Folk Music in Greenwich Village: 1953-1961
On Sunday 9 April 1961, Washington Square Park was full of folk musicians and their friends. The park had become a gathering place for them starting in the 1940s, when the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie began singing and socializing there. A permit was required at this time, but was considered a formality until 1961, when the ‘folkies’’ application was rejected with no explanation. (Some speculate that the city was concerned that the musicians were attracting undesirable elements, like beatniks and interracial couples, to the neighborhood. The official reason was never given.) They gathered all the same, on 9 April, to protest the rejection. Among them were David Bennett Cohen, Izzy Young (who had submitted the application in the first place, and was now organizing the protest), Dan Drasin (who filmed the protest with borrowed equipment), and, some say, a nineteen-year-old Bob Dylan. When the musicians got to the park, the police were already there. The result was the ‘Beatnik Riot.’ Cohen recalls it as ‘one little glitch with the cops,’ with no other interruption in the singing and playing in Washington Square Park (which today, does not require a permit).
After Pete Seeger was blacklisted in the early 1950s, and his fellow Weavers placed under FBI surveillance, folk music was largely driven underground. In Greenwich Village, they were still able to meet in Washington Square Park, and sustain a community that continually drew in younger musicians.
Early in 1957, Izzy Young opened the Folklore Center at 110 MacDougal Street, selling records, books, and sheet music near the park. It became a hangout of sorts, where musicians met and were introduced to each other. Bob Dylan was known to sit in the back room of the store, listening to records and reading books. He met Dave Van Ronk there, and Young himself produced Dylan’s first concert at Carnegie Chapter Hall in 1961.
Van Ronk, who had come to Greenwich Village in the mid-1950s, was known as the ‘Mayor of MacDougal Street’ for his leadership in the folk community. (The block where he lived at 15 Sheridan Square is now named ‘Dave Van Ronk Street’ in his honor.) He became a great inspiration to Joan Baez, who at the time was still getting her start singing in Boston and Cambridge, and a mentor and proponent of Joni Mitchell. He and his friend Paul Clayton were also mentors to Bob Dylan, who spent a good amount of time crashing on Van Ronk’s couch.
Clayton, Van Ronk, Luke Faust, Len Chandler, and others performed at the Gaslight Café at 116 MacDougal Street, downstairs and next door to the Kettle of Fish at 114 MacDougal Street. The Gaslight Café had opened in 1958, and hosted readings by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso early on. It became a folk club in the early 1960s, and the Kettle of Fish became a folk hangout since its location made it a convenient place for performers to relax between sets. Café Bizarre, a tourist trap at 106 West 3rd Street was another of the first establishments to book folk musicians, but they got most of their experience playing at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, at 181 Sullivan Street. The Folk Singers Guild organized a few small concerts there, and musicians gathered there on Sunday nights to play before Gerdes Folk City opened in 1961. As Van Ronk recalled, ‘There wasn’t anything else.’ (Kip Lornell, Exploring American Folk Music: Ethnic, Grassroots, and Regional Traditions in the United States, 298)
This was not to be the case for much longer, however. After the riot at Washington Square Park in 1961, the younger musicians began coming into their own, and folk music would see a new burst of popularity as the 1960s and 1970s went on.