“Acoustic or Electric?”


I retrace my musical steps to introduce my experiences in Cambridge at the Club 47. This  coffee house, in the basement of a building across the street from the Harvard Book Store(The Coop) presented live acoustic music most nights of the week. It was inexpensive, easy to walk to, and hosted wonderful singers.

Here I first heard Tom Rush, Eric Anderson, Phil Ochs, and Judy Collins. The atmosphere was quiet so that you could easily hear the words to the songs. Songs explored issues pertinent to the crowd, from love lost to political action. I felt at home there in a way I often didn’t feel in the intellectual climate at Harvard.

Reflecting on this time in my life, I realize it was then that I chose the “path less traveled” and stuck with acoustic music, eschewing the more popular amplified sound. The Rolling Stones were very popular at that time, but I found their music ugly and disturbing. Perhaps my disinterest in drugs helped me choose which musical path to follow. Perhaps it was my abhorrence of loud loud loud sounds. Perhaps it was a distaste for bad lyrics. At any rate, I was an English major because words mattered. I wanted to be able to hear the words, think about the words and remember the words.

In the last twenty years, I have enjoyed discovering a whole new group of what are now called “singer-songwriters” rather than folk musicians.¬† There exists a whole raft of excellent writers playing acoustic instruments whom I now follow. I will write about them later on in this musical odyssey. Suffice it to say, I don’t need to follow the very popular “tribute bands” now raking in millions from my generation. I don’t need to remember those old loud songs. I can peacefully listen to the new singers who choose their words as carefully as the ones I listened to in Cambridge in the late 1960’s.

“I Join the Folk Music Scene(Not!)”

Image by Tom Root

Everyone I knew was trying to learn to play the guitar or banjo. Somewhere there are probably lots of guitars and banjos gathering dust in attics from kids who learned playing was harder than it looked. I could tell right away that those strings were beyond me, so I opted for an autoharp. If you have never seen one, it is pictured above, complete with a long haired, blue eyed teenage girl who actually looks close to how I looked by the end of high school. And she has that pensive/angst look so common on every 17 year old, including me.

To play, you simply held the appropriate button down with one hand while you strummed with the other. The buttons produced various chords, similar to a guitar without you having to remember the fingering. Of course, you were supposed to learn which button produced which chord. I never mastered that skill, so my strumming had long breaks while I searched for the correct button. This made for a less than stellar musical performance.

In the end, it turned out I much preferred to listen to folk music than to play it. I had many opportunities, both at the Caffe Espresso and the Folk Singers while still in high school. I also began to collect folk music records, beginning with Joan Baez who deserves a post of her own. Meanwhile, I grew out my hair, bought black tights, and did my best to look the part of a folk singer. That would have to be enough.

“Free Coffee. No Talking”


The Caffe Espresso moved uptown and morphed into The Folksingers, probably to take advantage of the scores of young people who had “discovered” folk music. Russo and Brentano, as this group was called, were local guitar and banjo players who were friends of Carol’s. We went to hear them often. Mike Russo was actually a very talented player and I found an old video of him made in Seattle. You can tell the influence of old blues singers on Mike.

Years later when I began teaching at the Museum Art School in Portland, I met his parents, Sally Haley and Mike Russo, both excellent local painters. The younger Mike painted houses to support his music playing. His art was more musical than his parents, but clearly a love of beauty ran through the family.

My little sister saved this flyer and framed it and gave it to me many years ago on my birthday. It pleased me greatly and it hangs in my library next to another poster she saved for me–a signed play bill for Pete Seeger. More about him another day.

Reading that flyer now, I am amused at how seriously the venue took the musicians. No talking! At least the coffee was free. And you can’t beat a $1.00 cover charge. Even then.