Uncle Willie and the Brandy Snifters
Bud Claeson's memories

 Willard Johnson                  Marcie Pankake              Lyle Lofgren         John Pankake           Louis (Bud) Claeson
Remembrances of Uncle Willy and the Brandy Snifters by Bud Claeson (2020)
In April of 2020 I got a blast from the past--an email from Bud Claeson, guitarist with Uncle Willie and the Brandy Snifters.  I had heard them at the Minnesota Bluegrass and Oldtime Music Association (MBOTMA) festival in 1977 and had them play live on my radio program, as well as recording them later at a coffeehouse gig where they opened for Tracy Schwarz.  From the time of meeting them I was struck with their vast knowledge of old-time music, and humor and wit associated with their performance.  Uncle Willy was Willard Johnson, banjoist,  who assembled discographies of the old 78 musicians and received credit for the same on several Folkways records.  Some Folkways liner notes themselves were  written by Jon Pankake, who with wife Marcie played guitar, harmonica, and fiddle in the group.  Bud Claeson played mostly bass strings accompaniment on the guitar (they avoided string bass as it wasn't authentic to the period) and Lyle Lofgren played fiddle. They all painstakingly transcribed the lyrics from 78's in many notebooks, and although initially inspired by The New Lost City Ramblers, became good friends with the group when they arranged a concert for them in Minnesota.  They stayed together from 1962-2012.   Bud decided to send me a list of their gigs, and it included playing twice on the Prairie Home Companion, as well as G. Keillor's previous programs on  local stations..  They were instrumental in getting a series of concerts at the Guthrie Theater including Elizabeth Cotten and Rev. Gary Davis....
They made a handful of recordings over the years, with their own "Lack-o-Tone" CD publishing.  Their run was over before Youtube got going: I could only find this one from a collection album.  As Bud said, they never got enough pay "to make us quit our day jobs," which should sound familiar to every musician.  BUT THEY WERE TOGETHER FOR 50 YEARS!!!  That's an inspiration...  With a name change or two we might have a few that have been together for 30 or 40...  And I always think that the lack of payment is our street cred as folk musicians...  Bud is living with family in Northfield now, and still playing guitar, keeping 60 songs in play, practicing 30 one day and 30 another each week, and handed me a hand written list of 200 he can do...
 In May 2022 Bud brought a box of remembrances of the group to share with me, which I photographed outside (due to Covid protocols).   Some of the photos are repeats from information on Liz and Lyle Lofgren's website, which I will not repeat here unless it disappears down the line (Lyle died in 2014).   On that site The Legend of Uncle Willie is also a good  history of the band.

Bud with my resonator guitar and his box of memorabilia, May 2022
Bud's story sent in parts, with my comments interspersed:

