This space is dedicated to the proposition that we need to know the history of the struggles on the left and of earlier progressive movements here and world-wide. If we can learn from the mistakes made in the past (as well as what went right) we can move forward in the future to create a more just and equitable society. We will be reviewing books, CDs, and movies we believe everyone needs to read, hear and look at as well as making commentary from time to time. Greg Green, site manager
Sunday, March 08, 2015
Searching For The American Songbook - In The Time Of The 1960s Folk Minute-With The Joy Street Coffeehouse In Mind
Sketches From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
I recently completed the second leg of this series, sketches from the time of my coming of age classic rock and roll from about the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, a series which is intended to go through different stages of the American songbook as it has evolved since the 19th century, especially music that could be listened to by the general population through radio, record player, television, and more recently the fantastic number of ways to listen to it all from computers to iPods. This series was not intended to be placed in any chronological order so the first leg dealt, and I think naturally so given the way my musical interests got formed, with the music of my parents’ generation, that being the parents of the generation of ’68, those who struggled through the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s.
This third leg is centered on the music of the folk minute that captured a segment of my generation of ’68 as it came of social and political age in the early 1960s. It is easy now to forget in the buzz of the moment that this segment was fairly small to begin with people who stayed with it for a few years and then like the rest of us got back to the new rock and roll that was taking center stage by the time of the summers of love. Today when talking to people, to those who slogged through the 1960s with me, those who will become very animated about Deadhead experiences, Golden Gate Park Airplane goings ons, their merry-prankster-like “on the bus” experiences, even death Altamont when I ask about the influence of folk they will look at me with pained blank expressions or cite ritualistically Bob Dylan confirms how small and where that folk minute was concentrated.
Early on though some of us felt a fresh breeze was coming through the land, were desperately hoping that it was not some ephemeral rising and then back to business as usual, although we certainly being young did not dwell on that ebb tide idea since like with our physical selves we thought our ideas once implanted would last forever. Silly kids. Maybe it was the change in political atmosphere pulling us forward as men (and it was mostly men then) born in the 20th century were beginning to take over from the old fogies (our father/uncle/godfather Ike and his ilk) and we would fall in behind them. Maybe it was the swirl just then being generated questioning lots of old things like the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) red scare investigations, like Mister James Crow in the South andthe ghettos of the North, like why did we need all those nuclear bombs that were going to do nothing but turn us into flames. Maybe it was that last faint echo of the “beats” with their poetry, their be-bop jazz, their nightly escapade trying to hold onto that sullen look of Marlon Brando, that brooding look of James Dean, that cool pitter-patter of Alan Ginsberg against the night-stealers. Heady stuff, no question.
Maybe too since it involved cultural expression (although we would be clueless to put what we felt in those terms, save that for the folk music academics complete with endnotes and footnotes after the fire had burned out) and our cultural expression centered around jukeboxes and transistor radios it was that we had, some of us, tired of the Fabians, the various Bobbys (Vee, Darin, Rydell, etc.), the various incarnations of Sandra Dee, Leslie Gore, Brenda Lee, etc., wanted a new sound, or as it turned out a flowing back to the roots music, to the time and place when people had to make their own music or go without (it gets a little mixed up once the radio widened the horizons of who could hear what and when). So, yes, we wanted to know what on those lonely Saturday nights gave our forebears pause, let them sit back maybe listen to some hot-blooded black man with a primitive guitar playing the blues (a step up from the kids’ stuff nailed one-eyed string hung from the front porch but nowhere near that coveted National Steel beauty they eyed in the pawnshop in town just waiting to rise up singing), some jazz, first old time religion stuff and then the flicker of that last fade be-bop with that solid sexy sax searching for the high white note, mountain music, all fiddles and mandolins, playing against that late night wind coming down the hills and hollows reaching that red barn just in time to finish up that last chance slow moaning waltz. Yes, and Tex-Mex, Western swing, Child ballads and the “new wave” protest sound that connected our new breeze political understandings with our musical interests.
The folk music minute was for me, and not just me, thus something of a branching off for a while from rock and roll in its doldrums since a lot of what we were striving for was to make a small musical break-out from the music that we came of chronological age to unlike the big break-out that rock and roll represented from the music that was wafting through many of our parents’ houses in the early 1950s.
