DUKES FANS The Early Days pt 2
This is the second installment of a little memoir piece I was moved to write after several conversations with long time and recent music- making friends looking back on our early days playing music in Philadelphia. Part 1 was in last week’s newsletter, but if you didn’t see and are interested you can read it either on our website (www.dukesofdestiny.com) or on our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/dukesofdestiny)
Pt 2-The Square, Coffeehouses and Loving the Music
The United States was undergoing rapid change on all fronts in the mid-1960’s, and Philadelphia was no exception. The so-called “generation gap” had hit, and everything from clothes to music to media to politics and more was changing and being challenged. The Civil Right Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War movements brought marches, demonstrations and petition signing into the public. “Hippies” and longhairs were seemingly coming out of the woodwork with their long hair, denim jackets, blue jeans, and tee shirts with political and/or rude comments on them. The Black Power Movement saw many blacks wearing their hair natural rather than straightening it. Political buttons, peace symbols, drug use, music, and more clearly marked new social and political delineations in the country. The clear line of behavior that people thought of as emblematic of the 1950’s was more and more being challenged and replaced by what many people came to see as a “movement” toward more freedom loving lifestyle. Movements need their own places, and they need their own soundtrack. In mid-196o’s Philadelphia, Center City’s Rittenhouse Square provided some of both.
Located between 18 and 19th Streets and Locust and Walnut Streets, the Square became the hub of a rising new social and musical scene, a place where all types of people gathered, from chess players and poets to musicians, political activists, and pot smokers. It was a place to hang out and talk politics or art, and most importantly, to play music. Guitarists, flute players, harp players, and more were there from the late afternoons into the evening most days. Jamming happened on a regular basis. A truly magical and vibrant musical scene grew up around the Square, and I was privileged to have been involved with it. It was here through the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that I started playing seriously, and I met some wonderful musicians. Hanging around the Square I got to hang with a number of great harp players including a young Steve Guyger, Richard Johnson, later from Philly Gumbo, Dave Lowenstein, Saul Brody, and others There were also a number of great guitarists I jammed and traded licks with, and playing with them was how I started to learn what it meant to play WITH someone and accompany rather than constantly soloing. The Square, then, was my” training ground” as well as one of my first “stages.” It put me in touch with an incredible network of aspiring and established musicians. And I was continuing to improve.
During these times there were a slew of small coffeehouses that magically sprang up in different neighborhoods all around the city. Churches were losing young congregants, and I think many of them, especially Episcopal churches for some reason, thought providing coffeehouses could draw some young people back to church. The Episcopal Church at Lincoln Drive and Carpenter Lane in Mt Airy had a weekly Saturday night coffeehouse where many young people held mini-concerts, poetry readings, jams and sing along. St. Mary’s Episcopal in West Philly on the Penn campus also had a regular coffeehouse where I sat in with other young musicians on a regular basis.. (That later became the site of the Cherry Tree Folk Club). Diane Bryman’s carpet store in Chestnut Hill had a coffeehouse on the second floor, which was where I actually got an early paying gig ($15.00). These were places where I hung out with and met a lot of musicians, and most importantly, had countless opportunities to play and jam. Yes, I made a whole slew of mistakes and errors. But I was playing continually, and that is the only way to learn music. And it was playing in these venues where I gained a lot of valuable experience, improved as a player, and learned to be a performer.
The other thing I needed in my early days was chances to see real musicians in action, and Philadelphia provided that. The city had had an established folk music scene before the 1960’s, and it provided places where I got to hear, see and even meet some of my musical heroes. The Glided Cage was on 21st Street. Run by Ed and Esther Halpern, the Cage was a restaurant and coffeehouse where I got to hear both local musicians and national acts. I got to hear folks such as Dave Van Ronk, and Buffy St. Marie, and it was where I first had French Onion soup (smile). It expanded both my social land musical scenes.
The 2nd Fret was another place that was a staple of the Philadelphia scene. Located at 1902 Sansom Street and owned and operated by Manny Rubin, it was a place that featured different types of folk music including plenty of blues. I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie Mc Ghee there at least twice, and they even recorded an LP there. I saw Skip James there several times, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, and James Cotton, who gave me a couple of harp lessons. Around the corner from the Fret was the Guitar Workshop a great music store and guitar school the featured legendary Philadelphia guitarist Jerry Ricks among its teachers. If you knew some of the Workshop folks, you could hang out there and meet several musicians who were playing the Fret when they came in for supplies and/or just to hang out. Out in Bryn Mawr was the Main Point, a club that, like the Fret, included a diverse lineup of performers. I somehow got money together to go to these places, heard, met and jammed with some of my favorite musicians, and kept growing as a harp player. They encouraged me, gave me tips, and fed my insatiable musical appetite. And by the mid 1970’s I thought of myself as a harp player. Yes, I was a bank teller, a security guard, a broommaker, and eventually a teacher as well. But through it all, I was also a maker of music; I was a musician.
I’ve rarely been a full-time musician-I tried that for two years and decided that I liked being able to eat and pay rent regularly. But I defined myself as a musician by the early 1970’s, and I have been one ever since. I am grateful for the music scene in Philly during the mid-late 1960’s and early 70’s and the experiences with which it presented me. It was a time of learning, experimentation, new experiences and growth as both a musician and as a person. Had I not been at that place a that time, who knows what might have happened?? As it was I had a wonderful first step on what has been a long lasting and major part of my life. I would not have had it any other way.
(The Philly folk and rock music scene exploded by the mid-1970’s.There were clubs on Walnut and Sansom Streets by 1968: Artemis and the 2nd of Autumn on Sansom Street, and The Artist’ Hut and The Magic Theater on Walnut. Clubs also opened in different neighborhoods as well with Grendel’s Lair and World Control Studies in Germantown, and the Trauma and Electric Factory north of Center City. A number of players who later became nationally known musicians emerged from the area at the time: Jim Croce, Todd Rungren, Daryll Hall, John Oates, and Steve Guyger among them. Here are a couple of sites that look back at that scene: