I’ve never written a “series” piece before but this story takes place in the time between the 1950s and the 2000s, so it is going to take more than a one-week post to tell it. Here goes. It’s a story I have told many times to the point where Jan just rolls her eyes and the boys glaze over as I used to when my dad would tell me, one more time, about driving the first car into North Jackson, Ohio when he was eleven.
Growing up in greater Cleveland in the 1950s wasn’t easy for a kid like me. Eisenhower was president, Joe McCarthy was on a rampage, and everyone told us what NOT to do without ever telling us what TO DO. So I just made it up as I went along. To my ears the music on the radio was awful. Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, and the “Hit Parade.” But at the end of that tunnel, there was some light.
This was Cleveland and along came Alan Freed and his Rock and Roll shows. Kids in the Cleveland area had been listening to this music long before the rest of the country became aware of it. It was still called rhythm and blues and Freed would play it on his radio show. We were sold. It was just past that time that the boys had noticed girls and girls had noticed us. When you add rock and roll to that mix you have a recipe for disaster coupled with a lot of fun and feeling it was time for a revolution.
I had always been more interested in beatniks than football. When a lot of my friends were reading comics or the “Sporting News” I was steeped in Jack Kerouac and his book, “On The Road.” About that time another brief period in popular music appeared called calypso. It’s main artist, Harry Belafonte. Music from another place sung by a fellow with a sweet but foreign accent. His music told stories about life in the islands and, like the blues, often speaking of people having hard times.
Earlier in the decade, the radio began playing songs by a group called the Weavers. Their leader. Pete Seeger. They had hits like Good Night Irene, Tzena Tzena Tzena, and So Long (It’s been good to know you.) That combined with the calypso music I was hearing and my affinity for the “Beats” set me off in a whole new direction as it did for a lot of kids my age. New music. Folk music. And Pete Seeger had been blackballed by the McCarthy hearings so he was just what we needed in the late 1950s. A revolutionary.
In the year between graduating from high school and my freshman year at Baldwin Wallace College, I had begun playing guitar and started learning to play the 5 string banjo from a book written by Pete Seeger. It was about that time that the first folk music room popped up in Cleveland Heights, about ½ an hour from my home at the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity house. The “house band” was a Weavers type group called The New Wine Singers. They sang a lot of Irish protest songs and music of the IRA. Revolutionary music. How great is that? And one night a week they had an open mic night called a hootenanny. So before I knew it there I was, sitting on a stool on the little bitty stage, singing songs I had learned from The Weavers and Pete Seeger albums. Like so many of my peers, I was hooked.
As I continued along in my college career a second folk music venue opened in the Greater Cleveland area. La Cave, adjacent to the campus of Case Western Reserve. They had an open mic night as well. So suddenly there were two places I could strum and sing. All for free, of course. La Cave was a different kind of place. Where Faragher’s Back Room was part of a lounge, La Cave was a true coffee house. And it had another feature. It was just down the way from Leo’s Casino, a jazz club where we could hear some of the new musical greats. John Coltrane, Smokey Robinson, and Ray Charles. So there at Leo’s lived another musical tradition that we young folkies could draw from. It was the 1960s and we were all looking for something new to mesmerize us.
Often, after hanging out at La Cave, we would jump over to Leo’s Casino and eventually end up for a very early breakfast at Captain Franks on the 9th street pier. It was the kind of place that was meant for late-night gathering and talk about the changes to come. Like the Beatniks did in Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s North Beach.
Like so many of my fellow musicians, I was getting my education during the day and my apprenticeship at night. And like my peers I was getting prepared for the wonders and outrages that made up the 1960s. So, while I tell the story about my early days in music, it is the story about how so many of us began our journey. While their names, places, and experiences were different than mine there was a similarity because we were all part of a movement. From our school teachers to the Kennedys and Dr. King. From our hometowns to Viet Nam. From the certainty of our parent’s house to the mystery of the new world that lay before us.
Yes friends, my 1959 promo picture.
More about this trip from kids to folk-rockers in the next installment.