Dominic Chianese is not a name most people would associate with New York’s ’60s folk music scene. But Chianese, the actor best known for playing the bitter and conniving Uncle Junior on The Sopranos, was a stalwart of that scene, as a performer and as the MC at Gerde’s Folk City, the legendary Greenwich Village restaurant and bar that presented many of the era’s best-known and most influential figures. The literally hundreds of singers, guitar pickers, and harmonica wranglers Chianese brought to Gerde’s stage included Arlo Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, Judy Collins, David Bromberg, José Feliciano, Happy and Artie Traum, Tom Paxton, Buffy Saint-Marie, Paul Butterfield, John Lee Hooker, Jean Ritchie, and Ian and Sylvia. A scruffy, young Woody Guthrie devotee calling himself Bob Dylan, newly arrived from Minnesota, played his first major New York gig at Gerde’s, impressing his fellow folkies but, according to Happy Traum, causing “half of the audience” to leave the club.
Chianese fondly recalled, with words and music, the folk era and his involvement with it, during a January 7 appearance at the Museum of the City of New York, where the multimedia exhibition, “Folk City,” was about to conclude its seven-month run. The exhibition presented iconic memorabilia (guitars owned by Odetta and Lead Belly; Dylan’s handwritten lyrics for “Masters of War”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and “Maggie’s Farm”), sound recordings, videos, photos and posters, all documenting a movement that transformed Greenwich Village and American popular culture. “Folk City” also reminded visitors of the movement’s roots in the Left and particularly the Communist Party-led Popular Front.
For the exhibition’s closing event, Chianese, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, sang ten songs, most of them folk standards like “If I Had a Hammer”, “Shenandoah”, “Goodnight, Irene”, and “Guantanamera” (in flawless Spanish), as well as the Neapolitan ditty “Funiculì Finiculà”. At 84, Chianese, in his cranberry pullover sweater, looked like a casually dressed Neapolitan aristocrat, or, with his bald head and white goatee, like the Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello. His stage manner was warm and engaging, his tenor voice clear, flexible, and strong. Between songs, Chianese entertained the audience with stories about his upbringing in an Italian immigrant family; his hiring as Gerde’s MC by the club’s owner Mike Porco, an immigrant from Calabria (“I never heard-a no Italian folk singer,” Chianese recalled him saying upon their first meeting); and the lively scene in Gerde’s cellar, “where everybody went to tune up.”
(Gerde’s Folk City originally was located at 11 West Fourth Street; in 1970, the venue relocated to 130 West Third Street. Chianese worked at both locations. Porco sold the club in 1980 and it folded seven years later.)
A few days after the “Folk City” event, when Chianese and I spoke by phone, he filled in some of the details of the anecdotes he’d shared that night and spoke about current and future projects. Born in the Bronx in 1931, he moved to Greenwich Village, which had a large Italian immigrant community, in 1952. He began his career as an actor, appearing in Off-Broadway and Broadway productions like The Fantasticks and Oliver! When he was between acting jobs, he sang and played guitar in Village bars and restaurants. In was during one of these fallow periods in his acting career that he approached Mike Porco to ask for a job.
“He gave me a job, and I worked every night. I loved music, and I could be on stage every night. I loved being an MC and being around music and every night meeting different musicians.”
He recalls that although the folk scene could be highly political, he “left the protesting to others.” But one evening, a disgruntled patron tried to assault him for singing a Chilean song, “Mi Caballo Blanco.” “This guy yelled, ‘sing an American song,'” Chianese said. “I said, it is an American song, from South America.” Gerde’s waiters leaped in and restrained the man when he lunged at Chianese.
“That pissed me off,” he says. “I don’t like people who are closed-minded, in any way.”
Decades later, Chianese had another run-in with intolerance when, in 2001, some self-appointed Italian American leaders organized a campaign to cancel a concert he was to perform in Denver, Colorado. (The year before, he released his first CD, Hits, comprising American and Neapolitan songs.) The “anti-defamationists” regarded The Sopranos as anti-Italian and urged Italian Americans to protest all of Chianese’s concerts that year, not only in Denver, because of his role in the HBO series. The sponsors, House of Blues Concerts and Opera Colorado, bowed to the protests and cancelled the concert.
Since The Sopranos ended in 2007, Chianese has acted in several independent films and appeared on television, in recurring roles on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and CBS’s The Good Wife. It turns out the comparison to Pirandello is an apt one: Chianese hopes to develop and star in a one-man show about the playwright whom he resembles. “I think I do look like him,” he agrees. But although he enjoys acting, he says, “to me, music is life.” Chianese currently performs a monthly show at the Friars Club in Manhattan, but he says his “biggest passion” is his foundation, Joy Through Art, which brings live music to elderly nursing home residents. “People in nursing homes are very lonely, and for those two hours we’re with them, it’s a wonderful thing.”
“I’m 84 years old and all my friends are dying, my family members are dying, and I realize now that the real thing is to have fun in life, with family, and family can be anything. I found my family in show business.” One of those he has lost was James Gandolfini, who brilliantly played Tony Soprano. Gandolfini died in 2013 from a heart attack while on vacation in Rome.
“Jimmy was a great guy,” Chianese sighed. “He’d give you the shirt off his back. A really good person, with a strong sense of morality, and I miss him terribly.”