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Scott Alarik

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Bongos & the '60s Songwriter

Bob Dylan, Greenwich Village
Bongos & the '60s Songwriter
        A story I tell in my Roots of Songwriting workshop is how the Greenwich Village songwriter scene got started. It actually began before Bob Dylan showed up, according to ‘60s songwriter Eric Andersen. In the beginning, the coffeehouses were haunts for the beat poets. People packed them, eager to hear beatniks talking dirty through a microphone, accompanied by goateed bongo players in sunglasses. Cool, baby, cool.
        Folksingers were hired to perform between the poets’ sets. One theory is that owners thought music would be a nice break. Another is that it cleared the house, allowing a fresh set of tourists to pay up for a whiff of the hipster scene. Dig it, man.
        Back then, Eric says, the folksingers were all doing traditional songs. The beat poets confronted them, saying, “You’re always talking about authentic this and authentic that. It’s all about being authentic, man. But you sing about being sailors and soldiers, lumberjacks and maids a-milking. And you’ve never done any of those things. If you cats are so authentic, how come you got no songs about being Eric Andersen?”
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        That was taken as a challenge. Why don’t we sing about what it’s like to be us? That’s what the folks who created the old songs did, after all. So they began writing songs in a folk style that chronicled their own lives and times with the same uncompromising honesty that the old songs did. It was instantly clear how different these songs were from the commercial treacle of the day, and that they belonged more to folk than pop. Soon, people were flocking to the coffeehouses to see these new folksingers, mixing traditional gems with songs about their own lives, and the beat poets faded into legend.
        “Then we went to Cambridge with our new songs,” Andersen told me with a dry chuckle, “and got called ‘inauthentic’ by all these bluegrass pickers from MIT. Go figure."