So, some time ago I promised to write a post for each of our union’s fifty fine states, and have not yet delivered on this promise. I do intend to make good, unlike my guarantee to reunite Sweet for a set on the new Hymie’s stage, but I’ve taken my time because each of the 45 states I have actually visited deserve better than a few tracks and a little trivia.
The idea was inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ unfinished “50 States” project (He only made albums for Michigan and Illinois). The first Hymie’s contribution was a tribute to the state of Ohio, keeping with the idea’s midwestern point of departure and also featuring one of the country’s most rock and roll states.
And today we are celebrating our home, the beautiful state of Minnesota!
Several Minneapolis songs have already been featured in the Hymie’s blog, notably this one by the Ray Charles Singers:
In our original post about “Minneapolis” we point out Ray Charles’ connection to Minnesotan songwriter and producer Dick Wilson, but we left out the fact that this song was originally entered in a contest put together by the Minneapolis’ Chamber of Commerce. Charles could have probably made a lot of money in advertising, which a lot of artists in the Twin Cities were doing in the 60s, but instead cultivated his career as an arranger. Years later he worked on The Muppet Show, creating special material for several guests (Carole Burnette, for instance). Whether this Illinois native ever outlived his name, and the legacy of the other, far more successful Ray Charles, is up to history I guess.
The Ray Charles Singers’ “Minneapolis” was not the only track about our fair city to be featured in the Hymie’s blog over the past couple years, as you’ll find in this post. I used to think it was the best bit of marketing of its time, until a friend reminded me of this promotional record I posted last year. Any state that can entice visitors with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Les Baxter has got to be on the up and up.
…And then I found this record…
Everything I know about Paul New & Steel City is what I could gather from watching them perform a set at a Minneapolis ballroom in 1980 on Youtube. And its hard to understand, because he says he’s from Pittsburgh and in “Minnesota” sings about the 32nd state as “the land where [he] was born”. Oh, Paul New, what an enigma you are.
Other past posts and my own remarks have made no secret of my favorite Minnesota song, Skeleton Ed’s “Fridley Bound”:
I got lost once driving to Fridley. It was about fifteen years ago and my friend who was driving, who insisted he knew where Fridley was, is now dead. We were going to pick up another friend who was stranded after a train-hopping snafu. We finally got to a trashy bar by some railroad tracks, where we were told she would be waiting, and she’d given up and called a cab. Its the only time I’ve ever been to Fridley and nothing about the story makes anyone sound good.
But the Twin Cities suburbs, no matter how distant, did produce a lot of punk rock. I knew these next guys pretty well, and sang along with their song “East of Edina” at more than a few shows. I don’t know where any of the Totallies are now, but I can tell you I remember each of them as a genuine class act, and I remember one summer of ’95 set at the Scooby Don’t House (With the Droids and ) as a highlight of the best basement show I ever saw. I sneaked my way out of paying my $2 and I’ve never forgiven myself – If the amazing Lantz Krishna or the enigmatic Sarah Sleaze were ever to come into Hymie’s I’d finally pay admission plus interest.
I suppose like a lot of states our songs are going to be overwhelmingly about the big cities, and apparently their suburbs. We have, however, already featured Larry Long’s “Pope County Blues” – A topical song (at the time) addressing the problems of much of middle Minnesota. Regardless of its history or politics, its solid country music from one of the most under-rated of Minnesotan songwriters, and we’re glad to re-post it here:
Larry Long is still recording and performing and everyone at Hymie’s encourages you to give him his long-overdue due. Another woefully under-appreciated singer and guitar picker of Larry’s generation is our own Papa John Kolstad. We’re thrilled to see Merlin’s packed every Saturday because its about time people discovered how good his Hot Club of East Lake sounds with two – Not one but two – fine guitar-playin’ Deans! One song recorded more than once by Papa John, if rarely performed today, is his own “Mill City Blues”:
That’s Papa John performing with fellow Sorry Mutha Soupy Milton and local luminaries Cal Hand, Bill Hinkley and Bob Stelnicki on the album Mill City Blues. We have already posted some other tracks from his albums Beans Taste Fine and Goin’ Home here.
I have to tell you that aside from the amazing musicians Papa John has performed with on albums, and in recent months here at Merlin’s (Willie Murphy and, of course, Clint Hoover, who left town just this week!), he tells me that he once shared a stage with one of my favorite banjo players and riverboat captains, John Hartford. They discussed recording an album together – Can you imagine it?! – And their management fudged the plan. Probably for the best, since I would probably have dropped a fortune for a copy of that record long before I owned a record shop. Still, imagine a Papa John Kolstad / John Hartford album – What a music lover’s dream!
That great song about Duluth is by the Moose Willow Ramblers. I like it because I also like it in Duluth – In fact, five or six years ago Laura and I thought about moving to Duluth for a while.
Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” includes a reference to a dirty book store on 9th street off Euclid Avenue. Only problem? There’s no Euclid Avenue in Minneapolis. There is a Euclid Avenue in St. Paul, and Waits is hardly a songwriter associated with phoniness. I like to think its all a misunderstanding – I mean, we all know the differences between Minneapolis and St. Paul are pretty blurred to out-of-town visitors. 9th Street reappeared a few years later on one of the only forgettable songs on his 1985 masterpiece Rain Dogs. “9th and Hennepin” compels us to consider what Waits experienced just off Block E sometime in the 70s to create such an impression – Could the “dirty book store” be the Shinder’s that spent its last couple decades at 8th and Hennepin?
Ten years ago a friend of mine was working there and I thought she was the most punk rock person I knew, working at the Shinder’s that Tom Waits (in my mind) immortalized in song. I was impressed until I visited her one day, and while we were talking a spooky character, the kind you avoid altogether, came in and asked if he could be allowed in the store again. “I fed the snake,” he said. Tom Waits himself couldn’t write that.
A couple months ago I posted a comparison of a couple hard luck tracks about Minneapolis – “Kayla Baker and I” by the Annandale Cardinals and “Mpls Song” by Pinhead Gunpowder. You can click here to read the whole post and hear each track.
Another songwriter who wrote about returning to Minnesota was Jerry Rau, who I remember best as the street musician I first saw in Dinkytown as a child. The title track from his 1978 Train on the Island album Minnesota Minstrel was about riding the rails. I suppose he was better at it than my friend from the Fridley story because he was on his way back home.
I have only one more Minnesota song to post today, although I imagine we could keep going for a while. I have to save some time for the other 48 remaining states (And I will post the next one tomorrow!), although Minnesota has been a lot of fun. Not only is it my home state, it seems to be a place that inspires a lot of pride in its native sons.
Still, many of the best Minnesota songs are by artists from far away places like California (Tom Waits), who-knows-where (Paul New) or Illinois (John Prine, who sang this next song). Sometimes people are just visiting, like the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby record implored us to do.
“Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone“ is from the John Prine album Bruised Orange.