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How St. Paul's Prohibition-era bootleggers helped invent local music

The old Victoria Theater: Birthplace of local music?

The old Victoria Theater: Birthplace of local music? Kyndell Harkness/Star Tribune

There’s a lot of local music history being exhumed lately.

On February 22, for instance, the A-Mill held "Rock Talk," a panel discussion hosted by Joe Swift and featuring four local rock authors. Two have books out: Michelle Leon, the former Babes in Toyland bassist whose memoir I Live Inside was published last year by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, and ex-Pioneer Press writer Rick Shefchik, author of Everybody’s Heard About the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock 'n' Roll in Minnesota, published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Joining them were Andrea Swensson of The Current and Chris Riemenschneider of the Star-Tribune—both of whom told a good-sized audience that they’d either just turned in (Swensson) or were days from turning in (Riemenschneider) manuscripts of their own. The former has Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound out from U of M Press in October, while November sees the publication of the latter’s First Avenue: Minnesota’s Mainroom by MNHS Press.

This isn’t counting a pair of recent titles by City Pages alum Jim Walsh: the general collection Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes, published in November, and Gold Experience: Following Prince in the '90s, out just two months later, both from U of M. Nor does it factor in KFAI host Cyn Collins’ Complicated Fun, an oral history of local indie and punk from 1974-84, due from MNHS Press in May.

Whew.

And yet, there’s one piece of local music history that basically no one has told before, even in piecemeal, that’s part of a newish book, too -- but the author is also giving it away free.

Kurt Gegenhuber is a Minneapolis writer who for several years has kept a blog called The Celestial Monochord, where he writes a lot about a longstanding obsession: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the groundbreaking 1952 collection that would influence every folk great from Dylan and Seeger on down. In particular, Gegenhuber was fascinated with one Anthology selection, the Victoria Café Orchestra’s “Moonshiner’s Dance -- Part 1,” released in January 1928 by a St. Paul band and the only track on any of the set’s four volumes not recorded by a southerner.

That’s intriguing in itself, but Gegenhuber’s spent the past decade doing serious legwork, and the 30-page paper he’s written about it has been included in Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’: America Changed Through Music, which Routledge published in late December. It lists for $152.

Or -- hint, hint -- you can just email Gegenhuber (the address is at the top right of his blog), ask politely, and he’ll send you a .pdf.

It’s worth all 4.1 MB of your drive space. Gegenhuber digs up rich detail about the song, a medley taken from the stage act of the regular players at the Frogtown speakeasy Victoria Café, who did not call themselves an orchestra anywhere but on the 78 Smith compiled.

And the paper goes even deeper into the milieu. St. Paul was a bootlegging town during Prohibition’s height -- “a quiet place to live and a wild place to visit,” as Gegenhuber writes. “In 1926, St. Paul’s Chief of Police estimated that 75 percent of St. Paul households were brewing beer or winemaking,” he notes. How did that affect the music? You’ll have to email the author (or spend $152) to find out.