Notes of a Footnote – 10 – Good Old Music
South… & Other Stops
I’m no musician. When now, in later life, I occasionally sing more or less in public – not necessarily all jam for those constrained to listen but a good time is generally had by me – I will be asked by bemused would-be accompanists, “What key is that in?” My answer is always, “I don’t know. I don’t do keys.” As to playing an instrument I will quote the answer of the fine singer June Tabor, who, when asked why she doesn’t play an instrument will reply, “The left hand knoweth not what the right hand doeth.” Despite this avowal of an ear that, if not exactly tin anymore, is still a very mediocre grade of alloy, as previous chapters of this memoir will attest, music, and particularly song, has often loomed large in my personal, aesthetic, spiritual and even sometimes professional life.
My parents both enjoyed music, mainly that of various popular genres. The nearest thing to classical music to be found in my childhood home was Gilbert & Sullivan and the appreciation – especially my father’s – was more of Gilbert than Sullivan. The house collection also ran to original cast albums of musical comedies and 78rpm albums and single discs of popular and folk-related music of the ‘30s, ‘40s and early 50s. I still have a number of these records. The ones of which I believe I have the earliest recollection comprise a 78rpm album titled “6 Songs for Democracy – Discos De Las Brigadas Internacionales”. The songs were originally recorded in Barcelona in 1938 under the direction of Hans Eisler, a sometime collaborator of Bertolt Brecht. The cover of the album is a rather cartoon-like drawing by an H. Willand [?] of five marching Republican soldiers, each wearing a beret and shouldering a rifle and one carrying a guitar. The leading singer was Ernst Busch, accompanied by the choir of the 11th Brigade. These, of course, were all songs of the Spanish Civil War. They include “Los Cuatro Generales” – in English “The Four Insurgent Generals; “Lied Der Einheitsfront” – “The Song of the United Front”; “Lied Der Moorsoldaten” – “The Peatbog Soldiers”; “Hans Beimler” – Beimler having been political commissar of the German unit of the International Brigades; and “Viva La Quince Brigada” – “Song of the 15th Brigade”. I don’t remember what the sixth song was. It was on the other side of “The Song of the 15th Brigade” but when I was very young I left that disc on a radiator in our living-room in consequence of which it was rendered it into a rather Dali-esque wax sculpture and thereafter unplayable.
People of my parents’ political views were, of course, strong supporters of the Spanish Republican cause and they had friends who had served with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. One was our previously-mentioned Bethune Street neighbour, Moe Fishman. Another was Paul Burns. He and my father had become acquainted through various left-wing causes and organizations and he and his wife, Helen, lived in a house on the south side of the short block of West Eleventh Street between Bleecker and Hudson Streets. They had a daughter, Catherine, who was a few years younger than me. Following the defeat of the Republican cause by Falangist forces assisted by the German Nazi and Italian Fascist regimes, Paul just managed to escape the murderous Francoist purges by walking barefoot over the Pyrenees into France. With America’s entry into World War II Paul enlisted in the U.S Army to continue the fight against fascism. During basic training it was noticed that he, to a greater extent than most of his fellow recruits, knew which end of a rifle was which. In the light of this it was suggested that he might become a firearms instructor. However, when interviewed by his commanding officer – a chicken colonel from one of those rectangular states in the Midwest – a problem arose. The officer had Paul’s file on his desk and the front of the file was stamped PAF – Premature Anti-Fascist. Tapping the file the Colonel said: “Private Burns, I see here where you fought in Spain.” “Yes, Sir.” “Say, which side did you fight on?” “On the Republican side, Sir.” “Oh, that’s alright,” said the colonel. “I thought you might’ve been with them damned Commies.”
Catherine Burns became an actress and subsequently an acting coach. She was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969 for her role in the film Last Summer, losing out to Goldie Hawn. It wasn’t until when, as an adult, she read histories of the Spanish Civil War that she became aware of her father’s extraordinary exploits and heroics during that conflict.
I offer the above two paragraphs as an example of the “madeleine-in-the-tea” recollections and reflections conjured up by contemplation of some songs and music.
Other recordings that were in my parents’ collection and which I still have are 78rpm albums by Josh White, Burl Ives, John Jacob Niles, and Helen Morgan, and a cracked disc of Al Jolson singing “Swanee”. Even in my father’s drinking days my parents were not night-clubbing types. The one club they would occasionally visit was Barney Josephson’s Café Society Downtown located on Sheridan Square. This was the first such establishment in the United States that, as an open and official house policy, was racially integrated. It operated from 1938 until 1947. With John Hammond (father of my old schoolmate, “Jeep” Hammond) acting as “unofficial musical director” the club showcased many black artists including Josh White and, perhaps most notably, Billie Holiday. My father and Billie Holiday were not, as far as I know, acquainted but they had a mutual friend in the songwriter Bernie Hanighan, co-writer of “Around Midnight” and “When a Woman Loves a Man”.
The first music of my own choosing that I remember were records of the day that featured on the jukebox of the luncheonette facing Abingdon Square where my mother and I would often have our dinner. The years in the early ‘50s when we frequented the place were a period when American popular music was going through an anodyne and not particularly vigorous phase. I recall playing songs including “The Tennessee Waltz” by Patti Page and “Shrimp Boats Are A-comin’” by Jo Stafford, along with various numbers by people like Frankie Laine and Vaughn Monroe. To my credit even at age ten I couldn’t abide Ms. Page’s ghastly “How Much is That Doggie in the Window.” For reasons that are obscure to me now I would also play some of Johnny Ray’s “Cry” songs. My mother, unimpressed by both Ray’s singing and appearance, once remarked that “He looks just like Jo-Jo The Dog-Faced Boy.”
