Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra

Newshow

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Frogtown

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Victoria1928
(from the 1928 St. Paul city directory)

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

 

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

 

Tengirlrevue
(ad from May 21, 1927)

Chinesefood
(ad from May 14, 1927)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tunneydempsey
(ad from September 22, 1927)

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 


"Old is the New New" is Old

Olddances

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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