Stories told in April, 2011

Martha Schlamme

This story takes place in 1956. It was told on April 16th, 2011 by Frank.  2 Comments

One night late in 1956, somebody told me an Austrian folk singer named Martha Schlamme was in town. She was playing an engagement at the Gate of Horn, a night club in the basement of the Rice Hotel that catered to folk music fans and other hip people.

So what, I inquired. Well, Martha Schlamme was no communist herself, I was told, but she was one of the all-too-lonely progressive artists trying to speak out for the Communist Party members whose lives were being wrecked by McCarthyism and the blacklist. lf somebody asked her, she might be willing to help the local radicals raise some money with a benefit performance.

One of the American Socialist’s goals was to help other radical groups spread the word. We were active in the Eugene Debs Forum, a freewheeling speakers’ program that had the support of most of the independent radical groups in town. The idea was to talk with everybody who was interested, without worrying about sectarian lines or historical disagreements. Of course, advertising and promotion took money, and like every radical project, the Debs Forum had very little. It was part of my job to help put those funds together.

I knew nothing about folk music and even less about putting on a show. In fact, I don’t think I had ever been a nightclub before I went to the Gate of Horn that night, except for the time my mother took me to see Ronnie Clary sing at the Black Orchid on somebody’s birthday. I took the El train to the Gate of Horn, paid my one dollar at the door, and sat down in the dark to listen.

A thin man was standing on the club’s small stage tuning a guitar. After a minute, a tall, striking blond woman strode onto the stage and took up a position in front of him. She began to sing. “Die Gendanken sang frei,” she sang: “My thoughts are free.” It was a song ordinary people had sung during the peasant wars in Germany, she explained afterwards, and its short, rough lines said, “Tyrants can do what they will to my body, but my mind is free.” What she was doing, it struck me right away, was affirming the power and the responsibility of us all to keep speaking our minds in the midst of the repression of the McCarthy years. I was mesmerized. From working with the American Socialist, l’d had an inkling that this could be done, but I had never seen anyone standing up in public doing it with such conviction. It was a reaffirmation of everything I believed in, everything I had dedicated my life to. I still hum that song to myself today, although I‘ve forgotten most of the words.

After the songs were over, I went up to the stage and introduced myself to Martha and her guitarist, Frank Hamilton — one of the great folk accompanists of the time, I found out later. She called across the room to a heavy, bearish-looking fellow, medium-tall, with his shirttails hanging out and a few days’ worth of beard on his face. He came over and said hello. He was Albert Grossman, Martha’s manager and a co-owner of the Gate of Hom.

Later on, he was to become one of the dominant personalities in the pop explosion — the man who took Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and any number of others to the top of the commercial heap.

I explained to the two of them how badly the Eugene Debs Forum needed to raise some money, and how a small benefit concert could help. We were trying to get the word out, I told her, and that was expensive. We were arguing that radicals spent too much energy squabbling over the pros and cons of the Russian experience. American problems were a tall enough order, especially during a time when capitalism was on the upswing and labor and the left were in retreat. Clarity and education, not competitive sloganeering, would get the socialist movement back on its feet.

Martha thought that sounded good and she‘d like to help out. Grossman said it was fine with him. He was not unsympathetic, he was just bemused at how hard some people would work for no money– and for a lost cause, as far as he was concerned. Martha sang for us, for a minimal fee, in the living room of a large apartment in Hyde Park. A hundred and fifty people showed up: a huge success.

Martha and I became friends after that. She asked complicated questions about what I thought progressives should be doing and how we might change the world, and I did my best to answer. In return, she brought me to folk concerts and poetry readings and gave me a look at the strange, sophisticated world she lived in. I was fascinated.

Orchestra Hall

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on April 2nd, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

By 1961 people were coming out in pretty fair numbers for folk acts, and whatever the case had been a few years before, it was no longer politics that was selling the tickets. What the audiences wanted to listen to was happy, engaging, relatively depoliticized music, and in most cases I had what they wanted.

Of all the pop-folk acts I booked, the Chad Mitchell Trio was perhaps the most political, and even their sharpest stuff was really light social satire, chosen more for its attention-getting features than anything else. Folk artists were there to entertain, and there was nothing wrong with that. (Of course, some purists on the left looked down on it. There was always some theorist willing to try to rein in this irrelevant, frivolous pursuit with some line or other.)

Orchestra Hall, the home of the Chicago Symphony, was one of the three major concert venues in Chicago, along with the Opera House and the Amphitheatre. It was a rather austere-looking room, but its acoustics almost certainly made it one of the finer symphony halls in the country. The Symphony played there Thursday nights, Friday afternoons (for the dowagers and the retired gentlemen), and Saturday evenings. Occasionally, when the Symphony was out on tour, there would be a Saturday open, but the only thing you could program very far in advance was acts that drew on Friday nights. That was perfect for folk music.

I built my first folk concert series around the availability of those Friday nights at Orchestra Hall. I had no cash to operate on, but I knew a few of the artists I wanted to book. You couldn’t work that way forever, of course. I knew I had to find a way to get more tickets sold in advance, so I could build up some cash up front. But that would have to wait. For now, the performers and I were both winging it. They needed the exposure I could give them as much as I needed them. By the middle of 1961, the Mitchell Trio and Miriam Makeba had agreed to come and play Orchestra Hall that fall and winter. Harold Leventhal, who I knew from the Pete Seeger concerts, sent along Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. We were off.

I designed the series to look just like the classical series that were all the rage. As far as I knew, I was the first promoter outside the long-hair world to launch a subscription series like this, and that quickly gave me a degree of respectability that often eluded the lowly pop promoter. Many of the artists, not incidentally, liked the way some of that cachet rubbed off on them.

I had imagined that the risks involved in introducing lesser—known artists could be lowered by combining them with established acts, but that‘s not how it worked out. I thought the audience would be more inclined to take a chance on an unknown name when they saw it on a list with the Limeliters or Josh White, and besides, many of them had already bought tickets to the whole series, so they might as well come.

In practice, that first series was better for my image than it was for business. Most of the shows that fall and winter broke even; only Carlos Montoya and the Clancy Brothers made any money. But the point (not to mention a modest profit) was made. For the first time in my life I had some cash in hand. Next year I would do it again, with a bit of a track record to stand on.