Saturday, January 04, 2020

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

By Zack James

[As of December 1, 2017 under the new regime of Greg Green, formerly of the on-line American Film Gazette website, brought in to shake things up a bit after a vote of no confidence in the previous site administrator Allan Jackson (aka Peter Paul Markin in the blogosphere) was taken among all the writers at the request of some of the younger writers abetted by one key older writer, Sam Lowell, the habit of assigning writers solely to specific topics like film, books, political commentary, and culture is over. Also over is the designation of writers in this space, young or old, by job title like senior or associate. After a short-lived experiment by Green designating everybody as “writer” seemingly in emulation of the French Revolution’s “citizen” or the Bolshevik Revolution’s “comrade” all posts will be “signed” with given names only. The Editorial Board]

[Although I am also a much younger writer I today stand in agreement with Bart Webber and Si Lannon, older writers who I admire and whom I have learned a lot from about how to keep it short and sweet but in any case short on these on-line sites. And now Lance Lawrence from the younger writers.  .

In any case the gripe the former two writers and Lance had about the appropriateness of this disclaimer above or whatever it purports to be by the "victorious" new regime headed by Greg Green and his hand-picked Editorial Board is what I support. As Bart first mentioned, I think, if nothing else this disclaimer has once again pointed told one and all, interested or not, that he, they have been “demoted.”  Same here.

In the interest of transparency I was also among the leaders, among the most vociferous leaders, of what has now started to come down in the shop as urban legend “Young Turks” who fought tooth and nail both while Alan Jackson (aka Peter Paul Markin as blog moniker for reasons never made clear, at least to me) was in charge and essentially stopped young writers from developing their talents and later when we decided that Allan had to go, had to “retire.” But I agree with my fellow three writers here that those on the “losing” end in the fierce no-holds barred internal struggle had taken their "beating" and have moved on as far as I can tell. That fact should signal the end of these embarrassing and rather provocative disclaimers. Done. Zack James]


 “Jesus, they charged me fourteen dollars each for these tickets to see Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. 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 the price of an expresso coffee for two people and maybe a shared piece of carrot cake since they had been on a date, a cheap date when he didn’t have much cash and at a time when the guy was expected to pay, no “dutch treat,” no Laura dutch treat expected anyway especially on a heavy date, and that one had been s when he was intrigued by her early on) and around that same time, that same Spring of 1973, Arlo gave a free concert out on Concord Common,” said Sam Lowell 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 concert that evening. This would be the first time Pete and Arlo had appeared together since Newport a number of years back and the first time this foursome had seen either of them in a good number of years since Pete 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 also something of folk aficionados well after the heyday of that music in what Sam 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 Dave Van Ronk call it then, oh yeah, for the “basket,” for from hunger walking around money to keep the wolves from the doors. For a room 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 and if you had any kind of voice to the left of Dylan’s and Van Ronk’s, 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, learned even that Harry Smith anthology 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 you could have 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 Judy Collins cover and with my long black hair ironing board straight like Joan’s I had all the boy 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 with guys although he had not known her back then but only later in the early 1970s.                     
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 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.

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 she 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 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) 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 (and Happy Traum and a couple of other singers that she could not remember) did was after the readings were done and people were still lingering over their expressos he would get up on the makeshift stage and begin singing some old sea chanty 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 Julie 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 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 “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 guy who looked like an usher 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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