The year is 1966 and you are a young Harvard student. You wander the streets of Cambridge in search of quality music. Where to go? The Nameless Coffee House on Church Street offers free performances by the likes of Tracy Chapman and Dar Williams. You can head over to Club 47 on Palmer Street where Joan Baez performed her first show. In a few years, you could stroll into the Harvard Square Theater and catch Bob Dylan. Or, turn on your radio and listen to the legendary “Hillbilly at Harvard” program on WHRB. You lived your life with folk music in the background.
This month in Harvard Square, you can relive those glory days with “Forever Young: The Amazing Grace of Folk Music History,” a month-long nod to the area’s rich past, in the form of events and displays throughout the Square.
Cambridge’s stake in folk music lore reaches all the way back to 1888, when the American Folklore Society was founded in Harvard Yard by Francis James Child, ballad collector and Harvard professor. His storied ballad collection, the result of a years-long literary search collaboration with folk song collectors in other countries, was a resource that singers such as Joan Baez, Tom Rush, and Eric Von Schmidt would later return to as a source of folk tradition.
In the 1950s and ’60s, however, the scope and the character of folk music and culture began to change in Cambridge. Fueled social movements including women’s rights, civil rights, and eventually anti-war protests, folk music emerged as a key outlet for young people looking for a distinctive way to express themselves.
“When the scene was coming about in the early ’60s, kids were rebelling and wanting to carve out a niche for themselves,” explained Katrina L. Morse of the Cambridge Historical Society.
In some ways, this was a revolutionary development; the chords of bluegrass and southern blues were foreign to the ears of many of the young Northeasterners. At the same time, though, this was a return to the traditions of America’s rich musical past. “There was certainly intellectual interest in the music, but also just a, ‘Wow, you don’t hear this kind of music around Cambridge. You don’t hear people talking about coal mining or tenant farming,’” said Millie Rahn, Folklorist and Archivist at the New England Folk Music Archives. “People really made this emotional and human connection to these people and their stories.”
At the heart of the Cambridge folk scene sat Club 47, known these days as Club Passim. Thomas W. Rush ’63, Harvard alum and notable folk musician who came out of the Cambridge revival of the 60s, called it the “flagship of the fleet.” Club 47 boasted an impressive list of past performers including, among others, Joan Baez, Jackie Washington, the Charles River Valley Boys, the Jug Band, and Jim Kweskin. Many of these premier folk musicians played gigs at Club 47 during the year and then congregated at the Newport Folk Festival during the summer.
“These musicians made Club 47 their home,” said Betsy Siggins, Founder and Executive Director of the New England Folk Music Archives and former Director of Club Passim. A tight-knit community of musicians, music-lovers, and songwriters alike formed around Club 47 and the surrounding area, brought together by a shared love for music and passions about social issues.
The folk music scene in Cambridge was also unique in the way that it transcended racial and class barriers. When African-American performers came to Cambridge to perform back in the 50s and 60s, Cambridge was still a quietly segregated city. Instead of staying in hotels, artists stayed with Cambridge residents in their houses. According to Siggins, Club 47 filled a gap in American music history—it brought incredible talent and unique voices to the table that would otherwise go unheard. Folk music in Cambridge was also blind to class and social distinctions—that is, the clubs would be concurrently filled with Harvard kids and native Bostonians.
“There were folk scenes in other cities around the country and in Canada. In New York, for instance, it was more about using the music to make it. But in Cambridge, it was about the music.” said Rahn. Siggins agrees: “You could be from anywhere, but the music was what mattered.”
The year is 2009 and you are a young Harvard student. The legacy of the folk music revival lives on in Cambridge today, if you know where to look. You can still tune in to WHRB’s “Blues Department” or “Hillbilly at Harvard”, and you can stop by Club Passim on any day of the week to hear some of the top up-and-coming performers.
“Boston/Cambridge is one of the hubs for folk music in the country, if not the world. A lot of people aren’t even aware of a legendary folk music venue sitting right around the corner from Harvard Yard,” said E. Forrest O’Connor ’10, President of the Harvard College American Music Association.
“The student organizations on campus have really cultivated a community of songwriters and folk musicians,” O’Connor said. “But also, we’re trying to break down the barriers between Harvard and the local community, when it comes to music, in particular.”
This month especially, Harvard students can appreciate the richness of Cambridge’s folk character just by wandering the Square. Glossy black-and-white photographs of Bob Dylan, concert programs, colorful posters, and record covers line the display windows of Eye Q Optical and the late Z-Square as part of the “Community Gallery Window Project.”
The displays, set up by the New England Folk Music Archives and Harvard Square Business Association, are more than just an exhibit—they tell the story of a generation.
“For a lot of people in the metropolitan area, it’s their coming of age story. They really relate to Harvard Square as where they grew up, whether they came here for college, or came here to hang out. They were hearing music that was unfamiliar, and meeting people that had new ideas that they were unfamiliar with,” said Rahn.
But the story continues to this day.
“Folk music is a tradition that is handed on within communities” says Maggie Holtzberg, Folklorist and Manager of the Folk Arts and Heritage Program at the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “Folk music is still happening and going on. It changes constantly, and it’s very vibrant.”
Cambridge changes, music changes, but the tradition lives on.