When Greenwich Village was ‘Bursting with Music’

A talk with author Richard Barone

| 22 Nov 2022 | 09:37

Richard Barone is the author of the new book, “Music + Revolution: Greenwich Village in the 1960s” (Rockbeat Books). The era has received more attention than usual, thanks in part to the Coen Brothers’ acclaimed 2013 film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a tale of a folk musician struggling to make it big in the Village in the early sixties. As you can see, Barone has an interesting tale to tell.

Why did you want to write this book?

Good question. “Why” is always the big question, isn’t it? I grew up in Tampa, Florida, with New York City always as a distant dream. A radiant place where big things happened. I learned about Greenwich Village as a child, and it seemed like a wonderland to me. The more I got into music, the more I learned how much had originated in the Village in the 1960s. It seemed to me to be a turning point in American popular music, a ground zero of self-expression in songwriting, and I wanted to understand how – and why – it happened. When I got older, I wanted to understand where the music I loved and played came from, what had inspired those who made music in the 1960s, and how far back I could trace the origins.

Please talk about the United States in the 1950s and how the pulse of the nation contributed to the vitality and the growth of the folk movement in New York.

By all accounts, the 1950s in the U.S. was a decade that encouraged, rewarded, and at times downright mandated conformity. A grey flannel, pastel decade. Even though a folk music revival had been in full swing when the 1950s started, it was held in check if not squashed by McCarthyism, the so-called House UnAmerican Activity Committee (HUAC), and the “Red Channels” blacklist. Many folksingers found themselves unable to perform. But within that suppression sprang the desire to break out. The children of the 1950s – baby boomers – grew up to reject those restrictive notions. Folk music provided a voice, a ringing sound of freedom. The 1960s gave us a second wave of the folk revival, and a decade that was loud and in full color.

When you think today of the pre-Bob Dylan folk scene in Greenwich Village, what comes to mind?

The stage was already set when Bob Dylan blew into town. His timing was impeccable. The venues, the audiences, the infrastructure of cafés, shops, the Folklore Center, the folk music fans – everything was in place, built by those who preceded his arrival: Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, Izzy Young, Dave Van Ronk, venue owners, and other true believers. Bob Dylan was impressive, quickly developing his persona and smart repertoire. But certainly there were others before him with talent that inspired him, like Odetta, Len Chandler, Carolyn Hester, the Clancy Brothers, Fred Neil, Karen Dalton, especially Woody Guthrie – and those who helped him, like Van Ronk and wife Terri Thal (who was also Van Ronk’s and Dylan’s first manager), Suze Rotolo, Delores “Dee” Dixon, and Pete Seeger.

How did the folk scenes in the Village and Cambridge differ?

Once the Greenwich Village scene began to really pick up steam, circa 1957-58 and later, the Village was positively dense with venues, music shops, cafés ... all bursting with music. Every nook and cranny was set up to have a guitar-wielding folk singer perform. Even Allan Block’s sandal shop became a popular venue. Washington Square Park was filled with music, especially on Sundays. And apartments provided space for parties and more jamming after hours. Shows were going on day and night. Café Wha? had a popular daytime show hosted by Fred Neil, where Tiny Tim, Karen Dalton and Bob Dylan might play during lunchtime. And the coffeehouses could go on all night, not having the same restrictions as liquor-licensed venues.

While the Cambridge scene was certainly vibrant, with its wonderful Club 47 in Harvard Square, and superb artists like Joan Baez, Tom Rush, Jim Kweskin, and many others were produced there, I think the sheer number of venues in the Village and the massive size and intensity of New York City surrounding it, had to have made the two scenes distinctly different.

How would you describe the state of the Village in the late 1950s?

The Village was a cheap place to live in the 1950s and, with much of it having been built roughly one hundred years prior, some blocks had fallen to a state of disrepair. Yet, it was a true community, where people knew one another and locally-owned business dominated. Italian immigrants lived there and opened many of the businesses, bringing cappuccinos, Italian restaurants, and café culture from their home country. It may not have always been easy for old-timers and newcomers to coexist, but for the most part they worked things out okay. The affordability of rents drew artists, poets, musicians, and actors, and the connectivity of the New York City subway system made it easy to get around town. For those seeking to work in the entertainment business, most of which was based in New York at the time, the Village was a perfect place to live.

