BY TERRI THAL | I did it. I wrote a book. It focuses mostly on my life in the Village in the ’60s, managing folk singers such as Dave Van Ronk (then my husband and forever my friend), Bob Dylan for several months (and a friend for several years), Maggie and Terre Roche, and other talented musicians. And hanging out with Tom Paxton, Happy Traum, Phil Ochs and many others.
My own introduction to folk music was through socialist politics. I’ve always believed that everyone has a right to food, shelter, education and healthcare. In 1958-59, during my second year at Brooklyn College, in my initial effort to make that happen, I became involved with liberal and later, socialist organizations. Many artists had joined the Communist Party during the Depression, including folk singers and folk song collectors, and in the 1950s, folk music was very much part of the culture of the socialist movement. I found the songs exciting and their message was clear: People should not be exploited, but should have power over their own lives.
When I met Dave Van Ronk in 1957, I was introduced to other facets of folk music and to other young musicians. Greenwich Village was the gathering place for young folk singers and folk music fans throughout the 1950s and ’60s. On Sunday afternoons, in warm weather, we wandered over to Washington Square, where the folk musicians played alone and in groups. They explored the music of different areas of the United States…but mostly the Northeast and Southeast. We weren’t aware that we were learning about immigration and its effect on American music — but songs that came from the British Isles and Africa, many of which had been reworked by American life influences, taught us something about the cultural differences of people from different backgrounds.
In the early ’60s, Village coffeehouses started to hire folk singers. Dave and I were living together then, and our social life turned toward MacDougal Street. When it opened, the Gaslight was a venue for poets such as LeRoi Jones, who later changed his name to Amir Baraka, and Hugh Romney, who legally became Wavy Gravy, turned a hog farm north of Los Angeles into a commune for artists, and was emcee for all three Woodstock festivals. After a few years, the place’s owners started to hire folk singers, and eventually they totally replaced the poets.
The Gaslight booked performers such as Dave, Tom Paxton, Patrick Sky, Mississippi John Hurt and Richie Havens. It and the Kettle of Fish, the bar next door, were my home-away-from home. The Gaslight served execrable coffee, but I didn’t notice because my introduction to coffee had been the Brooklyn College cafeteria, which didn’t exactly have high standards. It was years before I demanded good coffee and started to grind beans I bought at the Porto Rico Importing Company.
Around the corner on Bleecker Street, The Bitter End featured slightly more “commercial” people, like Peter, Paul and Mary, the Chamber Brothers, and the Chad Mitchell Trio (later featuring John Denver). And a few blocks east, Gerde’s Folk City on Mercer Street at West Fourth, which served liquor, was considered “a step up” from the coffeehouses — I think because it brought in both noncommercial and commercial musicians.
There were a lot of other coffeehouses and clubs. The Café Au Go Go on Bleecker Street brought superb South Side Chicago blues groups, such as Muddy Waters and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, to the Village. It introduced music fans to friends of mine who were in The Blues Project, a superb New York-based band that included Danny Kalb and Steve Katz, both former guitar students of Dave’s. The Village Gate — now (Le) Poisson Rouge — was owned by a jazz impresario who hired jazz musicians.
One of the new folk singers who showed up in the Village in 1961 was the young Bob Dylan. Dave and I thought he was a genius. Bob had a choppy voice, affected a Midwestern accent, and wasn’t an especially good guitarist. But he had a well-thought-out performance style reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, and he played harmonica well…which was unusual. At first he limited his repertoire to Woody Guthrie songs and old ballads. But we quickly learned that he had a background in rock and roll that he used when he developed musical arrangements for the songs he soon started to write. He also absorbed music, poetry, literature and history incredibly quickly, and amalgamated what he learned into the songs he wrote.
Dave had a manager, but he asked me to replace him in 1962, and I thought it would be more fun than majoring in political science in graduate school. I had wanted to major in American studies, but there weren’t any such programs at CUNY, and I intensely disliked what I saw as a sociological approach to political science at CCNY, where I was enrolled. I also disliked being told by faculty that I was the dupe of the Communists when I viewed myself as a Trotskyist who despised the American Communist Party. So I dropped out of graduate school and became Dave’s manager.
A while later, Bob asked me to get him gigs. We agreed that I would be his manager, but wouldn’t take any commission until he was earning “decent” money. We never got there. Getting Bob work was incredibly difficult in those early days. Only after I booked him into Gerde’s Folk City (and dozens of others say they either did that or played a role in it) and Robert Shelton, The New York Times folk music reviewer, wrote an article hailing Bob as someone who seems to be going “straight up,” did stardom start to look possible. The review came out just as the Columbia Records producer John Hammond was about to meet Bob, who was playing guitar on Caroline Hester’s new Columbia album. It was also shortly before Albert Grossman — the manager who created Peter, Paul and Mary, and whom most of us in the easygoing folk music world considered the most commercial person in the business — offered Bob a management contract…which Bob signed, not bothering to tell me about it until afterward.
For lots more on all of this, read my new book, “My Greenwich Village: Dave, Bob and Me,” on sale online. Come to my talk and book signing accompanied by a conversation with and concert by Tom Paxton and Happy Traum, and hosted by Liz Thomson, author of “Joan Baez: The Last Leaf,” on Tues., Sept. 12¸ at The Bitter End, at 147 Bleecker St., during one of the events sponsored by The Village Trip festival, or visit my talk and book signing at Jefferson Market Library, at 425 Sixth Ave., on Oct. 5.