Folks Who Were Folk Singers

No one who was a teenager or young 20s in I960 will forget the resurgence of folk music. Rock and Roll had dominated the late ‘50s with its hormone-infused beats and gasping lyrics. But then a totally different musical phenomenon sprang up. Folk music was totally different than the sex obsessed rock and roll that had excited our teenage years. The voice of folk music was old, but the enthusiasm of young singers and melodic guitars made it a new phenomenon, one related to social justice. Social justice emerged as teenage rebellion without hormones, with a somber face and fingers wagging, exalting the hobos and sharecroppers and those who world Communism had purported to help, but whom it merely shifted to an even more dependent status. Soldiers at war were at first sympathized with, then scorned, as the folk singing crowd merged seamlessly with the anti-war crowd.

One sure thing about folk singing was that almost any hack who could bend his or her fingers into a few chords could use a guitar to accompany one’s own singing. Although there were groups of folk singers, it was possible and even usual to be a one-man band. I was one of those hacks with a few chords, and about my junior year at the University of Washington (1962) I started strumming on numerous occasions — whenever anyone would let me. Just being able to carry a tune and remember how words and cords went together automatically made you a temporary star, until a better guitar player with better words came alone.

I was fortunate in being able to carry a tune, and remember words. Partly that came from Miss Hydenstrom in the fifth grade. She was the music instructor who loved it when I sang out in tune when she was trying to teach the tone-deaf class about singing harmony. She wanted me to play the cello in the school band but I didn’t know what a cello was and so declined the opportunity. Miss Hydenstrom had high cheekbones and lots of enthusiasm for music. Maybe the best thing she did was got the principal to play the Standard School Broadcast over the school Public Address system, as part of her music class. Once a week we would sit in the portable classrooms where the radio station was piped in playing the once a week broadcast, about famous composers and their lives. It was of course accompanied by their most acclaimed music and I was an absolute sponge. Even to this day I can rattle on about Strauss and Mozart and Beethoven and hum a few bars of their pieces. All this made absolutely no difference to the folk music movement, however.

When folk singing came into its own, many other more dexterous and determined singers actually mastered the guitar. Often it was because they were not good singers or, more often, afraid to project themselves to listeners. On the other hand, I was probably too lazy to be very good. I played just enough cords so that the guitar was an asset, but barely so. I never did get good enough to play along with anyone else, yet being a lone college troubadour was one way to stand out when you didn’t stand out in many ways at all. Luckily, I had no fear of audiences because my mother had encouraged me to give speeches through school, and singing alone was kind of like projecting your thoughts in speeches to an audience.

Most of the better singers, and a few comedy-song acts, populated the coffee houses on the “Ave” (, University Way, which ran a block parallel to the University of Washington campus). It actually worked out well for the craft, because the under-aged who were underclassmen at the University could come and go and get a cup of coffee or tea and play chess or have deep meaningful conversations while a constant group of folk singers longing for an audience tried to get their attention. Later, in Oklahoma, I would learn the valuable lesson that no matter how good you were or how important your message, your performance was merely background music to whatever was really important in the audience’s lives.

During those early-60s undergraduate years, I was just glad to trail along with the action. On one road trip to Vancouver, British Colombia, I took along my guitar and we went from bar to bar in downtown Vancouver. Someone would ask me to play and they they’d sing along and then the bartender would throw us out and we would wander down the street and do the same thing in another bar. In those days, Canadian bars would not allow single women in without men. So there were two doors to each bar, one saying “Gentlemen” and the other saying “Ladies with Escorts.” The result of this was a line of young attractive working women, secretaries and retail saleswomen, lined up outside of downtown bars waiting for any man to take them inside. At first it looked like a dream situation for a young college boy but once inside the young women would usually say goodbye and join their friends.

Thus jilted a few times, I packed up my guitar and followed the crowd down to the harbor district, where the bars were really loud and the lumberjacks fought with the fishermen. I remember a peavy sticking in the wall at the back of the bar, a few minutes before hurled by some drunk lumberjack. A peavy was a heavy spear-looking device they used for maneuvering logs floating in the water mostly, and a dangerous item in a fight. All in all I preferred the uptown places with people who threw me out because they had no entertainment licenses. Being with a guitar, and landing in the midst of a line of young ladies waiting on the street, is not all that bad.

Later, in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I went to grad school in 1965, a friend and I started playing in a local bar which thought a few folk singers could sell more beer. It was true. For about two months, mostly my friend Andy played guitar and mostly I sang folk songs and we made jokes and got free burgers and snacks. We had people come back to hear us and they brought their friends. The bar owner was paying us $25 to show up and sing songs and drink a few beers with the clientele. How good could life get?

