Top 10 reasons to come to the Dubliner tomorrow

I’ll be playing a couple sets at the Dubliner Pub on University Avenue on Sunday, December 28, from 5 to 7:30 or 8. Here are some reasons you might want to attend.

10. Because you like original country music inspired by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. And booze. And God.

9. It’s convenient. It’s on the Green Line, so St. Paul people can meet their Minneapolis friends there (if they have any), and vice versa (if they have any). It’s also practically stumbling distance from House of Mercy church, so if you get too spirit-filled you can come by for an antidote and catch the second set.

8-5 (in no particular order). Razz Russell, Dan Gaarder, Quillan Roe, and Mikkel Beckman. This will be a reunion of sorts between me and Razz, a local legend on fiddle. Razz played on my first CD and joined our Three County Tour many times back in the early to mid 00’s. Can’t wait to hear him again. Dan Gaarder is one of my favorite guitar players and singers, and I’m excited that he agreed to join me. Quillan, leader (with Kim) of the Roe Family Singers (a band Dan also plays in) played bass on my latest CD and has joined me on stage several times this year. I love the energy he brings to my songs and squeezes out of me, which is no small feat. Mikkel is to Twin Cities washboard players what Dylan is to Hibbing songwriters. Or something like that. Being an old jug band enthusiast, I’m looking forward to hearing what he cooks up (or cleans up).

4. You may hear songs by Miss Becky Kapell and Mr. John Louis Soshnik.

3. There will be at least one singalong.

2. In between my sets, from about 5:45 to 6:30, Eliza Blue, a great singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist from South Dakota, will play her only Minnesota show of the year.

1. We can all be home in time to watch a Netflix before bed.

Christmas at the Indian church

I realized today that I didn’t have this old Christmas column on my blog, so I tracked it down on the Mille Lacs Messenger website. It first ran in December of 2001, and I re-ran it in 2009. Hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas.

All I knew about my Great-Great Uncle Pete were the rumors that came down via my mom, whose voice dropped in pitch and volume when she mentioned him. “I think he was a drinker,” she said, in tones reserved for black sheep who didn’t fit our family’s mold of church-going and tea-totaling.

Even though I never met him, I caught a glimpse of my ancestor through an old man named Jack Thompson, who told me a story of the Christmas when Uncle Pete visited “the Indian church.”

Back before we had kids, my wife and I were camping in western Minnesota, so we decided to swing across the border to Stockholm, S.D., my Grandpa Elmer’s birthplace. Grandpa died when I was four, so I barely knew him, but I thought a visit to his hometown might add flesh to the skeletons of my memory.

By a chance too slim to be lucky, that Sunday morning was the 110th anniversary of the Covenant church in town — my grandpa’s church. Everyone left alive who might’ve known Grandpa was probably in church that day.

After eliminating two other Elmer Johnsons from the discussion with the church ladies, we finally hit on the right one. Once they knew which Elmer I was talking about, they introduced me to a distant relative, a woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to my mom.

That’s when Jack Thompson shuffled into view, with his white wisps of hair standing up in the breeze. You’re Elmer Johnson’s?” he asked, looking through us with eyes glazed by cataracts. “I knew Elmer Johnson.” It turned out that he didn’t just know Elmer, but he also knew Elmer’s mom and dad and Uncle Pete. “C’mon,” Jack said, “I’ll show you where he lived.”

Diane and I looked at each other, then back at Jack’s glassy eyes, then back at each other. We shrugged and followed him to his car.

He took us first to the graveyard and helped us find my great-grandma’s grave. “Mrs. Lewis Johnson” was all the marker said. Then he drove us to the top of a hill, where the fields fell away like the folds of a golden blanket. “This is where the house was,” he said, pointing at nothing. “They had a pie plant that grew right here, along the wall.”

Finally, Jack took us to a small old church surrounded by a chainlink fence. No longer home to any congregation, it was protected because of its historical value. Inside was a guestbook on a wooden pulpit, and old pews facing a barren altar.

“One Christmas,” Jack said, “your Uncle Pete came to church here. He walked in the door, and the Indians were so happy to see him that they escorted him to the front and gave him a big box of apples. They spoke in Indian, so Pete didn’t know what they were saying.”

