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Where Folk History Lives

After 50 years, the genre has changed, but at Club Passim the spirit hasn't.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + 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 national consciousness.

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 poetic ambience."

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 anderman@globe.com.

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