In preparing this part of the series I have been grabbing a lot of anecdotal remarks from some old-time folkies. People I have run into over the past several years in the threadbare coffeehouses and cafes I frequent around New England. You know, and I am being completely unfair here, those guys with the long beards and unkempt balding hair hidden by a knotted ponytail, flannel, clean or unclean, shirt regardless of weather and blue jeans, unclean, red bandana in the back pocket, definitely unclean and harmonica at the ready going on and on about how counter-revolutionary Bob Dylan was to hook up the treasured acoustic guitar to an amp in about 1965 and those gals who are still wearing those shapeless flour bag dresses, letting their hair grow grey or white, wearing the formerly “hip” now mandatory granny glasses carrying some autoharp or other such old-time instrument like they just got out of some hills and hollows of Appalachia (in reality with nice Ivy League resumes after their names)arguing about how any folk song created after about 1922 is not really a folk song both sexes obviously having not gotten the word that, ah, times have changed. In short those folkies who are still alive and kicking and still interested in talking about that minute (and continuing to be unfair not much else except cornball archaic references that are supposed to produce “in the know” laughs but which were corny even back then when they held forth in the old Harvard Square Hayes-Bickford of blessed memory).
For those not in the know, or who have not seen the previously described denizens of the folk night in your travels, folk music is still alive and well (for the moment, the demographic trends are more frightening as the dying embers flicker) in little enclaves throughout the country mainly in New England but in other outposts as well. Those enclaves and outposts are places where some old “hippies,” “folkies,” communalists, went after the big splash 1960s counter-cultural explosion ebbed in about 1971 (that is my signpost for the ebb, the time when we tried to “turn the world upside down” in Washington over the Vietnam war by attempting to shut the government down and got nothing but teargas, police sticks and thousands of arrests for out troubles, others have earlier and later dates and events which seemed decisive but all that I have spoken to, or have an opinion on, agree by the mid-1970s that wave had tepidly limped to shore). Places like Saratoga, New York, Big Sur and Joshua Tree out in California, Taos, Eugene, Boise, Butte, Boulder, as well as the traditional Village, Harvard Square, North Beach/Berkeley haunts of memory. They survive, almost all of them, through the support of a dwindling number of aficionados and a few younger kids, kids who if not the biological off-spring of the folk minute then very much like those youthful by-gone figures and who somehow got into their parents’ stash of folk albums and liked what they heard against the current trends in music, in once a month socially-conscious Universalist-Unitarian church basement coffeehouses, school activity rooms booked for the occasional night, small local restaurants and bars sponsoring “open mics” on off-nights to draw a little bigger crowd, and probably plenty of other small ad hoc venues where there are enough people with guitars, mandos, harmonicas, and what have you to while away an evening.
There seems to be a consensus among my anecdotal sourcesthat their first encounter with folk music back then, other than when they were in the junior high school music class where one would get a quick checkerboard of various types of music and maybe hear This Land Is Your Land in passing, was through the radio. That junior high school unconscious introduction of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land had been my own introduction in Mr. Dasher’s seventh grade Music Appreciation class where he inundated us with all kinds of songs from everywhere like the Red River Valley and the Mexican Hat Dance. For his efforts he was innocently nicknamed by us “Dasher The Flasher,” a moniker that would not serve him well in these child-worried times by some nervous parents.
A few folkies that I had run into back then, fewer now, including a couple of girlfriends back then as I entered college picked up, like some of those few vagrant younger aficionados hanging around the clubs, the music via their parents’ record collections although that was rare and back then and usually meant that the parents had been some kind of progressives back in the 1930s and 1940s when Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Pete Seeger and others lit up the leftist firmament in places like wide-open New York City. Today the parents, my generation parents would have been in the civil rights movement, SDS or maybe the anti-war movement although the latter was drifting more by then to acid rock as the foundational music.
That radio by the way would be the transistor radio usually purchased at now faded Radio Shack by frustrated parents, frustrated that we were playing that loud unwholesome rock and roll music on the family record player causing them to miss their slumbers, and was attached to all our youthful ears placed there away from prying parents and somehow if you were near an urban area you might once you tired of the “bubble gum” music on the local rock station flip the dial and get lucky some late night, usually Sunday and find an errant station playing such fare.
