Those Were the Days

Greenwich Village: The Music That Defined a Generation

A Film by Laura Archibald

June 24, 2013 at The Grammy Museum

By Ross Altman

Greenwich VillageLA’s own GRAMMY Museum hosted the West Coast Premiere screening of the feel-good movie of the year, Canadian filmmaker Laura Archibald’s documentary Greenwich Village: The Music That Defined a Generation. Are you tired of seeing buildings blown up on screen? Of body counts higher than Hamlet’s last scene, and all in the first five minutes? Of explosions that prove the high tech expertise of digital computer graphics designers who have turned modern films into deafening video games? Perhaps you are ready for a break, for a reintroduction of classic storytelling as an art form, with heroes and heroines whose only weapon is a guitar and a song. I certainly was, and that’s why I enjoyed spending the evening with a gallery of artists who perform on a human scale, and speak straight to the mind and heart.

GRAMMY guest of honor Kris Kristofferson put on his cleanest dirty shirt, picked up his old Gibson Southern Jumbo, pulled his harpoon out of his dirty red bandana and helped me make it through the night. He came on after the film for a brief but poignant set that earned a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd of old folkies who came to relive the early days of Greenwich Village, circa 1961 to 1963, when a young Bob Dylan from Hibbing, Minnesota crashed their party (read Communist Party) and sparked a modern renaissance of topical songwriting.

Dylan couldn’t help but fall into the hands of some old leftists—such as Izzy Young of the Folklore Center, folk singer Dave Van Ronk of The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) (all 75 of them) and even his red-diaper baby girlfriend Suzie Rotolo, whose memoir of the period—a Freewheeling Time, derived from Dylan’s second album with both on the famous cover—provided the narrative framework of the entire movie, as read by actress Susan Sarandon, who became the voice of “Suze” after Rotolo passed away just as the film was entering production.

This loving homage to a bygone era has its lighter moments too, with its deft leit-motif use of jingle-jangle animated sequences to begin and end each chapter. Taken as a whole it may be the only source we shall have of mini-portraits of some essential artists from the folk revival, including Eric Andersen, Buffy St. Marie, Fred Neil (whose hypnotic performance of That’s Another Side of This Life was to me the highlight of the film), Richie Havens (whose powerful and frenetic strumming virtually destroyed the strings on his Guild D-50 during an inspired performance of Freedom), Ian and Sylvia looking incandescent, Judy Collins looking agelessly beautiful as an elder stateswoman and singing Pete Seeger’s Turn, Turn Turn with America’s tuning fork as Greenwich Village’s answer to Cambridge’s Joan Baez, and a young Tom Paxton singing Rambling Boy to an ebullient Pete Seeger, before Tom started wearing Pete’s Greek fisherman’s cap. There were thrilling moments throughout, captured from a wonderful collection of vintage black-and-white TV documents that were responsive enough to the folk revival at the time to raise one’s estimation of what Ed Murrow once dismissed as a vast wasteland.

Somehow the TV cameras caught Phil Ochs in his rebel-with-a-cause prime singing I Ain’t Marching Anymore (and the filmmaker brought his surviving sister Sonny Ochs into the story as one of the best of the “talking heads” that expressed what Wordsworth defined as the mission of poetry, emotion recollected in tranquility). And the TV cameras caught a scene you could not otherwise have imagined—Andy Williams singing a duet with Buffy St. Marie on Bukka White’s Fixin’ To Die.

It was only during scenes like this that a historian might cavil—for black blues man Bukka White is never credited with the song, and, in a general way, black musicians both as source material for much of the “white blues singers” like John Hammond, Jr., Dave Van Ronk, and Dylan himself and the equally energizing contributions of black artists like Len Chandler are given less than their due. It was Len Chandler after all whose antiwar protest song Beans In My Ears was the only protest song actually banned in New York City during the Vietnam era.

Tom Paxton’s humorous assessment of “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” Dave Van Ronk’s noble political adventures with the SWP raised at least one pair of eyebrows in reducing it to its small number of members. 75 there may have been, but Jesus had only 12 disciples, and the Russian Revolution was started by one man on a train heading to the Finland station on his way back to Moscow in 1917. That man was Lenin, so in a very real sense sometimes it only takes one to change the world.

