Music on the Cusp: From Folk to Acid Rock in Portland Coffeehouses, 1967-1970

Article excerpt

The people with whom you share the suffering of sudden growth are linked in magical ways, and these can be the people who really know you best.

--Jon Adams

FROM THE SIDEWALK, IT LOOKS like nothing--just a door with a little sign above it. You go down some stairs and pay somebody fifty cents to let you into a low-ceilinged, murky room filled with about a dozen wooden wire-spool tables slathered with varathane. A homemade ceramic ashtray sits on each table. You go to the counter and get a bottomless cup of coffee for fifteen cents, then commandeer a table six feet away from the ten-by-twelve-foot stage. The room fills up with people and cigarette smoke blended with an occasional whiff of marijuana, incense, and burnt cheese. You hear the first notes on the guitar, the first unpolished, good-natured singing and the sweet harmonies, and you forget the funkiness of your surroundings. The music is playing, and you are right up close.

During the Beat era of the late 1950s, coffeehouses across the country were the refuge of poets, leftist theoreticians, and solo folksingers rendering traditional songs and new ones by such artists as Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. Within a few years, coffeehouses were booking groups--both acoustic and electric--whose musical styles freely borrowed from genres such as surf music, the British Invasion, top 40, girl groups, and rhythm and blues; from jazz and "roots" styles such as Appalachian folk and Delta blues; and from protest songs in the Woody Guthrie tradition. Along with new incarnations of the blues and freshly minted singer-songwriters, a new set of hybrid styles emerged--folk-rock, acid rock, country rock, and jazz-rock. In Portland's own counterculture microcosm, a new generation of musicians embraced these innovations wholeheartedly, using them to forge distinctive styles, develop sophisticated techniques, and invent their own compositions.

Yet, for all its explosive energy, the music of the 1960s counterculture, as it came to be known, did not maintain its oppositional power. By 1970, drugs and violence had dissolved the residual good feelings generated by Woodstock and the Summer of Love in 1967. The alternative music gradually became a new mainstream as the music industry and other corporate enterprises absorbed the new artists and their styles.

While some Portland coffeehouses continued to flourish into the 1970s, the end of the era was in sight by the early years of that decade. Musicians and their audiences were getting older, and their music moved into bars and taverns. (1) The musicians who had been so closely connected in the late 1960s went their separate ways, most finding niches in specific genres such as country rock, bluegrass, jazz, and blues. By the late 1970s, eclecticism and eccentricity had fallen from favor, but the community of musicians who got their start in the 1960s heyday of musical pluralism went on to populate the club scene through the mid-1980s. Their inventiveness and camaraderie has been integral to Oregon's film, video, radio and television production, and music education into the twenty-first century. The quest for inspiration and authenticity did not take place in a vacuum; rather, it was embedded in the transitional moment between the established way of doing things and the emergence of a new oppositional culture. It was also strongly influenced by geography.

PORTLAND HAS ALWAYS been considered something of a cultural second fiddle to its more populous rivals, Seattle and San Francisco. Nevertheless, Portland's position as a major stop along the I-5 corridor between the two cities has long made it an attractive addition to performers' West Coast tours. From the first stirrings of the counterculture, Portland musicians traveled to and from these larger cities, carrying values and ideas in both directions. There was an aesthetic ferment in the air, and Portland was in many ways as vibrant as its more celebrated neighbors were. …