Wednesday, June 08, 2016

*****In The Twilight Of The Folk Minute- Peter Seeger And Arlo Guthrie In Concert In The Late 1980s

*****In The Twilight Of The Folk Minute- Peter Seeger And Arlo Guthrie In Concert In The Late 1980s

“Jesus, they charged me fourteen dollars each for these tickets to see Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie and I got them by coming over here to the box office on my lunch hour instead of being gouged by Tick-Pik for three extra bucks apiece for god knows what purpose since it is not like this concert thing was a “hot ticket” like they were the Stones or Springsteen where you expect to be gouged and if you want to see them bad enough you cough up the extra dough, Sam Lowell was telling his companion and their two friends just that moment. After a pause to think through where he wanted togo with his thoughts he continues, “Remember Laura about ten or fifteen years ago when we saw Pete for five bucks each at the Café Nana over in Harvard Square and he put on a hundred dollar show unlike what I hear about him lately that age is catching up with him, he must be in his seventies, and he talks more than plays and sings.” (Laura nodded her head in agreement.) “That was when Hank, Hank Jacobs, the owner, used to bill all the big folk acts for cheap money because the folk minute was decidedly over and most of them were “from hunger” then and didn’t want to work for the “basket” like when they were kids on the way up so would jump at the opportunity to play and I guess he treated them okay from what Dave Von Ronk said one night when he was featured there. Those were the days when just because it was the Square you could still draw a crowd of people like us who used to “cruise” the folk minute scene in the early 1960s to hear those guys play and still carry the torch for such music that went along with our political ambitions and our desire to break out of that mold which was descending on us to come back to earth for a while.” (Laura laughed at that mention of “cruise” since it was a new term, kind of sexually charged,  not used back in the day when it was just “hanging out” they were doing when they went to the coffeehouses or peace marches.)

“Oh yeah, and the price of an expresso coffee each for two people and I think maybe we shared a piece of carrot cake was maybe another three bucks. You had to have something in front of you to keep your seat or unless it was a slow night Hank would scowl at you and make you think that you had done something criminal by taking the seat of a customer who would buy some wine and maybe a light meal which they served then. Beside the carrot cake was good, I think his wife, Stella, made it from scratch and Laura would eat a fork-full and I would have the rest as you can tell from my slightly expanded form.” (Laura laughed the knowing laugh of too many latter carrot cakes after he stopped jogging a few years back when his knees started giving out from the pounding he took over on the asphalt at Fresh Pond where he used to run.)

“We had been on a cheap date since I was still in law school over at New England, maybe second year so it was probably 1972 (Laura corrected him saying 1973), a cheap date when I didn’t have much cash and at that time, just at the cusp of the women’s liberation movement taking wider hold, a guy was still mostly expected to pay. No “Dutch treat,” no Laura Dutch treat expected anyway especially on a first or second date, and definitely not that one when I had been intrigued by you early on and wanted to continue to see you.” (Laura’s face reddened and then she put on a bright smile).

“Around that same time, that same Spring of 1973, Arlo gave a free concert out on Concord Commons, remember” Sam said to his date Laura Peters and the couple they were standing in line with, Patrick Darling and Julia James, in front of Symphony Hall in Boston waiting for the doors to open for the Pete-Seeger-Arlo Guthrie concert that evening.

Laura once Sam came off his soap-box as she always called it, especially when he was in a “folk minute” frame of mind and wanted to impress everybody within hearing distance of his arcane knowledge of lots of folk history including remembering the wrong dates and usually what they ate, or didn’t eat, but spot on when it came to the acts and their play lists for the evening then rather sheepishly, for her, nodded that she remembered the Café Nana event since she had been entirely willing, knowing that Sam was in law school and broke and she had already gotten a job as a CPA at John Hancock and was making money, to go “Dutch treat” that night but Sam had insisted he pay and she did not press the issue since she too had been intrigued by him.  That sheepish part was because she recalled that back then, back before she got involved with the edges of the women’s liberation movement and tried to change was perfectly willing to let the guy pay, expected him to pay even if he was from hunger. So Sam was not that far off but she never liked to let him play that “from hunger” thing too strongly and so she had her say. Yeah, she thought to herself that was the way her father had done it with her mother and her mother had passed on that wisdom to her.

