Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Back Pages: Commemorating Gerde's Folk City

Today’s adolescents swoon for Justin Bieber. My genre of choice as a teen was acoustic and dominated by geezers, like the already middle-aged Pete Seeger. Until April 5, 1961. That’s when a new kid in town stole my heart after a friend at New York University brought me to a gathering of the school’s folk music society to hear a fledgling singer from Minnesota.

Musicians we admired in those days generally had a smooth delivery -- or aspired to -- but Bob Dylan’s voice was appealingly rough around the edges. “He is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his back porch,” critic Robert Shelton wrote in the New York Times a few months later. “All that ‘husk and bark’ are left on his notes and a searing intensity pervades his songs.”

Yup. And it didn’t hurt that Dylan looked a bit like James Dean (my girlhood crush, his boyhood idol), demonstrating a similar jittery persona. Smitten, I began catching his solo appearances during Monday night hootenannies at Gerde’s Folk City, an iconic gathering place for my generation. So, when I recently discovered that someone was organizing a 50th anniversary celebration of the defunct nightspot on June 7, nostalgia for my long-lost youth persuaded me to plan a trip to Manhattan. The someone in question is Bob Porco, grandson of the Italian immigrant who operated Gerde’s as a restaurant starting in 1952 and kept it going as a cultural mecca until his retirement in 1980.

Bob Porco says his Grandpa Mike “always had bragging rights” when it came to Dylan, Richie Havens, Jose Feliciano, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Simon and Garfunkel, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Those are just a few of the artists who launched their careers in his establishment. The talent pledged to participate in what Bob Porco has dubbed “Folk City at 50 Kick-off Get Together” includes noted veterans of the early 1960s underground scene -- though not Dylan, who’s scheduled to be in Croatia:

* Peter Stampfel, adept on banjo and fiddle with both the wacky psychedelic ensemble the Holy Modal Rounders and the Fugs. The Rounders’ loopy “If You Want to Be a Bird,” is on the “Easy Rider” soundtrack.

* Sylvia Tyson, half of a duo from Toronto (Ian and Sylvia) that turned out hits such as “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon.”

* Danny Kalb, a guitarist with the seminal Blues Project who accompanied everyone from Phil Ochs to Judy Collins

* David Amram, a composer and French horn virtuoso whose work ranges from classical to jazz to folk in collaborations with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, Tito Puente, Odetta and Jack Kerouac.

* And a really interesting twist: Dominic Chianese, Uncle Junior on The Sopranos, will be one of the evening’s two emcees -- a responsibility he had back in 1964, while a Village minstrel supplementing his nascent acting endeavors.

Gerde’s initially was on the corner of West Fourth and Mercer, the locale I remember so fondly. A decade earlier, the clientele ate and drank while not really listening to background instrumentals. But in 1959, Mike Porco’s watering hole transformed itself into a live music venue coordinated by the guy who came up with the idea, Israel Young. He owned the Folklore Center, a McDougal Street store that sold records and instruments. I first met Dylan there a few days before the NYU encounter. There he was: Guitar. Black cap. Baby-faced. A sort of Jewish Justin Bieber.

Izzy Young called his Gerde’s collaboration the Fifth Peg, which lasted only five months. In need of a booker, Mike Porco then hired Charlie Rothschild, who suggested the name Gerde’s Folk City. The new incarnation was unveiled with headliner Carolyn Hester on May 30, 1960. “It was an immediate success,” explains Bob Porco. “New York and Greenwich Village needed a legitimate stage. After Folk City, everyone else began holding open-mic nights and paying union wages.”

When the building was condemned in 1971, the club moved to what had been “a seedy strip joint” at 130 West 3rd Street. (It’s now the Fat Black Pussy Cat upstairs and the Village Underground below, jointly hosting the anniversary celebration. Go to for more details.) Within a few years, though, the folk scene had changed. “There were some crossover acts from the ‘60s and everybody plugged in after a while,” Bob Porco says. “But the political spirit was gone from the music. Nobody had anything to be really pissed about anymore once the war was over.”

With a different zeitgeist, “those were lean times for Mike,” his grandson points out. Before fading again in the wake of disco and punk, however, Gerde’s experienced a resurgence when Dylan returned on October 25, 1975 to announce his upcoming Rolling Thunder Revue. Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joan Baez and Bette Midler were on hand to belt out a few tunes that night, along with Bruce Springsteen -- who had flown in expressly for Mike Porco’s simultaneous surprise 61st birthday party.

Dylan invited the Boss and Patti Smith to join the tour but they had to decline. Not me. I happily hitched my wagon to that shooting star for three weeks in the spring of 1976, vagabonding from the Gulf Coast of Florida to New Orleans as the official Rolling Thunder herbalist. The hippie traveling circus also recruited an astrologer, a tightrope walker and an exotic dancer who did magic tricks.

Bob Porco has temporarily set aside writing a biography of his grandfather to concentrate on arrangements for June’s landmark event. He grew up in the 1980s crazy for heavy metal, but lately has been steeping himself more than ever in Mike’s milieu. “It’s as if I’m taking a crash course in Dave Van Ronk and Reverend Gary Davis,” he says, referring to two legends from the great Gerde’s pantheon. “I’m enjoying that ride.”

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author, with Randee Dawn, of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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