Jottings from a pop culture junkie

BROOKLYN, NY; February 6, 2019—Israel G. Young, founder and proprietor of the Greenwich Village Folklore Center from 1957-1973, and the Folklore Centrum in Stockholm from 1973 through the end of last year, died Monday at home in Stockholm. He was 90.

Izzy was a mentor to this budding writer even before I started contributing to the Village Voice in 1970. Before he left for Sweden, he entrusted his scrapbooks to me in part because he couldn’t afford to ship them to Sweden and in part out of hopes I could turn them into a book, find a publisher and split the income with him.

When the book project proved fruitless, I shipped the scrapbooks to him in Sweden around 1975. The American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress acquired the scrapbooks, Izzy’s journals, and other materials in December 2015.

The article below ran in the Village Voice about a month before Izzy left for Sweden.

Folklore Center loses its center

Izzy Young Looks to Sweden

by Ira Mayer
Village Voice — April 26, 1973

There are 19 tabloid-size volumes of scrapbooks which tell a good deal about the Folklore Center from 1959 to 1969. One has a copy of Bob Dylan’s 1962 composition, “talking folklore center,” copyrighted under the Folklore Center name, with a note in Israel Young’s handwriting underneath the sheet music page: “I published this originally to establish the Folklore Center trademark.”

There are hundreds of newspaper and magazine clippings throughout the books, along with birth and wedding announcements, drawings (usually by Izzy’s lady of the day), letters, poems by people who dropped in the store and felt like writing something, Izzy’s notes on the people who dropped in the store, and some of the “gossip off the street.” Most of the notes and gossip would eventually become Izzy’s “Frets and Frails” column in Sing Out!

The highlight of the scrapbooks is an entire volume devoted to the riots in Washington Square Park, when the city of New York decided that folksinging with stringed instruments was not for its parks. A Daily Mirror frontpage headline of April 10 1961, reads proudly, “3000 BEATNIKS RIOT IN PARK.” There is a 43-page official appeal to the New York Supreme Court, “In the Matter of the Application of Israel G. Young, Petitioner-Appellant against Newbold Morris, as Commissioner of Parks of the City of New York, Respondent-Respondent for an order pursuant to Article 78 of the Civil Practice Act to review his determination and to direct him to issue a permit.” By May 15, Mayor Wagner had intervened with a compromise suggestion that the singers and instrumentalists limit their activities to the hours between 3 and 6 p.m. IMG_1676

The books are representative of the folk music world as Israel G. Young saw it through the portals of the Folklore Center. The store did between $1000 and $1200 business a week at its peak in the mid-‘60s. Today, largely because of Izzy’s interest in more political matters, and because he didn’t pay the publishers and record manufacturers very regularly for the books and records he stocked, it operates at about a third of that amount. Oddly enough with Izzy leaving and Rick Altman taking the store full time, there is hope that it may rebuild its foundation as a real folklore center.

The scrapbooks, however, and Izzy’s autobiography (the latter a short paperback telling in words and pictures of Izzy’s Bronx childhood) look at the world around Izzy Young, not at Izzy himself. Why the interest in folk music? What purpose did the store and the concert series serve for him? And perhaps most significant at the moment, why is he now moving to Sweden? Recently we spent an afternoon together in Izzy’s apartment two flights above the store, talking of things we’d often started conversations about in the past. This time we ran through a stack of cassettes — Izzy being at his best in a generally free-form setting.

* * *

“I’ve been working in the United states for more than 20 years,” began Izzy, “working on this original idea that I picked up first from square dancing, and then from Margot Mayo’s group, that folk music is the heartbeat of a person. I followed that idea in mind, even though I never followed it completely in my work. I’ve never been a real scholar or a real ‘thing’ in the U.S. I just kept alive a certain idea – which everyone agrees with, but no one agrees with my practices.”