“Up in the front here,” he continued, waving his hand, “were two Christmas trees covered in blankets. At the end of the service, they pulled the blankets off the trees, and there were rabbits and game birds hanging from the branches like ornaments.”

That was the end of the story. No explanation. No moral. It raised more questions than it answered. Why had he gone to the Indian church? Was it a drunkard’s prank, or a black sheep’s desperation? What were they saying, with their impenetrable language and the mysterious unveiling of the trees?

Jack didn’t offer any interpretations, but it seemed that his questions were the same as mine. After all, the story had stayed with him for all those intervening years.

It stays with me, too, and the answers change with the seasons. Today, it parallels another story I like to read each Christmas, a story about stepping into strange territory, finding welcome in an unlikely place, and reaping a blessing too odd to fully grasp.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

On turning off Black Mirror

I had been told by more than one person that I should watch Black Mirror, a British anthology series recently added to Netflix. “Just watch the first episode,” one said, implying that I’d be hooked.

It’s been compared to The Twilight Zone and is sold as a dark reflection on the role of technology in modern life. Right up my alley, I thought.

So on Christmas Eve I started watching, but with 12 minutes left, I shut it off. Here’s why.

If you haven’t seen it, this is the premise: A terrorist has kidnapped the princess, with one demand: that the prime minister of England have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

I was immediately appalled that we’ve sunk to this level, yet wildly curious how it would turn out. “I’ll watch it just this once, to see what the fuss is all about,” I said. “But I’m not going to encourage them by becoming a fan.”

As the story progresses, you see the government officials trying to track down the terrorist, the media trying to cover the story, and the public watching, fascinated with the possibilities. It’s a win-win-win for them and us (and a great suggestion to future terrorists): Either the prime minister engages in bestiality, or the princess dies, or the usual happy ending ensues. What’s not to love?

With 12 minutes left, I had a flashback to 1981, when I sat in a movie theater in Seattle and watched Stanley Kubrick’s “masterpiece” A Clockwork Orange, and listened with horror as my fellow audience members laughed at rape scenes and murder. Who was missing the point, them or me? To me, the joke was on the audience, but it was a joke Stanley Kubrick never needed to tell, and unfortunately one that still hasn’t gotten old.

It was such a long time ago that I don’t remember the movie well, and I didn’t even know if my take on it was mainstream or not. So I googled it, of course, and found Pauline Kael’s review, which put my decades-old impressions into words. A snippet: “Kubrick has always been one of the least sensual and least erotic of directors, and his attempts here at phallic humor are like a professor’s lead balloons. He tries to work up kinky violent scenes, carefully estranging you from the victims so that you can enjoy the rapes and beatings.”

I also learned that the author of the novel, Anthony Burgess, initially tried to justify the movie but ended up rejecting it and Kubrick.

Just as with A Clockwork Orange, the joke’s on the Black Mirror audience — at least in the first episode. Those guys laughing in the theater in Seattle are not so different from those watching to see if the fictional prime minister will sodomize a pig. The movie and the show appeal to the worst in us, but that’s become par for the course in the Greatest Country on Earth (and our cousins across the pond).

Pop culture in America is often about violating taboos, which at this point is getting more and more difficult, since most of the taboos have already been violated to death. Audiences and critics alike, most of them anyway, mistake iconoclasm for genius. Every new line crossed — whether or not it needed to be, and whether or not it was accomplished with grace, wit, heart, or a point — is a sophisticated fart joke lauded as an unparalleled artistic achievement — the steady march of freedom, from Elvis’ hips to Lady Gaga’s meat dress. The public eats it up, the critics egg them on, and the red carpet awaits.

I don’t blame you for watching Black Mirror; it’s what TV does to us all: makes us sheep, pigs, and voyeurs who just have to see if someone will really bugger a pig on TV. Go ahead and watch it. You might as well. You can say no now, but you’ll say yes next time. I will, too.

