The Songwriters Exchange and the Rebirth of American Folk
By Piero Capizzi
Translation by Kathy Fay
There was a time when folk, as a musical genre, seemed to be on the wane. The image of the folksinger armed with nothing more than a guitar and a harmonica had disappeared from the face of the earth. The poor songwriter appeared anachronistic and irrelevant for the public and the record industry. First buffeted by the gentle but powerful breeze of groups like Lovin’ Spoonful, Buffalo Springfield and above all Byrds, who brought an electric jolt to the sound; then rocked by the earthquake, with its waves of color and lysergic fragrances, produced by Beautiful People of San Francisco; it was finally swept away by the hurricane of the hard rock bands in the Seventies, headed by Led Zeppelin. In New York, cradle of the folk movement in the Sixties, many of the clubs that acted as incubators of the movement had closed or taken on a new identity. The Cafe Au Go Go and the Gaslight shut their doors in 1970 and ’71, respectively; shortly after the lights went out at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center and he retired to Stockholm, on the other side of the ocean; the Bitter End changed their name to Other End in 1975, only to return to their original name again years later, but focusing on artists who were already successful. Gerde’s Folk City, run by Mike Porco, was the only place still active in the city although, after moving to a new location in 1970, it began a slow decline that would only end with its closure in the Eighties.
To tell the truth, a single stronghold of original music continued to exist even in those dark years of the early Seventies when it seemed like the interest in folk music was dead. To find it, however, one had to leave Manhattan and travel for more than three hours, all the way to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. The little town between the Adirondacks and the Hudson River had been founded in the late 18th century as a resort to exploit the local springs, which supplied an excellent mineral water and attracted many visitors for their restorative properties. One of its highlights, then as now, was Caffè Lena, founded in 1960 by William and Lena Spencer. The club, which could rightfully claim to be the oldest coffeehouse in the United States, specialized in acoustic folk music. In 1961, at the dawn of his career, a young Bob Dylan, newcomer to the Big Apple, played there a couple of times and, in general, all the elite of the genre made the 200 mile trek from NYC to play at the little club, accepting the small fee that Lena could afford, for she had created a place where the musicians she booked felt more at home than in any other place in America. She was, herself, an adorable hostess: a plump little woman with a motherly attitude, affectionate and at the same time bold, and determined to defend her little club in spite of the fashions of the time. She opened her club before the great explosion of the folk revival and kept it alive even during the dark years for acoustic music, gritting her teeth and keeping faith with her values. Her audiences were very different from those of the coffee houses in the Village: they were mainly working class people (factory workers, farmers, traveling salesmen, shopkeepers) and not students. Consequently, Lena could afford to take chances and could risk bringing to her club young musicians or at least musicians who were not yet famous, certain that they would be successful or at the very least would feel the affection of the audience. A couple of times she faced the very real threat of closure and, on two occasions, top folk artists staged benefits that brought in enough money to keep the cafè open. Lena died in 1989 at the age of 66, and since then, the club has become a non-profit organization that continues to support the ideals of its founder. Anyone interested in learning more about the history and music of that magical place can find two collections, “Welcome to Caffe Lena” (Biography 12046, from 1972) which contains pieces by Rosalie Sorrels, Patrick Sky, Hedy West and Paul Geremia, among others, and a triple CD from 2013, “Live At Caffè Lena” (Tompkins Square 2967) which contains the best of Sixties and contemporary folk.
Returning to the city, in the mid-Sixties playing folk music in the Big Apple wasn’t easy. This was the situation Jack Hardy found when he moved to New York in 1975. The young man was a descendent of the Studebaker family, which had built an empire of wagons and stagecoaches first, and of automobiles later. His father Gordon was a musician, dean of students at the Juilliard School and former president of the Aspen Music Festival; his mother, Lillian, was a painter. In his own young life Jack, born in Indiana in 1947 and raised in Colorado, had already set a record: in 1969, while attending the University of Hartford in Connecticut, he was arrested and convicted of libel for a lewd cartoon attacking then President, Richard Nixon. Although his sentence was overturned on appeal, Hardy remains the only person in the history of the United States ever to be convicted of libeling a U.S. President. Still in school, he played with the band Some Dead Bears, which spread a message of social change, and proudly displayed a portrait of Che Guevara on stage by way of provocation. In 1971 young Jack published his first collection of songs, Jack Hardy (Great Divide 1759), still pretty rough around the edges, which he later semi-disowned. From the outset, he refused to accept the demands of the record industry, and inaugurated his status as a proud independent that he would maintain for the rest of his life, self-publishing all his work.
