Friday, April 9, 2021

American Songbook Jolted Into Being 60 Years Ago

A lot of earth altering events happened in 1961.

Two of them happened in Washington Square Village.

1. Israel G. Young saved the Free Speech rights for singers on Sunday April 9, 1961.

2. Bob Dylan began his professional career two days later at Gerde’s Folk City. 

His rise to success lured millions of free thinkers and musical poets to Gerde’s including Phil Ochs who, IMO, stands as one of two people at the top as rightful representatives of the gold standard in the singer songwriting genre. (Woody is King)


April 11 is one of the most historic dates in Gerde’s Folk City history. There have been many.

Without an opening act involved, 4/11 would merely be looked back on as ‘one of the many bookings for Blues great John Lee Hooker at Gerde’s.’

Instead, the opening act claimed the date for his story.

Simply stated, Bob Dylan has been a pro musician for a full 60 years.

Or right around this date. 

I write this on the 8th, (Published on the 9th) by my estimation and avid research, April 6, 7 or 8 was the day Mike Porco took Young Bobby to the Union Hall to join the Musician’s Local 802.

The story itself is the legend. 

The act of Co-Signing as Bob Dylan’s stand-in father is THE lifelong legend of my grandfather, Mike. His act is still known by those ‘who know’ as the legendary action that flipped the switch on the 1960s.

Actually, my humble opinion is that Izzy Young and Mike Porco flipped the switch “on”  for the 1960s in December 1959 when they installed a PA at Gerde’s.

To say ‘the proof is in the pudding’ is trite yet true. I rather like to point out that EVERY KNOWN AMERICAN STYLE of acoustic Roots and Traditional music was welcomed and stirred up in a great big pot at Gerde’s Restaurant. From that open door came the open mic, invented in May 1960 by Mike, Oscar Brand and Charlie Rothschild. 

Beyond there lies the answer to the question: How did all the Roots, Blues and Trad Folk music blend with rock and roll to become the sound of the 1960s?

The musicians learned from each other by being there together. They created something of their own week after week as if in a lab. They took the sound to the West Coast to make it groovy. The ingredients for story-telling Rock crossed the pond, came back, went forth and traveled around the world only to come back electric.

And that brings us to now. Thank my Grampa. And Izzy Young. Thank you, guys!

Along the way, Gerde’s had to make money to stay open. If it had closed or failed, I’d be blogging about something else right now. However, Mike and his younger brothers John and Luigi were able to remain open by selling GOOD Italian food, beer and wine. And cola for 15cents.

That gave rise to the next 60 years of original royal American music. Gerde’s gave a platform to working musicians pouring in to New York City week after week to perform at a City-sanctioned cabaret. Like they say, you can’t fake original.

Everybody got $90 for the week of play. Trio or solo act, $90. Later Mike would cut advertising costs off the top for your convenience. The price of exposure and potential had infinite value to the young musicians. For the Blues guys and Gospel Families, they needed more than $90 in addition to the hospitality. But, it all worked out in the end. And without question, meals and wine were provided for individuals and groups who could put fannies in the seats.

During the early days of Folk City, a blend of many new and seasoned musicians worked and performed there. When ’1960’ comes to mind I think Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Oscar Brand, Eric Weissberg, Bruce Langhorne, Joan Baez, Logan English, Brother John Sellers, Carolyn Hester, Pete Yarrow, Vince Martin, Cisco Houston, Rev Gary Davis and Dave Van Ronk amongst many others. Even Ramblin Jack Elliott returned from Europe and opened for The Stevens Gospel Singers. Ed McCurdy and Brother John were the first official acts. The Clancy Brothers gained American fame shortly after. 

The august audience is known only in legend. Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Diahann Carroll, Theo Bikel, Pete Seeger and all curious poets and Bluesmen from MacDougal St. Jac Holtzman, John Hammond and Maynard Solomon were scouting. Albert Grossman visited. People like John Cohen, Happy Traum, Alan Arkin, Ralph Rinzler, Dick Weissman, John Herald, Tom Pasley, Tom Paxton, Bill Keith, Mike Seeger and Gil Turner split time on stage and as patrons. Bruce Langhorne is worth mentioning again as he was the one man house band. Played with everyone. Had half a right thumb.

