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My Village Folk Scene

My generation learned to champion civil rights, social justice, and peace through singing together, and in less than a decade after rock ’n’ roll fractured the music industry, an even more accessible subculture of do-it-yourself musicians began to emerge.

In the early ’60s, it seemed the whole world was learning to play guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, and bongos. The attraction of folk music was not limited to those raised on Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, The Almanac Singers, Leadbelly, Josh White, or The Weavers, but that’s who started it. Just beginning to feel its strength, early 1960s folk music was preparing to reconstruct popular culture and turn pop music on its ear just as rock ’n’ roll had in the 1950s. Ready for a great ride on the tidal wave, I needed to log more stage time and earn my chops. What better place than Greenwich Village? East Coast folk musicians flocked to Philadelphia, Boston, and D.C., but mecca was located within a few lower Manhattan blocks where three showcase clubs, The Gaslight, The Bitter End, and Gerde’s Folk City, marked an irregular district serving as folk central.

Jazz musicians had lived in the Village for decades, as did lesbians and gay men, all drawn to the bit of acceptance those streets had historically provided. Writers like Dawn Powell had lived and worked in the Village, and before that, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe had claimed the rare, safe space for creative originals and other misfits. The old neighborhood families, accustomed to the unconventional, put up with the new nightly folk invasion and the abundant tourist dollars they attracted.

Washington Square defined the northern edge of the world’s major folk district.

It was the site of regular Sunday afternoon jams and a magnet for swarms of kids and enthusiasts cruising through the arch at the foot of Fifth Avenue. They clustered around the circular fountain to listen or join in with music styles ranging from jug band, ragtime, original topical and union songs to old-time country and traditional ballads, both pious and bawdy. Bluegrass alternated with tragic Scots ballads and Irish drinking songs or the blues, now and again punctuated by arrangements right off the latest Kingston Trio or Joan Baez record.

As darkness fell and the music faded, the crowd thinned, drifting in a southwesterly direction toward West Third Street where the Village “Pain” Shop— the “t” long gone from the sign showing a can pouring paint over the world— pointed down MacDougal toward the Folklore Center and the clubs. Performers threaded through the multitudes and passed baskets for tips at “basket houses” like The Fat Black Pussycat, The Why Not, The Café Wha?, and The Id, several of which opened and folded regularly. Managers, bookers, agents, promoters, producers, photographers, journalists, techies, cooks, bartenders, club owners and managers, waiters, dishwashers, spouses, and groupies congregated, gossiped, hustled, and forged a breezy, transient community.

Among the neighborhood shops, chess houses, Italian butchers, funeral homes, and jewelry and news shops, pedestrians might purchase fresh Caribbean piña coladas and Argentinean empanadas from storefronts opening onto the street. The sweet aroma of sizzling onions on grills tempted passers-by stopping to watch an upright rotating leg of lamb roast slowly in plain sight of anyone suddenly hungry for souvlaki. Halfway down the street, The Gaslight hunkered down beside The Kettle of Fish bar. Directly across the street, the time-honored Rienzi Café did business next to the equally venerable Minetta Tavern half a block from where Pop had lived during the Great Depression.

Nestled among the food stands, jewelry stores, boutiques, head shops, and souvenir joints south of The Gaslight, Izzy Young’s Folklore Center drew musicians, fans, and curiosity seekers from far and wide. A steadfast supporter, producer, and folk advocate, Izzy was too generous to turn a profit in his shop, which often resembled a hostel. “Frets and Frails,” his regular Sing Out! column, kept track of the latest folk gossip a few pages from Pete Seeger’s “Johnny Appleseed.”

Tourists flocked from New Jersey, every borough and beyond to sample the latest “groovy” thing. Through The Café Borgia and the Figaro, back and forth across Bleecker Street, they flowed, consuming nonstop espresso and paying too much for anemic sandwiches and continental pastries. Legendary songwriter Fred Neil consecrated this fabled crossroads, his basso as profundo as Paul Robeson’s: “Standin’ on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, wonderin’ which a-way to go. . . .”

And many were the ways to go. The Hip Bagel opened shortly after I arrived on the scene and was where I was introduced to the delight of post-midnight breakfasts. Just after the last bow of the closing act, when the last penny had been counted, the last chair upended on the table, and the last key turned in the lock for the night; when the stragglers would be on their F, D, and A trains back to Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx; when the New Jersey license plates would have left our streets empty and hushed, The Bagel was a fine place to cap a night. With deep cultural roots reaching back before the folk boom, The “World- Famous Gaslight Café,” sat at the center of a street alive with colors in motion as multitudes window shopped, walked off a rich Italian meal, or made their way down the steps of 116 MacDougal to the home of Ginsburg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and other Beat poets before they beat paths west.

The previous March during our senior year, Herb had driven Cosby and me up the New Jersey Turnpike to MacDougal Street. We’d made our way down one of two parallel staircases leading to the cramped basement lobby of The Gaslight. A thick black curtain was pulled aside to reveal an aisle leading back through a rectangular room to a modest stage at the rear wall. After introducing us to the only one in the room, a languid man who claimed to represent John Mitchell, Herb explained how smart it would be to hire us, young cutting edges of the hot new thing. I sang a couple of songs and Bill did some jokes. The man barely opened an eye the whole time, and, unacquainted with the look of a stoned person, I thought he was bored, so when he told Herb they had a deal and to bring Bill and me back after graduation, I was shocked.

