It Takes a Village: Richard Barone on Writing Music + Revolution: Greenwich Village in the 1960s

A rocker captures the feel of the folk explosion in prose

Richard Barone (Image: Facebook)

“I was able to turn everything off, and the city was all turned off too,” says Richard Barone, recalling the creation of his new book, Music + Revolution: Greenwich Village in the 1960s

As both the frontman for power-pop heroes The Bongos and a solo singer/songwriter, Barone is usually enmeshed in his own musical agenda. But during his pandemic-enforced hiatus of 2020-’21, he had an unusual opportunity to inhabit a bygone music scene that thrived right outside his door. 

“I could walk the streets that I wrote about in a kind of stealth-like way,” says Barone, who has lived in the Village since 1984. “I feel like I was able to absorb a lot of the history by being on the streets alone… just let my imagination take me to how it was in the early ‘60s.”

This was far from Barone’s first rodeo when it comes to immersing himself in the ‘60s Village folk scene. In 2016, he released the album Sorrows & Promises, a tribute to the era featuring covers of classic tunes by Village folk legends like Fred Neil, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and more. In 2018, he organized an all-star concert at Central Park’s Summerstage around the same theme, bringing the likes of John Sebastian, Melanie and Maria Muldaur to the stage. And he teaches a music history class at NYU that bears the same title as his book.

 

 

Plenty had changed in the Village by the time Barone hit New York in the ‘80s. “But there were certain threads that held on,” he says, “like Folk City. I picked up the vibe of what it might have been like in the ‘60s just from performing there.”

Barone’s book begins by going back way further than the ‘60s. The first section of Music + Revolution rewinds to Native American times when the Village was inhabited by the Lenape people. He takes us through the centuries, underlining the bohemian history of the Village that started really taking off in the 1910s. 

“I think that made the bed for us to sleep in,” Barone says. “This neighborhood was not really part of the city for a while, it was an outskirt. It held on to that quality of being, and it still does, by not being part of the [NYC street] grid…streets curve around, it wavers. Even walking around affected how people lived, how they wrote songs. The old buildings…my building was built in 1868, that’s right after the Civil War. When Bob Dylan or anybody would arrive here, in a place where the buildings are from 100 years prior, I think that has an impact on the way you write and the way you see yourself as a part of history.”

When the technology age was just beginning, why did young people seek out something so old-timey and handmade as folk music?  “Maybe because they wanted something authentic that was connected to a time when things were real and not manufactured,” ventures Barone, “I don’t know. Their surroundings reminded them that there was a past.”

Though it was Dylan who kicked the scene into overdrive in the early ‘60s, the Village was already home to a vital musical community before his arrival, with artists like Dave Van Ronk and Carolyn Hester tapping into the power of traditional folk songs and finding a way to make them feel relevant to a new generation. 

Music + Revolution: Greenwich Village In The 1960s by Richard Barone (Image: Backbeat Books)

What Dylan brought was a way to take things beyond tradition by writing songs that spoke to the present moment. In fact, writing songs at all instigated a kind of revolution in itself. “One of the things that surprised me was how it was almost a sin to write original material at first,” says Barone. “Tom Paxton and Buffy Sainte-Marie were hesitant to even say their songs were originals because there were, in her phrase, folk Nazis who were insisting that you play old folk songs.”

After Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” blew the world away and inspired covers by Peter, Paul & Mary and countless others, it suddenly became okay to write your own songs. “Then the audience went to see musicians not just for their performance skills but for what they had to say,” Barone says. “They started speaking directly to their audiences, which were the same age as they were and had the same issues, like, ‘Are we gonna be drafted tomorrow?’ It’s a major shift. People wanted some kind of response to what was going on, especially the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement.”

The singer/songwriter era may have hit the mainstream hardest in the early ‘70s, but Village songpoets like Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil and Eric Andersen were making things happen years before. And even superstar ‘70s songsmith James Taylor started out on the ‘60s Village scene, fronting The Flying Machine at The Night Owl. 

Part of the reason the Village became the epicenter of so much artistic activity was down to the sheer physicality of the circumstances. “This was a super highly concentrated neighborhood folk explosion that did not happen anywhere else,” explains Barone. “Every other storefront on MacDougal Street was a venue or hangout with the same sort of crowd of people. Walking down the street knowing you’re gonna see Eric Andersen or one of them, being in a tight, small club with all your peers and ‘competitors,’ doesn’t that change how you create music? Doesn’t it change what kind of music you write?”

Consequently, the neighborhood blew up in an unprecedented way. “It was a 24-hour circus,” says Barone. “This was ground zero of the youth movement. The overflow from the clubs, they closed the streets because there were too many people. You couldn’t drive. The sidewalks and streets were full of people.”

Even artists that we might not associate with the Village today were making a name on the scene at the time, like Jose Feliciano, whose guitar skills intimidated even the most intrepid folk pickers. “He came up a lot,” affirms Barone. “They were kind of afraid of his virtuosity, some musicians. He’s a true artist, and he’s still at it.”  

For all the ground that was being broken with songs that spoke out against Vietnam and institutionalized racism, even Village folkies were silent when it came to LGBTQ issues, which were still a no-fly zone at the time. In his book, Barone talks about Paul Clayton, one of the most prolific artists on the scene, whose unrequited love for Dylan put him in a painful love triangle. 

“That period pre-Stonewall was still a time when sexuality itself was so private,” Barone says. “Paul Clayton, except for his closest friends, he was gay but really closeted about it, even though his albums were full of risque hints. And he’s a name that’s now forgotten. If he was able to fully express himself as a young gay folksinger, who knows what could have happened? The representation of the LGBTQ+ community was definitely repressed in the ‘60s.” 

Not until the early ‘70s did Folkways Records introduce NYC artist Michael Cohen, the first American singer/songwriter to really address homosexuality in song. That said, the demonstrably hetero Dave Van Ronk was among those arrested in the 1969 Stonewall riot. They didn’t call him the Mayor of MacDougal Street for nothing. 

By the end of the ‘60s, many of the artists who made the Village a folk haven had moved on. But even when Barone arrived in the ‘80s he felt that spirit would come back around to the neighborhood. “It did, with the scene in the ‘80s with Suzanne Vega and Cliff Eberhardt and others,” he says, “The Speakeasy, that club and others, a new scene developed in the Village on the same streets, that was another chapter.”

Folk City poster 1963 (Image: Google)

There had been a brief flash in the ‘70s too, when The Roches came out of the Village. “We could even connect the punk movement at CBGB just a few blocks east,” suggests Barone, who also posits Patti Smith as a bridge between the ‘60s and ‘70s. “Patti Smith would open for Phil Ochs at Max’s Kansas City in the early ‘70s,” he says. “In the book it kind of winds down around 1968, ‘69…that doesn’t mean all the embers were completely out.” In the ‘70s and ‘80s there was no shortage of artists who performed at both Folk City and CBGB either, including Steve Forbert, Willie Nile, Elliott Murphy and The Smithereens.

But nothing could ever replicate the natural magic of the phenomenon that unfolded on those streets in the first half of the ‘60s. “The Village scene at its peak happened because of a close proximity of people and places,” reiterates Barone, “and you can’t create that in Laurel Canyon or anywhere else. What happened in Greenwich Village could not have happened anywhere else in the world, because it was a village. And yes, it takes a village.”

Music + Revolution: Greenwich Village in the 1960s is out now on Backbeat Books.

 

VIDEO: Richard Barone and Anthony DeCurtis talk Music + Evolution: Greenwich Village in the 1960s 

 

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