Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
In the 1950s and 1960s, Sunday afternoons were spirited times in Washington Square Park. For several hours folk singers, accompanied by enthusiasts, performed in the public space. In a convivial atmosphere, they played their guitars, banjos, and mandolins and sang tunes like “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” “Blue Tail Fly,” and “Hey Lolly, Lolly Lo.” They were mostly white, middle-class young adults, liberal in their politics. Professionals and amateurs alike congregated and exchanged ideas in the square, creating a synergy that honed the skills of many. In his autobiography Theo (1994), folk singer Theodore Bikel marveled, “Where else could young – or not so young – singers test their mettle in a public place?” Washington Square, in fact, was the city’s liveliest folk performance space, a subject explored in the Museum of the City of New York’s upcoming Folk City exhibition, opening June 17, 2015.
During this period, folk music culture, nurtured in lofts, cafés, hootenannies, private parties, political rallies, and concert halls, created feelings of communalism, belonging, and solidarity among participants. The distinction between performers and audience members became blurry, especially when everyone sang in unison. In Cold War New York it reflected an egalitarian ethos, often tinged by Leftist politics. This Frederick Kelly photograph from 1962, in the City Museum’s collection, illustrates the collective spirit.
On a typical warm Sunday during the Eisenhower era, six or seven groups of musicians gathered in the park, the majority of them by the Washington Square Arch at the foot of Fifth Avenue or on the rim of the centrally located fountain. Though divisions were never rigid or fixed, folk singers usually gravitated toward others with similar interests. For example, there were the Zionists, who were conspicuous, as they danced to songs like “Hava Nagilah” in the square’s southern part by Sullivan Street. The Labor Youth Leaguers, a Marxist-Leninist organization, featuring guitarist Jerry Silverman, sang union songs, such as “Hold the Fort.” The bluegrassers staked out another area, led by Roger Sprung and Lionel Kilberg. The colorful assemblies became a launching pad for several careers. As folk singer Dave Van Ronk recalled in his posthumously published memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005), “That Washington Square Sunday afternoon scene was a great catalyst for my whole generation.”
At the end of the Eisenhower era, as Greenwich Village became the epicenter of the nationwide folk music revival, Washington Square became the focal point of the budding counterculture. Bearded musicians in berets played in the park, giving it a kaleidoscopic texture. An array of photographs by Nat Norman, in the City Museum’s collection, captures the vitality of the scene.
The square epitomized the mutual values and cooperative orientation among folkies. As New York Times reporter Michael James observed in 1959, “Musicians, many with guitars, some with banjos, a few with mandolins and one or two with bass viols, share the fountain with Greenwich Villagers, tourists, cats and dogs and a clicking corps of photographers.”
At the time, folk music culture in the park blended with other social trends in Greenwich Village. Beatniks, African Americans, and gays increasingly attended the weekly gatherings, not necessarily to sing but to mingle in the sprightly environment. Single people often looked for dating partners. Parents sometimes brought their children. Many New York University students spent their leisure in the park. New Yorker Robert J. Silverstein described the scene in 1961 as “one place in America where people of whatever race or color could mingle and be with whomever they wished.”But not everyone appreciated the gatherings. Dismayed by the crowds and the influx of “freaks,” New York City Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris officially banned folk singing in Washington Square in 1961. Morris received support from lower Fifth Avenue residents, longtime South Villagers, and some New York University officials. But a “Right to Sing” movement, organized by Reverend Howard Moody of Judson Memorial Church and Folklore Center proprietor Izzy Young, formed in response and succeeded in pressuring Mayor Robert Wagner to repeal the measure. Folk City, the exhibition’s companion volume, portrays the controversy as a cultural clash.
Washington Square Park was decidedly informal and casual, as these photographs reflect. It was crowded but did not teem with people. There were no opportunities for commercial success for folk singers, just kindred spirits enjoying the musical and social scene. Folk singer Happy Traum remembered his excitement taking the subway from the Bronx to Greenwich Village as a teenager in the 1950s to play his guitar in Washington Square. He saw familiar faces every Sunday. The enthusiasm was palpable. Traum was learning to play the guitar and getting good at it.
“We felt like we were part of a real something happening,” Traum recalled. “In the forefront of something, sort of in the vanguard of some kind of movement, but only we knew about it. It was something very special.”