Sunday, February 20, 2011

1927: “Moonshiner’s Dance – Part I” by Frank Cloutier and Victoria Café Orchestra

There is one reason that “Moonshiner’s Dance – Part I” is known today and was not buried in the great scrapheap of Prohibition-era dancehall novelty records: It was included at the center of Harry Smith’s celebrated Anthology of American Folk Music. In the collection, Smith sequenced 84 songs over three double-record sets, each one loosely grouped by theme (“Moonshiner’s” is song number 41, at the end of the secular half of the “Social Music” volume). Although the album was commissioned and distributed by Folkways Records (which was later picked up by the Smithsonian), Smith didn’t include any field recordings, instead opting for his vast collection of blues, folk, and country 78 RPM records, all of which were commercially released in the late ’20s and early ’30s. He then released the Anthology with an accompanying set of cryptic liner notes that refused to give the race, sex, or genre of any of the performers. In other words, he created a complete democracy.

Kids like Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia began digging into the collection soon after its release in 1952, and within a decade, it was arguably the founding document of the early ’60s folk music revival. The Anthology made such a great impression upon the ’60s folk generation, it got to a point where virtually every song had been researched, studied, contemplated, and covered.

Every song, it seemed, except for Frank Cloutier and Café Victoria Orchestra’s “Moonshiner’s Dance – Part I.”

The song “is one of only two medlies [sic] on the Anthology,” points out Kurt Gegenhuber in his blog The Celestial Monochord. “Not a tune but a collection of tunes, it is an anthology in the Anthology, a collage incorporated into a larger collage. Our understanding of ‘Moonshiner’s Dance’ therefore benefits from some of the same thinking we apply to the Anthology itself – if, possibly, on a different scale.”

Kurt Gegenhuber is to Frank Cloutier what Robert “Mack” McCormick is to Robert Johnson or Nick Tosches is to Emmett Miller – the person who put countless amounts of time, research, and money into the pursuit of a 20th Century musical phantom.

So why did no one bother to take up Cloutier until Gegenhuber fell into his pursuit less than a decade ago? Because even in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction world of the Harry Smith Anthology, “Moonshiner’s Dance – Part I” is a complete anomaly. It is “folk” in only the loosest sense of the term – this is no bastardized Elizabethan ballad or hand-me-down slave spiritual, it is a medley of old parlor ballads played by a dancehall jazz band in a polka tempo; it is also, as Gegenhuber tellingly points out, the only song on the collection that isn’t by a rural southern performer – Cloutier and his orchestra were the house band at the Victoria Café in St. Paul, Minnesota.

And as Gegenhuber experienced when doing his initial research, the record is maddeningly difficult to classify – too ethnic for the jazz discographies, too jazzy for the folk discographies, and not popular enough to make the pop music discographies. Its sole claim to fame is its inclusion as the black sheep of Harry Smith’s Anthology, an outsider of an outsider culture.

Indeed, hearing “Moonshiner’s” in the context of the Harry Smith Anthology is something of a shock. The music that makes up the other 83 songs of the collection are decidedly rural in sound and vision, blues singers from the south and country balladeers from the hills. Even urban-based jug bands like the Memphis Jug Band and the Cincinnati Jug Band played rural-style songs with rural-style instruments, old songster tunes and blues played on mandolins, harmonicas, and of course, the ever-present jug even if they were technically urban-based, this was music that celebrated a rural way of life with a rural sound. Not so for Frank Cloutier and Victoria Café Orchestra. Cloutier’s band was a working northern jazz-pop combo with a full sound to match; instead of acoustic guitars and bottleneck slides we get piano, clarinet, drums, and – a true rarity for the Anthology – a tuba.

But none of this even begins to scratch the surface of the sheer weirdness of this record, a whole that is far beyond the sum of its parts. The record begins with Cloutier calling out “Hey, hey, Mr. Larson–” followed by about five seconds of unintelligible speaking that has been lost to the ages (here’s my best shot: “Fistfight equally unfined auto-inspect in the playpen” – I think the FBI had an easier time making out the lyrics to “Louie Louie”). Cloutier’s piano sets the tempo at a brisk one-step polka as the band plays the first melody, whooping it up with laughter, shouts, and random non-sequiturs – at themselves, at each other, at their song, at the audience, at the Eighteenth Amendment – an infectious, near-constant sound that becomes its own parallel section of the song, a sort of madman’s “director’s commentary” track, if you will.

The first melody is played by a clarinet – an exuberant reading of a simple melody brimming with pride like the Spirit of ’76 band leading a Fourth of July parade. It turns out the song is really “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” but this detail, like the exact origin of any other melody appearing in this song, is just a footnote. Like the best music on the Anthology, “Moonshiner’s” taps into a collective unconscious of American music, like a song you hear for the first time on the radio that you nonetheless swear you’ve heard somewhere before. This is the source of the song’s mystery – as well as its strange power.

