Harvard Graduates Play Folk Mecca Club Passim

As the 1960s dawned, the home of folk musicians wasn’t Grenwich Village—it was Harvard Square, and more specifically Club Passim. Artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez would play benefits for Harvard students and headline social protest rallies. Dylan’s first album even has lyrics about drawing inspiration from wandering through Harvard Square.

The era of folk may have faded to the periphery of popular culture, but the small venue tucked in the alleyway between two halves of the Harvard Coop continues to bring together singer-songwriters—including two Harvard grads, David Berkeley ’99-’00 and Noam I. Weinstein ’99.

At their gig two weeks ago, Berkeley and Weinstein returned to their Cambridge roots, having only in the past year decided to make music into their source of rent and food money. Their’s is the opposite, said Berkeley, of the career- and money-driven culture often encouraged by Harvard.

“I think that there’s certainly a tradeoff for all people choosing to play music, between security and stability or surprise and exploration,” Weinstein said.

The two are good friends, but they’re also two immensely talented singer-songwriters struggling to make it in New York, Cambridge and the music scene at large.

“The truth about the music world is that it’s a hard thing, coming from Harvard,” Berkeley said. “It feels so good to have someone with the same [challenges].”

Berkeley and Weinstein say they help each other find gigs whenever the opportunity arises, which takes away some of the sting of being an emerging musician.

Both Berkeley, from suburban New Jersey, and Weinstein, a Cambridge native, have long known that music would be a part of their lives. One of Berkeley’s earliest memories is going for walks with his babysitter and singing for neighbors, who would in turn give him cookies.

According to Weinstein, sibling rivalry was his introduction to music. “When I was eight, I said to my dad, ‘Rachel [his older sister]...dances and plays violin,’ and for whatever reason, he recommended I try guitar.” He started lessons with a neighbor, but summer music camp and the jazz program at Cambridge Rindge and Latin made him more serious about music.  

Berkeley, however, didn’t play guitar until he taught himself during college. He said his education as an English Literature concentrator is evident in his lyrics.  On his first album, The Confluence, named for the joining of two rivers, the song “The City of the Second Hand” is peppered with Yeats references.

“A lot of songs are full of literary things I find interesting—like Wallace Stenger, a novelist and historical fiction writer of the American West,” he said.

One of his songs was inspired by his English classes in a different way, however. “I wrote one of the songs to court a TF, and I put it into writing in Helen Vendler’s English 10b. We were reading Keats and it’s full of Keats references.”

After graduating, Berkeley spent a year working as a travel writer in Santa Fe for Outside magazine. In his spare time, he managed a Harvard/Vermont band, the Humming, which he said gave him a good introduction to the music business. And after a year as a teacher in New York City, Berkeley has devoted himself to making music full time.

Weinstein’s decision to pursue music professionally stemmed from the community he found in Cambridge and Harvard musicians. Weinstein would go to the weekly blues jams at Johnny D’s in Somerville on Sunday afternoons and found the musicians in the house band supportive and inspiring.

“I got serious about songwriting and it became very important to me during my junior and senior year of high school,” he said. A Computer Science concentrator, Weinstein said he lucked out meeting the community of Harvard musicians, whom he either lived around or met after a semester in the Harvard Jazz Band.

“There were also other opportunities to meet other musicians...Arts First and the Loker Commons program,” he said. “I saw that and signed up to do a show there and to meet other people.”

The Mather House resident found himself writing music in strange places. “College was a great time to write, and I used to go in evenings to stairwells with [good] acoustics for a few hours until someone kicked me out,” he said.

Weinstein supported himself doing computer science work after graduating. But he regrets not devoting himself immediately to music: “I took an easy route for a little while and allowed my computer work to support music. I could do whatever I wanted musically because the rent was paid, but I think it would have been wiser to push myself from the start to struggle,” he said.

Weinstein, who recorded his album at Loho studios in New York City, and Berkeley, whose album is also professionally engineered, have now devoted themselves entirely to the singer-songwriter path. They’ve both been chosen to attend South by Southwest, a country music and folk festival in Austin, Texas, that selects talent from a pool of musicians nationwide. Weinstein has plans for a tour, while Berkeley is recording a second album.

Berkeley’s voice resembles Nick Drake, while Weinstein’s voice is scratchier and reminiscent of Tom Waits. Whereas Berkeley’s richly textured songs throw together mandolin and cello, Weinstein takes more influences from jazz; Norah Jones even sings a track on his first album. Both say they got lyrical inspiration from the people they met and the classes they took at Harvard.

And both say they are motivated by their commitment to music, as well as by the notion of using music as a medium to change the way others think about their surroundings and experiences.

“Music is the best medium I’ve found for expressing the way I see and feel the world,” Berkeley said.

—Staff writer Nicole B. Usher can be reached at usher@fas.harvard.edu.

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