My musical tastes – along with those of many of my contemporaries – changed radically in 1954. September of that year found me, age twelve, making the transition from The Little Red Schoolhouse to its sister secondary school, Elisabeth Irwin High School. Lunchtimes at E.I. were scrupulously overseen by the school dietician, Gena Dicker, and during one such a classmate – Johnny Friedland, I think – told me about a new disc jockey show that had begun broadcasting on WINS (1010 on your dial) while I was away at summer camp. It was called The Moondog Show and was presided over by a DJ named Alan Freed, said to have been imported to the city from Cleveland. He played records like “Earth Angel” by the Penguins; “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace; and “Most of All” by the Moonglows. This was doo wop and it could not have appealed more to those of us on the cusp of puberty. We loved it.
Along with The Penguins we got other bird groups: The Flamingos; The Robins; The Cardinals; Sonny Til &The Orioles. We also got the car groups: The Cadillacs; The El Dorados; and later The Impalas, accused by my neighbourhood friends Denny Baggs and Eddie Kech of having stolen their name. Add in The Platters and solo singers like La Vern Baker, Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton and Nappy Brown and we were in what seemed to us to be an entirely new musical and lyrical world. In those years Freed would also play records by the now-electrified blues singers like B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. What was also new to us and to white adolescents across the country was that most – not all but most – of these artists were “Negroes”. This fact infuriated many ardent segregationists in the South and in other benighted bible-belt backwaters. That “jungle music”, they said, was part of a plot – probably Communist-inspired – to corrupt, degrade and demoralize the youth of the nation. There were also righteous segments of the black community that, recognizing the music’s roots in the ‘devil music’ of the blues, deprecated its sinful earthiness. An irony in itself as the harmony singing characteristic of doo wop had much of its origins in church singing. These attitudes notwithstanding, many of the nation’s youth – black and white – felt that if this was being corrupted, degraded and demoralized it sure was a lot of fun too. You could listen to it and dance to it and make out to it and sometimes you could even – like the original Sullivan Street Impalas – sing it yourself. Although it was unapologetically commercial and very often corrupt in its production and marketing, and although not very many people thought of it in those terms, it was a kind of young peoples’ folk music.
As well as his radio shows – eventually renamed Alan Freed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Party – Freed also fronted live theatre shows. These were two week engagements, usually scheduled to coincide with school holidays. There would be one at Christmas; one at Easter; one at the beginning of the summer holidays; and one finishing around Labor Day just before we had to go back to the scholastic grind. The first of these that I attended was the Christmas show of 1954. It was at a movie house calling itself the Academy of Music on East Fourteenth-street just off Union Square. It took its name from the original Academy of Music, a 19th century opera house located on the opposite side of the street and long-since demolished. It was also adjacent to the then-famous Luchow’s restaurant, also many years gone. I cannot remember the whole list of performers on that show although I’m pretty sure that The Cadillacs and/or The El Dorados were on the bill along with, I think, Bo Diddley. There was a house band led by saxophonist Red Prysock. I definitely recall that three of us were standing in the foyer when a young man came out through one of the inner-doors. He had slick hair beautifully sculpted in the prevailing mode and he wore theatrical make up. Thinking ourselves hip, knowing Village boys, one of my friends muttered, “Who’s that fairy?” When we were inside watching the show we saw this youth emerge on stage as a member of a group of fleeting fame called Teddy Rendazzo & The Chuckles.
It was also usual for there to be a movie run between the music shows. For that season the film was a Bowery Boys opus called Dig That Uranium. The only thing I remember about this epic was a deathless line of dialogue from Leo Gorcey when he warned his companions that “…we’re on the edge of a steep preci-pineapple.”
Other theatres where I attended Alan Freed shows were the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Fox and New York’s Broadway Paramount. I usually went to these shows by myself and therefore did not indulge in any of the occasional dancing in the aisles, which, in any case, was discouraged by the theatre managements.
I can’t remember exactly when I first went to a show at the Apollo on 125th Street in Harlem but I was no more than thirteen or so. The Apollo shows of this kind were still called Rhythm & Blues Revues, and among the acts I saw on my first visit were Big Maybelle and Little Willie John who included his song “Fever”, later famously covered by Peggy Lee. The programme also featured a film. It was a 1945 flick called The Spanish Main featuring Paul Henreid who was, if anything, even more wooden and unconvincing as a pirate chieftain than he had been as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. The film also starred one of my redheaded crushes, Maureen O’Hara, but it was not one of her more distinguished vehicles. After the show I went across the street to the Record Shack and bought my own first discs. They were Nappy Brown’s “Don’t Be Angry” and “Oh, What a Night” by The Dells. Both were 78s.
It was not long after this that I bought my first 33rpm LP; the initial RCA album by Elvis Presley, pressed from master-tapes recorded at the Sun Studios in Memphis. In 1956, at age thirteen/fourteen, Presley was a phenomenon that could not be ignored. I remember lending my copy to an Elisabeth Irwin H.S. classmate who lived around the corner from me in an apartment house at the southwest corner of Bank and Greenwich Streets. I had a hell of a time getting it back from her. As Sam Phillips’s dream of the white boy who sounded black Presley – his talent aside – was the most visible and audible example of what was going on in the integration of white and black musical traditions and of the consequent slow breaking down of racial barriers generally. Alan Freed would often play discs of the Chess Records bluesmen and similar electrified urban blues artists. He did not, as rule, play records by people like Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup, originator of Presley’s first hit record “That’s Alright, Mama” or others like Lightnin’ Hopkins whose records on labels such as Gold Star were still aimed at the old “race” record audience and who played the rough blues bars and juke joints or, at best, the remnants of the old T.O.B.A. and “chitterling” theatre circuits. As the post-Jackie Robinson integration of major league and minor league organized baseball led to the slow dying of the old Negro Leagues, so labels like Chess and Atlantic began the evolution of Billboard’s ‘race’ chart into the Rhythm & Blues and, later, Soul charts. Early – basically pre-Army service – Presley was visceral, danceable and of a language recognizable to us as adolescents. The Elvis of the factory-produced Hollywood movies and even the later ‘70s Las Vegas incarnation confirmed many of us in the opinion that he could have been an even greater artist if he had somehow escaped the Col. Parker machine. Not a new thought.
