14 March, 2010

"Moonshiners Dance (Part 1)" - Frank Cloutier and Victoria Cafe Orchestra

Set Two: Social Music; Disc One; Track Fourteen: "Moonshiners Dance" performed by Frank Cloutier and Victoria Cafe Orchestra. "Banjo, piano, clarinet, tuba, harmonica, trumpet, drum, with talking." Recorded in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1927. Original issue Gennett 6305A.

Little is recorded of Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra. No photographs exist, nor have any written records of this recording session been discovered. When the Anthology was reissued in 1997, Jeff Place's notes state that "the Frank Cloutier Orchestra does not appear in any jazz or dance band discographies but is assumed to have been from the Minnesota area." Under the personnel listing for the 1927 recording date that produced "Moonshiner's Dance," Place states that "the members of the Victoria Cafe Orchestra are unknown."

The trail would have remained cold were it not for Kurt Gegenhuber whose blog, The Celestial Monochord, has been mentioned here before. Gegenhuber, who lives in Minneapolis, became intrigued by "Moonshiner's Dance" when he first heard the Anthology in 1997.

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.

Thanks to Gegenhuber's research, we now know that Frank Cloutier was born in Massachusetts in 1898 to a French Canadian mother. Cloutier served in the military during the first World War. He first appears in the St. Paul city directory in 1926, suggesting he had relocated to the area during the previous year. From August to October of that year, Cloutier co-led The Gates-Cloutier Metropolitans with musician Thomas M. Gates. By 1927, Gates and Cloutier appear to have dissolved their partnership. Gates was leading orchestras at the Coliseum and Oxford ballrooms while Cloutier was leading the Victorians, the house orchestra at the Victorian Cafe.

In May of 1927, the Gennett record company recorded local artists at the Lowry Hotel. It was during these sessions that "Moonshiner's Dance" was recorded.

The Tom Gates Orchestra was also recorded by Gennett during this period. Gegenhuber located the personnel listing for the Gates Orchestra sessions on redhotjazz.com (although he notes that he doesn't know where they get their information) as follows:

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)

According to Gegenhuber, it is fairly certain that pianist Frank Cloustier is Frank Cloutier, leader of the Victorians. We know that Cloutier and Gates co-led an orchestra the year before and that they performed at the same venue afterward on several occasions. That Cloutier played on one of Gates' record dates suggests the possibility (however remote) that they two men might have shared musicians on their sessions. According to Smith's notes to the Anthology, the instrumental line-up on "Moonshiner's Dance" consists of "banjo, piano, clarinet, tuba, harmonica, trumpet, [and] drums." We know that Frank Cloutier played piano, so he is very likely the pianist on this date. Is that Earl Clark on banjo? Bob Gates on tuba? Victor Sells on trumpet? Tracy "Plug" Mama on clarinet? Harold Stoddard on drums? Some of them? All of them? None of them? And who's playing the harmonica? Is someone doubling on harmonica?

Until the company records are found (and Gegenhuber states on his blog that he is looking for them), the answers to these questions will not be found. Nor do we known when or how Frank Cloutier died.

Incidentally, the full story of Gegenhuber's search and his various findings must be read. You can read the full story here in the July 4, 2006 entry of the Celestial Monochord. There are also several updates that flesh out the story here, including Gegehuber's ongoing investigation of the first seven seconds of the record (suffice to say, his attention to detail and perseverance far exceed my own).

"Moonshiner's Dance" is an anomaly among the tracks on the Anthology. It is the only track on the collection to make use of brass instruments (trumpet, tuba) or the clarinet. It is also the only track that betrays any jazz influence. In his notes, Smith calls Frank Cloutier "one of the musical ancestors of Spike Jones." Lindley Armstrong "Spike" Jones (1911-1965) was an American musician and bandleader best known for his wild, comedic arrangements of classical music and tin pan alley pop songs, as well as for original songs such as "Der Fuhrer's Face." "Moonshiner's Dance" certainly points to the anarchic spirit of Jones's arrangements.

