After 50 years, the genre has changed, but at Club Passim the spirit hasn't.
By Joan Anderman
March 23, 2008
I say folk music. You think guitar-strumming troubadour with furrowed
brow and earnest message. Or maybe you see a black-and-white snapshot
of a quaint and faintly distant cultural moment. Quite possibly, your
main reference point is A Mighty Wind. In our tech-savvy,
commerce-crazed, who's-next pop playground, whither folk?
In spirit, all over the place - from a slew of rustic young rockers
to fringe dwellers like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom to
punks-gone-acoustic and a new generation of old-time string bands.
Back-to-basics is an attractive enterprise in a world moving at the
speed of Bluetooth. The pursuit of simpler aesthetics - and, no
doubt, simpler times - has sparked an anything-goes, hybrid-heavy
folk renaissance that's scattered across the musical spectrum. But
it's only tangentially connected to the process, the value system,
and the community that came up a half-century ago and captured the
For that, we go to Club Passim in Harvard Square. One of the key
players in the great folk revival of the '50s and '60s and the
longest-running folk music venue in the country, Passim turns 50 this
year. It's changed hands three times and names four times: Club 47,
Passim, Club Passim, and now, officially - as befits a
coffeehouse-cum-cultural institution - the Passim Center. Its
mission: the preservation and cultivation of folk music. The
organization includes a music school, free educational programming
for children, and an ongoing archive project.
But the heart of the place is a basement on Palmer Street outfitted
with a narrow wood stage, a few dozen tables, a vegetarian kitchen,
and a living legacy.
The young singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, who lived in Boston from
2001 to 2004, made a pilgrimage to Passim during spring break of his
senior year at Oberlin to find out if his songs were the soundtrack
to a pipe dream or if he was the real thing. "Passim is where the
songs had been sung by the people whose recordings I had," says
Ritter. "Phil Ochs, Mississippi John Hurt. The legend of Joan Baez
was one of the big reasons I moved there. It seemed like a place
[where] people got started."
The thing that distinguishes folk from other genres, more than the
songs' sound or sensibility, is its emphasis on cultivating human
ties as well as musical talent. It evolved through the so-called folk
process, of sharing songs and passing down techniques from
practitioner to practitioner over decades and centuries. At Club 47 -
which opened its doors on January 6, 1958, at 47 Mt. Auburn Street,
thanks to the sweat and savings accounts of recent Brandeis grads
Paula Kelley and Joyce Kalina - they took the process to a new level.
Originally envisioned as a European coffeehouse with a
progressive-jazz flavor, the club quickly morphed into a magnet for a
group of like-minded college students (and college dropouts). As much
social scene as music venue, Passim was, in the early days, something
like a clubhouse, manned by a bunch of dreamers with new ideas and
old guitars. "Everybody put their finger in the same socket," current
Passim executive director Betsy Siggins says. "And we all came out
budding folkies." Siggins, who dropped out of BU following freshman
year with her best friend, Joan Baez, waitressed at the club during
the week, cooked on Sundays, and ran the art gallery in the
afternoons. When babies started arriving, Siggins (who was married to
Bob Siggins of the Charles River Valley Boys) shared child care with
Maria Muldaur (then wife of Geoff Muldaur, a member of the Jim
Kweskin Jug Band).
"If you didn't like a community, you really didn't want to play at
the club," says Siggins.
Club 47, which would move from Mt. Auburn Street to its current
location on Palmer Street in 1963, was home to Baez and the Muldaurs,
Bill Staines, Tom Rush, Jim Rooney, Eric Von Schmidt, Bob Jones, Jim
Kweskin, and Peter Rowan, among others - and an extended national
family that included Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Bukka White, Taj Mahal,
and Mose Allison. Someone's spare couch, rather than a hotel room,
was the preferred accommodation.
"Very often I'd be down there three or four nights a week," recalls
Rooney, a Nashville musician and producer, coauthor of Baby, Let Me
Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years,
and the club's manager for several years in the '60s. "Inevitably
there would be a gathering later at somebody's apartment. We couldn't
get enough. New York was where business would take place, but in
Cambridge we tended to think of ourselves as being above all that."