When the clarinet’s melody ends, the men then call out in a halting unified chant:

One! Two! Three! Four!

The music rises with false anticipation, as a banjo snakes its way around a fluttering melody right out of the first page of How to Play the Banjo, but is as tuneful and catchy as anything that could be played more sophisticatedly. With the banjo line in front, the sound seems to shift into that of a fairground medicine show – silly and over-the-top, but strong and steady enough to entice people off of the midway to step right up and buy that bottle of snake oil. And then:

One! Two! Three! Four!

The music rises again in anticipation as it regroups, but remains suspended on itself; someone (Cloutier, I believe) shouts out something out like “Two more couples,” as his bandmates react with laughing glee. A harmonica works its way out of the sound like a locomotive, its melody pushing in and out with a sense of zip that belies its simplicity, not too far unlike Uncle Dave Macon’s “Won’t get drunk no more” refrain of “Way Down the Old Plank Road” that begins the final side of the Anthology. And again:

One! Two! Three! Four!

The music briefly rises and parts in false anticipation, suspending for a moment over some more inane dialogue that sounds to me like – “What’re you gonna do with that cow, Herbert?” “Milk somebody, Frankie!” “That’s right!” – before their responding howls in response are cut off by a horn playing bravely and full of cautious victory, like it was leading a march of pilgrims in flight, before somehow neatly resolving into a melody that sounds like the cloying children’s song “If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands.” (For the record, its not; Cloutier and his band are playing the old spiritual “On the Cross,” a lovely tune of faith and devotion that has been sung by everyone from Fiddlin John Carson to Hank Williams on down.)

One! Two! Three! Four!

Coupled with the constant laughter, the way the record keeps counting off into suspended anticipation before playing the next melody itself feels like a joke the musicians are having among themselves on you. They will always have the upper hand because they are always in the know; you can never be in on a joke in which people are laughing at you. This time they lock onto the most catchy melody of all-time, which has infiltrated the country as “Turkey in the Straw” and the sea as “The Sailor’s Hornpipe,” and was played by Mickey Mouse in his first cartoon appearance, Steamboat Willie. Somewhere in the middle of the melody the drummer smashes his cymbal like a baseball being hit out of the park, and for a fleeting moment, the song takes you there too.

One! Two! Three! Four!

With all of this counting, one can’t but wonder if Frank Cloutier and Café Victoria Orchestra aren’t the spiritual grandfathers of the Ramones – playing about a minute’s worth of music, counting off, and doing it again. But for the first and only time on the record, they get right down to business with no odd suspension before the melody kicks in. This time it’s the rousing finale; in terms of its sweeping sound and spirit, the only thing that can touch it on the Anthology is the song that closes the sacred half of the “Social Music” set, a rousing march called “I’m in the Battlefield for My Lord.” Although they are two entirely polar songs – one a mockery of Prohibition, the other a testament to sacred faith (the one played by Cloutier and his band is actually the old parlor ballad “You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose”) – strictly as a sound, they are one in the same; if the spiritual described what being on the battlefield for your lord looks like, this section of “Moonshiner’s” describes what this notion feels like. Cloutier and his orchestra become enormous, an army marching victoriously across a field still smoking from the weapons of battle. If you could follow the sound, it seems, you wouldn’t go across the field, but rather up into the heavens – the well-earned reward of a good life’s work, a consecration of the land worthy of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The record closes with a final chant of “One! Two! Three! Four!” with Cloutier then interrupting the festivities with a command of “Be seated–” the two words that signaled the beginning of a minstrel show, before the record quickly fades away into dead silence.

Taken as a whole, it is as good a summary of the heights and depths America in two minutes and forty seconds as I’ve ever heard. No matter how many times I hear it, there are always new things to be heard and puzzle over, new melodies to catch, new associations to be made: The way the band morphs from a Spirit of ’76 band into one that plays parlor ballads, rural tunes, sea shanties, spirituals, and children’s songs (often at the same time!), invokes the medicine show and the insane asylum in equal measure, takes in a ballgame and rides a locomotive, and finally forms God’s great army marching towards a better world, only to make way for a minstrel show; the way its periodic count-offs into the false anticipation of suspended music feel like bridges to nowhere that completely sever the pieces of the melody even as it unites them; the disjointed dialogue and mad laughter throughout that seems to imply the good-natured front of American humor is just that, a front; and finally, the way that its placement on the Anthology is like finding a Spike Jones record in the middle of a stack of old Carter Family 78s.