That actually had been my experience one night, one Sunday night in the winter of 1962 (month and date lost in the fog of memory) when I was just flipping the dial and came upon the voice of a guy, an old pappy guy I assumed, singing a strange song in a gravelly voice which intrigued me because that was neither a rock song nor a rock voice. The format of the show as I soon figured out as I continued to listen that night was that the DJ would, unlike the rock stations which played one song and then interrupted the flow with at least one commercial for records, drive-in movies, drive-in theaters, maybe suntan lotion, you know stuff kids with disposable income would take a run at, played several songs so I did not find out who the singer was until a few songs later. The song was identified by the DJ as the old classic mountain tune “discovered” by Cecil Sharpe in the hills and hollows of Appalachian Kentucky in 1916 Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies, the singer the late Dave Von Ronk who, as I found out later doubled up as a very informative folk historian and who now has a spot in the Village in New York where he hailed from named after him, the station WBZ in Boston not a station that under ordinary circumstances youth would have tuned into then since it was mainly a news and talk show station, the DJ Dick Summer a very central figure in spreading the folk gospel and very influential in promoting local folk artists like Tom Rush on the way up as noted in a documentary, No Regrets, about Rush’s fifty plus years in folk music. I was hooked.
That program also played country blues stuff, stuff that folk aficionados had discovered down south as part of our generation took seriously the search for roots, music, cultural, family, and which would lead to the “re-discovery” of the likes of Son House (and that flailing National Steel guitar that you can see him flail like crazy on Death Letter Blues on YouTube these days), Bukka White (all sweaty, all feisty, playing the hell out of his National face up with tunes like Aberdeen, Mississippi Woman and Panama, Limited) Skip James (all cool hand Luke singing that serious falsetto on I’d Rather Be The Devil Than Be That Woman’s Man which got me in trouble more than one time with women including recently), and Mississippi John Hurt (strumming seemingly casually his moaning Creole Belle and his slyly salacious Candy Man).
I eventually really learned about the blues, the country stuff from down south which coincides with roots and folk music and the more muscular (plugged in electrically) Chicago city type blues that connects with the beginnings of rock and roll, which will be the next and final leg of this series, straight up though from occasionally getting late, late at night, usually on a Sunday for some reason, Be-Bop Benny’s Blues Hour from WXKE in Chicago but that is another story. Somebody once explained to me the science behind what happened on certain nights with the distant radio waves that showed up mostly because then their frequencies overrode closer signals. What I know for sure that it was not was the power of that dinky transistor radio with its two nothing batteries. So for a while I took those faraway receptions as a sign of the new dispensation coming to free us, of the new breeze coming through the land in our search for an earthly Eden. Praise be.
If the first exposure for many of us was through the radio, especially those a bit removed from urban areas, the thing that made most of us “folkies” of whatever duration was the discovery and appeal of the coffeehouses. According to legend (Dave Von Ronk legend anyway) in the mid to late 1950s such places were hang-outs for “beat” poets when that Kerouac/Ginsberg/Cassady flame was all the rage and folkies like him just starting out were reduced to clearing the house between shows with a couple of crowd-fleeing folk songs, or else. But by the early 1960s the dime had turned and it was all about folk music. Hence the appeal for me of Harvard Square not all that far away, certainly close enough to get to on weekends in high school. With Club 47, the “flagship,” obviously, Café Nana, the Algiers, Café Blanco, and a number of other coffeehouses all located within a few blocks of each other in the Square there were plenty of spots which drew us in to that location. (That Cub 47, subject a few years ago to its own documentary, was the spawning grounds and the testing ground for many folk artists like Dylan, Baez, Rush, Von Schmidt, Paxton, to perform and perfect their acts before friendly appreciative audiences that would not heckle them. The Club which has had something of a continuous history now operates as a non-profit as the Club Passim in a different location in Harvard Square near the Harvard Co-Op Bookstore.)
The beauty of such places for poor boy high school students like me or lowly cash-poor college students interested in the folk scene was that for the price of a coffee, usually expresso so you could get your high a little off the extra caffeine but more importantly you could take tiny sips and make it last which you wanted to do so you could hold your spot at the table in some places, and maybe some off-hand pastry (usually a brownie or wedge of cake not always fresh but who cared as long as the coffee, like I said, usually expresso to get a high caffeine kick, was fresh since it was made by the cup from elaborate copper-plated coffeemakers from Europe or someplace like that), you could sit there for a few hours and listen to up and coming folk artists working out the kinks in their routines. Add in a second coffee unless the girl had agreed to an uncool “dutch treat,” not only uncool but you were also unlikely to get to first base especially if she had to pay her bus fare too, share the brownie or stale cake and you had a cheap date.