The practices in question, he says at first, are a matter of a lack of direct control. Yet Izzy is the first to admit that the Folklore Center has been a one-man show, run on a “cash-in-pocket” basis, so that the store could support the concert series which in turn could support the store, both of which could support him. The economic end is where he lost many of his supporters in the folk music world.

“If the folklore Center concert series was really economic, a lot of people would want to be attached to it, people who are concerned about security for themselves and their own names. Instead they work for the foundations or the folk festivals. Or they are scholars in universities. Or they join the Smithsonian Institute. or the go after grants.” For those familiar with some of the inner goings-on in the folk world, each of those alternatives has a name or two attached to it. As for grants, he himself received one from the New York State Council of the Arts this year, of which he says, “It was sort of like an accident — it wasn’t like it was planned. But I find myself being left a little bit out in the cold because of the way I work things.”

The concert series has been run on the basic premise of a 50/50 split with the artist. With a $2 admission charge most of the time, the majority of concerts attract an average of 100 people. A little bit of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor became the policy when one performer would draw 500 people and someone else at another time would attract six. “I’ve played that role in the field, not that I wanted to. It’s as if I’ve joked about it: I hit people on the way up and on the way down. In the middle the situation is that people don’t want to work on my terms.” Two names come up: John Cohen, of the Putnam String County Band, and John Herald.

“When John Cohen needs me to show a film, he calls me up. When he doesn’t need me for a film I don’t see him, even though he’s my friend. Last week he told me how he didn’t see why he should put the Putnam String County Band on in my series, while two months ago he thought it was very important . . . And I’ve asked John Herald for years to do a concert for me. At Gerde’s or the Bitter End there’s still a dream that you can make [it]. It’s a scene. The Folklore Center has not become a scene in 15 years.”

For a while it seemed as though there was a “scene,” a time when any new singer or songwriter needed New York City (and the Folklore Center as an outlet in the city) in which to grow up. “Dylan, Paxton, Ochs, Odetta all came to New York. At one time I was in a fortunate situation. The whole folk music movement was there. Pete Seeger, the American Square Dance Group, the leftists, and the conservatives.” Was there much of a conservative constituency? “Well I was pretty conservative myself. At first, when I took in the ‘People’s Song Book’ and ‘Lift Every Voice,’ I was against them. I felt I was being democratic by stocking them in the store. I felt there was no reason to change the country’s tradition for what you wanted to accomplish. I was against Joe Hill’s rewriting church hymns. But of course the people who wrote church hymns didn’t mind at all changing the text for their purposes. Everyone was using music to get their ideas across.

“I became a part of that scene with many others. The only difference between me and the others was that I wasn’t a musician. And yet, because of the way I acted, I was the only one who could go into meetings and conferences for folksingers and always be treated as a folksinger. I was usually the secretary or president of something, and nobody ever said, ‘Well Izzy doesn’t play guitar or banjo or sing. What right does he have to be in this room?’ . . . That was a screening out process. A few people making it and somehow the rest still digging in and saying it’s important. A co-op group or a protest committee. And then it fell out.”

The scrapbooks, too, drift off temporarily at that point. The civil rights movement had peaked with the March on Washington in August 1963. The marching was literally over for the time being, and most of those who had “made it” returned to the comfort and security of concert stages and coffee houses. “They got their medals when they went (down south),” says Izzy. “Phil Ochs would take a chance he might get killed when he went to Mississippi to sing . . . But he would go into a town, spend three hours, sing some songs, work up the populace, and then leave and maybe make it more dangerous than it was before.”

“But where were all these people from the civil rights movement in the vanguard of the anti Indo-Chinese war? Now if you talk about that to singers, they generally say. ‘There’s no communication.’ How come there was communication in ’63 but not in ’73? Because the artist now knows his place much better. Judy Collins is now on the cover of Ms. magazine, which is pretty wild. Ms. is a very false, cheap copy of any civil rights thing she might have stood for in 1964 and some rallies she sang at in 1969. And Mary Travers sings some protest songs. But she’s very clear to point out that it has nothing to do with real protest. It’s just a feeling of people that somehow things will happen without anybody having to give up any money or blood for it.”

