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Coffeehouses: Folk Music, Culture, and Counterculture

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The following is a guest post by Nancy Groce, Senior Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center.  It originated as opening remarks for the forum Coffeehouses: Folk Music, Culture, and Counterculture, which was held last week in the Library’s Montpelier Room.  Webcasts of the event will eventually be added to the Library’s website and accessible from the 2014 Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series webpage.

Nancy Groce (right), with Todd Kwait (left) and Rob Hinkal (center) at the forum “Coffeehouses: Folk Music, Culture, and Counterculture,” on Friday, April 11, 2014. Photo by Stephen Winick, American Folklife Center.

Historically, American folk and traditional music was produced in homes, churches, and traditional community-based venues, such as neighborhood taverns, juke joints, community halls, beer gardens, and ethnic clubs.  After World War II, inspired in part by small, informal jazz clubs and beatnik poetry dives, folk music began to performed in, and be identified with, coffeehouses. Today, in the world of folk music, the lines between house concerts, folk clubs, coffeehouses, and slightly more commercial food-and-music venues like the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, or the Town Crier Café in Pawling, New York, are sometimes blurry. However, they all share an atmosphere and performance culture that offers both performers and audiences a musical experience considerably different from what they would experience if they attended a performance in a concert hall or theater.

Long before they were associated with folk music, coffeehouses had a distinctive history of their own. In 1555, a coffeehouse was recorded in Constantinople. They spread throughout the Muslim world, and by the 17th century, coffeehouses were becoming popular in Western Europe. Coffeehouses appeared in England in 1652—first in Oxford and then in London. By 1675, England had more than 3,000 coffeehouses.  Coffeehouses did equally well in Paris – where they became major meeting places for the French Enlightenment. America’s first coffeehouse was established in 1676, in Boston.

The Tontine Coffee House on Wall Street in New York is the origin of the New York Stock Exchange. It is the building with the flag on it in this 1797 oil-on-linen painting by Francis Guy (1760–1820).  The painting is in the collection of the New-York Historical Society. Due to its age and publication history, it is in the public domain.

Early western coffee houses often stocked the latest newspapers and encouraged conversation. They were places of “social leveling”:  open to all men regardless of class or profession—although not necessarily open to women. They were also convenient places for businessmen to meet and catch up on the latest news and gossip. Major enterprises were founded in coffeehouses: the insurance giant Lloyd’s of London, and auction houses like Christie’s & Sotheby’s grew out of London coffeehouse culture. In America, the organization that later became the New York Stock Exchange started in the Tontine Coffeehouse on Manhattan’s Wall Street; believe it or not, the location of that coffeehouse is the reason “Wall Street” is now synonymous with global finance.

During the 19th century, coffeehouses faded a bit as their wealthier patrons were drawn away into private clubs and cheap liquor establishments offered their patrons inexpensive refreshments as well as “free lunches.” However, in the early 20th they were reinvigorated by the Temperance Movement and, more importantly, by massive Italian immigration. It isn’t accidental that places that had Italian immigrant communities, such as New York’s Greenwich Village, Boston’s North End, and San Francisco’s North Beach, were also where folk music coffeehouses initially appeared.

Detail from the 1942 U.S. Government photograph by Marjory Collins, “New York, New York. Italian-American cafe espresso shop on MacDougal Street where coffee and soft drinks are sold. The coffee machine cost one thousand dollars.” Fifteen years later, MacDougal Street was an important strip on the Greenwich Village folk scene.

Italian-style coffeehouses brought with them espresso machines, pastries, and an informal, intimate, and slightly edgy atmosphere that encouraged progressive political conversations. In the postwar years, this proved an ideal match for guitar-playing soloists, idealistic singer-songwriters, and the unamplified rural- and ethnic-inspired ensembles of the early folk music revival. During the 1950s and early 60s, Italian-style coffeehouses featuring American folk and folk revival musicians were being established across America.

It’s hard to come up with a hard and fast definition of folk music coffeehouses, but in their own publicity materials, certain phrases come up over and over again. For one, most coffeehouses boast that their atmosphere is “intimate,” “friendly,” “informal” and “relaxing.” Many explicitly state that they are “child/family-friendly.” They are almost universally smoke-free, and frequently also alcohol-free. Almost all serve modestly priced “hot and cold beverages” (usually fair-trade) and “tempting, home-baked desserts” (usually organic).  At the New Moon Coffeehouse in Haverhill, Massachusetts, coffee is only $1 for the entire evening “if you bring your own mug.”

