Greenwich Village in 1960 was ground zero for folk music. Beat poets of the ’50s gave way to folk singers in Village coffee houses like the Gaslight Café and Café Bizarre. Musicians gathered at the Kettle of Fish bar and Izzy Young’s Folklore Center, which sold books, records and instruments.
Young’s dream was to present folk music at a Village nightclub. In early 1960, Young and ad man Tom Prendergast proposed a deal to Mike Porco, owner of a restaurant called Gerdes at 11 West Fourth Street. Porco was an Italian immigrant who served factory workers and NYU students; sometimes bongo players, guitarists and accordion players performed at night. Young’s idea: A folk music club called The Fifth Peg, named for the banjo’s fifth tuning peg. Young would pay the musicians and keep the gate; Porco kept the bar and restaurant profits.
The Fifth Peg opened on Jan. 26, 1960. For a few months, Young packed the club by presenting folk music’s biggest stars: Ed McCurdy, Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Carolyn Hester and Cisco Houston. Porco soon realized that he didn’t need a partner to make the club profitable and eased Young out. On June 1, 1960 the club reopened as Gerde’s Folk City.Monday was Hootenanny Night. Musicians, without pay, performed three songs each and gained valuable experience and exposure. “I’m surprised we didn’t have to pay to do ’em,” says Tom Paxton.
On April 11, 1961 Bob Dylan played his first professional gig at Gerde’s. A rave review by Robert Shelton in the New York Times on Sept. 29, 1961 brought the 20-year-old singer national attention; Dylan signed with Columbia Records a few weeks later.
By 1969 hippies, drugs and rock music pervaded the culture and pressure from Village residents helped convince Porco to close Folk City and move to 130 West Third Street. The new Folk City opened in 1970. Jazz greats Larry Coryell and Elvin Jones, rock’s NRBQ and Stories, and comedians Martin Mull and Andy Kaufman joined familiar folk and folk-rock musicians like Emmylou Harris and the Roches.
In 1980 Porco retired and sold Folk City to new owners. When its $1,500 rent was almost tripled, the club lost its lease and closed in 1986. Gerde’s is fondly remembered here by some of folk’s best-loved performers.
Ian Tyson (Ian & Sylvia): Gerde’s was the folk place. The Appalachian type of folk music. It was new. It had a strong New York, Village vibe to it.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: It was real informal, which as a newbie I found comforting. Also, people were playing all kinds of music – bluegrass, blues, British folk songs – and I was a songwriter, so it was perfect for me. Very welcoming. The audience was mostly people about my own age, early twenties, but there were also grownups, New Yorker-types who went to Broadway shows, liked jazz, etc. – diverse in a way you seldom see now except at music festivals.
Patrick Sky: You walked in, there was this long bar. At the far end of the bar there’s stairs that went downstairs and they’d cleared out an area for the entertainers to sit and get ready to perform.Tom Paxton: It could be horrendous. It started out as a neighborhood bar and grill. And the tables were separated from the bar by a wall that was about four or five feet. On something like a hoot night, when there were a lot of people in there and the bar part was crowded, the people at the bar to some extent felt removed from the performing space. They would talk and carry on, kind of oblivious to what was happening on the stage. This could be really hard for a performer. A lot of distracting noise going on.
Happy Traum (New World Singers): There was always this thick fog of cigarette smoke hovering over everything. My eyes would be tearing, my clothes would be rank. And being a performer, of course, you were on a stage so you were about three feet higher than the audience and that’s where all the smoke is, up near the ceiling.
I remember that there was a constant din from the bar area with the cash register going off and the clink of glasses, waitresses ordering drinks for people, that kind of thing.
Tom Paxton: Everyone talks about the Monday night hoots, which were unbelievable. You had to get in there with a shoehorn, it was so packed.
Ian Tyson: They didn’t call it open mic in those days, but that’s what it was. You got your name on a list and fear and trembling, you did your thing and that’s what it was. You’d wait your turn, you went up and did it. If you had your shit together, and they liked it, a lot of record contracts came out of there. No money changed hands, beer was cheap, I guess. That was it.
