I confess. I was a teenage folkie—or at least I passed for one. I wore blue chambray work shirts and a red-and-black checkered lumber jacket to school. I took the E train to West 4th Street, milled around the fountain in Washington Square, smoked unfiltered cigarettes and drank coffee at Reggio, had my heart broken by long-haired girls who wore Fred Braun sandals.
The first LP I bought was the Folkways record Lead Belly’s Last Sessions Part 4. True, I never learned to play the harmonica, let alone the guitar. My only instrument was the jug, which I played in a band that had several gigs in the baby-boom heartland of central Queens. I forget what we called ourselves but remember our greatest accomplishment was adding a song by the Coasters to the canon established by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jug Stompers (an ensemble whose lone LP was another early purchase).
Buying those records (two for five bucks on sale at Sam Goody’s) was buying into a particular worldview. So far as the music went, I was more moved by the Ronettes than by Joan Baez and thought “Spanish Harlem” was better than any song by Pete Seeger. The most impressive act I ever saw in a Village coffee house was the Animals, the bloozy British band who covered Bob Dylan’s rip-off of Dave Van Ronk’s version of “House of the Rising Sun” and, somewhat improbably, played the Night Owl Café in 1965 as part of a benefit for striking coal miners.
To be a folkie was to join CORE, march for peace, belong to a vanguard, and maybe even a zeitgeist. For a while there was a nightly four-hour folk show on AM radio until the station, WJRZ, and the DJ, Jerry White, went country-and-western in the late ’60s. I enrolled, demonstrated, and listened but I was a bit cynical about those things too.
To be a folkie was also to be hip, at least in my mind—and thus develop a particular dialectic of hip and lame. So far as the music went, there was a definite hierarchy. The harmonizing threesomes—the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary—were beyond the pale. The cabaret artists Theo Bikel and Martha Schlamme were, along with the Weavers, strictly for your parents. The beautiful songbirds and romantic rambling boys were sappy sentimentalists at worst and guilty pleasures at best. The earnest protest singers were just that, but even though “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” affected me like chalk scraping a blackboard, I was hardly immune to their impassioned agitprop.
Revivalists like the New Lost City Ramblers, the Greenbriar Boys, and the Kweskin Jug Band were cooler, although authenticity was reserved for rediscovered old timers like Mississippi John Hurt and Roscoe Holcomb. Original stylists Dave Van Ronk, Richie Havens, Fred Neil, Maria D’Amato seemed most worthy of respect—and then, alone at the center of the folkie universe there was Bob Dylan.
It wasn’t the music; it was the scene, with all its adolescent excitement, sense of community, and smug self-righteousness—a mentalité I re-experienced in the exhibition “Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival,” at the Museum of the City of New York through November.
Named for Gerde’s Folk City, the best-remembered of the Village folk boîtes, the show is a dense, friendly hubbub with a strong sense of place.
An old Gerde’s marquee hangs from the ceiling. Sunday, 18-year-old Dan Drasin’s 17-minute cinema verité documentary of the epochal April 1961 altercation between New York police and guitar-toting folk singers in Washington Square Park—the original ’60s protest!—is in heavy rotation. Just about the first image you see is a giant blow-up of Woody Guthrie in pea coat and cap posed playing his guitar (“This Machine Kills Fascists”) in the midst of a crowded subway car, just another New Yorker celebrating New Year’s Eve 1943. In the background you can hear the Weavers joyously singing out a Lead Belly song, “The Midnight Special.”
Not for nothing are the walls of this three-room exhibit painted red. The show’s first section “Roots of the Revival” had a number of 78 rpm record albums by Josh White (Southern Exposure) and the Almanac Singers (Songs for John Doe) that I might have seen, if not heard, jammed into a living-room bookcase in the homes of friends who had “progressive” parents. Although I eventually realized that many, if not most, of my folkie comrades were red-diaper babies it was not until I read R. Serge Denisoff’s Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left a decade or so later that I fully understood that just as evangelists for the Christian Crusade warned, the folk music revival was a function of the international Communist conspiracy—or, as I would put it now, the most successful cultural initiative to have its roots in pre-World War II Communist theorizing on the political economy of “people’s music.”
“Folk City” provides ample circumstantial evidence (copies of Songs for Wallace and the Red Songbook), background on Red Channels, HUAC, and the blacklisting of Pete Seeger (as well as the backsliding of Josh White). It also emphasizes the moral authority that the folk revival derived by virtue of its prominent support for and association with the Southern Freedom struggle, something anticipated by the CP as well. More than a coffee-house performer, Odetta was less the heir of Bessie Smith than Paul Robeson.
From my teenage perspective, the folk revival seemed a notably heymish scene. That’s not a subject that the exhibit explores although it surfaces in the excellent accompanying catalog by Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen. Winking or not, the book is emblazoned with an iconic snapshot of those two identity-shifting Jewish cowboys and sons of Woody, Bob Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. It’s July 1964, the guys are chilling on what could be MacDougal Street; Bob grins demonically while Jack seems lookin’ to get out of Dodge.
