“The folk era had died — or did it?” Allen Ginsberg asks, with a dash of whimsy, in the early portion of Martin Scorsese’s new Rolling Thunder Revue film. His observation accompanies the early, non-faked part of the movie, where we see Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, and even Bette Midler sandwiched into Folk City, a Greenwich Village club that had 170 seats and plenty of history. Although the film doesn’t provide any context, the occasion was a 61st birthday party for venue owner Mike Porco held in 1975, and Dylan and his in-gestation Rolling Thunder posse had rolled in to help celebrate and sing a song or two on the tiny Folk City stage.
In its previous location in the Village, the club formerly known as Gerde’s Folk City had been ground zero for the city’s Sixties folk scene. Dylan, the Weavers, Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Collins, and many others sang in what had previously been an Italian restaurant called Gerde’s. (Dylan and Baez actually met for the first time there.) Porco had bought Gerde’s in 1952, and after adding in-vogue folk acts and hootenannies, renamed it Gerde’s Folk City in 1959. When that site was demolished, Folk City (shorn of the Gerde’s name) moved to a new location, on West 3rd Street, in 1969.
By the time of Porco’s party, acoustic singer-songwriters and topical material hadn’t been dominant for a while, and the Village music scene felt hollowed out. Most of the major talents who’d started there had long since moved on. As Rolling Stone reported at the time, “All movement in the city has been uptown, away from the Village. This year the gays dominated the club scene with places like Reno Sweeney, where Barbra Streisand lookalikes (male and female) sing smoky ballads and people primp and parade in ice cream outfits under lighting that makes everybody a star.” In that climate — and in light of the city’s economic meltdown that same year — the Porco party was more a reminder of past glories than a sign of urban music renewal.
Yet living up to the second half of Ginsberg’s comment — “or did it?” — the scene on the verge of an awakening. Dylan’s return to the Village throughout 1975 recharged him, resulting in the next year’s Desire and the Rolling Thunder Revue itself. But he wasn’t the only singer-songwriter stirring to life in the Village that season. At the same time, the scene was in the early stages of a creative renaissance that would blossom within a few short years and leave behind songs, artists, and records that, like the Rolling Thunder Revue itself, deserve a second look.
In the half-dozen years after Dylan’s return to the scene, that world would spawn a staggering amount of new-folk talent, the best known these days being Steve Forbert, Suzanne Vega, the Roches, and Shawn Colvin. Forbert and the Roches were among the first to break out; by 1979, they’d released albums on major labels, and that year Forbert managed a pop hit with “Romeo’s Tune.” The Roches, three singing sisters from New Jersey, two of whom had been mentored by Paul Simon, had also released a Robert Fripp–produced debut in 1979 that contrasted fulsome, sisterly harmonies with a caustic, urbane sensibility, hinting at the ways the next generation would move the music into delightfully idiosyncratic territory.
These artists and their peers had new or revamped venues awaiting them. In 1980, Folk City had new, younger owners (Robbie Woliver, Marilyn Lash, and Joe Hillesum) who honored the troubadour tradition while also opening its doors to indie rock; the Replacements, Yo La Tengo, and the Dream Syndicate would eventually play there. Around the corner from Folk City, on MacDougal Street, sat the SpeakEasy, which occupied the back half of a falafel restaurant — for extra added surrealism, musicians played in front of a massive fish tank behind the stage. The godfather of the scene, Jack Hardy, was a scratchy-voiced troubadour who wrote what sounded like seafaring ballads for the city, and songwriter gatherings at his apartment paved the way for a musicians’ cooperative that booked the talent at SpeakEasy, which opened in 1981.
There and at Folk City, you could still glimpse the vestiges of the previous generation. With the music business having cast them aside in favor of younger acts, the likes of the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and Jesse Winchester returned to intimate spaces like Folk City, where it was possible to see them up close for just a few dollars. Village legend (and semi-inspiration for Inside Llewyn Davis) Dave Van Ronk was still out and about, growling his songs into the microphone, and Peter Tork played both Folk City and SpeakEasy, hitting the same circuit he’d pounded before moving to Los Angeles and becoming a Monkee. On any random night at each spot, you could hang out near the bar and see a who’s who of Village superstars: Forbert, Loudon Wainwright III, former Blues Project guitarist Danny Kalb.
