Izzy Young and Village Folk Music Before The Village Disappeared
One of the many details I love about the Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is that one of the first times Midge Maisel did her standup gig at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village, a hand-lettered piece of paper tacked on the bulletin board behind the stage promoted an appearance by Dave Van Ronk.
Van Ronk was one of the anchors of the ’50s and early ’60s Village folk music world, a world I imagine to have been anarchy at its most delightful and a world given some of its amorphous shape by Israel “Izzy” Young.
That world disappeared more than a half century ago, though it left a rich legacy of descendants. Izzy Young remained with us until Monday, when he died at his home in Stockholm at the age of 90.
He had been living in Sweden since 1973, when he could no longer resist the lure of traditional Swedish fiddle music and moved to Stockholm to launch the same kind of folklore institution he had established in the Village in 1957.
The Village operation was The Folklore Center, on MacDougal Street near Bleecker, and Young envisioned it as a gathering spot for dancers and painters and anyone who practiced the folk arts. Fairly soon it was specializing in musicians, particularly the young folksingers who sensed a community in the Village.
Those who had been around for a while, like Van Ronk, were often bemused. In later years, Van Ronk would refer to it as “the great folk scare.” But to the likes of Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Judy Henske, Peter, Paul and Mary and others, it was opportunity.
Izzy Young tried to maximize those opportunities, though the consensus is that he was better at ideas than execution.
In January 1960 he convinced Village restaurant owner Mike Porco to feature folk music. They renamed his place The Fifth Peg and brought in singers like the Clancy Brothers, Memphis Slim, Carolyn Hester, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.
By May of 1960, realizing that the $1.50 admission charge would never even pay back his expenses, Young tried to renegotiate with Porco. Things went bad and on June 1, Porco reopened without Young as Gerdes Folk City, which would stay in business until 1987.
Undeterred, Young kept promoting concerts, including Dylan’s first show outside Greenwich Village. It was in Carnegie Recital Hall, which seats 200 people, and by Young’s count it drew 52. He remarked years later that at least 3,500 would subsequently claim to have been there.
Mostly Young ran the Folklore Center, which was also a retail store for music and related material, and that didn’t make much money, either. It did succeed as a place to congregate, often with Young as the ragged orchestra’s cranky conductor.
Reminiscences in Bringing It All Back Home, Robbie Woliver’s history of folk music in the Village, paint Young as an extrovert with strong opinions, sharp radar for dissenting opinions and a long memory for slights.
He also had an acute ear for what was blowing in the wind.
When you were born on the Lower East Side, grew up in the Bronx and spent years working the counter in your parents’ bagel shop, none of that is surprising.
Friends also recall Young as generous, well-intentioned and passionate about artistic causes. When the city banned music in Washington Square Park in 1961, Young helped organize the protests that eventually led to its reinstatement.
Young’s regular column in Sing Out! magazine reported that success in the October/November 1961 issue: “Washington Square is again a peaceful place to hear folk music on Sunday afternoons. . . . Dan Drasin, a young filmmaker with a lot of thought and imagination, decided to make a film of the original protest on April 9th. With a single camera and a portable tape recorder, he caught the quiet of the park in the morning, the relaxed gathering of the folksingers and the melee caused by the anxious policemen. . . . The film will be shown at all art theaters this fall. Don’t miss it. You’ll see all your friends in it.”
Young’s column in Sing Out!, called Frets and Frails, was a newsy aggregation, chronicling the folk music scene and the comings and goings of folksingers. It also provided a forum for his own views.
In September 1965, by which time the Village had been discovered by tourists in search of something cool, he wrote, “Harry Smith has recorded Harmonica Slim, in a desperate attempt to get everything down before Greenwich Village disappears.”
While he applauded the reappearance of early blues and country singers who had stopped recording and performing back in the ’20s and ’30s, he saw a dark side in some of the entrepreneurs who “found” them.
March 1965: “Collectors of blues material like [pioneer blues researcher] Sam Charters are rapidly becoming more passé as a new breed of devotees enters the field. These white kids, who love the old records, dig up the old singer and for the privilege of rediscovery charge the singers as much as fifty per cent of their future earnings. In some cases, old blues singers have signed away the rights to their own songs.”
Young wrote about the effort by Van Ronk, Paxton and To Pasle to organize a folksingers’ union. He wrote about Queen Elizabeth bestowing the Order of the British Empire on the Beatles. He hinted strongly at the jealousy in the folk world toward those who broke through to recording success.
In March 1962 he noted how far Dylan had come in just a year since his arrival on the scene.
Before Dylan got to the Village, Young wrote, he had been singing “sentimental cowboy songs, jazz songs and top-40 hits at carnivals and wherever he was.”
Let’s assume that’s what Dylan told him. But now, Young wrote, Dylan had a Columbia Records deal, was signed to the publisher Leeds Music “and TV’s Have Gun Will Travel is writing a part for him.”
That episode apparently hasn’t aired yet.
In any case, Young wrote, the lesson is this: “Bob is another example of how a complete commitment to folkmusic as a way of life can be recognized by commercial forces long before the ‘folk’ forces.”
While Young was one of Dylan’s earliest and most enthusiastic supporters, he later turned critic in an East Village Other column that faulted Dylan for moving away from political songs like “John Birch Society Talking Blues,” shunning anti-war rallies and borrowing too liberally from poets, writers and other singers.
“If he could only meet Malraux he could write treatises on civilization,” Young wrote.
Young later said Dylan did not resent the EVO column, and if there were hard feelings between them, both eventually put them aside — something neither was always inclined to do. Young praised Dylan in the documentary No Direction Home and Dylan wrote a warm passage on Young for his book Chronicles, reflecting with pleasure and admiration on the Folklore Center.
As usual, Dylan had an instinct for what mattered.
“Dave Van Ronk has been playing at the Gaslight Café for six months now,” Young wrote in Sing Out! in 1961. “I walked in the other day while he was singing ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Elinor’ to a fully quiet, attentive audience and it was like magic. I couldn’t get over the fact that people who came to the café for a bit of entertainment and coffee were hearing a Child Ballad, enjoying it without having to be told it was folklore; proving again that good folkmusic is good fun.”