Part One:
I think I'll do this in parts. The first installment will be about my first exposure to old time music which happened when I was around 10 or so. For some reason I always liked country music going back to age six. I had access to our old Majestic radio and while tuning through stations I came across KSTP's noon time country program. The music immediately appealed to me, especially the sad songs and I got permission to listen everyday. This was in the Summer of 1944. My Dad was away for 10 weeks each Summer as a camp counselor, a way to make money during those months as he was a high school English teacher. I think my mother thought I would eventually tire of the music and go back to listening to classical music as was the family custom, but I never went back
  Around this time I discovered that the Grand Ole Opry was broadcast each Saturday night  for half an hour. When I first started listening Roy Acuff was the host and I really liked his group, especially the tenor harmony of Oswald, but I didn't care that much when Os played the banjo. Then in the late 1940s or so Red Foley became the host and I liked his voice. Along about 1951 I realized the Opry was more than half an hour. I was determined to find a way to hear the other segments and finally by experimenting I was able to hear some of the other segments by attaching a wire to the antenna plug on the radio and attaching the other end to the metal cold air vent on the floor. 
  What's this got to do with old timey music you ask? Well on the segments later in the night some of the old timers played like the Crook Brothers, Sam and Kirk McGee. Fiddling Sid Harkreader, etc. But for the most part I didn't really like what I heard. I liked the smoother fiddling on country and bluegrass groups. As for the banjo, Scruggs and the like were what I preferred. I never got to hear Uncle Dave as he was sick and never recovered enough to return to the Opry before he died. End Part one
Part Two
The saga continues. Finally realizing that I was never going back to classical music, my parents thought country and folk music were close. This in the late 1940s. My Mother had seen a notice that s noted folklorist was going to discuss folk music at Kenwood school (where I went to grade school)). The gentleman discussed the nature of folk music and played some recordings of so-called folk musicians. I was not impressed and found it to be very boring. So who was this guy you ask? None other than Alan Lomax. Of course if this had happened in the late 1950s, I'd have given my right arm to be there. As they say: " too soon old and too late smart." I never knew who arranged to bring Lomax up here, but it might have been the same person who lived just a block from our house, a Dentist named Britzius. In 1948 he brought in Leadbelly  for a house concert at their home. I knew nothing of it at the time and wouldn't have had a clue who Leadbelly was. Only later did I learn about it after Lyle somehow connected with the son, Kenny Britzius and eventually got a tape copy of the concert. I have it on three cassette tapes.
  Sometime in the late 1940s I acquired a Silvertone arch top guitar, but I didn't know chords so I just played melodies on the top three strings. Noticing my struggles, my parents signed me up for six weeks of guitar lessons at the Gould School of Music on Nicollet Ave. near Franklin Ave.  The teacher was into pop and light classical music and the lesson book reflected that. I never devoted the time necessary to learn anything. Sense a stubborn Swede here. In any event I went back to playing three strings until I just laid it aside. I never learned to read music and that was a bit unfortunate. This brings me to Lyle and how we met, but that's for part three. Bud

My comment: Great stories again!  Just now I was reminded that Dylan wrote his autobiography part one and has never finished it, but I read it and was fascinated to read that he was still festering over the argument about music he had with I think Jon P in the early 60's, and how he said "but he wasn't a musician."  You guys don't get respect from anybody but Mike Seeger !  I remember Lyle or someone in the group referring to their heated  experience of the young Dylan...
Also it's fun that you started playing on the top 3 strings, since I remember you mostly playing the bass lines...
From louisclaeson@aol.com
    Sat, Apr 18, 2:22 PM
    to brad@sondahl.com
Dylan in those days was a first class jerk. One encounter with Dylan when at a party,  Lyle was playing the fiddle and Dylan didn't like what he was hearing and said loudly " if he plays that one more time, I'll break that fiddle over his head." Of course the other Dylan story is how he broke into Jon's apartment and stole several of Jon's records. Jon somehow knew who did it and went to Dylan's armed with a table leg and retrieved his records.  (More on Dylan from me later)
Part Three:
A high school classmate (one Roger Thuras) of my older brother (John) inherited a triplex from his parents and rented out the second floor to three young ladies (one of whom became my brother's first wife) and the third floor garret to Lyle who had come down after graduating from Rush City High School in 1954. He had lined up a job at the Rainbow Café (or Rainy Day Café as he called it) and Thuras's house was within walking distance of the Rainbow which was located at Hennepin and Lake St. Lyle became friends  with Roger and John and the three or four other classmates they hung around with. Many times they would all come over to our house to play cards,etc. Our parents would either go out or retire to their bedroom upstairs. The first couple times they came over I hung around to chat, but brother John tired of this. After all these were his friends and so I was banished to my upstairs bedroom.
  I finally got to know Lyle better when we ended up in the same Philosophy class at the U of M in 1955. we got to talking about music and found we shared a like for country music of the 1940s and early 1950s. Eventually I started spending some time after class and in the Summer up in Lyle's room. We listened to country music and our other shared interest-Bob and Ray. It was while listening to one of the country stations that we heard the Weavers. We really liked them and that led us to Pete Seeger. We decided we should try playing that kind of music, but first we needed instruments. My Silvertone was not the right guitar for folk music. Lyle had a fiddle his Father had given him and then he bought a cheap banjo. I bought a Harmony 12 fret nylon string classical type guitar.
End part three.