Tom Paxton: The thing about those hoots that was good, there was one omni microphone and you did three songs. So Brother John Sellers or Dominic Chianese would introduce you, you’d get up and sing three songs and get the hell off. And there was no messing around with stage equipment or monitors. No one had invented monitors yet. It didn’t matter if you were the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, you did three songs and you got off. So that really worked. It really moved along.
Happy Traum: Gerde’s was definitely the place you went on a Monday night. I remember Brother John Sellers, who was a showman-type black gospel singer but a very spirited and almost evangelical-style performer. He was the emcee at hootenannies for a while, quite a while, and then Gil Turner took it over because he was the lead singer of the New World Singers.
I went down there a lot of Monday nights. In the beginning it was kind of fun and easy to get up on stage and just do your three songs, but probably by 1962 or so the place was just packed with people because you knew that you could see Buffy Sainte-Marie or Judy Collins or Peter Paul & Mary. It was just an amazing array of people. For the cost of a beer or maybe a couple of dollars to get in, to see this array of really great folk singers.
Tom Chapin (Mt. Airy): We came to it in the short sleeves, kind of like the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters and those guys. In New York, we were kind of hokey in terms of what the “folk people” thought, the Folk Nazis [laughs]. There was that side. There still is some of that. You’d go in, do a hootenanny and sometimes it was just the other performers sitting there watching you [laughs] or if you’re lucky, there’s a bus tour that came through.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: For me it just felt right in the early 1960s. I was a girl just out of college, didn’t hang out drinking with men, didn’t really have any connection to a band or the music business or the social cliques that took hold around big-time managers and entrepreneurs. It was all about the music – hearing it, playing it, sharing it – it was brilliant. So the welcoming, rather innocent atmosphere of college-age peer audiences was all about the music. And not just my own! I got to hear all kinds of music that hadn’t been around me growing up. My guitar playing improved not because I worked harder but because of the inspiration of seeing John Herald, or John Hammond Jr., or some other musician who’d also show up for open mic night. I played more and loved it more. You never knew who might show up.
Tom Paxton: When I got to New York, my first free night in New York, I was in the Army and I went right over to Folk City and I saw Ed McCurdy, who was a big influence on me early in my career. I loved his singing. And Sandy Bull, banjo player, opened for him. It was the kind of place where you could talk to the performers. So I talked to Ed McCurdy and we struck up an acquaintance and a friendship.
Buzzy Linhart: David Bromberg would play there. He spanned folk and blues and rock and brought in people with him like Happy and Artie Traum. It was never always the same.
Patrick Sky: Everybody from Joan Baez, Dick and Mimi Fariña would play there. Country music started creepin’ in with Doc Watson. I used to say go sit in the Kettle of Fish or sit in Gerde’s and wait and somebody would come in that you knew.
Tom Paxton: I remember seeing Gil Turner and Happy Traum, they were the first people to ever record “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Saw Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie there. Carolyn Hester. Saw Judy Collins there. Anyone who was anyone played there.
Ian Tyson: That was our first time in New York City and I came from Canada and I met the Greenbriar Boys and Peter Paul & Mary and Len Chandler and a whole bunch of ’em. Jack Elliott. I saw Cisco Houston there. That was probably in his last days when he came back from Europe.
Tom Paxton: The hoots were an absolute bonanza for Mike Porco. He had a crammed Monday place and the only people he was paying was the emcee and the bartender. It was just pure gold for him.
Happy Traum: I never had a bad word with Mike. He was a very sweet guy, I don’t know who would not like him. He knew nothing about music, particularly when he started. But he was a pretty savvy guy, so he probably became more knowledgeable as time went on. He loved “little Bobby Dylan,” as he called him, and I think Bob was very fond of him as well. I can’t say I had that many dealings with him but any time I came in he always greeted me with a big “Hi” and a big smile. He had that thick Italian accent that was very endearing in some ways. I always really liked the guy. He was always very nice to me.
