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What Happened to Harvard Square's Music Scene?

Tuning into the musical evolution of the Square

Lead singer Pete Wolf of the Hallucinations performs at Club 47 in March 1968. Performers often used Wolf’s apartment in the Square as a dressing room, since the club did not have its own at the time.
Lead singer Pete Wolf of the Hallucinations performs at Club 47 in March 1968. Performers often used Wolf’s apartment in the Square as a dressing room, since the club did not have its own at the time.
By Tree A. Palmedo, Crimson Staff Writer

“I always thought of Harvard Square in the ’60s as like Paris in the ’20s,” says Steve R. Nelson, co-founder of the Music Museum of New England. Instead of novels and poetry, the Square’s dominant art form was music; its Stein and Hemingway were folk legends Joan Baez and Jim Kweskin. The ’50s and ’60s saw Harvard Square at the core of a massive folk revival, a musical movement that largely began with a ragtag group of college students from Boston and ultimately became a nationwide phenomenon.

The Square today, however, is a different story. Coffeehouses and clubs are now overshadowed by Grafton Group restaurants and clothing boutiques, as the Square has transformed from a hotbed of culture to an outdoor shopping center. Instead of going to music joints, Harvard students mostly stick to campus events. But hidden behind the towering Coop and CVS, music in the Square lives on, continuing the trajectory that began with the folk revival. The Harvard Square music scene may be hidden to some, but for music fans with enough dedication and interest, it’s subtly still making history.

SQUARE ONE

In the late ’50s, Boston was a thriving college town, and the melting pot of students in the area helped spark the folk music boom. “There were a lot of kids who came to [Boston University] that already were playing an instrument,” says Betsy M. Siggins, founder of the New England Folk Music Archives and a freshman at Boston University in 1958. Siggins was closely involved in the folk music scene; in fact, her earliest friends and roommates included Baez and Kweskin. In 1959, her eventual husband, Bob Siggins ’60, formed the Charles River Valley Boys, one of the era’s most successful roots music bands, composed of several Harvard and MIT students.

Folk music in the Square exploded in 1958 with the opening of Club 47. At 47 Mt. Auburn St., where Daedalus restaurant and Cambridge Cleaners sit today, the club became a hub for local and national artists seeking a place to play and interact with lovers of the music. The venue was called a “club” because it charged a one-dollar “member’s fee” at the door, and the operations of the club were a true team effort. “I did everything at Club 47, as we all did. Whatever needed doing, somebody just did it,” says Betsy Siggins, who moved to Club 47 from her previous job as a café waitress. “We put most [visiting musicians] up in our houses because we had no money for hotels.” Even the musicians pitched in; Peter Wolf, who would make his name as the J. Geils Band’s lead singer, was a club regular in the late ‘60s and lent his apartment out as a dressing room for club performers.

Bill G. Nowlin, founder of Cambridge roots label Rounder Records, says that Harvard Square’s easy accessibility from a variety of colleges set it apart as a popular destination for musicians and listeners alike. Nowlin was a music-loving Tufts student in those days, and he would often trek down to Cambridge multiple nights a week to enjoy shows at Club 47. “[The club was] not forbidding,” he says. Its grassroots character allowed cash-strapped college students to make live music a part of their weekly routines.

The club’s beginnings coincided with national trends. Across the country, college campuses were becoming key to protests and other social movements. For students in Boston seeking mediums for activism, the Square and its performance venues were a perfect fit. “[The Square] was one of those epicenters of this cultural explosion that was going on,” Nelson says. The club also capitalized on the rising popularity of authentic American roots music across the country. Club 47 set up a system with the Newport Folk Festival: the festival would book Southern artists, and to make the trips more lucrative the artists would play two shows—one at the festival and one at Club 47. In later years, many visiting artists at the club veered away from folk towards blues and R&B; Nelson remembers seeing artists like Muddy Waters and Mississippi John Hurt on the lineup alongside acoustic songsters.