The recording begins with seven seconds of spoken words, which are all but unintelligible (see three Celestial Monochord entries for more). The song is uptempo with a sort of polka beat, which is maintained throughout by the tuba or brass bass. Solos are taken by the clarinet, banjo, harmonica, and trumpet, respectively. Jeff Place's notes to the 1997 reissue state that "Moonshiner's Dance" is a variation on "Over the Waves" by the Mexican composer Juventino Rosas. The song incorporates quotes from several other songs, including the sentimental "When You Wore A Tulip" and the spiritual "At The Cross." The way the Cloutier and his band razz these songs in certainly in line with the satiric spirit of Spike Jones.

The use of the banjo and tuba in jazz recordings during the 1920s was largely due to the lack of amplification in performing spaces and the necessities of acoustic recording technologies. The banjo is considerably louder than an unamplified guitar. Once the electric microphone was invented, and recording studios switched to electrical recording, the banjo was gradually replaced by the guitar and the tuba by the upright bass. Indeed, most of the earliest bassists were also accomplished tuba players.

Throughout the recording, voices are heard laughing and shouting. In between each chorus, the band chants together, "One, two, three, four!" Otherwise, most of the words spoken are completely unintelligible, but there is a moment - right before the harmonica solo - when a voice (presumably Cloutier's) shouts the words "Two more couples! Two more couples!" which brings us back to the "dance" theme of this disc. At the end of the disc, a voice instructs the dancers to "be seated."

"Moonshiner's Dance" is listed as "Part One" on the original label, which suggests that the song is continued on the B-side of the record. Why did Smith choose to include only one side of the disc? When Furry Lewis's version of "Kassie Jones" spans two sides, Smith included both. Why only one side here? And why choose to close the first disc of "Social Music" with this particular piece which stands out so strangely against the country and blues music that fills the rest of the set?

The reason, I think, is because of the way the song incorporates the spiritual tune "At The Cross" (a fact that Smith draws the listener's attention to in his notes). The second disc of "Social Music" (which will begin in our next entry) is made up of religious music. As we have seen throughout the Anthology, Smith delighted in making connections and drawing parallels between selections. By closing the first disc of "Social Music," which is made up of songs for dancing, with a song that parodies a spiritual, could Smith be suggesting that he doesn't take the religious songs on the next disc entirely seriously? Smith's biography suggests that while he was a spiritual man, he did not subscribe to a Judeo-Christian world view. Smith might also be deliberately undercutting the solemnity that so often accompanies traditional observances of Christianity, while setting the stage for the far more ecstatic traditions of Southern Christian sects such as the black Baptists and the Pentecostals.

It is for this reason, because the first side of the disc contains the reference to "At The Cross," that Smith only uses the first side of "Moonshiner's Dance" rather than including both sides.

Having come to the end of the first disc of "Social Music," it behooves us to take a moment to ponder the meaning of this set of dance music. I think that Smith is trying to remind us that whatever other meanings music might have, it is ultimately there to help us have a good time. Therefore, I don't think that Smith would have disagreed with the performance artist and pop diva who goes by the name of Lady Gaga, who said, "It'll be okay. Just dance."

The Shameless Plug Department: The fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is still the most recent. It is my intention to do a fifth episode in the near future, although for the time being I am busy acting in the Capital Repertory Theatre production of To Kill A Mockingbird. As soon as I have more time, you can rest assured that I will do a new episode of the podcast. In the meantime, you can listen to this all-blues episode where you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?

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Here's a version of "Over The Waves" performed on the accordion by bsam20uk.

Here's a theatrical short by Spike Jones and his City Slickers performing their version of "Cocktails for Two." It demonstrates the anarchic spirit of Jones's music.

Download and listen to "Moonshiners Dance (Part1) - Frank Cloutier and Victoria Cafe Orchestra

1 comment:

  1. hanks so much for meeting with me recently -- it's been an honor to learn so much about Gordon from you, and I really wish I could have met the man.