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My Folknik Days

Picture of Washington
   Arch and folk singers

By the time I moved to New York I was very much a fan of traditional folk music. This was early in the fad that hit the country in the late '50's and '60's. The People's Artists published a regular folk music magazine, and WNYC ran a weekly radio program of folk music hosted by Oscar Brand. There were small concerts around the city with artists like Oscar and Jean Ritchie, hootenannies led by Pete Seeger, and weekly gatherings of pickers and singers in Washington Square during the summer. My then-husband, Larry Shaw, took me to concerts, hoots and the Square.

Then Dick Ellington introduced us to a young musician named Dave Van Ronk. Dave had just gotten back from a hitch as a merchant seaman and didn't have a place of his own yet. We invited him to stay at our place til he got one and he accepted our invitation. Dave seemed to know everyone in the Washington Square crowd. He introduced me to them and to some of his jazz musician friends and artists, and to the Village coffee houses where many of them hung out.

It was an exciting scene and I wanted to participate in it. I had taken a few guitar lessons as a kid but turned out to have no musical talent. I couldn't pick, I couldn't sing. However, I was an old hand with the mimeograph. I had done a couple of folkmusic-oriented issues of my personal zine for FAPA. With Dave's encouragement, I started a folkmusic fanzine I called Caravan. Dave did a controversial column under the penname "Blind Rafferty" and English fan John Brunner contributed a column of folk music news from the UK. For the first issue, I added some letters I'd gotten in response to my FAPAzine, and a couple of other items, ran off a hundred copies and handed them out free in Washington Square.

Israel G. Young had recently opened The Folklore Center, a shop specializing in folk material, books, records, occasional instruments and the like, on MacDougal Street. After I'd distributed the first issue of Caravan, Izzy told me people had been coming in looking for copies. He wanted to put a bunch on the counter and made a deal with me to trade LPs for copies of the next issue. I ran two hundred and gave half to Izzy. The rest I handed out to friends and the people in the Square who asked for them.

Izzy is the one who labeled the folk music fans "folkniks". There were usually a few folkniks hanging out in The Folklore Center, sometimes picking and singing. The store was very small, but Izzy occasionally held informal concerts there with the audience standing around the performers. When Izzy learned that some British merchant seamen in port had their own skiffle group, he scheduled an in-store concert with them. The audience jammed into the little store, enjoying their music, and when they took a break, duets by Tom Paley and John Cohen.

Izzy produced a number of concerts in small off-Broadway theaters. Most concerts started at 8:30, but because of a scheduling conflict, one featuring Tom Paley wouldn't begin until midnight, so Larry and I decided to have a pre-show party in Tom's honor.

Just about all the folkniks I knew and a lot of people I didn't know came. Some were there with friends. Others, Izzy sent. One young couple from uptown said that they had "bought tickets to the party" from Izzy. They explained that they'd thought the concert was at 8:30. They'd gone to The Folklore Center to get tickets to it, but when they discovered they'd have almost three hours to wait around, they hesitated. So Izzy told them if they'd buy the tickets he'd tell them where there was a good party where they could pass the time.

Apparently word of our gathering got around. Another couple said when they gave a taxi driver the address, he responded, "Oh, you goin' to The Party?"

Various people, including Tom, picked and sang at the party, then we all trekked to the nearby theater. We packed the house. When Tom went on with the concert, it was like a continuation of the party.

Interest in the folk music scene was growing fast and so was Caravan. I'd been mailing it to out-of-town friends who were folk music fans. Word of it was spreading and other out-of-towners wanted it. When I increased my print run again, I had to start charging ten cents a copy and offering ad space for sale to cover the costs of production and postage.

It was a typical fanzine, much like my SF fanzines, except for the subject matter. I ran articles, columns, letters, reviews, chitchat, news of coming events and a page of brief "Social Notes From All Over", which consisted mostly of bits and gags about the Wash Sq crowd. Evidently even that had appeal outside of the Village. When Dick Greenhaus covered the head of an old banjo with some leftover Contact paper to change the tone, I reported that he'd been seen "playing a brick-faced banjo". He made a trip to Chicago soon after, and when he got back he told me someone there had seen the banjo and asked him if he was Dick Greenhaus from New York.

