The New England Folk Music Archives have been a tremendous partner on Woody Sez, helping to program some of our guest hootenanny artists and providing that AWESOME folk music history trunk in the corner of our Lobby.
Betsy and Bob. DYLAN. She knows Bob Dylan.
Here's an exclusive interview with Betsy Siggins, Founding Director of the NEFMA. Second-year dramaturgy student (about to graduate tomorrow!) Jenna Clark Embrey asks the questions.
Jenna Clark Embrey: I think a lot of people outside the folk music scene don’t know that New England and specifically Cambridge have such a rich and vital history. How did Cambridge land itself on the map with folk music revival?
Betsy Siggins: A bunch of us landed in the Boston/Cambridge area between 1957and 1962, and that was right at the same time that coffeehouses as we know them in America were born. The earliest ones were fashioned after French coffeehouses. Mostly afternoons were spent over coffee, newspapers and conversations there, but occasionally you would have a player, usually an instrumentalist. In Greenwich Village, it turned into more music, political discussions and less reading newspapers. Greenwich Village was a hotbed of students and people and kids who grew up there finding themselves liking a similar kind of music. It was the beginning of rock n’ roll. Kids liked jazz, and a lot were taking instrument lessons at a young age. Many went from classical, formulaic training to improvising and taking inspiration from the Weavers, the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley. The Cambridge and Boston coffeehouses that sprung up in the late 50s were a magnet for students who wanted to hear music, play music, hang out, and talk about music.
JCE: And you and Joan Baez were two of those kids, correct?
BS: Yes. By 1958, Joan Baez and I, and several other artists -- Jim Kweskin who formed the Jim Kweskin Jug Band -- were at BU Fine Arts. Because of Joan -- it was all her fault -- we liked music better than we liked school. I was a waitress in several coffee houses when I was a freshman at BU. Then we all sort of dropped out of school after a year and got jobs in coffeehouses, not really knowing quite where we were heading. Except for Joan. I think she had a deep sense of where she was going to go, although how she was going to get there was secondary. It wasn’t long after she started playing Club 47 [the famous 1960s folk music venue at 47 Mount Auburn Street] that she had a regular night…and she got an enormous following pretty fast. She had an incredible voice and a great sense of humor, and we were coming out of the dull, dull, dull 50s, and we were looking for artistic expression. We were drawn to an artistic community. It was really developed around the music and as importantly; it was born during the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights. We were 18, 19, and 20 years old and were very impressionable and we all felt the same way politically. Of course Joan was forefront in standing up and saying what she felt, and she had the voice to do it. People began think and say, if she can do this, so can we. We felt free in numbers to say that the war was not right, that anti-Civil Rights was abominable, and that we wanted to be at the forefront of what would become the Women’s Rights movement. All of that really coalesced at the same time. 1959 to 1969 was really the heart and soul of Club 47.
JCE: How did you start bringing musicians up from the South?
BS: It was also extremely important that Club 47 was known to bring old Blues players from the South. There was still segregation. African Americans were not allowed to stay in hotels, they couldn’t buy clothing in the Boston area. We had no experience like this. But an upside for us, they all stayed in our homes, with us. We look back on that as one of those miracles that drop into your lap and you don’t really know how important it is at the time.
Several people from the board of directors at the Newport Folk Festival went to the South from the Smithsonian to collect songs. Alan Lomax one of the biggest collectors from that group also Ralph Rinzler, who I had known as a musician playing at Club 47 in a group called the Greenbriar Boys, was also sent by the Smithsonian to go south and collect other kinds of music. He with thirty black musicians. Some in Gospel groups, Blues soloists, and some of them in fife and drum corps, playing on very, old, antique instruments. We were entranced by it…I mean, we didn’t know what the Blues were…it was probably before the word had really been created at least in the Northern consciousness. And the experience of a guy in his seventies showing up with a cardboard guitar case and his only Sunday-go-to- meeting clothes was extraordinarily moving. This was an incredible life lesson.
JCE: And this was all happening at a very tenuous time in American history.
BS: It pushed us in the direction of understanding Civil Rights in a way we might not have, and we did it at an early age. Joan became friends with MLK and she marched in Selma with him. We went to Washington and protested the invasion of Cambodia. People were burning draft cards at Harvard at other universities. We had never experienced things like that before. It became a movement.
JCE: What attributes of folk music do you think appealed to this time?
BS: Protest music, I think it was protest music. Scott Alarik, who was the folk critic for the Boston Globe for many years, does a workshop on how far back protest music goes. It’s back into the 1500s when in England people could not write down their ideas without going to jail or being executed. Apparently they used to sing their messages about politics from town to town. There are deeply moving African heritage and traditions. Club 47 opened doors to a world of music and cultural traditions and things we never would have known about through song. Because songs are very powerful. It opened our eyes to experiences we didn’t know how to imagine. Then Dylan came along and took the protest song and made it his own. There was another voice that people could follow!
JCE: And now you’re part of this history yourself with your work at the New England Folk Music Archives. Can you tell me about your first experiences with archiving?
