Folknotes: March

My first experiences of coffee were from my grandmothers percolator, and at various diners on Cape Cod, where I spent summers working for my grandfather on his cranberry bogs. Some years later I was privileged to do a bit of touring playing contra dance music, and I remember a trip to Seattle where coffee was just beginning to come out of the closet, as it were. What a revelation! It’s a mixed blessing to discover such things; after that whenever our band would go on the road, we decided it was worth the risk of offending our various hosts by bringing our own coffee kit – a good supply of French Roast, and our own French press, carried in a foam-lined metal box.

Most mornings now  I’ll wander over to Aesop’s Tables (in the Toadstool Bookstore in Peterborough), where I can often join Bob McQuillen in a morning reverie of Prime Roast coffee imported all the way from Keene. But recently I have been having strange cravings for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Having been enlightened about really good coffee, and furthermore, having easy access to the same, how to explain my recent yearning for the coffee that “America Runs On”? After some soul searching, I ascribe it to a desire for a simpler experience. Coffee is a very primal beverage, but it can be quite complex. There are days when the palette just does not want to have to think so hard.

A similar situation occurs with music. I was recently listening to Elizabeth Cotten singing “Freight Train”. This song, which she wrote at the age of twelve, is the quintessential American folk song. Her rendition is less “refined” than the version later popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary, but it comes through more directly. A similar observation could be made about the blues of Robert Johnson, which took Eric Clapton’s dramatic interpretation to give it appeal to broader audiences. There are hundreds of other examples. Folk music today tends to be fairly polished, in part because the bar has been raised. Your average performer has heard a lot of different kinds of music, is probably not rigid about a specific genre, and has developed technical skills (not to mention what can be done in the recording studio) that “upscale” what has been done in the past.  Intonation and a balanced mix are more attended to. Audiences have gotten used to this, and expect it. Nevertheless, it can sometimes be refreshing and enriching to hear things more simply rendered.

When I first heard “Freight Train” it was the Peter, Paul and Mary version. It was in the early 1960’s, and the song was being sung in coffee houses in New York and many other cities. This particular use of coffee-serving venues had evolved in the beat era of the previous decade, notably in Greenwich Village (which of course is where PP&M got their start, along with Bob Dylan and, of more local interest to us here, fiddler and sandal-maker Allan Block) and San Francisco’s North Beach.

 It was at this time that coffee houses (not to be confused with coffee shops) became associated with folk culture, and to some degree, counter culture (not to be confused with coffee counter culture). Churches began to hold “coffee houses” to present musicians and poets, often as a means of giving voice to social concerns.

The history of the coffee house as an institution goes back to the 15th century. Apparently there was something about the beverage that was conducive to doing business, or perhaps the “deals” made in coffeehouses just proved more sound than those made in pubs; in any case the coffeehouse soon became a hub for all sorts of business ventures and transactions throughout the Middle East and  Europe, and eventually the New World. The New York Stock Exchange was incubated in the Tontine Coffee House.

The current mode of coffee houses have often have  something of a Bohemian counter-culture element. In Keene both Prime Roast and Brewbaker’s provide an alt/cozy venue for folks who are looking to parse a little philosophy, or simply sit in solitude contemplating the great whatever. Even Starbucks, which exploited the concept and made it more or less “establishment”  manages to keep an alternative edge – blending, as it were, the music/social responsibility theme with a capitalist slant.

What happened to the coffee house, as in, place to hear live folk music? It has become problematic for coffee-serving venues to offer live music, due to the folks in the music industry who threaten steep fines if fees aren’t paid for the performance of copyrighted material. In bars these fees are often paid, but they are offset by the greater profitability of selling alcohol. These days the coffee house-as-music concept is more likely to be of the church basement variety.

Back in the late 1970’s the Nelson Coffeehouse took place in the brick schoolhouse (next to the town hall). At the time it was one open room, heated by a woodstove. Tables were covered with India-print bedspreads, and folks brought wine. If my memory serves me, ash trays were provided as well, since of course it was okay to smoke in those days (and what could be more Bohemian than smoking something like non-filtered Lucky Strikes, or better yet, Balkan sobranies?).

The desire for a new coffeehouse has been brewing for a while.  On February 10th the Monadnock Folklore Society hosted a “test” coffeehouse in the Nelson Town Hall. There was no booze or cigarettes, but there was some great music, and in spite of a snowstorm that embraced the entire weekend, a decent turnout of folks to listen. There was food, coffee of course, and cider. And the “test” was a success. The next coffeehouse will be on Sunday, April 20th.  There will be  one or more anchor performers, with opportunities for singers/songwriters/poets, etc to contribute in an “open mic” format. We’ll be posting more details as the time gets closer, but meanwhile you might want to pencil it in on your calendar, and if you are interesting in participating send a note to Larry Ames.

So, back to the music/coffee analogy. I expect I’ll find a good balance between the gourmet stuff and the workingman’s java. But it occurs to me that the coffee-equivalent of the original Freight Train is not from Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s that wonderful stuff that came out of my grandmother’s percolator.

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