Aaron Rennert and Ray Sullivan were among the friends I'd made on the folknik scene. They were two thirds of Photo-Sound Associates. They specialized in the photography part. The other third, Joel Katz, had been in charge of sound until he was drafted. They weren't musicians but loved the music, and were recording the scene on tape and film. There were weekly get-togethers at a residence on Spring Street, and Photo-Sound would be on hand with their equipment. Ray and Aaron took pictures there, at Washington Square, at concerts, anywhere folkniks were playing. They built up a massive library of photos of folk musicians. Dick Ellington had a multilith, and would do small print runs cheap, so I began using photos they supplied on the covers of Caravan.

Late one drizzly afternoon I was in The Folklore Center when a fellow in a trench coat with his hat pulled low, darted in. Izzy commented that he looked like an IRA man on the run, and introduce him as Pat Clancy. Pat had recently started Tradition Records. We chatted, then he pulled one of Tradition's latest releases out of the bins and gave it to me to review in Caravan. Soon other record companies began sending records for review. I got enough that I farmed some out, giving away the records in exchange for the reviews.

Barry Kornfeld, and Happy Traum, were regulars at the Square and just about every other gathering of folkniks. Usually Barry wore engineeer's boots and played banjo while Happy wore lumberjack-checked shirts and played guitar. Evidently musical talent ran in the Traum family. Before long, Happy's kid brother, Artie, began coming to pick in the Square. The first time I heard Rev Gary Davis, Barry'd brought him to one of the Village gatherings. He was a hit with the pickers who crowded around him to admire, and learn from his playing. The Reverend came along with Barry a number of times.

Caravan's circulation continued to grow rapidly. Dave Van Ronk had moved on, but another folknik came along who was in need of a place to sleep temporarily. Larry and I took in Roger Lass and he took on the chore of assistant editor. Barry Kornfeld never moved in, but did come on board as an assistant editor.

Caravan's circulation outgrew the mimeograph and hand-assembly. I decided the only way to keep it going was to have it printed professionally. I queried offset printing companies and found a cheap one. To afford the printer, I would have to increase the cover price and be sure ads would produce steady income. I figured out how much I'd have to charge and how much advertising I'd have to sell to cover the costs. Then I went to see Pat Clancy at the Tradition office and told him how things were. I wanted to know if he'd be interested in committing to take an ad in every issue. He agreed to a full page.

Encouraged, I went to Jac Holzman at Elektra and he was willing to commit to a two-page spread. Roger Lass hunted up more advertising commitments for me and Caravan went offset with a print run of 2,000. Individual copies were mailed directly to subscribers, and batches were sent to coffee shops and other folkmusic-oriented businesses scattered around the country.

The folkniks who gathered in Washington Square included performers and listeners, old and young, professional musicians and amateurs, self-taught and Julliard students. Actor Theodore Bikel showed up occasionally with his guitar. So did science fiction writer Robert Sheckley. One Sunday afternoon in the Square I saw John Cohen and a stranger sitting at a short distance from the crowd. I went over to say hello. John introduced me to Woody Guthrie. Woody was in bad shape then, unable to play, but still able to ambulate and to enjoy the scene. John brought him to the Square several times and I loaned him copies of some of my Photo-Sound tapes.

The City of New York required a license for singing and playing in the Square. Lionel Kilberg and Irwin Lutzky were the ones who arranged it, and were usually there every Sunday. Lionel played a Brownie Bass and built them for sale. These were washtub basses with his own improvements. The broomstick of each was topped with a rubber miniature fire plug in honor of a dog named "Brownie" he'd once had. Lionel, Roger Sprung and Mike Cohen formed a group called The Shanty Boys. Roger was an established professional musician who specialized in bluegrass banjo and continued to show up frequently at the Square. Mike played guitar and was a leader of the weekly folksings at American Youth Hostel on 8th Street. As The Shanty Boys they cut a record, played at various clubs and resorts and appeared frequently on Oscar Brand's WNYC radio show.

Lionel had a large living loft a bit south of The Village, where he held a birthday party for Woody Guthrie. A horde of folkniks came. Some young ladies brought a cake baked in the shape of a guitar. During the party, Woody took a guitar in hand and gave it a couple of strums, but sadly he wasn't able to chord or actually pick it.

Barry Kornfeld and I got to be good friends. He introduced me to the pleasuress of cannoli and coffee in a neat little Italian place. After Larry and I split up, I moved to my own apartment. Since it was conveniently located, when Barry wanted to invite Toshi and Pete Seeger to dinner, he asked if he could invite them to my place. I was agreeable, and was prepared to fix the customary pot of spaghetti to serve, but Toshi and Pete arrived loaded with breads and cheeses and various other goodies. We dined so well on their generosity that we didn't have room for spaghetti.