Before you do, though, read Kael’s most eloquent observations about A Clockwork Orange, which she saved for her conclusion, when she describes it as indicative of a disturbing trend in cinema and a portent of things to come, and puts the lie to the usual justifications of anti-censorship crusaders (on display again this week with their strident defense of a stupid movie). It’s a message America never heard, and a warning too late to heed:

“At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don’t have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact de- sensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. There seems to be an assumption that if you’re offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don’t believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there’s anything conceivably damaging in these films — the freedom to analyze their implications. If we don’t use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us — that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerned with brutality. Actually, those who believe in censorship are primarily concerned with sex, and they generally worry about violence only when it’s eroticized. This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it’s worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what’s in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?”

Today, maybe because it’s Christmas, I turned it off. Call it a random act of humanity in a lifetime of running with the droogs.

I blame journalists

Frank Schaeffer never gets tired of telling his story, and I never get tired of reading it, mainly because he’s one of the few who get how influential religious craziness has been over the last 30-some years. Only those with first0hand knowledge of religious fanaticism can understand how otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people can be convinced to believe in things not only contrary to their own economic and personal interests, but also the interests of the religion they profess to believe in. Mainstream journalists still don’t get it, and in their simplistic obeisance to journalistic “balance” or “objectivity” they continue to treat the Walkers and Cruzes and Bachmanns of the world as something other than lunatics. I blame the journos more than the wackos for our nation’s problems, because they should know better, and they have a duty to tell the truth.

If I could be anyone, I’d be Thomas Frank

… but I’d have to be a lot smarter, better read, better educated, and a better writer, and not so lazy.

A nice passage from Frank in Salon on The New Republic, etc.:

‘The bigoted writings of the magazine’s owner in the pre-Hughes era were always a shocking thing to find among its delicately reasoned essays, a big turd rising up through the eggnog. And the magazine’s political project back in the days everyone thinks of as TNR’s golden age—trolling the left—was exactly the wrong way to answer the free-market turn of the 1980s and 1990s.

‘So part of me wants to say that The New Republic’s spectacular self-destruction last week represented a kind of cosmic justice. The magazine spent years cheering for the political arrangements that made possible the rise of the self-righteous do-nothing zillionaires who so afflict us today, and lo and behold, one of these moneyed buffoons comes blundering along and succeeds in blowing the magazine up. By insisting on the profit motive. Right after a big black-tie party presided over by Bill Clinton himself. Does it get any more perfect than that?’

(Here he actually says some positive things about The New Republic, which I never cared about one way or the other, being a citizen of the rural Midwest who could never afford subscriptions to fancy beltway mags. And then he slices and dices the zillionaires, which always cheers me up.)

‘Plutocrats have always been a self-regarding bunch, but it is obvious that the species of zillionaire that subsidizes magazine journalism today suffer from a form of upper-class delusion that was unknown just 50 years ago. This is because they now know that they are not merely people who got lucky; they are geniuses—everyone tells them so. Chris Hughes, breaker of the New Republic, earned his millions by being Mark Zuckerberg’s college roommate, but nevertheless he was one of the most celebrated figures in publishing a short while ago. When he and his handpicked CEO lapse into indecipherable management talk, they apparently mean it. That’s not a Dilbert joke; that’s the language of genius. (According to a recent story by Chris Lehmann, the same sort of thing goes on at First Look, a troubled journalistic project launched by a different Internet mogul.)

‘What’s more, unlike media barons of the recent past, our modern zillionaires don’t refrain from direct meddling in the production of ideas and opinions. Not only are the new press lords blithely steamrolling the old ethical wall that used to separate journalism’s owning elite from the newsgathering process; they are repurposing the act of reporting into something much closer to PR. If you are tempted to dismiss this as populist hyperbole, allow me to direct you to the vast sponsored content portal known as Vox Media.

‘The new press lord’s deeds are all made possible by the shrinking significance of everyone else. Compared to the patois of power, the language of journalism is but meaningless babble. Compared to once having been a friend of Zuckerberg, no form of literary genius matters any more. Compared to the puissance and majesty of the CIA, we amount to nothing. We are playthings of the powerful, churned out by the millions every year from the nation’s knowledge factories. We are zeroes to their ones, ready to rationalize monopoly or rectal hydration at a moment’s notice. Onto the hamster wheel, everyone. Let us heed the master’s voice.’

Read the rest here.