Most prominently, note that they are non-profit and/or volunteer-run organizations that take pride in “presenting the best in contemporary and traditional folk music.”  Musical styles may vary widely from week to week, but they are usually described by the overarching term “acoustic.”

Admission is sometimes a pay-what-you-wish donation collected in baskets, jars, or hats; however, today, it is more usual for a modest admission fee to be charged or strongly suggested. The Minstrel Coffeehouse in Morristown, New Jersey, suggests that you pay “$8 on your way in, plus the balance of what you think the show was really worth on your way out.” On its website, the Wild Hog in the Woods Coffeehouse, which has been hosting weekly folk concerts in Madison, Wisconsin, for 35 years, notes:

Admission pays the rent. Performers are paid from the money the audience puts in our ceramic wild boar piggy bank, affectionately called Phillup the Pig (pronounced fill-up).

Coffeehouses serve important functions in America’s cultural landscape. First, coffeehouses provide publicly accessible spaces to hear a variety of musical styles and performers. Prior to the rise of coffeehouses, there were few places in which middle-class Americans—and because of where early coffeehouses were located, we’re talking primarily white, urban and suburban middle-class Americans—could hear performers who came from racial backgrounds and ethnic groups very different from their own; or meet performers who came from remote parts of rural America. As such, Coffeehouses have served as “nexus venues”– places that brought together people, things, and ideas that otherwise might not have crossed each other’s paths.

Panelists at the forum Coffeehouses: Folk Music, Culture, and Counterculture on Friday, April 11, 2014. Rob Hinkal (left) represents Rob’s Open Mics in and around Baltimore, MD; Jocelyn Arem (center) has extensively documented Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY; and Betsy Siggins (right) helped to found Club 47 in Cambridge, MA. Photo by Stephen Winick for the American Folklife Center.

Coffeehouses tended to be small, intimate spaces—so single performers playing quieter instruments – guitars, for example –and smaller ensembles were a plus. Folk and ethnic traditions that called for louder and larger ensembles—like tamburitza orchestras or sacred harp singing squares, for example—did not become coffeehouse staples. The lack of space also meant that dancing was not a common feature of coffeehouses.

Coffeehouses also gained the reputation of being friendlier, less edgy places than the jazz clubs and beat poetry bars that preceded them.  Part of this was due to the lack of liquor and, at least early on, of drugs—certainly hard drugs. Their “cleaner” image allowed coffeehouses to attract younger, more middle class audiences. However, like in the earlier jazz and beat poetry clubs, patrons were expected to listen to the performers – not talk over them or dance around them. And like their beat predecessors, coffeehouses were also thought to be liberal-leaning, slightly “bohemian” places. The connection between folk music and progressive “message music,” which was already present in urban folk revival circles during the 1930s and 40s, found a welcome home in the coffeehouses of the 1950s.

By the late 1950s and 60s, many of the folk music coffeehouses springing up across America were on or near college campuses.  There, they benefited from being liquor-free and from their aspirational messaging—as well as a growing academic interest in American folklore and traditional culture. The number of coffeehouses established by, or located in, liberal churches – especially Unitarian Universalist churches, warrants its own study.

Because of their relaxed atmospheres, intimate size, and culture of honoring performers, coffeehouses encouraged the mixing of audiences and artists. There was literally no back stage for performers to retreat to, so they were usually accessible to the members of the audience who wanted to meet them. This might not sound like a big thing, but it was – especially since it allowed audience members and artists to circumvent many of the race and class boundaries that prevailed in the 1950s and early 60s, when, even in Northern cities, black performers were often discouraged from interacting with white patrons at venues like supper clubs and cabarets.

Moreover, even before the Kingston Trio’s 1958 megahit “Tom Dooley” inspired the commercial folk boom, coffeehouses were ‘hip.’ They were places that challenged the conservative blandness of Eisenhower’s 1950s America. Especially for many younger Americans, folk music was their rebellion against middle class life.   Where else could middle-class kids from suburbia talk to African American sharecroppers from Mississippi or mountaineers from Appalachia about the powerful music that they all loved?

