Music in Cambridge

Geoff Bartley

Geoff Bartley


Interviewed by Katrina Morse

Geoff Bartley: We’re getting level, and you’re recording!

Katrina Morse: We’re recording.

GB: Very impressive.

KM: Ok. So I’m speaking with Geoff Bartley. Geoff, I was wondering if you could just introduce yourself and talk a bit about your musical background and your involvement with music here in Cambridge.

GB: I was born in 1948 and grew up hearing classical music--my mother played piano and my dad played clarinet. He was a doctor, though, we didn’t see much of him. I took up clarinet in the fourth grade, and then about 1962 got interested in the guitar, acoustic guitar. I had no social life and no social skills, so I just spent a lot of time practicing acoustic guitar. I went to school in Boston in 1967, and during those years and earlier listened to a lot of jazz, primitive and modern. I got deeper and deeper into black modern jazz--’66, ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70. But I was still playing guitar all this time, acoustic guitar. I got very influenced by pre-war acoustic blues; Robert Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell, etc. etc., because a lot of these guys were really good acoustic guitar players, very articulate finger style, acoustic guitar players, and most of the players that I admired, and I bet most of the acoustic guitar players that would come up in your mind, learned from these guys. Just go down the list. Tom Rush, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Mick Fleetwood, Ry Cooder, on and on and on. So, these guys were really good. Dave Van Ronk was a big influence on me, the way he played old blues and jazz, how great a singer he was, how he could deliver a line. He was singing early Joni Mitchell songs before she was famous, even early Leonard Cohen songs. He picked great stuff, he was an intellectual, he was very robust intellectually and very widely read, intelligent, great sense of humor. By seventy-three I was making my living playing in bars and coffee houses. I never was able to become good enough to generate loyal enough and large enough audiences in enough American cities to make profitable touring, and I did that all the way up through the end of the eighties. Going out to the Midwest, to the far West--California, playing out there, Oregon, and Washington and states in between. In the eighties I won four guitars at a big contest in Winfield, Kansas, called the National Fingerpicking Championships. So all I was doing in those years I was making records--didn’t make many because they were expensive, and played everywhere I could. About 1990 things changed for me and I realized that I didn’t have enough people skills and I wasn’t a good enough natural entertainer, and I don’t think I also had enough personal confidence, to be really good at traveling from everywhere to everywhere and trying to generate loyal audiences in enough American cities to make it worthwhile. Some people would come out to see me and I got good reviews generally, but also things got very tight. By the time 1980 rolled around and enormous amounts of money began flowing from the hands of many into the hands of the few--Ronald Reagan was president, enormous amounts of wealth began flowing to the hands of fewer and fewer people, so the result of this was a lot of the good paying college coffee houses really dried up. In the seventies and the very early eighties they were run by college students who were musicians and who were interested in poetry and self-expression and the arts, and interested in playing guitar and etc. etc. By 1985 they were all being run by business major who wouldn’t be caught dead there, because folkies were square and it was nerdy, so business majors were running this just to get extra credit on their transcripts, and the whole collection of well-run college coffee houses that paid well began evaporating. Lots of other gigs began evaporating. Also, this was a time, the very beginning of the consumer home digital revolution, so music was being put out on CDs, it was being digitized, it could be moved around much faster, much cheaper, and there began to be an attitude that music should not have to be paid for. Napster and other filesharing software are the ones that come to mind. It’s an incredible time that we’re going through. I don’t feel bad about this because this is just going to lead to more things, and we don’t know where. In the short-term I think “Well, that’s not too good. If somebody’s listening to my songs, playing my songs in their car, listening to my songs and I’m not making a dime, I’m not making a cent, that’s unjust.” But you know, the end of the story hasn’t been written. The fact is that music is a product that is not only very valuable in this culture but it’s really easy to turn into ones and zeroes, and a song can be sent around the world at the speed of light. So what’s happening now is all the legal foliage is starting to grow up around the new, incredibly mind-blowing, earth-shattering, digital revolution. We’ve just begun to see the very beginning of this. So, I’m starting to see more royalties come in from my products that are only available as digital products now. I think it’ll get better. Also, things like Pandora and the World Wide Web are leveling the playing field between me and Lil Wayne or Bruce Springsteen. The playing field is getting leveled now because if people like your music, they can get it. The can get it and they can get it cheap. We’re not dependent on stores that have an exclusive distribution deal with Warner Brothers or Columbia or whatever. We’re way past the age of radio payolla. It’s wide open. It’s the new Wild West. Somebody with a computer and a chunk of bandwidth sitting in a house in Frankfurt or Belgium or somewhere, man, you can reach anybody! You can reach every corner of the globe. It’s a whole new thing. The whole digital...and right now, you know, this is March first in 2011, even the big acts are not making their money on CD sales or the sales of mp3s, digital files of their songs. Where are they making their money? They’re making their money on box office, on their shows. It’s getting really, really hard to do this, so what we’re seeing right now, in the present time, is huge shows. Huge shows that are being sponsored by companies that don’t want to hear from you unless you’re talking lots of money. This is ok, this is just another phase of this, this current economic environment regarding the ones and zeroes that music can be reduced to. You’re seeing huge shows come out. I think it’s really fun, frankly. It’s great. Lady Gaga. Unbelievable. And it’s marketing and put out products there that you want. Really music is about entertainment, basically. As a musician, personally, I’m much more involved with music as a transformative or cathartic art form that helps people reconnect with their humanity and realize what is valuable about living. As music has had to become, and has become, more and more and more of a multi-billion dollar industry, you’re seeing the same things happen as with news, say, for example. You want to be a star, you have to grab people’s attention. To grab people’s attention you got to be outrageous, and as soon as you get into that conversation then it’s no longer about meaning, it’s no longer about documenting the human experience in terms that are real--the world of commercial music is not about real--folk music, on the other hand, is about real events in the lives of real people, and that tends to be where I go with my writing and choosing songs by other people that I actually learn. You know what I mean? That’s one of the things that has made Cambridge and greater Boston valuable to me since I began playing in this area in 1970. Not only was there Club Passim, where you could hear Dave Van Ronk and Doc Watson and go down the list--fabulous, fabulous folk artists--but it’s also a place where the Nameless Coffee House was. You had to audition to play there, and you didn’t get paid, but it was a place that if you got chosen to play there, that was a real compliment. That started about 1970 or so, round in there. When I first got hired to play the Nameless Coffee House in Harvard Square, it was some time in 1972, and I was thrilled. I was. I’ve seen music become more and more ubiquitous since 1970. You can play for tips at a Starbucks. Lots of church coffee houses in southern New England. There are a lot of them. Not so much in the rest of the country. But Massachusetts is an unusual, intellectual hub. Francis Child, who collected all the Child Ballads, documenting the relationships between the royals in western Germany and the United Kingdom, those songs were written, you know, what are we talking about here? As early as 1600 and as late as 1800. Roughly that’s the thing. They go back a little farther than that. The Child Ballads. They’re not called Child Ballads because they were written about children, they were collected by Francis Child and they are traditional ballads, in English and variants thereof, that document what was happening in western Europe and the UK. Princes, kings, murders, infidelities, incest, all the rest of it. These songs are quite accurate, and Francis Child is buried in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and graduated from Harvard. So it seems to me that it’s not coincidence that this area is still very welcoming to singer/songwriters. People who are talking about issues that I think are important, contrasted with New Orleans, you have music that is designed to help you forget your cares and celebrate, this wing of folk music is not really about that. This wing of folk music that I’m interested in mostly carries a different level of meaning with it. I’m not beyond playing music for fun, certainly, but there’s more that can be done with music. It’s not just about drinking and getting laid and jumping around, there’s this other wing to it, and personally I am drawn to that wing of it, but that’s just me. Ok, that’s an incredible amount of blabbing.

