I’m currently reading Dave Van Ronk’s brilliant memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Van Ronk is witty and insightful, and his story of what he calls the ‘Great Folk Scare’ of the late 50s and 60s is engaging, indispensible and humble. (Early on, for instance, Van Ronk paints an unflattering picture of his uncle, citing two grievous sins of his – he threw out a piano because he now had a radio, and also binned a signed copy of Buffalo Bill’s autobiography. “Don’t get me wrong,” he writes in footnote, “I loved my uncle. For one thing, he taught me how to play harmonica … Strike three, come to think of it.”)
At one point, he’s writing about Izzy Young’s ‘Folklore Center’, the famous hang-out, clearing house and news network of the Greenwich Village folk scene. (In Chronicles Volume One, Bob Dylan talks at some length about the magic of Young’s club-cum-store.) “”When Izzy opened that little hole,” we’re told, “there was suddenly a place where everyone went, and it became a catalyst for all sorts of things.” Van Ronk’s stories of musicians helping each other out, bumming sandwiches and whiskies with each other, and generally acting like a community, in some ways makes me a little sad: today, a musician’s community is too often his MySpace friends, and scenes feel more diffuse these days. (Perhaps, more appropriately, they’re much narrower – Van Ronk makes the point that back then scenes were more permeable; today, influenced by the commercial imperative of marketing men, scenes stay more focussed.)
Still, there are still hold-outs. One of those is the Hobgoblin chain of musical instrument shops, and in particular the Birmingham branch I frequent. I bought a new mandolin from them today, and am currently sorting out a problem with my guitar with they help: they are honest, knowledgeable and laidback. They play their customers’ music on the CD player; they let you play the instruments for as long as you want, and are happy just to chat about the things; if it is not quite the place where everyone goes, it’s the place where everyone should go.
From time to time, music’s just like the old days.