Coffeehouses’ small size, and lack of liquor and dancing, meant that in most cities, coffeehouse owners or organizers did not need to get formal cabaret licenses, liquor licenses, or dancehall licenses. (Although this was not true in New York, which is why pay-what-you-wish “basket houses” were so popular in Greenwich Village.)

Despite the fact that few early coffeehouses charged admission, owners frequently made fairly good money through the sales of food and drink. However, performers were less well financed. Although artists usually received some pay—at least from donation baskets or a passed hats— that amount could be extremely modest, especially for local performers.  It became traditional for performers to receive at least some of their pay as free or discounted food and drink.

Out-of-town touring artists could expect slightly more by way of payment. Today, touring artists usually receive a modest guarantee, and additional money if they attract a large audience. However, their cash payment is frequently supplemented by other less structured, but expected, support. For example, coffeehouse owners or workers are usually expected to provide housing, food, and local transportation for touring artists. These “add-ons” continue to be an important part of the economic underpinnings of today’s coffeehouse circuit, but they also create a wonderful sense of community.  This leads to deeper, more extended interactions between professional touring musicians, semi-professional local musicians, and fans. It creates a very personal artist-audience relationship that doesn’t exist in many other contemporary art forms.

This informal but essential commercial arrangement allows performers on the coffeehouse circuit to make at least a nominal living. Today, the economics of being out on the road either by yourself or with a small band means not only do you have to play a few high-paying gigs – which often take place on weekends in concert halls and theaters – but you also have to avoid losing money on the nights between your larger gigs. This is why even well-known performers are often happy to play coffeehouses.

Coffeehouses, with their informal atmospheres and generally supportive audiences, provide an excellent entry point for new talent – a portal in which emerging artists can hone their craft—whether they are performing strictly traditional material or testing their own songs.  As the Trinity Backstage Coffeehouse in Santa Barbara, California, explains on its website, it features “…the best artists you’ve never heard of.”

Finally and most importantly:  What coffeehouses did historically, and what they continue to do today, is create local communities around music.  Most venues present concerts or open mic nights on at least one evening a week – and these do not tend to be short evenings.  To operate, coffeehouses must rely on significant commitments of time and effort from their largely volunteer staffs.  Yet for those involved in running them, or in performing at them, coffeehouses are a central and very meaningful part of their lives.

Comments (9)

  1. Great post Nancy! Now that I am in a small community again, I have to say that house concerts are having a total resurgence! As performers come through Florida, small towns are hosting music nights at homes and church halls — but these events have not risen to the level of a regular “coffeehouse” . . . the vibe is the same and the audiences are dedicated. Artists are happy to have a “gig” on the off nights on the way down to South Florida’s more established venues. Even White Springs (pop. 800) has a regular “Folk Club” that features a performance by touring musicians once a month.

  2. This otherwise comprehensive history of coffeehouses neglects to emphasize a fascinating historical fact: The introduction of coffee into Europe and England in the 15th and 16th centuries brought a powerful drug, caffeine, into those cultures, and that stimulant drug fueled the Enlightenment. Instead of besotting themselves with alcohol, patrons of coffeehouses drank coffee (which preceded the introduction of tea to England by a century), and the effects on the political and philosophical conversations, and in consequence on the intellectual and political life of the times, were dramatic.

  3. Great Great Article! Thanks

  4. Whenever I read blogs about the AFC/LC events, I wish that I could have been in the audience. The comprehensive condensed history of coffee houses published here is fascinating and shows once again the depth and breadth of the knowledge, expertise, and interests of the incomparable AFC/LC staff. Congratulations and kudos to Nancy Groce.

  5. Nancy, thanks for a well-written and deeply researched article. It’s especially enlightening to read about the Italian roots of American coffee houses and the history of the coffee houses before the 1950s and 1960s. For example, Cafe Trieste in San Francisco’s North Beach may have a popular association with beatniks but when you relax in the cafe listening to the opera recordings or watch an old Italian mandolin player like Matteo Casserino play on a sunny afternoon, you can feel the living connection with a colorful strand of American history. Thanks again.

  6. Why is Folk revival groups and folk music of the 1950s and1960s seldom if ever, played on the radio or TV.


  7. Interesting piece. I enjoyed reading it with my morning coffee.

  8. I like your blog. Its one of the great blogs online

  9. America needs America’s Coffee Houses. . .

    Ask not what your Coffeehouse can do for you, but what you can do for your Coffeehouse!

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