On his arrival in the Big Apple, unable to find anything better for himself, he decided to open his apartment to colleagues and aspiring musicians and make it the new home of folk music. The flat was located on the third floor of 178 West Houston Street and had been built in the late 19th century. It was a bohemian lodging with a bathtub in the kitchen and a separate toilet at the end of the hall. Hardy’s idea was very simple but powerful: every Monday evening he served a pasta dinner and wine to anyone who showed up at his door with a guitar and a new song. In this way he gathered around him a small tribe of young and not-so-young songwriters who could meet every week in a congenial environment, talk about music and politics, exchange views and above all stimulate one another to carry on with their art. Hardy acted as host, master of ceremonies and mentor, making suggestions, recommending revisions and adjustments, building friendships and professional connections. Right from the beginning, certain personality traits would characterize his style and way of operating. He saw the act of composition as a serious business requiring labor and fatigue. He was very strict in his judgment of what he wrote himself and of that which others submitted for his opinion. He didn’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt and he had no hesitation in rejecting a badly written song. This meant that his opinion was sought and at the same time feared by those who participated in his Mondays. Another striking feature was his way of making everyone welcome, and his immense generosity. He never refused to help, was always present and worked hard for the development of a movement that was the sole focus of his entire career.
In 1976 Jack decided to try again to self-publish a record. To say that The Mirror Of My Madness in its first version was a Spartan product would be a pure euphemism: published without a cover and without a label, with a photocopied insert of the texts and credits of the musicians, the album was like a pebble tossed into stagnant waters and, certainly, made few waves, at least until it was reprinted in 1980. Yet it was no less than a masterpiece! Accompanied by his brother Jeff on the bass and by two of the Roche sisters in the chorus, it contains at least two examples of absolute beauty like The Tailor and Down Where the Rabbits Run, and remains on excellent levels on both sides, with references to Dylan (Houston Street and Murder), upbeat ballads (Out of Control) and assays into folk blues (Victim of the Dawn). From these first solo trials, Jack had a clear idea of what his goals were in recording his works: he subjected his accompanists to a brief but intense rehearsal session before entering the studio and then expected to make a direct recording. One take, no retakes. He wanted to feel the interior urgency, the emotional excitement of the moment. Any stumbles or even little mistakes were part of the artistic fragility that he considered a strong point of his authenticity. As we will see, his choice to seize the moment, to capture the instantaneous act would remain an article of faith for him and a distinctive trait of his style.
Hardy was not the only one interesting in reviving the dying folk scene in New York. Three young artists, Charles McKenna, Raphaela Pivetta and Robin Hirsch, stumbled by accident on an abandoned site on Cornelia Street. The street that runs through the heart of the Village could boast a long history: named by a rich landowner in 1794 in memory of his beloved granddaughter, during the Prohibition era it had been the site of one of the most celebrated speakeasies, those sleazy clubs that sprang up amid the city’s night life, selling bootleg alcohol. It the Fifties and Sixties it was home to Caffè Cino, one of the outstanding locations for alternative artists to present their works of figurative art, poetry and off-off-Broadway theater. Early in July 1977, after months of minor repairs and cleanup, the trio opened the Cornelia Street Cafè at number 29. The equipment was minimal, a hot plate, a cappuccino machine and a tiny refrigerated display case of desserts which customers could order and consume. From the outset, the space opened to poetry readings, musical exhibitions and small theatrical performances. One of the first patrons of the cafè was a girl who arrived with her dog and always ordered a cold cappuccino. Almost immediately she offered to sing live and was hired. She stayed on full time as a singer and waitress. Her name was Carolyne Mas. Thanks to her, word got around among the musicians of her acquaintance and, starting in December of that year, Jack Hardy moved his Monday evenings to the new location: that was the official birth of the Songwriters Exchange. The rules for participating in the evenings were the same as always: open to anyone on condition that they played a brand new song written in the last week.
A couple of years later, the publication of the group’s manifesto signaled the maturity of the venue and its artistic movement. Cornelia Street – The Songwriters Exchange (Stash 301, published in 1980) is a milestone in the rebirth of the city’s folk spirit. The collection included twelve excellent compositions by eight artists who, at the time, formed the core of the new movement. Just to name a few, they included Rod MacDonald, who would come out with two fine records in the Eighties, with a note of merit for No Commercial Traffic (Cinemagic 8007, from 1983); Cliff Eberhardt, who presented here his lovely "Summers in New Jersey,” and later became a collaborator of Richie Havens and is still playing; David Massengill with his “Contrary Mary"; the duo Simon & Kaplanski with their moving love song “Say Goodbye Love” – of the two, Lucy Kaplansky would become one of the finest interpreters of the new folk with her soloist recordings on the Red House label; Tom Intondi, author of three self-produced LPs, including the excellent City Dancer (City Dancer 1, from 1976).