Herb, Bill, and I and reported for work in early July. Ducking into dark silence, we could barely make out the shadowy figure seated at a large round table of the front booth, which, I learned later, was generally reserved for large parties, VIPs, or Gaslight regulars. An older, sleepy-eyed man sat alone in the empty basement. It seemed that shortly before or after his friend and Herb shook hands, John Mitchell had sold the business to Ed and Penny Simon and was rumored to have skipped to Spain a step ahead of the law and the mob. John Moyant then bought the Gaslight with Harry Fry and brought Papa and his youngest son, Sam, up from Lake Wales, Florida; established them in a Village apartment; and threw them to the folkies.

Originally from Mississippi, Clarence E. Hood Jr. knew as much about folk music as he did about our booking, which was nothing. Surprised when Herb explained why we were there, he invited us to re-audition, saying that if he liked what he heard, he’d hire us. Eyelids at half mast, he lowered himself into a booth and listened quietly. He was completely taken with Bill doing his “Grande es el burro, el burro es grande” commentary on learning Spanish and other childhood recollections, and he liked me well enough to make a deal with Herb. Except for Tuesday night, when noted bluesman Dave Van Ronk hosted the weekly “hoot,” three or four performers rotated forty-five-minute sets for two shows during the week, three on weekends. At times I thought well of my abilities, but I also felt raw and ragged compared with those I considered veteran performers. Most of us were kids in our twenties, more or less starting out together, but it was a thrill to see my name on the sandwich board at the top of the steps alongside Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Len Chandler, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Josh White Jr, and Carolyn Hester. Comics like Cosby, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, David Fry, “Uncle Dirty,” Biff Rose, Lord Buckley, and Hugh Romney (who later became Wavy Gravy), (Bill) Greco, and (the always agreeable Fred) Willard regularly tried out new material and kibbitzed from the Gaslight stage.

But folk singing ruled, with featured talents like Judy Mayhan, singing with heartbreaking sweetness, Judy Roderick belting out mellifluous blues, elegantly stylized Hal Waters, Jackie Washington, David Blue, Jim and Jean, Osborne Smith, and Richie Havens, dripping sweat and driving relentless rhythms, his giant mitts making the guitar look like a toy. Personable, witty Artie Traum cracked wise with Happy, his brother and good-natured straight man. Both brothers picked home-spun guitar and crooned melodious old-timey numbers. On some nights, John Sebastian could be spotted slipping gracefully through knots of tourists, an ammunition belt loaded with harmonicas strapped across his chest. Good-hearted, soft-spoken John was getting ready to form The Lovin’ Spoonful and write some of the best popular music ever written.

Native Americans Buffy Sainte-Marie and Peter LaFarge, along with songwriter Patrick Sky, earned wide respect for bringing to the scene a consciousness of the original American genocide and continuing oppression of their people, as well as a passion for their heritage. A nasal twang and self-deprecating laugh enhanced Pat’s boyish charm and belied his cynicism, which I teased him about. “If it ain’t as good as ‘Rye Whiskey,’” he’d say, “then it ain’t worth listenin’ to.”

During that gilded era, city and country blues pickers were drawn to the Village and legendary blues men like John Lee Hooker could be seen at Gerde’s and The Gaslight, as could Bukka White, whose classic recording of “Stealin” had been worn out on my record player in Philadelphia. Some nights, Mississippi John Hurt, his fedora perched on his head, rocked back and forth on a chair gently rendering lines of “Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” “Salty Dog,” “Candy Man,” and his other classics. Although they picked his brain at every opportunity, not even John Sebastian or the Traums could have predicted the profound influence of Mississippi John’s playing style on country blues pickers forever after.

On other nights, Brownie McGee plied his guitar behind the raspy vocals and wailing harmonica of Sonny Terry, on “Diggin’ My Potatoes,” and “Step It Up and Go.” A decade earlier they had performed at Town Hall Hoots along with The Weavers, Martha Schlamme, Leon Bibb, Elizabeth Knight, Earl Robinson, and comedian Les Pine. I’d listened to the legendary duo on my favorite Hootenanny album for years, and now we were on the same bill! While I felt comfortable in the casual atmosphere of that time and place, every so often it would hit me how extraordinary it all was, how outstanding these people were, and how lucky I was to be right in the thick of it.

I sang under my breath along with the blind Reverend Gary Davis and his virtuoso guitar on “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” songs I’d learned from the issue of the Sing Out! with his picture on the cover. When he was led off the stage—a cigar sticking out of his mouth, its plastic holder set at a jaunty angle—I made sure to keep a safe distance from his wandering hands.

On any given night the creative sparkle on the streets reflected lights such as Buzzy Linhart, Phil Ochs, Paul Geremia, The Greenbriar Boys, Eric Anderson, and Charlotte Daniels with Pat Webb, who, on a snowy weekday night, inspected a sparse Gaslight crowd and remarked, “Hell, I been married to more people than this!”

According to the FBI, I was now “fairly well known as a performer in Greenwich Village,” and, by circulating between The Gaslight and Gerde’s and out-of-town clubs, I was mostly able to pay my bills. When bookings were scarce, the Olsten Agency found me temporary secretarial work and I appreciated those awful typing classes.

Singer-song writer and producer of the groundbreaking 1973 "Lavender Jane Loves Women," Alix Dobkin has six additional highly praised albums and a songbook to her credit. She lives in Woodstock, NY. Excerpted with permission from her memoir, My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming Onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement (Alyson, 2009)

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