So why did Harry Smith put the song in there? Was it a commentary on the act of anthologizing? Was it a reminder of how parlor ballads can dissipate into the backwoods and come back as folk songs? Was it an example of how American music is so mixed up that sometimes the most American of performances can be paradoxically built upon German oom-pah music? Damned if I know. But maybe, just maybe, he put the song in there for the same reason that I just wrote a few hundred words about it and still feel like I could write several thousand more without even beginning to feel that I had completed my task at hand: America is a seeker’s country, and you have to get lost in its mysteries before it will reveal its truths.

Either that or he put it there as one big joke – which is to say, he let the record speak for itself.

[This is from the continuing series “100 Years of American Recordings, 1891-1991.”]

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Long Black Limousine

Elvis Presley is an epic American the way that few are – he towers over the 20th Century just like how Abraham Lincoln towers over the 19th and Benjamin Franklin the 18th. Each one was born poor, but by the middle of the century had worked their way up to a major (if not the major) influence of their day. They also each took a national stand on the tangled issues of race and freedom: Franklin’s final public act before his death was to call for the abolition of slavery; Lincoln finally did abolish slavery; Elvis took the drama from the political stage to the performing one.

He was, as many liked to claim, the boy who stole the blues. But of course the endless cycles of love and theft have been around as American culture itself, when blackface minstrelsy first reared its ugly (to a modern audience, anyway) head around the same time that Lincoln was winning his first major public office as a state congressman for Illinois.

There’s a straight line that can be drawn from Al Jolson and Jimmie Rodgers on down through the Beastie Boys and Eminem; Elvis stands in the middle, breaking the line in two as he turns black into white, blues into country, underground into pop, and perhaps love into theft.

But this is not all; it may not even be half. Elvis’s true gift was his sense of conviction, and this was something that transcended any lines of color, time, or space. When the material was good, and Elvis gave it his all, he made you believe what he was singing like few performers before or since. It is said that Elvis wanted to be an actor most of all – a real, respected actor like James Dean, as opposed to the cinematic punchline he became – and somewhat ironically, you can hear it in the music long before you can get it from one of his films. He throws himself into the song like a Brando or DeNiro throws himself into a role, taking it as far as it can go.

At his best – think “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes” for one extreme, “Love Me Tender” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” for the other – Elvis brings the song (and, by extension, its listeners) to a near-Platonian ideal; at his worst – think “Yoga Is as Yoga Does” or “Mama Liked the Roses” – he either distances himself from the material by phoning it in with a hollow gusto that denies the sound of his voice and often creates music that is as fascinating as it is dreadful (put on “Poison Ivy League” and give me a call), or gets so far into the feeling of the song, he loses us along the way, resulting in a recording that is flat and maudlin.

If Elvis is to be thought of as some sort of actor in song, many would hold that “Mystery Train” is his finest performance. It is certainly his best idea: As Greil Marcus has famously theorized, “Mystery Train” is a blues song written and first performed by Junior Parker that adapts its central verse – “Train I ride, sixteen coaches long/That long black train got my baby and gone” – from the old Carter Family tune “Worried Man Blues.” For Elvis, who surely would’ve known both the Parker and the Carter versions, this set up an interesting conundrum: Unlike his other music, which was safely divided between the blues songs, where he “left home,” and the country songs, where he “came back,” here was a song where the country song was embedded into the blues song, which threw Elvis’s world off its axis, and resulted in a one-of-a-kind performance.

All of which is well and good – and I believe, rather brilliant and fascinating – but for me it only tells part of the story. “Mystery Train” is one of those amazing songs (the Jaynettes’ “Sally Go ’Round the Roses” is another) that sound totally normal when you first hear it, but gets stranger and stranger the more you think about it. In time, one cannot help but wonder if the long black train the singer rides that has his baby and is never coming back, that took his baby but never will again, is death itself, with the singer jumping on to see if he can somehow turn the train back on itself, cheat death, and escape into freedom. The record is all tension and intensity, the sound of a man literally trying to stare down a freight train. But then, right as the song begins to fade away and you’re beginning to assume that the standoff is a draw, you can hear the singer give a cry of “Whooo-OOOO–W’HOOOOO!” and laugh in a pure burst of joy that lets you know that he has indeed escaped the mystery train.

With so much going on musically, lyrically, and ideologically, you can almost miss that this is a song about a corpse.

* * *

This same mistake could not be made on what I consider to be Elvis’s finest performance of all-time, “Long Black Limousine.” The song opens with tolling church bells as the singer sets the scene:

There’s a long line of mourners driving down our little street
Their fancy cars are such a sight to see, oh yeah.
They’re all your rich friends who knew you in the city
And now they’ve finally brought, brought you home to me.