Part Four
Actually Lyle also bought a Harmony 12 fret nylon string guitar as he felt the Stella he had was like my Silvertone ill suited to folk music. We were doing Weavers songs like On Top Of Old Smokey, Goodnight Irene and Yellow Bird as well as some of Pete Seeger's material. At some point  Lyle decided we should play to an audience and lined up a gig for us at Rollie's guitar shop. This would forever after be known as my "ill- fated public debut." I had extreme stage fright and my voice cracked and my hands were so shaky that I couldn't consistently hit the right notes on the guitar. It was a genuine embarrassment. After that we went back to playing for our own amusement and sometimes with some college friends at which time we called ourselves the Firple Strings. I even have a cassette tape with a few songs from that group.
  I guess that's where things would have continued had it not been for the day we happened to hear the New Lost City Ramblers. Once we heard the Ramblers we were hooked. This would have been in 1959. We bought their LPs and started learning the songs. We concluded that what we had been doing was just folkum. Once again we felt the guitars we had were ill-suited to the music. Lyle pretty much gave up the guitar for the fiddle and banjo, but my Silvertone wasn't going to cut it. One day Lyle happened to stop by Rollie's guitar store and called me to say Rollie had showed him a 1956 Gibson J45 and said it sounded great and I should buy it. The next day we went out to Rollie's and I bought it for $59.
  We began working on songs from the Rambler LPs and then Lyle got us a gig on the U of M St. Paul campus. This time although still fighting stage fright (something I faced through out our career) we got through it and the student audience seemed to enjoy our performance. We continued to play mostly up in Lyle's garret ,but never did another gig. Sometime later in 1959 there was a folk concert at the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis. Lyle performed, but I was not there. I must have had some kind of conflict. Anyway after the concert a couple came over to talk to Lyle and introduced themselves. End Part 4.
Part Five:
Who was that couple? No, it was not the Pankakes as Jon and Marcia had yet to meet. No, it was Dave and Liz Williams who had left Oregon to live and work (Dave) in Minneapolis in the Dinkytown neighborhood. And yes, this the Liz who would become Liz Lofgren in 1962, but that's a whole other story. Incidentally Jon would marry later that same year. In any event Dave and Liz indicated they liked old timey music having acquired a copy of the Anthology. They also said they new someone who collected old time music records and played the banjo. That person was Willard Johnson or Uncle Willie as came to be known. Willie was living with his Mother at that time on the second floor of the house at 110 East 36th St. in Minneapolis just West of I35W. The house still stands and brings back memories whenever I pass by such as the evenings I would come over with a six pack of beer (groceries as his Mother called it) and listen to music and maybe play a few tunes. You noted that Willie was working at the Downtown post office, but at this time he was unemployed and living on a disability pension from the Navy having been discharged with what we now call PTSD but back then was known as battle fatigue. Actually Willie's first job was as an elevator operator at either the Curtis or Leamington hotel in Downtown Minneapolis. I lean toward the Curtis. Even got to ride with him  a couple times. My computer is acting up so I'll end Part 5 here and hope I can successfully send it.
Sat, Apr 25, 12:38 PM
Part Six