Paul Simon and Artie mostly came to watch. Sometimes they would be asked to do a tune but they were not polished yet. They mostly watched the show soon deciding to go pro on that stage years later, also. 

Hanging around listening in through the window for free was Barry Kornfeld, Suze Rotolo and Peter Stampfel. Other kids from the local streets knew what was happening at Gerde's. John P. Hammond, John Sebastian and their buddies came around before they were mature enough to go inside.

Now that I’ve described 1960….

Along came 1961 AD. 

Having expert knowledge of Gerde’s history, when I think of ‘1961,’ the first  name act that comes to mind is…Judy Collins. Second, only a two weeks behind, is Bob Dylan. Later that month was Cisco Houston’s last gig ever. Sharing the stage was Arlo Guthrie in his first official appearance on stage at age 13. Hands of Arlo were young and shaking.

Of course, we can’t forget Bob opened for John Lee Hooker on April 11th. Mike Porco and Hooker remained life long friends. John Lee paid Mike a late-in-life hospital visit in Florida. 


“Oh yes, yes, man! Yes, man! Thanks!”

According to Ratso, that’s what Bob said when Mike asked him if he’d like to warm up for John Lee Hooker in late March ’61.

Dylan was hanging around Gerde’s all the time. Mike fed him when he heard Bob’s stomach rumble. He played the Hoots (open mic) like religion on Mondays. Van Ronk’s wife Terri Thal was asking around town trying to get Dylan a paying job singing. Several people were encouraging Bob to ask Mike for work. At the same time, several people were asking Mike to hire Bob. It was a standoff for a moment in time. Dylan never asked for work but Mike Porco DID. Very unorthodox for the time, no amateur waited for the owners of clubs to ask them to get hired. Mike gave Bob some of Uncle Angelo’s lightly worn clothes.

In the case of getting work, Dylan had help from music fan and reviewer for the New York Times Robert Shelton. He was also encouraging Mike to hire Bobby. Shelton was a patron and fan of Folk City from day one. He and Mike were also friends at the bar. (Did I mention that Gerde’s had a liquor license? Coffee houses had much less benefit for musicians getting paid from the hat. Night business included alcohol. Alcohol kept the doors open and the music playing until the wee hours) Shelton’s review of Dylan’s Sept 1961 show put him on the map and got him signed with Columbia. 


To finish the thought that started this blog post I must say that I did rifle through many boxes of documents at the Bobst Library at NYU, on the south border of Washington Square Park. 

The boxes were haphazardly cared for, in no order and sparse in content. Yet I filed through all the pages IN SEARCH OF the document signed on either April 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th. One of those days, I thought, but I couldn’t find the sheet. I knew going in to the library that the signed page may have been recovered by someone (perhaps Robert Zimmerman) in any number of years past but I looked anyway. 

Some books speculate that the sign up was various dates however the guy at the Bobst made me believe that it was the 6th. I’ll buy that. He happened to be a Dylan fan and had given this some thought in the past. It was a Thursday in 1961. Not Saturday the 8th or Sunday the 9th (closed office) but it’s possible.


Bob Dylan went pro on Tuesday the 11th of April 1961. Can’t forget that part! Volumes have been written about the significance and influence of his subsequent cannon of work. It had to start with step one: Union dues and Cabaret Card to perform in NYC. (The dues were fronted in cash by Mike and later deducted from Dylan's pay along with his drink tab) If one happened to be underage, one's mom, dad or favorite Porco must sign along as one's legal guardian. It’s not quite a legal adoption, but it counts in my mind. (Don’t forget your nephew Bob, Bob)

Bob Zimmerman saw a life changing opportunity forming for him. It was in New York, at Gerde’s Folk City. He was in the mid-West. Mr. Z took the action to GO and watch and learn from all the masters in New York. Woody was a draw to NYC, yes, but a job puts food in the ice box. American Roots and Blues Music was already being mushed together before he arrived. There was no where else in America to be for ambitious amateur musicians. Sixty years on, almost 80 years old sits Bob, still adding to the body of work.

Hibbing, MN
Go east, young man.

Recently unearthed photo of Bob Dylan
Gerde's 1961
(Thx Uli Seitz)