In the meantime, Hardy had already published his third work, obviously printed at his expense. The Nameless One (Great Divide 1761, from 1978) is considered by many critics to be his most mature work. It contains gems like “Dover to Dunkirk,” “Works and Days" and above all his splendid composition “The Vicious Cycle.” With respect to his previous work, his Irish roots are more obvious here (“May Day,” "The Three Sisters” and “Blackberry Pie"), while the instrumentation is more complex and evocative thanks to the accompaniment is his brothers Jeff and Chris, respectively, on the bass and violin, the drummer Howie Wyeth (who had previously worked with Dylan) and full complement of Roches sisters. His voice is also unmistakable, not powerful, but raw, extremely evocative and poignant. The lyrics are more mature and richer in social messages. Hardy is a cultured man, a great reader, particularly fond of poetry (T.S. Eliot and Yeats above all) and fascinated by Celtic mythology with its emphasis on the seasons and cycles of the earth. From the ancient bards he draws what he calls their three powers: to enchant, evoke and offend, even, in the political sense. In his compositions, he uses techniques that exploit the sounds of words and phrases, as well as rhetorical figures, to arouse emotions and trigger reactions. He is intent on writing songs that will be universal and will remain in time: “my definition of folk is music in which the song is more important than the singer.” This album brought the songwriter’s name to the attention of the world outside the American borders, all the way to Europe. In 1981, a tour of the Old World brought him to Italy for the first time, to the town of Samarate, near Varese, thanks to the organization of Paolo Carù, with the essential contribution of Adelmo Quadrio who published an excellent interview with Hardy, which then appeared in the newborn magazine, Il Buscadero.
The following year was a momentous one for the entire American neo-folk movement, thanks to yet another of Jack’s initiatives: the group of folksingers revolving around him coalesced into a cooperative and had taken possession of another club in the Village, the Speakeasy, which, for a while, would be their headquarters. In February 1982, the first issue of a record-magazine entitled The CooP: The Fast Folk Musical Magazine made its appearance. It was a vinyl of the best songs performed by the musicians at the evening exchanges, accompanied by a regular hardcopy journal with articles, texts of the song on the record (later CD) and letters to the editor. The plan was to come out every month with a new collection, offering each of the talented artists a vehicle to publish at least one song. “That was the whole idea of fast folk,” said Hardy, of that record-magazine. “You could listen to a song at an open mike or a jam session of songwriters, and two weeks later it would be broadcast on the radio in Philadelphia or Chicago. There was urgency, excitement.” It was an ambitious project and its popularity grew month by month, exceeding even the rosiest expectations. It put the spotlight on a number of artists who were destined to give new life to the folk movement. Over the fifteen years of its publication, it gave six hundred well-known and not so well-known authors the opportunity to record almost 2000 pieces in 100 volumes. The body of recordings is now part of the history of American music and is kept in the archives of the prestigious Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.
Obviously, the publication started as a statement of intent, a powerful but homemade vision, without too much in the way of advanced technology. To survive, it needed volunteers, who were often the musicians themselves. For example, the first subscription manager was a young songwriter who debuted in the first issue of the recorded magazine with her own composition “Cracking.” Her name? Suzanne Vega, a musician who with compositions like “Luka” would bring folk music to the attention of the public and the critics. Vega continued to publish her songs in the Fast Folk Magazine with stunning regularity until 1984 and remained close to Hardy and his tribe even after becoming a star, appearing, for example, in an album recorded live at the Bottom Line in 1988. With the expansion of distribution and of the number of listeners-readers, the magazine began to include artists from other American states. The April 1982 issue, for example, introduced Shawn Colvin, from Illinois, with the piece “I’m Talking To You,” that launched her toward the contract with Columbia and the many Grammy Awards she won during her career. The October 1985 issue marked the debut of a skinny Texan who always dressed in black and whose name was largely unknown, Lyle Lovett; the same issue featured the first notes of the Californian Cindy Lee Berryhill, who later authored two fundamental LPs for Rhino. In April 1986, when the publication dedicated an entire issue to the Boston scene, the opening piece, “For My Lover,” marked the breakthrough of another woman who would revolutionize the folk scene, Tracy Chapman. Finally, the December 1986 issue came out with a piece by the then-unknown Michelle Shocked, a secretary on the magazine who, as legend has it, helped Hardy and his friends staple up the librettos that were included with the records. It’s hard to find another project that launched as many talents as the Fast Folk Magazine!