BS: I had moved to Washington with my husband and went to work for Ralph Rinzler at the Smithsonian. He was in the very early stages of creating the Festival of American Folklife on the Mall, and I got to work for Ralph helping artists, getting them to where they needed to be, and taking them on short trips. Then Ralph sent me with Mike Seeger into the South one summer to travel with a group of black singers from the Georgia Sea Islands and with a great Blues artist, Mississippi John Hurt. I went down South with Mike and we took this group to Emory and Washington University. The audience could not have been more adoring and amazed and surprised. They really embraced not only the people but also their style of music. This audience seemed to say, “This is something.” That started springing out across the country. When I returned to Cambridge many years ago, I was carrying around scraps of paper; photographs, calendars, reel-to-reels in plastic bags…it was just sort of my scrapbook. I had wanted very much to try to do something sensible with it rather than have it thrown away. It was the right moment. I had to take all the photographs that I had acquired, take a look at everything I had, listen to the reel-to-reels and start putting together an organization. I started the New England Folk Music Archives in March of 2009. You plant the seeds and things just happen and they grow.
JCE: What effect has the presence of the archives had on the Cambridge community?
BS: People in the folk music world are very supportive of the idea of having this collection, because it means a lot in the Cambridge cultural and historical history. One of the first things that I was able to do was partnering with the Cambridge Historical Society. That was very important relationship and a way of saying, “this is a collection that is meaningful and should be cared for.” Most artists don’t ever get into the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian’s American Music program and most of them are never going to be rich enough to have their own museums. So in the best sense of community, I wanted to have a collection that was open and available to people from all walks of life and where artists could say, “you know, that looks like a good idea, maybe they’d take a few things of mine.” That was a really important message to get out. People can come to us and say, I’ve got a body of work that’s 20 years old or 10 years old or it’s going to be my life, and we can talk about how they can start thinking about their own creative history and how it will fit into an archive. The collection has over 200 pieces that have been scanned or properly preserved.
JCE: And it’s still growing.
BS: We got two Grammy Grants a couple years ago. The first was a planning grant and the second was an implementation grant that allowed us to take all the old reel-to-reels…we had 35 of them then, we have more now…and transfer them at Harvard’s Audio Preservation Studio. That made our collection much richer. It has more layers to it. The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress have proven over and over again that this is a music that is worthy of preservation. It’s so American, but its roots are from all over the world. One coal mining song and you might experience the history of coal mining in this country. It’s people music. It’s people who live in the South in valleys who would sing back and forth between small towns. It’s the Church meeting in a building that you might never notice is being used as a church. Many Blues musicians played on street corners for food and then they’d sing in the church on Sundays.
JCE: And there’s still an incredible response to the sense of community that’s created by folk music today, correct?
BS: There’s a lot of learning in a community like that when I’m showing you something on the guitar and you’re showing it back to me on a banjo, and somebody else is on a mandolin. It doesn’t always have to be Country music, it can be Ellis Paul balladry. Alistair Moock has a really moving performance of Woody Guthrie music. Everybody gets attached to a style, a way of writing, then and they teach it to somebody else. We have people like Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte and the Everly Brothers and the Weavers to thank for making it available to kids who never would play but who find community and find joy in it. There’s nothing like a bunch of people playing thirty instruments at the same time and finding the harmony in that and creating on the spot. It’s very satisfying.
JCE: This fall I went to a show, and the band had to leave the performance space at 11 o’clock, so they invited everyone to go across the street, to the middle of Davis Square, and bring their instruments…and everyone just played for hours.
BS: That’s exactly what we used to do in the sixties. We would finish up at the club, because there was a closing time, and we would go to somebody’s house. There was a routine of who had houses, and who wanted to host pickin’ parties. We would rotate, and mine was one of the major gathering spots for late-night music and drinking.
JCE: And you’ve just finished up work on a documentary about the hey-day of Club 47, is that right?
BS: Yes. Go to www.loveofthemusic.com and you’ll see the trailer. It was a labor of absolute love. A friend, Todd Kwait, who had just completed several years ago a film on the history of jug bands called “Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost”…I went to him about two years ago and said, “you know, no one has documented the history of Club 47 and where those friendships are today.” He was just absolutely right for this project. We’ve just completed it. The premiere was April 17th at the Boston International Film Festival. We hope we can use it as a teaching tool and as a fundraiser, because night and day I think about how we can raise money to pay the people who worked on this project, which for all of us is still a labor of love. I’m hoping by doing the film, in addition to a memoir, the workshops, the concerts…that I can build a community around these archives. Because, we’re all getting on. It’s been fifty, sixty years for some of us. That’s a long time. These are lean times and they are leaner times for pleasure activities. Though it seems to be true that when the country goes through hard times people go back to a more simple way of enjoying themselves and taking care of the traditions. That is the community.
Visit the website for the New England Folk Music Archives at
The A.R.T. is hosting hollerin’ Hootenannies after select performances of Woody Sez -performing until June 2nd. Instruments and dancing shoes are highly recommended for all performances. For more details about how to join in on the fun, click here.