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The Folk Music Revival Scene: A South Village Tour

December is South Village Month – join us in celebrating this vibrant neighborhood all month long!

The South Village in the 50s and 60s was a hotbed of creativity and activism. Where the West Village might be known as the heart of the neighborhood, the area south could be called its soul. Sullivan Street, Thompson Street, MacDougal Street, Washington Square, and the surrounding areas were the epicenter of the creative intelligentsia at that time. The streets teemed with coffee houses that overflowed with activists and artists alike. The music venues were abundant and bursting with new and inspired genres of sound.

During the halcyon days of the South Village, the neighborhood became the epicenter of the national folk music renaissance, led by such artists as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Peter Paul and Mary, Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, the Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkle, and so many more.  These seminal musicians and poets created a community that made a few blocks of the South Village into a cultural mecca in the 1950s and early 1960s. Their music and lyrics became a voice for social and political action and change.

The folk musicians found ample work in some 20 clubs in that five-block area. Here we will explore a few of the haunts of the South Village folk music revival scene.

The Gaslight Cafe
116 MacDougal Street

Exterior view of the Gaslight Cafe (116 MacDougal Street), a coffee house and nightclub in Greenwich Village, New York, New York, December 18, 1962. The banner advertises performances by Bill Cosby, Len Chandler, and Tom Paxton. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

The Gaslight Café (aka Gaslight Poetry Cafe) was an early Beat hangout, offering poetry readings by such notables as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Television reporter Mike Wallace did televised interviews from the Gaslight in 1960 for his special on the Beat Generation. The venue soon became well-known for folk music as well, with early performances by Bob Dylan and a host of other emerging folk musicians. In 1960, the Fire Department closed the coffeehouse, along with others in the neighborhood, citing safety concerns and violations of city zoning laws – more specifically, for providing entertainment in the form of poetry reading and music without a cabaret license. Protests and sit-ins by patrons of the Gaslight continued until at least the following year, and the café lived on to survive until 1971. Most recently, a recreated “Gaslight Café” served as the location where Midge Maisel, the title character of the hit show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, got her start as a stand-up comedian. The Gaslight may be gone, but it is certainly not forgotten.

Gerde’s Folk City
71 West 4th Street

Image courtesy of http://folkcityatfifty.blogspot.com

Opened by Mike Porco in 1952 as an Italian restaurant that specialized in spaghetti lunches, Gerde’s became a folk club in 1960. Monday night hootenannies catapulted the club to become one of the most important venues of the South Village scene for nearly a quarter of a century. On April 11th, 1961, Dylan played his first official “gig” at Gerde’s Folk City. He opened for John Lee Hooker and played for a two-week stretch. First located at 11 West 4th Street (in a building that no longer exists), it moved to 130 West 3rd Street in 1970. Most of the giants of folk performed there, including Judy Collins and Pete Seeger. Shows produced there included future stars such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas and The Papas, the Byrds, The Lovin’ Spoonful, the Youngbloods, Emmylou Harris (who also waitressed at the club), Joni Mitchell, Phoebe Snow, Loudon Wainwright III and many other now well-known names. The “Rolling Stone Book of Lists” called Gerde’s Folk City one of the three top music venues in the world, along with The Cavern and CBGBs, the latter an East Village icon that is similarly no longer with us.

Folklore Center
110 MacDougal Street

Dave Van Ronk outside the Folklore Center, from the cover of his album, “Folksinger” – New York CIty 1962

Early in 1957, Izzy Young, a notable figure in the world of folk music, opened the Folklore Center at 110 MacDougal Street. The Folklore Center sold records, books, and sheet music at a convenient spot near Washington Square Park. It became a hangout of sorts, where musicians met and were introduced to each other. Dylan was known to sit in the back room of the store, listening to records, reading books, and typing lyrics on the typewriter in the back room. He met Dave Van Ronk there, and Young himself produced Dylan’s first concert at Carnegie Chapter Hall in 1961. Other notable figures who played concerts early in their career at the Folklore Center include Peter Paul and Mary, John Sebastian from the Lovin’ Spoonful, Joni Mitchell, and Emmylou Harris. Patti Smith used to read poetry there in her early years on the scene. And of course, Dave Van Ronk, the “Mayor of MacDougal Street” used a photograph of himself in front of the location for his album cover for “Folksinger.”

The Bitter End
147 Bleecker Street

Hundreds of musicians have gotten their start, or at least had a go of it, at The Bitter End. But for the folk music scene, The Bitter End was a haven for trying out new music and practicing one’s craft in front of sympathetic yet discerning audiences. In May of 1961, the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary made their debut at the club. The group went on to become one of the most, if not the most, successful folk groups in recording history. Songs like “If I Had A Hammer”, “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, and “Puff, The Magic Dragon,” among others, are still familiar tunes decades later, and were fist introduced to audience as The Bitter End. The club had just opened in 1961 when it began to hold hootenannies every week. Its list of greats during their early days includes Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, John Denver, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Odetta, Neil Young, Josh White, and Phil Ochs, among many, many others. Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” began haphazardly around a series of gigs at The Bitter End that lured in an assemblage of amazing musicians who would go on to tour with that Revue for over a year. The tour was filmed and a documentary was eventually produced, directed by Martin Scorsese.
Fortunately, this is one of the original clubs that is still open today, where you can catch new and traditional acts there 7 days a week!

Cafe Wha?
115 MacDougal Street

MacDougal Street night scene of Cafe Wha?, June 25, 1966 (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

Mary Travers of Peter Paul and Mary worked as a waitress at Café Wha? and it is reported that she met Peter Yarrow here. The Café, once a horse stable, opened in 1959 with the primary focus of presenting live music. Manny Roth, its first owner, was one of the original creators of “passing the hat” and the establishment provided a notable home and nest for beat poets, comedians, and folk musicians alike looking to hone their craft.  This small, underground venue gave Bob Dylan his first job, playing harmonica as backup for singer Fred Neil, although legend has it that he was fired soon after for missing three performances in a row.

From left, American musicians Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman), Karen Dalton (1938 – 1993), and Fred Neil (1936 – 2001) perform at Cade Wha? on MacDougal Street, New York, New York, February 6, 1961. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

In December 2016, following a multi-year advocacy campaign spearheaded by Village Preservation, the Sullivan Thompson Historic District was landmarked by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. This dozen-block, 175-building district designation was the culmination of a campaign formally begun by Village Preservation ten years prior, which had earlier also resulted in the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II, designated in 2010; the South Village Historic District, designated in 2013 (which includes nearly all the sites listed above); the listing of the larger National Register of Historic Places “South Village Historic District”; and several individual landmark designations on MacDougal and Sullivan Streets.

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