Arts & Culture

Music, Moonshine, and Mahjong

Over the past 18 months, I have dedicated my personal life primarily to researching the facts surrounding the 1927 recording – in St. Paul, Minnesota – of "The Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One," which Harry Smith included as entry 41 within … Read More

By / September 1, 2007

Over the past 18 months, I have dedicated my personal life primarily to researching the facts surrounding the 1927 recording – in St. Paul, Minnesota – of "The Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One," which Harry Smith included as entry 41 within the 84 selections contained in his influential, legendary Anthology of American Folk Music.

In the course of this work I have had to learn what I can – as fast as I can – about the history of the various Jewish communities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and about the life stories of several of their members. And this wasn’t at all what I’d originally bargained for.

But then again, I also hadn’t anticipated having to cram for subjects as diverse as pre-WWI baseball park design, St. Paul residential developments of the 1920′s, or the economics of neighborhood silent movie houses – all crash courses still very much crashing. My only goal had been to make an original contribution to the state of knowledge about The Anthology and the recordings it collects. Because I live in Minnesota, the obvious place to start was "The Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One."

Describing "The Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One" in words is a hopeless task. Try to imagine "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" (sometimes known as "Everybody Must Get Stoned") from Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Now remove all of the lyrics (keeping the laughing and shouting). Speed up the tempo enormously and shift the meter from a march to a one-step. Now, repeatedly shift to an entirely new key and melody, signaling the change by having the entire orchestra chant “One! Two! Three! Four!” as if they were about to heave their fraternity brother into the campus fountain.

Now and then, recalling that this particular two minutes and forty seconds of sound has consumed most of my life and treasure recently, I seem to myself the very embodiment of Absurdism. Certainly, I believe the universe is meaningless, but must I prove it by wholly dedicating myself to a document quite so preposterous? Indeed, because Harry Smith only included side A (that is, Part One) on The Anthology, and since I can’t find the original 78 rpm record, I’ve only heard half of the recording over which I’ve obsessed for what must be thousands of hours.

On the other hand, in the last years of his life, guitarist John Fahey once called "The Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One" the "best piece on The Anthology" and "something heavy and fantastic." Harry Smith saw fit to situate the recording in The Anthology so that the collection’s midpoint falls exactly between “The Moonshiners Dance” and the next song, “Must Be Born Again.” The center of The Anthology is the silence that follows “The Moonshiners Dance,” as if to give the collection its midnight, like a dividing line that runs through the center of town.

But despite its prominence, "The Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One" represents a gaping hole in scholarship about The Anthology. Many of the collection’s musicians were tracked down during the 1960′s folk revival – interviewed and brought back to Greenwich Village to record and tour, some becoming the subjects of biographies and at times a wealth of critical commentary. One even appeared on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. But "The Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One" and the musicians responsible for it – Frank Cloutier and The Victoria Cafe Orchestra – have been almost entirely ignored by scholars and revivalists. All the Smithsonian-Folkways liner notes has to say about them is this:

The Victoria Cafe Orchestra … does not appear in any jazz or dance band discography, but is assumed to have been from the Minnesota area.

What the Smithsonian Didn’t Know

When The Anthology was finally released on CD in 1997, I would put the entire six-CD collection, on repeat, without interruption, indefinitely. For a while, I’d sleep in my tiny studio apartment in South Minneapolis with a speaker next to my pillow – since the original 78s were in mono, one speaker was enough – and I’d just let The Anthology seep deep down into the base of my brain-stem while I dreamed, all night long, every night.

Women making bootleg liquor during Prohibition. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

The Anthology was shocking. It was the music behind the music I’d grown up with, which now seemed entirely redefined and newly relevant. As the youngest kid in a big Catholic family near Chicago, my siblings (Mathew, Mark, Mary…) had raised me on rock from the sixties, blues bands, bluegrass, and some jazz. They raised me right, of course, but it seemed as if none of us had ever gone to the source this way before.

Mostly, The Anthology gave me that most precious thing: pleasurable work. I learned to play clawhammer, went to conferences and camps and concerts all over America, and read every book and liner note I could wrap my attention around. I was trying to understand the music, how it was played, why it was recorded, the path it had taken to get to the present, what it meant to its various listeners in their places and times, why it mattered so much to me in mine. The Anthology has always been, for me, like the little hole in King Tut’s tomb through which archaeologist Howard Carter glimpsed "wonderful things."

