David Wilson will tell you that folk music is many things, and then he’ll tell you it doesn’t exist at all, not really. I trust him. In the 1960s, as folk music saturated Boston’s music venues, he was at the center of it. Wilson edited The Broadside, Boston’s definitive folk music publication, for its eight-year existence. Among its contributors were musicians like Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Michael Hurley, Tom Paxton, and Paul Simon.
Initially, readers turned to Broadside for its comprehensive calendar of folk and folk-adjacent events. Soon, Wilson filled the pages with observations, reviews, letters, classifieds, and all the other goodies found in DIY music zines. Copies of Broadside littered every coffeeshop of any relevance in the area (except, conspicuously, one. You’ll see.)
The label “folk music” encompassed several amorphous genres, and its associated devotees, known as “folkies,” or “folkniks,” flocked to all of them, though not without divisions and pretensions. There was bluegrass and blues, hillbilly and traditional folk, and blends of all of them. Wilson and Broadside covered the whole spread, but not without receiving flak from readers who deemed themselves purists.
The folk revival began in the United States in the 1950s. Many point to Harry Smith’s 84-track Anthology of American Folk Music as the movement’s founding document. The compilation introduced a new generation of listeners to 78rpm records from the ‘20s and ‘30s that nearly got lost in the Great Depression and second World War. Old traditions, once forgotten, began to be resuscitated in the clubs of Greenwich Village.
But NYC gets too much credit for its role in the folk revival. In 1958, a 17-year old Boston University student named Joan Baez walked on stage at Club 47, 47 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge. She slipped off her sandals and filled the room with her soprano. A devout group of followers—mostly college students, and mostly men—revered Baez. Soon, the Boston folk scene exploded around her.
While coffeehouse folk venues sprouted by the dozen on both sides of the Charles, the Boston area was becoming the nucleus of the world’s psychedelic movement. Two Harvard psychologists, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, began experimenting with this new class of drugs. Folkies wandered in-and-out of Leary’s orbit. At his Newton Center Georgian, curious individuals munched morning glory seeds and peyote buttons.
Wilson’s reminiscences portray a city and an industry in flux. What began as a fringe group of young people interested in an arcane tradition soon became the musical mainstream. Dylan plugged in at Newport. Folk became folk-rock. Singer-songwriters dominated the charts. I asked Wilson about the beginning and the end, the highlights and fallings-out. Boston welcomed just about every folk act worth hearing, and he was there to document it. Our conversation is edited for length and clarity.
EW: How’d you get involved in the folk scene?
DW: Before I’d gone into the Air Force, one of the last things I’d done was to go to the Newport Folk Festival where Joan Baez made her first appearance. I was already a fan of Joan’s through her appearances at Club 47.
So when I came back, a number of things had happened. The number of coffee houses in Boston had doubled or tripled at that point. A nightclub, a folk music nightclub, had opened and closed in the time that I was in the Air Force. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the Ballad Room, but it was a collaboration between Manny Greenhill, who managed Joan Baez, and George Wein, who ran Storyville out of the Copley Hotel. Manny and George opened the Ballad Room.
The problem was, the folk audiences were too young to drink, and the only way they could survive was to sell alcohol, so it didn’t work out that well. I think these days, folk music and alcohol get along a little bit better than they did at that point.
There was an organization called the Folksong Society of Greater Boston that had started. They would have monthly meetings at the Huntington Ave YMCA, in Boston. I went off to them to see what they were all about. I left the first meeting having volunteered to be the program director, knowing absolutely nothing about what I was getting into. My assumption was that in that role I could move within the scene easier. I would have some justification for collaborating with performers and getting to know them better.
I started off by producing a hootenanny. I had taken the apartment on Newbury Street, 250 Newbury Street. I then discovered that my back door was across the alley from the back door to the Unicorn Coffee House. It pretty soon became out one door and in the other, back and forth, and the performers in between their sets would come over and hang out at my place. After hours, they would come over and jam. Performers from other coffee houses started to come along after hours as well and jam with the Unicorn performers. Pretty soon, there was a three-month party [at my place.] I never knew everybody who was in there at any given time. Getting sleep sometimes took a while.