I continued to visit the Apollo fairly frequently during my teens – it was, as per Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, a fairly quick journey on the Eighth Avenue IND subway “A” Train uptown from Fourteenth Street to 125th. I know that as a white boy I was in a distinct minority among the audiences for those shows but I don’t recall having any kind of problem with that.
Alan Freed was not the only DJ playing our kind of music and tailoring their presentation to the mainly teenage audience who bought the records they played. There was Tommy Smalls known as Dr. Jive who had a programme on WWRL (“1600 at the top of your dial”). It was a great after-school show running in the late afternoon from “3:05 to 5:30”. We also got Jocko Henderson’s Rocketship Show, coming across the Hudson from New Jersey. Another show emanating from New Jersey was called Night Train. This ran into the small hours and I listened to it from under the covers.
As noted earlier the name of Diablo, president of the Sportsman street gang was painted on the wall next to the stage door entrance of the Apollo. I saw this piece of graffiti on the one occasion when I was taken backstage at that Harlem musical Mecca. It was in the early summer of 1959 when my sometime-girl friend Dee Lambert and I travelled up after school to see her father who was performing with his jazz singing trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. It was a very warm day and the atmosphere in the rather cramped dressing room was quite close. Dee’s father said ‘hello’ but remained taciturn with his own thoughts, while Jon Hendricks was earnest in at least feigning some interest in what I was studying at school. I had to more or less fake my answers to his questions as I wasn’t, in point of fact, studying much of anything at Commerce. Moreover, my immediate attention was being taken up by the riveting vision of Annie Ross’s décolletage as she bent over to cut up a watermelon. Later Dee and I sat in the audience to hear the show featuring her father’s trio and, among others, the headlining Max Roach Quartet but my abiding memory is of Annie Ross and the watermelon.
It was some months after this that, again in company with Dee and another couple, I experienced what I still regard as my first proper grown-up, sophisticated evening out. We went to Trude Heller’s, then a bistro/cabaret taking up the first floor of the building at the southeast corner of Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue. The dining arrangements were immaculate; the lighting subdued and the entertainer at the piano was the incomparable Blossom Dearie. She, it transpired, had occasionally been Dee’s babysitter when she was little. I ate a perfectly cooked pepper steak. At seventeen (Dee was a year or two younger) and being underage even by New York rules, I think we were confined to soft drinks for refreshment but we were pleasingly and self-consciously aware that this was no candy store/soda fountain. Many years later I encountered Annie Ross in The Bailey pub in Dublin, she being in town for a club season. I recalled myself to her, mentioning our brief Apollo meeting. I knew that Dave Lambert had died some years previously and when I asked if she knew anything of Dee – whom I had always remembered with some affection – she said that Dee had been married and divorced twice before she was 21 and that when last heard of was living in Las Vegas.
Instrumental jazz and, to a lesser extent, classical music and various forms of folk dance music were, and more or less remain, something of a terra incognita for me. I have often been moved aesthetically, emotionally and rhythmically by non-vocal music but I don’t fully or analytically grasp why. I’ve never understood the inner-workings, the mathematics or mechanics. My feelings about and reactions to such music are analogous with my attitude to wine. I almost never drink wine. The reason for this is that I have no particular palate for it. I know bad wine when I taste it but I have no real discriminating appreciation of fine wine. Similarly, I know bad music when I hear it but what it is about music that I recognize as good that makes it good is a mystery to me. I do have a reasonable palate for ale and I have a critical ear for the difference between a good lyric and a bad lyric. Decades of close listening and some practice of the craft of lyric writing has resulted in my having at least a vague idea of what is, at least for me, effective and why. The forms of song that have engaged me over the years tend to fall roughly into the categories of traditional and tradition-influenced songs; those making up part of the body of what is commonly called The Great American Songbook – that is to say the Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Porter, Harburg, Hart et alia, creations mainly produced for Broadway and Hollywood musicals; and those other popular songs that, in my view, usually most closely reflect the artistic refining process of folk tradition or the conscious craft of the Songbook stalwarts. Although many beautiful and engaging airs and melodies are found in all of these forms the music tends to be there to carry a story. Songs in musicals – certainly in the wake of the World War I period Wodehouse/Bolton/Kern Princess shows, had increasingly to help define character, relationships and/or advance the plot. It became no longer enough to, as in the older operetta style, simply stop in the middle of the story – insofar as there was any – to present a musical interlude that didn’t have much to do with what went before or would come after. That sort of thing was now for revue not musical theatre. Similarly, traditional folk song is almost exclusively concerned with story-telling of one kind or another.
