By Jennifer Schwartz
Globe Correspondent / October 19, 2008
Within the offices of the Passim Center on Church Street, the '60s
folk music revival is alive and well.
Photographs of Joan Baez crowd the walls. A framed, unpublished Bob
Dylan poem memorializes a local, late-night writing frenzy. Jim Field
from the '60s bluegrass band Charles River Valley Boys stops in to
"drop off his bags" before taking a walk around Harvard Square. And
Betsy Siggins, the 69-year-old artistic director, keeps a sign in her
entranceway that reads: "Hippies use side door."
Since the 50th anniversary of Club Passim (the love child of Club 47
and Passim) in January, preserving the past has taken center stage.
As the folk music and cultural center celebrated five decades, its
10-year-old collection of photos, records, tapes, posters, and other
memorabilia - known officially now as the New England Folk Archive
Project - took on new prominence.
"Just like in life, at 50, you start to look back and reflect," said
Millie Rahn, the Passim archives coordinator and a professional
folklorist. "We realized just how important this was, and we got very
serious about our history."
Now, the archive is expanding and undergoing the beginning stages of
organization. A walking tour (think Freedom Trail for significant
Cambridge folk spots) is in the works for 2009, as well as an online
compilation of oral histories and photos.
"Back then, no one thought that 50 years down the line anyone would
be interested in this stuff," said Siggins, her pearl-color hair and
animated stories pointing to a free-spirited personality. "It's only
by luck and talent and chance that we're still even here."
While Club Passim is supported by memberships, grants, and donations,
Siggins said the nonprofit would need "hundreds of thousands of
dollars" to properly preserve the many fragile records. Acid-free
boxes and storage space are just the beginning.
"I want to make this archive sing, literally," she said. "But some of
the stuff deteriorates just by touching it."
Rahn, whose personal collection helped to jump-start the archive,
wants to see it used more frequently for research and educational
purposes. Currently, the Passim Center accepts research requests on a
case-by-case basis. The goal is to make it accessible to everyone,
from high school students to biographers.
"If we had all the money in the world," said Rahn, "our dream would
be to buy this building and make a café, and host workshops and have
listening stations, a gallery, and a place to do research.
"We'd also use money to travel to conduct interviews before it's too
late. Many people are already gone, and their stories are lost."
But Siggins and Rahn face the challenge of funding.
"The economy is tough as it is, and it's harder to get people to
donate to preserve the letters of Tom Rush," said Siggins. "People
are more inclined to donate to children's programs."
Still, Club Passim is thriving with nightly shows - many of which
sell out. Besides the baby boomers who had crowded in at Club 47
decades earlier, younger generations also find the archive
worthwhile, said Elizabeth Butters, a 23-year-old archive assistant
and ballad singer from Somerville who plays the Appalachian dulcimer.
"The most important aspect of the archive for young people is that
they can see for themselves why things happened, instead of hearing
myths," she said. "Something like Dylan doing electric [guitar] - the
information you find here on that is much more immediate than hearing
it after being regurgitated many times."
As a starting point, Rahn and crew are focusing on the decade between
1958 and 1968, which marked the peak folk revival that they say was
sparked in Cambridge during that time.
Asked why the folk revival happened then, Siggins answers in a way
that reflects her character.
"We came out of the '50s, which were really boring, and into the
'60s. There was a party going on, and it was ours," she said.
Rahn, the folklorist, cites a more academic example.
"When a society is in stress, we tend to look back in time for a
simpler model," she said. "It was post-World War II, and so much was
going on politically. Young people used music as expression."
There are no business records of the early days of Club 47, when it
was essentially a coffeehouse. Siggins recalls people drinking their
morning coffee and reading The New York Times. It became a de facto
day-care center when the musicians left their children there to work
day jobs or write music.
"Black bands from the South came with guitar cases and battered
suitcases and played in exchange for a place to sleep for the night,"
said Siggins. "It was a mix of Harvard kids and townies, and the
music was the neutralizer."
Rahn said that the soon-to-be-launched walking tour will take people
on a folk pilgrimage through old homes and haunts where musicians
collaborated. Baez's apartment on Massachusetts Avenue and the
original location of Club 47 on Mt. Auburn Street will be two highlights.
"We're always asked, 'What was it like? What does it sound like? What
were the '60s like?' " said Rahn. "With the archives, we now have
those answers in a tangible way."