Arthur Hoehn: A Radio Romance

I hear that today is something called National Radio Day. I read that on social media, which I suspect in turn will be a strange artifact to be explained to unformed young people of some yet undisclosed future. After all, as I write tonight I have doubts I’ll be able to convince any current young people of the romance of radio.

I grew up midcentury in what was supposed to be the TV age, but TV was a very constrained and arid thing then. TV was usually one set in the living room with maybe 3 or so channels receivable. It signed off in the evening, came back on with the dawn, and presented one thing at a time under the control of a schedule that could be memorized by its viewers. Radio may have been the old tech, but it was richer, stranger, more able to surprise with chance. Kids had their own radios, cars had radios, and the talking/singing boxes continued all night — and radio was never stranger than at night. Small local stations were required to dim their watts and disappear at sundown, and then certain stations would appear like the night stars, receivable across the countryside with varying reception. In my tiny Iowa town I ran an antenna wire out my window to an apple tree branch outside. The radio’s tubes glowed and Chicago and WLS were certain. KOMA in Oklahoma too. Detroit and Tennessee sometimes.

To be honest, I don’t recall hearing the famous super high-powered mid-century Mexican X stations. Maybe I did for moments — listening to the radio at night meant that stations would sometimes drift in and out, so I might not have heard every call sign. One of those stations, XERB, had a DJ and program director who was too unremarkable as his given name Bob Smith, and so became Wolfman Jack. At XERB he had an on-air compatriot named Fat Daddy Washington.*  But today’s piece isn’t about the Wolfman. It’s about Fat Daddy Washington.

You see it’s not just those night-time radio signals that jumped around and changed with the stars. Just as Wolfman Jack had been Bob Smith, and “Daddy Jules,” and “Roger Gordon and the Music of good Taste” as he bounced around formats and jobs; Fat Daddy Washington was not some longtime hepcat, but a kid just a few years out of St. John’s University, a Roman Catholic affiliated college tautologically located in Collegeville Minnesota. “Washington” had worked at the college’s radio station under his real name Arthur Hoehn.

Now let’s zoom in on the “Summer of Love” in 1967. For some reason Hoehn headed back to his old school in north central America from its southwest corner, driving in a sharp new Thunderbird. There’s a story there I’m not privy too. Was he going to impress old schoolmates with his newfound flash — a not uncommon move? That doesn’t sound like the unassuming Arthur I later knew a bit. Was he possibly out of a job at the X? Plausible. When he arrived back in Collegeville, he ran into one of those schoolmates, a guy named Bill Kling who wanted to expand and professionalize the college radio station.** Kling later told the story that Hoehn unilaterally offered to help out. Kling joked years later that he wasn’t even sure he paid him at first. However, Hoehn was also recalled as what became Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media’s “first professional DJ hire.” Since the Collegeville station played classical music with news breaks, I’m not sure that Hoehn’s Fat Daddy Washington mic-time at the heavily R&B oriented X was much featured in their early pitches for funds.

unknown-barone-hoehn-unk-eichten-unk

Earlier in this century, MPR/APM employees tried to ID all the people in this early staff picture posted at our headquarters. The only ones I knew from my time were Michael Barone (2nd from left), Arthur Hoehn (3rd from l) and Gary Eichten (5th from l)

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By the time I worked alongside Hoehn his regular gig under his given name was working the overnight shift as the host of a classical music program “Music through the Night.”***  If nighttime is the right time to maximize that romance, I’ll still tell you that when I’d actually run into Hoehn it wasn’t romantic. Radio in the flesh rarely is, and nighttime shifts are no place to dress for success or to put on a show of supercilious professionalism. Hoehn would likely be wearing comfy wild-print Zubaz lounging pants and a nondescript open collar shirt. We’d likely nod at each other knowing we each had a job to do.

When broadcasting live (as Hoehn did) the radio host is near alone even in larger stations and networks, and they can expect that most of their listeners are also sameways singular. There might be someone in the next room asleep or another driver in some light-pool car transiting the passing lane, but the listeners are each alone with the host and his record’s vinyl voices, like-black pianos, and sleep-breathing strings. They may be listening to you to try to fall asleep, they may be listening to you because they just don’t want to go to sleep right now, they could be in love full of bright energy, or just out of love and wanting company, they may be working a night shift like you, they could even be — as I watched my father-in-law one night — in a hospital bed awaiting death with the radio murmuring the needle-dancing angels of this side of life.****

Though some old folks reading this will remember this with me on Radio Day — young people, you likely didn’t/don’t live this. Yet I’m writing this more for you. I’ll allow that this is likely as imaginary as any fantasy world for you. But this went on once upon a time. The feeling of the romance of radio, intensified by nighttime, was as real as any current or future fantasy is, and so this has the value of any fantasy tale, as an exercise for imagination, and as a demonstration that shared fantasies can dissolve into air like dew after dawn.

When my coworker Arthur Hoehn died in 2011, I thought: there are a number of songs about DJs, but the music these song-celebrated DJs play is inevitably jazz, r&b, or rock. What about the man alone playing orchestral instrument music, likely in recall/remembrance of those classical “dead guys” compositions, while most of the world sleeps for a few hours in the little analog of death. Is that goth or what?

A performance of the song “Arthur Hoehn”  I wrote is below, recorded soon after Arthur’s death. You can play it with the graphical player if you see that, or with this alternative highlighted link.