I had, as indicated, been acquainted with original cast recordings that were part of my parents’ collection. Two that I remember particularly were Finian’s Rainbow and Kiss Me Kate. The lyricist of the former was E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, of whom I will have more to say presently; particularly in relation to his friendship with my father. During the period – roughly between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one – when I lived and worked in Midtown the music in the back- and foreground was of the show- and show-type songs that featured in the repertoires of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and others of the jazz-influenced vocalists, both male and female, who performed and recorded before, during and after that ‘50s-early-’60s era. Among the newer singers working in the same general territory perhaps the one who made the most impact on me was Barbra Streisand. I did not see I Can Get it For You Wholesale, her big Broadway breakout show, nor, later Funny Girl (I did see the film) but I pretty well wore out my copy of her first Columbia LP – bought at Sam Goody’s on West Forty-ninth Street – and I went to see her once at Basin Street East, around the corner from my then-Authenticolor Laboratory workplace on Lexington Avenue. I never did see Sinatra live as at that time he declined to work in New York City, refusing to apply for the required cabaret card on the grounds that if the City wouldn’t give one to Billie Holiday he wasn’t going to ask for one either. I did frequent one of his hangouts, Jilly’s, the piano-bar on West Fifty-second Street, opposite the old Roseland Ballroom but – to my knowledge – our visits never coincided. I also visited the Copacabana where my South Village Italian friends were able to jump the velvet rope queue by whispering the name of a prominent neighbourhood underboss. Acts I caught there included Johnny Mathis and Bobby Darin who was then in the process of leaving his Brill Building rock ‘n’ roll persona behind in favour of becoming a Sinatra manqué “all round entertainer”. He would get a certain amount of ribbing over this from Dianne Payne and others who had known him from their old Bronx neighbourhood days.
It was a phenomenon of the period that several of the late ‘50s teen idol types were trying to follow a similar path. They would tend to be booked into the more sophisticated night clubs like the International on Broadway, especially during the June high school Prom season. Among these were all those Bobbys – Vee, Vinton, Rydell, as well as Darin – who, as Jerry Lee Lewis later lamented, were leaving righteous rock ‘n’ roll behind in favour of fairly insipid Tin Pan Alley schlock. (I saw Jerry Lee Lewis once on an Alan Freed show and still recall the flopping blonde pompadour and the piano-playing with his feet.) These Bobbys, along with the Philadelphia Italians like Frankie Avalon and Fabian, were what finally turned me and many like me away from mainstream pop music. It was getting altogether too antiseptic and also too white. Much of this sanitising came in the wake of the “Payola” scandals in which, among others, Alan Freed and Tommy Smalls were implicated. Also we were getting older. Instead we began to listen to folk and folk-influenced music, finding that even in the hands of horribly wholesome well-scrubbed groups like The Kingston Trio and The Journeymen there was a higher reality content than was then to be found on AM radio or the television shows of Dick Clark and Clay Cole.
Unsurprisingly, my own reintroduction to the music I’d heard as a child from the likes of Josh White, Burl Ives, John Jacob Niles and, at Little Red and E.I., from The Weavers and suchlike, along with the traditional and protest songs that the counsellors would sing around the fire at the broadly lefty summer camps I went to, came when I started hanging out back in the Village and particularly when I hooked up again with Major Wiley.
I first heard Major performing on stage sometime during the winter of 1962-’63. It was in a first floor coffee house on St. Mark’s Place. I don’t remember all of his set although it included a version of the song known variously as “In the Pines” or “Black Girl, Black Girl”. What I do recall vividly was the intensity of feeling with which the songs were rendered. The doo wop singers and the Broadway stage and night club vocalists were capable of great sincerity in their readings but this was straight from the viscera and shorn of any kind of show-biz slickness or veneer. It had none of the theatrically strained pathos of, to take one example, Judy Garland at her late career worst.
As I became gradually acquainted with the folk club/basket house milieu more or less centred in the MacDougal Street/Bleecker Street neighbourhood I grew to recognize the heroes of the scene. There was still Josh White. He had his affectations: the cigarette behind the ear or stuck on the end of a machine head-wound guitar string; and I always remember my father’s slightly revolted recollection of the white-suited singer’s histrionic hysterics at Leadbelly’s funeral. (My father knew Leadbelly only slightly but was quite friendly with his wife, Martha.) But White was enormously accomplished and, boy, could he hold a room! At a less polished end of the scale was Dave Van Ronk: serious, political, with his wife Terri – only a tad shorter than his own 6’2” – and with an entirely unique sound. And there was Major’s especially close friend and exemplar, Fred Neil. The writer of songs including “Blues on My Ceiling”, “The Bag I’m In”, A Little Bit of Rain” and, of course, “Everybody’s Talkin’” was for a time in the early ‘60s the organizer and MC of the Hootenanny sessions at the Café Wha on MacDougal Street. It was in that role that he gave Bob Dylan his first work in New York. He had a remarkably warm and evocative multi-octave baritone voice, perfect pitch and played twelve-string guitar, unlike a number of people who tended to be played by the twelve-string. I did not get to know Fred Neil well, although I saw him perform on a number of occasions. The last time was in a Bleecker Street club called the Café Au Go Go where he was accompanied on harmonica by John Sebastian. After their two week engagement they were followed into the club by Lenny Bruce. It was during that gig that Bruce, after continuous police harassment, suffered the final obscenity bust, the ramifications of which began a personal and professional downward spiral that only ended with his death.
I did have one fairly extended chat with Fred. We were sitting in the Dugout, a bar across the street from the Café Au Go Go and next door to another famous Village club, the Bitter End. The thing I remember best about the meeting was that Fred complimented me on my sunglasses. They were the first and only pair of prescription sunglasses I’ve ever owned. When Fred said to me, “Hey, cool shades, man,” it was indeed praise from Sir Hubert Stanley.
Major’s first appearance on record was on the live LP “Hootenanny at the Bitter End” during which he was called up out of the audience to join Fred Neil on a version of “Linin’ Track”.
Along with the better-known clubs already mentioned there were a number of more anonymous and ephemeral places all answering the description of “basket house”. One, the name of which – if it had one – escapes me, was a long, narrow, low-ceilinged basement on the east side of MacDougal Street where I saw Richie Havens for the first time. It was one night during a typical New York late summer heat wave. Richie, seated with his back against the wall, on a slightly raised dais, sang Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. By the end of that epic, which he accompanied with his own characteristically energetic and swangeingly rhythmic guitar playing, he was drenched with sweat and there was even a puddle on the floor.
