Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival

Folk City explores New York's central role in fueling the nationwide craze for folk music in postwar America.

Excerpted from Folk City:New York and the American Folk Music Revival by Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen © 2015 (footnotes, recollections and images omitted), and reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

The Village Scene in the Early 1960s

Recalling the peak years of the folk music revival in Greenwich Village, singer-songwriter Tom Paxton reflected on the importance of the clubs, taverns, and coffeehouses in the Washington Square vicinity. These venues mattered, he noted, for both artistic reasons and social purposes. Paxton singled out the two preeminent Greenwich Village folk music clubs in the early 1960s: Gerde’s Folk City and the Gaslight. They booked many of the same acts but had distinct identities. While the Gaslight, a coffeehouse, did not sell alcohol, it was in a central location on MacDougal Street between Bleecker and West 3rd Streets. Folk City was several blocks away, on the corner of West 4th and Mercer Streets. For drinks and conversation, some folksingers ventured to the White Horse Tavern, on Hudson Street in the West Village. The Lion’s Head on Christopher Street and the Limelight on Seventh Avenue South were other preferred destinations for banter and beer. “But it was really the Kettle of Fish where all the ideas, gossip, songs, and friendships were exchanged,” Paxton recalled about the bar next to the Gaslight. Folksingers often relaxed at Kettle of Fish between sets at the Gaslight. “There were constant comings and goings, and the cast of characters included Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, Eric Andersen, and David Blue.”

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Many people romanticized the intellectual and artistic atmosphere of Greenwich Village. “Going to the Village for the first time in 1952 was like walking into a dream,” writer and Indianapolis native Dan Wakefield reflected. “It not only looked different from the rest of New York … it sounded different too.” Wakefield spoke poetically about the local aura. “The special quiet of the Village suggested creation rather than commerce and conveyed a tone of mystery,” he mused. In 1963, during the peak period of the folk music revival, a local resident asked, “And where else in this city can you go to a bar and find an intelligent conversation going?” In the early 1960s, an observer drawn to the area arts scene wondered, “With an artist, there’s so much to talk about. Beauty, for instance. What can you talk about to an athlete? How far he swims?” But Greenwich Village was never actually the idyllic landscape that some commentators made it out to be. These accounts overlooked the organized crime, narcotics abuse, racial strife, and juvenile gangs that also characterized the neighborhood.

Beneath the provincial ruminations and triumphal boasting of Village partisans lurked a bigger story about artistic creativity. Greenwich Village was a conduit of ideas, made possible by the concentration of performance spaces around Washington Square Park. These began to sprout up in the late 1950s and proliferated in the early 1960s, especially after folksingers and their allies won the battle of Washington Square in 1961. If observers wondered why the folk music revival flowered in Greenwich Village, they needed only to walk down MacDougal Street from West 4th and make a left onto Bleecker. Numerous clubs lined these colorful streets. The density fostered creative interactions as well as collaboration and competition, and the Village became an incubator of artistic innovation. Skilled and striving artists in close proximity challenged traditional boundaries in lyrics and style in folk music. In the words of David Amram, a jazz composer, multi-instrumentalist, and folksinger: “There was a cross-pollination of music, painting, writing—an incredible world of painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, and actors, enough so we could be each other’s fans. When I had concerts, painters would come, and I’d go play jazz at their art gallery openings, and I
played piano while Beats read their poetry.”

As a result of the artistic ferment in the Greenwich Village coffeehouse district, by 1960 the neighborhood had become the epicenter of the national folk music renaissance. In contrast to the 1950s, when many folksingers—such as Happy Traum, John Cohen, and Dave Van Ronk—arrived from the outer boroughs or the suburbs, the Village in the early 1960s attracted songwriters from points near and far in a manner reminiscent of the 1930s, when the revival first burgeoned in the city. Notable arrivals included Tom Paxton from Oklahoma, Len Chandler and Phil Ochs from Ohio, Carolyn Hester from Texas, Patrick Sky from Georgia, Mark Spoelstra from California, Judy Collins and Judy Roderick from Colorado, Bonnie Dobson and Ian and Sylvia Tyson from Canada, and Bob Dylan from Minnesota. Folksingers found ample work in approximately 20 clubs in a five-block area. Troubadours made little money in the smaller rooms, and talent agents rarely scouted them, but they saw the “holes in the wall” as starting points that would lead to the big time of the Gaslight and Gerde’s Folk City.