The apartment only had a living room, a kitchen, and a small bedroom off the kitchen.
Usually, the blues and jazz people took over the living room, the bluegrass people usually were in the bedroom, and the traditional folkies, the classical folkies, drifted back and forth between the two places looking for any place that they could have room together—around the kitchen table a lot of the time. I was always shooing people out of the bedroom so someone could go to bed, me mostly. I was still working a full-time job at that point.
Joe Boyd [lived with me]. He is probably best known for producing Pink Floyd’s first stuff. He ended up running a couple of music venues in London. He managed Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, he was involved with the Incredible String Band.
He and I together at one point formed a record distribution company called Riverboat Records. When I started Broadside, I just passed Riverboat on to Joe, because I thought that, well, the excuse I gave was I thought it would be a conflict of interest. The truth was, I had too much on my plate, I couldn’t handle it. He ran it for the rest of the time that he was at Harvard.
EW: One of the first records someone approached you with was John Fahey’s Blind Joe Death. What was it like working with him?
DW: I booked John to come play in a number of coffee houses in Boston, one of which I was managing at the time, the Odyssey. Actually, the time he was there was while I was down working for the Newport Folk Festival. When I got back, I heard all these stories. John would get on stage—he wasn’t very sober. He might play one song, but the rest of the time he was rambling about different stuff.
I started to book him into other coffee houses, and there were people who told me that he would come on stage, and he would spend the whole set rambling about his experiences and never play a single song and then excuse himself and go off. They were left not knowing what the hell was going on.
I made a deal with John. Since we owned the rights to Blind Joe Death and The Transfigurations of Blind Joe Death, we put out a cassette version of it. This is a fairly sordid affair. It came late in the 60s. The whole record industry was changing at that point. We had the exclusive distribution rights to a number of record labels, including Folk Legacy and Takoma Records. A group of Young Republicans came into our office one day, and they had a bootleg version of the Rolling Stones that they wanted to put into production. They picked our brain, and we turned them on to the record company that we used to produce stuff. They tried to get their record pressed, but people were hip enough to recognize it as a bootleg and turned them down.
So they then went off and founded their own record company. To support it, they started a mail order record company where they would make agreements with a number of different labels and advertise their records in magazines. That was Rounder Records. They started to sell enough stuff by mail that some of our record companies, when Rounder said they would like to become exclusive distributors in our area, were very happy to move on over and leave us for them. They had a national audience and they were selling a lot more stuff than we were selling locally. So, We had been on a friendly basis with them and worked with them, and they promised us they would not sell in our territory. But they ended up doing it anyways. At one point, we had just made a big order from Takoma [Fahey’s label], and we’re sitting on all this stock, and I found out that Rounder Records was selling in our territory. Fahey wanted to get paid for his albums. I said, “I’ll ship them back to you,” and he said no, he didn’t want them back, he wanted the money. But I told him, “you made a deal with us, and you just broke it.” So, I just shipped them off. He sued.
Out of the blue, about five years later, I get a phone call. It’s Fahey. He’s playing at Club 47. And he’s saying, “Hey, Dave, you want to get together?” I said, “John, why in the world would I want to get together with you?” And he said, “Well, for old times sake.” I told him, “John, I have nothing but bad memories of our relationship. There’s no reason in the world that I would want to spend any time with you.” “Gee,” he said, “there’s no reason for you to feel that way.”
EW: Had you been interested in writing before starting Broadside?
DW: Well, I often said that I wanted to be a writer. I had done very little toward that goal. I had one or two stories that I had written and vaulted away.
If I had known what I was getting into, I never would have started Broadside. The lessons started coming home right off the bat. We produced the first issue with mimeograph or hectograph, very primitive reproduction technology. There were actually three versions of the first issue of Broadside because they can only run off so many copies with each master that I created.