KM: That was great. You sort of covered what I was going to ask you about, what makes Cambridge unique as a music city. I know that you’ve done some touring across the US, as you said. Could you maybe contrast a little bit with other cities that you’ve played in? How is the tone different, how are the crowds different, what do you notice?

GB: You know, I never really spent enough time in other cities and was not thinking along these lines when I was there. Los Angeles is not nearly as welcoming or understanding about folk musicians, because that is an industry town. Industry. We’re not talking about playing for seventy-two dollars, you know what I mean? These guys don’t want to talk to you unless you for other places, you’d think, wouldn’t you, you’d think that any city with a young urban population, young, college, urban population--Ann Arbor comes to mind--Madison, Wisconsin comes to mind--you know, if they would similarly have the kinds of things that we would find here, making it so attractive. But let’s consider a couple of other things. Deep, deep radio. Deep radio. What else. Libraries. You go to Florida, they don’t have any libraries! People here read! They don’t make martinis and sit around. People here study, they don’t go out and get blind drunk and fall down in the street. Well, sometimes they do.

KM: There’s a bit of that.

GB: What else is going on here. This is where the Puritans came and settled. Other parts of the country do not have this very strict Puritan ethos that is still governing our events in this state, and in southern New England in general. Boston compared to New York is a student town. Boston also has this very, very rough underbelly that contrasts with its intellectual strata. Harvard and MIT are here. These people are fucking brilliant. There’s a whole different thing with the culture. The local culture is rough, immigrant, Irish, Italian culture, etc. etc. Interesting. So why is greater Boston and southern New England so great for this music. I don’t know. But over the years I’ve been asked the same question in various ways and I come down to the same conclusion that I’ve been blabbing about here and that is the way in this part of the world education is valued, and that has generated deep, deep radio and deep print media, also. What does this mean. This means that people who are on the radio and people who are writing in the newsprint media are educated. Not that people in other cities aren’t, but it’s different here in some way. There’s just a great depth of education, I think hooked with the fact that there are, what, 130 colleges and universities in the greater Boston are, hooked with things like Mass General Hospital, a hospital that was copied by cities all the way to the West Coast, the fact that Harvard and MIT are responsible for the whole tenor and outlook of America’s business and judicial community; law school, med school, MIT--these people are smart. So that’s my thinking about that. We are sensitive to arts. We have good writers, we have people on the radio who are not spouting jackass bullshit like Rush Limbaugh and these other assholes. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Rush--why does he say the things that he says that are so outrageous? Why? So people will listen to his show so he can make money. But at some point you have to say that this kind of radio appeals to the lowest common denominator of the human intellect. These people are taking their listeners for a ride, they are bullshitting these people just to get ratings and to stir up trouble and to hit the wasp nest with a broomstick. They are not contributing to a meaningful and realistic, fact-based dialog about politics or anything else in this country, and we are ripe for it. We don’t pay attention to anything unless it’s got a size thirty-six chest or hits us over the head with a baseball bat. There’s a lot of old money in this area, and generally old money is not stupid. You think you’re two steps ahead of old money, you’re probably wrong. So there is something going on in this area where an awful lot of intellectual vigor and robustness that is impervious to horseshit and the more that this country slides into horseshit, the more I think things about southern New England or greater Boston or any city that has its head wired to its ass, because it’s going to become a lot more obvious and valuable in the culture. The other thing is, follow the money, oh my god. But that’s enough about that. I’m angry about the direction this country’s taken.

KM: So are a lot of people.

GB: I don’t think many people are yet. I don’t think many people are connecting the dots. I mean, if they were connecting the dots, how in the world would they ever want Sarah Palin to be their spokeswoman? Newt Gingrich is going to run for office in 2012.

KM: So, to expand on what we were talking about in terms of the music culture, Cambridge, and indeed Boston, does have such a wealth of musical talent and such a vibrant music culture, but it seems to have not made a national name for itself in the way that other, comparably-sized music cities, like Austin, Nashville, Seattle, San Francisco have. Do you agree with that, and why do you think that it? Do you think it’s intentional, or what are your thoughts on that?

GB: Here’s the thing that first jumps into my mind. I think the southern New England and this area is really well-known for the, how do you describe it, the singer-songwriter folk and new folk, contemporary singer-songwriter, John Gorka, Dar Williams, Susan Werner--

KM: Tracy Chapman--

GB: Tracy Chapman. She’s an exception, though, because she was signed to a major label and made many millions of dollars.

