Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Anyone who knows about Bobby Zimmerman knows about Gerde's Folk City. It was where he got his first big break. It was where he hung out. It was where he made a name for himself. It was where he met Baez. It was where he hung out with Suze. It was where he played his new original stuff. It was where "Blowin" was first played. It was where many of his contemporaries first met and heard him play. It was where, as John Hammond recently told me, Bobby played his best solo shows. It was his turf. Gerde's, in a way, was the House that Dylan Built. 

I've often wonder'd if Dylan and Gerde's would have been Dylan and Gerde's without Dylan and Gerde's. The answer is pretty obvious to me. Dylan would have become the poet laureate of his generation whether he was discover'd on a street corner on the Square or the Wha? or the Gaslight. Like the biological fact that all female babies are born with all their lifetime's worth of eggs within their ovaries, so to, Uncle Bobby had all his songs with him when he came to New York. They just had to manifest and present themselves in time. Bobby Z was born to become Bob Dylan.

And Gerde's....well....Dylan was one in a long string of Folk singers to launch out of there. Established troubadors and Blues giants were perfoming there way before Dylan crossed the Hudson. It's probable that he knew this fact before he left Hibbing. Since he showed up at Folk City his first possible Monday, it's likely that playing the open mike at Gerde's was part of his plan during the infancy of his New York experience.

In other words, Gerde's already had cemented its name into the foundation of American Music History pre-Bob. When Bob became too large an act to play announced gigs in the Village, Mike Porco and Folk City carried on. Future legends came to Greenwich Village to launch their careers and several more found a home at Porco's place.

The Italian eatery and bar cum New York's Center of Folk Music would have drawn crowds and a new breed of Singer/Songwriter even if Dylan made Boston his HQ. They would have come to New York and they would have coveted the paying gig anyway. They would have had the City, love, life, death, heartache and current events to draw topical inspiration from. They would have had the Blues, Bluegrass, traditional and Rock to build upon. And they would have had Bob's music and legend to aspire towards. Somehow someway and from somewhere. 

But fate didn't have it that way. Bob came to Gerde's. And through the years, hundreds -perhaps thousands- came to Gerde's simply because Bob came to Gerde's. Mike Porco's "legend" was born 50 years ago because he offered his stage and guardianship to the birthday boy. His lasting effect on one little out of the way club is immeasurable.  

The two were destined to be intertwined and only because of that is my opinion worth more than a red cent. Because of that, the Folk City Family had a legendary figure to associate themselves with. Because of the Gerde's connection, Bobby brought it all back home in 1975 to kick off the Rolling Thunder Revue. (Yankee Stadium can't claim that!) Because of that, even more people came to Gerde's to feel the lingering magic still in the air of the late '70s. And because of that, we celebrate the still unfolding life of Uncle Bobby.              


"Talkin' New York"

Rambling out of the wild west
Leaving the towns I love best
Thought I'd seen some ups and down 
'Till I come into New York town
People going down to the ground
Building going up to the sky.

Wintertime in New York town
The wind blowing snow around
Walk around with nowhere to go 
Somebody could freeze right to the bone
I froze right to the bone 
New York Times said it was the coldest winter in seventeen years 
I didn't feel so cold then.

I swung on to my old guitar 
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side: 
Greenwich Village.

I walked down there and ended up 
In one of them coffee-houses on the block
Got on the stage to sing and play 
Man there said, Come back some other day
You sound like a hillbilly 
We want folksingers here.

Well, I got a harmonica job begun to play 
Blowing my lungs out for a dollar a day
I blowed inside out and upside down 
The man there said he loved my sound
He was raving about he loved my sound 
Dollar a day's worth.

After weeks and weeks of hanging around 
I finally got a job in New York town
In a bigger place, bigger money too 
Even joined the Union and paid my dues.

Now, a very great man once said 
That some people rob you with a fountain pen
It don't take too long to find out 
Just what he was talking about
A lot of people don't have much food on their table
But they got a lot of forks and knives 
And they gotta cut something.

So one morning when the sun was warm 
I rambled out of New York town
Pulled my cap down over my eyes 
And heated out for the western skies
So long New York 
Howdy, East Orange


"Not Dark Yet"

Shadows are fallin' and I've been here all day
It's too hot to sleep and time is runnin' away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't heal
There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin' what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

Well, I've been to London and I been to gay Paris
I've followed the river and I got to the sea
I've been down on the bottom of the world full of lies
I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

I was born here and I'll die here against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin' but I'm standin' still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there. 


Friday, May 20, 2011

All Blues, all the time

He's been called the white Robert Johnson.

He was known as Jeep by his friends in the Village.

But don't call him "Junior." He's his own man. A Blues man. A Hall of Famer. And it was plain to see why last night.

But at first, I had to shake my head and re-focus my eyes because I couldn't believe what I was witnessing. John P. Hammond, this soft spoken gentleman whom I was fortunate to share conversation and dinner with just an hour prior, was transformed into a man possessed on stage right before my eyes.

