First, the personal bit. I became part of the big folk scare in junior high in 1960 when I made friends with twins whose parents were, if not ex-communists, at least passionate Jewish leftists who ran a summer camp. One of them was into folk music, and through him I first heard Pete Seeger. I’d already heard the Kingston Trio on the radio and owned a couple of their albums, but it was Seeger who made me realize you could do it yourself.
From there it was on to guitar lessons and the public library, which obligingly offered the Harry Smith records and various other Folkways products, and from there to a stellar Carnegie Hall concert where a guy from the Harry Smith collection named Clarence Ashley brought on “a boy we found down home playin’ rock and roll,” young Arthel “Doc” Watson.
A Sing Out! subscription brought me news, and visits to the Village found me the Folklore Center and Izzy Young, topical songwriting and Phil Ochs, and Broadside magazine, for which I later wrote my first articles and reviews.
The Holy Modal Rounders kept me from getting too grimly serious about this, work through my church in an East Harlem literacy program not only satisfied my liberal guilt but provided the Second Avenue bus on which to go downtown afterwards on a Saturday afternoon, and yet I was young enough so that when I bought Bringing It All Back Home at the Folklore Center and the gal at the counter said “It’s rock ‘n’ roll, you know,” I could answer, “Yeah, but so was the last one.” Months later I was at Forest Hills, watching Dylan get pelted with tennis balls.
So that’s the nostalgia out of the way.
Forty years later comes this thing in the mail, at a time when I’ve started thinking seriously about the bohemian social interstice between the beats and the hippies, for which “folk” was the soundtrack, jazz being for older folks and rock ‘n’ roll having become too trivial to bother with for the moment, at least for burgeoning intellectuals.
Wisely, Washington Square Memoirs (terrible title, but I’ll get to that) avoids the Big Issue of the day, “commercial” versus “authentic,” programming the evil, L.A.-based commercial Judy Henske’s “High Flying Bird” (which sounds just great) and, worse, Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” (sounds much better than you probably remember) on the same disc as the impeccably correct Joan Baez singing (and, I believe, fluffing the words of) Phil Ochs’ “There But For Fortune” and the noble (but cringeworthy) “Morning Dew”, performed by Bonnie Dobson.
In fact, a lot of the stuff we snobbishly rejected sounds fabulous: (Vince) Martin & (Fred) Neil’s “Tear Down The Walls”, Buffy Ste.-Marie’s “Cod’ine”, Hamilton Camp’s “Get Together”, among others, sound wonderful to post-James Taylor, post-Butch Hancock ears. Randy Sparks’ “South Coast”, Barry & Barry’s “Another Man”, the Modern Folk Quartet’s “Jordan River”, and the Limelighters’ “Wabash Cannonball” still sound awful, though.
So if it makes for great documentation, the programming here makes for uneven listening. There is no arguing, though, that most of what’s been chosen makes sense. The three discs run chronologically, so you can hear the music getting rougher and less sweet, since the model in 1950 was the Weavers’ Gordon Jenkins-orchestrated hits, a trend which reaches its nadir here with Bud & Travis’ “Raspberries, Strawberries” on disc one.
Among the smart choices are Dave Van Ronk’s “He Was A Friend Of Mine”, a compelling vocal performance that’s easier on the ears than his blues numbers; opting for “Boots Of Spanish Leather” as the Dylan song, the perfect example of his using his extensive knowledge of traditional music to create a personal expression (and, incidentally, giving the lie to all the ’66-tour crapola he gave out with about just using folk music to get ahead); and a fine selection of the latter-day folkies including Gordon Lightfoot, Fred Neil, Tim Buckley, and David “Blue” Cohen.
But the title of this collection points to what I see as a missed opportunity, to make a true memoir of the New York folk scene. Granted, I’m biased: These are my formative years here, OK? But excising the L.A. contingent would lose a lot of the worst tracks here (and, yes, Judy Henske and Tim Buckley), and would make the document a lot tighter, bringing a great deal of the subsequent action (what there was of a New York rock scene in the psychedelic era, i.e., the Blues Project, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the unrecorded Night Owls, the Traum brothers’ Children Of Paradise, and Autosalvage) into a recognizable contextual focus.
It would also have allowed some players who are missing here their time on the stage: Guy Carawan, Mark Spoelstra, Michael Hurley and Patrick Sky, to name just a few. And maybe the art director could have moved out of Washington Square Park and into the Village a bit and given us one of the dozens of iconic photos shot in that alley off of McDougal Street in front of the famous graffito which for years sat there proclaiming TIM HARDIN IS A BAD BOY.
Which brings me to the liner notes. They’re a mess, loosely adapted from a single source, Jac Holzman’s memoirs. Not to take anything away from his accomplishment, but he was only one player, and not everyone wanted to be in his game. It seems to me that there’s a bit more to say about Fred Neil than “This is not a nice man” (Paul Rothschild) and “It’s tough dealing with junkies” (Holzman), especially when Tim Hardin is treated with respect.
Shit, Tim Hardin was a bad boy, and it killed him, while Neil managed to clean up and spend the next couple of decades productively — albeit not as a musician — in Florida.
OK, old fart. Bottom line: Kids today don’t want to fight these wars all over again, and this is all new stuff to them.
Informed consumer advisory? Enough good stuff that any guitar-wielding spiritual descendent of this scene should take a listen. Enough bad stuff that they can shoot down old farts who get too nostalgic with specifically-targeted ammo. Enough raw material for an interesting synthesis. Or a cover version that’ll make your listeners think.