Cloutier in a place like Saint Paul at a time like 1927. 

We have to reconstruct a meaning that no longer exists.  We have to do cultural history. 

I'll present some initial findings in Part Three.

_


Barack Obama: Secret Banjoist?

NLCR
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!

_


The Anthology as Tarot Deck

Modtarot
(a modern Tarot deck by John Coulthart)

    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


_


Fake Headlines Mesmerize Music Geeks

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

Harry knew what he was doing. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Harry Smith's Liner Notes Available for Download

Racingprogram


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_


The Anthology at Tom Waits Concerts

Waits_folk

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


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

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

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

Cold Cold Ground and Stephen Foster,

Georgia Lee and Blind Willie Johnson,

Swordfishtrombones and Bascom Lamar Lunsford, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

_


Milwaukee Soldiers Home


Wood

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.


Hey Hey Mister Larson! (part one)

This is the first in a series about the first seven seconds of "Moonshiner's Dance," recorded in Saint Paul in 1927 by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra.  It was included in the Anthology of American Folk Music, sometimes called the Harry Smith Anthology.
See also Part Two and Part Three.

Alessandro Carrera, Minneapolis Dylan Symposium
Alessandro Carrera
Bob Dylan Symposium in Minneapolis
March 27, 2007

At the 2007 Bob Dylan symposium in Minneapolis, Alessandro Carrera, the leading Italian translator of Bob Dylan's lyrics and prose, told a story about his first awareness of Dylan. I keep remembering it as I think about Mister Larson.

The gist of the story was this:

When Carrera was a teenager in Italy in the late 1960's, he was obsessed with American music — even though it was very difficult to get a hold of, and he could count all the words in his English vocabulary on one hand.

Listening to albums by Joan Baez, and by the Byrds, and by Peter Paul and Mary, what excited him most on each album was always the one or two songs that had been written by this guy — one "Bobe Dee-lahn", as Carrera pronounced it. 

Of course, he couldn't understand the lyrics at all — it was Bob Dylan's melodies that attracted him.

It took some doing, but Carrera finally got a hold of a recording by Bob Dylan himself — a 45 rpm single, one side of which was "Mister Tambourine Man."  He put it on the turntable, and was elated to hear that the first word out of Dylan's mouth was one of the few English words that the teenage Carrera knew. 

"Hey!" 

Carrera didn't just know what the word meant — that is, he didn't just know its Italian translation — he also deeply recognized the word.  He appreciated it.  It spoke to him. 

"Hey!"

It meant, "You! LISTEN TO ME." And that was cool.

"The Moonshiner's Dance" begins with a 7-second spoken introduction. A prologue.

Here's an mp3:

Download MoonshinerIntro.mp3

In its first two seconds, someone — almost certainly the leader of the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, Frank E. Cloutier — practically shouts "Hey hey, Mister Larson!"

In the next five seconds, in the same declarative voice, he rattles off about 20 more syllables. But because of some rasping and, maybe, needle-bouncing at start of the recording, all but a few of these syllables are completely indecipherable. 

To just count the syllables in the introduction, I had to transcribe it phonetically, without worrying about its meaning.  The words sound something like this:

Hey hey, Mister Larson!  These boys geeky entwine anonymous spectacle play pen! That's it, go boys!

We may never know what Frank E. really said (and I doubt I've made a lucky guess).  Maybe the Gennett recording engineer in 1927 used a blank wax disc that was rough or soft near the outer edge. Preparing the wax was skilled labor and results could be slightly uneven. If that's the source of the noise, every released copy of the 78 is similarly indecipherable.

On the other hand, the Smithsonian-Folkways' reissue on CD is the only version I've heard.  It may be that their "source copy" of the 78 rpm record was damaged just there. Perhaps another copy of the 78 has a prologue that can be understood.

In any case, after this spoken introduction someone whoops "WAH hee!", and the band strikes up its reeling, careening medley of tunes played as one-steps.

I, and possibly you, listen to these old recordings to put our minds through an intense exercise.  It's, like, mind-expanding. 

We lean into the noise and try to tease out the delicate signal as it leaks across a divide as impenetrable as a world war, a depression, and a cold war.  The Mason-Dixon line.  The color line.  Class and gender and religious and educational and technological divides.  And, for us, those divides are not so much obstacles to our listening pleasure as they are at the root of the pleasure. 

Among the recordings on the Harry Smith Anthology, The Moonshiners Dance comes to me across the shortest distances. 

The first seven seconds are in English, it seems.  Frank E. would have had a Rhode Island accent, but his audience at the Victoria Cafe was an Upper Midwestern one — it still is, given that nobody is listening but me.  In fact, the Victoria Cafe is still standing, just a couple minutes' drive from my house.  Frank E. was even raised Catholic, like me — and unlike almost everyone else on the Anthology (except the Cajuns, who do not speak my language). 

