When Suzanne Vega, Chris Smither, Iris Dement, Vance Gilbert, Hart Rouge and Howard Armstrong take the stage Friday at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge, Mass., for a benefit show honoring Club Passim, they'll be paying tribute to one of the most influential folk venues of the past four decades.
Just a few steps off Harvard Square, below street level in the basement of an 1830s building, is Club Passim. First as Club 47 (195868), then as Passim (196994), and now as Club Passim, this 30-by-40-foot room has been the launching pad of famous folk careers and a hotbed of musical innovation for four decades.
Joan Baez, as an unknown 17-year-old, began her career there in 1958 and as she became better known, she invited her less well-known friend, Bob Dylan, to entertain the crowd between her sets. As an undergraduate at Harvard in the early '60s, Tom Rush said he "sat up front and studied the licks everybody was playing, especially the old blues guys they'd sometimes have and then I'd steal them for the next time I played there."
Muddy Waters was one of the first blues acts to play the club, and the Cambridge police came that night too they couldn't believe all that noise was coming from a club that was supposed to present folk-music acts.
Chris Smither was playing the blues in New Orleans when he heard about Club 47 from Eric von Schmidt. "He told me I needed to go up to New England, to get heard there, because that was where the kind of music I was playing was really happening.
"A couple of months later I decided to go and the first night I arrived in town I went over to Club 47 and there was Eric on the bill! He invited me to sit in with him. This was the top club in the Boston area, and on my first night in town I thought I had it made!"
Smither stayed in Cambridge, and as the '60s wound down, his around-the-corner neighbor, a redheaded Radcliffe freshman named Bonnie Raitt, began hanging out at the club too.
Through changes of ownership and changes of location, the club maintained its musical integrity as a site for promising newcomers (although a young Bruce Springsteen was turned down for a gig) as well as an intimate showcase for established folk and blues talent.
There was a brief attempt to run the place just as a cafe, but the new owner eventually decided "music just comes out of the walls here," and returned to hosting acts including Nanci Griffith, Taj Mahal, Judy Collins and Shawn Colvin.
Now run as a nonprofit organization, the club has launched an archive project to document the vibrant history of folk music around Harvard Square, and a music-education project to bring folk music to children, as well as a series of classes to teach musical skills to the public.
All of these will receive proceeds from Friday's benefit. Rush has created a traveling series of Club 47 concerts to encourage and showcase young songwriters, with alumni including Alison Krauss and John Gorka.
The club itself, in that basement off the alley, continues to be a favorite venue of top roots musicians, including recent performers such as Kelly Joe Phelps, Catie Curtis and Tish Hinojosa.