The Happy Folksinging Days
The attraction of folk music for those who lurched into puberty during the Eisenhower years was, in retrospect, a trauma. Backward-glancing astonishments are the stuff of déjà vu, not heart-stopping infarction, so let me hang onto my purple prose license for yet a few lines more. There was no proper rock ’n’ roll, sanitized for white youth, but there had been an explosion of radio frequency availabilities immediately after the Second World War. And the new FM, a static-free, high fidelity phenomenon. Our questing radio dials discovered AM stations that bounced black and poor white iterations of roots music off the Van Allen Belt, with sales pitches for the Wayne Raney Talkin’ Harmonica and Jesus in the Garden plastic tablecloths with eyes that moved, right into our solitary bedrooms. With all due reverence to Weird Al Yankovic, the music of polka spheres as expounded by his dad Frank (and his Flyin’ Yanks), Fritz the Plumber and John Michaels on WMIL in Milwaukee did not flip my divot. Decades later, they would. Again, go figure.
My name is John Johnson / I come from Wisconsin / I work in a lumber yard dere
Allan Block hailed from Oshkosh, at the head of Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago—famous, aside from Allan, for the Oshkosh overhead garage door factory and a celebrated brand of overalls. I was born in Fond du Lac, the next town down. For you SCUBA enthusiasts that’s loosely translated French for “Bottom of the Lake.” I escaped as an infant, a babe in my mother’s arms. Thus Allan and I were not to meet until I joined the hangers-on at his shop. He was sixteen years older than I, and this put up a generational barrier that became a chuckle as we aged in place. At age 20 a few years can mean a lot; this was a holdover from high school. Allan had been an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in WWII; two years marching out behind the fieldhouse with the ROTC kept me out of Korea. I did not ponder this as on a Saturday afternoon in 1961 I carried two Mason jars of freshly pulled ale, a premium take-away from McSorley’s Old Ale House on East 7th Street. The downtown crosstown walk in lower Manhattan is a lark. Uptown the crosstown blocks were, and still are, I understand, a good quarter mile. I packed a banjo case over one shoulder, balancing its large round lollipop end while most of my attention was on keeping McSorley’s bubbling suds from spilling. The Allan Block Sandal Shop was a refuge from an increasingly déclassé Washington Square Park. But the Square was a Sunday event—if you were discreet, you might gather.
The title of this item, The Happy Folk Singing Days, is a direct borrowing from a book by a friend from the days of being broke and artsy whilst at the same time holding down a full time job midtown. Ralph Lee Smith was among the regulars at Allan’s shop. And unlike many, me f’rinstance, who strayed from playing, Ralph is still going strong and is a highly-regarded proponent of the American Dulcimer. I put in my time and chucked it after forty-plus years. I had carved out a career in minor league radio and was a pretty good rock ’n’ roll disc jockey. At age fifty, I bagged it in New York City and retired to WQDY in Downeast Maine where the local station boasted the same equipment I had learned on at WINS in New York 30 years before. A piece of cake, I would teach myself to write, I thought. Ah, but the past awaits—Rust never sleeps, to quote Neil Young—and the meter is running.
“The Regular [Washington Square] get-togethers had actually started somewhere in the 1940s when a few friends took to meeting in the park for loose song sessions. These had grown until the police began taking notice and there were all sorts of arguments, leading eventually to an inner core of musicians arranging to get regular permits. Naturally, a lot of us despised the idea of needing an official permit, but it did have one advantage: the rule was that everyone was allowed to sing and play from two until five as long as they had no drums, and that kept out the bongo players...”
— Dave Van Ronk
“In the late 1950s and early 1960s, New York’s Greenwich Village was a melting pot, or better yet, a pressure cooker, for musical styles that would transform American popular music. In the Village, the Depression-era music of Woody Guthrie and the socially conscious songs of the Weavers met the Celtic music craze (courtesy of the Clancy Brothers), the country blues revival, and a host of other musical idioms that had long been ignored by the American pop music industry. The result was the “Great Folk Scare” of the 1960s, when—for one brief, glorious moment—bland, predictable pop music was driven to its knees.”
— Liz Milner
An astounding array of stop-ins, drop-ins and sit-ins, er... sat in at the sandal shop sessions. The small tight circle of the faithful tended to be self-regulating and I don’t recall anyone who was irretrievably banned. Allan Block being of a choleric temperament (any reputable dictionary will guide you past that one), this was surprising.
“Last week, from Francestown, N.H., where he lives in an old farmhouse,
Mr. Block, 80, said he was still making sandals and other leather goods
and selling them at his workshop and at craft and music fairs throughout
New England. He also takes on “a few music jobs,” he said, fiddling country
tunes at local dances and at the fairs.
