Trying to Be Cool

Folksongs were such an essential part of whatever held us together that it’s hard to exaggerate their importance. One of the prime ways we had of being cool and adult (not, of course, like the adults with whom we were most familiar but like some new breed) was to go to the Gilded Cage. The Cage was a coffee shop near Rittenhouse Square where every Sunday there was folksinging, and the crowds lined up to get in. In my Philadelphia teenage life cycle, this was the developmental stage that followed hanging out at Barson’s after the movies. Folk music, with its longing for a more romantic, personal, and heartfelt world than existed in the Cold War news or the blandly standardized paeans to the glories of America, had been slowly seeping into cities across the country. To feel the passion, you didn’t have to know anything about the antiquarian labors of Bishop Percy among the Scottish bards, or Francis James Child collecting old British songs, or John and Alan Lomax’s journeys around the South in the 1920s and 1930s recording old bluesmen in crossroads general stores. Instead, the songs summoned up worlds in which magic could still happen, where true love flourished, and dying heroes proclaimed their defiance of fate. All this for the price of a cappuccino.

The Cage was a long narrow corner store, a former grocery probably, relatively small, with the main door at a characteristic 45-degree angle to the street. But this was always blocked by tables and the only opening was on the side street, where Jake the owner stood. On Sundays the Cage was always tightly packed, and Jake let somebody new in only when another person left. Unlike the custodians of today’s velvet ropes, he played no favorites and gave the nod to whoever was next in line with a loud egalitarian flourish. There wasn’t a stage or central singer at the Cage. If you arrived early enough or waited until the crowd thinned out (the sessions often lasted five or six hours), you could sit inside and order something — tea, coffee, chocolate, cookies, or little sandwiches and assorted cheeses if you were feeling flush. Then you sat and listened while one performer after another sang, sometimes as a solo turn and sometimes leading the room in a group song. There was no spotlight and no emcee. The etiquette of who followed whom was very complex, requiring aggression and deference in equal measure, delicately insinuating your desire and willingness to sing while being aware of all the others who also wanted to jump in. Jake’s only involvement was every so often to clear his throat, which meant that it was time to let his wife Patty have a turn — a prerogative everyone bowed to without complaint.

There were several singers who were always there and must have arrived at 8 in the morning to get their seats. As part of the Sunday ritual, they also sang the same songs in much the same way. The mournful girl with the very red lipstick and long brown hair always sang “Wandering,” and the fresh-faced young man in the button-down shirt and pale blue sweater always sang “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out,” and that was it.

I never quite dared to do one of those solo pieces. My guitar playing wasn’t very good, and I didn’t have the kind of voice that could turn nervousness into an amiable quaver. Like many of the others, the only songs I was willing to sing in public were just about the only ones I could play passably. They also had to be the only ones I could sing that were any different from other people’s songs, since it was one of the many unwritten rules that you didn’t poach on someone else’s song.

For the less talented like myself, songs made popular by Leadbelly or the Weavers were standard favorites, not least because most of them could easily be sung by groups of the semi-tone deaf, with no fear of being off key.

The appearance of sincerity was as important a part of folksinging aesthetics as it was of dating. When we were together at someone’s house, or driving around in a car from dance to dance, or hanging out in general, there was always singing and guitar- or banjo-playing. One hidden possibility was that if we could carry it off before each other, we might dare to take the momentary focus away from someone at the Cage. The more obvious reason was that we enjoyed it. Like the B-movies we hunted up in dank theaters in odd parts of town, this semi-outlaw music, sung by blacklisted performers or emanating from the right-hand side of the radio dial, held us together like secret hand signals on some dark night, differentiating friend from foe.

So, while I never challenged the top echelon of the Gilded Cage soloists, there was a floating group of which I was very occasionally an active member, who played favorites that anyone could sing. We gathered our nerve, groped into the spotlight, and played until the heady prospect of risk urged someone else forward. Most of this group played once or twice and never played again. The point of daring had been made, and what the Cage demanded was less to be a folksinger than to participate with friendly strangers in the glorious separation from the boring world outside. Some in this group invariably sang “The Sloop John B” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” both songs I hated, in part because they had been covered by the relentlessly white-bread Kingston Trio and could be heard on any mainstream radio station. But those songs were tolerated because everybody could then join in and any chording mistakes were obliterated in the general sense of community and high spirits. Another virtue for the anxious neophyte was that neither of those songs had any discernible political content. Others took the stage with more overtly political, but still communal songs, as a kind of overhang from the 1930s, when the rediscovery of American roots, especially in music, for a time bound together the left and the right. At those moments, American classics like “John Henry” or “Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill” quickly gave way to “Peatbog Soldiers” or “Viva La Quince Brigada.” The Spanish Civil War and World War II were still being fought in these songs, and people bellowed out their anger against the “fascistas” as if Franco were just about to encircle Philadelphia. It also seemed safer and more engaged to voice your rebel sentiments in a foreign language, passionate but distant.