The man quietly thanked the crowd for coming and introduced his opening song. He began picking and blew into his harp and from the first howl, everyone in the room knew that this was no vocation for John. Somewhere during his life he had become one with the Blues and this was his way of expressing that obvious fact.     

The way he sang and lamented, I really believed that he was all broken up inside. I really thought he was at the end of his rope. I really thought his heart was achin' and his baby didn't love him no more. I almost felt bad for the guy. He used the harmonica like a breathing apparatus. It was if he was taking oxygen from IT instead of him blowing his soul through it. It screamed and wailed as his head sunk low between his shoulders enabling him to better heave the sound from his insides through it. His eyes closed, his cheeks puffed and collapsed as his fingers and hands acted on instinct transporting the spirits long gone Bluesmen from an earlier time into that cafĂ©. His words told stories told to him. 

Between songs, the smile and peaceful, sometimes even shy conversation returned. The blues beast was well hidden from view for the moment but we all knew it would rear its head again even more gutteral and more serious than during the last tune. 

I had to remind myself that this was the same guy who was sharing fun tales about his early days at Gerde's in 1962. He talked about the shindigs at the Broadway Central Hotel and at Victoria Spivey's apartment in Brooklyn. He loved playing Folk City. 

"Folk City was THE club in the village. The Blues guys that came through all stayed at the Broadway Hotel for $4 a night and they all played Gerde's." 


Saturday, May 14, 2011


Somebody had to teach Bobby and Arlo Woody's style. 

There's a transitionary figure between the old guard and the new guard. There's a flatpicker who helped bridge the era of the troubador to the era of the singer/songwriter recording artist. There's a man who toured the road with both Woody and Bob. And tonight, the gleam from his shiny guitar that reflected across the packed house illuminated some and enlightened others.   

There are few men alive who can claim the broad influence on American music as Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Touted by ol' pal Bob Dylan as the "King of the Folk Singers," his six decade-long career has spanned the generations connecting the past to the present in a rolling continuum that expands to this day. 

No other man alive can claim to be the conduit by which some of the most prolific musical storytellers of our time made connections. Pete Seeger may argue that point, but Ol' Pete himself says he was influenced by Ramblin' Jack.  


Jack's life was never the same since seeing a rodeo at Madison Square Garden at age 9. Albeit, he wasn't "Jack" just yet. He was still Brooklyn raised Elliot Adnopoz at that point. By age 15, decided to run away with the rodeo and experience it on his own. A part-time string musician and full-time rodeo clown taught "Buck" guitar. After being persuaded to come back home 3 months later by his parents, Elliot finished high school and made a couple of false starts at college before the rodeo called him again. This time, the 18 year old "Pancho" would find work as a horse and stable man. He continued to work on his picking and singing and had expanded his repertoire of cowboy songs well enough to entertain crowds. After meeting the legendary troubadour Woody Guthrie in 1950, Jack Elliott left the rodeo to travel and learn at the feet of the master. After about a year living and barnstorming with Woody, he took a ship to Europe where he eventually toured and recorded albums with banjo picker Derroll Adams.

The spawning Folk and Blues revival lured Ramblin' Jack back to NYC in November of 1961. He was first booked at Gerdes in April of 1963. By then, he had become friends with every picker in the Village.  They themselves, had known of Ramblin' Jack from his three albums and his, already, legendary past. Others, like Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, knew Jack from their days on the road. They were in New York making a living, too.    

One of his new younger friends, of course, was the man-child Bob Dylan. He met Bob at the hospital where Woody was living out his final years. It was the desire to meet Woody that brought Dylan east but due to Woody's condition, they would never get the chance to play together. Bob did all of the pickin' during their visits as Woody was unable to show the eager Bob some of his guitar licks himslef. 

But Ramblin' Jack could. And did. He tought them to Uncle Bobby and he tought them to Woody's own son, Arlo, as well. Jack even lived with the Guthrie family again for a spell after his return from England. By the time he sat and picked with Bob Dylan and Arlo, his time spent on the road with Woody, Cisco Houston and Pete Seeger was already a decade gone. 

Jack would later become a great influence and/or friends with the likes of everyone from Joan Baez to Dolly Parton. From Phil Ochs to Flea. From Dave Van Ronk to Beck. The degrees of separation from Ramblin' Jack Elliott to the Folk-Blues-Country-Traditional musicians of the present moment is nothing short of astounding. 

There may not be a more valuable performer alive today able to lay claim to having first hand memories of seeing how the folk process works. Fans of the genre can readily HEAR how songs from the past got reinterpreted for a new crowd, but Jack SAW it take place before his eyes as he practically oversaw the passing of the torch from the Folk legends of the past to the Folk legends of the future.

Today, fifty-five years since he first ran away to follow his calling, Ramblin' Jack Elliott still has the light of a million memories in his eyes.