Spirit flows through ‘Temperance and Temptation’ CD

Photo by Michael Haug
The Rose Ensemble is the group behind a new CD: “A Toast to Prohibition: All-American Songs of Temperance and Temptation,” and a show at the Minnesota History Center.

It was only a few years ago that some neighborhood pubs in Minneapolis couldn’t obtain wine and beer licenses, which is just one reason why some savvy politician with ambitions to unseat Gov. Mark Dayton in November would do well to read the tea leaves and campaign on a single issue, with this vision:

“Unlike my opponent, If I’m elected governor, not only will I will sign the bill to legalize the medical and recreational use of marijuana, I will encourage all of the so-called ganjantreprenuers of the world to set their sites on the rich and fertile soil of Minnesota, which is begging to be seeded, sowed, and harvested with the sweet bud that has the power to bring beaucoup bucks to the heartland.”

Yep. The times, they have a-changed, and no matter what the politicians say, the polls have it that people want weed to be legal in Minnesota. I’ve already written about my pro-legalization views, and kudos to the Star Tribune’s Lori Studervant for connecting the dots between the legalization of pot in Colorado and Washington and “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” the multimedia exhibit currently showing at the Minnesota History Center.

A poster hanging at the History Center exhibit states that from the prohibition years, “Americans learned … that the appetites of individuals could not be easily governed.” To that end, we may be currently living through a new age of prohibition, or at least it feels that way in super-clean and super-healthy Minnesota, which is probably why I’m getting a kick out of “A Toast to Prohibition: All-American Songs of Temperance and Temptation,” the jaunty new CD by the Twin Cities-based Rose Ensemble, released Tuesday in conjunction with the group’s stage show of the same name that opens Tuesday [Jan. 21] and runs through Jan. 26 at the History Center.

“Alcoholism is no joke,” say the “Temperance and Temptation” liner notes; “but drinking — or not drinking — has been an abiding source of song for generations. Perhaps no era has given us as much vocal music celebrating or abhorring drink as the contentious American Prohibition. With this recording we honor the struggle, the drinking songs and the ardent anti-drinking songs, all of them full of spirit.”

Spirit is what flows throughout the entire set, all of which is sung and played with terrific old-timey verve, authenticity, curiosity, flair, musical chops and vocal expertise, combining for a swagger that celebrates the human condition in all its lubricated and stone-cold sober glory.

“Prohibition leaps onto the musical stage in this delightful look at the history and humor behind Minnesota’s longstanding love/hate relationship with the saloon,” reads the show’s promotional materials. “Semi-staged and fully costumed, this performance features the songs and stories of Carrie Nation and 19th-century Temperance Union meetings, balanced by a full cup of good ol’ anti-Prohibition songs. Narration from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and projections of historical images complement the show as our performers prance to Victorian waltzes, croon 1920s jazz, launch into Irish reels, ragtime, and gospel, and belt out some of Irving Berlin’s best show-stoppers.”

I can’t speak for the stage show, but the CD is a lively crash course in the war waged between the drinkers and the dry. Over the course of 24 tracks, we get to hear from both the prohibitionists (“A Sober Spouse For Me,” “The Alcoholic Blues,” “Close Up The Booze Shop,” “Sign The Pledge For Mother’s Sake”) and the huddled masses yearning to be free and drunk (“How Are You Going To Wet Your Whistle?” “Okay Beer,” “Temperance Is Coming,” “Queer People,” and “I Like My Bootleg Man”).

Only time will tell when it comes to marijuana and Minnesota law, but at the moment “Temperance and Temptation” provides something of a mirror for the lot of us, and a fascinating look back at the two decades when drinking was illegal in Minnesota – a time when St. Paul and San Francisco were declared the “wettest” (most bootleg liquor consumption) cities in the nation, and when St. Paul police estimated that 75 percent of the households in the capital city made their own moonshine.

“When we vote we’ll make dry the old Gopher State,” goes the conclusion to Stephen Foster’s 1917 tune “Old Black Joe,” which probably means we’ll have to hear a lot of bad anti-weed songs between now and November. For the moment, though, “Temperance and Temptation” provides the sort of levity, lessons, and laughs that only history can, and you don’t need to be sloshed to dig it.

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