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

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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.

Comments (15)

  1. Can’t wait to see what you dig up from Izzi’s magical boxes…

    • Responses from Maya:

      Peggy Haine – Thanks for sharing your memories of the Folklore Center.

      Scott Barretta – Great! I’m planning to read that book, Scott!

      Bob Stepno – Thanks, Bob. Neat to hear how Izzy Young and the Folklore Center’s influence extended far beyond NYC. Looking forward to exploring Izzy’s writing for Sing Out!

      Rich, The Old Hippie – Thanks for sharing your wonderful memories of the Folklore Center as a teenager in the 1960s. Neat that Izzy would pass you interesting material, and that he always knew what was good.

  2. I think most of Nicole’s suggestions are accurate, but I do feel a lot of it was Izzy and the welcoming, supportive atmosphere he naturally provided. Anyway, that was my experience of him. (BTW correction for photo caption: Gus Cannon.)

    • Thanks for the feedback. We’ll make the correction. Cheers.

  3. I think of Izzy with great affection. He gave me one of my very first gigs, a twofer with Larry Johnson. I hope he continues to thrive.

  4. I have happy memories of the place in the early 60s, taking guitar lessons there from Jack Prelutsky (aka Jack Ballard).

  5. The answers to a lot of those questions are in the book of Izzy’s writings I edited! The Conscience of the Folk Revival: The Writings of Israel “Izzy” Young (ISBN: hardback 978-0-8108-8308-6 / Ebook: 978-0-8108-8309-3)

  6. Maya, what a terrific start on a fascinating cultural time-machine project. As a high school student hundreds of miles from Greenwich Village, I still knew the Folklore Center’s and Izzy’s names from copies of Sing Out! magazine and maybe from the liner notes on and inside L.P. album jackets that *my* local record store owner let me hang around and read.

  7. I remember spending hours crawling through the Folklore Center. I discovered the center in 1964. I was a Long Island teenager who took the LIRR into Penn Station and then the subway down to the Village.where the world was changing. I’d make many stops along the way (Bleeker Bob, Freebeing, etc.) until I get to the center. First I’d read Broadside for any lyrics, then the East Village Other, and then God knows what. Everything in the place was cool. Sometimes Izzy would pass me something he thought I would like or, more likely, something important he thought I should read. He was always right. I loved the center, it was the library/rec center of my youth.

    It’s nice to see you have such wonderful archives. I met both Pete Seeger and Jean Ritchie. I’d love to wade through their archives.

  8. It sounds fascinating.

  9. What a wonderful and exciting addition to the Library. Beautiful blog post and I can’t wait to read about what you learn from Izzy’s journals. Thank you for sharing!

  10. I I am very happy for the information that my work is important. I recently found a large cardboard box lying in an odd corner in the
    basement of my Folklore Centrum, where it has been waiting
    for me to do something about it, and what I found, was filled
    with articles, L E T T E R S, posters and much more, which will make
    the project even more important than ever. I have no time to put
    it all in order alone, which will need some help (that is, time).
    Please write to me so that we can talk as how to continue the new

  11. This collection could be the opener for another avenue for documenting the era of the Folk Scare (1958-1975 or so). There were a number of folklore center shops throughout the US during that period. The Denver Folklore Center is the first one that emerged from my dark memory, there was one in Salt Lake City, one in Seattle, and even locally in the DC area, we had the Alexandria Folklore Center where I used to hang out regularly on Saturday afternoons.

    Somebody get a grant!

  12. Adding to Mike Rivers’ comment , yes there was a folk music store, an early folk center, in or near Royal Oak, MI, just outside Detroit. It’s where I bought my first banjo back in ’63 and my Pete Seeger book on how to play it. Mighta been one of the only shops in Michigan that sold banjos. Of course Motown down the road in Detroit was already cookin’ big time, but this was a small but significant seed in the growing folk music culture. Wish I could remember its name.

  13. I’d love to see this collection! My mother, Juanita Rieloff (who was married to Bob Milos) was co-owner of the Gas Light cafe during 1961-62.
    She told me stories about Bob Dylan coming to play. She also knew Manny Roth who was the owner of the Cafe Wha? In fact, his wife, Judy and her children were friends with our family for many years.
    I’m wondering if there might be photos of that time. I might find a beautiful surprise there? Maybe a picture of my mom who passed away in 2000.
    I was born in October 1961.
    I also have a concert leaflet of Dylan’s first concert at the Folklore center that she left me.

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