The band was instrumental in bringing this amazing concert to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis
Liz and Dave invited Lyle over their apartment to meet Willie and play some music. Lyle asked if it was ok if he brought me along and they said that was fine. Lyle and I went over with our instruments and played a little music and talked a lot. From there we got together more regularly and the three of us eventually became a band. There was a talent contest to be held  at a bar on Lake Street called the Padded Cell. The winner would get a paid gig at the Cell. We decided we should enter but we needed a name. Now we generally considered Willie to be our titular leader as he was older and knew all the songs, etc. Now this is kind of the favored story: Willie's song of the time was Here's A Pint Of Apple Brandy and someone sees brandy snifters on the table... and we show up as Uncle Willie and The Brandy Snifters except Willie is sick so only Lyle and I appear. We lose of course. The winners are a blues duo of Noel Johnson and one Tony Glover.
  We keep playing and listening to the Anthology which Lyle and I have both purchased and some tapes and of course the Ramblers. Around January of 1961, Liz sees an announcement of the First Annual University of Chicago Folk Festival to be held in February. The Ramblers will be there along with Roscoe Holcomb, Elizabeth Cotton, and Willie Davis. Lyle, Willie, and I load into Dave and Liz's VW Micro Bus and head to Chicago. A personal aside here. I was a senior at the U of M Law School and I had a critical exam scheduled for the Friday of the start of the festival. Casting ethics aside, I go to the Dean and said I was supposed to be a groomsman in a wedding in Chicago and could I take the exam on Monday. He was very accommodating so I was able to go, but it meant taking the overnight Milwaukee Road train back to Minneapolis. I arrive at the depot at 7:30AM and my Mother picks me up and drops me off at the Law School. She knows nothing of my ethical lapse. We meet the Ramblers and hit off right away. Back home we were determined to bring them up here for a concert. End Part 6

Part Seven

Sometime in 1961, Noel Johnson convinces the owner of Mattie's BBQ located on Nicollet near Lake St. that it would be to her financial benefit to let several of us play there every Friday night. She agrees and we do this for fun and free beer and attendance is good, at least for several months, but eventually fewer people show up and buy even less food and drink and it all comes to an end. Among the groups playing are Noel and Tony, the BSers, and a band calling themselves the Meeker County Boys comprised of Jon Pankake, Dan Haapala,(both from Dassel in Meeker County) and Bill Bushnell from St. Paul. Bill and his wife Ann also perform. We become friends with the Meeker County Boys and Jon of course becomes a BSer, after Dan leaves Minnesota for work in Virginia (I believe or was it for more schooling).
  Back to the Ramblers, in January 1962, our newly incorporated Folk Song Society of Minnesota ( the work of Lyle, Liz, Dave Williams and I ) sponsors the Ramblers in concert at The First Unitarian Society Tickets are $1.75. I still have a flyer advertising the concert. We don't make money, but that wasn't necessarily the object. We had a lot of fun as they stayed over a few days. Mike and Tom stayed at my house (actually my parents house as I was still living at home) and John stayed with Liz and Lyle who were by this time a couple but not yet married. This is when we really bonded with the Ramblers and became life long friends. This led to more concerts up here and several memorable after parties, etc. Some pictures are on Liz and Lyle's web site. As for the BSers, we continue to perform at various venues on the West and East banks of the U of M area. Lyle, Liz and I go to West Virginia in 2000 to play at the West Virginia State Folk Festival organized by Ginny Hawker. We're taken aback when one elderly gentleman comes up to us and says he hasn't been able to pay attention to anything for more than a few minutes but listens to our whole 45 minute set. Then all of us go to the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention in 2008 and are the half time show during the Stringband Contest. Our final gig is at Dulonos Pizza on Lake street as we promote our last CD, Practice Night With The Brandysnifters around 2011 or 2012.
End part 7