Tom Paxton: Dave Van Ronk could be killingly funny and he talked about Mike Porco. He said Mike could speak perfect English until you started talking about money.
David Bromberg: He was a warm, generous man. And I liked him a lot.
Judy Collins: It was an amazing time. It was 1961, April 11th. I came into Gerde’s from somewhere or other, got a room at the Broadway Central Hotel for $30 a night. And I was the headliner. I was amazed. I’d only been doing this for two years at that point. But I was the headliner and I was very excited. And I got there and of course Gerde’s Folk City was an old pizza joint and with the resident black cat.
It was early on but everybody was there to hear me. And all these people that I knew from records that they’d recorded. Peter Paul & Mary were there before they were Peter Paul & Mary, and Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Cisco Houston were there that night. Cisco Houston would die a couple of months later of the cancer that he had. But it was the whole Village community. The guy I had known as Robert Zimmerman was there and he was almost ready to change his name to Dylan but he hadn’t done it yet. And my opener [laughs] was a 13-year-old named Arlo Guthrie. So I can tell you that it was great.
Patrick Sky: I was glad to play there in the sense of meeting a lot of the other performers. That was more attractive than actually performing [laughs]. Meeting your friends and sitting around.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I kept an apartment in the Village on Sullivan Street. When I’d come back to New York I’d go by Gerde’s and watch whoever was on. I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Bob Dylan, Jim and Jean Glover, Carolyn Hester, Rev. Gary Davis with whom I toured the UK, Ed McCurdy, Odetta, Doc Watson, the Clancy Brothers – all kinds of diverse and original music, for which I’ll always be grateful.
David Bromberg: At the one on Fourth Street I met the great Lonnie Johnson, who I think was the most influential guitar player of the 20th century. That was an important thing to me. I also met John Lee Hooker there. Arlo Guthrie and I met for the first time there.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: First time I played there was on an open mic night when anybody could play so I did. People liked it a lot, were a little shocked by my songs like “Universal Soldier” and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” as hard protest that made sense and songs about Native American issues were pretty unique – but that’s what was so great about the coffee house days and the early folk music era: diversity.
Bob Dylan heard me that night or some other night and chatted me up, told me to go see Sam Hood at the Gaslight where I played many times after that. The New York Times journalist Robert Shelton saw me play at the Gaslight and gave me the review that launched my career. But really it was at Gerde’s and Bob’s suggestion that it all began. And later I tried to pass along the love to Joni Mitchell, a fellow Canadian songwriter, who couldn’t get a deal until I played [manager] Elliot Roberts her demo tape, and he made a huge career with her. It all started at Gerde’s.
Tom Paxton: It was great fun. There were a whole raft of people. One night Van Ronk and I were sittin’ there drinkin’ beer. I guess we’d already done our bits and this scrawny kid in a cloth cap and a harmonica got up and sang three Woody Guthrie songs and it was Dylan. And we both were very favorably impressed, we said wow, he’s pretty good. So we brought him over to sit with us and we talked to him and we all became friends.
Happy Traum: We were completely smitten by Dylan. From the minute I heard him the first time and he wasn’t even writing songs, he was just singing traditional folk songs, he seemed like something completely on another level from everybody else. At Gerde’s Folk City I remember it was the first time I ever heard “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” He came and there were about 12 people in the audience and he said, “Here’s a new song I just wrote” and he’d sing a song and you just fell off your chair. It was startling. It was one of those things you never forget.
And I remember him doing “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues,” those kinds of things which were very humorous. In those days he had a lot of humor in his performances. Which you never see now. But he was actually funny on stage. And very endearing and just – a lot of people didn’t get him or didn’t like his voice or whatever it was, but we were completely blown away by him every time we heard him. And we liked him personally, we were friends.
