Volume 22, Number 33 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 25 - 31, 2009
Photo courtesy of John Oates
1971 to 1982: Good years for spotting Village resident John Oates
Times change, song remains the same
All-star CD pays tribute to 1960s Village music scene
BY RICHARD ANTONE
The Village of today is a place of chain stores, condos and apartments with sky-high rents. This was once the place where — as documented in Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” — there was “music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.”
In the 1960s, there existed a multitude of clubs where folk artists were becoming breakout stars. Peter, Paul and Mary were covering Bob Dylan songs at The Bitter End. Inspired by Woody Guthrie, Odetta and others, Bob Dylan was playing his own songs at Gerdes Folk City (Joan Baez would soon tour with him, exposing his songs to her audience). Richie Havens was playing the scene when he wasn’t painting portraits to pay his bills. David Crosby checked out jazz saxophonist John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard. There was live jazz and much more at the Village Gate.
“The Village” (released in November by 429 Records) is a tribute to the folk singers, songs and songwriters who passed through the Village scene and launched a powerful, enduring genre. Dylan’s shadow looms large on the disc, with covers by Rickie Lee Jones, The Duhks, Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne and Rocco DeLuca. Bruce Hornsby’s dexterous piano solo soothes on John Sebastian’s “Darlin’ Be Home Soon.” Mary Chapin-Carpenter mines the emotional depth of Eric Anderson’s “Violets of Dawn.” Rachael Yamagata turns in a very sensitive version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Cowboy Junkies bring a somber tone to Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was.”
As these songs were originally conceived, recorded and released, the musicians playing the Village scene were getting a musical education along with the audience. Dylan shared bills with blues icon John Lee Hooker and bluegrass band The Greenbriar Boys. Blues and country musicians who played area folk festivals were reaching new audiences. Fueled by increasingly vocal movements working for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and peace, people were developing an increasing awareness of important issues. It was a turbulent decade, full of triumph and tragedy.
Nearly a half century later, The Bitter End and the Village Vanguard are still here. Joe’s Pub is a cozy space to hear eclectic sounds. Tompkins Square Park, Union Square Park and Washington Square Park are still home to free concerts and fiery rallies. As always, the music is there to inspire.
Keeping the changing times in perspective is graphic artist and activist Suze Rotolo (www.suzerotolo.com) — who still lives in the Village. Author of “A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties,” she wrote the liner notes for the CD. The husky-voiced Rotolo has clear images of Washington Square Park in the 60s.
“Musicians of all kinds gathered to play around the fountain. A wide spectrum of political newspapers were offered for sale or given away. Religious fanatics predicted the end of the world was nigh and everything blended together nicely. Gerdes Restaruant and Bar, before it was renamed Folk City...was on the bar circuit for traveling blues and gospel musicians. During the 30s and 40s, when these musicians were beginning their careers, they encountered their elders from the 20s. Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson, who had gigs at Gerdes, had played with Louis Armstrong. Big Joe Williams and John Lee Hooker were also regulars at Gerdes. When folk musicians who played at local Village coffeehouses for tips began looking for gigs at Gerdes, there was inevitable cross-pollination. Traditional folksingers, gospel groups, bluegrass bands, urban and country blues players could be heard there any night of the week.”
Rotolo laments that “Greenwich Village today is economically out of bounds for artists starting out, but it is very important that the neighborhood itself...be landmarked as a historic area. Developers must not have their way and alter the very character of the Village. The spirit of the Village will never disappear. Greenwich Village is a calling and artists will always find a place to hang out and a way to survive.”
Downtown Express recently spoke with John Oates (who covers “He Was a Friend of Mine”). Oates flashed back to his earliest memories of Village life as a part of superstar duo Hall and Oates. “We moved to the city in 1971, got separate apartments. I lived in the Village from 1971 to 1982. As the Village has always been, it was a counterculture neighborhood, with people not cut out for uptown. It felt more like a town. You had all the music. We were a part of that singer-songwriter movement. Later we began to take on a harder edge. We went to see Television and Patti Smith and were friends with all these people. In the 80’s we were recording at Electric Lady Studios. It was something we wove into our sounds. We were very aware of the legacy of what has come before us. We listened to everything.”
This included trips to the Philadelphia Folk Festival, hanging out with Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson, and soaking up doo-wop. Oates is associated with Philadelphia because of his time spent growing up in nearby North Wales, playing on Philly R&B sessions and attending Temple University. “Philly has a very unique R&B tradition and folk tradition,” Oates says. Yet he has vivid memories of his Big Apple birthplace. “New York City is more influential in the sound of Hall and Oates than Philadelphia was...I brought the acoustic (sound). Daryl brought the urban R&B.”
Talking about his cover of the traditional “He Was A Friend Of Mine,” Oates notes it is a song linked to Dave Van Ronk. “I was a big Dave Van Ronk fan...I’d seen him play the Main Point (in Philly and The Bitter End.” Recording this track and his recent solo album, Oates says, “I’ve gotten back to my roots.” He’s recorded and played live with Nashville’s dobro dojo Jerry Douglas and Irish folk songstress Maura O’Connell. “I’ll go from playing with Daryl (to doing) something with these guys.”
East L.A.’s Los Lobos has turned in a resonant version of Jose Marti’s classic “Guantanamera.” The band’s saxophonist and co-producer Steve Berlin reflects on the song’s legacy. “It’s a song we’ve been playing for as long as the band had existed,” he says. Like “La Bamba, “It’s a song that always works. It features our bassist Conrad Lozano, who doesn’t get to sing many songs. It was kind of a no-brainer for us. The hard part was finding a day to go into the studio (as) we were touring non-stop.” Berlin thinks it was worth the wait and looks forward to more tribute albums. “We have so many antecedents that we truly honor that I doubt we will see an end to the concept anytime soon. I have no worries someone will come to us with an angle we’ve never considered.”
Stu Fine, a VP of A&R for Savoy who helped put the project together, says he’s proud of the label’s concept CDs. “Great music is great music. It’s very rewarding to remind people of this wonderful era.”