Laura had failed to mention, failed to mention under the circumstances that they were standing in a public place with friend who did not need to know Sam “forgot” that she had not gone with him to see Arlo on the Commons since Sam had taken his ex-wife, Josie Davis, to that concert at a time when Josie and Sam were trying to reconcile or get divorced but she did not want to bring that up although Julia had looked in her direction when Sam mentioned that Commons concert since she and her date, some guy from Sam’s law school had gone along and had witnessed reason two hundred and twenty-seven why Sam and Josie eventually got divorced when Josie had badgered Sam about buying a house when he got his first job and would not let it go. With another year in school and bar exams in front of him she was thinking about that stuff. Yeah, so long Josie.  That tense moment passed with the men both oblivious.

This in any case would be the first time Pete and Arlo had appeared together since Newport a number of years back. This also the first time this foursome had seen either of them in a good number of years since Pete Seeger had gone to upstate New York and had been spending more time making the rivers and forests up there green again than performing and Arlo was nursing something out in Stockbridge. “Maybe, Alice,” Patrick said and everybody laughed at that inside joke. 

Sam continued along that line of his about “the back in the days” for a while, with the three who were still also something of folk aficionados well after the heyday of that music in what Sam always and endlessly called the “1960s folk minute” nodding their heads in agreement saying “things sure were cheaper then and people, folkies for sure, did their gigs for the love of it as much as for the money, maybe more so. Did it, what did the grizzled folk historian cum folksinger-songwriter Dave Van Ronk call it then, oh yeah, for the “basket,” for “from hunger” walking around money to keep the wolves from the doors. To piece off the landlord or roommate for another week or month.

Begged for a room, a small room, a stage and bunch of mismatched chairs, usually giving the economics of coffeehouse ownership, to play out whatever saga drove them to places like the Village, Harvard Square, North Beach and their itch to make a niche in the booming folk world where everything seemed possible. Everything seemed possible if you had any kind of voice to the left of Dylan’s and Van Ronk’s own, could play three chords on a guitar, or a la Pete work a banjo, a mando, or some other stringed instrument, and write of love, sorrow, some dastardly death deed, or on some pressing issue of the day.


After being silent for a moment Sam got a smile on his face and said “On that three chord playing thing I remember Geoff Muldaur from the Kweskin Jug Band, a guy who knew the American folk songbook as well as anybody then, worked at learning it too, as did Kweskin himself, learned even that Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music stuff, all eighty some songs, or the ones customers would listen to, stuff which meant you had to be serious, saying that if you could play three chords you were sure to draw a crowd, a girl crowd around you, if you knew four or five that  meant you were a serious folkie and you could even get a date from among that crowd, and if you knew ten or twelve chord you could have whoever and whatever you wanted. I don’t know if that is true since I never got beyond the three chord thing but no question that was a way to attract women, especially at parties.” Laura, never one to leave something unsaid when Sam left her an opening said in reply “I didn’t even have to play three chords on a guitar, couldn’t then and I can’t now, although as Sam knows I play a mean kazoo, but all I had to do was start singing some Joan Baez or Judie Collins cover and with my long black hair ironing board straight like Joan’s I had all the boys come around and I will leave it to your imaginations about the whatever I wanted part.”

They all laughed although Sam’s face reddened a bit at the thought of her crowded up with guys hanging over her although he had not known her back then in the folk minute since she had lived in Manhattan then and he had grown up and lived Carver about thirty miles south of Boston but had only met her later in the early 1970s when the Josie thing was going bad and she had brought smiles to his face when he needed somebody to do that awesome task.                      

Those reference got Julia thinking back the early 1960s when she and Sam went “Dutch treat” to see Dave Van Ronk at the Club Blue. (Sam and Julia were thus by definition not on a heavy date, neither had been intrigued by the other but folk music was their bond and despite persistent Julia BU dorm roommate rumors what with Sam hanging around all the time had never been lovers). She mentioned that date to Sam as they waited to see if he remembered and while he thought he remembered he was not sure. He asked Julie, “Was that the night he played that haunting version of Fair and Tender Ladies with Eric Von Schmidt backing him up on the banjo?” Julie had replied yes and that she too had never forgotten that song and how the house which usually had a certain amount of chatter going on even when someone was performing had been dead silent once he started singing like something out of the sea, or like the cry of the banshees.

Club Blue had been located in that same Harvard Square that Sam had mentioned earlier and along with the Café Nana, which was something of a hot spot once Dylan, Baez, Tom Rush and the members of the Kweskin band started hanging out there, and about five or six other coffeehouses all within a few blocks of each other (one down on Arrow Street was down in the sub-basement and Sam swore that Dylan must have written Subterranean Homesick Blues there). Coffeehouses then where you could, for a dollar or two, see Bob, Joan, Eric (Von Schmidt), Tom (Rush), Phil (Ochs) and lots of lean and hungry performers working for that “basket” Sam had mentioned earlier passed among the patrons and be glad, at least according to Van Ronk when Julia had asked him about the “take” during one intermission, to get twenty bucks for your efforts that night.

