Coffeehouses: Folk Music, Culture, and Counterculture

The following is a guest post by Nancy Groce, Senior Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center. originated as opening remarks for the forum cafes: folk music, culture and counterculture, which took place last week in the library’s montpelier room. Eventually, webcasts of the event will be added to the library’s website and will be accessible from the 2014 benjamin botkin lecture series webpage.

Historically, American folk and traditional music was produced in homes, churches, and traditional community venues such as neighborhood taverns, juke joints, community halls, beer gardens, and ethnic clubs. After the second world war, inspired in part by small informal jazz clubs and beatnik poetry immersions, folk music began to be featured in and identified with cafes. Today, in the world of folk music, the lines between house concerts, folk clubs, cafes, and slightly more commercial food and music venues like Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, or Town Crier Cafe in Pawling, New York, are sometimes blurred. however, they all share an atmosphere and performance culture that offers both performers and audiences a musical experience considerably different from what they would experience if attending a performance in a concert hall or theater.

Reading: History of coffee shops in america

Long before they were associated with folk music, coffee shops had a distinctive history of their own. In 1555, a coffee shop was registered in Constantinople. They spread throughout the Muslim world, and by the 17th century, coffeehouses were becoming popular in Western Europe. Coffeehouses appeared in England in 1652, first in Oxford and then in London. In 1675, England had more than 3,000 coffee houses. Cafés fared equally well in Paris, where they became the main meeting places for French Enlightenment. America’s first coffee shop was established in 1676, in Boston.

Early Western coffee shops often had the latest newspapers and encouraged conversation. they were places of “social leveling”: open to all men regardless of class or profession, though not necessarily open to women. They were also convenient places for businessmen to meet and catch up on the latest news and gossip. Major companies were founded in coffee shops: London’s insurance giant Lloyd’s and auction houses like Christie’s & Sotheby’s was born out of London’s café culture. In the United States, the organization that later became the New York Stock Exchange began in the Cafe Tontine on Manhattan’s Wall Street; Believe it or not, the location of that coffee shop is why “wall street” is now synonymous with global finance.

During the 19th century, coffeehouses faded somewhat as their wealthier patrons were lured into private clubs and cheap liquor establishments offered patrons cheap sodas and “free lunches.” however, in the early 20th century they were reinvigorated by the temperance movement and, more importantly, by the mass immigration of Italians. It’s no coincidence that places that had Italian immigrant communities, like New York’s Greenwich Village, Boston’s North End, and San Francisco’s North Beach, were also where folk music cafes first appeared.

Italian-style cafes brought with them espresso machines, pastries, and a casual, intimate, slightly edgy atmosphere that encouraged progressive political conversations. in the postwar years, it proved an ideal match for the guitar-playing soloists, idealistic singer-songwriters, and the unamplified ethnic and rural-inspired ensembles of the early folk music revival. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Italian-style coffee houses featuring American folk and folk revival musicians were established throughout the United States.

It’s hard to find a quick and clear definition of folk music cafés, but in their own advertising materials, certain phrases appear again and again. For one, most coffee shops boast that their atmosphere is “intimate,” “friendly,” “casual,” and “relaxing.” many explicitly state that they are “kid/family friendly.” they are almost universally smoke-free and often alcohol-free as well. almost all serve moderately priced “hot and cold drinks” (usually fair trade) and “tempting homemade desserts” (usually organic). At New Moon Cafe in Haverhill, Massachusetts, coffee is only $1 for the whole night “if you bring your own cup.”

See also: Thiết kế cafe kết hợp khu vui chơi trẻ em ( cafe kid )

The highlight is that they are non-profit or volunteer-run organizations that pride themselves on “presenting the best in contemporary and traditional folk music.” musical styles can vary greatly from week to week, but are generally described by the umbrella term “acoustic.”

admission is sometimes a pay-what-you-wish donation collected in baskets, jars, or hats; however, today, it is more common for a modest admission fee to be charged or strongly suggested. The Minstrel Coffeehouse in Morristown, New Jersey, suggests you pay “$8 when you get in, plus the balance of what you think the show was worth when you leave.” On his website, The Wild Hog in the Woods Coffeehouse, which has hosted weekly folk concerts in Madison, Wisconsin, for 35 years, notes:

the entrance pays the rent. artists are paid with money that the public deposits in our ceramic boar piggy bank, affectionately called phillup the pig (pronounced fill-up).

Coffeehouses play important roles in America’s cultural landscape. First, coffee shops provide publicly accessible spaces to listen to a variety of musical styles and performers. Before the rise of coffee shops, there were few places where middle-class Americans (and because of the location of the first coffee shops, we’re talking primarily white, urban, and suburban middle-class Americans) could listen to artists of racial origins. and ethnic groups very different from their own; Or meet artists who came from remote parts of rural America. As such, coffee shops have served as “nexus spots,” places that brought together people, things, and ideas that might not otherwise have crossed paths.