KM: She is well-known, it’s true.

GB: None of those other people that I mentioned have come close to selling a million records, so that was a different kind of a thing.

KM: And I don’t know that Tracy is necessarily linked in people’s minds with Cambridge, either, the way that other bands are linked to cities.

GB: That’s right. She got her start here because she went to Tufts. She sang on the streets. Ellis Paul has come out of this area, but he came to BC on a track scholarship from Maine. Lori McKenna lives here. She’s got five kids now and sold all those songs to Faith Hill. Good songwriter. Who else have we got. Chris Smither, but he’s blues and folk. I’m sort of in that kind of a patch. Chris Smither has been a big influence on me. Who else came out of this area. Well, Jimmy Infantino, who’s not nearly as well-known as he should be because he is fucking brilliant. Very good musician, very bright, very sharp. Jim’s Big Ego is his trio. I don’t know if you know this guy. Doesn’t matter. Ok, who else? Bob Franke, but you probably don’t know who Bob Franke is. He is Christian, but you wouldn’t know it, really, to hear him except that he is--but that’s neither here nor there. His strongest audience is in the Pacific Northwest. He’s had songs recorded that he has written by many many people who are quite famous in the folk world. I’m trying to think. What was your question? Something about why has Boston never become an actual music town? I think it’s because the universities that are here are thinking--I could be wrong about this--but I think their thing is--let me see if I can express this, this is hard to express. What determines policy. Well, I think the educational institutions in this area, I think, have a more profound effect on what goes on here than people--I could be wrong about this, but what I’m thinking is this: coming to this area, the richest, most socially sleek, most connected, most powerful people in the world send their sons and daughters to be educated right here. Right here. In Harvard, MIT, Lincoln Labs, and all these connected, heavy-duty educational facilities with deep, deep connections and deep, deep money. And I think the message that goes along in here in the subtext is “You’re going to educate my son or my daughter, and if you don’t, we’re going to make so much trouble for you that you wish you were dead. You are not going to allow anybody--not the mayor of Cambridge, not the mayor of Boston, not the police commission, not nobody--to have bars open later than two o’clock, you’re going to shut down the subway system. We want our students home, in their dorm room, studying and not drunk on the fucking street, and if you fuck with us we’re going to rip your nuts off.” That’s what I think is going on. That’s where the power is. That’s what I think. I could be wrong about this. The other thing is that Boston is very small. It’s small. It has a different kind of money here. Music money tends to be pretty slimy. Slimy, gooey. There’s another kind of money that runs Boston, and it’s old, blue-blood, yankee money that does not snort cocaine. That’s what I think. That’s what I think is keeping Boston from becoming a major. But it’s working perfectly for Berklee, because that helps them. It works perfectly for the Longy School of Music. It works well for the New England Conservatory. It works well for them in the same way that it works well for MIT and Harvard. You want to produce smart people, you probably don’t want to take them to a city where they can stay out partying and drinking until five a.m. and get arrested and run over by a beet truck or whatever the fuck. That’s what I think. I could be wrong but that’s what I think.

KM: Ok. I wondered if you could talk about--

GB: Pardon my profanity.

KM: No, that’s totally fine. Feel free to--

GB: I’m getting all exercised here.

KM: Whatever moves you, go ahead and say it.

GB: You people that are listening to this, it could be like 2012 or something, or 2018 when the world has ended, “Who is that Bartley guy? Man, he had a potty mouth.” So I apologize.

KM: Do you ever feel that the folk scene here is overshadowed by other styles or genres of music, especially in Central Square with the rock music scene? Down the street you’ve got The Middle East and TT the Bear’s, with sort of a different style. Do you think those genres of music intersect and collaborate or do they just run on separate tracks?

GB: They run on separate tracks. Think about this. Joseph down at The Middle East, he’s got three rooms, he’s got a fairly large footprint, how much does he pay for that? Does he own the building? I don’t know. I think he might. What does a liquor license cost in Cambridge today? A quarter of a million dollars at least.

KM: First-born son.

GB: What are the other expenses that he had to deal with? Electricity. Damage. Insurance. Wages. Everything, up, up, up, up, up, up. So most of these places, we can go down the list, places like the Middle East, where else. Think of any bar, at some point you’re going to have to hire music that sells alcohol. Having a liquor license is essentially a license to print money. So I think Joseph has been very smart in presenting lots of young bands of all kinds. They’re electric, they’re edgy. Young, rock and roll-ish kind of bands, all kinds of stuff. Most of the people who go out to clubs are young. The boys are looking for girls and the girls are looking for guys, and they are interested in music, and great live music is entertaining to everybody. So I think if I were Joseph I’d be thinking about all of those things. Also, he realizes that his twenty- and thirtysomething clientele are not stupid and they probably are listening to stuff on their ipods that’s pretty effing cutting edge, probably a lot of them are. He can’t afford to put on lousy music. He can afford to take chances and bring people in. On the other hand, the kind of music that I am drawn to, for example the singer-songwriter stuff--John Gorka, Dar Williams, Patty Larkin, Susan Warner, Cheryl Wheeler, Greg Brown, we can go down the list. These people draw audiences because their audiences want to hear what they have to say. Not just because they’re great singers, but because the songs have meaning. And their banter between songs is funny and revealing about he human condition, etc. etc. It’s not really about selling alcohol. That’s where I think the dividing line is, right there. Think of it this way. I’m just going to say one more sentence here, and this even underlines the antipathy between a place like the Cantab, which is in business to make money, and they’re doing that by selling alcohol, and another place that is a listening room that brings people in for a twenty dollar ticket and expects them to sit and listen, and they do. What’s the dividing thing here? Well, think about it this way. What if we brought in John Gorka or Dar Williams on one of my Monday nights here. Or Susan Warner or Tom Paxton or Greg Brown, or Greg Greenway, or anybody else that people are going to pay an eighteen dollar ticket for, pack this bar, and sit without making a sound. What would the bar’s reaction to that be? They don’t want it. Why not? Because people aren’t drinking. So that scenario underscores, I think, why there is a divide. And both are good. Wild, electric, drinking music--fine. I don’t go for it myself, but it’s just music. Music or not, people are going to drink, like is hard. But there’s more that can be done with music. Listen to the Nutcracker Suite, for example, and it will move your soul. Listen to Dar Williams and you realize that you are in the presence of a tremendous intellect and sense of humor and very insightful artist, talking about her experiences growing up as a girl. It’s invaluable to the culture, that’s what I think. But it’s not appropriate for a bar. Bar owners want you to drink. That’s what they’re in business for. It’s a different set of values.

