Greenwich Village, New York, has a storied bohemian past created by the artists, activists, and characters of all stripes who lived there or passed through while working at making their mark on society.
The songs on this album came from a time of music revival that was flourishing in Greenwich Village during the 1960s. Many young musicians gathered to play in Washington Square Park on Sunday afternoons and in various locales around the neighborhood in the evenings. There was a kind of renaissance going on and it wasn’t just in music, but in all the arts. Nearly as many experimental theaters and art galleries were opening their doors vying for the public’s attention as there were music clubs and coffee houses sprouting up everywhere offering open mic nights (called hootenannies) in addition to touting the latest up and coming folksingers’ two week gig. The performers from that time, and the songs they wrote, made a notable contribution not only to the legend of Greenwich Village but also to music in general. No one who is young, making music and hanging out, thinks in historical terms but the passage of time allows for such a perspective. Cultural history was made.
Most music styles and trends come about for rebellious reasons, usually to counteract something or other in society, and the Great Folk Scare of the 1960s (a term coined by the late great musician Dave Van Ronk) was no different. The rise of folk music and the birth of rock and roll were a direct reaction to the saccharine pop of the 1950s––the soundtrack for a vacuous and repressive decade. Something had to give.
And give it did. Rebellious new growth sprouted from old soil. Singer songwriters proliferated, their inspiration was Woody Guthrie, their father was Pete Seeger, and the Holy Grail was both the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music and the Lomax Collection of field recordings. The eccentric Harry Smith put together a collection of music culled from old commercial recordings he found or scavenged from anywhere and everywhere. John Lomax, and later his son Alan, traveled around the US recording the music they heard on back porches, in town squares and churches, in cotton fields, on chain gangs and in prisons.
The American folk musicians from the 1960s imitated and assimilated all this old time music, as it was called. The songs they listened to on the Smith and the Lomax recordings became the template for the innovative music they were making. These young musicians were producing their own songs that added new layers and textures to the ever evolving collage that is American music.
Bob Dylan wasn’t the first of his generation of musicians to write songs but his songs were the first to catch fire with a ready and eager audience. The lyrics he wrote were universal yet personal and spoke directly to a generation coming of age during the growth of the Civil Rights movement, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, and fear of the Cold War turning hot. His success at articulating what was on their minds opened the gates for other aspiring songwriters waiting in the wings ready to express themselves in a new idiom.
The fact that every singer felt compelled to write a song wasn’t always such a beneficial idea, however. Not everyone can be as good a songwriter as they can be good interpreters of good songs. Something was lost. A song lives on through people singing it; a song is tested through another singers’ take on it. What would it be like if opera singers decided to compose their own arias?
I enjoy hearing the same song interpreted by several different singers, especially when I can listen to one version right after the other. It is truly instructive to discover how the song changes with each singer’s unique inflection on a word or phrase. That is why the idea behind this CD, to have current performers interpret other people’s songs from a specific time and place, intrigued me.
Many of the songs are seared into my memory in the songwriter’s voice. I first heard some of the Dylan songs right off the paper he’d written them on, as he strummed his guitar working out the melody, in the small apartment we shared on West 4th Street, in the Village. His “Don’t Think Twice” is a real chameleon of a song. The singer can amp up the hurt or the sarcasm, the resignation or the bravado, or pile on a bit of each, and see what happens. “Positively Fourth Street” was written in a time of moving up and moving on in Dylan’s trajectory to fame and fortune. The song is payback for the backbiting that clogged his road.
Other songwriters work I heard while at a party somewhere––I remember Eric Andersen delivering his words and music in a tumble of rhythmic batches––or played on a record player, or at those long ago clubs whose names have become part of the history of Greenwich Village music lore: the Gaslight, Gerde’s Folk City, the Village Gate, and the Bitter End, to cite just a few.
I haven’t listened to the songs recorded for this album in a long while and hearing them in another singers voice is exhilarating. By jazzing it up on the piano, Bruce Hornsby adds some salt to the special charm of John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darlin’ be Home Soon”.
The songs aren’t confined to any particular era anymore than the musicians performing them are. Each of the artists lays claim to the song he or she has chosen to sing and takes complete charge of the material. They interpret these timeless songs in their very own unique way. No ghosts at all, just spirit.
Listening to each musician take ownership of the music and lyrics, these songs are no longer old familiar tunes hanging out in a dusty part of my past, instead I’m listening to each one in the present, in a clean room with the windows wide open.