David Bromberg: On Third Street, the second location, the bar, when you walked in, was on your left. It was fairly narrow. When you got past the bar, it was a good 15-20 feet into the room, there was the listening room, which was much wider.
Buzzy Linhart: I was walking through the Village ’cause I lived over by Bleecker Street and I was passing and the place was full. I said, “What’s going on?” They said, “It’s Bob Dylan’s birthday.” I walked in and I wish I had a camera. There was Phil Ochs sitting with Allen Ginsberg sitting with Bob Dylan. Bette Midler was there that night. We offered a song for his birthday and Moogy Klingman played the baby grand that was there. Bette Midler and I sang “Friends” and Elliott Randall, the genius guitarist, played along with us.
There was a lot of jamming and playing together. It was the kind of place where if you had a good friend who was playing there, they would invite you up and you would join in and might even rehearse that afternoon so you could do some special things on stage.Tom Chapin: I had a band with my brother Steve called Mt Airy. We made an album. When our album came out, he said we ought to play some place so he got us to play at Folk City. I got Steve, Bob Hinkle and myself and Eric Weissberg and we played Folk City. Unknown band, Mt Airy, but little did we know that the movie Deliverance had just come out. And the No. 1 hit was “Dueling Banjos” with Eric Weissberg. So we had lines around the block at Folk City [laughs] and we’re doing folk things and my brother Harry came down one night – this is ’72 – and sat in with us. The next night John Denver comes down, he’s in town and Eric Weissberg had played on all his records, and my brother and I had a band a year or two earlier that had opened for John Denver, so it was a lovely, amazing five days. The high point of Mt Airy actually [laughs] was playing Folk City that week. Eric Weissberg about a month later says, “I should have my own band” so he started a band called Eric Weissberg and Deliverance.
Buzzy Linhart: I played every New Year’s Eve for at least seven years. On New Year’s, the club would close and I’d be down in the dressing room putting the guitars away because at one point they were no longer able to pay enough to have my whole band. The last few years, every New Year’s, Mike Porco in his wonderful heavily Italian accent voice would say, “Buzzy, I’m so happy. Every year I almost lose the club. And then you come on New Year’s and you save the day.” He was a wonderful guy.
Happy Traum: The one thing that separated Gerde’s from almost all the other folk venues in the Village in those days was the fact that they served booze. And not just coffee. The Gaslight had coffee and ice cream and that kind of thing. Most of those places were coffee houses and they converted themselves into folk clubs just because it was an easy way to draw people in from the street.
Tom Paxton: I think playing Gerde’s was validation. It meant that you were a professional. I still remember Mike paid union scale, which was $90 a week. Six nights. Three shows on Friday and Saturday, two the rest of the time. It was hard work.
Happy Traum: It meant you were in the loop, you were in the Village scene. It was a very important venue for a while. The thing is, about those Monday night hoots, is that it started to become the place for agents and managers and record company executives and booking agents. All these people would suddenly be jostling for position to see who they could sign up either to tour or be on their record label or whatever. So it wasn’t unusual to see Albert Grossman, to see Jac Holzman, Maynard Solomon, all these people who were in the business end of folk music. And also journalists, Robert Shelton was always there. It sort of became a meat market after a while and became a very competitive place as opposed to just a place to try out your new material.
David Bromberg: I think the Fourth Street one in its day was the more important one during that time. That was an important place to play then.
Tom Paxton: Pretty quickly what happened of course was that the Bitter End became a launching pad for Peter Paul & Mary and acts like that. And they had no trouble paying more money than Mike Porco was willing to pay. So it was for a very short time that the cream of the folk music performers performed there. Mike just wouldn’t pay.
Judy Collins: It was the center of socialization the way that Izzy Young’s Folklore Center was. People would meet, come together. There were some wonderful clubs in the Village and all of us were down there in some way or other. So it was a very, very social and artistic community, all kinds of writers, singers, oddballs [laughs], crazy people, the bunch of us down there together. It was an exciting place to be, it was a great place to go and hear music and I thrived there.