NEW YORK — On Nov. 4 — two days before the midterm elections and during a time when the news cycle has been focused on anti-Semitic and racist shootings — Richard Barone galvanized performers, fans and activists at Joe’s Pub to embrace the hopeful message and compelling music of protest songs of Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Joined by guests Marshall Crenshaw, Hilary Kole, Tammy Faye Starlite, Steve Addabbo, Terre Roche and Glenn Mercer, Barone — the concert’s featured performer, host and organizer — brilliantly executed an emotionally rich celebration of the new wave of writers who made it acceptable and popular to write deeply personal, socially aware music.
He opened with Phil Ochs’ hauntingly beautiful “When I’m Gone” with a backdrop of black and white pictures of Ochs at a Vietnam War protest (all visuals were provided by Stephen Petrus, co-author of the 2015 book “Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival”). The intimate room was still and silent. Ochs’ words reminded us, through Barone’s warm and confident voice, to take action and that we can’t do anything when we are gone, “So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”
Barone spoke about the 1961 Beatnik Riots — a clash between city officials over the use of public space in Washington Square Park. Terre Roche (of The Roches) then led a soulful rendition of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth.” Though often understood to be an anti-war song, it was actually inspired by the conflict over the use of space by young people on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood in 1966, the same year Stills’ group Buffalo Springfield became the house band at a bar in the area. Opposing curfew restrictions, young people demonstrated in the streets.
Crenshaw turned to the songbook of Woody Guthrie (father to all protest singers that followed him) for “Lindbergh,” which resonated, given President Trump’s use of America First and fear-based references to immigration. The song voices Guthrie’s criticism of Lindbergh as a Nazi who “started an outfit that he called America First in Washington …” Then Guthrie warned, “They say ‘America First’ but they mean ‘America Next!’ in Washington” Barone and Roche watched Crenshaw from behind, sitting on the stage floor, looking as entranced as many of us seemed to be in the quiet of Joe’s Pub.
Pete Seeger’s anti-war song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was performed with conviction and heart by Barone, joined by Addabbo and Roche. A photo of Seeger was displayed above them as they sang and I couldn’t help thinking that Seeger was keeping a watchful eye over the evening. Addabbo also led Eric Andersen’s anti-war song, “Thirsty Boots.”
Lou Reed, not a folk artist but certainly a voice of the counterculture, was represented by Tammy Faye Starlite’s rendition of the “All Tomorrow’s Parties” with Glenn Mercer (of the Feelies) on guitar. Starlite impersonated Nico’s vocals and, in character, disparaged “the man in the Oval Office” and asked the audience if there’s a difference between the two political parties. The audience shouted “yes.” She commented that “this is a protest song, protesting protest songs.” Barone discussed the importance of Reed and the Velvet Underground to the sounds of the ’60s and noted that “people looked down on transsexuals and on the Underground” (who recorded several songs referencing transsexuals). He also commented on the importance of their inclusion in the history of protest songs.
Mercer sang Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (later recorded by The Byrds) with Barone and Addabbo joining in to make this song rock the room. Barone’s fast-paced version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” — interspersed creatively with verses from Ochs’ song “Changes” — left the room in deep contemplation. He sang one verse of Dylan, then Ochs, in a stunning presentation.
Crenshaw sang a solo, electric version of Ochs’ protest song “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” which he also belted out at Barone’s August SummerStage concert in Central Park. Roche sang and Barone joined in on Richard Fariña’s “The Bold Marauder” and Hilary Kole filled the room with her rich voice when she sang Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child.” The song is about an interracial couple, and Barone spoke about how The Village served as a place for those cast outside of the norms of society to gather.
The evening ended with all the performers joining Barone in a beautiful rendition of Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” with Crenshaw saying “we sure hope so.” As the finale ended, words by Irwin Silber (the activist and co-founder of Sing Out! magazine) were projected onto the overhead screen, declaring “The political folk song belongs to us — and maybe if more of us exercised our rights in using it and developing it, we would be helping to make America a better place to live.”
In a pre-show email interview, Barone said he saw the show as a “deep study of how message and music can merge for the greater good.” He teaches a 15-week course titled “Music + Revolution” at the New School in New York, and paid tribute to the lasting legacy of the music of Greenwich Village in the ’60s on his 2016 album Sorrows & Promises.
While protest music giving voice to discontent about gender and income inequality, transgender rights and racial injustice has continued to be made by a range of artists — including Rage Against the Machine, Run the Jewels, Kendrick Lamar and Janelle Monáe, to name a few — Barone explained, in the interview, that “the challenge now is to be aware of an aging population and the isolation of each individual, which communication technology has ironically created, and break through with messages that transcend genre, age, race, ideology, etc. and create messages of universal truths that can resonate in our ever-more diverse population.”
Although The Village continues to attract activists and artists who appreciate protest songs, Barone said that in the 1960s, “there was more unity among the people, i.e. the population at large. One reason: In the mid-’60s, 50 percent of the population in the U.S. was under the age of 25. The mindset was far more unified, particularly against the Vietnam War … so the songs could resonate much more strongly in society and become mainstream thought.”