The Night Murray Pulled The Plug-With Pete Seeger In Mind
Danny Ross was a born contrarian, young as he was to take on such burden along with his studies as a college student, or what would pass for such a person until a more contentious one came along. You know the kind of person who if you say an orange he has to say an apple if you ask for a preference even if all his life he had oranges and hated the very sound of apple. Better and this was pure since he was enrolled as a biology major if you said some scientific study had shown that pomegranates helped stop lesions he would site some obscure study by some half-baked researcher, a study that had been proven to be bunk, about how that same fruit caused cancerous growths. Yeah, pure Danny.
And that contrariness extended beyond purely personal preferences and scientific niceties. Listen to this. Danny, despite his obtuseness showing that he had the minimal social skills to survive in this wicked old world when he would let them shine, had this very pretty, smart, sympathetic and convivial girlfriend, Dora Denny whom he had met in Washington Square Park on one afternoon while listening to folk music of which he, she, they were very interested in at the time when it was beginning to blossom out of some Greenwich Village exotica in the early 1960s. Dora had just picked up the interest through listening to WMNC, a station which was beginning to mix up some folk programs along with its basic rock and roll formal but Danny as was his wont when he got enthusiastic about anything had become something of an aficionado. Aficionado meaning for Danny that if you say you liked the Weavers version of Goodnight, Irene as Dora did then Danny would almost compulsively tell you that Leadbelly’s version was infinitely better, cleaner, more nuanced, more mournful or whatever he was feeling at that time to oppose your proposition. But you can never tell about the influences of romance because Dora, remember she is the sympathetic, convivial type, thought Danny was being cute when he said that to her that first afternoon.
Dora at the time of this story had graduated a couple of years before from high school in New York City, the esteemed Hunter College School in Manhattan where she had gone to school along with her friend Josie Davis who would then go as an undergraduate to Wisconsin while Dora stayed in the city to attend NYU. Dora couldn’t remember whether Josie was a sophomore or a junior at Wisconsin since she had taken some time off to “find herself” read; get over an affair with a budding folk singer, Todd Whiting, whom she had met when she had gone to Washington Square one summer vacation Saturday afternoon. You might you might have heard of Todd Whiting, you can still get his records on Amazon or at places like Sandy’s in Cambridge, since he was something of a hot coffeehouse act out in the Frisco scene before the acid-etched rock of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors took the town over by a storm in the summer of love, 1967. Josie had met Todd, had met and fallen for hard for him while she was still in high school, hell, he was only nineteen but things moved fast in the 1960s, after he had dedicated a song, Angel In The Mercy Night, to her after another friend, Frida Hoffman had introduced her to him one Saturday afternoon. Todd eventually left Manhattan for the West Coast after the on and off long distance affair with Josie had run its course to in turn “find himself” which he had apparently done with that local success he achieved out west. (Josie had selected, if you are interested about the why of that long distance romance that was bound to expire, Wisconsin like a lot of other New York City and Long Island kids just because it was not either of those locales, that it was far from the homes which were driving them, and not just them, crazy.)
This is where Danny and his odd-ball ways came in. Josie who had been close close friends with Dora, closer than with Frida at one point, since they both were seriously into English Literature, complete with capitalization of the L to show how serious they were. One day after she had been seeing Todd a few times Josie took Dora over to Todd’s apartment to hear him do his rendition of Angel In The Mercy Night that song which he had dedicated to her that fatal day at Washington Square and which he was to perform that next Saturday night when he was the feature at Murry’s Coffeehouse across for the Gaslight in the Village. (Everybody was almost forced to use that “Murry’s Coffeehouse across from the Gaslight” designation for Murry’s or he got his feelings hurt since his business, his coffeehouse success depended for a long time on grabbing the overflow from sold-out shows at the Gaslight to come in and listen to the new talent that performed three songs and out at the “open mics” he presented at his place).
Dora after hearing the song deemed it very good, very good as an example of what the new folksingers she had been hearing of late should be doing instead of just covering old traditional songs from God knows where about people who seemed to be clueless about doing anything but killing, boozing, and having worthless romantic relationships. Todd’s song she said spoke to the new wave folk listeners like her. And she told Todd so, and he told her to come hear him Saturday at Murry’s with Josie. She said she would try except she had a date with a guy, Danny, who she wasn’t sure had enough money to cover expenses. Jesus, Todd thought then and as he mentioned to Josie later, the guy couldn’t cover a couple of coffees and a shared pastry, and a couple of bucks for the “basket” to keep him and his date in Murry’s seats, the cheapest of cheap dates none cheaper that just hanging around the Hayes-Bickford across from the Square watching the weird mixture of winos, rummies, con men, drifters, low profile poets, mad monk writers and flipped-out singers buzz around.
As it turned out Danny, a financially struggling student at New York University since his father worked for the railroads dying then and so not many weeks with fulltime work, and hence the reason behind the “no dough” status somehow pulled enough money to take Dora to the show. (He had borrowed the money from his older sister who had forced him to baby-sit her two children while she and hubby went to the movies downtown for a few hours relief in return.)
The way the show, the “open mic” nights worked at Murry’s Coffeehouse (I will dispense with the “across from the Gaslight” since you already know the reason for that designation), the way they still work now if you are near any of the fading remaining folk centers still around and kicking with the greying population who have not heard the news that the folk minute had passed a while ago, was that performers would sign up as they came in to sing one, maybe two depending on the number of performers, for an hour or so and then the featured performer (the person those two coffee and a shared pastry people were really there for) would come out to do two sets and close the joint. Things went well enough for the “open mic” section and then Todd came on to do the first of his two sets. This first set was all the classics, the old time traditional stuff folk audiences expected to hear. Tom Dooley, East Virginia, Cuckoo Bird stuff like that. Pretty well received. The second set Todd came out and sat on the stool placed on the small stage which some performers used and began to fiddle with his guitar. What he was doing was plugging his guitar into an amplifier in order to get more sound out of the instrument although nobody could see the amplifier from the front of the house. Then he started playing Angel In The Mercy Night with the amplifier on. Sounded good from what both Josie and Dora said later, later after the new world was crushed.
See Murry went crazy when he heard what he thought was going to be some rock and roll song when the decibel level went way up as Todd started Angel, was some rock and roll song what with the amplification, and had gone in back of Todd and pulled the plug so he never finished his song in that manner. Murry made it clear that Todd, or any entertainer, had to play acoustic or else forget Murry’s, go to Coney Island and weep sounds on the corners or something. So Todd finished up that night playing his usual acoustic guitar. Weird night. Here is the not so weird part though Danny born like all of them to the sound of the rock and roll night sided with Murry, sided with old time impresario maybe grew up with Duke Ellington or Frank Sinatra bop Murry against Dora, Josie and from the startled applause after Todd finished Angel most of the rest of the audience. Said folk music was only worthy of that designation when the juice was off. Jesus.