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Songs for the Cheesehead Intifada

2011 will be remembered as a perilous and fascinating time. Thousands of protesters filled city streets, unwilling to tolerate assaults on their basic rights. Their out-of-touch head of state was even caught joking about clubbing dissenters. Is this Cairo or Tripoli? No, it’s mild-mannered Madison, Wisconsin.

Comparisons between Mideast and Midwest have obvious limits. Jon Stewart was only partly kidding when he claimed the real danger for Madison protesters was that they risked getting caught in a drum circle. Still, Wisconsin has had its own bumpy ride. For years, Wisconsin remained under the autocratic rule of strongman Brett Favre. The triumphs that followed his departure soon crossed paths with reactionary forces. But those days may be numbered. When Governor Scott Walker recently insisted upon removing public employees’ collective bargaining rights, he enraged leaders of the one institution in Wisconsin more revered than even the Lutheran Church: the world champion Green Bay Packers.

What does this have to do with music? Plenty. Even as Wisconsin returns to the forefront of progressive protest, pundits on both coasts tend to push it to the cultural margins. Ask about the “Wisconsin sound,” and some will think of aging brewers and dairy farmers singing to the cows between Chicago and Minneapolis, and the bored kids trying hard to avoid them. I could walk through the stereotypes, but Cheeseheads With Attitude have already done the job. And don’t call them losers.

In these troubled times, Wisconsin needs and deserves a more compelling soundtrack. To fill this void, I’ve prepared my own Wisconsin-centered playlist.

Violent Femmes, Kiss Off
Robin and the Three Hoods, That’s Tuff
Clyde Stubblefield, Funky Drummer
Hubert Sumlin, Down the Dusty Road
Goose Island Ramblers, No Norwegians in Dickeyville
Spanic Boys, Keep on Walking
Woody Herman, Goosey Gander
Chi Coltrane, Thunder and Lightning
Mustard Men, I Lost My Baby Now
Die Kreuzen, Man in the Trees
Oil Tasters, Get Out of the Bathroom
Les Paul, Vaya Con Dios
Bodeans, Fadeaway
Bunky Green, Step High
Richard Davis, Oh My God
Cedarwell, Weirdest Places
Bon Iver, For Emma

For those expecting seas of cheese, the talent of those associated with the Badger State might surprise you. The old-school hall of fame includes the Wizard of Waukesha, guitar innovator Les Paul, as well as longtime Milwaukee resident Hubert Sumlin, who earned his reputation as Howlin’ Wolf‘s guitarist. The incomparable bass work of Madison’s coolest professor, Richard Davis, graces two of my all-time favorite albums, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch.

“Wisconsin” and “funk” aren’t words often heard together. But the mastermind behind the most influential breakbeat has also lived in Madison for decades. That man,Clyde Stubblefield, is the funky drummer behind James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” whose heavily sampled signature riff is a cornerstone of hip-hop and funk. Tap the rhythm and enjoy the nonstop dancing in your head.

I’d better stop this regional rant before it starts sounding like Sufjan Stevens’ next concept album. But in this age of bearded bards in alternative rock, Wisconsin has two of the best. The best known is Bon Iver, whose heralded For Emma, Forever Ago emerged from singer Justin Vernon’s blustery retreat in a Wisconsin cabin. Thankfully, rather than turning into the Unabomber, Vernon produced an album that slowly smolders with surprising strength. More recently, I’ve been listening to Cedarwell, whose excellent 2010 album A Stone, A Leaf, A Door draws its title from one of my favorite novels, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. Both the music and leader Eric Neave’s facial hair make me think of Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam. And as an added bonus, Neave has spent some quality time with Lars from Balcony TV.

The musical heritage of Wisconsin’s European immigrants is also far from the single vanilla flavor some might expect. James Leary’s book Polkabilly: How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music provides a fascinating look at this largely unheard music of the upper Midwest. Leary provides a great account of how a Goose Island Ramblers performance baffled a panel of experts on traditional regional music:

Here were three men from South Central Wisconsin, togged out variously in Cowboy hats and Viking horns, playing a shifting array of instruments (guitar, mandolin, fiddle, eight string fiddle, one string electric toilet plunger, harmonica, Jew’s harp, jug, piano, accordion, and bandionion), singing in Norwegian, German, Polish, English, and “broken English,” while playing a repertoire that shuffled, bent and fused British and Irish fiddle tunes, ballads, and sentimental songs with Hawaiian marches, Swiss yodels, and the polkas, waltzes, schottisches, and mazurkas of Central and Northern Europe.

This may sound like a fictitious band that someone like Tom Waits might invent to annoy an interviewer. But the Ramblers were real, and really American as well. Music like this isn’t for everyone. I just happen to think that if you really want God to bless the USA, you should stop listening to Lee Greenwood and start learning how to play the electric toilet plunger.

From → Diatribes, Playlists

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