A note from Jack and Kitty…
Today on our travel blog we continue our “Flashback Fridays” series called “Cornstars”. This is about travel…time travel! We’re going back in time to the cornfields of Iowa and Minnesota in the 1930s and 1940s, to explore the lives of two men who created a new form of jazz music. “Cornball Jazz” is what they called it…and, for a few short years, it was the best-selling music in America. They made and lost millions and left behind some amazing films and records. Each week we explore the places and people that created this nearly forgotten genre of music. Visit us every Friday for a new chapter in the saga that is “Cornstars”. 

All that Freddie Fisher is now or ever hopes to be he owes to a motorcycle. The first day he got it he rode 900 miles. Before that ride his nerves had been shot, his digestion poor, his stomach sour and his nights sleepless. At the end of his first motorcycle day he was a changed young man. He ate heartily for the first time in months. His stomach stopped its backfire. He slept soundly that night. He figured it was the exercise, the jostling he got in the cycle saddle that did it. He’s going to get another one, too, when he gets to Hollywood.

Cedric Adams, Golfer and Sportsman, October 1937

Missed the first chapter of “Cornstars”? Click here. Wanna find links to every article? Scroll to the “Time Travel” section of our Destinations Page.

Jazz…with a Funny “You Betcha” Accent

I close my eyes and hear a wailing clarinet in these hills. It’s playing some strange mix of polka music and early hot swing. I close my eyes and see young people dancing the Charleston in caves, hidden deep in the bluffs. Dancing, while this strange “corn jazz” is played on washboards, gut buckets, used toilets and old car parts.

I’m writing this in dark blue ink on coffee stained yellow notebook paper. Smoke whirls in the air as I stare out my window at Sugar Loaf Mountain in Winona, Minnesota. I’m out on Highway 61 in another forgettable hotel room. My days are the highway kind with towns passing through my memory and motel room songs written on cheap guitars.

I came back to Winona to find the root of all that is significant in a forgotten subgenre of big band jazz: novelty corn music. Yes, I just said “novelty corn music.”

What the heck am I talking about?

Well, dear reader, novelty corn music is extremely funny jazz (with roots in ragtime) played by brilliant musicians on mostly found instruments like washboards, pie tins and auto horns. Corn lovingly mocks the popular swing bands of the 1930s and 1940s. It’s also a hot swing with as much soul as the jazz of New Orleans, but this jazz was born in Iowa and grew up in Minnesota. It’s jazz…with a funny “you betcha” accent. 

To be clear for any old-timey music snobs reading this: novelty corn music ain’t jug band music. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s when jug band music would invade Minnesota…thanks to the primitive hipsters of Duluth and the bums of the West Bank in Minneapolis. The corn music I’m talking about is a sophisticated man’s music. It’s jazz, to be sure, but it’s jazz that smells like hotdish.

A publicity photo of “America’s Most Nonsensical Band”, the Korn Kobblers. This image was used by many sheet music publishers and record labels over the years and really captures the band’s whimsical approach to comedy and jazz. Check out that slide whistle face! Image copyright Jack and Kitty Norton.

Turn That Racket Down

Winona, beautiful and odd, Winona. A town built on an island. A town caught between the Mississippi River to the east and historic Highway 61 to the west. A town that’s a little more than two hours south of the Twin Cities, but a world away from big city sophistication. An artist’s refuge. A college town. A hippie town. A southern town. A town with a main street that largely hasn’t changed in over a hundred years. Walk down 3rd Street today and you almost feel as though you are traveling back in time.

Novelty corn music is what brought me back to Winona. I needed to sit and smoke cheap cigars in a dumpy motel room on the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain and listen to a stack of his old Decca phonograph records late into the crisp Minnesota night. Songs with titles like, “The Sugar Loaf Waltz”, “The Winona Waltz”, “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me” and “Horsie, Keep Your Tail Up!” are probably driving my next-door neighbor crazy. The walls in this shite-hole are paper thin and the arsehole next door keeps pounding on them, telling me to “turn that racket down”. 

“Racket” is actually a great way to describe the music I am listening to. Freddie Fisher, this genre’s originator, proudly described his own music as “racket”.