You'd think I'd have a shot at understanding Frank E. 

Instead, I'm like Alessandro Carrera.  There's a world between me and the speaker, and I can only pick out a few translatable syllables.

But I recognize something in the gesture. Hey hey, Mister Larson!

Frank could hardly have imagined our existence.  We're eavesdropping on his message to Mr. Larson, but somehow the message seems intended for us. But what does it mean?


_


The Illinois-Wisconsin Border

Johnsburg
St. John's church, Christmas Day 2000
Johnsburg, Illinois


Tom Waits doesn't release songs like Day After Tomorrow, which is one reason people listened so closely when it appeared on his 2004 album, Real Gone.

The song's narrator is a 21-year-old combat soldier on a battlefield where he sees himself like "the gravel on the road," like an expendable resource in someone else's project.

It's what we might call a protest song, which is not Tom Waits' style. When the morning newspaper appears in a Tom Waits song, it's usually to complete a still life with eggs and weak coffee. But Day After Tomorrow is a beautiful anit-war song — politically disheartening, spiritually uplifting, and about as moving as anything Waits has ever done.

Like me, the narrator-soldier of Day After Tomorrow is from northern Illinois:

I got your letter today
And I miss you all so much here
I can't wait to see you all
And I'm counting the days, dear
I still believe that there's gold
At the end of the world
And I'll come home to Illinois
On the day after tomorrow

It is so hard
And it's cold here
And I'm tired of taking orders
And I miss old Rockford town
Up by the Wisconsin border
What I miss you won't believe
Shoveling snow and raking leaves
And my plane will touch down
On the day after tomorrow

On my first listening, the "Wisconsin border" passage clunked in my ears. For one thing, "Rockford-town" isn't an expression I'd ever heard, and the song doesn't tell us anything about Rockford beyond what can be guessed from Google Maps.

So, the soldier's hometown seemed to lack credibility, a little as if a blues song had referred to Avalon, Mississippi as "an unincorporated community in the extreme northwest corner of Carroll County, part of the Greenwood Mississippi Micropolitan Statistical Area." The soldier seemed to have a wikipedic knowledge of his own hometown.

Of course, on my second listening, I remembered that Waits' wife, Kathleen Brennan, grew up in Johnsburg, Illinois, which is close to Rockford and even closer to my own home town. Since the early 1980's — and increasingly, as time goes on — Waits and Brennan have worked as a team under the name "Tom Waits," much as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have said that they are a band called "Gillian Welch."

Thinking of the lines as having been written by an Illinoisan subtly changes the meaning of the words. If I and my family are any measure, referring to a town "up by the Wisconsin border" carries a meaning and significance you can't read off a map.

When I was a college boy in Tucson, Arizona, I went to at least a hundred poetry readings, including perhaps a half-dozen readings by a poet named Alberto Álvaro Ríos. Each time, he would tell the same old story about growing up in Nogales and playing a childish game of walking in two countries at once — literally, one foot in the USA, one foot in Mexico.

I quickly grew tired of the story. So what? So you grew up in a town that straddled the border! Today, of course, I'm able to see a significance I'd mostly missed as a callow youth. The border really does matter, even if it hadn't mattered much to me at the time.

Kathleen Brennan is from just this side of a border, a place where someplace else is always just over the horizon. Maybe such people know exactly where to locate their mythological worlds — over on the other side. Maybe they also tend to know exactly where myths are sorely lacking — here on this side.

In Day after Tomorrow, Waits and Brennan's soldier suddenly finds himself thinking of his hometown, old Rockford town, as if it were that mythical world on the other side of the border. He's displaced alright. His folks back home wouldn't believe how shoveling snow and raking leaves now seem to him like that gold at the end of the world.

It might seem funny that anyone would think of Wisconsin as a default location for some kind of Valhalla. I can't speak for Kathleen Brennan, rather obviously, but when I was growing up in Illinois, my family always had Wisconsin on its mind in a way. Not Indiana or Iowa, but Wisconsin.

For one thing, my parents were from there — they met during WWII while bowling in downtown Milwaukee. They still had siblings in Wisconsin towns both very large and very small. Even for those of us born in Illinois, going to Wisconsin was driving "back" as much as driving "up."

Mostly, we went back for holidays, weddings, and funerals. As a result, my parents' respective home towns seemed like bizarro worlds where people spent every day of their entire lives wearing clip-on ties, going to lengthy Catholic services, and then getting ecstatically drunk. In my mind's eye, John Prine's Wedding Day in Funeralville is always obviously about those places.

It's wedding day in Funeralville
Your soup spoon's on your right
The King and Queen will alternate
With the refrigerator light
There'll be boxing on the TV show
The colored kid will sing
Hooray for you
And midnight's oil
Lets burn the whole damn thing

Wisconsinites know about Illinoisans crossing the border to party. They were called FIBs (F**king Illinois Bastards). FIBs were known for driving drunk, littering, and being loud and disorderly — even more so on all counts than native Wisconsinites.

