Passim icon drives archives project
By James Reed
Globe Staff / September 20, 2009
Last year, in an intimate interview before a full house at Club
Passim, Joan Baez was asked how the iconic folk venue had persevered
to mark its 50th year.
Her answer was short, resolute, and immediate:
That would be Betsy Siggins, one of Club Passim's founding members
back when it was Club 47 and the hotbed of Cambridge's 1960s folk
revival that made stars out of Baez, Tom Rush, and Jim Kweskin. After
an extended hiatus that took her to New York and Washington, D.C.,
Siggins returned to Passim in 1996 and revitalized the club just as
it was nearly on the brink of shuttering.
No one, least of all Siggins, could have predicted she would no
longer be at Passim's reins as executive director 13 years later. But
in February Passim's board of directors made budget cuts that left
Siggins out of a job. As part of their mutual agreement, Siggins was
allowed to take the archives project she had been working on in her
role as artistic director.
Now, along with Millie Rahn, Passim's former archivist who was also
laid off, Siggins is preserving some of the region's past glory with
the launch of the New England Folk Music Archives. It's been a pet
project for several years, and Siggins seems energized by the
opportunity to dig into the vast volumes of vintage photos, audio
recordings, interviews with artists, and sundry memorabilia that
chronicle some of Cambridge's most important cultural years.
"This is what we want to do. Now we've got the time to really focus
on this. Because it's music, it keeps branching out to other
interests and other kinds of programming we can do,'' Siggins says.
"We have great potential, and I've never wanted [this stuff] to just
languish in my daughter's basement.''
But, of course, the new nonprofit is in dire need of seed money and
hopes to get a head start with tonight's fund-raising gala at the
Hard Rock Cafe. The event, which doubles as Siggins's 70th birthday
party, will feature a sneak peek of the archive's offerings, plus
performances by some of the artists Siggins has befriended and
championed, including Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, Jonatha Brooke, Dom
Flemons (Carolina Chocolate Drops), and Meg Hutchinson.
Jerry Potts, chair of Passim's board of directors, admits it was a
brutal decision to lose Siggins, who's become inextricably linked to
the club's history.
"It was a real dark time, and there's no positive spin on this, other
than the venue came out of it,'' Potts says of Siggins's departure,
which wasn't widely publicized. "It became a situation of what's best
to move the archives ahead and keep Passim going. We got to the
position where it was going to be best to let Betsy do what she's doing now.''
Potts says that when Passim took a financial nosedive late last year,
the board evaluated its priorities among its four programs - the
club, the archives, the School of Music, and the Culture for Kids
initiative. The board decided it couldn't afford to develop, let
alone find the space to house, the archives, which hadn't even
debuted to the public yet.
"I knew it would take the longest [to create], and I knew it would
take more money than we had to give it, so I kept putting it off,''
And Potts points out that Passim didn't give up easily on the
archives. The board considered making Siggins and Rahn consultants
but couldn't promise them much; he says there was also an
unsuccessful appeal to musicians for financial support.
Relying on a planning grant from the Grammy Foundation and not much
else, the New England Folk Music Archives is off to a rather
tentative start. A small staff has been assembled (including director
Timothy Mason, an independent contractor who also lost his job at
Passim), an advisory board includes bold-face names such as Tom Rush,
and a website has been created at www.newenglandfolkmusic.org.
The fledgling nonprofit doesn't have a physical home yet but hopes to
make an announcement about that at tonight's gala. Instead, Siggins
and Rahn are forging ahead with their initial goals. Last month, in
collaboration with the Cambridge Historical Society, Rahn led a
walking tour with points of interest in Cambridge's folk history.
Soon the archives will plan educational programs in schools about the
legacy of American folk music, particularly from New England.
"Once we get a home, one of our first big tasks is to sort through
what we've got,'' Rahn says, noting the significant amount of
materials that are still in boxes in basements and who knows where
else. Eventually, they hope to solicit archival goods from the community.
Kweskin, who performs at tonight's gala, said he was eager to support
Siggins's latest project because it's vital to both fans and
musicians. "As a musician I would say it's important because there
was so much amazing music and history going on in the '60s and up
until now,'' he says. "Cambridge's folk music scene was so vibrant
and so full of life. It should be preserved.''
As with the dissolution of any relationship, there's always the risk
of friends having to choose a side, but Kweskin says he won't do
that. "Every good club struggles financially,'' Kweskin says of
Passim without Siggins. "They just had to cut back on their expenses
so that they could continue on. And I will continue to play there. I
like the people there.''
Potts says he'd like for Passim to collaborate with the New England
Folk Music Archives, but he acknowledges it might be too soon. "We're
talking about trying to do some joint work later,'' Potts says. "The
board wanted to do something right away, some kind of an appreciation
event, and we still want to, but I think Betsy's feelings are hurt
and it's completely understandable.''
For her part, Siggins is still reticent but respectful about her
departure from Passim.
"I was there for 12 years. I did, I think, as much as I could. I
think it's in another phase, and it was very hard for me,'' Siggins
says. "I lost my home, but I think that the door opened and I see
what I can accomplish when I have the focus on one very big topic.
It's very personal for me. I love the idea of having this time and
the quality of time to get my act together before I'm 80.''
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.