In early 2006, after nine years of tapping The Anthology‘s seemingly inexhaustible well of distractions, I found myself looking for recordings that were out of print or that had never been issued at all; biographies that hadn’t been written and transcriptions of lyrics that had never been transcribed. I was entering the realm of the unGoogleable. For me, the trip through what was already known had begun to feel like a mighty short ride.

In a way, it was the Smithsonian-Folkways and its prodigious reputation as well as the authority of The Anthology itself that kept me from researching "The Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One" until a full nine years after noticing that it had been recorded in Minnesota. After all, if the Smithsonian didn’t know something, it must be unknowable.

So it was merely on a whim that I drove over to the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul one Saturday morning. My first step was to look in the 1927 St. Paul city directory – the phone book, basically – and there was a listing for a Frank Cloutier, musician, living two blocks from a Victoria Cafe. The Cafe’s first proprietor was listed as one Moe Thompson, a vaudeville entertainer from St. Paul.

According to census records, Moe Thompson’s father, a barber named Max, had immigrated from Russia to New York in 1885, probably fleeing pogroms like so many other Russian Jews. Moe was born in New York in 1888, and the family moved to St. Paul when he was five. At least three of Max’s children went into show business.

In the teens and twenties, the city directories list Moe Thompson’s profession variously as musician, theatrical man, actor, entertainer, and vocalist, sometimes working in various Twin Cities restaurants and hotels. In 1920 and 1921, he’s listed as a music dealer. During this period, he co-wrote at least seven Tin Pan Alley-style songs published as sheet music, one under the imprint of his own store – Moe Thompson’s Melody Shop, located on Minneapolis’ legendary Block E.

Then, in late 1924, The St. Paul Musician, the newsletter of the St. Paul Musicians Union, notes: "Bro. Moe Thompson finally earned that other seventy thousand (rubles) to open up a ‘Real Cafe’ and ‘Joy Palace’ under the name ‘The Victoria Cafe,’ at 825 University Ave., St. Paul. A Seven-piece Dance Orchestra and several clever, classy girl entertainers will make you think you’re beginning life all over again …"

The Cafe was in the redesigned Victoria Theater, a small neighborhood silent movie house, and the building is still standing. When it opened as the Victoria Cafe, the building was owned by Moses Finkelstein and Isaac Ruben, big names in the Twin Cities vaudeville theater scene, and, it seems, major investors in the Victoria Cafe. A Klezmerized French-Canadian Red-Hot Scanda-Jazzian Beer-Garden Polka

A Jewish restaurant in Minneapolis in the 1920s.

As historian Mary Lethert Wingerd describes it, St. Paul was a place where ties of ethnicity mattered across class lines, particularly when compared to the more rigid class stratification of Minneapolis. This may have been one context for Finkelstein and Ruben’s willingness to invest in Moe’s Cafe, opening a business in a location that had done poorly as a movie house. Also, Minneapolis was a famously anti-Semitic town where Jews confronted a rigid social and economic ceiling – perhaps another reason why Moe had come back to St. Paul to open his Cafe.

Ads for the Cafe appeared almost exclusively in the regional weekly American Jewish World throughout the Cafe’s first year, emphasizing the upscale, cosmopolitan sophistication of the place, and its reasonable prices. Moe’s brother Charles acted as the musical director of a band propelled by the drumming of Herman "Hy" Fink. A classy vocal trio called The White Brothers and Stendal entertained, probably with a different set than the one they used when working for the St. Paul parks department as family entertainment. The Cafe offered catering services for Mahjong parties too.

Moe Thompson managed the Cafe for almost exactly two years, and then moved to New York in January 1927. The new manager was one Sammy Marcus, who before and after his association with the cafe was a cabdriver known as Samuel E. Markowitz. Frank Cloutier was hired almost immediately, and newspaper ads began appearing in the mainstream newspapers, now emphasizing the Cafe’s bright lights and ten-girl review. The music transitioned strikingly towards Cloutier’s novelty orchestra and the hot jazz of the Tom Gates and Wally Erickson orchestras.

I don’t know what happened to Moe Thompson. Within a month of his arrival in New York, he recorded several numbers with dance orchestras on the Gennett label, and then disappeared. His younger sister Elsie became the primary organist for Brooklyn Paramount theater for several years, but the end of Moe’s story is yet to be discovered. A little time with New York City directories would reveal a lot. I do know that when Moe left town, he took the train in the company of one Harry Bernstein.

It was thanks to Harry Bernstein, owner of the Northwestern Phonograph Supply Company, that "The Moonshiner’s Dance" was recorded for posterity. In 1927, Bernstein had ten record stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul, also serving as a record distributor all across the upper Midwest. Bernstein was able to move such an enormous quantity of records for the Gennett label – his orders filled boxcars – that Gennett sent a mobile recording unit up to Bernstein’s turf almost as soon as the technology was available to them.