While Club 47 was the center of the Cambridge scene, it certainly wasn’t all of it. Tulla’s Coffee Grinder on Mt. Auburn St.—an early venue for Baez, though now closed—and Nameless Coffeehouse, still residing on Church St. were among the many venues into which local folk musicians, blues singers, and singer-songwriters spilled. The scene was sprawling but low-key, perhaps the perfect combination for young up-and-comers. “[Bob] Dylan was playing in Boston for $2.50 a ticket, and I don’t mean $250,” Betsy Siggins says. In fact, Club 47 once refused the future superstar a booking, allowing the then-unknown artist to play only during another performer’s intermission. Dylan only spent a short time in Cambridge, but he stands nevertheless among the many musicians—such as Pete Seeger and Joni Mitchell—who rocketed from the Square to stardom.

CAMBRIDGE’S “ENGINE ROOM”

The folk renaissance began to quiet as the ’60s drew to a close. The spotlight shifted away from the Square as bands like the Modern Lovers—featuring Harvard students Ernie Brooks ’71 on bass and Jerry Harrison ’71 on keys—found new homes at clubs like the South End’s Boston Tea Party, which Nelson managed for a time. These groups took their cues from the Velvet Underground rather than folk and blues-rock, and it was in Boston’s rock clubs rather than Cambridge’s coffeehouses that they began contributing to the punk movement.

But music in Harvard Square far from faded away. Venues came and went, including the original House of Blues, which opened in 1992 but moved to a bigger location near Fenway in 2003. Club 47, after moving to a Palmer St. basement and being shut down by the police, was reopened as Club Passim in 1969. Live music can be found at various restaurants in Cambridge, and upscale jazz has a home at the Charles Hotel’s Regattabar, but Passim is still a focal point for folk, blues, rock and more, sharing this position—as of December 2012—with the Square’s newest music venue, the Sinclair.

Though they are located just a few blocks down Church Street from each other, Passim and the Sinclair seem worlds apart. Passim was built from the ground up by locals, while the Sinclair is just one of many venues operated by New York’s Bowery Presents organization. While Passim is a 100-seat basement with unclothed tables and vegetarian food—the club doubles as the dining room for Veggie Planet during the day—the Sinclair is a 500-capacity standing-room rock club with a gourmet restaurant added on next door. It is, in fact, these drastic differences that keep the two clubs from butting heads.

Passim sets itself apart by tapping into the rich, local tapestry of genres available in Cambridge. “Boston is not really known as a music city…the way Nashville is or Austin is,” says Dan B. Hogan, executive director of Passim. “[The scene is] so eclectic…. we don’t have a label here, and we don’t produce music here, but we have musicians here of all sorts.” Indeed, Boston may not be pumping out hit singles, but the New England Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, and the cornucopia of schools in town are constantly turning out young artists with a variety of musical interests.

Passim’s managing director Matt W. Smith, who has spent almost two decades at Passim and is an avid patron of live music himself, believes that the scene owes much to Boston music fans, who he maintains are some of the best in the country. “If we put on a good show on a Monday night, we’re going to have a sold-out crowd,” he says. “It’s a very discerning audience, and that’s a good thing.”

A larger phenomenon may be enforcing Passim’s pull—people are interested in acoustic music again. Recent years have seen folk-inspired bands like Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, the Avett Brothers, and more rise to an international stage. To some, this is a distasteful trend. “There’s going to be a backlash,” Smith says, referring to “purists” who normally enjoy folk music but might be turned off by said bands’ mainstream success.

But Hogan thinks that Passim will stand out as an intimate refuge from the huge arenas frequented by the most popular of these bands. “[Music fans] are going to see that Passim’s an alternative,” he says.

While Smith estimates that over half of Passim’s shows feature local talent, the Sinclair brings in all national acts to headline. But like Passim, the Sinclair seems to be benefiting from its diverse programming. “Whether it’s Mission of Burma, a Boston punk institution…or Jessie Ware, a really up-and-coming British soul/R&B type act, you get a completely different crowd,” says Josh Bhatti, who manages the Sinclair as well as other Bowery Presents venues. This variety has served the club well in its first month of life. “By and large we’ve been surpassing expectations,” Bhatti says.

Their club and Passim have a symbiotic relationship. “I think [the Sinclair is] going to draw people into the Square who like music,” Hogan says. “And then they’re going to see Passim, which they may not know about.”

