Wednesday, November 23, 2016

*****Once Again On The 1960s Folk Minute-The Cambridge Club 47 Scene

*****Once Again On The 1960s Folk Minute-The Cambridge Club 47 Scene


From The Pen Of Zack James

Joshua Breslin, Carver down in the wilds of Southeastern Massachusetts cranberry bog country born, had certainly not been the only one who had recently taken a nose-dive turn back in time to that unique moment beginning in the very late 1950s, say 1958, 1959 when be-bop jazz (you know Dizzy, the late Bird, the mad man Monk the guys who bopped swing-a-ling for “cool” high white note searches on the instruments) “beatnik” complete with beret and bop-a-long banter and everybody from suburb land was clad in black, guys in black chinos and flannel shirts, gals in black dresses, black stockings, black shoes, who knows maybe black underwear which in Victoria's Secret time is not hard to image but then something the corner boys in front of Jimmy Jack’s Diner salaciously contemplated about the female side of that "beat" scene (what King Kerouac termed beatitude, the search for holiness or wholeness), was giving way to earnest “folkie” time. And no alluring black-dressed gals but unisex flannel shirts, or sometimes once somebody had been to Mexico peasant blouses, unisex blue jeans and unisex sandals leaving nothing in particular to the fervent corner boy imagination) in the clubs that mattered around the Village (the Gaslight, Geddes Folk City, half the joints on Bleecker Street), Harvard Square (Club Blue, the place for serious cheap dates since for the price of coffees and pastries for two you could linger on, Café Blanc, the place for serious dates since they had a five dollar minimum, Club 47, the latter a place where serious folkies and serious folk musicians hung out) and North Beach (Club Ernie’s, The Hungry Eye, all a step behind the folk surge since you would still find a jazz-poetry mix longer than in the Eastern towns). That scene would go on in earnest to the mid-1960s when folk music had its minute as a popular genre and faded a bit. Even guys like Sam Eaton, Sam Lowell, Jack Callahan and Bart Webber, who only abided the music back in the day, now too, because the other guys droned on and on about it under the influence of Pete Markin a guy Josh had met  in the summer of love, 1967 were diving in too. Diving into the music which beside first love rock and roll got them through the teenage night.

The best way to describe that turn from be-bop beat to earnest folkie, is by way of a short comment by the late folk historian Dave Von Ronk which summed up the turn nicely. Earlier in that period, especially the period after Allen Ginsburg’s Howl out in the Frisco poetry slam blew the roof off modernist poetry with his talk of melted modern minds, hipsters, negro streets, the fight against Moloch, the allure of homosexuality, and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in a fruitless search for the father he and Neal Cassady never knew had the Army-Navy surplus stores cleaning out their rucksack inventories, when “beat poets” held sway and folkies were hired to clear the room between readings Dave would have been thrown in the streets to beg for his supper if his graven voice and quirky folk songs did not empty the place, and he did (any serious look at some of his earliest compositions will tell in a moment why, and why the cross-over from beat to folkie by the former crowd never really happened). But then the sea-change happened, tastes changed and the search for roots was on, and Von Ronk would be doing three full sets a night and checking every folk anthology he could lay his hands on (including naturally Harry Smith’s legendary efforts and the Lomaxes and Seegers too) and misty musty record store recordings to get enough material.

People may dispute the end-point of that folk minute like they do about the question of when the "turn the world upside down" counter-cultural 1960s ended as a “youth nation” phenomenon but clearly with the advent of acid-etched rock (acid as in LSD, blotter, electric kool aid acid test not some battery stuff ) by 1967-68 the searching for and reviving of the folk roots that had driven many aficionados to the obscure archives like Harry Smith’s anthology, the recording of the Lomaxes, Seegers and that crowd had passed.

As an anecdote, one that Josh would use whenever the subject of his own sea-change back to rock and roll came up, in support of that acid-etched dateline that is the period when Josh stopped taking his “dates” to the formerly ubiquitous home away from home coffeehouses which had sustained him through many a dark home life night in high school and later when he escaped home during college, cheap poor boy college student dates to the Harvard Square coffeehouses where for the price of a couple of cups of coffee, expresso then a favorite since you could sip it slowly and make it last for the duration and rather exotic since it was percolated in a strange copper-plated coffee-maker, a shared pastry of unknown quality, and maybe a couple of dollars admission charge or for the “basket” that was the life-support of the performers you could hear up and coming talent working out their kinks, and took those "dates" instead to the open-air fashion statement rock concerts that were abounding around the town.

The shift also entailed a certain change in fashion from those earnest flannel shirts, denims, lacy blouses and sandals to day-glo tie-dye shirts, bell-bottomed denims, granny dresses, and mountain boots or Chuck Taylor sneakers. Oh yeah, and the decibel level of the music got higher, much higher and the lyrics talked not of ancient mountain sorrows, thwarted triangle love, or down-hearted blues over something that was on your mind but to alice-in-wonderland and white rabbit dreams, carnal nightmares, yellow submarines, satanic majesties, and wooden ships on the water.             