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*Wolfman Jack the nighttime DJ was featured as a romantic mentor to the kids in the movie American Graffiti, and parlayed that role into a larger TV and radio broadcasting career in the 1970s. It’s a point too large to deal with in a footnote, but some white DJs in this time-frame took on portions of Afro-American argot and signifying. Given that American popular music in general has done likewise before and after Wolfman Jack and Fat Daddy Washington, I’ll leave this as a footnote.

Here’s a link to blog post about XERB, with a contemporary flyer saying of Hoehn show  “’Fat Daddy; Washington, one of the heaviest swingers in the world, presents 9 tons of soul and is a real “mama’s’ man.”

**Several other Collegeville student-station alums were part of the early MPR/APM core. Longtime news program host Gary Eichten was another. Pipe organ enthusiast Michael Barone too. And another who cut his teeth hosting classical music only to break from that into a unique combination of oral story-telling mixed with musical variety: Garrison Keillor.

Coincidentally, I’ve just realized that I believe my High School English teacher Terry Brennan who introduced me to Keats, Frost, Donne et al in my tiny Iowa town was just out of St. John’s too. If so, it’s highly likely that he was an overlapping classmate of some of those folks. Odd to put that together decades later!

***Eventually this program with Hoehn hosting was syndicated live around the country via satellite (yes, they used satellites, not the still nascent Internet, to do that then). One of the national listeners who sent a fan letter: Joan Baez. Baez also worked in the Sixties with Peter Schickele, who I met in my first month at the network headquarters.

****Other famous overnight DJs? Alison Steele “The Nightbird” was the overnight FM rock DJ in the late 60s-early 70s on NYC’s WNEW-FM and had no-less than Jimi Hendrix as her recorded praise-singer. A British guy in the American southwest conned his way onto the air as an experienced DJ (he wasn’t) during the early days of the British invasion in the early 60s. He broadcast on “KOMA in Oklahoma” one of those “clear channel” stations that I could reliably get in Iowa at night, though he had the early morning shift there. His air name was John Peel, and he went back to the UK and worked for pirate Radio London with the “London After Midnight”  show which in 1967 became “The Perfumed Garden”  launching many an underground rock group in England with his eclectic playlists before a subsequent long and influential broadcasting career. I’ve never even heard air-checks, but musician/writer Tony Glover had an overnight “underground” rock show on KDWB in Minneapolis during the Sixties that some recall with fondness.

Slim Harpo Marx

Let’s a take a break from Whitman’s attempt to embody everything in his poetry and turn to a Dave Moore written piece where two Americans become one.  Dave might comment here later and bring more insight into his composition, but for now I’ll speak as myself.

I encountered Slim Harpo and Harpo Marx at roughly the same time, somewhere in the early 1960s. Slim Harpo then was a part-time bluesman (full time job: ran a trucking company) who was able to occasionally get records saturated with a humid southern feel onto pop charts where I could hear them.

I was young, and I knew little about where music came from. I also knew little about how it could be separated out into bins with labels stuck on the front of them, like “blues.” So, I didn’t know Slim Harpo was “blues” until sometime later. I’d never heard Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, BB King, Memphis Minnie, Bo Carter, or even any of the jazz-tinged blues divas like Bessie Smith—but I had heard Slim Harpo. He was right there on the Midwestern teenage radio in the early Sixties, just like Bobby Vee or the Shirelles. After dark, when the lone local teenage station would fade out by law to allow “clear channel” stations to bounce off the stars and the wire I’d run out my window to an apple tree, I’d hear KOMA in Oklahoma and WLS in Chicago spin records as late I could stay up.

Harpo Marx and the Marx Brothers came in via another late-night broadcasting practice: the late movie. TV stations then would run old movies at the end of their broadcast day, after the local news. The Marx Brothers movies were only around 30 years old at the time, but they seemed set in another century. In the Marx Brothers movie-world fresh off the boat European immigrants mixed it up with society matriarchs dressed like empresses, and leather helmeted varsity football players and professors in Victorian beards were collaged together.

Which was farther away: the Marx Brothers 1930s or Slim Harpo’s Jim Crow Louisiana happening in my time?

Somehow it didn’t matter that Slim Harpo was a near 40-year-old Louisiana African-American, or that the Marx Brothers were steeped in a disappeared immigrant vaudeville culture, or that either of them were ambassadors from the country of adult sexuality that I had yet to visit.

Did a poem ever speak to you before you could understand it? At night, Harpo Marx and Slim Harpo spoke to me, and neither exactly needed words to say what I heard.

Dave Moore’s piece “Slim Harpo Marx” fuses those two characters. Let me be clear, I realize this is a dangerous melding. In the course of “Slim Harpo Marx” an Ashkenazi German-American imitating a mute Irishman becomes one with an African-American born into a region retaining French colonial overtones. Is that harp Celtic, or a Germanic Hohner harmonica, a “Mississippi Saxophone?” Dave thinks that’s funny. If cultural appropriation is evil, well…

As Americans, we largely came here from pogroms, poverty, thwarted revolutions, and refused authority. Those here first from Europe got to rob the native peoples—and worse. Those here first got to declare the foundational republic of the modern world—and establish an economy buttressed with human slavery. Those here later got to both benefit from the appropriations of these tragedies—and suffer the disapprovals of those who were here sooner. That lesser Marx brother, Karl Marx, said “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

Karl, Karl, you say that like it’s a bad thing.

Harpism Cover

The words and music this time are by Dave Moore. He usually performs the words too, but for reasons to embarrassing to recount, this version has my reading. To hear “Sim Harpo Marx” click on the gadget that will appear below.