Coffee shops used to be small, intimate spaces, so solo performers playing quieter instruments (guitars, for example) and smaller ensembles were a plus. folk and ethnic traditions that called for larger, louder ensembles—tamburitza orchestras or sacred harp-singing plazas, for example—did not become café staples. the lack of space also meant that dancing was not a common feature of cafes.

Coffeehouses also gained a reputation for being friendlier and less nervous places than the jazz clubs and beat poetry bars that preceded them. part of this was due to a lack of liquor and, at least initially, drugs, certainly hard drugs. their “cleaner” image allowed coffee shops to attract a younger, middle-class crowd. however, as in early jazz and beat poetry clubs, patrons were expected to listen to the performers, not talk about them or dance around them. and like their beat predecessors, coffee shops were also thought of as liberal-leaning, slightly “bohemian” places. The connection between folk music and progressive “message music,” already present in urban folk revival circles during the 1930s and 1940s, found a welcome home in the coffeehouses of the 1950s.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, many of the folk music cafés that sprang up across America were on or near college campuses. there, they benefited from being liquor-free and its aspirational message, as well as a growing scholarly interest in American folklore and traditional culture. the number of cafes established by, or located in, liberal churches, especially Unitarian Universalist churches, warrants its own study.

Because of their relaxed atmospheres, intimate size, and culture of honoring artists, cafes encouraged mixing of audiences and artists. there was literally no backstage for the performers to retreat to, so they were generally accessible to audience members who wanted to meet them. This may not sound like much, but it was, especially as it allowed audience members and performers to circumvent many of the race and class boundaries that were prevalent in the 1950s and early 1960s, when, even in northern cities, black performers were often discouraged from interacting with white patrons in places like nightclubs and cabarets.

See also: Can You Open K-Cups and Use Them in Regular Coffee Makers?

furthermore, even before kingston trio’s 1958 mega-hit “tom dooley” inspired the rise of commercial folk, coffeehouses were “in”. They were places that defied the conservative blandness of Eisenhower’s 1950s America. especially for many younger Americans, folk music was their rebellion against middle-class life. where else could middle class suburban kids talk to African American sharecroppers in Mississippi or Appalachian Mountaineers about the powerful music they all loved?

The small size of coffeehouses and the lack of liquor and dancing meant that in most cities, coffeehouse owners or organizers did not need to obtain formal cabaret licences, liquor licenses or dancehall licences. (Though this wasn’t true in New York, which is why pay-what-you-wish “basket houses” were so popular in Greenwich Village.)

Although few of the early coffee shops charged admission, the owners often made quite a bit of money selling food and drink. however, performers were less well funded. Although artists usually received some payment, at least from donation baskets or hats passed, that amount could be extremely modest, especially for local artists. it became traditional for artists to receive at least part of their pay as free or discounted food and drink.

out of town touring artists can expect a little longer as payment. today, touring artists typically receive a modest guarantee and additional money if they attract a large audience. however, their cash payment is often supplemented by other, less structured, but expected support. for example, cafeteria owners or workers are typically expected to provide lodging, food, and local transportation for touring artists. These “add-ons” continue to be an important part of the economic underpinnings of today’s coffeehouse circuit, but they also create a wonderful sense of community. this leads to deeper and more extended interactions between touring professional musicians, local semi-professional musicians, and fans. creates a very personal artist-audience relationship that does not exist in many other forms of contemporary art.

This informal but essential business arrangement allows artists on the coffeehouse circuit to make a living at least nominally. Today, the economics of touring, whether alone or with a small band, means that you not only have to play some well-paying gigs, which often take place on weekends in concert halls and theaters, but that you also have to avoid losing money on the nights between their biggest concerts. that’s why even the best-known artists are usually happy to play in coffee shops.

Cafés, with their informal atmospheres and generally sympathetic audiences, provide an excellent entry point for new talent: a portal where emerging artists can hone their craft, whether they’re performing strictly traditional material or sampling their own songs . as the trinity backstage coffeehouse in santa barbara, california explains on its website, it features “…the best artists you’ve never heard of.”

Finally and most importantly, what coffee shops did historically and what they continue to do today is create local communities around music. Most venues host concerts or open mic nights at least one night a week, and these are usually not short nights. to operate, cafeterias must rely on significant commitments of time and effort from their largely volunteer staff. however, for those who are involved in their operation or acting in them, cafes are a central and very significant part of their lives.

See also: Blended Coffee Frappe


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