In the meantime, Our Hero continued publishing records in his own name. In 1982 two of his albums came out, Landmark (Great Divide 1762) and White Shoes (Great Divide 1763), the former ready from some time earlier, for an abortive project for Flying Fish, and full of references to European tradition; the second more electric, urban and decidedly American. Both are good LPs, with a definite preference for the second, which contains two classics from his repertoire like “Femme Fatale" and the title track. That year Jack came back to Italy for his first tour of the country, organized by Adelmo Quadrio, his Italian manager and dear friend; among others he held a concert at the Cinema dei Circoli Riuniti, in Leffe, near Bergamo, a theater which mostly showed adult movies, establishing a collaboration and a personal relationship with the legendary musical promoter Gigi Bresciani. In 1984 he published The Cauldron (Great Divide 1767), another major work with a few extraordinary compositions like “Night Train to Paris,” “Fallen" and “The Silver Spoon,” scattered with the pagan symbolism so dear to its author.
The same year, Hardy returned to Italy for an extended tour that turned out to be quite an adventure. Jack, his brother Jeff, the guitarist Mark Dann, and the drummer Howie Morrel piled into the van supplied by the Premiata Ditta Rizzi, and the group headed south where they had several concerts booked (Galliate, Rapallo, Alzano Lombardo, Bologna, Florence). On the way to Rome, where Jack was scheduled for a concert at the Folkstudio, the van broke down and the group ended up stuck on the road, awaiting repairs, and forced to spend a night in the vehicle. Things went better for the tour in 1988 when, thanks to the interest Giancarlo Cesaroni, owner of the Folkstudio, Jack was invited to sing two of his compositions (“The Wren” and “The Hunter") on Andrea Barbato’s popular TV program “Va’ Pensiero.”
Of his later recordings, I’d like to call attention to The Hunter (Great Divide 1769, del 1987), another of the pearls of his production with songs like “Coyote,” “Dublin Farewell," "Dun Do Shuile” and “The Wedding Song,” and Two Of Swords (Great Divide 1771, del 1991), recorded live in his Houston Street flat, which contains “Forget-Me-Not,” one of his most touching compositions. In 1997, Hardy was awarded the Kate Wolf Memorial Prize, named for the great California songwriter who died far too soon at the age of just 44; the motivation explained that the award went to “an artist who makes a difference with his music.” It was in that same year that the Fast Folk Magazine project came to an end, partly due to the lack of volunteers to help with it and partly because digital technology made it easy for new artists to print their own CDs. The cooperative continued, however, to reorganize in the Fast Folk Cafè, a tiny club in the TriBeCa zone below Canal Street in New York, where the group struggled to survive the rent increases and municipal restrictions that wanted to limit live music. After the cafè had to close, the evening meetings of the songwriters continued every Monday night back at Hardy’s flat on Houston Street, where they had all started. Those meetings became so legendary as to be immortalized in the short story “In Hoboken” by Christian Bauman, who was inspired by Jack in the creation of one of his characters (Geoff Mason). A video made the rounds, explaining better than a thousand words, what the atmosphere was like in those musical evenings at his house. In the video, we see an already famous Suzanne Vega return to visit her mentor, bringing a new composition; Jack goes through the text with her with the air of a teacher and the tenderness of a friend, suggests a few changes, corrects a couple of passages. The complicity between the two is obvious. the songwriter listens to him, eyes shining with affection, then performs the song, holding the page with the lyrics on her knees. When, in 2000, Hardy’s landlord tried to evict him, the entire folk scene, with Vega at its head, rose up and took action to protect that cult location. In 2001 he experienced the awful tragedy of the death of his brother Jeff in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers.
In 2010 he came to Italy once again for what would be his last exhibition in this country. At the Teatro del Cuscino in Novara, in a concert organized by his friend Quadrio, he sang one of his songs in Italian, “Brigata Garibaldi," dedicated to the grandfather of songwriter Frank Mazzetti, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. A short time later lung cancer would take Jack from us suddenly, on March 11, 2011, at the age of just 63. A few years later, the friends of a lifetime paid him the tribute of a double CD, A Tribute To Jack Hardy (Smithsonian Folkways 60007, in 2016), in which his pieces were reinterpreted by, among others, Suzanne Vega, Nanci Griffith, Rod MacDonald, Lucy Kaplansky, Terre Roche and John Gorka.
Hardy left an indelible imprint with his solo production, in addition to his activity as a promoter of the folk scene and discoverer of talents. His dream of seizing the artistic act at the instant of its performance to capture all its energy would have been applauded by Marinetti and the Italian Futurists. There is no doubt that in a hypothetical list of unsung heroes of the singer-songwriter world and of artists little known yet hugely important, Hardy occupies an outstanding role among the most influential personalities of American music in the past century. Lucinda Williams, who knows whereof she speaks when it comes to great songs, expressed all her love for Hardy when she said “Jack wrote some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.” And who can doubt Lucinda!
P.S.: I’d like to thank Cesare Rizzi, Adelmo Quadrio and Gigi Bresciani for letting me rummage around in the attics of their memories.
Original article in Italian and translation provided with kind permission of Adelmo Quadrio and Il Buscadero.