It was a point where I kept finding that there had been folk concerts and folk appearances that I had missed and that I would really have liked to have seen. I thought that there should be some way of publicizing these things so that they could be known.
That was the whole point, covering the schedules and nothing else. But you know, you had to have filler, you didn’t have enough events. So, I started the little newsy notes about the different artists around town and various events that had been going on.
It took a while, but we improved with every issue for a year. Finally, when we started doing full covers, it started to be something that I didn’t have to blush at every time I was introduced to somebody new. But in a lot of ways, that very lack of professionalism was what cemented us in the community, because there was nothing pretentious about it. Well, I take it back, I find a lot pretentious about it these days. Everybody just started thinking of us as being one of them, and that worked to our advantage.
EW: What changed once you started publishing?
DW: One of the biggest regrets that I had was that I stopped singing. Up until that point, the real joy to me was the gatherings, and the singing circles, and every evening was a chance to get your lungs working. It’s almost a high just doing that. I gave that up as I became more critical, more evaluative of performance. I sang less and less and became more and more a listener and not a participant. That’s always been one of my regrets.
But when people started to petition me to write about them or to mention them, and coffee houses would call and tell me about somebody that they were going to put on and asked me to come by and take a listen, I was stunned at first.
The only place that I was never invited to is Club 47. That was partly because we had written something that was not too flattering, I don’t even remember what it was about. But I remember that they were insulted that we would criticize them. Not that they were the only people we ever criticized. But in all the years after that, they kicked Broadside out of the club. Up until that point they would sell Broadside. It was the only coffeehouse in town that you couldn’t get a copy of Broadside. I was a stubborn son of a bitch. They didn’t want me, I wasn’t going to go there. But I made it a point that we would always treat them the same way we were treating everybody else.
EW: Are there aspects of that era, of the years you were publishing Broadside, that you feel like get overlooked or forgotten?
DW: We were outlaws then. Really! Club 47, they now get worshipped by the Harvard Square Chamber of Commerce, but [Club 47] was shut down because of their benefit for the National Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. They were inundated with various inspectors who found all sorts of things wrong with them.
The press was not kind to us. You know, when I was in high school, I was a bohemian. When I got to BU, I became a beatnik. And then I was a folknik. And then I was a hippie. I don’t know what I became after that. There was always a term of disparagement that was ready to label us. It’s only in this last decade that we’ve suddenly become the Paragons of whatever it is. It’s not a bad change. I’m not regretting it, but it’s amusing that the same organizations that were trying to run us out of town 40, 50 years ago, are now praising the fact that we chose them to be a part of.
EW: Can you tell me a little bit about the Mississippi John Hurt series of concerts that you put on?
DW: At a certain point, very shortly after he got discovered, [John Hurt’s manager] came to me with a deal for the cafe Yana where I had been manager. It was very straightforward, $1000 guarantee for the week, which is a huge amount of money. $500 upfront. I didn’t know where I was going to get it; I said yes right away and then set about scrambling to find the money. Well, Dick Waterman was hanging out a lot at the Cafe Yana in those times , and we had become reasonably friendly. I talking to him about the deal, and he said he would put up the money for half the share. I jumped on it and signed the contract.
The week before Hurt was supposed to appear, he showed up on the Johnny Carson show, and it was a huge, huge hit—though Carson got a lot of slack for that, because they had John sitting on a cotton bale. There was a whole uproar about stereotyping black people. John Hurt didn’t think anything about it at all. John was a wonderful, charming gentleman. He touched everybody that had anything to do with him.
We scheduled three shows a night. We had people lined up around the block for every single performance. Six nights, three performances a night, and we were sold out on every one. Some people came back for two, three performances.
Dick and I ended up making about $1,000 a piece on it. I don’t know what Dick did with his. We had our own falling out not too long after that. I lost all mine putting on a Bukka White concert. I thought I was gonna make another pile. I soon found out I just didn’t know what worked and what didn’t work.
