Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, and Country Music

By Gene Santoro | Go to book overview
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16
Electric Blues Revival

IN THE MID-1960S, a small West Village club called the Cafe Au Go Go became a key site for roots revival then thriving in New York's Greenwich Village. It hosted acts from folk to blues, old-timers and young wannabes all jostling for the small devout audiences that thronged alternative-culture centers like the Village, Cambridge, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. On the corner and upstairs from the Au Go Go was a small shabby theater: when the Mothers of Invention pulled into New York, they stayed in residence there, almost as if they were lost, for months, and drew almost as many fans each night as there were people onstage, while they performed their titillating onstage cabaret of satirical music and ersatz drama like “Ritual of the Young Pumpkin,” involving a female doll and an array of vari-sized vegetables in ways guaranteed to make 15-year-old males crack up.

Down the block were scene stalwarts like the Village Gate, home to jazz, international music, folk music, revues, and shows; around the corner and up and was the Cafe Wha?, where the Fugs dug in with a hot black guitarist named Jimmy James, who soon went to England and became Jimi Hendrix. Also nearby were the Gaslight, where the folkie likes of Eric Anderson and Tom Paxton still performed, and the Night Owl, the plaster-dusted basement room where the Lovin' Spoonful were born and held court until they hit with “Do You Believe in Magic,” now the score for a Mercedes-Benz commercial. Biker gangs like the Alien Nomads lined certain bars, their motorcycles neatly aligned at the curbs, and waited for prey. Dozens of acoustic guitars echoed and clashed in Washington Square Park, as kids and semi-pros drawled renditions of blues and Dylan and ancient folk tunes, while nickel bags of pot and small chunks of hash and occasional hits of blotter acid were peddled and imbibed. Times being what they were, the cops ignored as much of the activity around them as possible.

On weekends, the narrow crisscrossing cowpaths turned into streets crawling with kids from Long Island and Jersey and Connecticut and Brooklyn, most dressed in the military castoffs or pseudo-Carnaby Street

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