However, the club that I frequented most was Gerde’s Folk City. The place was located at 11 West Fourth Street at the corner of Mercer Street, just east of Washington Square. Nearby, on the opposite side of the street in those days was the outdoor basketball court where – as noted – Bobby De Niro practiced his football tackle technique on me. Some years ago the court was replaced by a new building attached to N.Y.U. The proprietor of Gerde’s was a man named Mike Porco and before its incarnation as a folk club in 1960 it had been a neighbourhood bar/restaurant. One entered through the corner door and usually turned right and then elbowed left along a chest-high partition that ran between the 30-foot long bar and the large area with a raised stage and holding tables and chairs. I seem to remember that the Fire Department Capacity Notice above the front door authorized a maximum of 175 persons. At the end of the bar furthest from the entrance there was a door leading into the kitchen. Next to this, opposite the curved end of the bar, was a large ice machine. This area was the favoured resort of the Gerde’s cognoscenti; the top of the ice machine, as well as the barstools, being used for seating. The adjacent kitchen door also gave access to a stairway leading down to a basement passageway that doubled as a storage space and a rough dressing area for the performers.
By the time I began to frequent Gerde’s, circa summer of ‘63, many of the artists who had played the club in its early days had moved on in their own careers from the basket houses and folk cabarets to concert halls and folk festivals. Among these were people like Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Carolyn Hester, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs and, of course, Bob Dylan. Some of these, when not otherwise engaged, would turn up at Gerde’s, particularly on Monday Hootenanny Nights. The first time I heard Ms. Baez in, as it were, the flesh, was on one such night early in my Gerde’s-going days. The billed artist was a singer named Lynn Gold and at one point Baez joined her on stage for a duet. At the outset one of the singers began to sing, “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies…” The other began “Come All You Fair and Tender Maidens…” The Ladies and the Maidens collided in midair much to the amusement of the house and, to be fair, to the singers also.
I saw and heard many performers at Gerde’s, both those on the bill and those who showed up for Monday Hootenanny Nights. At this distance of time there are just a few who really stick in my memory. One of only two of what could be called the younger early-‘60s folk boom generation was Jose Feliciano, who was not, strictly speaking, a folk artist at all. The blind Puerto Rican singer-guitarist appeared one Monday with his guide dog and a female companion and his three-number set mesmerized us. Jerry Lugo was especially enthusiastic. He was a strong singer and as for his playing… Well, if you’d never heard “The Flight of the Bumblebee” played on the guitar, neither had we.
Another was Judy Roderick. When I first saw her at Gerde’s she would have been about my own age of twenty or twenty-0ne, although wearing what looked like a girls’ school uniform dress and middy blouse she looked about thirteen. A regular and sometime MC of the Monday night sessions was a man named Tom Pasley. After listening to a couple of Judy’s sets he shook his head saying, “It’s taken me ten years to even begin to make sense of a twelve-bar blues and check out this chick who looks like she’s still in junior high school.” Judy’s first record for Columbia, Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, was produced by Bobby Scott, who later had a hand in my own embryonic song writing efforts. The record, a copy of which I still have, is wonderfully vibrant and eclectic, Bobby having brought in veteran Dixieland musicians Sidney DeParis and Lou McGarity to work with Judy on numbers like Memphis Minnie’s “Wild Women Don’t Sing the Blues” and Billie Holiday’s “Miss Brown To You”, along with some of the younger Greenwich Village players to work on the folkier numbers. She subsequently made an album, Woman Blue, for Vanguard. The LP was produced by Artie Traum and is considerably more restrained and “tasteful” than the Columbia one but is still a gem that I listen to regularly now that I’ve recovered it, having once rashly loaned it to my singer/songwriter eldest son who lives in Bordeaux.
Someone I also remember vividly was Lonnie Johnson. Johnson, while experiencing a renewed popularity due to the revival of interest in blues, was no Delta country boy. There was no sand in his shoes. He had been a professional entertainer for over 30 years and that was evident in his act and presentation. He did not wear any sharecropper’s denim overalls but rather a white tuxedo jacket and bow tie. He famously once said to an avid young blues collector who knew Johnson only from his early ‘race’ recordings, “You ain’t another one of those guys tryin’ to put crutches under my ass?” He played electric guitar and sang “Mr. Jelly Roll Baker” and his highly polished version of “Careless Love” and treated the audience with the respect he thought he deserved. When I told my father that I had seen Lonnie Johnson at Gerde’s he said that he and my godfather, Joe Diggles, had heard him at places like the Chicago 3 Deuces club in the mid-‘30s. Still in my vinyl collection is an LP of Lonnie Johnson’s guitar duets with Eddie Lang. It is one of the few purely instrumental recordings that I have played often over the years. These duets were originally issued as 78s on ‘race’ labels and the white Eddie Lang had to be given the nom-de-disk of Blind Willie Dunn.
A further example of the wide-ranging multi-culturalism of the Gerde’s ethos was a Greek singer named Fleury Papadononaki. She was darkly beautiful woman of the unmistakably Mediterranean type that had always appealed to me. She a fine repertoire of Greek, various other European and some Brazilian songs. One evening not long before I left for Ireland we were chatting and she asked if I would accompany her to the Village Gate. This, I hasten to add, was clearly to be strictly a social night out, no klepsi klepsi. The bill at the club the night we went was a sterling example of the eclecticism of the ’60s Greenwich Village scene. For our delectation we had Thelonious Monk, followed by the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem and, finally a South African singer named, as I remember, Leeta Mbulu, a protege of Miriam Makeba. Wondering what the hipster bop-heads who had come in to dig Monk made of the Clancys and their mainly rowdy-dow-dow Irish songs, and how the waitress colleens and Aer Lingus hostesses among their fans got on with the ultimate in cool jazz pianists, not to mention the “click-singing” South African lass, had me somewhat flummoxed even then.