KM: You don’t think that the two are competing at all, they’re just separate?

GB: I don’t know. To answer your question, I think that there is life and death competition in every cubic inch of forest floor. I think it is good to stress cooperation, but I don’t think it should blind you for an instant to the fact that there is life and death competition every minute of most every day. Mostly there is, that’s what it is. The reason for this is because we have bodies, and if you don’t take care of yourself you’re going to experience pain and death. So everything that we do is designed to postpone death and to shield us from pain. We think we can buy security. Home alarm systems and etc. etc. Security, you can buy a little, but if you forget that security is a myth, you’re in trouble. So, are the two forms of music in competition? Oh yeah. I would say they definitely are. Definitely. The folk world is tiny. I mean, if this is the music business, and I’m holding out my hands here like two feet apart, then the folk world is about as wide as an eyelash. You know what I mean? It is a tiny little piece.  But I think it’s getting larger now in large part because of this digital revolution. If you make a song and put it out there, it’s just as available as a Springsteen song or a, you know? Elton John song or anything else. Or almost as available, anyway. You don’t need a store or a company distributing your CDs to Tower Records or HMV. It ain’t done that way any more. You press a button on your computer and you have sent your MP3 to somebody in Jakarta who has asked for it. All they need is a little bandwidth and a PC. Badda bing badda boom. Unbelievable. And we’re not seeing any sales from MP3s yet, and I don’t think Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are so much either, really. They make thirty three million dollars a tour and they go out every eighteen months or so. They go out every time Keith comes back from Switzerland with new blood. We are going through this thing where people don’t think music should be paid for and there’s a lot of ways to get it for free. It’s changing.

KM: How to you think the folk scene has evolved here through the years, since you first started playing in this area? What are the changes that you’ve noticed? If any?

GB: I think things have gotten tighter for folk musicians. Passim, for example, has had to put in beer and wine to compete, and Veggie Planet [restaurant in Club Passim] is a concession, and there seems to be some friction between the Veggie Planet staff and the audience that comes for the folk concerts. It’s not really a comfortable atmosphere between the two. Specifically, I’ve seen servers who are working for Veggie Planet be very curt and very dismissive with folk audience members who have asked to see a menu or get something to eat. I think financial pressures on every business that have presented live music have become greater. Their insurance, and down that list that I’ve ran before. Money’s getting very, very tight. Music is everywhere. There are a million musicians out there. And I think in large part, if you are a bar, it doesn’t really matter who’s on stage. If you’re there to drink and blab, somebody who’s lousy might even be more entertaining than somebody who’s not. It’s a terrible thing to say, but it goes hand in hand with the crap we put up on the radio and the crap we put up on t.v. So I think it’s gotten a little tighter for musicians, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Under economic pressures, often times phenomenal products, personalities, performers, boil up out of this cauldron because if you’re a songwriter and you’re good at it, you’re going to do it. You’re going to do it as hard as it takes to become noticed because you kind of have to if you’re a great musician. You just--

KM: Do you have to go?

GB: I’ve got to go.

KM: Ok. Well thank you so much.

GB: You’re welcome, Katrina.

KM: Do you have anything else you want to add in the end here, anything else you think I should know?

GB: Well, you’ve probably caught on to the fact by now that I can blab about this.

KM: We can come back and do this another time. I’m happy to do that. This could be part one.

GB: Let’s do that. I’ll try not to cover the same ground. Thank you so much.

GB: It gets too crowded. Sometimes they’ll stay for a month or so. They’ve [Cantab] been very supportive to me around Monday nights. The music on Monday nights is usually harder to like. That’s not necessarily true. Mondays are folk music, if you will, and usually a good folk song has to be listened to in order to be appreciated, you have to, I think, understand the sequence of events that are being explained in the songs, like a story. Look at it this way, real folk music tells about real events in the lives of real people. Bluegrass does that to some extent, but it’s also market-driven and it also has to do a lot with good harmony singing and instrumental excellence, so even if the subject matter is light or not particularly interesting, the music is interesting. Folk music is usually not that way.

KM: Do you think that maybe the regulars here resent the intrusion of the kids that come in?

GB: I don’t know, maybe a little bit, but I haven’t gotten that. They know that the bar has to make money, and it does change over at night. There’s music here seven nights. That’s the way it goes. Are you a musician, Katrina? Or did you have more sense?

KM: I took about thirteen years of piano as a kid, classical piano, but I haven’t played since I was eighteen, so it was quite a while ago. Horribly out of practice. I’m slowly teaching myself to play the guitar and I like to do a bit of singing, but I don’t call myself a musician. I’ve done the open mic here a few times.

GB: I like that people think they can make music and it doesn’t have to be good music, they just have to have fun, they can just sit around the kitchen.

KM: That’s what I like about it, it doesn’t have to be serious.

GB: Yeah, serious. Life is serious enough. There’s enough serious things in life. We got blabbing last week.

KM: Yeah, I think we were--it was great.

GB: I didn’t realize I had that much to say.

KM: See, that’s what happens. I think we left off maybe talking about the evolution of the folk scene here. Have you noticed that it’s changed through the years? Is it different from when you started playing music around here?

