Remembering Jon Pankake: A Grammy-winning folk scholar and early critic of Bob Dylan

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He was a soft-spoken, Grammy-winning scholar and performer of old-time folk music. But Jon Pankake made his living advising students at the University of Minnesota. He was famous, though, for giving some unsolicited advice to a fellow student and aspiring musician.

"Jon Pankake, a folk music purist enthusiast and sometime literary teacher and film wiseman, [had] been watching me for a while on the scene," Bob Dylan wrote in his 2004 memoir, "Chronicles — Vol 1." "'What do you think you're doing? You're singing nothing but [Woody] Guthrie songs,'" he said, jabbing his finger into my chest like he was talking to a poor fool."

Pankake, whom Dylan dubbed the "chief commissioner of the folk police," died July 3 in Minneapolis, his family announced his death in December. He was 85.

"He was a quiet and friendly scholar who liked going unnoticed," said Garrison Keillor, a longtime friend. "On the early 'Prairie Home Companion' [radio program], Jon sometimes appeared as the Masked Folksinger — 'a singer as anonymous as his songs.'"

Still, Pankake was hardly anonymous. "Jon was a major figure in my world," said Twin Cities folk singer/guitarist Dakota Dave Hull.

Pankake, who grew up in Dassel, Minn., first made his mark in the folk-music world by co-founding in 1959 "The Little Sandy Review" with his roommate and fellow University of Minnesota student Paul Nelson, who got excited after seeing a Pete Seeger concert on campus.

In a mimeographed fanzine assembled on a Ping-Pong table in musician Tony Glover's basement, they reviewed records of what they considered noncommercial folk music by the likes of New Lost City Ramblers and Lightnin' Hopkins instead of the more popular Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte.

"We try not to take ourselves too seriously or play God," Pankake told the Minneapolis Tribune in 1962. "We're not qualified scholars but informed enthusiasts. We write as fans for fans."

They were not forgiving about an old Dinkytown acquaintance's second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan."

"Dylan is brilliantly funny or touching one moment, then floundering hopelessly in arid and embarrassing improvisation the next. His imagery falls short of Guthrie's magic, and his wacky verses don't quite have that flash of humanitarian genius that marked Woody's as the work of a true folk poet."

The Bob Dylan Center is preparing an exhibit on Dylan's early '60s career and Mark Davidson, senior director of archives and exhibitions, has been studying "The Little Sandy Review."

"They seemed to serve as sort of a conscience for the folk music scene, they were definitely purists and didn't keep their opinions to themselves," he said.

With a circulation of about 300, Pankake and Nelson published 30 issues before selling the publication in 1965.

Pankake's burgeoning interest in folk music led him to performing as a U of M freshman in the Meeker County Boys with Dan Haapala, a friend since fourth grade in Dassel.

"What skills we acquired were developed in the 'one ear in the speaker and one hand on the slow playback tape recorder knob' school of music," Haapala recalled. They were soon joined by a banjo-playing U of M professor.

In 1961, Pankake signed on with Uncle Willie & the Brandy Snifters, singing and playing guitar, fiddle, banjo and mandolin. The quintet also included Pankake's wife, Marcia.

They played around the Twin Cities at the New Riverside Cafe and Dulono's Pizza, with an occasional out-of-town gig at the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention and West Virginia State Folk Festival. The repertoire included old-time tunes like "Sad and Lonesome Day" and "I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop."

"He was a quiet guy until getting onstage where he had a whole persona and he became the spokesperson and introduced songs," said Bud Claeson, who made music with Pankake in the Brandy Snifters for 50 years.

In the mid-1960s, Pankake promoted concerts at the Guthrie Theater, presenting Black and white performers on the same bill, which was unusual at the time. He'd get bluegrass giant Bill Monroe to jam with blues singer Mance Lipscomb.

Pankake earned his master's and doctorate degrees in American studies at the U.

"As a scholar, he wrote about Charlie Chaplin and immigrant comedy and Jack London, but the job market was empty so he worked as a truckdriver for a few years to pay off the mortgage," Keillor said in an email, "then returned to the university as an academic advisor in the College of Liberal Arts where he tried hard to make college satisfying for students."

In 1988, Marcia and Jon Pankake wrote "A Prairie Home Companion Folk Song Book," and celebrated the publication with a Nashville concert featuring Keillor, Chet Atkins, the Judds, Mike Seeger, Johnny Gimble and Ray Stevens.

Pankake's scholarly pursuits led to a 1997 invitation to write an essay for the reissue of the 1952 "Anthology of American Folk Music." He shared a Grammy for best album notes.

Appreciative but hardly excited, a tuxedo clad Pankake told the Star Tribune that night: "I'll put the Grammy on the shelf along with my basketball captain trophy, which is the last trophy I won." (Coincidentally, Dylan won the Grammy for album of the year that night for "Time Out of Mind.")

"He never talked about [the Grammy]," said Pankake's friend Marvin Menzel, proprietor of the Homestead Pickin' Parlor, a longtime folk music haven in Richfield.

Pankake preferred scholarship over the spotlight.

"He read Melville's 'Moby Dick' 12 times and was about to start on his 13th read when he died," Keillor reported. "He enjoyed the humorous parts of it."

Survivors include Pankake's wife Marcia, sisters Kay, of Hutchinson, and Sheila Allison of Hobart, Tasmania, and nieces and nephews. A memorial service is pending.