Greenwich Village is practically synonymous with any consideration of the American folk music revival of the 1950s and '60s, and with good reason. The neighborhood, on the West side of downtown Manhattan, was (and still is) a hotbed of bohemian cultural and artistic exploration. There was a time at the beginning of the folk revival, when musicians of all sorts would gather around the fountain in Washington Square, to play music together. The giant hootenanny gathered jazz players with folk and country players, marrying ragtime and old time, and blending styles in a way that became characteristic of that era's big folk music boom. The Village was home to venues like the Gaslight and the Bitter End, Cafe Wha?, Gerde's Folk City, and other meccas of the form, where hootennanies and open mic nights drew poets and folksingers out of the woodwork.
It's the scene which inspired the latest effort from the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis, which has drawn new attention to the mid-20th Century folk music revival with a certain fervor. Meanwhile, however, another film about that topic is getting considerably less attention. Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation is a documentary covering the remarkable breadth of the folk movement in New York, and all the satellite movements which spun from it, including protest music, folk-rock, psychadelia, jugbands, and beyond.
Narrated by award-winning actress Susan Sarandon, the film is woven together through interviews with some of Greenwich Village's finest musicians from then and now - Steve Earle as well as Tom Paxton; Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary), Pete Seeger, Buffy Ste. Marie, Carly Simon, and the list goes on. There are a number of choice excerpts from Suze Rotolo's memoir A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. (Rotolo was the woman immortalized when she was walking down the street with Bob Dylan, as pictured on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.)
As Sarandon says, "Greenwich Village became a destination because of its bohemian history... the validity of the voices of the outside and the underdog."
Though the movie jumps around in history a bit (a segment about the blacklist and the way the House Un-American Activities Committee impacted the folk revival comes after a segment about drug and sex culture and a video from Melanie), the history is solid and sound. There are clips form Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest television show, numerous remarkable archive photographs, video footage shot everywhere from Washington Square to the Capitol Mall in Washington DC, to news reports from Vietnam. There are classic and extraordinary performance videos, including some remarkable performances from Richie Havens, Phil Ochs, and Richard & Mimi Farina, chosen to highlight the Greenwich Village folk music scene's involvement in the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the blacklisting, respectively.
The film also does a wonderful job of showing the arc of the movement, how vibrant and important it was even well before Bob Dylan arrived or topical songs became prominent. This expansive history underscores often overlooked elements of American folk music, especially its various apolitical qualities and the fact that some people felt inclined to create brand new music (a trend which led to the emergence of singer-songwriters) while others maintained an allegiance to the old forms, balladry, and the story-song tradition. Indeed, in popular culture, more attention is usually paid to the singer-songwriters and those who wrote protest music, while the fact that folk music has always tarried in the realm of the personal and workaday is often not emphasized. This part of the history is so closely tied to the pursuit of today's singer-songwriters, who are laregly, overtly apolitical and are thus often met with criticism from some who believe folk music is only legitimate when it comments on social issues.
Of course, though, no documentary about anything that happened in the middle of hte 20th Century would be very respectable if it stuck entirely to apolitical history. After all, that era was one of the most socio-politically tumultuous in the history of the United States. While commenting on the rise of the civil rights movement on the national stage, Judy Collins states, "Going to Mississippi for [Freedom Summer] was one of the most important things i did in my life."
The film focuses toward the end on the evolution of the folk and traditional music form into a style of music that conscientiously attempted to comment on social issues. It portends that the rise of civil rights issues and the draft that brought the Vietnam War to the center of so many families, instilled in the era's folksingers a kind of urgency to use their augmented platform for the betterment of all people. Still, Steve Earle and Tom Paxton - two of the most skilled political songwriters of their respective generations - are there to clarify that writing political songs is one of the most difficult challenges. You don't want to preach or render yourself irrelevant. As Paxton puts it, "There was a lot to be afraid of... and when you're writing songs in some kind of folk tradition, you address the issues. It's easy to do it badly. I know because i've done it badly a lot of times." He goes on to explain the difficulty of topical songwriting: "You try to do it without preaching, by drawing a picture, by showing a situation with a song. If it works, it can be an important song."
Above all else, what this documentary does most beautifully is to underscore the importance of the Greenwich Village folk music movement of the 1950s and '60s, not just for its importance on the scope of American culture and music history. But, also because of the way it impacted those involved. No doubt, hundreds if not thousands of people were involved in that decade of this musical movement - musicians, music industry people, fans, and hobbyists alike. The film contends that each of these people were so touched by what they were a part of, what they created together, the exchange and respect and empathy that was achieved by tapping into a long tradition of this style of music and shaping it for contemporary purposes, that they have gone on to create programs and organizations that are touching the world. For example, Seeger began the Clearwater Foundation. Harry Chapin was instrumental in developing an organization that gave rise to Live Aid and Farm Aid (organizations which, in turn, have set a precedent for using music to raise money for disaster relief in Haiti after their earthquake and India after the tsunami, et cetera). The example that was set by musicians who were as devoted to the music as they were to their part as citizens of the world, has set an incredible precedent for the musicians who have followed, as well as for music fans around the world.
Today, though the music scene in Greenwich Village is a little bit different, there remains a sense of the history in those clubs and on those streets. As someone who has passed through Greenwich Village in a long line of artists who move to the city to pick up on a certain tradition, I must say the reverence for the tradition set forth by that folk music revivalist generation, remains.
"That happened," says Judy Collins. "We changed the world."