One of the most colorful people I met at The Folklore Center was Paul Schoenwetter. Paul was serving his time in the Army, and was home on leave when I met him. He was a weathered young man, pre-maturely balding, with a large sandy mustache. He collected straight razors and apparently shaved with one. Even in uniform, he looked rumpled and not quite shorn. Once out of the service, he dressed in worn denims. He looked like a genuine cowboy and was sometimes called "Texas Paul", though he was a native New Yorker. Paul played and built banjos, made jewelry, did other handicrafts, collected old odds and ends, and seemed to know half the people in New York. He certainly knew most of the nooks and crannies in downtown Manhattan, and introduced me to all kinds of odd little shops. He carried an extremely small banjo almost everywhere he went and played whenever the opportunity presented itself, but he didn't aspire to become a professional musician. He was too busy enjoying life.

The five-string banjo had become my favorite instrument. I traded a battered mimeograph to Barry Kornfeld for an old Stewart banjo. Barry, and other friends, gave me some instruction on it. I had a lesson or two each from some of the best pickers in the Village. I bought a copy of Pete Seeger's record and booklet How to play the 5-String Banjo and studied them.

Despite my ineptitude, I really enjoyed trying to play banjo. One day I saw a very attractive old Dobson on sale in Izzy's for a very reasonable price. Fred Gerlach had rehabbed it and it was in much better shape than my Stewart. Hopeful that a better instrument would help my playing, I bought it. I hung the Stewart on my wall, and got banjo-picking friends to sign the head. Then I made the mistake of lending it to a friend. He reported back that it had been stolen from him.

I later bought a very nice Vega from Roger Sprung, but it didn't help my playing, and I decided I liked the Dobson better. I eventually sold the Vega to Erik Darling, who was looking for a good Bluegrass instrument.

When I first fell in with the folkniks, there weren't a lot of places for them to play for the public. They were only allowed to perform in Washington Square for a few hours on Sunday afternoons and there were the small concerts. The coffee shops and taverns didn't allow the customers to sing then. While Larry and I were living just a couple of block away, we'd occasionally go to The White Horse Tavern in the evening. Once Tom and Pat Clancy, Theo Bikel and Logan English came in together. They joined us, ordered, and were soon singing. In a very short while, a waiter asked them to stop. That changed quickly. AYH began their weekly folksings, an old garage that had once been Aaron Burr's stable was redone to become the Bizarre Theater / Cafe Bizarre and Art D'Lugoff rented the basement of the Greenwich (nee Mills) Hotel to open as The Village Gate. Art planned to make the Gate a night club with folk music, but until he could get his liquor license it served as a late-night coffee house where folkniks could pick and sing. And the White Horse welcomed the Clancy Brothers singing there.

Paul Clayton was one of the few folksingers whose records I'd been able to get before I moved to New York. He did all kinds of folk music, but specialized in sea songs and shanties. Someone came up with the idea that he and some of the gang do a record of sea shanties together. In the evenings, Paul, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Brill, Roger Abrahams and I would take over one of the big round tables in a corner of The Village Gate and they'd rehearse the material they wanted to record, then sing whatever they fancied until all hours. The record came out on Folkways as Foc'sle Songs and Shanties by Paul Clayton and the Foc'sle Singers.

People have probably sung about politics from before recorded history. The union and Socialist movements used a lot of old tunes with new words set to them. During the very touchy McCarthy Era, a number of people in the field were blacklisted because of their Socialist leanings or connections. Even so, the spirit persisted. The politically-oriented organization called The People's Artists put out a folkmusic magazine called Sing Out, and had published a mixed collection of traditional folk and political songs titled The People's Songbook. A lot of political songs, and satires on them were performed in the Square. Some of the best satires were written by Roy Berkeley, who played guitar, showed up regularly at gatherings, and frequently argued politics with Dave Van Ronk.

One evening, Dave came by with Larry Block. While we were gabbing one of us came up with a line or two of satire on a union song. That immediately led to several satires such as The Twelve Days of Marxmas and The Fink's Song. We decided there should be a collection called The Bosses' Songbook. Dave followed up by getting together with Dick Ellington and actually producing a chapbook of the stuff we'd written that evening and some satires that had been around a while. It sold out so quickly that they developed a larger fancier second edition.

