Check This Action: Folk-Music Meccas

Check This Action: Folk-Music Meccas
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Jac de Nijs.

Though I was only six or seven, I experienced the Folk Boom of the late 1950s and early ’60s via my parents’ cocktail parties, when their friends would break out instruments and sing “Michael, Row The Boat Ashore” and “Tom Dooley.” It was the commercial vein of folk, á la the Kingston Trio and Limeliters, but it was where I also learned about Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Lead Belly.

In the wake of the recent PBS documentary on Buffy Sainte-Marie, I revisited two excellent films – Greenwich Village: Music That Defined A Generation and For The Love Of The Music: The Club 47 Folk Revival, from 2012 and ’13, respectively. The former deals with artists in the bohemian Manhattan neighborhood, told via excerpts from A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir Of Greenwich Village In The Sixties by Suze Rotolo, best known as Bob Dylan’s girlfriend (that’s her with him on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan).

Artists such as Sainte-Marie, John Sebastian, Richie Havens, and Judy Collins serve as talking heads, interspersed with concert footage. While it’s not about guitar playing, specifically, acoustic guitars are omnipresent; longtime Martin historian Dick Boak once told me, “Martin was back-ordered for two to three years because of the Kingston Trio and the Folk Boom.”

It’s unfortunate that excellent pickers like Happy Traum and Jose Feliciano, both interviewees, aren’t seen in performance, though there’s excellent footage showing Havens’ unique percussive strumming. But the focus is as much on the scene and the messages as on the music itself. The film conjures exciting images of clubs like Cafe Wha? and the Gaslight, or Izzy Young’s Folklore Center, and musicians jamming in Washington Square Park on Sunday afternoons.

The repertoire consisted of ballads, blues, historical songs, and Appalachian tunes. Terri Thal, Dylan’s first manager, points out that Dylan’s debut album contained only two originals. But he, Phil Ochs, and a few others ushered in the singer/songwriter as the entity typically thought of today as folk music or Americana. Radio disc jockey Pete Fornatale, now deceased, takes a condescending view of rock and roll, stating that it didn’t have the emotional intensity, lyrical depth, and musical textures present in folk. But when the story shifts to the Lovin’ Spoonful doing “Do You Believe In Magic” in ’65, it’s electrifying in more ways than one.

The focus of Club 47 is narrower, since it’s about one venue in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Some artists, like Carolyn Hester and Maria Muldaur, straddled both scenes, but Tom Rush, Taj Mahal, and producer/performer Jim Rooney, among others, called the club home. In 1958, the coffee house featuring jazz turned a corner when 17-year-old unknown Joan Baez auditioned and was quickly packing the small house. She is an interviewee, as is Debbie Green, from whom Baez got songs and much of her style.

There are more performances than the Village film, from archival footage of Rev. Gary Davis and a brief clip showing the sheer power of Son House to Rush, banjo great Bill Keith, the Kweskin Jug Band with Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, bluegrassers Peter Rowan and the Charles River Valley Boys, and folkie Jackie Washington Landron. A section is devoted to the late Eric Von Schmidt, a pivotal singer/guitarist and collector of material.

The hotspot featured early-’60s bookings of Doc Watson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and the Staple Singers, and Dylan would play the club half-secretly, owing to his popularity and management, provided there was no formal advertising. By April ’68, the acts that were the club’s bread and butter had outgrown it, as national tours became more lucrative. It eventually housed a bookstore, which morphed into Club Passim and presented Americana acts.

Though not featured in Club 47, Beverly “Buffy” Sainte-Marie played there. In Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, University of Massachusetts Amherst classmate Taj Mahal sings her praises, as do Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell, and others.

Born to Cree parents in Canada, Sainte-Marie was adopted by an American family and grew up in New England. She ventured to Greenwich Village in ’63 and drew acclaim almost immediately. A natural musician from a young age, she plays guitar and piano, as well as mouth bow, and at 81, with its speedy vibrato, her voice is one of the most recognizable in popular music.

As Greenwich Village details how Pete Seeger was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Sainte-Marie’s pointed political songs drew a more-covert version, carried out by the FBI. Like Seeger, she ultimately triumphed – winning an Oscar, becoming a regular on “Sesame Street,” and having songs covered by Donovan, Glen Campbell, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Elvis Presley.

One subchapter the story doesn’t tell is that when underground radio was launched in San Francisco in ’67, songs like “Co’dine” and “Little Wheel Spin And Spin” were in heavy rotation. I was on the other side of the Bay, glued to my radio, soaking it up just as I had the folk songs my parents sang.

© 2022 Dan Forte; all rights reserved by the author.

This article originally appeared in VG’s March 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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