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.”]

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