No, we’re not all equally guilty


‘The idea we’re all guilty is demobilising because it prevents us directing our anger at the institutions most responsible.

And it’s time to get angry?

Yes – I think people should be angry. A lot of environmentalist discourse has been about erasing responsibility: “We’re all in this together… We’re all equally responsible.” Well, no – you, me and Exxon (Mobil) are not all in this together.The idea we’re all guilty is demobilising because it prevents us directing our anger at the institutions most responsible.’

Thinking of Bo Conrad and his legendary Spit Band

I’m sitting here listening to the Bo Conrad Spit Band’s first album on a turntable with a belt held together with duct tape. It makes the songs lurch a little, but it seems appropriate. The Spit Band thrived in the era before autotuning and drum machines. They sometimes imitated the sounds of an earlier era, and they didn’t apologize for the occasional bad note.

Which is not to say they weren’t serious. But I guess, come to think of it, they weren’t. When the kazoo is the centerpiece of your band, it’s hard to take yourself too seriously.

I put the record on today because I heard a few days ago through Facebook that Bo, who lives near Cambridge, Minnesota, had suffered a stroke and is in the hospital.

A little background: The Bo Conrad Spit Band was a jug band that played around the upper Midwest from about 1970-75. They played coffeehouses and college campuses and churches, and they opened for some national acts like Earl Scruggs.

Harold “Bo” Conrad grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, and his other claim to fame is that he won the 1963 national soap box derby. (See this Moore on Sunday episode to learn all about it.)

The members met at Bethel College (now University, for some reason) where my dad was a professor, so we had two of their three albums. I was a kid of 7 in 1970, but hearing their records — and hearing them play in my living room — made me ask for a ukulele for my birthday, which turned into a lifelong music habit. One of the first songs I learned was “Ain’t She Sweet,” because I had heard it on their record.

The membership shifted over the years, but the original group included Conrad on guitar, kazoo, vocals, and washboard (members often traded instruments between songs), Mark “Stewy” Steward on piano, Dave Frykman on gutbucket, Steve Duininck on vocals and guitar, Bill Moline on guitar and chain, Larry Ostrom on spoons and jew’s harp, Donovan Kramer on violin, Dean Lindberg on kazoo, suitcase, trombone, and 1920s-style vocals on a few songs. Not to be left out was manager Maurice Zaffke who was the brains behind the business of the spit band.

Between the first and second albums they lost vocalist/guitarist Bob Vork in a car accident and gained harmonica player Jack Parker.

By the third album the band was down to six members: Bo, Jake, Dean, Fryk, Stewy, and Lee Johnson, who now plays in a one-man band around the Duluth area as “Colorblind” Johnson.

As for the name, the notes on their first two albums explain it in graphic detail: “The term ‘spit’ in our name refers to that rare occasion when a hardcore kazooist moves out on an extended improvisation and saliva begins dripping from his kazoo.”

The band’s sound changed from song to song but was usually built on the foundation of Stewy’s accomplished piano, joined by rhythm guitar, gutbucket, and usually a washboard or spoons, with a kazoo or harmonic solo filling instrumental breaks.

Their songs were a combination of old covers of jug band material, contemporary folk/rock and country music, and originals. In the first category were standards like Jug Band Music, The Blues My Naughty Sweety Gives to Me, Leave a Light, Ain’t She Sweet, Sadie Green Vamp of New Orleans, Coney Island Washboard. In the second, Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “The Weight” by The Band, “I’ll Paint Rainbows all over your Blues” by The Lovin’ Spoonful, “That’s Enough” by Johnny Cash, and “Darlin’ If” by Spirit.

The also wrote songs that were all over the map, ranging from the silly to the serious. On the silly side, “Snowflake” tells a story of lost love, “Senile” imagines the Spit Band playing when they’re in the nursing home, and “Scrape the Label Off the Bottle (and Pretend You’re Drinking Beer)” captures a dilemma well known to Baptists of the 1970s. “In Debt” and “Got No Money” are light fare on themes familiar to college boys, but they soar due to their melodies and some of the best harmonica solos you’ll hear anywhere.

The humorous, up-tempo songs made the band a hit with live audiences, along with their stage banter, unique instruments, and infectious energy. But they were more than just revivalists capitalizing on a national trend.

