This Land is Their Land

Unregulated folk-singing might have flooded the USA.

3000 beatniks headline

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The Judson Church on the south side of the park was a community gathering place. Howard Moody, the pastor, had punched through the insularity demonstrated by other Village denominations and embraced the neighborhood. The year is 1961.

Hizzoner ducks: parks commissioner a living sacrifice

NEWBOLD MORRIS, silk-stocking descendant of the original Colonial Morrises, was three decades in progressive city government, longtime City Council president under Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, twice a mayoral candidate himself. Now he ran the city’s parks, and it seemed to him that these folk singers were littering up Washington Square and trampling the grass.

MORRIS WON the first round May 4, when state Supreme Court Justice William Hecht upheld the city’s ban on park minstrels. Still, Mayor Robert Wagner sensed public indignation and moved to conciliate. A few days later, after conferring with Morris, he issued a temporary approval of the folk singers “on a controlled basis as a compromise between conflicting uses of the people. I sincerely hope it works.”

“Controlled” meant specifically designated folk-singing hours in specifically roped-off areas, and this was not yet satisfactory to the folkies, who persisted in taking their suit to the appeals court. Where, as everyone knew perfectly well, Hecht’s ruling was bound to be overturned. Morris, for his part, persisted in arguing his case, and finally Wagner just shrugged and decided to let his parks commissioner look silly. Morris let it be known that his feelings were very hurt as he awaited the inevitable court reversal. “Everybody loved me until I became parks commissioner,” he grumbled.

"I think City Hall has learned about the people,” said Rev. Moody, “...learned how hard it is to take away from them such a small and insignificant privilege as singing.”


Exempli gratia et alia: errata et cetera

The year was 1980. In the summer we were of a Sunday habit of playing in the park. The park in this case being Washington Square. There were no vast cantonments of pluckers and thumpers, the glory days of mass sing-alongs twenty years behind us.

With her elfin charm Ken’s ten-year-old daughter Emma attached herself to onlookers by yanking at their pants legs. She held out a busker’s cigar box and hung on tight. Clearly, loose change was the price of freedom. We did well that summer. Some yards off and just past the range of acoustical annoyance, Philippe Petit toe-balanced on a rope pegged to the ground and anchored with a sturdy knot eight feet up in the crotch of a sycamore tree. Philippe wore white mime makeup, juggled and passed the tall silk hat that was his trademark. He tipped the hat to Emma. Emma held her cigar box at arm’s length and took a careful curtsey. Six years before Philippe had danced on a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center.

Ken sang This Land is Your Land, a request from the crowd. “Just like Woody did it,” said a well-kept white-haired woman. She patted Ken on the shoulder and gave him a hug. “Good.” She introduced herself as Margie Guthrie, Woody’s ex, Arlo’s mom. Quite a compliment. We packed it in and headed to the falafel parlor on MacDougal Street. With Emma passing the cigar box we made enough for falafel for five kids and three adults plus the subway fare back to Brooklyn.

The year is now 2015 and, while I stopped playing decades back, Ken Haferman, one of God’s born banjo troubadors whose leather lungs yet howl at the rising moon, is still going strong in Milwaukee.

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