We started to consider ourselves responsible for bringing controversial songs to the mix to “educate” the local audience. One night a local businessman who had liked our earlier music brought a bunch of friends and their wives and they were all having a good time, so good that we felt a little ignored. That is when we decided to sing the Klan Song, about the terror of the Klan to black communities. It was a stirring song, and we sang out and the crowd quieted and listened. They were a little tipsy, but they did not applaud. One especially loaded wife asked her husband, very loudly, “Are these people  singin’ about our Klan and the niggers?” More silence. They quickly paid the bill, and filed out past us, leaving the once jolly bar, quiet and empty. Of course we were fired on the spot. This was Tulsa, Oklahoma, and not the socially responsible coffee house culture of the University of Washington. Different worlds.

In Seattle, like Vancouver, the crowds in coffee houses had not been not nearly as rowdy as those in the bars. By some act of the state congress, all drinking establishments in Seattle had to be no closer than one mile from the University. That meant any potential bar owner must first get a surveyor and a long, long tape measure. I remember several bars of that era, the Century Tavern, the Duchess, the Northlake Tavern, the Blue Moon, and of course, Sam’s Red Robin. Sam had a place across the ship canal that ran between the University and Lake Washington, and many students lived on houseboats along the canal. Houseboats were considered sub-standard housing at the time, though they run in the millions now. The law said Sam had to close down his tavern at 12 o’clock, so people bought cases of beer from him at 11:59 and took it down to the houseboats for a perpetual all night party open to all comers virtually, except Alfredo the wild Mexican who was banned for threatening another drunk with his machete.

I had taken his current girlfriend, Jan, out when she was a freshman, and later when I was of drinking age, she became interested in me again. Unfortunately she was now Alfredo’s girlfriend. Alfredo of the machete. He visited me one night in my little ($12 a month) basement room behind the landlady’s furnace, just off the Ave and so in the middle of the folk action. Alfredo said he thought I was trying to take his girlfriend. I said no, but she might be trying to take me. We agreed he should talk with her about it. I think his machete was in his boot. We had a warm beer from my stash and he said I was a good guy. I was indeed a pretty good guy, but underneath sweating blood.

Sam’s Red Robin, by the way was the first time I saw Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. It was 1962 and I had fake ID and was in the Red Robin and someone at the bar nudged me and said to look back in a back booth. It was one of those rainy midweek afternoons in November in Seattle. The two had been performing somewhere in Seattle. Now they were peering into each other’s eyes, silhouetted against the grey rainy backdrop behind. Someone said they were going to be famous. Someone else said they were in love. Sam was starting to fry hamburgers on a hot plate in his makeshift kitchen, and we were all more interested in getting one of Sam’s burgers with our beer than in Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in the back. Sam later sold out and a massive burger chain, known as the Red Robin, spread to 100 locations across the West Coast.

I saw Joan Baez several years later in 1968, when I was in the military in Quantico, Virginia, about 30 miles south of Washington, D.C. My current girlfriend was working at the Library of Congress and I was a Marine Lieutenant stationed at a communications school in Quantico. We went out in Washington D.C. a lot, and this weekend Joan Baez was singing at the Washington Monument. She had a scheduled performance at the Daughters of the American Revolution Hall in Washington. Then the Daughters realized Joan had been demonstrating against the current war in Vietnam, and unceremoniously cancelled her scheduled performance. She then announced to the Washington Post that on the next weekend she would give a free concert the next Saturday night on the grassy grounds of the Washington Monument. All it took was some kind of parade permit, I think.

She’d long ago split up with Bob Dylan, who was off somewhere making money, but it seemed liked half of Washington, D.C. brought along their blankets and picnic dinners to hear Joan Baez sing that Saturday night. There were some Capitol policemen who guard the monument around, but no other elements of officialdom. There were some porta-potties and they were definitely needed, because apparently there were about 20,000 people spread out on blankets that warm summer night. Those of us who had been through orienteering in the military could triangulate on the monument and other fixtures to find our way back to our blankets. There were no ropes or lines on the grass to delineate anything. 20,000 people on blankets had beers and chicken and hot dogs and hamburgers they had brought along.  Also, there were only about 20 refuse cans around the perimeters of the grounds. To me, a young officer who would be responsible for logistics such as feeding and cleaning up after about 200 troops, this looked like a total garbage disaster in the making. I could imagine the trash of 20,000 people left lying on that public grass.

And then, just as she was finishing up her last song, and modestly accepting the cheering of the multitude, Baez realized the same thing. She held up her right hand, and waited as the crowd quieted. “Now if you could all pick up all of your liter from tonight and carry it home with you, I would really appreciate it. After all”, she said, “I’m responsible.”

It was quite astounding, if you know picnics and trash. There in the late night, the appreciative crowd of 20,000 just folded up their blankets and packed up all their trash, and quietly filtered into the night. It seemed as if there was nothing left on the quiet grass. In the morning the grounds seemed totally pristine — nothing at all to show that 20,000 people had just been here.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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