For reasons he would prefer to keep private, Kurt Gegenhuber was feeling a bit low one night in May 2006. But in the haze of the evening, he resolved to take on a mystery.
That mystery involved the origins of a song, "Moonshiner's Dance Part One," a 1927 number included on the influential "Anthology of American Folk Music."
A trip to the Minnesota History Center the following day revealed the song's ties to a building that Gegenhuber learned still stood in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood. Now, three years later, his research is at the heart of a campaign to save what once was known as the Victoria Theatre.
Discovery of his work and of the song couldn't have come at a better time for preservationists. Just a few weeks ago, there had been plans -- now abandoned -- to tear down the vacant building to make room for a parking lot.
The Save the Victoria Theatre Group since has submitted an application to the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission seeking a historic designation to prevent demolition of the former silent-movie theater and nightclub at 825 University Av.
Chief author of that request was Gegenhuber, 45, a technical editor by profession -- and yet another roots music fan under the anthology's spell.
The six-disc document, first released in 1952, has a way of getting under a listener's skin.
Triggering a revival
The "Anthology of American Folk Music" is a collection of 84 songs assembled by Harry Smith, an eccentric artist and avant-garde filmmaker who for years had collected 78 rpm discs of country blues, murder ballads, spirituals -- all commercially released between 1926 and 1933.
The collection has been cited as a major influence on the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Legend has Bob Dylan being drawn to the strangeness of its sounds and lyrics.
In Minneapolis, Jon Pankake was among a group of friends transfixed by the anthology. Together, they would chase down other recordings by anthology artists. In 1997, when the anthology was reissued, he contributed an essay, "The Brotherhood of the Anthology," to the lavish six-CD package. He won a Grammy Award.
But it wasn't until the 1997 reissue that "Moonshiner's Dance Part One," by Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, was identified as having been recorded in St. Paul. Even then, according to the revamped anthology, the Frank Cloutier Orchestra was only "assumed" to be from the Minnesota area.
Recently, Pankake described "Moonshiner's Dance" as great fun to listen to. "It fits the craziness of the anthology," he said.
"But good luck," he added, "to anyone trying to find a scholarly reason to this. It just may not be there."
Gegenhuber, for one, is giving it the old college try -- and then some.
Book in the works
Like many people, Gegenhuber picked up the anthology after reading a 1997 book, "Invisible Republic," by Greil Marcus, who theorized that the document was a template for Dylan's "Basement Tapes." Gegenhuber got lost in it. He studied it. But soon, he said, he exhausted his Google searches.
On the night of May 12, 2006, he finally told himself: "I have to get this 'Moonshiner's Dance' thing figured out."
It turned out to be as easy as opening a phone book. There, at the History Center, in St. Paul's 1927 city directory, was an entry for Frank Cloutier, musician, living two blocks from the Victoria Cafe. Deeper digging revealed that "Moonshiner's Dance" likely was recorded at the Lowry Hotel downtown; that the Victoria Cafe twice had been the subject of Prohibition-era federal raids; that the 1915 building was one of the few examples of work done by architect Franklin Ellerbe in his hometown.
Gegenhuber has been intrigued, too, by the placement of "Moonshiner's Dance" at the end of the third of the anthology's six discs. Imagine, he says, a statement about St. Paul's civic identity at the hub of one of the most important cultural documents of the 20th century.
"The questions it raises and the answers it suggests are just too consequential to tweet," Gegenhuber said. "So, it's got to be a book."
In Frogtown, Tait Danielson Castillo, executive director of the District 7 Planning Council, said the neighborhood envisions a restored Victoria Theatre as a much-needed entertainment destination for a new era of public transit -- specifically, the Central Corridor light-rail project.
Back at the theater, Gegenhuber, looking through the glass outside recently, thought of the things he still needs to know about Cloutier and his weird "jazz-polka mash-up." There is the matter, too, he said, of a piano he once saw inside.
"One day I was standing here, gazing in, and there was a pigeon on it. I wanted to die," he recalled. "For all I know, Frank may have played that thing."
Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109