MUSIC

A Folksinger in Greenwich Village
By Randy Burns


Wearing dirty old jeans and a clean shirt, I headed down Bleecker Street with my guitar in hand. Finally, I was actually going to work at the Gaslight Cafe. Turning right on MacDougal, I caught sight of the marquis, right out there on the sidewalk:

[Now Appearing At The Gaslight]
* * * *
John Hammond
Tom Ghent
Randy Burns
* * * *

Certain moments remain in your life forever, and that first glimpse of the Gaslight marquis made all my hard times seem petty. From the moment I descended the stairway and greeted Mr. Hood, I felt as though I was a part of history. This had been my dream ever since I was young and still lived at home. I’d read about the Gaslight and all the folk stars who performed there, how they would all go upstairs to the Kettle of Fish when the night was done—guitars lined up along the bar like dominoes, drinking and singing until the early hours of the morn. I was only sixteen then, but I knew that was for me.

It definitely was.

When you went to see a show at the Gaslight, you had to go down a flight of stairs from the sidewalk to enter. When the show was over, the audience left by using a different stairway on the left.

When you entered from the upstairs world, you’d be greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Hood. There was an old cash register off to the left, and you could pay either one of them. But you never received a ticket. And then after escorting you through a partially drawn red curtain, one of them would walk you directly to your seat.

You were definitely underground inside the Gaslight, and that was very conducive to its atmosphere. The two-foot high stage faced the front where you came in. A single non-directional mike picked up both the voice and guitar perfectly. A bright white spotlight shone straight down on the microphone and the empty stool behind it. With the rest of the lights in the club down low, the scene created a visual atmosphere that was an important part of the music people came to hear. It literally "set the stage."

Mr. Hood would always introduce the performers from the front of the club, using a hand mike, and they’d make their entrance through another red curtain to the right of the stage. Once introduced, the curtain in the front of the club was drawn shut. Performers could feel that happen. It was show time, man! You and the audience were left together to entertain and be entertained. It was a completely different way of being alive. All the other things in your life, good or bad, disappeared the moment you were introduced.

I won’t say I knocked them dead on the first night because I didn’t, although I did think I sang well. The sell-out crowd accepted me well enough, and I received a respectable amount of applause. At the end of the night, Mr. Hood came backstage, put some money in my hand and said, "See you tomorrow night, Randy."

Well, that gave me no indication of whether he was satisfied with my performance or not. Since I didn’t know Mr. Hood very well, I had no way of reading him and would have to wait until I finished singing Saturday night, the end of my two-night gig. Maybe then he’d let me know what he thought.

On Saturday, I arrived at the Gaslight an hour before the first show. Each performer had three complete shows to do on the weekends. There was a sizable break at the end of each show, so the house could be turned over. All the tables needed to be cleared and the chairs straightened out, which gave the performers time for a couple of cold ones upstairs at the Kettle of Fish. The new audience would be given enough time in between shows to get settled. They were never rushed or made to wait too long. The intervals were always just right; Mr. Hood made sure of that. When the club was ready for the next show, he’d come upstairs to the Kettle and signal the performers, letting others know it was time as well.

I sang my best that Saturday night, though I didn’t allow myself to expect more from it. Just being able to say I played the Gaslight for two nights with John Hammond would be a fine first feather in my cap—one I could wear proudly.

I was in the back room where performers prepared to go onstage and returned after every set. I was packing up my guitar, wondering if I’d ever get a chance to do this again. Since I hadn’t seen Mr. Hood, I hadn’t been paid and was ready to go find him. Then he was right there, like the night he first hired me. He grabbed my hand with one of his and put some money in it with the other.

"I like what you do," he said. "Why don’t you come back tomorrow night and open for John again." No answer was called for because it wasn’t a question. He was thinking. "Matter of fact, why don’t you keep coming back every night until I tell you not to." I was in shock and wanted to say something, but Mr. Hood continued, "We’ll just keep your name on the marquis outside and in the paper, then we’ll see what happens." He was becoming more animated with arm and hand gestures. His hard face had relaxed and turned warm, and he was really opening up. I felt like asking him, "Are you sure?" I didn’t want him changing his mind if he’d lost his senses. All at once, this whole thing astounded me.

"Thank you," I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say to him.

"You’ll learn a lot here. I’ll make sure of that." There was no response from me; there never was any need for it. Mr. Hood’s hand was on his chin, as he stared hard at the floor, thinking. He raised his head again when he was done. "I want you to work every night, on the open mike nights, too."


"Okay," I threw in quickly, pretending we had a dialogue going.

"You'll only do a twenty minute set on those nights, just so I can tell the audience you’ll be appearing all week with whoever the headliner will be." I could tell he was done then. "This alright with you?" he asked, but only as an afterthought. He had this all planned now, and it had put him in a good mood.

"Of course it is," I answered sincerely, as if saying thank you. This caused a smile to break across his face. "See you tomorrow, Randy." Then he left and went back up toward the front of the club. When I walked past Mr. and Mrs. Hood on my way out, I said good night. They must have seen me glowing. Hey, what the hell, I was a very proud and happy young man.