Some fifty years out others in Josh-like fits of nostalgia and maybe to sum up a life’s work there have been two recent documentaries concerning the most famous Harvard Square coffeehouse of them all, the Club 47 (which still exists under the name of the non-profit Club Passim which traces its genealogy to that legendary Mount Auburn Street spot in a similar small venue near the Harvard Co-Op Bookstore off of Church Street).

One of the documentaries put out a few years ago (see above) traces the general evolution of that club in its prime when the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Rush, Eric Von Schmidt, the members of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (the forming of jug bands, a popular musical form including a seemingly infinite number of bands with the name Sheik in them, going back to the early 20th century itself a part of the roots revival guys like Josh were in thrall to), and many others sharpened up their acts there. The other documentary, No Regrets (title taken from one of his most famous songs) which Josh reviewed for one of the blogs, The American Folk Minute, to which he has contributed to over the years is a biopic centered on the fifty plus years in folk music of Tom Rush. Both those visual references got Josh thinking about how that folk scene, or better, the Harvard Square coffeehouse scene kept Josh from going off the rails, although that was a close thing.        

Like about a billion kids before and after Josh in his coming of age in the early 1960s went through the usual bouts of teenage angst and alienation aided and abetted by growing up “from hunger” among the very lowest rung of the working poor with all the pathologies associated with survival down at the base of society where the bonds of human solidarity are often times very attenuated. All of this “wisdom” complete with appropriate “learned” jargon, of course figured out, told about, made many mistakes to gain, came later, much later because at the time Josh was just feeling rotten about his life and how the hell he got placed in a world which he had not created (re-enforced when questioned by one Delores Breslin with Prescott Breslin as a behind-the scenes back-up about his various doings) and no likely possibilities of having a say what with the world stacked against him, his place in the sun (and not that “safe” white collar civil service job that Delores saw as the epitome of upward mobility for her brood), and how he didn’t have a say in what was going on. Then through one source or another mainly by the accident of tuning in his life-saver transistor radio, which for once he successfully badgered to get from Delores and Prescott one Christmas by threatening murder and mayhem if he didn’t when all his corner boys at Jimmy Jack’s Diner had them, on one Sunday night to listen to a favorite rock and roll DJ that he could receive on that night from Chicago he found a folk music program that sounded interesting (it turned out to be the Dick Summer show on WBZ, a DJ who is featured in the Tom Rush documentary) and he was hooked by the different songs played, some mountain music, some jug, some country blues, some protest songs.

Each week Dick Summer would announce who was playing where for the week and he kept mentioning various locations, including the Club 47, in Harvard Square. Josh was intrigued, wanted to go if only he could find a kindred for a date and if he could scratch up some dough. Neither easy tasks for a guy in high teen alienation mode.           

One Saturday afternoon Josh made connections to get to a Red Line subway stop which was the quickest way for him to get to Harvard Square (and was also the last stop on that line then) and walked around the Square looking into the various clubs and coffeehouses that had been mentioned by Summer and a few more as well. You could hardly walk a block without running into one or the other. Of course during the day all people were doing was sitting around drinking coffee and reading, maybe playing chess, or as he found out later huddled in small group corners working on their music (or poetry which also still had some sway as a tail end of the “beat” scene) so he didn’t that day get the full sense of what was going on. A few weeks later, having been “hipped” to the way things worked, meaning that as long as you had coffee or something in front of you in most places you were cool Josh always chronically low on funds took a date, a cheap date naturally, to the Club Blue where you did not pay admission but where Eric Von Schmidt was to play. Josh had heard his Joshua Gone Barbados covered by Tom Rush on Dick Summer’s show and he had flipped out so he was eager to hear him. So for the price of, Josh thought, two coffees each, a stretched-out shared brownie and two subway fares they had a good time, an excellent time (although that particular young woman and Josh would not go on much beyond that first date since she was looking for a guy who had more dough to spend on her, and maybe a “boss” car too).

Josh would go over to Harvard Square many weekend nights in those days, including sneaking out of the house a few time late at night and heading over since in those days the Red Line subway ran all night. That was his home away from home not only for cheap date nights depending on the girl he was interested in but when the storms gathered at the house about his doing, or not doing, this or that, stuff like that when his mother pulled the hammer down. If Josh had a few dollars make by caddying for the Mayfair swells at the Carver Country Club, a private club a few miles from his house he would pony up the admission, or two admissions if he was lucky, to hear Joan Baez or her sister Mimi with her husband Richard Farina, maybe Eric Von Schmidt, Tom Paxton when he was in town at the 47. If he was broke he would do his alternative, take the subway but rather than go to a club he would hang out all night at the famous Harvard Square Hayes-Bickford just up the steps from the subway stop exit. That was a wild scene made up of winos, grifters, con men, guys and gals working off barroom drunks, crazies, and… almost every time out there would be folk-singers or poets, some known to him, others from cheap street who soon faded into the dust, in little clusters, coffee mugs filled, singing or speaking low, keeping the folk tradition alive, keeping the faith that a new wind was coming across the land and they, Josh, wanted to catch it. Wasn’t that a time.          


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