Occasionally there was a few dollar cover for “established” acts like Joan Baez, Tom Rush, the Clancy Brothers, permanent Square fixture Eric Von Schmidt, but mainly the performers worked for the “basket,” the passing around of the hat for the cheap date guys and others “from hunger” to show appreciation, hoping against hope to get twenty buck to cover rent and avoid starving until the next gig. Of course since the audience was low-budget high school students, college kids and starving artists that goal was sometimes a close thing and accordingly the landlord would have to be pieced off with a few bucks until times got better.
Yeah, those were “from hunger” days at the beginning of their careers for most performers as that talent “natural selection process” and the decision at some point to keep pushing on or to go back to whatever else you were trained to do kept creeping foremost in their thoughts when the folk minute faded and there was not enough work to keep body and soul alive whatever the ardent art spirit. Some of them faced that later too, some who went back to that whatever they were trained to do and then got the folk music gig itch again, guys like Geoff Muldaur and Jim Kweskin from the Kweskin Jug Band, David Bromberg, gals like Carolyn Hester, Minnie Smith after somebody said “hey, whatever happened to….” and they meant them. That natural selection thing was weird, strange for those who had to make decisions in those days (now too) about talent and drive over the long haul. You would see some guy like Paul Jefferson a great guitar player who did lots of Woody Guthrie covers and had a local following in the Café Nana working hard or Cherry LaPlante who had a ton of talent and a voice like floating clouds and had steady work in the Café Blanc fold up their tents once they hit a certain threshold, a few years working the local clubs and no better offers coming along and so they bailed out. They and those like them just did not have the talent or drive or chutzpah to keep going and so they faded. You still see Paul once in a while at “open mics” around Boston performing for much smaller crowds than in the old days and the last I heard of Cherry was that she had drifted west and was getting a few bookings in the cafes out in Oregon. But in the day it was all good, all good to hear and see as they tried to perfect their acts.
For alienated and angst-ridden youth like me (and probably half my generation if the information I have received some fifty years later stands up and does not represent some retro-fitted analysis filtered through a million sociological and psychological studies), although I am not sure I would have used those words for my feelings in those days the coffeehouse scene was the great escape from household independence struggles of which I was always, always hear me, at the short end of the stick. Probably the best way to put the matter is to say that when I read J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, over a non-stop weekend I was so engrossed in the page after page happenings, I immediately identified with Holden Caulfield whatever differences of time, place and class stood between us and when asked my opinion of him by my English teacher I made her and the whole class laugh when I said “I am Holden Caulfield”), or when I saw The Wild One at the retro-Strand Theater in downtown Carver I instinctively sided with poor boy Johnny and his “wanting habits” despite my painfully negative experiences with outlaw motorcycle guys headed by local hard boy Red Riley who hung out at Harry’s Variety Store as they ran through. If I had been able to put the feelings into words and actions it would have been out of sympathy for the outcasts, misfits, and beaten down who I identified with then (not quite in the Jack Kerouac beaten down hipsters or night-dwellers who survived with a certain swagger and low hum existence sense). So yeah, the coffeehouses offered sanctuary. For others (and me too on occasion) those establishments also provided a very cheap way to deal with the date issue, as long as you picked dates who shared your folk interests. That pick was important because more than once I took a promising date to the Joy Street Coffeehouse up on Boston’s Beacon Hill where I knew the night manager and could get in for free who was looking for something speedier like maybe a guy with a car, preferably a ’57 Chevy or something with plenty of chromes, and that was the end of that promise.For those who shared my interest like I said before for the price of two coffees(which were maybe fifty cents each, something like that, but don’t take that as gospel), maybe a shared pastry and a couple of bucks in the “basket” to show you appreciated the efforts, got you those hours of entertainment. But mainly the reason to go to the Square or Joy Street early on was to hear the music that as my first interest blossomed I could not find on the radio, except that Dick Summer show on Sunday night for a couple of hours. Later it got better with more radio shows, some television play when the thing got big enough that even the networks caught on with bogus clean-cutHootenanny-type shows, and as more folkies got record contracts because then you could start grabbing records at places like Sandy’s in between Harvard and Central Squares.