And he was only 31 years old. His parents had brought him to America from Russia when he was nine and he seems to have grown up in Des Moines, Iowa. He served in WWI as a gunnery sergeant, arriving in St. Paul around 1920 – fresh out of the Army – and opened a store in a former cobbler’s shop only 48 inches wide, where he built a special shelving system to fit his inventory in the tiny space. It might have been the first used record store in the Twin Cities – a 1927 newspaper article still has to explain the concept of a record exchange – but it served a need, judging from how fast the business grew.

The 1927 St. Paul recording sessions – the first commercial label recordings in the Twin Cities – were actually the Harry Bernstein sessions from the Gennett label’s the point of view. The company gave Bernstein the VIP treatment, bringing him to New York on a business trip two months before their unit arrived in St. Paul (he brought Moe Thompson with him). During the recording sessions later that year, Bernstein served as a kind of A&R man, selecting the talent to be recorded, including, apparently, Frank Cloutier and Victoria Cafe Orchestra playing "The Moonshiner’s Dance." At some point, Gennett maintained a "vanity label" for Bernstein called “Herschel’s Gold Seal.”

In the early 1930′s, as the depression deepened, Bernstein concentrated on the furniture business and probably continued selling records to go along with the phonograph players his customers bought. He moved to Minneapolis, got married, and had two children. His son Charles studied at Julliard and is now a successful composer of film and television scores, recently composing the music for a documentary on the plight of Soviet Jews in the Refusenik era.

The owners, managers, and probably much of the audience at The Victoria Cafe, then, were Jews, and I’ve long wondered how this matters to the musical content of "The Moonshiner’s Dance, Part One." As a medley, you’d expect it to draw from a variety of influences, and when I first heard it in 1997, it sounded like some kind of klezmerized, French-Canadian, red-hot Scanda-jazzian, beer-garden polka. Still, at this point in my education, I can’t be sure that this impression isn’t simply due its wind instruments, infectious one-step meter, and comic sensibilities. If there is a klezmer influence, “The Moonshiner’s Dance” would have to be an ethnic parody of Jewish music, already a record genre long popular, particularly among Jewish audiences.

In any case, the recording’s conceit would have been apropos, given that Victoria Cafe’s audience must have been well lubricated with moonshine. St. Paul’s moonshine trade was "dominated by Jewish entrepreneurs," according to historian Mary Lethert Wingerd and the city turned its back on prohibition with stunning audacity – even when compared to the rest of the nation. “Liquor Czar" Leon Gleckman coordinated distributors such as Abe, Bennie, and Irving Gleeman who transferred liquor from casks to bottles and delivered them to speakeasies and, milkman-style, to homes. St. Paul police tipped everybody off when the Feds were in town, so arrests were rare. Frank Cloutier’s drummer, Gordon Nelson, speaks of his time at the Victoria Cafe primarily in terms of gangsters and extremely large tips (in a recording provided to me by his family).

Among the recordings on The Anthology, "The Moonshiner’s Dance" stands out geographically as much as it does musically. Perhaps folk revivalists have largely ignored it over the decades because it’s from the Minnesota, and it sounds like it. It therefore doesn’t fit the stories we usually tell ourselves about American "roots music."

The various folk revivals of the past 50 years have typically been explorations, sometimes exploitations, of Southern music and, as such, of music heavily influenced by African Americans. Perhaps this is to be expected, since Southern African American music provided the basis for many of the popular musical genres for which many of us later sought the "roots.”

The Twin Cities have always had relatively small African American populations, but they have always-already been thoroughly multi-ethnic musical environments. As the regional center for transportation, distribution, and commerce, St. Paul was a somewhat fluid place, a meeting place, where economic and cultural boundaries certainly existed, but were there largely to be negotiated across. “The Moonshiner’s Dance” thus reflects the particular range of diversity found at The Victoria Café, a watering hole where St. Paul audiences and musicians gathered to drink something rather stronger than water.

Too jazzy for Brian Rust’s American Dance Band Discography, too ethnic for his Jazz Records, and too ambivalent for Dick Spottswood’s Ethnic Music on Records, "The Moonshiner’s Dance" is both too full and too empty to be made sense of in an ordinary way. It’s no wonder it took the visionary eccentricity of Harry Smith to forcefully draw our attention to it, and it would be a shame if he remained the last to deeply contemplate its role in the Anthology’s argument.

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