Once, a relative was bitterly complaining about FIBs, so I pointed out that the airwaves in Illinois were fully saturated with appeals to Escape to Wisconsin — constantly. Every Illinoisan who crossed the border was awarded an Escape to Wisconsin bumpersticker and encouraged to hurry back. He should, I said, contact his own state government about their success in attracting us FIBs ... his face took on a vivd expression of disillusionment.

I felt very uncomfortable about being seen as an outsider when my veins flowed with so much German-Catholic Wisconsin beer ... I mean, blood ... and when my mind was so invested in my Wisconsin roots. Like Alberto Rios, my family and I never quite got beyond straddling that border, growing up in two places at once.

John Prine's song "Lake Marie" is about a character like that — his body on the border, his mind so swimming with that border's past and present that it orders his world. It's a very weird song, almost a nonsense song, that makes sense on a level no other song makes sense.

The song has a mysterious power to make you hit the repeat button over and over and over again, endlessly. I suspect that power might derive from the song's evocation of place — it conjures the experience of occupying that particular borderland in a way you never thought possible.

For one thing, it confuses its facts as only someone thus conflicted can confuse them. Its inaccuracy is authentic.

Many years ago along the Illinois-Wisconsin Border
There was this Indian tribe
They found two babies in the woods
— white babies
One of them was named Elizabeth
She was the fairer of the two
While the smaller and more fragile one was named Marie
Having never seen white girls before
— and living on the two lakes known as the Twin Lakes —
They named the larger and more beautiful lake Lake Elizabeth
And thus the smaller lake that was hidden from the highway
Became known forever as Lake Marie

I see now that the song is apparently about Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, which was founded by a family that did indeed have twins — Elizabeth and Mary. But the twins were never abandoned to the Indians.

But two white sisters were held by a group of Potawatomi Indians in 1832 — one of the most famous and influential incidents in the nasty, confused series of massacres and skirmishes known today as the Black Hawk War. Both pairs of sisters lived within about a 10-mile radius of Johnsburg, Illinois.

It's troubling how little the schools I attended taught me about the pre-European history of this place so full of Native-American-derived place names, as well as cigar-store-Indian kitsch. But those place names and that kitsch and the beauty of the Wisconsin landscape swam around in my head my entire life.

John Prine's "this Indian tribe," who named lakes according to how well they could be seen from the highway, gets it exactly right. There was no telling how long ago any of this history happened, or whether it really happened at all, or whether it ever even stopped happening.

Later in the song, the Black Hawk War is somehow seen, if not quite recognized, on the evening news in the work of European settlers like Illinoisan John Wayne Gacy and Wisconsinite Jeffry Dahmer.

The dogs were barking as the cars were parking
The loan sharks were sharking, the narcs were narcing
Practically everyone was there
In the parking lot by the forest preserve
The police had found two bodies
Nay! Naked bodies!
Their faces had been horribly disfigured by some sssssharp object
Saw it on the news
In the TV news
In a black and white video —
You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?
Shadows. SHADOWS!
That's what it looks like

It's already been a quarter century since Tom Waits wrote the song "Johnsburg, Illinois". Back then, Brennan and Johnsburg were new to Waits, comparatively, and Brennan didn't yet have the kind of intimate involvement in the writing that she does today. Well, that's what I gather anyway.

Waits seems to have deliberately painted Johnsburg as a place that exists mostly in his imagination — the kind of Midwestern farming community any Californian might imagine. He plays a character who can't tell the woman from the photo, the community from the Rockwell painting.

She's my only true love
She's all that I think of
Look here, in my wallet — that's her

She grew up on a farm there
There's a place on my arm where
I've written her name next to mine

It's almost a joke, inviting us to say "No, that's not her — that's a PICTURE of her." The song, just like the photo in his wallet, is how he shows us the image of her that he carries around with him.

Of course, it could very well be that this confusion between the person, or town, and their image is what romance is all about. Who the hell wouldn't want such a song written for them? And what chamber of commerce wouldn't thank a writer for naming such a song after its town?

At that stage in Tom Waits' career, Johnsburg is not yet really recognizable. It's not Brennan's Johnsburg — the sleepy little grid of streets, the town here on this commonplace side of the border. After all, she didn't write the song. For that matter, she hasn't tattooed HER OWN name into his body. He has marked himself with his own understanding of her.

In a sense, the soldier in that oversees war in Day After Tomorrow has gone from thinking of his hometown as a resident would to thinking of it as an outsider might. The war experience has transformed him from a resident of the border town, like Brennan, to a dreamer of a mythical place, like the Waits of 25 years ago.