Musician, writer and professor Richard Barone spoke with me last week about his new book, “Music + Revolution: Greenwich Village in the 1960s” (Backbeat/Rowman & Littlefield, 312 pp., $29.95), from his classroom at The New School in New York. He teaches four courses and just had a session with one of his songwriting students. It’s his fifth year teaching a course about music in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and the book will serve as the perfect textbook. It is dense with music history and portraits of artists who walked the streets of the Village, and summarizes the political issues that infused their art and defined that time period.
Soon to go home by scooter to his apartment on Waverly Place — the same street where Don Draper lived in the TV series “Mad Men,” which also chronicled New York in the ’60s — Barone spoke about that turbulent and creatively rich time that captured his attention well before his move to Greenwich Village from Hoboken, in the mid-1980s.
The thoroughly researched but also very personal book includes information about Village music scene participants including Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Janis Ian, Peter, Paul & Mary, Tom Paxton, The Mamas & the Papas, José Feliciano, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk (known as the Mayor of MacDougal Street), Eric Andersen, Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix — as well as lesser known artists, including Cynthia Gooding and Paul Clayton.
In the ’50s, folksingers devoted themselves mostly to traditional songs. But in the ’60s, they began to write deeply personal songs about contemporary and political experiences.
“Tom Paxton wrote original songs, and after Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ it became cool to write original music,” Barone said.
Barone will discuss his book at several up-coming events, including his official launch at a concert at The Museum of the City of New York on Oct. 13 in New York with guests Carolyn Hester, Steve Addabbo, Suzanne Vega, David Amram, Terre Roche and others. Dolores Dixon — a member of The New World Singers, who recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind” before Dylan did — will speak, as will others. For information, visit mcny.org.
Barone also will talk about the book and play some songs with Glenn Mercer, Dave Schramm, Mary Lee Kortes and others at Little City Books in Hoboken on Nov. 3. And he will appear at New York events with Village Trip festival founder Liz Thomson at the Washington Square Hotel on Sept. 23; with Addabbo, writer Stephen Petrus and others at Jefferson Market Library on Oct. 27, and with writer Anthony DeCurtis (who wrote the book’s foreword) at The Strand Bookstore on Nov. 9.
Barone said that for the first few years that he lived in Greenwich Village, he was always on tour and had little time to be immersed in all that had transpired, musically, in his neighborhood. Later, he had time to reflect on it.
“I was always thinking about the history, and venues, and all that happened here,” he said.
In the mid-2000s, writer Mitchell Cohen suggested he record songs by 1960s Greenwich Village artists. This resulted in Barone’s 2016 album, Sorrows & Promises: Greenwich Village in the 1960s.
Although he wrote the new book in 2020 and 2021, his research started years earlier. The album “got me into a deep dive, (thinking about) how those songs happened and who wrote them and why they wrote them … it put me on a path of research,” he said. “I did events about these songs and six panel discussions, toured with Steve Addabbo and others … my biggest event was at Central Park’s SummerStage in 2018. I had a lot of the original artists that were in the Village in the ’60s perform their songs.
“I got to work with them and talk with them and that’s when the book really started to come together.”
Feliciano, Amram, John Sebastian, Melanie, Jesse Colin Young, Maria Muldaur, Happy Traum and others joined Barone at that concert. Petrus curated stirring visual projections on large screens of the scene. The dramatic show was repeated with different lineups in other venues, including the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair and Joe’s Pub in New York.
“Some of the comments that are in the book, (the artists above) made onstage or around the stage or during the making of the shows,” said Barone.
He said he was in “deep meditation” while writing the book. While he explored his neighborhood, he was visited by the ghosts of folk history.
“During the pandemic, the streets in the Village were empty,” he said. “I could walk around the streets with hardly anyone out. That brought a lot out of the buildings. Stories coming out. I felt the presence of some of the characters like Dave Van Ronk and others…because he spent his life in the Village, it was his presence I felt strongest throughout the writing the book.”
In the book, he writes: “I became immersed in the richness of the era and location: the many colorful personalities, the lyrics and music they wrote, and the unique mixing of genres — particularly the musical melting pot of Washington Square Park. But even with all the preparation, I was not ready for the emotional journey that would take place as I wrote. … I imagined (the musicians) with me, watching over me at my desk as I wrote, making sure I got it right – with my guitar always next to me so I could strum the chords to the songs I was writing about. That’s the only way to really get inside this music and understand it.”
Barone said that “getting into the role as writer for this book, I surrounded myself with television recordings from only the 1960s … so I could be in the mindset. I was deeply in the decade. I would see how Beatniks were presented … this was a new generation that was not always understood.”
His book reflects the intoxicating times for musicians and activists in the area.
“There was a spirit of collective creativity. I can’t think of any place where so much music could come out of such a small area, just a few blocks. There were rivals, friends and romances that created the music.”
I asked if there is a comparable scene today. He doubted it.
“I wonder if there’s any place in the world right now where there’s so much musical activity happening in such a small space. And so much songwriting and creating and people trading songs and getting together in cafes and venues.”
I suggested that artists in Brooklyn have produced a rich community. “It’s not the same,” he said. “Then, it (the music community) was intertwined, everyone was so connected … it reminds me of the early Hoboken music scene in some ways.” (Barone helped create that scene, as a member of The Bongos.)