Part 8
Not so much about music, but rather an interruption caused by military duty.  I had been drafted in early 1962 and was scheduled to report in April, but I was able to pull a Dan Quayle. My brother who graduated from law school a few months before I did, was an associate with a law firm, and one of the partners was the Staff Judge Advocate ( i.e. the chief lawyer) for the Minnesota 47th National Guard Division. He was able to pull me out of the draft indicating I was needed to fill a vacancy. I thereby avoided two years of service who knows where, perhaps Vietnam. I had to report for ACDUTRA ( active duty for training ) at Fort Leonard Wood, the garden spot of Missouri, for six months from mid April to mid October. Of course this resulted in my separation from the BSers and to Marcia filling in on guitar. The first  8 weeks was basic training, one of the great experiences of my life. There was another attorney in the company which helped. Unfortunately both he and I failed to qualify on the M-1 rifle leading to the two us being forced to stand in the company street while the  Captain told the assembled company that the two of us were losers and would never amount to anything. He went on to say that our failure cost the company the coveted Blue Rifle, emblematic of the company with the best marksmen, something company A-2-2 had held for the last two years. Yet three weeks later the esteemed Company Commander enlisted us to tutor several members so that they could pass the end of training proficiency test lest the company be held up to ridicule for having the most recruits failing and having to repeat basic training. Ah the Army.
  Basic was followed by 4 months of what we called BAACU, or what was more correctly known as the Basic Army Administration Course where I was to be trained as a clerk typist, the slot I was slated for upon my return to the 47th Division. At the conclusion of the first week, the Commander indicated he needed volunteers to be assistant teachers at the seventh and eighth weeks of the program. The other attorney and I raised our hands as we were the only college grads. I volunteered for the eighth week as it was largely focused on English and I was the son of a High School English teacher. The other attorney volunteered for the seventh week as it was more focused on typing and he knew how to type. You know what's coming next. In typical army fashion I was assigned week seven and he got week eight. I never learned how to type and fortunately by week seven the students knew how to type and all I had to do was keep the typewriters functioning and teaching the students how to prepare the all important Morning Reports detailing a company's strength, i.e. whose present and whose absent and why. At the conclusion of the four months and the night before I I was scheduled to leave for home, a certificate was slipped under my door indicating I had successfully completed the course and could type 40 words per minute, just what I was sent down there for.
  It was great to get back home and rejoin the BSers. While at BAACU I did have my Wollensak tape recorder and some tapes. I did exchange some messages with the gang including my fictional account of an attack on Fort Leonard Wood complete with sound effects. I wonder what ever happened to it. I don't remember which of the gang I sent it to. Kind of wish I could here it. Probably pretty lame.

(It doesn't get much folksier than this poster)
End Part 8. There may be a brief Part 9.

I may have mentioned the Hootennany that was held in May of 1961 at the U of M Coffman Union. The following groups played: Noel Johnson and Tony Glover; The Meeker County Boys; Dave Ray; Bill and An Bushnell; John Goldstein (don't remember him at all); Harold and Ken Streeter. Harold was a Scruggs style banjo whiz. Aside here: at the time Ken was married to a lady named Della. How she and Bill Monroe met is unknown to me, but it could have happened when we brought Bill and the Bluegrass Boys up here for the Guthrie series. Anyway a couple of times when my wife and I were at his annual Bean Blossom festival (in the 1970s, I believe) I would talk with him an he would invariably ask about Della. Lo and behold several years later he and Della get married, but like all of Mr. Bill's marriages and romances it doesn't last. The last I saw about Bill and the ladies was a newspaper article in which a lady was going to file charges against him for assault. Seems in an argument, he hit the lady with a Bible. The headline was something to the effect " singer arrested in Bible belt."
  Back to the Hoot. The last performer was Joe Enright, another Scruggs style banjo player. Lyle and I back him up on instrumentals and he backs us on a few duets. Oh, and I almost forgot, the actual last person to perform was one Bob Dylan, just back from New York where he visited Woody Guthrie. He tells us he has signed a record deal with Columbia Records. We know this just more Dylan bulls..t.  (editor: his tongue in cheek) By the way I have the Hoot on two cassette tapes,
  One other little vignette from Matties. One night as the BSers are playing a guy in the audience ( having had maybe too many brewskies ) keeps asking " play a country song, I want to hear a country song." After a couple more tunes he continues so we end our set with a song Lyle and I knew from the early 1940s. Willie then asks the guy " is that country enough for you, fat boy?" The guy starts to approach the stage, but his friends restrain him and we head to the far back of the restaurant. I think this is the end of the trip down memory lane.
You may wonder why Willie wasn't with us at the Hoot. Here's the answer. The Uncle was again experiencing stage fright and I was assigned to  take him to some local bar to get him just enough spirits to calm him enough to play. The closest watering hole was a place on the West Bank called the Pilot's Club. Unfortunately I became distracted when a guy sat down next to me bleeding rather profusely from his right eye. I suggested  he should get medical help, but he insisted he would be ok, but if it didn't get better he would get help after he had a couple drinks.  I persisted but to no avail. By this time Willie had downed three straight doubles and was in no shape to play. In later times he would carry a small bottle that held just enough to defeat the stage fright, but not put him out of commission.