“And he fiddles in the street, for tips. That is an activity he pursues during his January-to-March stays in St. Augustine, Fla. “There’s a street in the old section where I occupy a spot for a few hours a day,” he said. “It helps pay for my fruits and vegetables and fish.”
— The New York Times December 7, 2003*
At left: on the stoop at 242 Bergen St. Brooklyn. The downstairs and the garden were Ann Mari Buitrago’s. Haferman and I did the two divorced guys bunking up number and occupied the top floors, an Odd Couple with 2 Oscar Madisons. The next week I would leave for Indianapolis to do the morning show at WNDE (Windy 1260). AM stereo, remember that? Jane Pauley, David Letterman and Joyce DeWitt had left town for the big time, and the field was clear for us marginal talents.
— Rob Hunter
The year was 1960 and reform was in the air. Carol Greitzer and Ed Koch would soon be tilting (under the banner of the Village Independent Democrats) against Carmine DeSapio for the leadership at the Tamawa Club (otherwise celebrated as Tammany Hall). It was the winter of 1960. Herbert Henry Lehman and Eleanor Roosevelt had added their names to a distinguished letterhead at Reform and New York City’s ward politics seemed doomed. This was good newspaper copy—everybody remembered Boss Tweed, or thought they did. Tweed was a legendary grifter and responsible for New York’s most famous rip-off, the Tweed Courthouse. What it meant for denizens of the Village demimonde was that there were now two (2) tiers of outstretched palms waiting for the grease, the Tammany gleaners: beat cops, fire inspectors, kitchen inspectors, buildings department, etc. followed by the Reform guys: beat cops, fire inspectors, kitchen inspectors, buildings department, etc.
March 3rd 1960 and the 9th largest snowfall in Manhattan history. At 14 ½ inches MacDougal Street was impassable. The streets filled with snow, garbage, then snow again—a simultaneous occurrence of natural events. We were used to garbage, snow was a rarity, while strikes by sanitation workers might stretch into weeks. Death by fumes was not as yet on the Gotham register of civic dread. So... the streets were plowed with garbage trucks that had to get back to the ward yard for the attachment of their plow blades. The garbage trucks headed home for their attachments, and got stuck in the snow along the way leaving garbage uncollected in their wake.
Herbert and Eleanor, Carol and Ed would not be coming with their shovels—not a job for Reform. This was an Act o’ God and the plows would be along, but until they did here was a chance for a random act of anarchism—burn the garbage in the streets. The subways were of course running; hoof it over to the Waverly Theater stop and butt-slide down the steps of the West 4th Street Station and you were home free. Don the mask of propriety and zip away to midtown. It was January and cold, even for New York City—“A 30 degree town,” according to the building supers. They recommended removing the pressure valves from the radiators and putting quilts over the windows. “You gotta have a grandma who makes quilts. Everybody has a grandma who makes quilts.” (Bill Bent, building super at 37 W. 57th Street, the Vogar Fur Trading Bldg.)
We lit it up.
The sign on the hewn granite tenement (to be in later years imitated in cast cement in neighborhoods less ancient) said “Dianetics Practitioner.” L. Ron Hubbard was not in residence; this was a pre-Scientology acolyte. We had hopped the North Shore electric line from Milwaukee and were on a visit to Frank Hamilton, a neighbor of Jim Norris [A Black Irish Flamenco guitarist friend. He accompanied dancers at the Cellar Bohème on Chicago’s South Side.] in the Old Town area of Chicago. Frank and Sheila with baby Cameron lived across the hall from a former Woody Guthrie spouse and some of the Guthrie former children. This land was his land; the senior Guthrie was an uxorious troubadour. And so would I become, as it turned out, with never a thought for the layers of angst that might lie beneath the romance. Frank (with Win Strake) had opened the Old Town School of Folk Music. And they flourished, thank you.
Frank was a gracious host and the three of us—Bernie Johnson, Jim Norris and me—slurped coffee, chatted and played a bit. These were the days before Frank replaced Erik Darling who had replaced Pete Seeger in the reconstituted Weavers. We became enthusiastic. We were noisy and a tapping at the door introduced an elderly Greek lady from downstairs who put the Evil Eye on me. Must have been the banjo. Her nationality is important. The cursing was accompanied by something muttered and Middle-Eastern that may have been Greek, may have been 48 down from that morning’s Tribune crossword. I was impressed. While not a believer, I had read The White Goddess and was ready to believe.
