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Movie Review - Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation (2012)

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Background

Actress Susan Sarandon is the voice of Suze Rotolo, the girlfriend of Bob Dylan and an eyewitness to the events in Greenwich Village in the 60s.  She was born in Queens.  Suze maintained “It was to Greenwich Village where people like me went.  People knew in their soul that they didn’t belong where they came from.  I just had to get on the subway.”

                                               

Washington Square

                                                        Washington Square - Wikimedia

Introduction

A group of musicians formed a community in Greenwich Village on the west side of downtown Manhattan.  It is still a hotbed of bohemian culture and artistic exploration.  With the revival of folk music, musicians of all kinds would gather every Sunday around the fountain in Washington Square to play music together.  It was where you met old friends and made new ones. 

The names of these musicians are familiar to music lovers.  They included Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Peter Yarrow, Tom Paxton, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Jose Feliciano, and a host of others.

A Counter-Culture Way of Life

These folks were not worried about practical considerations.  Money was not the driving force of their existence.  They avoided mainstream songs that Frank Sinatra or Doris Day would sing.  Establishment music was avoided.  It was considered a mortal sin if there was a financial reward to their performances.  It meant you were selling out.  They had something to say, not something to sell.  They were hippies before anyone knew what hippies were.  People did not have a guitar case; that was for someone who was a graduate of Juilliard.  These folks walked around with their guitars on their backs.  It was a place where you could be who you were.

                                                           

Susan Sarandon

                                                             Susan Sarandon - Wikimedia

The Hangouts

The popular places were The Gaslight, The Bitter End, Café Wha? and Gerde’s Folk City; places where you could get up and sing folk songs.  The musicians around the Village all helped each other out.  People looked after each other.  You played your song, your arrangement.  The only one you were competing with was yourself.  Some were more famous than others.  The established artists hung out with those who were lesser known.  They appreciated each other and went to each other’s shows.  They were rivals, but also friends and colleagues and supporters.

Some Gained Colossal Fame

Peter, Paul, and Mary came to the Gaslight and sang in public for the first time.  That’s the kind of thing that would happen.  You could express your heart and your passion.  If you resonated with people, you had acknowledgment.  If the bartender acknowledged you, you were accepted.  The bartenders were the highest level of social power.

                                   

Peter, Paul, and Mary

                                                  Peter, Paul, and Mary - Wikimedia

They Came From All Over

People who felt that they didn’t fit into the mainstream could go to Greenwich Village.  Bob Dyan came from Minnesota in 1961 and sang the Woody Guthrie songs.  He fit right in with the raggle taggle gypsies who lived in the Village and were making music.  He was raised in Gallop, New Mexico where he joined carnivals when he was 13 years old.  He was not impressive initially.  Then he started to write those incredible songs.  His song “Blowin’ in the Wind” was critical to understanding the Civil Rights Movement, as was Eric Andersen’s song called “Thirsty Boots.”  Dylan’s record “The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan” firmly established him as an unparalleled songwriter,

Woody Guthrie, the folk singer, hitchhiked thru Pennsylvania to Greenwich Village.  He heard “This land is your land, this land is my land.  This land was made for you and me,” and put it to music.  Pete Seeger made the song popular.

Coffeehouses

One of the saddest things to see is a coffeehouse or nightclub as it looks in the daylight.  It is dilapidated, dirty, smelly, and ram-shackled.  But at night, when the audience arrives, it’s magic.  “The stuff that dreams are made of.”  Coffee was the drug of choice.  It was fun to go into a coffeehouse.  People would sit around and read.

                                                

Buffy Sainte-Marie

                                                       Buffy Sainte-Marie - Wikimedia

Izzy Young’s Place

The focal point was Izzy Young’s Folklore Center.  It was an old-fashioned store front.  It was like church; the epicenter of the early days of the Village.  There you would learn all the information about who was who and where they were.  Izzy Young was the godfather of the movement; he put on concerts right in the store.  There was never any trouble with the police.

A Protest Rally

In 1961, a sign went up stating that a protest rally would take place in Washington Square Park.  The police had banned singing there on Sundays which was an age-old tradition.  It was thought to be an infringement on the freedom of the musicians.  It was their god-given right to sing.  In protest, the crowd sang the Star-Spangled Banner, our National Anthem.

Greenwich Village had a Bohemian history.  The musicians were as much journalists as they were entertainers.  They used guitars and the phonograph like a journalist used the typewriter.  Phil’s songs were journalistic.  They had a built-in expiration date. He wrote political songs from stories in the New York Times and Newsweek.  He was good at what he did.  A movement was starting in the Village, drawing many people there.

Socialists became concerned about the plight of people.  People could discuss politics and they protested against injustice.  Gay people could be themselves in Greenwich Village.  The woman’s movement came out of the Village.  Activists from the Civil Rights Movement came out of the Village.

There was a draft; people were going to war whether they wanted to or not.  They marched in Washington against the War in Vietnam.  There was a lot of paranoia.  People were not allowed to vote until they were 21 but could die in a war when they were 18.  Upheaval was inevitable.

                                                    

Pete Seeger

                                                            Pete Seeger - Wikimedia

The blacklist.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) decided that the people singing protest songs were dangerous.  Suspicion got you fired from your job.  If you were sympathetic to the left, your job was in jeopardy.  A list was published of people who were considered to be communist sympathizers.  Oscar Brand and Pete Seeger were on that list.  Oscar Brand insisted he was not a communist and left the country to go back to Canada. 

Pete Seeger, one of “The Weavers,” was subpoenaed and asked if he was a communist.  He was also asked to name people who were known communists.  Seeger refused to take the Fifth Amendment, and was in contempt of Congress and under threat of prison.  He was unable to perform on television shows or radio, as his music was considered to be “protest songs.”  He was blacklisted for his “un-American activity.”

Birth of the Singer-Songwriters

Lucy and Carly Simon told about the newly created singer-songwriters and how it became lucrative.  It was a new movement, a new way of thinking.  Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Buffy Saint Marie were part of it.  It caught fire in the country but it had its origins in that little section of New York City.  Agents came to the coffeehouses on Bleeker Street where people were writing their own songs.

                                        

Carly Simon

                                                            Carly Simon - Wikimedia

Social Activism in Greenwich Village

Some musicians used their celebrity in a positive way.  Harry Chapin told about doing benefits.  He was directly responsible for World Hungry Year, Live Aid, and Farm Aid.  They all stemmed from Harry Chapin’s activism as a performer.  Carly Simon told that her group had gotten a lot of nuclear reactors to close down.  It was phenomenal that they were able to have such an effect.  Judy Collins related that they fed the poor and gave time to a soup kitchen.  Peter Yarrow started an anti-bullying campaign.  The emphasis on doing good was ingrained in these artists.  They said “We believed we could change the world, and we did, for the better.”  Because of that ten-year period in Greenwich Village, people now give more and think more about good causes.

Suze Rotolo said “I’m glad I took the subway and got off at the right stop.”

 

 

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Greenwich Village Stories: A Collection of Memories
Amazon Price: $29.95 $15.67 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 24, 2016)
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