Folk 'Em

The new Broadside boxed set resurrects the intimacy and immediacy of New York in the 1960s

"When you have that going on, I think you do write without thinking about the market. The market was the market of ideas. It was not the record industry. I mean, I certainly had my eyes on that as well, but my idealism kept me writing the songs. You can make tens of dollars writing these songs. It's like pro bono for a law firm. You write these songs because they need to be written. Today's problems are like low-level headaches. Yes, we have an endless array of questions and issues that need to be written about, but they're not as big as civil rights or the war. They don't push all other things aside like the other things did. We don't have police dogs and fire hoses in the evening news every night. That's what it was like."

Talk to anyone who wrote and performed back then, and sooner or later, they will look back in anger--and sadness and wistfulness. Happy Traum, interviewed at his home in upstate New York, recalls the days when he would perform at civil-rights benefits around New York; he talks about first meeting Pete Seeger, who would become his "absolute mentor," and Phil Ochs; he remembers recording Dylan's "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," a song Dylan left off Freewheelin' to make room for "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Traum, who edited the folk-music magazine Sing Out! from 1968-1970, refers to the period as a "bubbling cauldron," one he'd never again wish to live through--were it not for the memories of performing at the Broadside Hootenannies at the Village Gate, sitting alongside men and women who soon enough would become legends. Paxton recalls how the Broadside gang would hang out at Ochs' apartment or at Dylan's "sleazy pad" on West 4th Street; he talks about how they'd all go see whomever was performing at the Gaslight or at the bar upstairs, Kettle of Fish, where Caruso and the Beatles co-existed peacefully on the jukebox. There, the musicians would sit all night, drinking and talking politics like a bunch of ragtag John Reeds carrying guitars and notepads. Paxton tells of the night at the Kettle of Fish when, during one protracted argument, Dylan leaned in his ear, sang a new song called "Garden of Eden," and asked Paxton what he thought of it.

"We knew that we were living in history," says Happy Traum, contradicting his old friend Tom--and, finally, echoing him. "I don't think anybody ever took it for granted. I was very aware not that it would get as big as it got, but I did know that Dylan was something other and that there was always excitement going on. We knew we were where the world was changing, and we never took it for granted. Even then, we knew. I am sure the people in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s must have known there was something special going on with art and literature when you could walk down the street and see Gertrude Stein and Picasso and Ernest Hemingway sitting in the street cafes. It was like that, just like that."

Tom Paxton performs at one of the Broadside Hootenannies at the Village Gate in New York City.
Tom Paxton performs at one of the Broadside Hootenannies at the Village Gate in New York City.
Bob Dylan, long before his Wallflower son would betray the name.
Bob Dylan, long before his Wallflower son would betray the name.

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