NEW YORK The collaborative spirit that permeated Greenwich Village during its early '60s folk revival filled the Great Hall of Cooper Union on Wednesday night as folk musicians gathered for four and a half hours of song to raise funds for a proposed folk music museum.
Legends Pete Seeger, Judy Collins and Odetta, veteran classical-jazz-folk artist David Amram and New Lost City Rambler member John Cohen were among the musicians who joined each other's 15-minute sets to lend support with their voices or instruments.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and former Lovin' Spoonful leader John Sebastian ended the concert, which was organized by Art D'Lugoff, owner of the defunct folk-music mecca the Village Gate and recent founder of a nonprofit organization to fund a Village-based folk museum.
"When I first came to the Village, I met marvelous people," master of ceremonies and veteran folk-music satirist Oscar Brand said. "I used to travel with [traditional music pioneer] Leadbelly all over the country and get him drinks 'cause they wouldn't let him in stores, but in the Village they did."
Dressed in a red shirt and blue jeans, the 81-year-old Seeger described how he began singing traditional music in public as a favor to a friend.
"In 1939 I was living a few blocks north of here in a little apartment for $35 a month," said Seeger, whom Brand called "the tuning fork of this country."
Seeger sang "Skip to My Lou My Darling" (RealAudio excerpt), which he said was the first song he played in front of an audience. Odetta then added a ghostly wail to Seeger's voice and banjo on "Oh Careless Love," which he ended by holding his banjo up to his chest.
"I've been a [Seeger] fan since 1963," said Hank Silvert, 50, of Manhattan. "The first record I ever bought was his 'We Shall Overcome.' In 1969 I held a megaphone for him during an anti-war protest."
Seeger received a standing ovation for his set, the shortest of the night. He followed a two-song performance by soprano Bethany Yarrow, daughter of Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary fame. Yarrow sang "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," adding some lyrics of her own.
In a deep, gravelly voice reminiscent of Johnny Cash, Brand, 80, performed the skiffle standard "Rock Island Line" with his acoustic guitar, son Joshua on bass and John Foley on guitar. After playing his contemplative "Touch the Earth," about his father losing some land, Brand kept its melody but sang a humorous tale of the first family's cat "Socks," called "A Cat's Life in the White House Is Not the Cat's Meow."
"My life is filled with stress/ It's hard to find a litter box, surrounded by the press," Brand sang.
In a more serious vein, the 69-year-old Odetta, who Brand said has a voice "that takes you and shakes you and makes you feel alive," led the graying audience through "This Little Light of Mine," accompanied by Amram on flute.
Wearing a blue hat and cape over a tie-dyed dress, Odetta read a passage about the power of hope that was written by Nelson Mandela when he was a prisoner in South Africa.
The offspring of another noted veteran, the late folk-blues artist Josh White, was a crowd favorite. Baritone Josh White Jr. drew strong applause for "Southern Exposure Blues," about the plight of a black sharecropper, and for the anti-war song "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," written by folk pioneer Ed McCurdy, who died this year.
During the former tune, White plugged in his guitar, much as Bob Dylan did during his era-shattering performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
"I'm gonna plug in," White said, "[and] do a little half and half. Can we do that?" he asked a few reticent sound operators before they obliged him.
White also led the audience through a lengthy rendition of Dylan's classic "I Shall Be Released." With his big, bright brown eyes dancing all around the hall, he split the audience into boys and girls for the chorus.
'Folk Music Is Alive'
Amram, 69, who often experiments with world music, played flute and sang on "The Rabbit Dance Song," which featured a Lakota Indian melody and White on tribal drumming. Amram ended his set by scat-singing his "Pull My Daisy" with the new lines "Tell all your friends that folk music is alive, 'cause strong and beautiful music will survive." The original song was the title theme to the 1958 Jack Kerouacwritten film about the Beat generation.
"He's a Renaissance man," fortysomething New York resident Morrie Sherry said of Amram. "He can play all those different folk instruments. He's gone to the countries and learned [their] music."
Cohen, on banjo, was joined by fiddler Bill Kristofferson for "Sandy River Belle" and the traditional "Old Man at the Mill."
Dressed in black, Collins received an instant standing ovation and offered a monologue of her history with the Village, constantly tickling the piano keys as she sang snippets of her recordings, including her first, "Maid of Constant Sorrow."
Collins recalled protesting the Vietnam War. "If only they realized that all of us were right about [the war] in 1961, think of the difference it would have made," she said. "It turns out everybody agreed with us. At least their books say they did."
Collins then sang her "Song for Sarajevo" (RealAudio excerpt), with its refrain "When I close my eyes, I dream of peace."
Her audience sing-along of "Amazing Grace" was followed by a surprise set by blues-folk singer John Hammond Jr., son of the legendary Columbia Records talent scout who first signed Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and many others.
"I'm proud to be here," Hammond said. "Having been born on Sullivan Street and raised on MacDougal Street."
Throughout his set, Hammond grimaced into a harmonica as his fingers danced feverishly up and down the strings of his guitar. His voice recalls that of Jimi Hendrix, whom the younger Hammond helped get discovered in the '60s.
Ending On Right Note
Sebastian, on guitar, followed with "Mobile Line" (RealAudio excerpt), jug legend Yank Rachell's "Tapping That Thing" and the Mississippi John Hurt number "Monday Morning Blues." Sebastian named the Lovin' Spoonful after Hurt's "Coffee Blues."
"This is all part of a weird adolescent fantasy I had when I was 19," Sebastian said. "To be at a concert with Pete Seeger, Judy Collins ... and for me to be the last act.
"I'm one of the guys who didn't have to come to Greenwich Village," the New Yorker said. "I said 'Mom, I'm going down to where we get the bread [to sing].' "
Everyone but Seeger, who had gone home because of fatigue, came onstage to cap the evening with the civil rights movement favorite "We Shall Overcome."
For the final chorus, the musicians replaced the original words with "We'll build a museum today," underscoring Amram's oft-repeated comment during the show that "tonight is the first night of the Folk Museum."
Plans for the museum, which would be named the Folk Museum in Greenwich Village, include exhibition, performance and rehearsal spaces, plus a cafe, a shop and room for archives. Board members including D'Lugoff, Collins and Bitter End club owner Paul Colby are seeking grants and corporate sponsors.