GB: Oh, I don’t know. I guess the individual musicians come and go, and they’re always different. I guess market forces, market pressures change and marketing techniques change. Labels. How has it changed since I’ve been here. It’s maybe gotten more competitive. I think maybe live music is not as valued as it might have been thirty years ago, twenty years ago. Music is everywhere now and I think there’s a perception among many people that music should be free in the wake of Napster and everything. You should be able to download songs for free. I don’t know where I stand on that, really, but that’s something that’s changed a bit. What’s happened is the rate of change has become much faster. My first three records came out as records, on vinyl. Then CDs, and now CDs are obsolete. CD sales have fallen through the floor. Music is easily digitized so now it’s being shot around the world at the speed of light. And I think people feel that, I think there is a perception out there that “I don’t want to pay for music. I’m gonna go on the web and I’m going to take it.” That’s the way I find out about new bands. When I find out about a band that I like I will go and see them and I will pay twenty dollars for a ticket, or whatever. Even the big acts, you know, Rolling Stones, Kid Rock, Puff Daddy, on down, they’re not making much from--they’re not making anything from CD sales. MP3 downloads, a little bit, but mostly it’s the box office. But how has it changed around here. Well, I think the country has gotten more conservative, even the People’s Republic of Cambridge, I think, has gotten more conservative. I think the students, undergraduates, are much more conservative than they were when I was in college.

KM: Really?

GB: Oh, yeah. I think there was a backlash against the sixties and the seventies and the protest movement. I can’t really point to anything from the sixties that has been durable and that still remains today and really is a force you can point to that has helped to improve the culture or the social dialog or the political dialog or the equity of laws or combatting prejudice or combatting the enormous migration of wealth into the hands of the few. Millions more people in poverty. I’m not aware of any really serious legacy from the sixties’ protest movement that--the other thing is that so many of the people that we admired were shot. Martin Luther King, JFK, Robert Kennedy. That was a bad time, you know. JFK was killed when I was thirteen. That was a pivotal moment in my life. I think over the years I’ve realized that that was a really pivotal moment. It’s taken me a long time to understand something of what that meant, and I’m still trying to make sense of it. Here was this man who was asking American citizens to consider their best traits and to fight for justice, etc. etc. It’s not that Kennedy was great. We don’t really know. He was flawed, he was a human being, he was flawed like you and he was flawed like me. They blew his brains out. So when push comes to shove--why did they kill Kennedy? He wanted to pull all of our forces, all of our advisors out of Vietnam. Now, who is that going to piss off? I mean, look today. Fifty towns are in danger of going bankrupt in Massachusetts by 2012, right now. Fifty towns in Massachusetts are in danger of going bankrupt in less than a year. Do you hear anything in the newspapers or on the television about them cutting anything out of the defense budget? Who is running the world? It’s not politicians and it’s not the Martin Luther Kings and it’s not the JFKs. It’s multi-national corporations, specifically big oil and the arms manufacturers and U.S. and Israeli intelligence commands. That’s what I think. And if you make any kind of noise that might chip in to their incredible profits, they will blow your brains out. They will blow your brains out. And nobody’s going to go to jail for that. Look at what just happened, the crash of 2008. Did anybody from Wall Street--Bear Stearns, A.I.G., Morgan Stanley, go down the list--did any of them go to jail? Did any of them go to jail? No. And yet they destroyed some incredible amount of the world’s wealth. We’re talking billions, trillions of dollars that was destroyed by these geniuses. And who did they target? They targeted the American middle class and their homeownership. That is the financial foundation of this country and they went after that. That is a huge pool of money, and they offered people variable rate mortgages, “Oh, it’s going to be fine.” All of a sudden your house is foreclosed. It’s really ugly. So, I’m rather cynical. The United States scares me. So in bold strokes, I’d say that the changes I’ve seen mostly is the culture has become more hostile to good art. It’s certainly become more hostile to a meaningful dialog about social justice, about the equity of income, about helping people who have nothing, about helping the people who work in misery. There are a lot of good forces out there trying to help the people in misery. But I think that in the grand scheme of things they don’t have nearly as much power as the multi-national corporations and the arms manufacturers and big oil. So the “folk scare” in the sixties--we call it that, it’s a joke--the folk movement, the folk revival of the 1960s, it can be seen, certainly, that folk music, whatever that means, people talking about, what, race issues, social issues, politics, the culture, running headlong into the idea of a business model. Bob Dylan’s manager held auditions for Peter, Paul and Mary. They sang beautiful stuff, they played well, they sang well, they sang things that, you know, Bob Dylan songs that had messages and stuff like that, but it was packaged in a way that middle America could digest. It sounded nice. And I don’t think even a group like Peter, Paul and Mary, I think they’d be laughed off the stage now. I think there’s some kind of perception out there among audiences and artists maybe that “Are you going to sing about how bad war is, are you going to sing about how bad poverty is, just go shut up.” You can sing “We Shall Overcome” until you’re blue in the face and it’s not going to make one goddamn bit of difference. When push comes to shove it’s the people with the bullets that are going to make the difference. That’s certainly the way it looks now. “We Shall Overcome” is a great, beautiful sentiment.

KM: Do you think that the sentiment’s no longer there? Buried by shallowness?

GB: I can only speak for myself, really. The biggest acts now, the ones that are making the most money, are rap and hip hop. In some ways it’s like folk music, because almost all of these records are on their own, private labels. Why? Because the established music business doesn’t want to deal with these people because they are dangerous people, a lot of them. We’re talking about giant money, a lot of guys all around you, they’re all carrying guns, you’re carrying guns. So rap and hip hop certainly have pushed language to the forefront of popular music. Great stuff, a lot of great stuff in rap and hip hop, but a lot of it is very sensational. Talk about violence, and lot of misogyny. But it’s dangerous to generalize. You have to take each song, each phrase, each artist individually. But how has it changed, in Cambridge? It’s tougher out there. Playing a bar gig, fees have gone down. Maybe another way of looking at it, too, I’d be inclined to look at it this way, is that there’s always going to be that conflict between art and business. There’s always going to be those forces that are interested in making money. And they don’t really care if they--and then there are people who want to have more art, on the streets, in the clubs, more funds for museums and private art collections, and a greater awareness of art in the society. But I don’t think that we’re a culture that responds to that so much. I’m looking for an example. Municipal and city symphony orchestras. In a town like Boston, it’s not too bad because there’s really deep, old, blue-blood yankee money here. For that class of people, giving one hundred million dollars to the BSO, they don’t even bat an eye at that. Giant money. I’m inclined to ask, where else do we have deep funding for the arts and the culture? Probably more than I think, but I think it’s a losing battle. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t think I’ve answered your question very well. It seems to have gotten tougher out there. More musicians, the competition is tougher. My friend Chip, Katrina Morse.