Up to this point in my life, I had never come close to anything I had set my heart on. I was still so young. Nothing like this had ever happened to me, so it took a while to fathom it—like waiting for something to arrive that you’ve already received. Had I actually made the big leagues? Me, Randy Burns, opening the show every night at the legendary Gaslight!

Long before first coming to the Village, I had listened to everyone even remotely connected to folk music. One night in his never ending zeal to have me meet all the big-name performers, Mr. Hood brought Buffy Saint Marie back to the performers’ room. I recognized her immediately.

"Randy," he said, "I’d like you to meet Buffy." I stood up, smiled and shook her hand. I was indeed honored. "Is that song ‘Mr. War,’ your song?" she asked. "No, it was written by Irene Paul, sometime in the early forties." It was the most beautiful and haunting anti-war song I had ever heard, and I was doing it every set.

Why you walking by my side Mr. War, why are you asking me to die Mr. War, what are you askin’ me to give, I ain’t had a chance to live, and my honey should be walkin’ there not you. Yes my honey should be walkin’ there not you.

"Would you mind if I tried doing that song from a woman’s point of view?" Buffy asked. Then she told me her idea of how a woman could sing the song. She started singing, "Why you walking by his side Mr. War, why are you asking him to die Mr. War, what are you asking him to give, he ain’t had a chance to live, and I know I should be walkin’ there not you, yes I know I should be walkin’ there not you."

"Perfect!" I said, "the song loses nothing; it’s just as beautiful your way."

"You sure it’s okay to do it?"

"Of course it’s okay, it would be great," I told her. "I’m a big fan of the song myself." She didn’t have to ask my permission to sing or change the song. Hell, I hadn’t written it. That’s just the way things were during the folk revival. She heard me sing it first and it was part of my show, so the proper thing to do was to ask my permission. If you knew a singer did a song regularly and you felt like doing it, you asked him or her. Even if the song wasn’t theirs, you asked them anyway. It was considered good folk etiquette. There would be no problem. All the performers had a solid sense of camaraderie back then. All of them would go out of their way to share what they had with each other. It was all just as simple as that.

One of the Gaslight’s all-time favorites was an old black singer named "Mississippi John Hurt." Hell, he was loved and followed anywhere he went, but when he played the Gaslight in New York, it was a very special event in the folk world. John Hurt, with his charisma and easy way of playing and singing, simply charmed the hell out of everyone everywhere.

Mr. and Mrs. Hood truly loved him from the deepest part of their hearts. Although he’d come back to center stage with the emergence of the urban folk revival, everyone knew he’d been ill and spending time in the hospital. Whenever a major folk star unexpectedly dropped into the Gaslight, he’d be given the stage for as long as he liked. It was the custom; it didn’t matter who else was playing that night.

On a very cold winter night, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott came down the stairs into the Gaslight. I was playing with Steve Gillette that night, and we relinquished the stage in short time. It was late so Jack’s set would probably finish off the night. Steve and I sat down to listen.

Ramblin’ Jack took the stage, grabbed a stool and sat down and pulled the mike stand back in toward him. He was wearing a double-billed, plaid, Sherlock Holmes style hat. It looked a little odd on him at first, but it worked. He sang song after song, interspersed with crazy stories that came off the top of his head. Somehow, these stories tied right back into the ones he had just told. Everyone by now was glued to him. Jack was really "on."

I got up and walked toward the front of the club where Mr. and Mrs. Hood always were, to see if they were enjoying Jack’s show as much as I was. I stepped behind the red curtain, wondering why they weren’t out in the room listening, along with everyone else.

When I found them, they were alone—facing each other with their heads down. They were both crying. Although I had stumbled into a very private moment, they noticed me immediately and approached me at the same time.

"Randy," Mr. Hood softly spoke, "we’ve just received word that Mississippi John Hurt has died." I can’t remember what I said then, but I knew how much they loved him and was sad for them both.

Back on stage, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was on a roll, with everyone loving it. Mr. Hood waited until Jack finished a song and then walked on stage quickly and handed him a note. When Jack opened it, he just stared down at it without moving. Then he put the note in his pocket.

"Folks," he said, "I just received word that Mississippi John Hurt died." There was a gasp from the audience, and many of them started to cry. The urban folk revival had just lost a legend. A few moments later, Jack Elliott stood up, pushed the stool off to the side and pulled the microphone up to standing height. He took off his plaid hat and placed it on the stool. Then, soft and clear, he sang a John Hurt favorite, "The Angels Laid Him Away." The Hoods were standing in front of the curtain while Jack sang, and tears flowed freely down their faces from their hearts.

When Jack finished singing the song, he put his hat back on his head. Then he lowered the microphone, pulled the stool back toward him and sat down. When he finished that set, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott stood up quietly and left the stage. The show was over. There were no more performances at the Gaslight that evening.