An early promotional greeting card designed and illustrated by Freddie Fisher. Image copyright Jack and Kitty Norton.

Yes, the genius behind the corn was a crazy old coot named Freddie Fisher. Alongside his frenemy Stanley Fritts, the pair would forever change musical history. Conveniently – for authors like me – both would die in tragic obscurity. A story waiting to be told, for those brave (crazy?) enough to tell it.

Novelty corn music has been an object of my obsession for decades now.

I want to understand Freddie and Stanley, and hopefully find the roots of their wackiness. They were musical partners, and their careers are forever linked, so my research focuses primarily on these forgotten cornstars. Along the way, however, I discovered many, many more cornstars – a literal cornucopia of cornstars!

When I first started my research, all I knew was that back in the early 1930s Freddie and Stanley started the Schnickelfritz Band together. 

I would come to find out that success – massive success – would soon drive them apart.

And fame – massive fame – would ensure that they stayed apart. They were best friends…dying as bitter enemies.

An image of teenage Stan Fritts on his family’s farm in Lyons, Nebraska…posing in cowboy garb along with his father’s handgun. Stanley hated rural, farm life and couldn’t wait to travel. Later in his life he explained that becoming a musician was his way to ensure a life of travel and adventure! Image copyright Jack and Kitty Norton.

Musical Mayhem in Minnesota

It’s a story as old as time. And don’t worry – dear reader – there will be plenty of sex, drugs and rock and roll along the way. But these were the days before rock and roll, so let’s just keep using the term novelty corn music. So I guess you could say this is a tale of sex, drugs and corn.

Freddie Fisher.

Stanley Fritts.

They are all but forgotten about today. But back in the 1930s and 1940s, they led two of the most successful bands in the the country. 

In this series of blog posts (a new chapter published every Friday), we shall learn of their musical rise to mayhem. Their being shot at by squatters in Oklahoma. Having a house set on fire by cowboy ranchers. Dumpster diving in Aspen. Building a “musical tree” – whose limbs produced individual notes – at a nightclub in St. Paul. Their parading down Broadway in New York City…while riding on motorized toilets. This, and oh so much more.

Cornstars will be a long strange journey into the holy and the profane. Freddie Fisher walked that line a thousand times: the holy and the profane. He was a man who possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and pop music and had such deep respect for the music, that he simply had to make it his own and in doing so he inverted our understanding of jazz, of pop culture, of social taboos. Freddie Fisher made comedy into a high art and literally farted in the face of progressive jazzers and uptight swingers everywhere. His place in music history is all but gone today, but he should take the place of Spike Jones, who influenced artists as groundbreaking as Frank Zappa, Harry Nilsson, the Beatles and oddball rappers OutKast. 

It can be argued that without Freddie Fisher there would be no Spike Jones, Stan Freberg, Gerard Hoffnung, Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach, The Goons, Mr. Bungle, Frank Zappa, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, and Weird Al Yankovic. 

And, my God, where would the world be today without those sounds?

When thinking of Stanley and Freddie, I always picture Fred being the Devil to Stan’s Angel. If they were perched on each of your shoulders (as they often are on mine), Stanley would be warning you of the dangers of the sweet young thing that caught your eye, while Freddie would be halfway up her skirt before anyone noticed. In short, Freddie was the crazy hedonist – and Stanley was the virtuous stoic.

And that’s why, clearly, I always found myself a bit more interested in Freddie, but along the way, I discovered that Stan’s life was just as zany as his music.

They are both vitally important to truly understanding American pop music and all its insanity, for they each played a profound impact in shaping the musical visions of cats like Spike Jones, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Sonic landscapes forever cooked in corn.

They were wonderfully eccentric, comedically brilliant, profoundly influential. And, like all greats, they were both crooks and cops, thieves and sad victims of thievery. They knew how to steal from the greats who had come before (and profit handsomely from this theft), but they would eventually lose millions when their musical vision was ransacked by musicians that were better businessmen (I’m looking squarely at you, Spike Jones).

After all, pop music is simply a business. And eventually the business of corn dried up.

The corn fields died.

Rock and roll was born.

But traces of corn are still felt all around us – as we shall see.

Good ol’ Spike Jones and “his” whiz-bang.

