New Festival Shines Light on Undervalued Greenwich Village Music History
This weekend (Sept. 27-30) in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, a new festival entitled The Village Trip will shine a light on a neighborhood whose artistic and historical riches are as curious and circuitous as its winding, brick-laden streets. And while a number of boutique festivals have popped up in New York City over the last few years, this one comes from an unlikely source – a British journalist living a full ocean away.
Liz Thomson, a London-based journalist, has nurtured a lifelong interest in Greenwich Village. “Baez was my gateway drug,” says the Village Trip co-founder/executive producer of her interest in the ’60s New York folk revival, a fertile scene of music and protest that involved a post-blacklist Pete Seeger, a pre-fame Bob Dylan and a lot of acoustic guitars. Falling for Joan Baez, Vol. 2 and learning guitar as a kid, Thomson’s passion for music continued throughout college (she earned a music degree) and into her journalism career (one of her first gigs was interviewing Leonard Cohen in the ’80s prior to his comeback).
Fast-forward to 1995. Thomson is a working reporter and she gets an offer from U.K. publication Mojo to visit the neighborhood that captured her imagination as a teen. The reason, coincidentally, is Joan Baez, then in the midst of recording an album in the storied (but now-shuttered) Greenwich venue The Bottom Line. Mojo wanted her to cover the Rings Them Bells sessions, and she only too happily agreed.
Village Trip will be a journey through music, words, photos and more
BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | A new annual festival celebrating the “history and heritage” of Greenwich Village will hold its inaugural edition later this month.
The brainchild of Liz Thomson, a British former journalist with an abiding love for the famed Downtown enclave, The Village Trip will take place over four days, from Thurs., Sept. 27, to Sun., Sept. 30. Plans are for live music, readings, guided walks, talks and a rousing concert in Washington Square Park.
Legendary musician David Amram is enthusiastic to be the festival’s “artist in residence” and will be participating in every event. The Village Trip will feature the world premiere of Amram’s “Greenwich Village Portraits,” a piece for saxophone and piano.
The Bitter End, one of the most historic clubs in Greenwich Village, is the venue for the closing event of this year’s The Village Trip festival.
On Sunday September 30 2018, the Bitter End, at 147 Bleecker Street, will play host to a celebration of folk music in New York City with Talkin’ New York Folk Revival, an evening of live music and chat which will end in a folk jam recalling the club’s famed 1960s hootenannies. Among those performing will be Happy Traum and David Massengill, whose Village roots run deep indeed, the former having played with Bob Dylan and the latter with Dave van Ronk, the legendary “Mayor of MacDougal Street” whose memoir inspired the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis. Other musicians will be announced shortly.
David Amram – whose distinguished seventy-year career embraces every sphere of music and who has collaborated with such diverse figures as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, Charles Mingus, Hunter S Thompson and Willie Nelson – is to be Artist-in-Residence at The Village Trip.
The world “knows” America by its music. People who’ve not visited and perhaps never will conjure up images of cities and one-horse towns from the lyrics of endless songs.
It’s just not the same in Britain: everyone knows that Paul Simon wrote “Homeward Bound” on Widnes and Ditton railway stations en route from a gig in Liverpool, and many recall the novelty number “Finchley Central” by the New Vaudeville Band, which immortalised a few miles of London’s Tube. Donovan wrote about “Sunny Goodge Street” – but it had nothing on Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning”. No light pouring in “like butterscotch” in London SW3 – and probably not in NY 10011 either, but it sounds so much more exotic.
With the exception of “Ferry Cross the Mersey” and “Waterloo Sunset,” few songs so evoke a city as “(I Left My Heart in) San Francisco”, or “Chicago (My Kind of Town)” and “New York, New York” – and there are two of those to choose from: the Bernstein/Comden and Green number from the 1944 musical On the Town, where “the Bowery’s up and the Battery’s down,” or the Kander and Ebb title song from Scorsese’s 1977 movie.
Sometimes the visions we conjure up are more exotic than the reality. “Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa” is a case in point. On Route 66 it may be but you wouldn’t get too many kicks – though you could now visit the Woody Guthrie Center. (I often try re-imagining the song as “Twenty-Four Hours from Tulse Hill,” a dreary South London suburb – even more absurd.) “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” Last Train to Clarksville,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” (let’s not go there), “Okie from Muskogee,” “Graceland”, “Walkin’ to New Orleans” …. There are endless songs of love, longing, regret, moving on…. All so evocative.
