Livin’ the Blues

Our unexpected role in the annals of the blues

history_0Photos: New England Folk Music Archives at the Cambridge Historical Society

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By Gavin Kleespies

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hen you think Harvard Square, you’re usually not thinking about blues musicians. You should. For one thing, the first House of Blues was in Harvard Square, on Winthrop Street. More importantly, Harvard Square’s Club 47, (later renamed Club Passim) was one of the first venues in a northern city to feature African-American blues musicians from the South. Blues greats including Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis passed through Cambridge in a time when much of the rest of the country was outright dangerous for traveling African-American musicians. Cambridge residents Dick Waterman, Ralph Rinzler, Jim Rooney, Joe Boyd, and others helped to make this circuit possible, while people like Nancy Sweezy and Betsy Siggins gave blues musicians places to stay at a time when not even Cambridge hotels would rent to African Americans.

Jackie Washington (above, left) was a popular performer at Club 47 for most of the time the club was open. He started playing there while he was a student at Emerson College, and became a fixture of the folk music scene in Cambridge and Boston. He drew musical influences from the folk landscape that surrounded him, and from his African-American and Puerto Rican roots. Washington, who later signed with Vanguard Records, was one of the first people in the area to sing Hispanic folk music.

Washington’s time in the area also reflected history people don’t like to remember. Betsy Siggins of the New England Folk Music Archives, who worked at Club 47 (and some of whose recollections here come from an interview with her by Robin Lapidus), remembers when Washington was stopped by police while walking down Commonwealth Avenue. Asked why he had been stopped, they told him it was because he was “abroad in the night.” An altercation followed, and Washington ended up in jail. He challenged the arrest in court and won, but it was a painful experience and a reminder for his fans inside Club 47 of the real challenges faced on a daily basis by performers like him outside.

Club 47 became an important stop in a circuit that brought some of the blues greats from the South and introduced them to audiences in northern cities. People like Dick Waterman became major conduits along this trail, working to make contacts and help to make the trip from the South to the northern cities one that was adventuresome rather than fearsome.

The arrival of musicians like Mississippi John Hurt (center) and others who traveled this circuit opened the eyes of club employees, folk fans, and fellow performers. It revealed an entire other country out there, populated by real people with real stories—many of them about hard times. The performances and stories of blues musicians like Mississippi John Hurt at Club 47 gave a new perspective to white artists who hung out there, including Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

When the first African-American blues performers began performing at Club 47, there wasn’t a hotel in Harvard Square that would accept a nonwhite guest. Many of the musicians stayed instead with club employees. Betsy Siggins remembers the experience of having blues greats including Reverend Gary Davis (right) sleep on her couch. When word got out that he was there, she says, people had gathered at her home to hear him play and to tell his stories. Everyone knew they were a part of something that had not yet been discovered. Not in Cambridge, anyway.

Siggins also remembers that Davis, who was blind, had one suit, one coat, and one hat, and that he wore them almost all of the time. In a habit grown from fear, others recall, he slept with everything he owned. Including a gun.

Gavin Kleespies is director of programs at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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