I moved to New York City in the mid-1970s, just in time to witness the last gasp of the Greenwich Village folk music scene.
A decade before—exactly 50 years ago this summer—Bob Dylan "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival, heralding the beginning of the end of acoustic folk music as a commercially viable genre.
In a neat bit of symmetry, there's a cool exhibit called "Folk City" at the Museum of the City of New York this summer. The exhibit traces the steady rise of folk music's popularity from then newly available pre-war field recordings of obscure Southern blues musicians to the arrival of seminal figures like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the late '40s to the heyday of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late '50s and early '60s.
I was a prototypical rock and roll loving baby boomer with only a passing familiarity with folk music. I vaguely remembered the TV show "Hootenanny" and knew some of the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary's big hits, but that was about it.
My music tastes were pretty eclectic, however, I lived in the East Village, I liked history and I could walk to Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in 15 minutes.
Nearly all of the famous coffee houses of the kind celebrated in "Inside Llewellyn Davis," the Coen Brothers' dystopic ode to the early-'60s Village folk scene, were gone by then. A few stragglers remained, featuring earnest but mostly amateur singer-songwriters strumming a guitar and appealing to tourists looking for real-live Greenwich Village folk singers.
Bob Dylan, obviously, was long gone. Dave Van Ronk, a Dylan mentor and a folk elder statesman dubbed "The Mayor of Macdougal Street," was still around, but when I went to see him once he was playing in a neighborhood church that, as I recall, he wasn't able to fill.
Protest singer Phil Ochs, who arrived in the Village the same time Dylan did and also made a big splash as a young man, had not aged well. I saw him completely drunk and stumbling around bumping into people at a Halloween parade in the Village. He committed suicide the following year.
But there was an exciting, original young folksinger around named Jack Hardy. He was in his late 20s then, a really talented songwriter with a dark edge and a good ear for melodies. He developed a following in the Village and was on the verge of his big break when he played the Bottom Line, at the time downtown's hippest club.
I really liked Hardy and was at the gig, and knew, as he must have, that an influential New York Times critic was reviewing the show. Ever the iconoclast, Hardy highlighted his slow, morose songs instead of his upbeat tunes, and got panned in the next day's paper.
He never recovered commercially, but later became a guiding light to a small but devoted group of young singer-songwriters, including Suzanne Vega, who became known as the "fast folk" movement.
I came to familiarize myself with, and enjoy, traditional folk music. But, like many of my peers, I just couldn't get into contemporary acoustic folk music. Dylan went electric and played rock and roll for a good reason.
Of course, folk music never died, and never will.
Whether it's called fast folk, neo-folk, antifolk or folk-punk; whether it's played with banjoes or electric guitars, it's always evolving, continually being reshaped by new generations of musicians and appreciated by a new generation of listeners.
My first exposure to folk music came from my father.
He'd play rock and roll or folk records on Sunday mornings, and as a child I danced around the living room while he sat on the floor against the couch eating his omelette and nodding to the beat.
Although I choreographed dances to Britney Spears' songs while I was in elementary school, I was also obsessed with the Cranberries in third grade. I can only assume that my 8-year-old familiarity with and interest in music fusing Celtic rock and Irish folk that tended to appeal to "alternative" twentysomethings must be attributed to my dad.
In high school, a few friends and I went to Jamnesty—a show put together by the Amnesty International club in which local teenagers played music in a church basement. Some of the bands screamed lyrics over heavy instrumentals while others strummed acoustic sets.
I fell in love with a sound that was raw and emotive, and felt connected to the authenticity and honesty of the lyrics. I started listening to bands like Defiance, Ohio—a folk-punk band involving a cello, violin and double bass, whose songs often revolve around anti-capitalist beliefs. I strayed from listening to Top 40 songs, and perhaps my agency in music choice mirrored the freedom of impending adulthood. Or, more likely, perhaps my more mature taste was influenced by the soundtrack of my childhood.
In college, I hosted a radio show (as my dad had when he was younger) called Jeff Central, named after my three favorite musicians: Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel and Jeffrey Lewis. Jeffrey Lewis is part of the antifolk movement, an ambiguous genre that subverts the traditions of folk music of the 1960s by deliberately sounding experimental. I saw Lewis in concert with my dad and later learned that he collaborated with the poet Sparrow, a friend of my dad's, on a concert tribute to Tuli Kupferberg, co-founder of the Fugs.
I met friends in college who shared my music taste and we spent summers going to Newport Folk Festival. I realized that folk music is cool; knowing obscure bands and latest album releases became currency amongst the hip. A few of these friends and I took a course about folk music during our senior year. We studied the origins of folk music and had to learn American folk dances and how to play the banjo. Our professor encouraged us to consider the effects of traditional folk music on contemporary folk music.
After I graduated from college, my parents and I saw Bob Dylan in concert, in addition to Wilco and Beck, at Jones Beach as part of their Americanarama tour. I sat between my mom and dad listening to Bob Dylan's scratchy voice and the refined twang of the band, looking at the bright stage against the background of the sea.
As my mom whispered that Dylan's voice was simply not the same as it once was and my dad listened to the music with a placid grin, it seemed as though we were witnessing the union of old and new sounds. I smiled, feeling happy and connected to my parents—this music brought us together.