Tag Archives: folk music

The Coffeehouse Folk Music Scene

Folk music has been around as long as humans have been able to speak.  It’s the free-form and traditional songs of people that was passed down.  The name, folk music, was coined in the 19th century when scholars and composers started collecting these folk songs and melodies from different cultures.

Modern folk music gained popularity during the early 20th century, particularly during the Great Depression. Musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly sang about the struggles of the working class and the marginalized, and their music became a voice for social and political activism.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Greenwich Village in New York City became the center of the folk music scene. It was home to a community of musicians, poets, and artists who gathered in coffeehouses to share their work and ideas.  Typically, singers weren’t paid by the coffeehouse, but a hat or basket was passed through the audience.

The coffeehouse atmosphere was intimate and relaxed.  There was often a list of musicians waiting for stage time, and they, along with the audience changed often.  Musicians would “make the rounds”, going from one coffeehouse to another.  Music was most often performed acoustically, with singers accompanied by only a guitar or piano.  It was quite different from commercially produced popular music.

Notable Singers

New York coffeehouses grew an impressive assortment of talent.  Bob Dylan was perhaps the most notable.  Here’s where he began his career as a singer-songwriter in the early 60s.  He performed at popular coffeehouses such as Cafe Wha? and Gerde’s Folk City while he developed his unique folk and protest music style.

Joan Baez too was also a regular performer at the coffeehouses in Greenwich Village during the 1960s. She gained a reputation as a talented folk singer at The Gaslight Cafe and Cafe Wha?,  The duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were also frequent players  and developed their signature folk rock harmonies at The Gaslight Cafe and Cafe Wha.

Unfortunately, I was late to the scene.  By time I visited Greenwich Village (as a listener, not a musician), the folk music scene had moved to California.  There, it continued to evolve and gain popularity.  California was home to a thriving counter-cultural movement, and musicians and artists were drawn to the state by its sunny climate, beautiful landscapes, and liberal social and political environment. Maybe the availability of drugs helped a little bit too. There, coffeehouse folk music continued to flourish, as musicians explored new sounds and their music evolved.

The growth of coffeehouse folk music in New York City was soon followed by a move to California, where the genre continued to evolve and gain popularity. California was home to a thriving counter-cultural movement, and musicians and artists were drawn to the state by its sunny climate, beautiful landscapes, and liberal social and political environment. In this new setting, coffeehouse folk music flourished, as musicians explored new sounds and styles and collaborated with one another to create something new and exciting.

Song About the Move

The Mamas & the Papas had a hit song that summed up their move to Los Angeles. The song, “California Dreamin'” , was released in 1965.   The lyrics describe the feelings of homesickness and longing for warmer weather that the band members experienced after they moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast. The first verse starts with the lines, “All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey / I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day / I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.”

New Sounds

The emergence of the folk rock movement, a fusion of folk and rock music, created anew sound that was epitomized by artists like The Byrds and The Mamas & The Papas, who blended the acoustic, introspective qualities of folk music with the electrifying energy of rock and roll. This new sound was a hit with audiences, and it helped to popularize folk rock and establish it as a distinct genre.

The growth of coffeehouse folk music in New York City and its later move to California played a pivotal role in the evolution of American popular music. This movement helped to establish a new standard for folk music and paved the way for the emergence of new genres like folk rock. The coffeehouses of Greenwich Village and the vibrant counter-cultural movement of California provided a platform for musicians and artists to connect with one another, share their ideas, and create something new and exciting. Today, the legacy of coffeehouse folk music continues to inspire and influence musicians and artists around the world.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan at Washington protests 1963

It’s difficult to identify which branch of the rock and roll family tree Bob Dylan comes from.  As a folk singer, his early works were always on the edge.  He brought the protest to protest songs, nasty lyrics to rock’s vocabulary, deep poetry to style, and the electric guitar into the mainstream.  Some say that he even brought us The Beatles greatest works by introducing them to pot.

Dylans early work was definitely folk.  His first album, named Simply Bob Dylan, was mostly covers of folk standards.  Mixed in with the reworked songs were two original works.  “Talk’n New York” was his story of how he didn’t fit in as a mid-westerner singing in Greenwich Village coffee houses.  His second original release was “Song to Woody”, Bob Dylan’s tribute to his musical hero, Woody Guthrie.  The album sold very few copies and just barely broke even.  Yet the two original gems that it contained were  Dylan’s announcement that he was going to write and sing about what he wanted to.

His second album is where he broke loose.  “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” from 1963 was almost all original works and strongly anti-war.  It included “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Masters Of War”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”  The album soon became a best seller and is included in most surveys of the top albums of all times.

New albums followed soon after his Freewheeling’ success, and as Dylan matured, his musical scope expanded.  Many of his songs strayed from the traditional folksy and protest styles as they became more personal.  His musical style changed to and moved slowly towards rock.

Bob Dylan Shocks the Newport Folk Festival

It was a black day for folk and a big day for rock at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.  Bob Dylan was one of the biggest folk stars and one of the festival headliners.   The crowd cheered him as he opened with three of his folk standards:  “All I Really Want to Do”, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”, and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”.  Then he crossed the folk and rock line by plugging in a Fender Stratocaster and launching an amplified electric set backed by Mike Bloomfield and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

They cranked out 3 amplified numbers before they left the stage.  Some say they were booed off the stage, others say it was planned to play only the three numbers and then go back to traditional folk. Whatever it was, there was no going back.  Bob Dylan had announced that the music world was going electric, and he was crossing the line as a rocker.

In 2008, Bob Dylan received a special award from the Pulitzer Prize committee for, as they worded it, “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”  It was well deserved.