[Hurt] had relatives living in Dorchester. In fact, that Saturday night, after the last concert, we all trudged over to Dorchester to his relatives’ place and partied there.
EW: How was the psychedelic movement a part of what was going on in Boston and Cambridge at that time?
DW: The folk movement inherited a lot of its connection to drugs from the jazz scene. The jazz scene was always far more rife with drug use than folk.
When Leary and Alpert started IFIF [the International Federation for Internal Freedom], they had offices down in Boston near the Charles River Hotel circle. I remember that my roommate and I had come across one of the brochures, and we were interested.
I think what most interested us were the musicians who were drifting out of the southwest and brought Peyote use with them to Boston. There was a fairly consistent flow back and forth between Boston and Berkeley, and Boston and Tucson. In the southwest, they had these groups, they were called Peyote Baptists. They were fairly spiritual and kind of Christian in their philosophy, but certainly transcendental experiences through the use of peyote [were part of their religion]. In Tucson, you could buy peyote at the local nursery. They had baskets full of buttons, 35 cents a button.
There are a lot of people who made their living selling drugs in the in the folk community. There were a lot of people who did it just to get by. It wasn’t their full-time job, but when they ran into a tight spot, they would make a deal and get a little extra cash on the side.
I think it was ‘63 or ‘64 when the hammer started to come down on the folk scene and the drugs in the folk scene. There was pot bust after pot bust. It was a real game in the beginning because the process at that point was to bust and squeeze the little guy to give up someone further up the chain. It resulted in a lot of people turning on their friends. A lot of bad feelings got generated. A lot of people were essentially blacklisted by their former best friends.
Because I had so many people I didn’t know coming in and out of my place, I knew there had to be narcs there, there was no way that there weren’t. I kept trying to keep the place as clean as I could. I never touched the stuff myself all the time I was living at Newbury Street. It wasn’t until we moved over to Columbia Street in Cambridge, and I was putting up [Dave] Van Ronk. He talked me into trying it out, which I did.
I did find my way into psychedelics. I certainly treasure every one of those experiences. It changed my life. I guess that brings us back to talking about Leary. We went down to IFIF to see what they had to offer. My roommate signed up for their experiments, I didn’t.
EW: What was unique about the Boston scene?
DW: We created a new kind of music industry for a while. Mitch Greenhill says in his book the Boston scene was very unusual. He’s participated in a number of music scenes all around the country. He said Boston was the one place where the roots could be traditional but you were encouraged to experiment and to expand the borders, to be creative. In many other places, you were expected to stay within the more rigid forms.
We didn’t start off as professional. Nobody started off here as a professional musician. They sang for the fun of it, sang for the pleasure they took in it. They found that as they learned, they experimented with forms. They just kept pushing the form. They kept synthesizing different kinds of music together. It was one big experiment.
We could tell that it was all going to go bust when the record companies came up with the ‘Boston Sound.’ As soon as they came up with that, it was clear to many of us that the writing was on the wall.
EW: And you guys looked down on them?
DW: We had a lot of pretensions of our own. There was a lot of dribble about art versus business. You really can’t have one without the other. You’ve got to find the balance.
I was hired by a group at Newton South High School to come in and give a lecture to the folk song club about folk music. I started it off by playing a lot of records and talking about where the music came from and how it evolved. I kept struggling for a definition. I finally came to the conclusion that there really was no such thing [as folk music.]
I made the point that as soon as somebody starts performing for a wage, they’re no longer folk musicians, they’re professional musicians. The only true folk music is what you hear when you’re walking down the road or sitting on your porch. As soon as you start performing for money, the forces that start molding what you’re doing start turning it into art that is commercial art.
EW: Is there anyone who you feel like bears the torch today? Do you listen to much contemporary folk music?
DW: Tom Rush, certainly. Chris Smither. I put Chris right up there with anyone else performing today. His musicianship continues to evolve. I’m just constantly amazed at the stuff that he creates. In England, Bonnie Dobson. She’s a Canadian singer living in England now for the last 30 or 40 years.