Folk Music In Greenwich Village: 1940s-1953
There are some that mark the beginning Greenwich Village’s involvement with the revival of American Folk music as 9 April 1961, with the ‘Beatnik Riot’ in Washington Square Park. But folk music was thriving in the Village long before, with folk musicians holding ‘hootenannies’ and gathering in the park to play and socialize from the 1940s.
Lead Belly (born Huddie Ledbetter) came to New York in 1935, after leaving prison in Louisiana. He attained fame in the city as the man who had sung his way out of prison, and although he recorded with the American Record Corporation, they only released his blues songs, which sold poorly. His folk music, for which he has become better known since, was not released. He lived at 414 East 10th Street, befriending other New York folk musicians like Sonny Terrie, Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, and a young Pete Seeger. Seeger later credited Lead Belly with teaching him to play a twelve-string guitar.
Seeger himself was born on the Lower East Side in 1919, and after attending school in New England, returned to the city in 1938. When he first arrived, he lived with his brother at 118 East 11th Street. He and Lee Hays played their first paying gig at the Jade Mountain Chinese restaurant in 1941, at a lunch for refugees of the Spanish Civil War. (Opened in 1931 at 197 Second Avenue, the Jade Mountain Restaurant finally closed in 2007.) Seeger and Hays soon went on to form the Almanac Singers, which would include other folk singers in the Village at the time: Woody Guthrie, Millard Lampell, Sis Cunningham, Bess Lomax Hawes, Cisco Houston, Josh White, Burl Ives, Sam Gary, and others. Many of them, including Seeger, Hays, and Lampell, moved into 70 East 12th Street, where they established a commune of sorts which they called the ‘Almanac House.’ Hungry musicians would stop by for dinner, and sometimes stayed (Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee crashed there in 1942). They held rent parties on Sunday afternoons, which they called ‘hootenannies,’ and their music-making during these parties got the Almanac Singers ‘so many write-ups in the Worker that other left-wing musicians grumbled.’
Eventually, Seeger and the other Almanacs moved to 130 West 10th Street, where they created another gathering place for musicians: a veritable ‘frat house for musical revolutionaries,’ as Seeger called it. Guthrie, meanwhile, moved into an apartment at 148 West 14th Street.
In 1948, Seeger, Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman formed The Weavers. They had their first gig at the Village Vanguard, then (and still) a jazz club at 178 7th Avenue South. Lead Belly and other early folk musicians had played here in the early 1940s, and the Weavers managed to slip in before the club turned to an all-jazz format in 1957. However, both Seeger and Hays were investigated during the Red Scare of the 1950s. The Weavers were placed under FBI surveillance, and were not allowed to perform on radio or television. Decca Records terminated their contract, and deleted their records from its catalogue in 1953. Their songs could not be played on radio, and they were harassed by anti-communist and right-wing groups at performances. The group, no longer financially viable, disbanded. Folk music—left-wing and socially conscious—was largely driven underground during 1950-1955, with many of its leading performers, like Seeger, blacklisted.
They continued, however, to meet at Washington Square Park on Sundays, to sing and play. Although blacklisted and deemed dangerous by many, folk performers found a niche community in Greenwich Village, and were able not only to survive the 1950s, but mentor younger musicians, and pass down their legacy.