***After The Folk Minute Of The 1960s Faded- Keeping The Tradition Alive- The UU (Universalist-Unitarian) Folk Circuit
From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
I have spilled no little cyber-ink talking about one of the formative experiences of my young adulthood, the folk minute of the early 1960s which was ultimately dethroned, if that is the right word, by the British Invasion (the Beatles, the Stones, you know all those muppet guys your mother, looking at your hair, said needed a haircut but more importantly your girlfriend thought were “cute,”) a little by the rising Motown sound (all those great girl groups, you know The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, The Miracles and on and on listening to stuff that was not old time black country blues or even Chicago-etched electric blues but a more sophisticated sound that even your mother could like since they were earnest clean-cut boys and girls), and the sweep in of acid rock later in that decade (your mother then wishing and praying for the muppet boys to come back, since looking again right at your hair, Jerry Garcia, Jim Morrison, Neal Young, and all those hippie bastards needed a haircut badly but more importantly your girlfriend, your new girlfriend thought were “groovy”).
That minute the time of the great interest in old timey roots music from down home Mississippi Delta country blues (and the “discovery” of John Hurt, Son House, Bukka White, Skip James and that old juke joint Saturday swig of liquor and a good woman gone wrong with some other guy and wouldn’t you like to cut him lyric) to jug bands (Memphis Jug Band, Cannon Stompers, name your state Shieks who an important section of the folk scene gravitated to with the likes of John Sebastian, Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur, and Jim Kweskin forming and re-forming bands depending on who had a fast jug and a sweetbread kazoo) to mountain music (the music strangely enough of the old country for those hollows and hills folks who stayed put when the others deflowered the land and headed west to deflower other lands, the British Isles left behind once the land ran out or your forbears got run out for some offense against the king’s dignity, the Saturday night getting corn liquor high, fiddle, banjo, guitar, take your best girl with those ribbons in her hair music of my father’s people exemplified by the Carter Family in its various incarnations) to cowboy prairie (that going west itch never satisfied except for a minute on that Saturday blast down in some barn again your good girl swaying those petticoats with the likes of Bob Wills and his Playboys and for a short time Milton Brown and his crew) and a lot of other niche music. Music mainly craved by a young audience (mostly, a sign of the times trying to reverse that great vanilla assimilation driven by the immigrant-landed sons and daughters seeking to mesh with the great WASP central committee and their children flipping back to the roots) wearied by the pablum then current on AM radio (FM was the wave of the future, the place where acid rock, or let’s call it that to give Jerry, Jim, Janis, Jimi a name to hang onto, found a home before going bigtime in the late 1960s) where non-descript, purposely not-descript music filled the airwaves after Elvis died or whatever happened to him when he started making silly Blue Hawaii-type movies that even my girlfriend did not think were cute (all these girlfriend references are different young women from different times and not a single girl since I had and have had plenty of problems hanging onto the darlings but that is a story for another day and another venue), Chuck (who played with fire with Mister’s women and paid the price, a price being paid even today in our “post-racial” society), Jerry Lee (who loved too closely but who before the crash thrilled us with that scene on the back of the flat-bed truck flailing, there is no other way to put it, on High School Confidential in the film of the same name) and a handful of others, Buddy, Richie, the Big Bopper, Eddie who also crashed and burned.
So some of us were ready, more than ready when the new dispensation came breezing through first the radio (WBZ in the Boston area on Sunday night for starters, although I have heard more recently about folksinger Tom Rush via a documentary, No Regrets, putting folk music on the Harvard radio station map with Hillbilly at Harvard so lots of smaller waves were coming forth) and then making the crosstown journey from North Adamsville to Harvard Square the one of the American meccas for folk music (others being the Village, Ann Arbor, Old Town in Chicago, the Unicorn in Los Angeles and various places in San Francisco, all places which had some small long-standing traditions of caring about this kind of music).