The multiple Village venues allowed folksingers to hone their skills. The clubs afforded musicians opportunities to experiment with new material and make mistakes in front of sympathetic yet discerning audiences. They learned methods to hold a crowd’s attention and had a chance to gain a following. In the better clubs, they encountered agents, managers, and record company executives. Critics, notably The New York Times music columnist Robert Shelton, reviewed performances in the premier Village venues. Folksingers launched records in clubs, and, in some cases, solo acts or groups developed a special association with a particular venue.

The Greenwhich Village Postwar Arts Scene and the Formation of Folk Music Clubs

Painters, poets, actors, and musicians from all over the nation moved to Greenwich Village in the postwar era, drawn by the neighborhood’s bohemian character. They settled in low-income areas, especially in tenements southwest of Washington Square Park on MacDougal Street and Minetta Lane. This area, the South Village, was a predominantly working-class Italian district, but an area undergoing demographic change at this time. By the middle of the 1950s, nearly 100 artists resided in this enclave. Their local haunts included Minetta Tavern, Kettle of Fish, and the San Remo. The Village lured reformers, radicals, and artists intent on changing the nation’s political and cultural order. They understood the neighborhood’s iconoclastic history and wanted to leave their own mark there. As Village Voice co-founder and publisher Ed Fancher declared in the late 1950s, “A lot of people think the Village died 50 years ago. We don’t. Those are the great days; this is the Golden Age.” In his memoir Kafka Was the Rage (1993), New York Times book critic and columnist Anatole Broyard recalled the attraction of the neighborhood after the war:

The Village, like New York City itself, had an immense, beckoning sweetness. It was like Paris in the ‘20s—with the difference that it was our city. We weren’t strangers there, but familiars. The Village was charming, shabby, intimate, accessible, almost like a street fair. We lived in the bars and on the benches of Washington Square. We shared the adventure of trying to be, starting to be, writers or painters.

As Broyard recounted, many Greenwich Village taverns in the 1950s resembled literary salons. Artists and intellectuals congregated in bars to talk, drink, smoke, argue, and pontificate. The San Remo, on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets, for example, was the favorite haunt of actor and director Julian Beck, actress and director Judith Malina, composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, writer and social critic Paul Goodman, and writer and poet James Agee. Malina described the Remo as “gay and intellectual, rather close to my notion of a Paris cafe.” In contrast to most New York bars, the Remo welcomed interracial couples and gay men. Beat novelist John Clellon Holmes based his roman à clef Go (1952) partly on the habitués of the Remo, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Kerouac, too, found inspiration at the bar and incorporated Remo hipsters into The Subterraneans (1958), a tale of interracial love.

The White Horse Tavern, on Hudson Street in the West Village, was a stomping ground for literary figures Dylan Thomas, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Clement Greenberg, and Delmore Schwartz. Jack Kerouac frequented the White Horse while he wrote On the Road in a nearby apartment. The White Horse also served as a forum for debates on politics and culture. After Friday night meetings at the office of the newspaper The Catholic Worker, editor Michael Harrington held informal seminars on topics ranging from leftist labor leaders to factions of the Spanish Civil War. Over pints of beer, crowds joined the Clancy Brothers in songs of the Irish rebellions.

On University Place between 8th and 9th Streets was the Cedar Tavern, a favorite haunt of the Abstract Expressionists, in particular Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Philip Guston. Rugged in appearance and cool in demeanor, the painters styled themselves as rebels and, along with some Beat writers and New York School poets, gave the nondescript bar a reputation for heavy drinking. Their conduct was at times outrageous. In a fit, Jackson Pollock once kicked in the men’s room door, and Jack Kerouac, in a stupor, urinated in an ashtray. Demanding attention, Pollock was usually the focal point. He boasted about his paintings, insulted other patrons, and scuffled occasionally with his friendly rivals Kline and de Kooning. On August 12, 1956, the day after his death in a car accident, dozens of painters gathered at the Cedar Tavern to mourn the loss of their volatile comrade.