Smith loves hearing when artists who have performed at Passim end up playing at larger venues like the Sinclair. “That’s what we’re here for,” Smith says. “We’re here as this…engine room to get people going.” It’s an ideal match; the Sinclair draws people to the Square with recognized acts, and Passim offers them a cozy alternative and a place to see local bands before they reach national audiences.

Smith acknowledges that there have been and will be down times in the music industry, but he firmly believes that the scene’s lulls are often just transitions, such as when the ’90s singer-songwriter scene dissipated but ultimately gave way to a new generation of bands that favored post-grunge and pop punk. In these situations, it is up to clubs to keep on the lookout for the next big thing. Passim has ridden the choppy waves of popular trends for years—outlasting many other venues that have come and gone—and the Sinclair seems to be following a similar plan with its multifaceted programming.

STUDENT ABSENCE

With Passim and the Sinclair working together to offer a little bit of everything, it would seem Harvard Square is still a paradise for music lovers, if not quite on the scale that it once was. Yet with everything going on, students may not be listening.

“Nowadays, a lot of people are stuck in the familiarity circle,” music director for the Harvard Callbacks Cynthia S. Meng ’15 says. Meng is a music lover who enthusiastically consumes soul and R&B music. She attends several concerts a year: this year, she headed into Boston to see Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, and Esperanza Spalding. But she has never been to—in fact, had never before heard of—Passim or the Sinclair. Meng says current students don’t want to take the risk spending money on something unknown. “They’re going to save up, they’re going to splurge on something they can go and buy merchandise for [and] Instagram pictures of,” she says.

“When I go out I tend to see more older people than younger people,” Nowlin says.

Looking at contemporary youth, he sees students more distracted by other forms of entertainment. “A lot of people today don’t really care about seeing live music,” he says. Instead, many young music fans remain content listening to music on their computers. He also believes more is expected of students today than was in the ’60s. “People have to work harder than we had to, so they don’t have much free time to begin with.” As Meng says, it is only for chart-toppers that most students will fork over their time—and the cash—for tickets. This might work in the Sinclair’s favor: Harvard students frequent the larger venue, and its shows feature recognizable national bands. Few, by contrast, have seen the intimate interior of Passim.

The low student draw is not for lack of trying on the club’s part. Passim has created several initiatives over the years to raise awareness on campus; recent collaborations include a concert on the Science Center Plaza and a performance of the play “Woody Sez,” in the Square with live music to supplement a simulcast from the American Repertory Theater. Hogan is also considering offering cheap student rush tickets through the Harvard Box Office, in the hopes that students will be more inclined to purchase tickets through a familiar avenue.

When asked about the effectiveness of this plan, Meng says, “Maybe.” The thriftiness of students extends to on-campus events—Meng says that she has trouble selling Callbacks concert tickets even to friends. She does think that students are more likely to attend on-campus shows, though. “Part of that has to do with knowing the students,” she says. Passim does book student bands, which could possibly draw out students to see their peers. However, the majority of these acts come from music schools such as Berklee, and therefore do little to draw the Harvard crowd.

BEYOND THE BRICK WALL

Despite the lack of student interest, Passim and the Sinclair seem safe for now. In fact, the very technologies that seem to be distracting the young are instrumental in connecting what is now a fairly spread-out community of listeners. “On any given night, any venue could be the heart of the Boston music scene,” Bhatti says. He cites modern social media sites as essential tools for spreading the word about upcoming events. “It’s palpable when there’s a show in town that has all the buzz in the world,” he says. “You go on Facebook, you go on Twitter, and…that night, that’s the venue to be at.” Students may be spending less time at concerts, but those few who are curious about music have everything at their disposal to discover what’s going on.

While Harvard Square is no longer as central a hub as it was in the ’60s, the area’s music is alive, thriving and more diverse than ever—no longer the heart but a strong arm of Boston’s extensive scene. But in this new age, as Smith sees it, students will be responsible for keeping live music popular. “Dare to check out new things,” Smith says. “That’s the best thing for everyone.”

—Staff writer Tree A. Palmedo can be reached at treepalmedo@college.harvard.edu.

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