By some accounts, Dylan was as pleasurably dumbfounded to discover that Ramblin’ Jack was born Elliot Adnopoz, the son of a Flatbush doctor, and a graduate of Midwood High, as my friends and I were tickled to learn that our hero was really Bobby Zimmerman (although, to tell the truth, it was more impressive to know someone who knew someone who knew Suze Rotolo, the girl with whom Dylan shared the cover of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and who was also from Queens).
With his corduroy jackets and neat dungarees, Phil Ochs seemed more the eager grad student than the crazy Jewish buckeroo, at least until he decided to come out as Elvis in a disastrous 1970 Carnegie Hall performance. The riff itself came full circle a few years later with the emergence of Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo—brought up in deepest Brooklyn by his mother, once a Martha Graham dancer and my mother’s Brooklyn College dance instructor, the former Marjorie Greenblatt.
In the Village, as in classic Hollywood, Jewish performers mainly kept their background to themselves. It wasn’t until reading Ronnie Gilbert’s obit a few weeks ago that I learned that the Weavers’ soaring contralto was Brooklyn Jewish—hardly a surprise, though, and not just because of the infectious oomph she brought to the Weavers’ 1950 hit recording “Tzena, Tzena” (the flip-side of “Good Night Irene”).
The folkie machers, however, didn’t change their names: Izzy Young founded the indispensable Folklore Center. Irwin Silber founded and edited the folkie bible Sing Out! Magazine. Moe Asch (the son of Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch) founded the crucial record label Folkways. Art D’Lugoff, proprietor of the Village Gate, did add a rakish apostrophe to his family name Dlugoff, but there was nothing coy about Dylan’s manager, the fearsome Albert Grossman. (The scene also had an Israeli component as well: Café Feenjon on 117 MacDougal was a Sabra joint. Of course for folkies, Israel was not just a Jewish state but a model socialist society.)
The “Folk City” exhibit draws no particular attention to Folk City as a musical folksbeyne, but the subject does come up in the catalog:
The expansion of the folk music industry also illuminated the growing entrepreneurial presence of Jews in the city.
Asch, the Solomons [Maynard and Seymour, who established Vanguard records], [Jac] Holzman [founder of Elektra records], [Orin] Keepnews [who started Riverside records], Silber, Young, and other folk music businessmen and journalists, such as Harold Leventhal [who managed the Weavers], Art D’Lugoff, and Robert Shelton [who wrote Dylan’s first review in the New York Times], were all Jewish, though they were hardly a unified group.
True, true, although one might also observe that the folk revival was a New York thing and that, for the children or grandchildren of immigrants, an interest in traditional and neo-traditional musical forms was perhaps a form of Americanization—especially resonant in that it identified with American outsiders. It could further be noted that, with the end of Yiddishkeit, American folk music offered a ready-made replacement tradition. (The musicologist and banjo-player Henry Sapoznik—a cantor’s son and devout folkie—dates his interest in a klezmer revival to 1973 when, impressed by his passion for Old Timey music, a North Carolina fiddler innocently asked him, “Don’t your people got none of your own music?”)
And then there was the millennial notion, most strongly articulated by Dylan and Ochs, that music might change the world. Despite the iconic photographs and performance clips and listening stations scattered throughout, “Folk City” is a reliquary of sacred artifacts. Lead Belly’s 12-string guitar can be found in one vitrine; Pete Seeger’s long-necked five-string banjo in another. Judy Collins’ Martin is on display. So is Odetta’s Gibson as well as her dashiki—a folkie Shroud of Turin.
In addition to dozens of LPs the sight of whose jackets might affect members of a certain generation as strongly as Proust’s taste of madeleine, the cases include a 1940 letter written by Woody Guthrie to the ethnomusicologist Henrietta Yurchenco on Lead Belly’s personalized stationary (an engraved picture of the artist with the unlikely sobriquet “Sweet Singer of the Swamplands”) and, excavated from the bottom of who knows whose dresser drawer, unused tickets for Bob Dylan’s first uptown concerts, at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, in early 1963.
The most precious relic is a pencil-scrawled Dylan set list:
Gates of Eden
If yuh gotta go
It’s all right, Ma
Like we never met
Mr Tambourine Man
As fragile as one of the Dead Sea scrolls, the scrap of paper is dated ca. 1965.
Was Dylan, who that year released two cataclysmic LPs, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, appeared at Newport backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and with another electrified outfit at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium (I was there, along with nearly everyone I knew!), really still singing “Hard Rain”? I leave that question to the Dylanologists who are the keepers of the faith. In any case, the list is a fantastic koan.
As an exhibition “Folk City” may not be not especially Jewish, but it is essentially religious.
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J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet Magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.