Ironically, that is the deeper message of the movie itself, how a small band of ambitious activist musicians in New York’s dilapidated Village folk clubs succeeded in catching the ear of the country and, as its title promises, defined a generation. It is a remarkable tale and has somehow surfaced this year in the 50th anniversary of its original unfolding to inspire more than one storyteller to take it to heart. At the same time as this movie appears so does the first novel by another Minnesota folk singer, Scott Alarik, entitled Revival: A Folk Music Novel that grows out of the Cambridge folk scene summarized in my recent review of Tom Rush’s concert at McCabe’s; and in the offing is a new Coen Brothers movie also based on the 1960s folk revival. History it seems has finally caught up with these youthful radicals determined to change it. These new works will be reviewed in the weeks to come; for now let us note that there seems to be something blowing in the wind, and it may be catching.

The film at hand is packed with bracing testimonials of living witnesses who created this literary movement in song much like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats created the Romantic Period in early 19th Century England. Like them, as Paxton recalls, our contemporary versions of these ghostly figures were both rivals and colleagues. We hear from Carolyn Hester, who gave Dylan his first opportunity to record as her harmonica player for Columbia Records; from Peter Yarrow who has translated his Peter, Paul and Mary musical values into contemporary anti-bullying educational programs for young people; and from Ms. Archibald’s fellow Canadian Oscar Brand, who has the longest-running show in radio at WNYC and introduced many of the folk singers profiled here to the airwaves, including Dylan. The most compelling living witness is not surprisingly Pete Seeger, who just turned 94. He is shown in vintage film clips and black-and-white stills during his testimony before HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, on. Pete, as the movie makes clear, relied not on the 5th Amendment protecting one against self-incrimination but the 1st Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and association. The movie also recognizes that Pete risked jail time in being an unfriendly witness before HUAC and refusing to name names of his politically active friends. Pete testified before HUAC on August 18, 1955, more than five years after theWeavers were blacklisted at the height of their success in 1950 with Goodnight Irene was at the top of the Hit Parade. The Supreme Court finally vindicated him in 1961.

I do wish that someone in the film had recalled Agnes “Sis” Cunningham’s Broadside Magazine, the primary vehicle for making their songs available to the folk community. To rely only on broadcast media to tell this story unnecessarily overlooks this pre-computer thriving print medium and leaves out a heroic Dust Bowler who dedicated her life to giving a platform to topical singers and songwriters, from Malvina Reynolds to Dylan, Paxton and Ochs. I explained what Broadside was to some dumbfounded members of the audience I encountered after the screening .They had no idea that these songs were ever published, though there were some un-credited shots of lead sheets from Broadside.

In terms of TV, moreover, despite the panel-leader’s insistence that Pete Seeger “had a show!” Pete by no means “had a show,” except for his self-produced Rainbow Quest, which he was able to distribute to only a handful of public television educational channels. In the sense that Andy Williams had a network show, Pete certainly did not.

Nor, most tellingly, could Pete even get on a show—not until the Smothers Brothers broke the blacklist and put him on—in 1967.

But the most well-known and era-defining show devoted to folk music during the height of its popularity—ABC’s 1963 Hootenanny hosted by Jack Linkletter—blacklisted Pete Seeger with the Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations-worthy justification that “He can’t hold an audience.” Perhaps they missed his sold-out Carnegie Hall concert in 1963.

Joan Baez, out of loyalty to Pete, declined their invitation. In fairness to others, who did not, I must add that Pete told his young and best-known disciples they should not boycott the show because of him; it was good for folk music for them to go on; for they would raise the standards of the show. A testimony to Pete’s greatness as an artist; he realized that folk music was larger than he was, even though he had largely created the audience for it.

Bob Dylan was made of the same stuff as Joan Baez (who was not featured in the film because she came out of the Cambridge folk scene, not the Village). When Dylan was invited to appear on the Ed Sullivan show and brought The Talking John Birch Society Blues to the rehearsal he was told he couldn’t sing it. Rather than find a less offensive song he walked out and never appeared. That to me was Dylan’s finest hour. Like Pete, he proved his mettle by actually paying a price to stick to his principles.