The folk music revival thrived in this rebellious context in the late 1950s. As the Sunday afternoon gatherings in Washington Square Park increased in size and intensity, a number of performance venues that welcomed folksingers (among other entertainers) opened in the neighborhood. “The folkniks are on the move as never before,” Ren Grevatt announced in Billboard in 1959. Grevatt cited a variety of record releases, the Newport Folk Festival, and folk concerts throughout the nation. He also noted that the Folklore Center’s Izzy Young had observed the rapid increase in sales of folk discs by companies such as Folkways, Elektra, Tradition, Audio-Video, and, to some extent, Riverside.

Though Grevatt’sBillboard article made only passing reference to folk music in New York clubs, a few venues were starting to appear in Greenwich Village, notably Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate, which opened in 1958 on the corner of Thompson and Bleecker Streets. D’Lugoff was already knowledgeable about the music business, with extensive experience as a concert promoter and the Tarriers’ manager. But opening a 450-seat cabaret was a new type of venture. To gain advice from other proprietors and to learn the tricks of the trade, D’Lugoff visited some of the premier folk music venues nationwide, including the Gate of Horn in Chicago and the hungry in San Francisco. He converted a deteriorating flophouse into a spacious and professional performance venue. Following in the footsteps of the Village Vanguard and the earlier Cafe Society, the politically progressive D’Lugoff featured a wide range of musical styles at the Village Gate, including folk, blues, jazz, comedy, and even musicals; he also hosted political events. As Caravan magazine noted in May 1958, “The New York Scene is a busy one these days, what with [Washington Square] open every Sunday afternoon, [American Youth Hostel] Song Fests every Sunday evening, upwards of eight or ten folk-singing parties a month, a [New York] Folksingers Guild concert along about the last week in each month, The Shanty Boys regular shindig the first Friday of each month … [and] Art D’Lugoff opening his new club where folksingers have a special invitation.” The Village Gate’s opening act was Pete Seeger, followed by Earl Robinson.

Opening a nightclub in the Village was not easy. D’Lugoff had to deal with local gangsters and crooked police, but managed to survive and flourish. The Village Gate and the nearby Folklore Center became centers of the folk revival, offering a welcoming space for new performers and their fans. When Dave Van Ronk rehearsed with Paul Clayton, Bob Yellin, and other musicians for a Folkways album of sailing songs, they gathered at the Gate in the afternoons. “Art D’Lugoff had just opened the club and was having trouble obtaining the necessary license to hire entertainment,” Van Ronk recollected. “He was a Jew in an Italian neighborhood where liquor licenses had traditionally been acquired only by becoming someone’s son-in-law, so everything he did in that place had to be done two or three times, because the other bar owners had the inspectors coming back again and again. … It being a new place, Art was more than happy to have some people in there, so he invited us to do our singing in the downstairs room and even supplied pitchers of beer to fend off dehydration.” Their album, Foc’sle Songs and Shanties, produced by Kenneth Goldstein, appeared on the Folkways label in 1959.

At the same time, the Beat poetry scene flowered in Greenwich Village cafes. “In the fifties, the original iconoclasts were the beat poets. It was very much a literary scene in the Village,” Paul Colby, the owner of the Bitter End, remembered. Poets sometimes did readings accompanied by jazz. By the decade’s end, hordes of weekend visitors were crowding into such nightspots on Bleecker Street as Cafe Borgia, the Figaro, the Rafio, the Flamingo, the Dragon’s Den, the Cock and Bull, and Take 3 to enjoy readings. MacDougal Street had the Rienzi, the Reggio, the Continental, Cafe Wha?, the Gaslight, and Playhouse Cafe. Most of these did not feature folk performers, but there was overlap between the Beat literary movement and the folk music revival, in New York as well as in San Francisco and Chicago. Folksingers David Amram and John Cohen, for instance, straddled both artistic trends, and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and the novels of Jack Kerouac influenced the folk music of Bob Dylan.