TODAY, THOSE SOCIAL AND POLITICAL MOVEMENTS that were so integral to
the folk scene in the '60s - civil rights, the Vietnam War - no
longer provide a rich contextual fabric for the music. Emphasis on
traditional forms has exploded into a kaleidoscope of styles. And the
notion of folk music in the service of a larger, or universal, ideal
has receded, largely replaced by an emphasis on songcraft as personal
expression. But the core value of musical give-and-take, and by
extension the possibility of finding your voice as part of a vibrant
chorus of voices, remains intact at Passim. Folk-pop star Ellis Paul
cut his teeth at the club in the early '90s in the company of Martin
Sexton, Dar Williams, Patty Griffin, Vance Gilbert, and Catie Curtis.
"We all tried to outdo each other, and we all learned from each
other," says Paul. "I remember after-parties going until 4 or 5 in
the morning at the club with all the musicians in town."
The club was then operated by Bob and Rae Anne Donlin; he was a
Massachusetts-born beat poet who appeared in two of Jack Kerouac's
novels as the character Bob Donnelly, she was a former English major
known for mothering young artists. Both are now deceased, but during
their 25 years running the club (they took over in 1969, when it
became Passim), the couple helped launch the careers of such literate
tunesmiths as Suzanne Vega, Nanci Griffith, and Shawn Colvin -
although Bob is nearly as renowned for declining to book a young
singer-songwriter named Springsteen.
Meanwhile, Betsy Siggins was running soup kitchens and food pantries
in New York City, learning the craft of community building that would
serve her well when she came back to Cambridge, and Passim, in 1996.
"The world has become more bureaucratic, and the need for a sense of
order is profound," she says, "but I think that the visions and the
dreams and the way you begin to find yourself, I still see it in the
kids who sing here. I see it at open mike - kids who can't tune their
guitar, and they're terrified and putting out everything they can for
that one song onstage. Nobody says boo to you here. It's very forgiving."
Also forgiving: Harvard University, which owns the building where
Passim's performance space and offices are located. A nonprofit
organization, Passim has always struggled financially, and when the
university acquired the property, it forgave Passim past rent and
negotiated a long-term rental agreement that was significantly
under-market. Richard Boardman, one of Harvard's senior fund-raisers,
provides Passim with consulting services. The university routinely
offers the free use of Sanders Theatre for high-profile Passim
concerts, including the upcoming 50th-anniversary celebration with
Joan Baez, and has two representatives on Passim Center's board.
Passim appears eager to expand its footprint by creating an
exhibition gallery for the archive, and many believe the club would
benefit from updating and enlarging its performance space. But no
plans can be made until the fall. That's when a yearlong,
universitywide arts study launched by Harvard president Drew Gilpin
Faust - the first since 1956 - will deliver the results from a
commissioned task force examining the role of arts in the curriculum
and community as well as the university's allocation of resources. At
least so far, Harvard seems to understand Passim's stature. Jack
Megan, director of Harvard's office for the arts and a board member
at Passim, says, "It's incredibly important to make sure the Square
isn't just a center for banking institutions."
As Passim looks to secure its future as a cornerstone of the arts
community, one of its challenges is to remain culturally relevant.
Critics say that Passim isn't forward-looking or broad-minded enough,
pointing, for example, to the so-called freak-folk movement that's
been a burgeoning youth market for several years but whose main
purveyors have never played at Passim. The club's longtime manager
and booker, Matt Smith, says that's not because the club lacks vision.
"People like Devendra and Joanna [Banhart and Newsom, the scene's
poster children] have agents that know the rock rooms. That's how the
game goes with booking," says Smith. "It's a database. Or maybe an
act wants a room with beer. We have a lot of edgier artists that play
the Campfire [Passim's twice-yearly festival]. That's why I didn't
want to call it a folk festival. The name has a bad rap."
Which brings us to the age-old question: What is folk?
Dar Williams says that a folk musician is "an artist who makes you
look at the map differently, a person who sits on her bed and writes
a song and gives Iowa and Buffalo and Scranton and Westchester County
Steve Earle says folk musicians are "searching and principled."
Josh Ritter believes "folk music is anything you can hum in the car
on the way home."
Interpretations of the word are as bountiful as the sounds folk
musicians make. But the guy who runs the country's oldest folk club
offers an appealingly pragmatic view. "Sometimes it's an economic
status more than a genre," says Matt Smith. "I can't afford a band.
So I'm a folk singer."
Joan Anderman, a music writer for the Globe, last wrote for the
magazine about singer James Taylor. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.