But I was always too embarrassed to say words in a foreign language and thereby pretend to its authority. There was a thin line between sincerity and pretension at the Cage and everywhere else in the ’50s. The essence of being cool was to walk that line, and the square kid was less apt to be ridiculed than the pseudo by the Cool Police, who were always lying in wait. That’s why being a coffeehouse beatnik was such a good choice to make. No one ever said “beatnik,” of course. That was a word invented by Herb Caen, a San Francisco columnist, in imitation of the Soviet space satellite Sputnik and repeatedly endlessly by Time magazine to somehow imply the Cold War subversiveness of the espresso-drinking and folksinging way of life. But being beat, or some reasonable weekend facsimile, was fine. It asserted a lack of interest in conventional style, an authenticity whose hallmark was an un-self-conscious self-consciousness. Of course, the beat look had its conventions too, like the plaid flannel shirt, or the rusty black-and-white sneaks in the age before anyone over the age of 14 wore them off a basketball court. There were probably a few “real” beatniks around, but none had the charisma projected by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and their celebrated — or excoriated — friends. I had read On the Road in an all-night marathon, excited and unable to sleep until I reached the end of the journey. But how exactly I could connect with that world, other than through attitude or taste in music, was murky to me. Aspiring hipsters in my high school passed around the square (a visual pun there?) black-and-white paperback of Howl! published by the City Lights bookstore. But its status as a model or a cautionary tale was unclear. Angel-headed hipsters we were not. Instead, we were always ruddering our way between the extremes of sincerity and self-consciousness, unwilling to commit to any particular style because it was the commitment itself, the willingness to adopt a style and be marked, that was the final acknowledgement of failure.

The process was particularly dangerous at the Cage, where the varieties of pretension were infinite. Tall girls with dark hair shadowing their pale faces sat around in black tights and berets and looked mournful like Juliette Gréco, at the time the top Left Bank pinup, in their own take on high-school existentialism. In the warm days, there were always be one or two barefoot people, and habitués who could hardly play the guitar at all let the finger nails of their right hands grow and close-clipped those on their left to imply to the casual Sherlock that they were virtuosi in disguise, just dropping in to check out the amateurs.

The two songs I made my debut with were Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues,” which only had two chords and could be played by any enthusiast, and “Passing Through,” which was a little more complicated:

Passing through, passing through,
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue,
Glad that I ran into you.
Tell the people that you saw me passing through.

It had the virtue of being one of those gloomily self-dramatizing loner songs like “Going Down that Road Feeling Bad,” but with a political edge:

I was at Franklin Roosevelt’s side
Just an hour before he died.
He said, One World must come out of World War Two.
Yankee, Russian, black or tan,
Hell, a man is just a man.
We’re all brothers and we’re only passing through.

Roosevelt had been dead for almost 10 years, even though his picture still hung over the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room in our house. Postwar prosperity had long since given way to Cold War fear and trembling. But somewhere beneath it all, the flame still burned. And by the time the song was in full swing, there were enough momentary brothers and sisters singing that my faulty grasp of the third and fourth verses was unnoticeable.

For me and my friends, rock ’n’ roll was part of the general music scene, along with rhythm-and-blues, its more melancholic predecessor. But for the purists, the folk world and the rock world were very separate, even hostile to each other. When Bob Dylan, already considered a latecomer to the scene, appeared a few years later at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar, many people in the folk scene with a distaste for anything popular yelled “sellout.” Folk, they claimed, was plainspoken, direct, and noncommercial; rock (and electric guitars) was associated with commercialism, crime, and misguided politics. John Jacob Niles and his dulcimer were okay; Bo Diddley and his electric guitar weren’t. Folk, they said, demonstrated your sincerity and your political commitment, rock just your adolescent nerve ends. Even contemporary country music was generally condescended to unless it could demonstrate an authentic folk pedigree, preferably as recorded by someone from the Library of Congress and released on Folkways records. Jean Ritchie was okay; Patsy Cline wasn’t. Gospel was acceptable, so long as it was sung by someone black.

All these distinctions seemed peculiar to me. Why couldn’t I like both Bo Diddley and Pete Seeger? Why did people who happily sang “My Darling Clementine” seem to scorn John Ford’s film of the same name? In my mid-teens, just about the time I was definitely leaving folk music, which I had come to regard as precious, and turning entirely to rock ’n’ roll, a black guy named Raymond made a big stir at the Cage by singing a few gospel songs in a very powerful, although somewhat stagy, voice. Instead of doing intricate runs on his guitar in the way we were used to from our Sunday virtuosi (who every so often trooped off dutifully to an Andrés Segovia concert), Raymond struck a few simple chords to accompany what was basically an a cappella chant. I liked it, but by that time I was already committed to Ray Charles and Joe Turner and so felt superior to all those Cage folkheads who thought it was something new.

In the ’60s, when dope was starting to appear, Frank Rizzo, later police commissioner and a controversial mayor of Philadelphia, but then a police precinct captain looking to make a name for himself as a crusader against junkies and Commies, raided the Cage and discovered nothing. Maybe some clandestine stuff did go on, as the definition of what it took to be cool changed. But for the most part, the place was so ethereally self-obsessed that the social atmosphere alone was enough to send you into orbit. Any other transcendence you were in search of ran a poor second.