Monday, November 16, 2015

unable to raise the ceiling, he lowered the floor

Last Friday here, we were excerpting from Preston Lauterbach's book, The Chitlin' Circuit and I was noticing and considering a couple of things:

>>  when the book mentions John Hammond creating the Spirituals to Swing concert (far back as 1938! -- this is what I was thinking, rock and roll did not just come out of nowhere...!) at Carnegie Hall -- the name John Hammond was familiar, because he recorded Bob Dylan, early Sixties, start of Dylan's career.

>>  when Lauterbach writes, Fifteen years before rock 'n' roll appeared as a pop-music marketing term, Joe Turner, an illiterate bootleg barkeep, laid the music down in Carnegie Hall, and -- "the audience seemed unprepared"... it reminded me of the fact that:

There used to be (and might still be) on You Tube, a film of Chuck Berry performing in France, on a low stage in front of a relatively small group --

it's in the 1960s or 50s -- and Chuck Berry's music and presence are so incredibly energetic, charged, dynamic --

and the audience just sits there. 

It's because they don't know what to do.  This music is new, for them, and there is no scripted response.  Another -- ehrm -- "audience" that "seemed unprepared."  (Part of the joy of rock and roll is that it can catch us "unprepared" -- take us by surprise -- make us fall off our chairs...)


------------------ [excerpt, Bob Dylan In America] ------------------ In 1958, a resourceful entrepreneur, master carpenter, bohemian, and lover of poetry, John Mitchell, opened a coffee shop at 116 MacDougal Street, near Bleecker, in what was once a coal cellar and which more recently had sheltered a subterranean gay hangout, the MacDougal Street Bar....

...Unable to raise the ceiling, he lowered the floor and opened for business, featuring sweet drinks and dessert items as well as coffee....

Mitchell invited the growing legion of Village poets who broadly identified with the Beat movement to recite their material and entertain his customers, in exchange for the proceeds collected in a basket handed around the audience.  He called his new coffee shop the Village Gaslight, and among the poets who would read there was Allen Ginsberg.

Then there was Israel "Izzy" Young.  An aspiring bookseller and square-dance enthusiast from the Bronx, born in 1928, Young had developed a passion for folk music and had struck up friendships with some of the more talented and creative Washington Square regulars....In time,

Young decided to rent a storefront on MacDougal Street for selling folk-music records and books.  (In order to cover the lease, he cashed in a thousand-dollar insurance policy.)  He called the place the Folklore Center and opened for business in March 1957.

...His store -- located a few doors down from the cellar where John Mitchell would soon be showcasing the Beat poets -- became a clearinghouse for musicians, record company men, scholars, and enthusiasts.  Young was also something of a concert promoter.  One of the founders of the Friends of Old Time Music, he helped arrange, in 1959, a regular concert series at Gerde's bar on Fourth Street west of Broadway....

...By the time Bob Dylan arrived in January 1961, the Gaslight was the premier showcase for folksingers on MacDougal Street, and Dylan considered himself fortunate to break into the Gaslight lineup.  In April, he secured his first important extended New York engagement, as an opening act for the blues great John Lee Hooker,

at Gerde's.  But it was still a long way from the Village clubs to musical stardom.  A little more than six months after Dylan premiered at Gerde's, Young would lose money when he sponsored Dylan's first theatrical concert, at Carnegie Chapter Hall, and only fifty-three ticket buyers showed up. 

Dylan's big break only came months later, in September, when the New York Times critic Robert Shelton reviewed a show at Gerde's, dealt quickly with the headline act, the Greenbriar Boys, and devoted his own headline and the bulk of his story to celebrating Dylan as the prodigious new talent on the folk scene.  After playing backup harmonica on a recording session for the folksinger Carolyn Hester

the day after Shelton's article appeared, Dylan signed a five-year recording contract with Columbia Records, where the legendary John Hammond,

who had worked with Benny Goodman,

Billie Holiday,

and Big Joe Turner,

would be his producer.



{Bob Dylan In America, by Sean Wilentz.  2010, Doubleday.}


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