And then, of course, there was Dylan. I never saw him perform at Gerde’s although he continued to use it as an occasional hangout. The two times I did catch his act were in a modest concert hall somewhere in New Jersey, and at the Lincoln Center on the last night of October 1964. He was joined at the beginning of the second half by Joan Baez who was wearing a tartan Glengarry cap. The two sang a couple of duets during which they barely got within screeching distance of the same key. The only non-singing words Dylan uttered during the entire evening were, “It’s Halloween. I’m wearing my Bob Dylan mask.” I did not know him at all, although we were on nodding terms when finding ourselves together at the ice machine end of the Gerde’s bar. Early one evening he asked me if I’d like to hear a new song he’d just written. I said, “Sure” and we went through the kitchen door and down to the basement. Leaning against opposite walls of the narrow corridor I listened while he sang “The Times They Are A’changin’”. I thought it was a good song and said something along the lines of “Solid, man.” As we walked back toward the kitchen stairs I turned to see Dylan halted in front of a wall mirror with its old silvering showing through. I watched as he used his finger tips to primp his quiff. Intending to be droll, I said, “Why donn’cha try a comb, man?” He was not amused at being caught in a mild show of vanity that didn’t quite go with the dusty, bedraggled, just-off-the-road-with-Woody image he then cultivated.
On another occasion we were again at the ice machine end of the bar. I was talking with a woman who was and is the only stage mother I’ve ever encountered around the folk scene. Her daughter was the booked act and her name as I remember was Olive Smith. She was barely old enough to be working in a night club and, like Judy Roderick, looked even younger. There seemed to me to be a certain incongruity between her ingénue baby-faced delivery and her repertoire that typically featured Appalachian ballads in which Sweet Willie murders his several sisters after having knocked them up. My conversation with her mother had turned to the subject of smoking. I was at the time a heavy cigarette smoker getting through 50-to-60 a day. By the time I left for Ireland I’d reached the pitiful stage of chain-smoking where I would reach for a cigarette first thing in the morning before my eyes were properly open. Having seen me light one cigarette with the butt of the previous one the woman asked me if I ever smoked a pipe. I said that I had occasionally but I knew that some people found pipes offensive in enclosed spaces. “How about cigars”, she asked. Again I said that I had tried cigars (mainly of the cigarillo variety) but they also were sometimes deemed anti-social for use in indoor public places. She looked at me, with a perfectly straight and thoughtful face, and said “Well, why don’t you chew tobacco, like I do?” Dylan, overhearing this, nearly spluttered out the white wine he was drinking, covered his mouth and dived through the kitchen door doubled up and nearly dislocating a few ribs in suppressing his guffaws.
These small episodes apart, Bob Dylan had an enormous influence on me and on others of our approximate generation and those to follow. Along with contemporaries like Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Tim Buckley, et alia, Dylan – with a poke in the creative ribs from Guthrie – reminded us of something that folk and folk-related music and song did that mainstream popular music generally didn’t. As has been observed elsewhere, folk song in the main concerns itself with fucking, fighting, drinking and work. Dylan’s work re-demonstrated the truth inherent in folk song that there is nothing in the world, or out, that you can’t write a song about. That realization – or re-realization – was one of the two primary reasons why I was initially drawn to the idea of using whatever puny literary talent I thought I might have to write song lyrics. The second reason was that lyric writing was one literary form with which – as far as I was aware – my father had never engaged. Along with journalism, drama and short fiction my father, I knew, had written a certain amount of poetry and light verse but no songs and the last thing I wanted to do at that stage of my development was to compete with him in any way.
Joe, if he didn’t write any, certainly appreciated well-constructed song lyrics. One he always held up as an ideal was Wodehouse’s lyric for the song “Bill”, originally written for one of the Wodehouse/Bolton/Kern Princess shows but finally interpolated into the later Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat. As well as its deft technique its content also obeyed Wodehouse’s later dictum when commenting on Cole Porter that a song lyric must, as with a sonnet, contain an internal transition of thought.
One of Joe’s good friends was the previously cited Yip Harburg. Any lyricist whose range could encompass songs as diverse as “Over the Rainbow”, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”, “April in Paris” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” must be recognized as an consummate craftsman. In the case of the latter song it is notable that Yip’s wife had previously been married to Jay Gorney, composer of the song. She was sometimes heard to say, “All you need to win my heart is to have written “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.”
Harburg and my father were both strongly left wing in their politics and, like Joe Papp and a number of New York-born Jewish radicals, Yip had soft spot for things Irish. Sometimes this gradh could be counterproductive. The musical Finian’s Rainbow has some wonderful songs in it but it also includes the egregious atrocity titled “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” The show’s politics were impeccably left-liberal with its main plot device being a satire on Southern racism. It has recently given me pause for thought over how Yip – considering his views – would have reacted to his most famous song being used as a logo by the Lloyd-Webber conglomerate beast for one of the cheesy “talent” shows that pollute British and American television.
Then aged nineteen I attended the read-through that was given for prospective angels who might finance the show that would harness the dramatization of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist… and my father’s play The Barroom Monks that took place in Yip Harburg’s Central Park West apartment. The original idea was that there would be readings of excerpts from both pieces. In the event Portrait… was read in its entirety leaving my old man to give a spiel about his play. Joe did the best he could in the circumstances and managed to imply that, “Well, if you think James Joyce is good wait’ll you hear my stuff…” without actually saying as much. Joe’s final professional engagement with Harburg came when Yip and the composer Burton Lane – who had not worked together since Finian’s Rainbow – came up with the notion of making a musical of Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer, set in the Irish War of Independence. The 1934 film of this dark tale, directed by John Ford and starring Victor McLaglen as the tragic Gypo Nolan, won an Academy Award. Taking account of the success of shows like West Side Story, in demonstrating that musicals did not necessarily have to be comedies, Harburg and Lane thought there could be some mileage in the project and Yip invited my father to consider writing the book for the show. At their initial meeting, again in Yip’s apartment, the very first words out of Lane’s mouth were, “Well, for a start, that ending has to go.” Joe, who had conscientiously re-read and considered the story, was more than somewhat chagrined and disillusioned and subsequently wrote a letter to Yip bowing out of the project and tactfully suggesting that perhaps a younger librettist might be more attuned to their ideas In the end the idea never came to fruition.