The emergence of the Beat and folk movements in Greenwich Village was in part a result of the area’s coffeehouse boom in the 1950s. Long a feature of Italian enclaves in American neighborhoods such as New York’s Little Italy, Boston’s North End, and San Francisco’s North Beach, coffeehouses exploded in popularity in the postwar era. When the South Village was overwhelmingly Italian, coffeehouses sold espresso and pastries and functioned as social gathering places for area residents. The exodus of Italian Americans to the suburbs and the ascent of the literary and musical movements transformed the South Village in the late 1950s. Aware of the trends, entrepreneurs opened a number of coffeehouses in the Bleecker-MacDougal district to provide venues for poets and folksingers. To enhance the artistic milieu and attract a diverse clientele, cafe owners frequently hung the work of local painters on the walls. Beat poetry readings sometimes became theatrical as bards modulated their voices and made physical gestures to maintain an audience’s attention. Allen Ginsberg in particular was a master at captivating audiences through his freewheeling delivery. A Nation reporter described the scene at a Beat reading in 1959: “With tom-toms beating behind them, the soft, intense voices of young men fascinated their audience, who applauded lustily and chanted, ‘Yeah, man’ after each rendition.” In the effervescent environment of a coffeehouse, artists exchanged ideas across genres and performed on small stages in front of engaged crowds. The Beats’ experimentation with text, image, and sound influenced folk musicians and aspiring theatermakers in Off-Off-Broadway productions to take risks in their own performances.

Some venues, such as the Gaslight Poetry Cafe at 116 MacDougal Street, featured both poetry readings and folk music. Of the numerous folk houses in Greenwich Village in 1960, the Gaslight was particularly prominent. “It was a club I wanted to play, needed to,” Bob Dylan remembered about his first days in the Village in 1961. Formerly a coal cellar, the Gaslight was musty and filthy, furnished mostly with round oak tables and barely illuminated by Tiffany-style lamps hanging overhead. Without air conditioning, the room often became stifling in the summer. According to fire codes, the maximum capacity was 110 people, but sometimes 130 squeezed in for a hootenanny. Founded in 1958 by John Mitchell, the coffeehouse featured readings in 1959 by poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Ted Joans, and subsequently showcased flamenco, comedy, and folk music. At the outset, the Gaslight was a “basket house,” where performers circulated a basket to solicit contributions after sets. Some early regular folksingers were Roy Berkeley, Len Chandler, and Tom Paxton. All blossoming songwriters, they helped the squalid basement gain a reputation for excellent entertainment.

The Gaslight Cafe’s entertainment director was Beat poet Hugh Romney. A countercultural figure, Romney was comedic and irreverent. Blues and gospel singer Reverend Gary Davis presided over Romney’s marriage to Bonnie Beecher in 1965 at the Gaslight in a ceremony attended by Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, and Dave Van Ronk. Romney, later called Wavy Gravy when he adopted his hippie-clown persona, recollected ongoing conflict at the Gaslight between John Mitchell and municipal authorities. The tension made Mitchell wary and suspicious. “When Tom Paxton first showed up from Fort Dix, John Mitchell of the Gaslight was positive he was a cop,” Romney recalled. “So everybody was nice to Tom until it was time to get stoned; then it was ‘Well, we have an appointment.’”

Mitchell experienced a series of legal problems at the Gaslight and often clashed with city officials. In June 1960, the fire department closed down his establishment for violating health regulations. He reopened in September after installing sprinklers but, along with other Village club owners, he ran into additional problems due to the police department’s strict enforcement of the city’s antiquated cabaret law. During the 1961 Washington Square folk music controversy, Mitchell, still fighting the city over code violations, sold the club to Clarence Hood, who managed it along with his son Sam through the 1960s.

Stephen Petrus is an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral curatorial fellow at the Museum of the City of New York, where he will curate Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival.

Ronald D. Cohen is Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Indiana. He is the author of numerous books on the history of folk music including The Pete Seeger Reader (OUP, 2014) and was the co-producer/writer of the 10-CD boxed set Songs for Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs and the American Left, 1926-1954 (1996).