Let’s play the What If game. What would that folk scene have become if not for Dylan’s arrival on Jan. 24, 1961 and subsequent profound influence?

Okay, yes, thanks. I’ll play. What if, when Phil Ochs came to town soon after, there was no Bob Dylan to compete with? Ochs was creating his own, often pointedly political, almost journalistic songs. But he was also a poet, with tremendous potential and a voice, musicality, and a melodic sense of unique power. Perhaps there would have been room for him to develop and become a much larger success. With Dylan around there was almost no chance. After meeting Dylan, Ochs even admitted of himself that he could only aspire to be “second-best.” And perhaps Dave Van Ronk would have been able to be the first to release his beautiful arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” and become a household name as a master performer, interpreter of folk and blues, instead of being relegated to being the “Mayor of MacDougal Street.” There was no shortage of pure talent in the Village, and I believe any number of them could have risen to the occasion in the absence of Dylan.

What comes to mind when you think of Bob Dylan’s contribution?

Theft. Brilliance. Ambition. Timing.

Of course, people think of such icons as Odetta, Dave Van Ronk, Pete Seeger, Carolyn Hester, Phil Ochs and many others as major Village figures. But the saga of Buddy Holly’s life in the Village is probably less well known to a large segment. Can you please talk about it?

Buddy Holly’s presence in the Village has spiritual significance to me, as if the spark of folk-rock that would come to fruition in 1965 was planted there, on the corner West 8th Street and Fifth Avenue, in 1958-59, the last six months of his young life. Buddy and his wife Maria Elena would frequent the clubs, the Village Vanguard and the Village Gate, and others, checking out the poetry, jazz, and folk music. Through Carolyn Hester back in Texas, at sessions helmed by his friend and producer Norman Petty, Holly had already picked up some folk songs, and his final demos, known as the “Apartment Tapes,” had an acoustic-electric feel and lyrical themes that presaged the singer-songwriter sounds and folk rock to come. Needless to say, Holly was a profound influence on Dylan, Ochs, and countless others who were to arrive and make their mark in the 1960s. They had come of age to his music. Not to mention Holly’s, and his group The Crickets’, influence The Beatles. Another “What if?” would be: What if Buddy Holly had lived?

For better or worse, the Coen Brothers’ movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the face of the Village folk-music scene. What did the movie get right? Or wrong?

I love the Coen Brothers’ work, and I enjoyed attending a pre-release screening of “Inside Llewyn Davis.” But, the overall downer tone, the lack of humor, joy, fun, and the absolute absence of the true love of music makes the film more about the Coens’ own ethos than about Greenwich Village in the 1960s. The worse disservice, in my mind, is the suggestion that the titular character is based on Dave Van Ronk, because other than some specific details (like auditioning for Albert Grossman at the Gate of Horn in Chicago and performing at the Gaslight) Van Ronk was supportive, smart, supremely witty, and it was his couch (along with Terri Thal’s) that everyone crashed on, not the other way around.

Your book contains an encyclopedic knowledge of the Village scene. But to a lot of people, some of the heroes and heroines of the scene are not particularly well known to the larger public. Who are some of the folks who deserve to be better known, either for their body of work or their influence?

That’s easy. All of them deserve to be better known. Paul Clayton, who was the most-recorded young folksinger at the time with over twenty albums, Karen Dalton, Len Chandler, Patrick Sky, producer Tom Wilson, filmmaker Barbara Rubin ... So many that I wrote about were brilliant stars in their own right. In some ways, it was the constellation they created together that made the Village shine so brightly. When I began to write the book, I texted with my dear friend, (Scottish folksinger) Donovan, who told me to “write about the ones nobody has ever heard of. That’s where your story is.” And he was absolutely right.