Meanwhile, back at Gerde’s, my exposure to the new and old Dylan-influenced folk music had inspired – if that’s the word – me to dip my ballpoint timorously into essaying some song lyrics. I showed the first efforts to Major who was encouraging enough to set one called “Count the Blues”; I still have the demo. It should be said that Major’s own contacts with Dylan were not all that propitious. On one occasion when Major had finished his set at some club or other he was approached by Dylan’s then-girl friend, Suze Rotolo, who told him, “Bob really likes your work.” Major’s reaction, unsurprisingly, was “Well, if he likes it so much why doesn’t he come and tell me himself?”
It was Bobby Scott who first introduced me to what I might expect if I wanted to get serious about the business of song-writing. Bobby had been something of a musical prodigy having an LP of his jazz compositions released and playing piano with Lester Young while still in his teens. He had a brief stint as a teen idol with the hit single “Chain Gang”, and was subsequently a house songwriter and arranger for the Disney studio, and later producer-arranger at Columbia – where he produced the previously-mentioned Judy Roderick LP. When I met him he was working at Mercury Records. While there he recorded a solo album called 108 Pounds of Heartache featuring eight of his own songs and four covers, including an extraordinary version of Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” featuring a rolling bluesy Ray Charles-style piano accompaniment. It may have been in the wake of this LP’s release that Bobby took a two week engagement at Gerde’s. He was by this time sufficiently affluent to have a stone-wall girded house near the Hudson River in Westchester County. (The numerous recordings of his composition “A Taste of Honey” for the Broadway production of Shelagh Delany’s play would have greatly augmented what was already a more-than-comfortable income.) His fee for the Gerde’s gig just about covered the cost of hiring and transporting a decent baby grand piano that took up nearly all of the club’s small stage. Bobby’s musical tastes, influences and productions were, to say the least, eclectic. While still only in his mid-20s ten-plus years in and around the music business had made him fairly hardened and somewhat cynical. He was an admirer of Thomas A. Dorsey who, after an early blues career as Georgia Tom, had become a noted author/composer of gospel songs. In introducing Dorsey’s “Some Want the Cross (But They Won’t Pay the Cost)” he said that, unlike Pete Seeger, Dorsey was real. I thought at the time this was rather a rough judgement on Seeger but I kind of saw what he was trying to get at. In the first conversation I had with him (needless to say at the ice machine end of the Gerde’s bar) he told me that there had been five hundred million dollars worth of record sales in America during 1964 and The Beatles – who had covered “A Taste of Honey” and whose records were released in America on Mercury – had accounted for ninety million of that. Inevitably I eventually told him that I had been trying to write some lyrics and he agreed to have a look at any I thought he might like to see. A few nights later he invited me to come to his office at Mercury. Feeling, despite my Broadway days around the film world, somewhat out of my depth, I listened while Bobby took one of my lyrics, sat down at the piano with some staff paper and worked out a melody for it. Having done so he said he might try to sell the song to the jazz singer Joe Henderson. That never happened but in the meanwhile I signed my first song-writing contract and received by way of an advance a small contribution to my Going-to-Ireland Fund.
Three nights before I left for Ireland I visited the Apollo for the last time. There were a higher percentage of white people in the audience than had been the case when I first frequented the place. I was in company with some people who have featured in these recollections including Ted Teschner and my Fort Greene inamorata and her husband. It was the last time I saw either of them. The headline acts were Jerry Butler and Major Lance. The MC was Flip Wilson. He did his famous “Lulu” routine that had been glommed and suitably cleaned up for white night club audiences by Bill Cosby. (All comedians tend to steal material from one another – especially so in those pre-television days – and black comedians going back to the T.O.B.A. time were no exception.) It was also a Wednesday Amateur Night. The amateur who made the most impression was a young singer who had apparently just got off the Greyhound from somewhere in the Deep South. His hair had been “processed” by someone who was aiming at a Little Richard look but had missed by several yards. He wore a blue serge suit that was too small for him, and a pair of red Converse basketball shoes: his opening (and closing) number was, of course, “High Heeled Sneakers”. The drag queens in their specially reserved balcony box loved him and so did we.
I spent the evening of my last night in New York City before leaving for Dublin in the Kettle of Fish. This was the MacDougal Street bar above the Gaslight coffee house that had opened in 1950 and was then operated by the Gimpieri family. The enterprise subsequently moved to the premises on West Third Street that had previously housed the second and final incarnation of Gerde’s Folk City. The present Kettle of Fish at 59 Christopher Street is in the building that for 25-plus years held the late Lion’s Head of blessed memory.
