Law of the jungle

Despite Albert Grossman’s ambitions, the kind of show business that we were involved in was still an insignificant corner of the market. The law of the jungle did not yet prevail, perhaps because there wasn’t enough jungle for it to work. There were perhaps half a dozen outfits doing concerts with our kind of artists. It felt more like a guild than a business. The Kingston Trio had not yet had their first hit, “Tom Dooley,” which changed everything.

Albert Grossman was a brilliant man and one of the most underrated and unexplained people in the history of pop music. He introduced folk music as commercial and popular entertainment, and he played a central role in bringing pop culture to life in America. Albert created Peter, Paul and Mary, the biggest of the pop folk acts — put them together, found an arranger for them, believed in them, got them a record contract. He had a clear understanding, probably better than anyone I ever knew, of where music was going. He wasn’t shy about saying it, either. He would tell his acts exactly what they should do and what they shouldn’t do in order to be commercial. “You wanna make money, here‘s how you do it.” Sometimes he was wrong, but usually it seemed to pay off.

The Old Town School of Folk Music was the first expression of popular folk music in Chicago, and Grossman’s Gate of Horn was its commercial version. It starting bringing in the traditional folk aficionados as early as 1954, after McCarthyism had peaked and things were opening up. Younger people, college kids, began following them in soon after that. By that time, the music of the radicals of the 40’s — Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Almanac Singers — was ready for a comeback. So were some of the older Southern folk blues artists, like Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and Josh White. Whenever they came to Chicago, you knew you could hear them in the basement of the Rice Hotel.

And then there were the poets and the comics. I first heard Maya Angelou at the Gate of Horn, and Shelly Berman, and Dick Gregory, and a guy named Lord Buckley who recited classical texts in a jive vernacular. Albert created and dominated that scene.

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