MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
For 50 years, a hole-in-the-wall club in Cambridge, Massachusetts has been the place to play if you're a folk musician. It started under a different name, Club 47. Rising stars of the folk boom in the 1950s and '60s played there: Joan Baez, Tom Rush, Bob Dylan. It was later renamed Club Passim, and it provided a stage for a new generation of performers, including Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega. This year, Club Passim celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Abigail Beshkin of member station WBUR brings us five decades of stories from Club Passim.
ABIGAIL BESHKIN: You have to look for Club Passim in an alley behind the Harvard Co-Op.
Mr. ELLIS PAUL (Singer, Songwriter): You know, when you hear the reputation, you expect the Taj Mahal.
BESHKIN: But when you get inside, songwriter Ellis Paul says, you find a small, square room that holds about 125 people sitting at wobbly tables and mismatched chairs.
Mr. PAUL: You get in there, and it's really a basement with cobblestone floors, and there's nothing remarkable about the actual space. But there's something incredible about the actual space's history.
(Soundbite of music)
BESHKIN: In 1958, the owners of a new coffeehouse jazz club reluctantly let a folksinger on stage, says Passim's archivist, Millie Rahn.
Ms. MILLIE RAHN (Archivist, Club Passim): There was this performer around town, long haired, often barefoot. She'd been playing some of the clubs across the river in Boston. And, of course, her name is Joan Baez.
(Soundbite of song, "Lily of the West")
Ms. JOAN BAEZ (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) When first I came to Louisville, some pleasure there to find. A gentle dame from Lexington was pleasing to my mind. Her rosy cheeks, her ruby lips, like arrows pierced my breast. And the name she bore was Flora, the Lily of the West.
Ms. RAHN: She just blew people away.
BESHKIN: Coffee houses were becoming popular, especially among Boston's many college students. Songwriter Tom Rush was a freshman at Harvard in 1959.
Mr. TOM RUSH (Singer, Songwriter): It was just up the street from my dorm. And I'd been playing the guitar and really loved folk music. And so I started out as an audience member, and eventually ended up performing there on a regular basis.
(Soundbite of song, "Long John")
Mr. RUSH: A prison song, about Long John.
(Singing) (unintelligible) and my man moved on. From the (unintelligible) runnin', a long chain on.
BESHKIN: Rush played there just about every week. Other regulars included the Charles River Valley Boys and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Archivist Millie Rahn says there was one singer who was such a novice, he was only allowed to play between sets.
Ms. RAHN: It's a little-known fact, Dylan never had billing at Club 47. Even then in 1962 and 1963, that was the seal of approval that you had made it as a folk musician.
BESHKIN: The club also created a community, remembers Betsy Siggins. She's the executive director of Club Passim, which is now run as a nonprofit. In the 1960s, Siggins did a little bit of everything at Club 47.
Ms. BETSY SIGGINS (Executive Director, Club Passim): If there was an omelet to be made, I did it. If there were tickets at the door, I did it. If they needed somebody to sit in the art gallery in the afternoon and I could bring my kid and Maria Muldaur would bring her kid, we called that working. And then I sort of, I guess, graduated, although that seems like a silly word. I got to do scheduling.
BESHKIN: But Siggins says what remains with her most from those years are the people who showed her the world was bigger than the few Cambridge blocks she and her Club 47 friends inhabited.
Ms. SIGGINS: It was the most intense initiation into what was going on in this country at that time, and how it had been expressed through music since the first people came over on the boats and the first slaves started working in the South.
BESHKIN: It was the height of the civil rights movement. Siggins met black musicians from the South, like the Reverend Gary Davis, and rural white musicians, including Hobart Smith and Doc Watson.
(Soundbite of song, "Train that Carried My Girl from Town")
Mr. DOC WATSON (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Where was you when the train left town? I's standin' on the corner with my head hung down. There goes the train, it carried my girl from town. If I know'd her number, boys, I'd flag her down. Take that train that carried my girl from town. Hey.
BESHKIN: But this kind of music and the listeners the club attracted were always a little on the fringes, even in Cambridge. Siggins remembers that by 1963, Club 47's landlady was fed up.
Ms. SIGGINS: And one day, she came in and she made an announcement. You've got to get these damn hippies out from in front of my property. I've had it. I've had it with all of you.
BESHKIN: The club moved to where it is today. It operated as Club 47 in this new space for about five years. But changing music tastes and dwindling finances forced Club 47 to close in 1968. A year later, a couple named Bob and Rae Ann Donilon opened a card shop in that space. Singer Ellis Paul says the Donilons never intended space to be used for music, but somehow the music kept finding them.
Mr. PAUL: They started doing jazz on the weekends, and then suddenly all of these little folksingers started calling them, saying, can I just slip on a Friday night and do a couple songs? And they eventually started booking folk music in there again.
BESHKIN: The Donilons ran the club for about 25 years. Countless musicians credit the couple with launching their careers: Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, Nanci Griffith and Ellis Paul.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. PAUL: (Singing) The destination's ours, across the bar and say Miss Dunne(ph), welcome home and raise a glass.
BESHKIN: The Donilons have both passed away, and today, the atmosphere at the club is a little more businesslike. There are T-shirts and mugs with the club's logo for sale, and a vegetarian restaurant at the club helps bring in revenue. So, during shows, people can eat vegan peanut curry and sip soy lattes. But there is one thing that hasn't changed, says executive director Betsy Siggins.
Ms. SIGGINS: Inside is the same place. If you come here on a Tuesday night and you see an open mic, you think, God bless them. They may not have much talent, but they sure have heart. And this is not a place that says to you, you're no good. It's a place that says keep playing.
BESHKIN: For NPR News, I'm Abigail Beshkin in Boston.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: And if that leaves you hungry for more folk music, you'll find it at our Web site. You can hear full concerts from this year's Newport Folk Festival at the music section of npr.org.
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