Dylan saved his thunder and replied that same year to Ed Sullivan and the CBS censors who refused to let him sing his most radical composition:

Ye red baiters and race haters

Ain’t a gonna run my world…

Ye red baiters and race haters

Ain’t a gonna run my world

Not now or no other time.

(Ye Playboys and Playgirls)

He sang that song (most movingly and symbolically with Pete Seeger) that summer at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, where the folk revival came into full flower.

Greenwich Village: The Music That Defined a Generation is well worth seeing, if only to hear Ian and Sylvia in their glory days singing Four Strong Winds, with Ian Tyson’s beautiful finger-style guitar accompaniment, Phil Ochs flat-picking the surging overture to his antiwar anthem I Ain’t Marching Anymore, and Eric Andersen telling the gripping story of how he wrote the third verse to his classic civil rights song Thirsty Boots.

It seems that Phil Ochs told Judy Collins that Eric had a great song she might want to learn. On the subway down to the Village to meet her Andersen realized that the song was still unfinished; it had only two verses and needed one more. As the train approached the platform he wrote it out on the back of a matchbook, the same way Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address. By the time Eric got to Judy Collins’ apartment he had finished the song, and then transferred it to his lyric sheet so she would never be the wiser.

One of the best musical coups of the film is an extended sequence (over several scenes) of Mimi and Richard Fariña performing his powerful anti-blacklist song House Un-American Blues Activity Dream. Both are gone now, Richard killed tragically at 29 in a 1966 motorcycle accident en route to the publication party for his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, and Mimi (Joan Baez’s sister) at 56 in 2001 from cancer. To see them young and so vibrantly beautiful in the film is positively (I almost said Positively 4th Street) inspiring—their music triumphant and everlasting, even as the country has downshifted radically to the right since the 1960s.

It wasn’t all youth and beauty, though, even in the early 60s that framed what the late Utah Phillips dubbed the Great Folk Scare. The film’s single most shocking scene is of a musical protest staged in fabled Washington Square Park, where every Sunday folk singers would gather and play together—until the New York Police Department temporarily shut them down for “disturbing the peace.” The Folklore Center’s owner and impresario Israel “Izzy” Young led the protest and refused to back down from the NYPD. Moreover he suggested a “beautiful folk song” they might all sing together—which turned out to be the national anthem—not Woody’s folk anthem This Land Is Your Land, no, the real thing—The Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key. The entire park of singers, banjo pickers and guitar players pulled it off, but it didn’t keep them from getting arrested and led away in paddy wagons—in the land of the free and home of the brave.

This folk music riot took place in the summer of 1961. As the coldest winter in 17 years blew into town so did the scruffy-haired reincarnation of Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan started asking his own questions, like “Where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Where have you been my darling young one?”

Pete Seeger asked some questions too, like “Where have all the flowers gone?”

Perhaps they asked Yip Harburg’s question from 1932, “Brother, can you spare a dime?”

A night at The Bottom Line prompted Ian Tyson to ask himself, “How hard can this be?”

And Tom Paxton,, the folk singer’s folk singer, painted his own picture of the new world they all discovered together; the first time he saw an old Mississippi songster:

Did You Hear John Hurt?

Play his Creole Belle

Spanish Fandango

That he loved so well

Did you hear John Hurt?

Did you shake his hand?

Did you hear him

Sing his Candy Man?

You bet I did, Tom; for if ever anybody was, as Laura Archibald’s filmed love letter to Greenwich Village makes abundantly clear, you all just happened to be in the right place, at the right time. Including Gil Turner, who emceed the hoot down at Gerdes Folk City.

On April 16, 1962 Van Ronk came in, with Dylan wrapped up in his thin leather jacket. “Hey, Gil,” said Dave, “Bobby’s just written a new song—you gotta hear it!” “Come down to the basement,” said Gil; “What’s it called?” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” said Dave; “Each line asks a question, ‘How many roads must a man walk down/’” “Wow,” said Gil; “Can I sing it tonight?” Dylan showed him the chords, and Gil taped it to the microphone.

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com