The politics of folk music. We disagree fundamentally as to whether every singer is necessarily political, Izzy insisting that “every singer on stage is presenting a political opinion,” either as a “general premise,” as with Michael Cooney, or very directly, as with a Barbara Dane. Forcing the issue, as Barbara Dane does, or “antagonizing” people as Jane Fonda does, however, are no longer successful. “Even Joan Baez, who doesn’t have the political savvy to get her songs across. But somehow Mary Travers does, even if it’s the same songs. What people are saying is that they don’t want to hear real protest songs any more.”

For the last two years Izzy’s newsletters (which come out about every three weeks) have included a column of news and comment on Cambodia, a column to which he has gotten very little response, “except that Rick says some of the people at the concerts say it’s a shame I’m mixing up the concerts with Cambodia. I feel it’s a very unique box that Cambodia’s in and it hasn’t stopped the concerts. Though on the other side you can say that if a singer sings for me they’re in a sense approving the things I’m writing in my newsletter. But I’ve never heard a singer say that to me.”

To be sure, many of the singers do not feel as Izzy does, about Cambodia or music, as two cases illustrate very well. Prior to her first appearance in New York, Izzy had written a vehement attack against Joni Mitchell in the pages of Sing out! Joni Mitchell’s first New York concert took place shortly thereafter – for Izzy Young’s Folklore Center concert series. Then in 1965, when Sing Out! took a stand against the war in Vietnam, a dispute arose when John Cohen objected to Sing Out! people, specifically Barbara Dane, writing to Roscoe Holcomb about the war. “She said at the time,” Izzy recalls, “I think rightfully, that he’s as much a part of the war as we are. And he has thoughts about it.” All three of these people have appeared on Izzy’s stage at various times before and after this incident.

* * *

One of Izzy’s pet peeves of recent months has been the singer/songwriter syndrome, and the dozens of kids who come to the store every week seeking auditions. They all, he says, do only their own material, sound like James Taylor or Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, never come to concerts by anyone else and generally have no knowledge or regard for traditional music. To a large extent, he blames the major record companies for the situation:

“When Elektra was recording folksingers 20 years ago, they had a balanced idea of making a living out of the whole label. Some records sold better than others, so Theodore Bikel got more money than Cynthia Gooding, and Ed McCurdy had one album which sold very well and kept him alive for a long time. But everyone knew each other on the label. I’ll bet now that there are 20 times as many people on the label who don’t know each other . . . And it doesn’t make a difference anymore if you’re on Paramount or Columbia . . . At one time, all new records that came out on Elektra or Vanguard were automatically heard.”

That the audience is more diffuse now as a factor he wished to set aside. “As soon as they found out about hype,” Izzy continued, “and that they could sell a lot of records with hype, they gave up on the old idea that the artist is important by himself. And that’s when all these phony recording contracts came out where the artist wasn’t protected, where the artist paid the entire cost of the recording . . . The companies were in a position of laying out money in terms of investment, but they were willing to take the chance of putting out maybe 100 albums and waiting to see which one made it. When one did make it, they were still ahead.”

Folkways, Folk-legacy, Rounder and County, among other small record companies, have all been doing increasingly well in recent months, and I suggested that this, as with the rapid increase in the number of small folk music clubs and folklore centers (about 20 of the latter are spread throughout North America), is due to the personalized environment in which each operates. Izzy agreed, but saw the next necessary step in the live idiom as greater cooperation among those running things.

