Growing up in a rather protective household in outer Brooklyn, it wasn’t until I was about thirteen that I made my first trip into Manhattan with a group of friends. Of course where we ended up was the Village, though I had little say in it, being innocent in matters relating to the Big City and subways. I don’t remember much, but I remember the feeling, which was excitement and sensory overload, like the pop and crackle a vinyl record makes at high volume. I came away that day with a bootleg LP of my favorite band that I have played once or twice, and new eyes.
I have since spent countless days and nights in the Village, soaking in its atmosphere and what history it reveals on the surface, mixing it with the history I have picked up second hand. It is, for example, very apparent to me, from listening, reading and observing, that the Village has a rich musical past, especially for jazz and folk music, perhaps it is the hidden history of my bootleg.
Signs of this past exist throughout the neighborhood, often changed and refracted through present forms and institutions, and decontextualized. On McDougal Street, the Café Wha?, opened in the 1950s, advertises a party atmosphere and themed house bands, making sure to capitalize on its past. It seems worlds away from the weird basement described by Bob Dylan in his 2004 memoir Chronicles, which hosted a daytime amateur show that “featured anybody and anything.” Dylan played harmonica on stage at the Wha? immediately after arriving in New York City in the cold winter of 1961.
In some places there is just a sign left, like the one for Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate still affixed to its former residence on Thompson and Bleeker Streets long after the club closed its doors. In 2008, the multimedia art cabaret, Le Poisson Rouge, opened in the space, paying homage to the iconic Village Gate, which opened in 1958.
And of course there are the ubiquitous guitar strummers and banjo pickers in Washington Square Park—old and young—keeping alive a tradition begun in the mid-1940s, according to folk and jazz singer Dave Van Ronk, in The Mayor of McDougal Street, his delightful memoir of the folk revival in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s.
Van Ronk describes the various groups—the Communists, Zionists, Labor Youth Leaguers, bluegrassers, ballad singer and blues people—who would congregate in the park every Sunday to sing folk songs, and the overall feeling it induced. “That Washington Square Sunday afternoon scene was a great catalyst for my whole generation,” writes Van Ronk. This past summer it was announced that Ethan and Joel Coen are making Van Ronk’s memoir—and life—into a heavily fictionalized film. It will be interesting to see what becomes of his history and folk history once it hits the big screen and a larger audience.
Through Van Ronk’s memory and a listing in Place Matters, a project of CityLore and the Municipal Art Society, I discovered a deeper and earlier layer of Village folk history than I had previously known. It is embodied in the Almanac House, a narrow three-story row house at 130 West 10th Street, sandwiched between Fire Squad Company 18 and an Italian restaurant. I walked over to see the building for myself and to photograph it. I found that it is being gutted and renovated. There is no marker, no sign, indicating its storied past.
The building is the former home of the Almanac Singers, a loose, amorphous, musical collective, that closely identified with the Communist Party. The group included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampbell, Agnes ‘Sis’ Cunningham, Butch Hawes, and Bess Lomax (sister of folklorist Alan Lomax), who all lived at 130 West 10th Street at different points during the end of 1941 and through 1942. Members of the group wrote, recorded and performed a mixture of traditional and topical songs, many written by Guthrie, a recent addition to the Almanacs. According to Van Ronk, writing of a time before his time, the place was, “a song factory.”
The group worked a great deal but was beset with controversy on account of its politics. When war broke out in Europe the group had released an album, Songs for John Doe, and played at antiwar rallies and union meetings, calling for nonintervention, following the Communist Party line. With the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the group switched course and released Eleven Songs to Tear Hitler Down and Talking Union, performing to pro-war rallies and touring the country in the summer of 1941, singing songs like “Union Maid” to union locals and progressive groups, joining in the Communist Party’s ardent pro-war Americanism. By the time they had moved into 130 West 10th Street, the group was suddenly popular, performing pro-war songs on NBC radio, though they were still criticized in the mainstream press for their radical politics.
At Almanac House the group gave weekend concerts, or hootenannies, in the basement, charging 35 cents a person. Financial difficulties and personal friction led members to drift apart, making it difficult just to keep the house warm in the winter of 1942, though heat was supplied for Sunday concerts. The group was ultimately evicted. The breakup of the house was coincident with the beginning of the dissolution of the group—Guthrie was involving himself in other projects, like his autobiography Bound For Glory, some of which was written on West 10th Street, Pete Seeger enlisted in the Army, and Bess Lomax and others splintered off to Detroit to live and perform.
As I photographed the Almanac House yesterday, I watched people walk by with cell phones, coffee, dogs. Next door, two men were inspecting a plaque for six firefighters who lost their lives on September 11th. On the sidewalk in front of the house are the firefighters’ names engraved in concrete. The firehouse has a red door adorned with a slightly psychedelic mural commemorating the bicentennial of America, depicting black and white firefighters being driven in a truck by Uncle Sam. The building is marked at the top, 1898. It is a place of work and commemoration, and a particular vision of America, against which the Almanac House stands starkly, absently. Taken side by side, history is layered in the most jarring way, but on further thought the two may be deeply connected.
I went back again tonight and saw the mostly immigrant construction workers taking materials out of the buildings. I looked down into the basement and thought of the concerts the Almanacs held there. I wondered what would become of the building. Are there plans for commemoration or to capitalize on its past? Where does the Almanac’s memory live? What became of their vision of America? Maybe it’s as diffuse, as amorphous, and as intrinsic, as they were. Maybe Woody Guthrie guessed at the question when he sang, “everywhere that you look, in the day or night, that’s where I’m a-gonna be.”
Beard, Rick and Berlowitz, Leslie. Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
Cohen, Ronald D. Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival And American Society, 1940-1970. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.
Cohen, Ronald. “Wasn’t That A Time”: Firsthand Accounts of the Folk Music Revival. New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1995.
Cray, Ed. Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. WW Norton, 2004.
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Place Matters: http://www.placematters.net/.
Sisario, Ben. “Bess Lomax Hawes, Folklorist and Singer Who Co-Wrote ‘M.T.A.’ Dies at 88,” The New York Times, November 30, 2009.
Sisario, Ben. “Agnes Cunningham, Who Sowed the Seeds of Folk Music, Dies at 95,” The New York Times, June 30, 2004.
Van Ronk, Dave with Elijah Wald. The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2005.
Woody Guthrie: http://www.woodyguthrie.org/index.htm.