Folk was getting big and cashing in in this modest way was a forgivable excess. I mean, splitting ten dollars a lesson. Jim McGuinn, a multi-instrumentalist wizard who wore a crew cut and a dazzling orthodonture was hired on to teach guitar and banjo. Any banjo leftovers went to me, as the Bluegrass maven. I had been playing for a year and had some neat turns, techniques the folk community had yet to catch up with—the testosterone, if not the chops. Discounting travel time to Chicago, the cost of bar car beer and railroad fares, I was operating at a loss. In Milwaukee, four of us itinerant pluckers—Clem Floyd, Bill Houck, Bernie Johnson and me—rented office space and became the North Shore School of Folk Music. Clem, a bluesman from the north of England, given name Ronald Atlee Floyd, dubbed us the North Shore Chums of Downtrodden Minorities. To get the public mind in a receptive mood, we held a show featuring the four of us, Guitar Marmalade. Guitar Marmalade sold out a 350-seat hall. We were impressed with ourselves.
Jim McGuinn I would next see a couple of years on when I was living in the Village. These were the pre-Byrd days and he was accompanying the Chad Mitchell Trio and living at the Hotel Earle. His banjo and guitar were stolen in a break-in at the Earle. Pete Stampfel and I had pulled a two week gig at the Gaslight Cafe and felt we were ready for... something.
— and this just in, a posting by Tom Meisenheimer a/k/a Coyote Breath from the Mudcat Cafe (mudcat.org) messageboards: Little known 1960’s Folk Singers (March 17, 2007)
I came late (as usual) to this thread. Anyone mention Paul Prestopino? played with Mike Bloomfield when the later managed the Fickle Pickle in Chicago in the middle 60’s. He was with the Chad Mitchel Trio for a while. His Dad was an abstract painter of some note. Also Mike Slossen (sometimes called Mike Castle), Jacquie Harrison, Billy Chippet (wonderful and haunting version of Barbara Allen, an on-again off-again brush arbor musician from the bootheel of Missouri). “Doc” Stanley who MC’d the open mic at The Poison Apple in Chicago. I met Mississippi John Hurt there on a Sunday afternoon in 1963 or ’64. Doc got in bad trouble, something about a shooting. Lots of talent in Chicago and Milwaukee back then. Peter Stampfel, Rob Hunter and another guy I can’t remember played in Milwaukee under the name of McGrundy’s Old Timey Wool Thumpers. Bill Ross and Sweet Billy Olsen both great five string banjo players. Bill Ross (Rossiter was his true surname) had been a Capuchin monk at one time. Married a gal from Mexico and they lived in Pueblo last I heard.
For a while Rob Hunter was with Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel as Holy Modal Rounders in the village. Rob lived in alphabet city in a walk-up most of whose apartments were shooting galleries.
For nostalgia buffs, the address was 63 Clinton, on the same side of the street as the Winston Theatre: Three (3) features, always a Western. You could stay all day and smoke and drink in the orchestra section, since torn down. Right next door was Sid & Howie’s Famous Egg Cream where the pay phone was in a booth at the back.
The group, its name an ever-changing tapestry, was The Strict Temperance String Band of Lower Delancy Street while in Milwaukee. The Woolthumpers were usually in New York City where fiddler George Dawson stood in for Dick Graham.
Ann Mari Buitrago, co-author with Andy Immerman of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been in the FBI Files, now sadly out of date. Barney Rosset of Grove press brought it out at the time Ann Mari and I moved in together. AMB died of ovarian cancer in 1993. She is the heroine of The Francher, a story of mine.
For a who’s who of the musicians from Allan Block’s Saturday soirees: click here
The Mayor of MacDougal Street—*Dave Van Ronk
Van Ronk CD Rarities 1957-1969—for aficionados of the obscure, this album of little-heard tunes includes Pete Stampfel’s Romping Through the Swamp (YouTube)
*Liz Milner The Career of Mountain Dulcimer Virtuoso Ralph Lee Smith in the Old Time Herald
*Ralph Lee Smith—Greenwich Village, The Happy Folksinging Days
David Amram on Woody Guthrie—Symphonic Variations on a song by Woody Guthrie
*The New York Times “Following Up” online piece by Joseph P. Fried about Allan Block and Bob Dylan, Sunday, December 7, 2003: Stand In His Shoes (Just Not on 4th St.)
Citybilly, hillbilly, folkbilly, etc.— Charles Seeger’s comments on the spread of the oral tradition. In the Journal of American Folklore.
An Allan Block appreciation: The Monadnock Folklore Society January 1983 (.pdf) Allan died on Oct. 23, 2013 at his home in Francestown, N.H. He was 90.