“Someone like Janet Schneider is coming in — with some big ideas that’ll come down soon — but she put together several thousand dollars worth of gigs for Aly Bain and his group. She did better than a commercial manager could do. Or the Philadelphia Folk Festival. I’ve arranged 10 concerts in 10 minutes through that. There can be more cooperation, but it should be better organised . . . Philly is going to have a musician from Gambia this summer, and we’re going to put him on and the Folk Music Society of Northern New Jersey is going to put him on, and altogether we hope to raise $3000 to $4000 through a tour so he can buy a house in Gambia and live with his family. When something special like that comes along we can do it. It’s when it’s a singer who’s not that special that people don’t call and say ‘Let’s get a tour going.’ And I’m included in that.”

At 45, Izzy is surprisingly objective about his own role in “the New York folk scene.” Though he’d like to see more cooperation, and a more socialized mode of operation, he is acutely aware of the need for one central figure in any organization. Internal strife among factions at publications such as Sing Out! and the Guardian, he points out, have held them back from their full potential, and true performers’ cooperatives have either failed completely or metamorphosed into large corporations. All of which is part of why he now wants to move to Sweden. “Originally it was this love of Swedish music, though that’s obviously not the reason for leaving the United States,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in Sweden. One of my plans is to be able to work more cooperatively there than I was able to here . . . I’d like to be part of something where the musicians control the dance music scene themselves rather than business people . . .

“At the moment I feel Sweden is a backwater place and that there’s a lot of good cultural things that come through which could make it in a few years much more exciting than New York — and much more healthy, because more people are really interested in what’s going on . . . I’ve gone to many new things in Sweden and have never seen something like here where there are 10 or 12 people at poetry readings. If you present a concert of foreign music in Sweden, you can be sure that there’ll be a decent amount of people to hear it, and that they’ll probably get on radio and TV and get paid for it, as well as get a certain number of concerts with musicians —easy gigs where they play for half an hour a night.

“Cyrelle Forman was here recently, and she told of three places to sing in Stockholm. She was there just a short time and she sang at all three clubs. I challenge a Swedish singer, or a French or Scottish singer, to come to New York City and sing at the Folklore Center, Max’s, Gerde’s and Gaslight after being there for three weeks. Even English singers can’t get heard here.”

* * *

We touched on a number of other things that afternoon. The third floor apartment is going to Ed Diehl, who’s been the guitar repairman in residence at the store for the last year and a half. Izzy will try to continue his twice-monthly radio show for WBAI from Sweden (“it’s one thing I still really enjoy doing in New York”). There were some not too kind words for The Voice (“The articles have been on the pains of middle-class people getting mugged or not getting mugged, of ‘lets get our thing together and get dog shit off the streets, and of more plants in windows . . . and pages of rock ads and barber ads for $18 a shot.”), and a few more well placed jabs at some of those who have at one time or another considered Izzy their friend.

Some of those friends he hopes to cover in “an alphabet book of American folklore,” something on the order of Lincoln Kirstein’s “Blast at Ballet.” “I was thinking of writing ‘A Fart at Folklore.’ I would write a paragraph about Kenny Goldstein for which he would never forgive me, and about Moe Asch for which he would never forgive me.” Some of those same people, however, are the ones who recently responded to Izzy’s cry for help when the City Tax Bureau padlocked the store.

“I think there’s a general understanding among people that you get $50 for an article here, and I get my $50 in subterranean ways, and meanwhile I won’t stop anybody from giving me money from whatever they’re doing. I’m forced to ask for handouts from people who have money now, which is something I’m ostensibly supposed to be against. Everyone’s supposed to earn their own way and everyone’s supposed to be equal.”

Israel G. Young is more of a realist than he’d like most people (and perhaps even himself) to believe. He’s even realistic about the fact that the Swedish government seems unlikely to issue immigration papers for Catherine and him before they leave this country, and they’ll have to fight for them once they’re in Sweden. But that opinion is no more “outrageous,” as he likes to put it, than any of the others offered above or over the last 17 years.

End of Village Voice article. Click here for Izzy’s obituary in The New York Times.

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