KM: Hi, nice to meet you.

GB: Chip and I have known each other now for, god, fifteen years or more.

Chip Quinn: Something like that, yeah.

GB: More? And we both like old blues and gospel. Chip is a tenured professor of genetics at MIT.

CQ: Oh cut it out!

GB: So he’s like at least twice as smart, at least ten times as smart as I am.

CQ: Only in genetics.

GB: And he’s still got hair, too, that’s the really irritating part. Really irritates me. How do you think the music scene has changed in Cambridge in the last twenty years?

CQ: I would say that the kind of stuff that we do is done only by old guys and they’re getting older.

GB: That’s right. Old blues and gospel on an acoustic guitar with, you know, these kind of scales [plays guitar]. You don’t hear much of that anymore.

CQ: You know, I used to go into guitar shops and play guitars. Kids would come along and they really liked it but they thought it was dinosaur music, they had never heard anything like it.

GB: “How long did it take you to do that? Eighteen years? Fuck that! Give me my Stratocaster, plug this in. You’ll never get laid playing them old folk tunes! All that old shitty music, goddamn! How old are you, a hundred and ninety?” [plays music] “No fine babe is going to be wanting to take you home playing that old shit!” And that’s the way it is.

KM: Do you think it’s a question of attention span? You have to invest too much time and work?

GB: That’s got to be in there a little bit. “How long did it take you to learn that, and that’s all it sounds like?”

CQ: When we were young, there were some of the originators around. John Hurt, people like that.

GB: Mississippi John Hurt, died in 1967, that was a long time ago. Doc is still alive.

CQ: Lightening Hopkins.

GB: Lightening Hopkins died in 1982. Blind Willie McTell in 1974. Son House, he’s still around. No, he died?

CQ: Yeah.

GB: Not that long ago. Dick Waterman’s down in Mississippi now. Dick Waterman brought these guys up to the Newport Folk Festival, was Bonnie Raitt’s first manager in the late sixties, early seventies. Dick Waterman. You know what bums me out?

CQ: I give up.

GB: Many things, but the thing that bums me out right now, seems like Paul Rishelle is really bummed out. He used to be always had a laugh and was always laughing at stuff, but I think he’s been smacked around too much.

CQ: Is that right?

GB: I don’t know.

CQ: Well, he’s probably less ebullient because he doesn’t drink anymore.

GB: Oh, well that’s a big mistake. He’s always got really good weed.

CQ: I think he’s just quieted down. He’s happily married.

GB: That’s right. Paul Rishelle was around, and he’s a musician that we really admire, he’s admired far beyond this community of greater Boston. He’s the real deal. He’s just a great musician. He had a chance to play and sing with some of the people that Chip and I consider to be great. You know, he met Son House. Did a gig with Howlin’ Wolf and was able to hang with these people a little bit.

CQ: Sounded like Dick Waterman got him to--

GB: --come over and teach some Son House some of the stuff off of Son House’s old records.

CQ: Well, and to keep Son House from--

GB: --drinking himself blind, that’s right. By the time they found Son House he was deeply alcoholic, and that was 1964.

KM: He was like his minder?

CQ: Yes, for the four days or so that he was up here for the gig.

GB: Yeah. But Son House is perhaps the most famous of the Delta blues singers. Just a force of nature and very fierce. Beautiful raw roots, American roots music that will--

CQ: Robert Johnson’s his teacher, Muddy Water’s his teacher.

GB: Yeah. And Paul, to my way of thinking, I’ve known Paul now since maybe 1976 or seven, I’ve known Paul, and he’s a great musician, that old stuff he plays it accurately and he’s got a great singing voice and he gives a shit and he know about this history, but you see what’s happening is that, how old is Paul? Sixty four, maybe? Sixty five?

CQ: I would think maybe sixty two, something like that.

GB: I’m sixty two. Chip is ninety one. Chip’s a little older than I am, but not much. And Paul is having to struggle, and that makes me crazy. I want to sort of say to people, “Go
hear this guy!” But, you know.

CQ: I think he’s going to do ok.

GB: Yeah, if he and Annie are getting along, they’ve got that house...

CQ: You’re never gonna get rich doing what he’s doing, but I don’t think he’s gonna starve.

GB: He won’t starve.

CQ: You’re famous! You’re on the Hit Parade, the whatever it is.

GB: Yeah, that’ll last for about...

CQ: That’s ok!

GB: Right now I’m famous, that’s true.

CQ: All’s we ask is fifteen minutes.

GB: My record, I think I told you last week, my record for January was number one on Folk DJ Radio. Did I talk about that?

KM: No, you didn’t. I think I remember seeing that maybe on your website.

GB: It’s a little sliver of the music business and a very thin sliver in time, of that thin sliver of the music business. But it’s kind of cool. I hired a management professional in Nashville to promote my records. Here’s me, for the month of January, I was on the top, you know--

KM: Right above Bob Dylan!

GB: And now, man...for February, Bob Dylan was still number two and I was down here at seventeen. But that still isn’t bad.

KM: No, that’s very exciting. Congratulations.

GB: Thanks. I’ve been bragging to people. You can tell. If you think I was difficult before, I am now impossible!

KM: Your head has swelled.

GB: My head can’t fit through the door!

KM: Is there anything you’d like to see more of in Cambridge’s music scene? Anything you want to see change or anything that you miss that you don’t see?