Dave Van Ronk, Roy Berkeley and some others started The Folksingers' Guild, an organization intended to promote folkmusic, to put on concerts, to help its members get paid for performing in coffee houses and get recording dates. The Guild put on a number of small concerts, but fell apart after an officer disappeared with the treasury.

I don't remember how many offset issues of Caravan I turned out, but it became more work than fun and I was being pressured to make it more serious. I didn't want to put out a scholarly publication or a professional one. Billy Faier was interested so I sold it to him, and started another slim mimeographed fanzine. This one, I called Gardyloo (the traditional cry of warning before one dumped a bucket of slops out of an upstairs window). In The Incompleat Folksinger, Pete Seeger cited it as his "nomination for the most charming name for a magazine."

About the time I got Gardyloo started, Dick and Kiki Greenhaus and some other folknik friends got together to produce a New York City concert with the new group that Tom Paley, John Cohen and Mike Seeger had organized. Tom was a native New Yorker who'd been teaching mathematics at the University of Maryland. John, another New Yorker, was a professional freelance photographer. Mike was a folklorist working out of Baltimore. They fell in together and became New Lost City Ramblers, specialized in string band music of the kind that led to bluegrass. An important part of their repertoire came from the Great Depression.

Some of us were sitting around in my kitchen discussing promotion for the concert when it occurred to me that we could do something with the old NRA Blue Eagle. We decided to do tags. Winnie Winston, an artist and a very fine musician himself, drew up a blue eagle gripping a banjo and a guitar instead of a gear and lightning bolts. Following the form of the NRA emblem, he put the letters "NLCRA member" across the top and the motto "we do our part" under the eagle. On the backs of the tags we put "I AM LOST. Please return me to 1932" (the year FDR won the presidency on the New Deal platform as well as my birth year.) We had Dick Ellington run off the 3"x4.5" tags on card stock, punched each at the top and put strings on them.

As the first part of promotion for the concert we started handing these tags out in Washington Square. We wouldn't explain what they were about, and told those who asked that "NLCRA" stood for "National Labor Council of Russian Anarchists". The tags were soon waving from almost every instrument and many many buttons in the Square. People who failed to get them there were going into The Folklore Center looking to buy them. Some tags showed up at a Big Name Bluegrass concert where several folkniks asked Flatt & Scruggs to autograph them. A bit bewildered, but obliging the duo did.

Once we had plastered the folk scene with tags, we began plastering it with posters for the concert. We advertised "We give Green Stamps" and everybody associated with the concert was shopping in stores that provided the stamps, so we could get enough to fasten one on each ticket.

Meanwhile I'd turned Gardyloo into a vehicle for promotion. I ran articles and gags by and about the Ramblers, and offered the explanation that "NLCRA" actually stood for "New Lost City Ramblers Appreciators".

Tom Paley was known for his banjo-tuning as well as his picking. He played hard and tuned frequently, making comments while he tuned. I ran a lot of bits kidding him about that, including advertisements for a fictional Obscure Records release, Tom Tunes. Dick Greenhaus actually put together a tape of segments edited from various tapes in which Tom tuned between numbers. We made up a cover for it, and Dick considered turning out copies for sale, but I don't think more than a couple were actually made. (Someone eventually started a real recording company called Obscure.)

The evening of the concert, the house was packed. The audience was primed and so were the Ramblers. I doubt there's ever been more enthusiasm on or off stage.

During the concert, when Tom was tuning, John would stand by holding his guitar, looking more and more impatient. Suddenly, to the surprise of just about everyone, as Tom was tuning, John angrily smashed his guitar on the stage floor. Tom was astonished. So was the audience. Of course it turned out this was a junk guitar John had picked up and switched for his own at a convenient moment. After the concert, audience members scrambled to get pieces of the shattered guitar and have the Ramblers autograph them.

In time, much of the old Wash Square gang dispersed in various directions. Some went traveling, playing professionally, or off to college. Some went into other fields. Some moved to other places. Other musicians, and other kinds of music, moved into Washington Square. By early 1960 working for a living was taking up a lot of my time. After the sixth issue, I closed down Gardyloo. And I began to drift away from the folknik scene myself.

Thanks to Texas Tech University Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

© 2022 Gary Ross Hoffman

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