Final Notes, Lyle Lofgren

Old-time musician and longtime Old-Time Herald contributor Lyle Lofgren died in August 2014. Mary DuShane shares her memories of Lyle:

Lyle Lofgren’s many friends and cohorts in old-time music will tell you of his intelligence and curiosity, wide-ranging research interests, and prolific output as a writer. Yet Lyle, the son of Swedish-American dairy farmers near Harris, Minnesota, liked to say things like (about learning to play the guitar), “A youth spent hand-milking Holsteins gives me the strength to squeeze the chords.” He said his love of music began before he was born, because his mother hummed all the time. He hummed throughout his whole life, including his last day.

While studying physics and engineering at the University of Minnesota, Lyle teamed up with fellow student Bud Claeson to seek out old records with wonderful old songs. At a gathering of the Folk Song Society of Minnesota, he sang a Bascom Lamar Lunsford song, attracting the attention of his future wife, Liz. They sought out the only other person who regularly borrowed Library of Congress musical material from the public library, Willard Johnson. Soon, along with Jon Pankake, then editor of the Little Sandy Review, and his wife Marcia, who lived in the neighborhood as well, they were all learning old songs together. They dubbed their group Uncle Willy and the Brandy Snifters, immortalized in the mid-‘60s Electra recording The String Band Project, as well as on several recordings they later produced on their own label, Lak-O-Tone records.

The Brandy Snifters’ long friendship with Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers began at one of the famous parties following a Folk Song Society concert. Liz says both groups would “listen and listen and play the 78 records and tapes over and over” to pick out the words and would learn the songs, “not simply imitating the recordings but interpreting the spirit of the music.” They advised the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis on producing concerts featuring Southern source musicians such as Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, Libba Cotten, Reverend Gary Davis, Jesse Fuller, Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, Roscoe Holcomb, and Dock Boggs. Liz has great stories and photographs from the post-concert parties, which you can see at lizlyle.lofgrens.org. (The website, highly recommended, also includes many entertaining articles by Lyle.)

Lyle worked his whole career as an engineer for Rosemount Engineering, developing such techniques as measuring the temperatures below the surface of the moon, and writing articles on physics for technical publications, yet always playing, singing, and writing about music. He and Liz raised four boys: first Mark and Ken from Liz’s first marriage (Mark says Lyle was a great father, “wonderful with kids, a playful guy”), then their son Lee, and then their adopted son Jonathan. Their adoption of Jonathan was the first interracial adoption in Minnesota. Lyle’s many interests included reading and writing poetry, translating Swedish poetry to English, learning the Ojibwe language, and, as Marcia Pankake revealed, taking the Brandy Snifters to seek bluebirds in the Minnesota River Valley, plus cross-country skiing together and attending Minnesota Orchestra concerts. He loved many kinds of music, including the Grateful Dead (we had a group sing of the Garcia-Hunter song “Ripple” at his memorial). For years he wrote a column for the monthly publication of the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association (MBOTMA) on “Remembering the Old Songs,” advised and recorded segments on old-time music for Phil Nusbaum’s long-running radio show in Minneapolis called Bluegrass Saturday Morning, and of course wrote articles and reviews for the Old-Time Herald.

His last illness came on fast, and Liz says he couldn’t have had a better death, with family and friends all around him, singing and telling stories

From Bud: One fond but at the same time sad memory is when I visited Lyle at the hospital on what turned out to be the day he died. I had been visiting him regularly, but on this day I brought my guitar and played and sang a couple old BSer songs when Lyle who had been virtually comatose since early that morning suddenly awoke and even sang with me on a couple tunes. Everyone who was there was surprised, but it turned out to be the well known final rally. He continued to be engaged after I left but lapsed into a coma and died that evening.  Bud

John Pankake