Being a folksinger was not easy. You had to practice your material, be unafraid of deadly silence from displeased audiences, and come up with clever patter between songs. You wanted to avoid embarrassing silences between songs that might invite your audience to depart midway in your set. Moreover, being eighteen meant that you could not wow them with tales of your daring rides across the country in the dust bowl riding the rails. You had to be subtle.
I used to love to perform after wannabe Joan Baez’s chirping about how the laird did not love her and how her bodkin would soon pierce her white lily breast. After a dozen or so Scottish and English ballads full of sleekit and selkies, the audience was ready for something a bit suggestive, like “wild about my loving.”
The basket houses, called that because we passed the basket to the audience for tips, were full of young folkies warbling the same material in different ways.
The Child Ballad crew got their take on life from listening to old records full of English and Scottish ballads and Joan Baez records.
On the other side was the group who cloistered themselves around the record player listening to old blues performers from the ’30s. They warbled about how their woman had been false and how they would take out their big 38 specials and end it all. They were all very white, quite suburban and, also eighteen.
Of course, I was eighteen but not from the suburbs. I was a Washington Heights boy who, typical of inner-city types in New York, affected a worldly-wise “I’d seen it all by sixteen” slouch. We carried knives that flicked open. Unlike the suburban folkies, we always looked like we knew where we were going, even if we were walking into walls. We sang about the cruelty of fate and leaving the cruel city. Most of us had some experience with sharp objects or guns by sixteen, and the romantic appeal of including them in our songs had waned.
Bodkins, 38 specials, unrequited love, getting cheated on, being eighteen, and cruel fate. What a combination. After a while, if you made it through the crunch of the first six months, you began to pick up different rhythms, ways to express yourself and depend less on a single genre. You matured. Your audience guided the process, but if you were smart, you joined the society of peers and critiqued, traded, and shared.
Then would come the night when you grew indignant at a new wannabe just in from the ‘burbs warbling out the same material you had used a year ago. But now you were a worldly-wise nineteen-year-old habitue of the folk world. It was ages ago that you were eighteen and so innocent.