Of course sometimes if you did not have dough, or if you had no date, and yet you still had those home front civil wars to contend with and that you needed to retreat from you could still wind up in the Square. Many a late weekend night, sneaking out of the house through a convenient back door which protected me from sight, parents sight, I would grab the then all-night Redline subway to the Square and at that stop (that was the end of the line then) take the stairs to the street two steps at a time and bingo have the famous (or infamous) all-night Hayes-Bickford in front of me. There as long as you were not rowdy like the winos, hoboes, and con men you could sit at a table and watch the mix and match crowds come and go. Nobody bothered you, certainly not the hired help who were hiding away someplace at those hours, and since it was cafeteria-style passing your tray down a line filled with steam-saturated stuff and incredibly weak coffee that tasted like dishwater must taste, you did not have to fend off waitresses. (I remember the first time I went in by myself I sat, by design, at a table that somebody had vacated with the dinnerware still not cleared away and with the coffee mug half full and claimed the cup to keep in front of me. When the busboy, some high school kid like me, came to clear the table he “hipped me” to the fact that nobody gave a rat’s ass if you bought anything just don’t act up and draw attention to yourself. Good advice, brother, good advice.)
Some nights you might be there when some guy or gal was, in a low voice, singing their latest creation, working up their act in any case to a small coterie of people in front of them. That was the real import of the place, you were there on the inside where the new breeze that everybody in the Square was expecting took off and you hoped you would get caught up in the fervor too. Nice.
As I mentioned in the rock and roll series, which really was the music of our biological coming of age time, folk was the music of our social and political coming of age time. A fair amount of that sentiment got passed along to us during our folk minute as we sought out different explanations for the events of the day, reacted against the grain of what was conventional knowledge. Some of us will pass to the beyond clueless as to why we were attuned to this music when we came of age in a world, a very darkly-etched world, which we too like most of our parents had not created, and had no say in creating. That clueless in the past about the draw included a guy, me, a coalminer’s son who got as caught up in the music of his time as any New York City Village Jack or Jill or Chi Old Town frat or frail. My father in his time, wisely or not considering what ill-fate befell him later, had busted out of the tumbled down tarpaper shacks down in some Appalachia hills and hollows, headed north, followed the northern star, his own version, and never looked back and neither did his son.
Those of us who came of age, biological, political, and social age kicking, screaming and full of the post-war new age teenage angst and alienation in the time of Jack Kennedy’s Camelot were ready for a jail-break, a jail-break on all fronts and that included from the commercial Tin Pan Alley song stuff. The staid Eisenhower red scare cold war stuff (he our parents’ organizer of victory, their gentile father Ike). Hell, we knew that the world was scary, knew it every time we were forced to go down into some dank school basement and squat down, heads down too, hoping to high heaven that the Russkies had not decided to go crazy and set off “the bomb,” many bombs. And every righteous teenager had restless night’s sleep, a nightmare that, he or she, was trapped in some fashionable family fall-out shelter bunker and those loving parents had thoughtfully brought their records down into the abyss to soothe their savage beasts for the duration. Yelling in that troubled sleep please, please, please if we must die then at least let’s go out to Jerry Lee’s High School Confidential. And as we matured Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind.
We were moreover, some of us anyway, and I like to think the best of us, driven by some makeshift dreams, ready to cross our own swords with the night-takers of our time, and who, in the words of Camelot brother Bobby, sweet ruthless Bobby of more than one shed tear in this quarter, quoting from Alfred Lord Tennyson, were “seeking a newer world.” Those who took up the call to action heralded by the new dispensation and slogged through the 60s decade whether it was in the civil rights/black liberation struggle, the anti-Vietnam War struggle or the struggle to find one’s own identity in the counter-culture swirl before the hammer came down were kindred. And that hammer came down quickly as the decade ended and the high white note that we searched for, desperately searched for, drifted out into the ebbing tide. Gone.
These following sketches and as with the previous two series that is all they are, and all they pretend to be, link up the music of the generation of ‘68s social and political coming of age time gleaned from old time personal remembrances, the remembrances of old time folkies recently met and of those met long ago in the Club 47, Café Lena, Club Paradise, Café North Beach night.
The truth of each sketch is in the vague mood that they invoke rather than any fidelity to hard and fast fact. They are all based on actual stories, more or less prettified and sanitized to avoid any problems with lose of reputation of any of the characters portrayed and any problems with some lingering statute of limitations. That truth, however, especially in the hands of old-time corner boys like me and the other guys who passed through the corner at Jack Slack’s bowling alleys must always be treated like a pet rattlesnake. Very carefully.
Still the overall mood should more than make up for the lies thrown at you, especially on the issue of sex, or rather the question of the ages on that issue, who did or did not do what to whom on any given occasion. Those lies filled the steamy nights and frozen days then, and that was about par for the course, wasn’t it. But enough of that for this series is about our uphill struggles to make our vision of the our newer world, our struggles tosatisfy our hunger a little, to stop that gnawing want, and the music that in our youthwe dreamed by on cold winter nights and hot summer days.