Monday, March 23, 2015
Once Again On The 1960s Folk Minute-The Cambridge Club 47 Scene
I am not the only one who recently has taken a nose-dive back in time to that unique moment from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s when folk music had its minute as a popular genre. People may dispute the end-point of that minute like they do about the question of when the 1960s ended as a counter-cultural phenomenon but clearly with the advent of acid-etched rock by 1967-68 the searching for and reviving the folk roots had passed. As an anecdote in support of that proposition that is the period when I stopped taking dates to the formerly ubiquitous home away from home coffeehouses, cheap poor boy college student dates to the Harvard Square coffeehouses where for the price of a couple of cups of coffee, a shared pastry, and maybe a couple of dollars admission charge you could hear up and coming talent working out their kinks, and took them instead to the open-air fashion statement rock concerts that were abounding around the town. Some fifty years out in fits of nostalgia and maybe to sum up 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 Club Passim in a similar small venue near the Harvard Co-Op Bookstore).
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 itself a part of the roots revival we 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 I have reviewed elsewhere in this space is a biopic centered on the fifty plus years in folk music of Tom Rush. Both those visual references got me thinking about how that folk scene, or better, the Harvard Square coffeehouse scene kept me from going off the rails, although that was a close thing.
Like about a billion kids before and after in my coming of age in the early 1960s I 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” of course figured out, told about, made many mistakes to gain, came later, much later because at the time I was just feeling rotten about my life, my place in the sun, and how I didn’t have a say in what was going on. Then through one source or another mainly by the accident of tuning my life-saver transistor radio on one Sunday night to listen to a favorite rock and roll DJ I 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 I 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. I was intrigued.
One Saturday afternoon I made connections to get to a Redline subway stop which was the quickest way for me to get to Harvard Square (which 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 I found out later huddled in small group corners working on their music (or poetry which also had some sway as a tail end of the “beat” scene) so I 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 I 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. I had heard his Joshua Gone Barbados covered by Tom Rush on Dick Summer’s show and I flipped out so I was eager to hear him. So for the price of, I think, two coffees each, a stretched-out shared brownie and two subway fares we had a good time, an excellent time (although that particular young woman and I 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.
I 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 Redline subway ran all night. That was my home away from home not only for cheap date nights depending on the girl I was interested in but when the storms gathered at the house about my doing, or not doing, this or that, stuff like that when my mother pulled the hammer down. If I had a few dollars make by caddying for the Mayfair swells at a private club a few miles from my house I would pony up the admission, or two admissions if I 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 I was broke I would do my alternative, take the subway but rather than go to a club I would hang out all night at the famous Harvard Square Hayes-Bickford just up the steps from the subway stop exit. That was a crazy 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 me, others from cheap street, 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, I, wanted to catch it. Wasn’t that a time.