Like many of the finest firsthand narratives in American music – “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry, “North Country Blues” by Bob Dylan, “Louisiana 1927” by Randy Newman, “The Promised Land” by Bruce Springsteen – “Long Black Limousine” is told in a way that rings true for the song: a small town man who uses simple words to conjure quick, clear images. And yet, through the sound of the song – the way the tolling bells set the tempo of the first verse, the sad earnestness of the singer’s vocal, choosing each word carefully as he feels his way down the steps of the melody, the sense of death that has saturated the entire recording – we get a much clearer picture of what’s going on. The stage is set for an epic, and true to form, the song jumps back to reveal that it’s beginning was really the ending.

A drum roll shifts the song’s pace into an easy funk as the singer tells us the back story. It’s a tale we’ve all heard before: A young girl leaves the small town to make it in the big city and promises that when she returns, it will be in a limousine. The song cuts back to the present as the singer acknowledges that the girl has finally gotten her dream.

The bridge fills in the crucial missing information in telling sketches that read like headlines: The party, the fatal crash, the highway race, the unseen curve. Elvis sings the titular phrase strongly, bravely, and repeated by a chorus of female gospel singers whose “ooooo”s push the song up to the next level – literally, as the song jumps up to a higher key, further building the tension and forcing Elvis’s voice to a higher, more desperate register.

And as in his finest performances, Elvis more than rises to the occasion, singing with the sentimentality of country, the grit of blues, and the soul of rock and roll:

Through tear-filled eyes I watch as you ride by, oh yeah
A chauffeur, a chauffer at the wheel dressed up so fine–
Oooooooh– my heart, all my dreams–
They’re with you, in that long black, limousine.

It is this verse that makes the song: When Elvis sings that he will never love another, you believe him; this is less the sound of a man singing the lyrics to a song than it is a man living his words out. There is pain in his voice, but also anguish, fear, regret, and – to my ears, at least – some paradoxical sense of romantic satisfaction. This is a young man from a small town, one who presumably had little to show for his life except for the fact that he just happened to have crossed paths with this girl who became a very big star. Like Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, it is unclear just how well the two knew each other – interestingly, there is no mention of a young romance or a first kiss or another small-town clichés; all we know is that they were close enough to have a conversation in which she promised that she would return in a long black limousine. Given her apparent pluck and resolution, it is quite possible she had this conversation more than once, and perhaps with anyone who would listen in the town. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she said it to the singer, and in a way that was direct enough that he can recall it as her telling him. This gives the song an almost casual touch that belies its closed-off climax – everything feels open, alive, and airy. Yet there is still a sense of something grander waiting in the wings, like when watching the early scenes of an old movie and knowing full well that the sparring young guy and girl will end up together.

I once read a piece about such a movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, in a collection of film essays by the Scottish author and film critic Gilbert Adair. He argued that, in the famous scene in which Clarence shows George Bailey what his wife Mary would be doing if George had never been born – “She’s about to close the library!” Clarence chokes, before taking him to a bespeckled, spinster parallel-universe version of Mary –It’s a Wonderful Life portrays what could be the greatest love ever captured on film: Mary would have never wed another even if George had never been born. It’s the kind of moment that passes by without notice, but the more you think about it, the deeper it becomes.

A similar sense of finality frames “Long Black Limousine,” only instead of being proven by someone never being born, it is proven by someone’s death. But given the ambiguity of the song’s central characters, as coupled with the singer’s stark romanticism, I cannot help but wonder if the girl’s death caused the singer’s love, as opposed to a situation like It’s a Wonderful Life, where the love is tested by life, and not the other way around. That is, if the girl hadn’t been killed, would the singer be declaring his love for her in such an epic, final way? Is it possible that, from the singer’s perspective, the girl was always a bit out of reach, especially once she became a big star, such that her death merely seals the unrequited love that would have been felt anyway? And with this most extreme version of a love lost – that is, death – the singer’s response is in its own way equally fatal: Her physical death sparks his emotional one; his heart and his dreams were indeed riding with her in a long black limousine.

All of which is certainly dramatic enough, but when you throw on the layer of the real world, things become even more complicated. For Elvis, the most famous performer of his time, to be singing the song of an anonymous small town nobody invites his audience to switch places with him. Part of the song’s power derives from it being sung in the second person – “You know, when you left, you know you told me,” that’s four you’s in less than one line – which invites us, the audience, to play the part of the deceased movie star. We are the ones riding in a long black limousine, and we are the ones who in death receive the eternal love of the singer’s life.

But of course to a modern audience, it is Elvis who is dead. He’s the one who left his small hometown to make it big in Hollywood, and eventually came home to us as a corpse. Elvis’s death looms so large that it almost overtakes the song, which is no small feat considering it is a direct contradiction of it. In the end, Elvis is dead and we are alive, giving him a love that is as big, powerful, and all-encompassing as he was.

He may have cheated the long black Mystery Train in his youth, but in the end, he rode in his own long black limousine.