8/20/13 - folksingers are degenerates

In today's selection -- in April 1961, a few hundred young protestors took their placards and guitars to Washington Square in Greenwich Village to protest a new ban on folksinging in that park. In retrospect (and in the 15 minute historical video linked below), it appears as it was -- a sweet, almost heartbreaking portrait of innocence and invincible youth lost. Yet it was the harbinger of a decade of escalating protests to come. Musicians had been playing in Washington Square for at least a generation, but when blacks and "degenerate" folksingers began to come, neighbors complained. The folksingers' protest was ultimately successful:

"Twenty-nine-year-old Izzy Young started his Folklore Center in 1957 [in Greenwich Village], and in no time it was a mecca for [folksingers] from around the country. The Folklore Center was up a flight of stairs in the tenement at 110 MacDougal Street, a few doors down from the Gaslight [Club]. For folkies it was 'like an ancient chapel, like a shoebox sized institute,' Bob Dylan writes in his memoir. It was packed with musical instruments, antique sheet music, hard-to-find 78s, old Wobbly song pamphlets, and out-of-print music books. Fans and musicians went there to meet, gab, thumb the books, even pick up their mail. More than a shopkeeper, Young was a godfather to the scene. ...

"Young helped gather a few hundred young protesters to occupy the fountain in Washington Square Park [and] they ended up clashing with the police. It started in the spring of 1961, when the Washington Square Association, made up of home owners around the park, appealed to the city's Department of Parks and Recreation to do something about the hundreds of 'roving troubadours and their followers' playing music around the park's turned-off fountain on Sunday afternoons. The practice had started in the postwar years and grown through the 1950s until both the police and the neighbors found the 'troubadours' -- mostly college kids -- a nuisance. [Dave] Van Ronk recalled that there were various cliques in the park: a Zionist group singing and dancing 'Hava Nagila,' the Stalinists, the bluegrass fans, the folk traditionalists. The journalist John A. Williams reported that the locals' complaints were not really musical but social: 'In the ensuing meetings with city officials, it became apparent that what was opposed was not so much folk singing as the increasing presence of mixed couples in the area, mostly Negro men and white women.' The parks commission began issuing permits to limit the number of musicians, allowing them to 'sing and play from two until five as long as they had no drums,' Van Ronk writes. This 'kept out the bongo players. The Village had bongo players up the wazoo ... and we hated them. So that was some consolation.' According to Hettie Jones, those bongo players were often black; in Stewart Wilensky's Village Sunday short, the bongo players in the park are indeed all young black men.

"In 1961 the parks commissioner responded to the complaints by refusing to issue any permits at all. Young and others organized a peaceful protest demonstration. On Sunday, April 9, 1961, a few hundred young people, few of them actual Village residents, gathered, attracting a few hundred more spectators. Among them was eighteen-year-old Dan Drasin, a mild-mannered kid who liked to hang out in the park. He brought one of the big, boxy film cameras of the era and documented the afternoon in a short black-and-white film, Sunday. The film shows clean-cut college and high school kids, many of the girls in Jackie O hairdos and heels, many of the boys looking like young Allen Ginsbergs with serious, sensitive, owlish faces behind heavy black-framed glasses. They carry handwritten placards and cardboard guitars and argue with the dozens of beefy, florid-faced cops who've shown up.

"Izzy Young, also bespectacled and in jacket and tie, lectures the cops about the constitutional right to make music as the kids sit in a circle in the dry fountain and sing 'This Land Is Your Land' and 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' So does Art D'Lugoff, telling them they ought to be out 'chasing criminals' instead of 'stopping free speech.' As protests go it all looks low-key and polite. Then paddy wagons arrive and the cops haul off one nebbishy young man cradling an autoharp, pushing him into a prowl car. According to Drasin, most of the singers and musicians had left the park, leaving the few hundred spectators loitering around the fountain, when the cops' tempers finally boiled over. They waded into the crowd, shoving boys and girls to the ground, mauling them, dragging a handful into the paddy wagons. Reportedly they knocked some heads with their clubs, although it's not shown in the film. The whole event, Drasin says, lasted maybe two hours.

"The next day, the New York Daily Mirror, the conservative Hearst tabloid, ran a giant war-is-over front-page headline, '3000 BEATNIKS RIOT IN VILLAGE.' That week's Voice scoffed at the Mirror's 'hysterical' coverage, wondering if there were three thousand beatniks in the entire country that Sunday, let alone in Washington Square Park. By May the outrage caused by the cops' overreaction forced the city to back down and issue permits, a practice that continues to this day."


John Strausbaugh


The Village


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2013 by John Strausbaugh


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