Music in Harvard Square
Music is an undeniable part of the history and allure of Harvard Square. The storied list of performers in jazz clubs, blues houses, coffee shops, movie theater lobbies, and on the streets is staggering. Some of the biggest names in American music of the last half-century got their start as unknowns in Harvard Square. Below, we will look at four of the spaces that have made Harvard Square a famous music venue, Club 47 or Passim, The Nameless Coffeehouse, The House of Blues, and the streets of The Square.
No one could foresee the 47 Mount Auburn Jazz Coffee House changing the face of American music when it was first founded in 1958 by Paula Kelly and Joyce Kalina. Initially unwelcomed by their neighbors in Harvard Square, the 47 had to become a nonprofit, charging people $1 to be “members” in order to stay in business—thereby adding “club” to create the name Club 47.
The folk revival movement of the 1960s forever changed American music, and that change manifested itself solidly in Club 47.
One Tuesday night performer was listed as the anonymous “Girl with Guitar.” That performer turned out to be Joan Baez. Soon after Club 47 opened, at age 17, Baez gave her first performance. Thrust into the music scene that was forming around Club 47, Baez soon connected with Debbie Green and Margie Gibbons. The girls wrote music together, taught each other songs, and dated other young singers and guitar-players from Harvard. Their sounds mixed, blended, and evolved, and a musical revolution began to take shape centered on Club 47.
For the next ten years, hundreds of performers would make the pilgrimage to Club 47 to be part of the Cambridge folk music world: The Charles River Boys, Jim Kweskin, Jim Rooney, Eric von Schmidt, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Clay Jackson, Ethan Signer and Taj Mahal. Many were students, or drop-outs, from Harvard, BU, and Radcliffe, such as Tom Rush and Bonnie Raitt. Joan Baez knew a good, young singer whom she brought to Cambridge, but Club 47 was booked. Bob Dylan, therefore, played for free between sets, never playing an official gig.
By the late 1960s bands had begun to replace the solo acts from the earlier years, and other changes did not bode well for the club. The original owners left to pursue other careers, and the location of Club 47 moved to Palmer Street, though a successful petition readdressed the site from #29 to #47 kept part of the address the same. Things only got worse, however, and in 1968 the club closed. A year later the concept was reborn under the name Passim, which itself became a nonprofit, and later Club Passim.
In its reincarnated form, Club 47 lives on through Club Passim which has grown to include a music school and a cultural exchange program for kids. For its 40th anniversary, the club celebrated at Sanders Theater and some of the artists who got their start at the club played a benefit concert which included Tom Paxton, Muddy Waters, Taj Mahal, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, and Joan Baez.
Club 47 is certainly not the only music house that played an important role in the music culture of Harvard Square both past and present. Many of the artists who performed at Club 47 also played at The Nameless Coffeehouse. Proudly proclaiming their role as “New England's oldest all-volunteer coffeehouse- forty-four years of bringing great folk music to Harvard Square!,” The Nameless Coffeehouse features entertainment ranging from folk and blues to bluegrass and comedy.
The Nameless is unique for it is entirely volunteer-run, and anyone, regardless of means, is welcome. It is volunteers who book acts, serve food, and set up for the bands, and audience members are asked to help clean up after performances. Perhaps slightly less well known than Club Passim, The Nameless views itself as a launching pad for artists and has hosted names such as Tracy Chapman, Patty Larkin, Ellis Paul, Dar Williams, John Gorka, Bob Franke, Ric Ocasek, and comedians Andy Kaufman and Jay Leno.
Although no longer in Harvard Square, there is one site that is not to be forgotten, or outdone by its larger and more glamorous branches: The House of Blues was founded in Harvard Square in 1992. With the intention of focusing on folk music from the Deep South, Hollywood and music icons invested in and opened the first of what would soon grow to be a highly successful chain of music venues. Dan Akyroyd, Aerosmith, George Wendt, Paul Schaffer, John Candy, River Phoenix, and Harvard University were among the first investors. The House of Blues now exists in 12 locations across the country, though the original location in Harvard Square closed in 2003. The origin of House of Blues serves to add to highlight the importance of the music culture of Harvard Square.
Harvard Square has been on the vanguard of American music since the late 1950s. One way that it has continued to remain relevant is with its the famous, if a bit motley, assortment of street performers. One that is perhaps the quintessential modern example of Harvard Square’s folk charm is Ratsy. Born in Michigan, Ratsy attended college, earned her cosmetology license, and then moved to Boston to become a singer. She sang underground in the subway for 3-4 years until her friend encouraged her to enter the now-defunct Acoustic Underground Competition, a national singer/songwriter competition in Boston, where she was named Best Female Performer. She has put out three CDs (The Subway Songstress Years (1992), Squished Under a Train (1995), and Flowery Swimsuit: The Live Album (2000)), and her first album was nominated for the Boston Music Awards.
Ratsy played The Nameless Coffeehouse and was a regular at Club Passim while touring the folk music scene in Boston. In fact, her final gig in Boston, before moving to California to pursue an acting career was at Club Passim. Since moving to the West Coast, Ratsy has appeared in several television commercials and an episode of the show Gilmore Girls.
Ratsy is just one, though certainly a dramatic example, of the continuation of the music culture of Harvard Square that was started at Club 47 and continued with both The Nameless Coffeehouse and The House of Blues. While some of the greatest artists of a generation got their start in Harvard Square more than 50 years ago, new and different artists continue to perform on the same stages that saw the birth of American musical icons.
As prepared by:
Gavin W. Kleespies, Executive Director Cambridge Historical Society.
Katie MacDonald, Intern Cambridge Historical Society.