There is a fascinating timeline of the 1643-1939 history of Greenwich Village at the beginning of the book. In an entry for 1917, for example, Barone recounts the moment when six Village artists and actors, including Marcel Duchamp and John Sloan, climbed to the top of the Washington Square Arch and “theatrically signed a parchment, loudly declaring Greenwich Village ‘a Free and Independent Republic.’ ”
Barone believes, as I do, that the spirit of the Village goes beyond its physical borders and exists in the imagination of people who treasure progressive thought and culture.
“Even John Sebastian, who lives in Woodstock, is still in the mindset of the Greenwich Village community,” he said.
We grappled with defining that mindset, as there are surely many interpretations. He said that progressive thought and tolerance was fostered in the diverse and creative community of the Village, influenced by immigration, and impacted by the way people organized for causes such as preserving the right to sing in Washington Square Park and challenging Robert Moses’ proposal to build a road through the area.
In his timeline entry for 1939, he shares that “a handful of charismatic, impassioned urban folksingers in the Village were embraced by leftish political activists, college students, and folklore enthusiasts. As the music’s following expanded, it would inspire a strum heard ’round the world. And that is where our story begins.”
As he takes us through many significant historical moments in his book — including the Great Depression, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements — we learn more about the fusion of music and message. Integrated nightclubs featuring Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman hit the Village, challenging racism, he said, and the area served as the cradle of the modern LGBTQ movement long before the Stonewall riots surrounding Stonewall Inn in 1969.
He points to the Cuban Missile Crisis as “an inspiration to people writing personal songs. We were on the brink of nuclear war. I think that strongly pushed the folk community to write songs.” One of these was Bonnie Dobson’s 1962 ballad “Morning Dew,” which later became a favorite of The Grateful Dead.
Constantly drawing connections, Barone writes in the book that “it wasn’t just popular music that was going through a transformation during these early years of the 1960s. A movement of change was taking place in all the arts. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee, published as the decade began, was a novel that starkly addressed racial inequality yet made its way into mainstream American consciousness. Other authors, like Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, and, later, Hunter S. Thompson developed a style of creative, novelesque, nonfiction known as ‘new journalism.’
“According to the New York Times, Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (1963) ‘ignited the contemporary women’s movement.’ And in 1965, Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ was one of the most powerful calls to political awareness and action in history.
“Meanwhile, in the off-Broadway houses of the Village, avant-garde and experimental theater companies were producing groundbreaking works … Experimental music and performance art, as practiced by composer John Cage, who was teaching his legendary composition class at the New School in 1960; LaMonte Young; and young Japanese artist Yoko Ono, who would stage avant-garde concerts in her Chambers Street loft and made her own Carnegie Hall debut two weeks after Dylan’s, on November 24, 1961, were expanding the definitions of ‘music’ and ‘art’ in the same way that Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists had done fifty years prior.”
Barone found it compelling to write about the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where Mayor Richard J. Daly unleashed violent police power shutting down Vietnam War protests. Denied a permit to have a music festival, anti-war group The Yippies organized a mock convention, led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, with their candidate, Pigasus, a pig held up by Ochs. Chicago became a police state, according to historian Jonah Raskin.
Barone said Ochs and other performers had been planning to protest at concerts leading up to the convention. What Ochs didn’t realize, said Barone, was that the government was organizing its own reactionary suppression.
Ochs was stunned to understand, Barone said, that “for a year before it happened, the police in Chicago already had a plan to attack the protestors. It was heartbreaking. When the protesters arrived, there was an army of combatants ready to squash down the protestors.
“He was a hero to me … after the events in Chicago, I don’t think he ever recovered.”
Indeed, Ochs was dejected with the feeling that the system could not be reformed and his music during this time reflected that despair. He recounted the chaos and violence at the Democratic Convention in his song “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” singing “They spread their sheets upon the ground just like a wandering tribe/And the wise men walked in their Robespierre robes/Through Lincoln Park the dark was turning/The towers trapped and trembling and the boats were tossed about/When the fog rolled in and the gas rolled out from Lincoln Park the dark was turning.”
Barone conducted about 80 interviews for his book; some that he enjoyed the most were with Sebastian, Muldaur and Hester, he said.
Hester “was a wonderful interview,” he said. “I loved her early folk sound. She was from Texas and then made the Village her home. She links the ’50s, by working with Buddy Holly, to the ’60s, by helping to discover Bob Dylan because he played harmonica for her, and that’s how he got signed to Columbia Records.”
Barone also enjoyed his interview with Terri Thal, Van Ronk’s former wife and manager. “I called her many times … Their (she and Van Ronk’s) apartment became a crash pad for everybody and a center for musical activity.
“Scottish folksinger Donovan told me you should interview people that nobody’s heard of ’cause that’s where the story is. He was a great mentor and guide for me as I wrote this book. And Tiny Tim taught me a lot as a teenager about Greenwich Village at age 16.
“Stephen Petrus, Anthony DeCurtis and David Fricke helped me put things into historical perspective. Connecting music with political events.”
Barone provides us with a comprehensive and engrossing history of the revolutionary cultural and musical developments in Greenwich Village. The book is a gift for those of us too young to have experienced it as adults. Consider reading it on a bench in Washington Square Park, so you too can feel the ghosts of folksingers past.
For more on Barone and the book, visit richardbarone.com.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.