Club 47 and the Civil Rights Movement
Harvard Square’s Club 47, later named Club Passim, was one of the first venues in a northern city to feature African American blues musicians from the South. Many of the blues greats such as Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis passed through Cambridge and found a welcoming home in a time when much of the country was hostile if not outright dangerous. Cambridge residents Dick Waterman, Ralph Rinzler, Jim Rooney, Joe Boyd, and others helped make this circuit possible, while people like Nancy Sweezy and Betsy Siggins gave blues musicians a place to stay when Cambridge hotels would not rent to African Americans.
(Photo Credit: Dick Waterman)
As a part of the Centennial Celebration of the Harvard Square Business Association we are featuring brief portraits of Harvard Square businesses and their role in the history of Cambridge. Below are three photos and brief snapshots of some of the many blues musicians that performed at Club 47 and have been a part of Harvard Square’s history in the past 100 years. (The information in this article is from two interviews with Betsy Siggins of the New England Folk Music Archives, one on February 9, 2010 by Robin Lapidus and one on February 10, 2010 by Gavin W. Kleespies of the Cambridge Historical Society.)
Jackie Washington was a very popular performer at Club 47 for most of the time the club was open. He began playing there while he was a student at Emerson College and became a fixture of the folk music scene in Cambridge and Boston. He drew musical influences from the folk landscape that surrounded him as well as from his African American and Puerto Rican roots. He was one of the first people in the area to sing Hispanic folk music and became known as an extraordinary performer.
However, his time in the area also reflected the challenges faced by a person of color in the 1960s. Betsy Siggins, former staff member at Club 47, remembers one time he was arrested in Boston. He had been walking down Commonwealth Avenue when a police car stopped him. When he asked why he was being stopped, the police told him it was because he was “abroad in the night.” An altercation followed, and Jackie Washington ended up in jail. He later challenged the arrest in court and won, but it was a painful experience and a reminder for his friends in Club 47 of the real challenges faced on a daily basis by performers of color just outside the walls of the club.
Jackie Washington later signed with Vanguard Records, becoming one of their first artists of color.
Club 47 became an important stop in a circuit that brought some of the blues greats from the South and introduced them to audiences in northern cities. People like Dick Waterman became major conduits along this trail, working to make contacts and help to make the trip from the South to the northern cities one that was adventuresome rather than fearsome.
The arrival of musicians like Mississippi John Hurt and others that traveled this circuit opened the eyes of the club staff, folk fans, and other performers. It showed that there was an entire country out there, populated by real people with real stories, some of which were stories of real hard times. It showed that there was a lot more to this country than what was seen in Cambridge. For performers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez the performances and stories of blues musicians like Mississippi John Hurt at Club 47 became a widow to a different perspective on the whole country.
Betsy Siggins, former staff member at Club 47, remembers that meeting these performers and hearing their stories of a different kind of an American life in the left an impression that hasn’t wavered since.
When the first African American blues performers began performing at Club 47, there wasn’t a hotel in Harvard Square that would allow a black man to stay. Many of the performers would stay with staff members from the club. Betsy Siggins remembers the experience of having blues greats like Reverend Gary Davis stay on her couch. When people heard he was in town, Siggins would find 20 people had gathered at her home to hear him play and to tell his stories. Everyone knew that they were a part of something that had not yet been discovered.
Betsy also remembers that Davis, a blind man, had one suit, one coat and one hat and that most of the time he was wearing them. In a habit grown from fear, he slept with everything he owned on his body.
As prepared by:
Gavin W. Kleespies, Executive Director Cambridge Historical Society.
Katie MacDonald, Intern Cambridge Historical Society.