GB: I miss Bob and Rae Anne Donlin, who ran Club Passim for many years. It was the kind of club that, when you got a gig there it really meant something, it wasn’t just another music room or another bar or another coffee house. It was fairly important. And Bob would, I borrow a page from Bob Donlin’s playbook, when I’m introducing an act here I don’t get on a microphone, I just stand up there and yell, and Bob would always do that too, he would stand in the front of the room and say “Please welcome (Ron Lakinnener?), please welcome Chris Smither, please welcome Dave van Ronk.” He was also connected to Jack Kerouac and other members of the beat poet movement of the fifties, and so he, politically, was sympathetic to a lot of the somewhat leftist ideas that were floating around and I miss him in large part certainly because of that. It seems to me the country has drifted pretty far to the right in the last twenty, thirty years, so having somebody like Bob and Rae Anne Donlin, I thought of them like almost my mother and dad and they were on a friendly basis with the musicians they hired. It helped to bridge the generation gap a little bit because Bob and Rae Anne were older than we were. Rae Anne was also very sharp.

CQ: Is that right?

GB: Yeah. She was from Ohio and both of them were very well educated. But the competition to get gigs and to be well-known, to be known, probably hasn’t changed much, maybe gotten a little more intense. There’s less camaraderie. But I also think that, you know, ok, there’s camaraderie, but under the surface there’s always competition also. And that’s natural. I wouldn’t put that down. I know in the last twenty, thirty years local laws have become more stringent about drunk driving. Managers of bars like this one are under more pressure to make sure they don’t serve someone who is over the limit. Police have cracked down, there are more driving under the influence tickets, offenses, pulled over. They are watching it more. This is a good thing. I think it has to do with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I think that has raised people’s consciousness about it. I think people are more aware of how dangerous it can be to get  behind the wheel of a car drunk and drive off. But I do think that has cut down on the income that comes to bars, and that means that it has cut down on the income that gets into musician’s hands, too. I’m willing to take less pay knowing that most of the drivers out there are reasonably sober, I think that’s a good trade. What else have you noticed? Ask Chip. Ask Chip a question. Make him blab.

KM: Are you ok with speaking on the microphone?

CQ: Yeah.

GB: What would you like to see change?

CQ What are you doing with the microphone?

KM: I’m conducting--I’m going to pause for a second--

CQ: I don’t know. You kind of can’t--whatever happens in music kind of happens in spite of what people want.

GB: I know what I want to see change.

CQ: I want to be rich and famous.

GB: I want to be rich and famous.

CQ: I was here in the sixties and it was incredibly live. Guys were in here, there were acts around here that were famous: Geoff Muldaur, Jim Kweskin.

GB: You know over at BU, on Commonwealth Avenue--

CQ: It wasn’t rosy. I used to go to concerts of Dave van Ronk and Elizabeth Cotten, Freight Train, and there’d be like three people in New York. It was never an easy money-making scene, but there was more going on and kids were involved. I don’t think kids are involved in old music.

GB: I think you’re right.

KM: Do you think there was more support for it, support that is lacking now?

CQ: Yeah, partly because it was new and it was exciting.

GB: Something new, that’s right. Something new, something different.

KM: It seems like it was linked to a counterculture in the sixties, a progressive attitude.

CQ: Yes, which was a little delusional, but it was a lot of fun.

GB: We thought we were going to change the world and we didn’t change shit.

KM: You don’t think things have changed because of the sixties?

CQ: We loosened up some from the fifties.

GB: There have been some great steps forward, that’s definitely true, but the wealthy are even more entrenched, big oil and the arms manufacturers are even more intrenched, I think.

CQ: Yeah, but you can be a gay person and live a reasonable life now that you could not then.

GB: True enough.

CQ: You can be a black person and live a reasonable life, in the South as well as the North, as it was always tenuous, and it’s real different for black people.

GB: Yeah, I think you’re right, but there’s an awful long way to go.

CQ: It’s not done

GB: But it’s not done.

CQ: Everybody that feels like [congratulate that to everything people], it’s not. But it’s unbelievably better.

GB: I mean, we have a black governor, we have a black president. Pretty phenomenal.

CQ: Yeah. It was unthinkable.

GB: Really, yeah.

CQ: Just completely, it would be the subject of jokes.

GB: Yeah.

CQ: You know, like an astronaut. Send him up, he goes “Houston, hello Houston. I saw God.” “Describe him.” “Well, first of all, she’s black.”

GB: Yeah. “First of all, she’s black.”

CQ: It’s just like that, having a black president.

GB: Right. I think women’s rights have advanced.

CQ: Not necessarily rights, but at least consciousness and how they think about themselves and how people treat them. I mean, my mother, there was no alternative but to get married.

GB: Yeah. What I want to know is, how do women manage to have a few kids, get educated, have a job--it’s incredible. My housemate, she gets more done in a morning than I get done in a month. It’s unbelievable.

CQ: They do it because they’re biologically superior, and they also go nuts. My wife goes nuts. Not so much anymore now that the kids are grown up, but she used to go nuts. Every so often she’d--whaa!

GB: Women--god! Smarter, tougher, wiser about things--I mean, that’s not always true, but it’s true a disturbing amount of the time.

KM: I won’t argue you that.

GB: That’s what I think.

KM: I wonder if you could talk a bit about what you see here at the Cantab in terms of talent, demographics, style--

CQ: Well, first of all, the Cantab is the only interesting local mic around.

GB: Is that true?

CQ: Yeah, except for isolated acts. The Amazing sometimes is good. It’s in Framingham.

GB: That’s right. Amazing Things.

CQ: You should go to some other open mics to see what--

GB: They all suck. Don’t go to those other--

CQ: They’re all full of like warm fuzzies. Self reinforcement.

GB: A little too warm and fuzzy.

KM: Like in terms of the people who are hosting, or in terms of the musicians who are playing?

CQ: Both! Have you been? You should go.

KM: I’ve been to a few. I’ve been to one at the Burren, and I went to one at All Asia, I went here. I guess that’s it.

CQ: How’s The Burren? I’ve never been to The Burren.

KM: I actually really liked it. It’s a longer set, you play four songs, and--

GB: Is it Sunday night?