Even when the places themselves are not! I remember my first trip to the States, heading south on Highway 101 at the wheel of an AMC Concord, excited at the approach of Salinas, famous from “Me and Bobby McGee”. But California’s “salad bowl” was distinctly unexciting and somehow I missed John Steinbeck’s house. But never mind, in the City by the Bay, whose views still make me cry, I stood in the pouring rain at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury and wished I had at least a flower behind my ear.
Battery, Broadway, Bleecker…
I came later to New York though its streets too were familiar from life’s musical soundtrack: from the New Jersey Turnpike to the 59th Street Bridge, down Broadway (where “the neon lights are bright”) to Delancey Street (not even “very fancy” now, so obviously a Rodgers and Hart joke) and west to Bleecker (“where thirty dollars pays your rent” – ha-ha!), which crosses MacDougal (cue Fred Neil’s “Bleecker and MacDougal”) and then across to West 4th, where Bob and Suze lived over Bruno’s Spaghetti Parlour – “Positively 4th Street.”
The opening scene of Wonderful Town walks you straight into the Village, as two gals from Columbus, Ohio follow a guide down Waverly Place, past Washington Square to Christopher Street. Even tiny MacDougal Alley gets a mention (Betty Comden and Adolphe Green were downtowners; so too Leonard Bernstein for a while). Turn on to Sixth Avenue and the subway – and you can take the A-Train, (“the quickest way to Harlem”) and revel in Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. The George Russell Sextet immortalised “121 Bank Street”. Rufus Wainwright looked forward to rainbows on “14th Street”.
Lucy Kaplansky, part of the 1980s and ‘90s Fast Folk movement founded by Jack Hardy and Dave van Ronk and which coalesced at the Cornelia Street Café, wrote in “Nowhere” of
Eighth Street, Washington Square
In the footprints someone left there
For me that sums up Greenwich Village perfectly. There are footprints everywhere. I can’t walk into the marble lobby of the Washington Square Hotel without thinking of those who tramped the stairs or rode the elevators when it was the Hotel Earle. Countless writers have stayed – Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, Patricia Highsmith and Maeve Brennan to name but four – and countless more musicians. Bo Diddley, a regular (a signed photo is in Tatyana’s laundry just opposite), actually played a gig in the lobby to mark its centenary. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott stayed, as did Bob Dylan (mostly in room 305). He hunkered down there with Joan Baez, who immortalised it in “Diamonds and Rust”, her reflection on their celebrated love affair, as “that crummy hotel over Washington Square.” Roger McGuinn wrote “Chestnut Mare” in room 707. In a single day, Ian and Sylvia wrote “Four Strong Winds” (regarded by many as the best song to come out of Canada) and “You Were on My Mind.” And on a cold winter’s day, when the sky was grey, John Phillips wrote “California Dreamin’.”
Hotel Chelsea – eat your heart out!
Downtown, where all the lights are bright…
Music was what drew me to the Village, which existed in my mind’s eye and ear long before I set foot there in 1995 to report on the sessions at the late lamented Bottom Line (torn down by NYU) with Joan Baez and friends – Ring Them Bells was the resulting album. I’ve been staying at the Washington Square Hotel – now a charming family-owned home-from-home – for years and the romance of it never goes.
As I wander the streets, I don’t need a gizmo to hear the soundtrack – it’s embedded in my brain. Two songs are often on repeat: Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” (though the references are to Clinton Street in the East Village) and Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing on My Mind.” Those lines about the Subway rumbling… Sometimes I hear Paxton’s voice singing it, other times Judy Collins’. It’s there as I descend the steps of the West 4th Street station to take the D Train, hoping perhaps for a whispered escapade…
The Village Trip is delighted to share photos and a report on Magic Times: Caffe Cino and the Birth of Off-Off Broadway, which took place at the equally legendary Cornelia Street Café, next door to the old Cino. It’s from Westview News and written by Robert Heide, one of the participants. The evening was introduced by the inimitable and indefatigable Robin Hirsch (pictured).
Icon Books, a leading independent publisher with offices in New York and London, is partnering with The Village Trip for a book on Greenwich Village. The Village Trip will be a guide to the people and places that comprise this unique neighborhood. Publication is scheduled for fall 2019 in both markets.