That was the night during that same intermission Dave also told her that while the folk breeze was driving things his way just then and people were hungry to hear anything that was not what he called “bubble gum” music like you heard on AM radio that had not been the case when he started out in the Village in the 1950s when he had worked “sweeping out” clubs for a couple of dollars. That sweeping out was not with a broom, no way, Dave had said with that sardonic wit of his that such work was beneath the “dignity” of a professional musician but the way folk singers were used to empty the house between shows. In the “beat”1950s with Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg, and their comrades (Dave’s word reflecting his left-wing attachments then) making everybody crazy for poetry, big be-bop poetry backed up by big be-bop jazz the coffeehouses played to that clientele and on weekends or in the summer people would be waiting in fairly long lines to get in. So what Dave did (and Happy Traum and a couple of other singers that she could not remember he had mentioned) was after the readings were done and people were still lingering over their expressos would be to get up on the makeshift stage and begin singing some old sea chanty, some obscure Child ballad (those ballads later a staple in the folk world because you could cover them as public domain items and frankly because they were usually long and filled up a short playlist if you were not feeling well or were pressed for something to perform), or some slavery day freedom song in that raspy, gravelly voice of his which would sent the customers out the door. And if they didn’t go then he was out the door. Tough times, tough times indeed.             

Coffeehouses too where for the price of a cup of coffee, maybe a pastry, shared, you could wallow in the fluff of the folk minute that swept America, maybe the world, and hear the music that was the leading edge then toward that new breeze that everybody that Julia and Sam knew was bound to come what with all the things going on in the world. Black civil rights, mainly down in the police state South, nuclear disarmament, the Pill to open up sexual possibilities previously too dangerous or forbidden, and music too, not just the folk music that he and she had been addicted to but something coming from England paying tribute to old-time blues with a rock upbeat that was now a standard part of the folk scene ever since they had “discovered” blues guys like Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Bukka White, and Skip James. All the mix to turn the world upside down. All of which as well was grist to the mill for the budding folk troubadours to write songs about.

Julie made her companions laugh as they stood there starting to get a little impatient since the doors to the concert hall were supposed to open at seven and here it was almost seven fifteen (Sam had fumed, as he always did when he had to wait for anything, a relic of his Army days during the Vietnam War when everything had been “hurry up and wait”). She had mentioned that back then, back in those college days when guys like Sam did not have a lot of money, if worse came to worse and you had no money like happened one time with a guy, a budding folkie poet, Jack Dawson, she had a date with you could always go to the Hayes-Bickford in the Square (the other H-Bs in other locations around Boston were strictly “no-go” places where people actually just went to eat the steamed to death food and drink the weak-kneed coffee).

As long as you were not rowdy like the whiskey drunks rambling on and on asking for cigarettes and getting testy if you did not have one for the simple reason that you did not smoke (almost everybody did then including Sam although usually not with her and definitely not in the dorm), winos who smelled like piss and vomit and not having bathed in a while, panhandlers (looking you dead in the eye defying you to not give them something, money or a cigarette but something) and hoboes (the quiet ones of that crowd  who somebody had told her were royalty in the misfit, outcast world and thus would not ask for dough or smokes) who drifted through there you could watch the scene for free.

On any given night, maybe around midnight, on weekends later when the bars closed later you could hear some next best thing guy in full flannel shirt, denim jeans, maybe some kind of vest for protection against the cold but with a hungry look on his face or a gal with the de riguer long-ironed hair, some peasant blouse belying her leafy suburban roots, some boots or sandals depending on the weathers singing low some tune they wrote or reciting to their own vocal beat some poem. As Julie finished her thought some dressed in uniform guy who looked like a doorman in some foreign castle opened the concert hall doors and the four aficionados scampered in to find their seats.                 

…as they walked down the step of Symphony Hall having watched Pete work his banjo magic, work the string of his own Woody-inspired songs like Golden Thread and of covers from the big sky American songbook and Arlo wowed with his City of New Orleans and some of his father’s stuff (no Alice’s Restaurant that night he was saving that for Thanksgiving, he said) Sam told his companions, “that fourteen dollars each for tickets was a steal for such performances, especially in that acoustically fantastic hall” and told his three friends that he would stand for coffees at the Blue Parrot over in Harvard Square if they liked. “And maybe share some pastry too.”     


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