KM: I think it’s Monday, although it was a while ago and I don’t remember. There were some really good acts that were playing there, some really good acts. And it wasn’t specifically folk although that was certainly played, but there was some like rap and hip hop also and some rock, so it was perhaps a little more diverse. Maybe a little less focused music than what is here.

CQ: I hate it but it’s a much more vital theme than folk is.

KM: Rap?

CQ: Rap, yeah.

GB: This week I asked two people, two musicians that I admire, to recommend some acts for here. What’s going on with me now is that the Monday nights are slow and the owner of the Cantab has let me know in very clear terms that it’s really slow and so I’m probably having to change things a little bit. Find feature acts maybe that are capable of drawing even five people. That’s really hard to do. Monday night?

KM: How do you usually go about doing the booking?

GB: A lot of them I already knew, a lot of them I’ve gotten to know coming here, and I think by far and away musicians contact me looking for a gig. So what I’ve been doing for these nineteen years I think is maybe taking a slightly easier approach and that is seeing this stage as an entry-level place where people can come and learn how to introduce a song and use their microphones and how it feels to be on stage. Most of the open mic features that I’ve chosen, not all but a lot of them, are people that have come to the open mic and have become better. They are part of this community, they have some recognition in here, and I tend to hire them. There are a lot of places that you’ve got to be famous to play at, but I was thinking this can be a place where you don’t have to be famous, it can be an entry-level place for people to come in. I am in the process of changing my philosophy about that and I think that it would be good if I, what I’m gonna try for a couple of years anyway is hiring feature acts that have more visibility. That’s going to take some courage for me because I often feel like offering someone this open mic feature set is like a little bit below them. I don’t want to insult anyone. Do you know what I’m saying? I don’t want to insult anybody by saying “Hey, would you play this open mic feature set?” But I’m experimenting with language on how to approach people that have a very strong act and say “Look, if it doesn’t feel right to you, no problem.”

CQ: Who do you approach?

GB: Well, I’ve got five names from people. I asked Jimmy Ryan--do you know Jimmy Ryan? No. Well, he’s currently got a kick-ass progressive bluegrass band called Hayride. In the eighties he had a couple of very popular groups. One was called the Blood Oranges. He’s a mandolin player, he’s a really good songwriter. He was out on the road with Katie Curtis for about three years, backing her up in all of her tours across the U.S., Canada, UK, Western, Western...Katie Curtis is really big.

CQ: That’s right.

GB: But it doesn’t appeal to you, to Chip, and I don’t know enough about her material at this point to say anything about Katie Curtis. I just know that she is smart and she has risen up out of the pack and now she still has very strong box office in most American cities on the coast, and in between. So, doing that is hard to do. You’ve got to have an awful lot of things in place. You’ve got to have a thick skin, you’ve got to be a good writer, good player, etc. etc. etc. But anyway, Jimmy Ryan is a musician that I’ve gotten to know over the last twenty-five years, and I really respect him. He is a kick-ass songwriter and he’s a great mandolin player, and a good singer and very versatile. So I asked him for some recommendations and I asked the leader of, the bass player of Lake Street Dive. Her name is Bridget Kearney. Lake Street Dive played in here Monday. They brought about twenty-five people.

CQ: They were incredibly good.

GB: They were great! It’s very rare to find an act that strong who’ll come in here for no guarantee to play a forty minute set on a Monday night and be that cool. Be that cool in the good way cool, as in friendly to me, not condescending, they didn’t have an attitude like they were doing me a favor or they were slumming. They came in, they were pros and they were great to work with and they did a great act. I don’t know if you stayed Monday night but they were killer. So I thought to myself, “Geoff...”

CQ: Bridget’s song was the best.

GB: Yeah, was it?

CQ: Yeah.

GB: Bridget also plays bass in a band that I hired here on Tuesday nights. They’re in Portland, Maine. So I’m just trying to get my things arranged here, the language, and get my head right I guess, asking feature acts that are stronger to come in and play here. And hopefully they will bring their own audience. The problem is that a band that’s strong may not want to take this gig and if they do they’re not going to invite their fan base. Why not? Because they’re waiting for the Passim gig that they have in five months and they want to sell it out. So I can’t blame them for that, you know what I mean? They want to come in under the radar here. I understand that. It’s a bar and it has a rep as an old-time bar. It does not have a rep as a hip, young bar. For example, you know, Sally O’Brien’s in Union Square, Somerville, way hipper. A lot more music, they are much friendlier to the musicians there. It’s also got Irish management and they pay musicians more. Why? Why? Because music in Ireland, on the coast on Ireland, is much more valued than live music of this type is valued in this culture. So a gig like this--

CQ: That’s not necessarily true. Irish music is valued over here, but if you talk to people that go to Ireland, they tend to listen to country and western and stuff.

GB: Ok. My experience here is--

CQ: But here people are much more attached to being Irish if they are of Irish descent over here, whereas over there, you know, everybody’s Irish, why worry about it.

GB: Right. It took me a long time to understand this but a gig that I might get paid a hundred dollars for, in the Irish community you might get paid three hundred dollars for, in greater Boston. That was like a bolt out of the blue for me when I discovered that. Three times as much money. You see what I’m getting at?

KM: Yeah, I didn’t realize there was that difference.

GB: That comes from a friend of mine, Jim Buchanan, who plays fiddle, Irish music. I’ve known Jim since 1970. He’s my oldest friend in this area, we met at the Herald Traveler. He was selling advertising and I was working in the classified. We got to be friends because we both have similar interest in guitars. I still see Jim, we’ve remained friends, we’ve talked for hours about the music scene in greater Boston. “How much you get paid for that gig?” “Three hundred.” “What was it, three sets?” “Yeah.” I get paid maybe a hundred doing my, whatever it is I do, but he’s doing Irish. Same thing, one guy, one guitar, one sound system in a bar, three times as much money.

CQ: Well, they drink more, you know?

GB: I think that might be in there. I think that might be in there. It’s got to be in there.

CQ: People that go to singer-songwriter things don’t drink that much.

GB: I probably need to go.

KM: Ok.

GB: Thank you.

CQ: So where is all this ending up?

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