Their best songs have melodies and lyrics that hark back to the jug band era with timeless lyrics and unusual chord progressions and melodies.

The songwriting on the second album makes it my favorite. As opposed to the first album, which includes nine covers and three originals, the second has seven originals and six covers. The third has only three originals, and none as good as those on the second album.

In particular, “In the Morning,” “Empty Mailbox,” “I’m Lonely Baby,” and “Bo’s Blues” sound like they could’ve been written 100 years ago — and like they could be sung 100 years from now.

On “I’m Lonely Baby,” for example, Conrad uses a technique rarely seen since the Tin Pan Alley days — an intro (originally called a “verse”) with a different structure and melody than the main part of the song:

It begins:

Got this piece of paper and a pencil in my hand,

Don’t think I can express my heart, but then again, who can?
Discover through the ages, the limits of a note,

But I had to tell her anyway, so this is what I wrote …

And with three piano notes, the song picks up tempo and changes melody:

I’m lonely baby, you know it’s true

I’ve been so down-and-out since I’ve been away from you

I hope you come home in just a little while

Cause I’m lonely baby, lonely for your love and for your smile

I love you, baby, the words aren’t new

But I have never said these three big words to you.

I lie awake at night and count the ceiling tiles,

Cause I’m lonely baby, lonely for another smile.

Two minutes and 11 seconds of timeless Americana. The fact that Bo and Stewy and the rest of the band were in their early 20s when they wrote songs like that tells you what students they were of great American music — not just jug bands, but Irving Berlin and Hoagy Charmichael.

A little personal history with the Band:

The aforementioned living room concert is something I have only a vague memory of, but Bo explained the context when I met him personally for the first time in 2013. Apparently, the band was getting grief from the Bethel administration, who feared that their playing of gospel music in a jug band style was insincere at best and blasphemous at worst. My dad, who always sided with rebels and troublemakers, invited them over as a show of support and to give them inside information on the controversy.

A few years later, my friends and I sang some Spit Band songs (In the Morning, Senile, Snowflake) in our junior high talent show at church. We learned to harmonize more from the Spit Band than we ever had from the hymns we sang on Sunday mornings.

Around that time, Mark Steward started working with my mom, and he had married one of my dad’s teaching assistants, so they became friends of the family. The Spit Band had broken up, but Mark and Bo were turning some of the songs into a musical, which unfortunately never made it to Broadway, or off Broadway, or even Minneapolis. It was a great story revolving around “The Silver Kazoo.” As I recall, it told the tale of a small-town kazoo player moving to the Big City to pursue a career in a jug band.

I carried my two Spit Band records with me throughout life, and eventually added the third, which I found in a thrift store in northern Minnesota. I occasionally got updates from Stewy, and I met Larry Ostrom once or twice when he was working with friends.

When MySpace came out I created a page for my music and listed among my influences the Bo Conrad Spit Band. I heard from Bo’s daughter, who informed me that Bo lived about 30 miles away from me, but I didn’t make the effort to meet him until last year, when I went to his house and played some tunes.

The highlight was when he taught me to play “Bo’s Blues,” which was always my favorite, but which has an unusual chord progression (F, A, G7, Dm) that I couldn’t figure out. Bo told me it was the first song he ever wrote, which was hard to believe considered how perfect it is. We played that and a few other songs together and have stayed in touch via Facebook since then (where Bo invests his time and energy and great sense of humor today).

I’ve had thoughts of getting Bo and the remaining band members out for a show in the Twin Cities, or getting their original albums onto iTunes, but I haven’t made the effort.

When I heard that Bo was in the hospital, and read all the kind words on the Bo Conrad Spit Band fan page, I felt like writing, just to express one fan’s lifelong fascination with Bo and his Spit Band, and how much their music has meant to me over the years.

I’m hoping for the best for Bo and his family. Here’s a nice tribute video someone posted on Facebook of a song Bo wrote when he was waiting for his daughter’s birth.

If I got any of the facts wrong (as Bo might say, then they wouldn’t be facts, would they?) please let me know and I’ll update this. If you have more to add about the Spit Band and Bo, please comment or send an email.