One Part Hillbilly, Two Parts Art

Yes, in the small Mississippi River town of Winona, Minnesota, Freddie Fisher and Stanley Fritts created an entirely new style of music. It’s an odd place to give birth to a new genre. But, Winona in general, is an odd place. It’s a place that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the state. It’s a strange place – one part hillbilly, two parts art. A place where you’re just as likely to meet a brilliant poet discussing the political philosophy of Voltaire as you are to be threatened by a drunk looking to beat you with a dead, frozen possum (this actually happened to me). A place where no one looks twice at a grown man who always dresses like a pirate (spend a few minutes on 3rd Street and you’ll see him wandering around). A place where everything is just a click or two…”off”. 

Fertile ground for corn jazz, I guess. 

The Schnickelfritz Orchestra was the first band created by Freddie and Stanley. Eventually it would splinter into two – becoming Freddie Fishers’ Schnickelfritzers and the (significantly more successful) Korn Kobblers (led by Stanley). 

The Korn Kobblers became one of the most popular comedy bands of the early 1940s. They would go on to influence the Hoosier Hot Shots (country legends), the Minnesota Log Jammers (totally forgotten about), the Korn Kribbers (again, lost in the sands of time), and finally, the zany – and hugely popular – Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Along the way, they would influence hundreds of imitation bands, some successful and some vanished forever. Until now.

By the way – now’s as good a time as any to let you know Spike Jones virtually stole his entire act, note for note, from ol’ Freddie and Stanley.

The story Spike would give throughout his career for his musical inspiration changed frequently. The most common tale is that he had the idea of corn music while attending a concert in which Igor Stravinsky conducted “The Firebird Suite”. Spike claimed that Stravinsky was wearing a brand new pair of patent leather shoes, and every time he would rise to signal a downbeat, his shoes would let out a loud squeak. This “musical mistake” became so hilarious to Spike he “invented” a new brand of comedy that very evening.

This, of course, is total bullshit.

So is the tale Spike would tell about the time he missed his cue to hit the opening chime on a Bing Crosby radio broadcast, resulting in a loud thud. This of course caused Bing, band and studio audience to break into uproarious laughter. This, too, is total bullshit. 

Throughout his lengthly and impressive career Spike Jones only mentioned being inspired by “old time comedy bands like the Schnickelfritzers and the Korn Kobblers” once. One interview among thousands. 

But therein lies the truth.

Perhaps you have seen photos of Spike playing a whiz-bang? 

“What’s a whiz-bang?” you ask.

Even though it sounds vaguely dirty, I don’t think it’s a sexual act you can request from the finest of well-educated prostitutes. However, if you do ask a hooker for a “whiz-bang”, one can only assume you will not be disappointed. Let me know how it goes.

No, dear reader, for purposes of our discussion, a “whiz-bang” in our writing will be the word we use to define an old washboard with nearly every sound-producing thing imaginable attached: cowbells, woodblocks, pots, pans and nearly two tons of other crap.

Fifteen years before Spike began to make his millions with his “own invention…the whiz bang”, a small town Iowa boy was playing a weekly gig in Winona, Minnesota at the Sugar Loaf Tavern. He was making music on a washboard he called a “whiz-bang” and the music he was creating would become one of the most popular styles of music within the big band era, second only to swing. And to think, he was using the instrument Spike would “invent” a decade an a half later!

Love and theft and everything in between.

America’s pop music is a chronicle of thievery by the haves from the have nots. 

As is the case for Freddie and Stanley. The poetic moment of their life is that they were both the haves stealing from the have nots, and later they would become the have nots – victims of the haves.

And the circle of life just keeps on a-rolling along.

Horsie, keep your tail up!

This article was based on the book “Cornstars: Rube Music in Swing Time” by Jack Norton. Available in paperback and ebook on Amazon or wherever books are sold. Ebook edition is available direct from the author in the Jack and Kitty store here: https://payhip.com/b/i3OVT. This blog is reader supported. If you’d like to help us out, please consider becoming a Patreon or visit the “Support” section on our Contact page if you’d like to send a one-time gift. This article and all supporting images (unless otherwise noted) are copyright © 2023 by Jack Norton and Kitty Norton.