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Unpacking the collection of a ’60s New York City folk music stalwart

Photo by David Gahr. Izzy Young ca. 1960 at the Folklore Center, surrounded by guitars, guitar strings, Broadside magazines and other folk publications for sale at the store. AFC 2015/040

Photo by David Gahr. Izzy Young ca. 1960 at the Folklore Center, surrounded by guitars, guitar strings, Broadside magazines and other folk publications for sale at the store. AFC 2015/040

This is a guest post by Maya Lerman, processing archivist at the American Folklife Center. She will be writing occasional guest posts as she makes discoveries during the processing of the Izzy Young Collection.

In November 2015 the American Folklife Center acquired Izzy Young’s collection, including its rich manuscripts, journals, scrapbooks, photographs, and recordings. Israel Goodman Young, “Izzy Young,” the founder and owner of a shop called the Folklore Center, was a central figure in the folk music scene of the late 1950s and 1960s. Staff at AFC was thrilled to receive this long-awaited acquisition, which complements other rich collections in the archive, such as the John Cohen, Pete Seeger, and Jean Ritchie Collections.

On a recent trip to New York City, I made a point to stop by the location where Izzy Young’s Folklore Center once lived. Today cheap restaurants, tattoo parlors, and vintage clothing stores line this Greenwich Village neighborhood. I tried to imagine the feeling of the neighborhood in the 1960s, when folk music clubs and coffeehouses, such as the Gaslight Café, the Café Wha? and Gerde’s Folk City, supported a thriving music and poetry scene, and nurtured the careers of Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, and many others.

Izzy Young with his collection, boxed and ready to ship.

Photo by John Schulman. Izzy Young with his notebooks, boxed and ready to ship, in Stockholm, Sweden, November 2015.

In the middle of that neighborhood, 110 MacDougal Street (between Bleecker Street and W. 3rd Street) was home of Izzy Young’s Folklore Center, a music store that became a crossroads for folk musicians and beat poets of the 1960s. Izzy provided the space for folk artists such as Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger to listen to recordings, play and write music, and interact with literary figures. He staged concerts for many folk artists both at the Folklore Center and at other venues, including Carnegie Hall. In 1973, Izzy emigrated to Stockholm, Sweden, and opened the Folklore Centrum in Stockholm, continuing his work in folk music and dance.

When the 20 shipping boxes arrived from Stockholm, Todd Harvey (Acquisitions Coordinator), Nicki Saylor (Head of the Archive), and I jumped with excitement, especially as we opened the first box filled with over 50 handwritten journals by Izzy spanning the 1950s through the 2000s. As we gently laid out the journals, I noticed a big smile on Todd’s face as he uncovered one journal from the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, a year that popularized Bob Dylan as an artist, and a year that hosted talented folk artists such as Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, and Mississippi John Hurt.

five men standing in front of the Folklore Center

Photo by Ann Charters, 1964. From left: Music historian/author Sam Charters, Izzy Young (behind), blues musicians Memphis Willie B., Furry Lewis, and Gus Cannon.
Collection number: AFC 2015/040

As a newly hired AFC archivist, it is exciting to dig into the collection, to figure out how best to preserve it, and to share this most interesting and rare material that emerged out of a culturally significant time in American music. This is the first in a series of blog posts about the collection. We’ll share samples of the materials as we unpack and process them and show how these pieces illustrate larger themes about Izzy Young, other folk music personalities, and the evolution of the music and culture.

As I look through the contents of the collection, I can’t help but ask, how did Izzy start the Folklore Center? Did he imagine that it would become such a hot spot for folk musicians? What drew the folk artists? Was it the convenient location of the store, in the midst of the important folk music clubs? Or were they drawn to Izzy Young and the welcoming atmosphere that he created? Did the accessibility of the recordings in Izzy’s store serve to attract artists in the first place? How did the broader cultural changes at work in the 1960s sustain the centrality of the Folklore Center? The materials in the collection will help us answer these and other questions about the development of the New York folk scene that influenced the nation.

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