And if one talked of Harvard Square in those days then one had to talk about the Club 47 (now Club Passim in a different location by still providing that some kind of music for oldsters and new aficionados alike but then over on Mount Auburn Street up from Elsie’s Deli, the Harvard student savior hangout). But that was not the only location in the Square. The whole place was filled with lots of little coffeehouses where for the price of a shot of instant caffeine expresso (then the exotic drink of choice for the hip avoiding Maxwell House or whatever regular store-bought coffees were around then) and maybe some ill-thought of pastry or sandwich one could spent the evening listening to the next big thing in folk music which was producing the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Donovan ( a little later), Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band (including later solo artists Geoff and Maria Muldaur), Josh White, Jr., Eric Von Schmidt, and a host of others who all passed through one of the meccas trying to draw a fan base. Most of the names of the clubs are now forgotten although The Idler and Blue Parrot still ring a bell but the beauty of the concept, the absolute beauty was that a poor high school or college student could take a like-minded date (and there were plenty of folkie women around even in high school at one point all trying to emulate Joan Baez’s ironed long hair to, well, to impress the boys who were infatuated with Ms. Baez and her exotic look) on the cheap and still maybe “scoring,” whatever that might have entailed and not always hopping into bed, although that was the plan for most guys I assume. I know it was for me.
So like I said I was washed clean by the folk minute, wash cleaned by the coffeehouse scene, and washed clean by the whole folk ethos and remain so even today. And today is what I want to talk about. That pure searching for roots folk minute did not survive Dylan going electric, the British invasion and the musical trends that I mentioned earlier but that was hardly the end of the story since a cohort of people continued to and continue to support that folk minute idea, especially the laid-back coffeehouse idea. Funny and maybe this is a sociological observation or a psychological observation or something but there might be some truth in it. I remember as a kid in the 1950s always rebelling against my parents’ music the music of the big band era in the late 1930s and 1940s (the Duke, the Count, Harry James, Jimmy and Tommy Dorey and so on, groups like the Mills Brothers, the Inkspots, the Andrews Sisters, and individual artists like Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, and Vaughn Monroe) that got them through the Great Depression and the anxieties of World War II. Music that formed their youth and which they stayed with not branching out much throughout their lives. I am noticing, and not just in my own case, but I will use that as the example here, that I tend to favor the music that formed my musical tastes in my youth-now classic (ouch!) rock and roll, blues and folk pretty much in that order. And others have too, specifically this folk music.
And so in some areas of the country, and Boston is one of them (although not so much Cambridge as in the old days except that Club Passim I mentioned earlier), there is an on-going if not exactly thriving folk scene centered on the demographic who came of age with the music (and a source of concern as baby-boomers die off and are not replaced in the ranks by the young). Now I mentioned that the coffeehouse idea is still alive. But not like in the old days where there was one on every block (not really, but a lot) and each place seemed to be busy every night. The economics of running such a venture preclude running coffeehouse as businesses (even Passim over the last period had been a non-profit organization dependent on grants, memberships and constant concerts in that small space). Now the coffeehouse scene is centered on the churches, mainly, who open their doors maybe once or twice a month for a weekend folk concert (complete with coffee and other refreshments as well). And the king hell leader of the pack in opening their doors, and hence the reference in the title, are the U-U churches in the area (Universalist-Unitarian who merged to survive many years ago but still keep their doctrinal differences for one and all to inspect). I would say that a great majority of folk events I have attended over the past several years certainly in the New England (where U-U-dom is strongest) are those simple churches. And so one can expect the hall to be setup with folding chairs, a simple stage, a sound system worked by some volunteer magic techie, the inevitable coffee and pastry, some flyers for upcoming events, an MC who has been around since whenever the coffeehouse started and some usually very good local talent. Occasionally an “open mic” for the brave or those who are nursing their act will fill in part of the program. That open mic democratic music idea is that you have a feature artist or two for an hour and the rest of the time brave souls go up and each play one or two songs for the rest of the program . Well it ain’t Dylan-Baez-Rush-Paxton-Kweskin-VonRonk-incarnate but it does keep this important segment of the American songbook alive. All of this mainly attended by AARP-ready patrons. So if somebody asks you, at least in New England, whether there is folk music around now you know where to direct them for a start. Hats Off To The U-U (and other) Coffeehouses