By late June 1964 I had decided that I wanted to go to Ireland. I quit my job at the K&L Laboratory intending to go first to San Francisco where I knew I could make a good deal of money fairly quickly working as a Dye Transfer technician. Several nights before I intended leaving for the coast I was in Gerde’s and fell into conversation with the blues singer, Big Joe Williams. He was not the Big Joe Williams who famously sang with the Count Basie Orchestra but the country bluesman also known as Nine-String Joe Williams on account of the self-modified guitar he played. He told me he was going to Chicago the next day and offered to give me a lift as far as Toledo, I having said I was due to visit some people in Birmingham, Michigan on my way west. When I told him I wouldn’t be able to leave New York for several days he then said that when I hit Chicago – which I did intend to do – he could be found most nights in a blues bar on the South Side frequented by Muddy Waters. When I arrived in the city of my birth some ten days later I found that many of the people that Major and I had known during our visit the previous September had either already gone to California, were dead or in jail. I did track down Joe Williams and for several days and nights hung out on the South Side. During that time I saw very few white people and came to the decision that I was going in the wrong direction. If I didn’t have any business in New York I didn’t have any business in the country at all. I got on a night flight back to New York and was sufficiently well-served that in the course of the flight I lost the prescription shades that Fred Neil had admired.
For the next seven and a half months I hustled a variety of jobs – some arduously menial. I also, rather regretfully, liquidated my Broadway sharpie wardrobe. As previously related, in the autumn of that year I learned that my parents were reuniting after their eleven year separation. My mother and I moved into 44 West Tenth Street, my father joining us in time for Christmas. As well as the money I had managed to scrape together the home folks offered to subsidize me for a year in Ireland reasoning that I had spared them the expense of putting me through college.
Throughout this period the Kettle of Fish, along with Gerde’s, the Dugout and still sometimes Googie’s on Sullivan Street were regular hangouts of mine. In those days the Kettle of Fish had sawdust on the floor, a half dozen or so tables and a row of photographs and drawings stuck up above the back of the bar depicting various Village characters. One was of a sometime-actor, sometime-bartender named Jim something-I-forget who sported what was thought to be the most luxuriant handlebar moustache in the City. The fine old Greenwich Village custom of inventive rest room graffiti was carried on. It was said that someone had written “Is John Sebastian A Good Ball?” on the ladies’ room wall. At the last count before my departure I was told that twenty-two answers had been addended. On the subject of amorousness among folk singers I remember standing at the bar on one occasion and observing Judy Collins and a young singer/songwriter of the period named David Blue sitting at one of the tables. I may have misinterpreted Judy’s body language but it appeared to me that she was inviting Blue (no relation I believe to Chicago’s Lorraine “Mother” Blue) to come up and see her sometime. Soon.
In something of a reprise of the New Year’s Day morning of a few years earlier when Charlie Mantovi had suggested my future dye transfer career after everyone else in the party had passed out, I found myself in the early hours of January 1st 1965 sitting alone with the blues legend Son House. He was playing an engagement at the next door Gaslight and everyone else in his entourage having fallen by the wayside, he was reminiscing about Robert Johnson. “Robert used to make me mad,” he said. “Willie Borum and Willie Brown and me used to play in a roadhouse near where Robert lived with his family. He was just eleven or twelve years-old but after his folks went to asleep he would sneak out a window and come down to where we was playing.” I listened to Son, thinking, in my innocence, that I was first – or, at least the first white Northerner – to hear these stories of Robert Johnson whom I idolized then and still do. They were, of course, pretty well rehearsed by then and had been produced for the regalement of more than one enthusiastic young blues collector.
Seven weeks later, during the evening of February 16th, I sat at the same table where Judy Collins (who I met properly some years later in Belfast of all places) had exercised her wiles on David Blue. I was accompanied by a darkly handsome, highly sophisticated young woman named Felicity who worked at the film company that produced the then-popular legal television drama series The Defenders. As the night progressed we were joined by the great and now sadly-passed folk singer Odetta who was a good friend of Felicity’s. The company, the conversation and the atmosphere were all pleasant and congenial. The only pall on the evening was the news of the previous day’s bombing of Haiphong harbour, an event that fatally escalated the conflict in Vietnam. The 1964 American presidential election is the only such in which I’ve ever voted. I voted for Lyndon Johnson on the grounds that the reactionary Barry Goldwater had to be not only defeated but routed: no luxurious, conscience-salving, third party protest votes this time around. What we – like a great many people more recently – didn’t vote for was another dumb-ass war.
As the place filled up I noticed Dylan standing at the bar with his manager, Albert Grossman. Dylan had by this time abandoned the jeans, work shirts and Dutch Boy cap and was presenting the look that features on the cover of his first electric album Bringing it All Back Home. It had been noticed by many that as Bob got sharper in his dress Albert – who had previously been a music business suit and tie man – was getting correspondingly scruffier. The next time I went up to the bar I greeted Dylan and told him I was flying to Dublin the next day. He nodded and said, “Yeah, man? I’m gonna be goin’ to England in the spring.” We’ve never met again on either side of the Atlantic although there was another connection. Not long after I first visited London in May of that year I became acquainted with a woman named Anthea Joseph who had known Dylan since his first visit to England in 1962 when she had been one of the organizers of London’s Troubadour folk club. On the day when Anthea and I first had lunch together she was later booked to meet up with Dylan in a Soho pub. They and others moved on to the party in a suite at the Savoy Hotel that features in the documentary film Don’t Look Back. Anthea is the lanky, long-haired woman who intervenes to try and pacify an altercation between Dylan and the hotel management.
I spent that last New York City night in Felicity’s apartment a few doors along MacDougal Street from the Kettle of Fish. She gave me ‘ae fond kiss farewell’ (and then some) by way of adieu.
During the next day back at West Tenth Street I packed a rucksack. Toward evening I said goodbye to my parents. They had mixed feelings. They were sorry to see me leave but – remembering the previous year’s abortive trip west – my mother said anxiously, “You won’t be coming back too soon, will you?”
My father had arranged for an AA friend of his to drive me out to Kennedy Airport. When I got there I popped a couple of Dramamine, boarded an Aer Lingus Boeing 707 and flew off to the land where my forebears had spent a couple of thousand years, as opposed to the hundred or so we’d spent in the Amerikay I was leaving behind.