Those moments were pretty thrilling, but it was the new talent that lured you back as well. The new generation of singer-songwriters playing Folk City and SpeakEasy were less political and more inward-looking than their predecessors, and they rarely wrote the type of rousing sing-alongs that tourists had come to expect, but they offered something fresh and different: a continuation of Seventies singer-songwriter–dom but whittled down to an intimate, often bleak bone. Recent Barnard graduate Suzanne Vega was writing and singing brittle, beautifully affectless songs about relationships and states of mind. And with his lightly husky voice and narrative story songs, a transplanted Tennessean named David Massengill came across like a gnomish, dulcimer-playing Appalachian version of Tom Waits. Lucinda Williams, then an indie folk act, arrived from various locales down South to play Folk City more than a few times.
The scene even had its own version of Peter, Paul & Mary — a quartet (Lucy Kaplansky, Martha P. Hogan, Gerry Devine, and the late Tom Intondi) who covered songs by the local writers and called themselves the Song Project. Their shows offered a taste of what amounted to the new Village songbook: Massengill’s epic “The Great American Dream” (each verse sung in the voice of a different worker, carpenter to prostitute, trying to make it in Reagan’s America); Vega’s breakdown chronicle “Cracking”; Erik Frandsen’s “Nobody Grieves for George Reeves,” a sympathetic look back at the original TV Superman; Devine’s surging “Montchanin,” about leaving his Delaware home for the supposedly welcoming big city. (There was even a new rock contingent: At spots around the corner like the Other End, formerly the Bitter End, the pre-fame Smithereens were revitalizing the Merseybeat pop of the Sixties.)
In the scene’s early days, you could hear songwriters like those — and others, like the wispy-voiced Colvin; wry cabaret-folk songwriter Christine Lavin; rugged balladeer Rod MacDonald; and nimble, blues-based singer-guitarist Frank Christian — on a series of DIY compilations that rolled out into the Nineties. First called The Coop and then Fast Folk, the LPs had the white-cover look and feel of bootlegs, but as introductions to the scene, they were essential. Without venturing to the Village, it was possible to hear Vega’s first version of “Gypsy,” Christian’s down-but-not-out white blues “Where Were You Last Night?” and Kaplansky’s warm “You Just Need a Home (Spotlight).”
If few of those songs or names ring bells today, it’s not simply because few of them broke into the pop world. At a time when New Wave was pop’s leading genre and rap was on the rise, the Village’s revived troubadour scene was the least hip community one could imagine. The New York Times praised the Song Project (“seldom has the expression ‘fresh blood’ been more vividly personified”), but most of these musicians were largely ignored, even by the local press. Everyone involved was painfully aware that the action was taking place on the other side of town, at East Village spots like CBGB’s and the Mudd Club, where bands like Sonic Youth and Swans were dismantling rock & roll and making it louder, more chaotic and more ravaged. With singles like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” rap had inherited and completely updated the protest-song mantle.
Yet the very unstylishness of the post–Rolling Thunder folk scene was also its appeal. This was a community of outcasts who, in spite of their rejection by the major labels and the media, stayed the course, plying a trade that was out of vogue but also eternal. (The majors eventually came around a little; Vega was signed to A&M in 1984.). These weren’t the cool kids; they were the loners and the geeks, and it was easy to feel empowered by them.
Unable to handle a jacked-up rent, Folk City closed its doors in 1986, and SpeakEasy wasn’t long for the world, either. Walk by any of those locations these days and you’d never know that this re-energized folk world even existed. The legacy remains, though, in albums like the Roches’ and Vega’s self-titled debuts, Forbert’s Alive on Arrival, and Fast Folk: A Community of Singers & Songwriters, a 2002 Smithsonian Folkways compilation culled from those indie LPs. To quote Ginsberg again, the folk era died again — or did it?