Behind the Scenes of the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame

On Boston Discovery Guide’s 10 Top Boston Attractions, not one relates to music. The same on Trip Savvy’s 20 Things to Do in Boston. On Culture Trip’s 25 Must-Visit Attractions in the city, the Boston Symphony squeaks in – shamefully low down the list, below baseball, beer and shopping opportunities. Sure, Cheers! was a great series but is the bar really a must-see?

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Yet Boston, and its sister-city Cambridge, a five-minute subway ride away across the Charles River, is one of America’s great centres of music. Beyond the eponymous mid-Seventies stadium rock band, the area has a claim on many celebrated names: Aerosmith, the Cars, the J Geils Band, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Donna Summer, DMZ, Darlingside, James Taylor, Tom Rush, Tracy Chapman, and Joan Baez to name a small but mighty handful. They may not all have been born in Boston, but they have all put down musical roots there.

And roots is a key word, for roots music in its broadest sense is being celebrated in downtown Boston in a new and evolving permanent exhibition in one of the nation’s grandest old theatres, the Wang, an Art Deco jewel that is on the National Register of Historic Places and part of the non-profit Boch Center. Beneath the Wang’s eye-popping cathedral-style lobby, the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame is taking shape following a modest opening in 2018 on the weekend Baez played a brace of sell-out concerts on her Fare Thee Well tour. The goal is to make it one of Boston’s top destinations, the place where the music that “built” America – the music brought to the New World from the Old World by the migrants who came to build a new life and a new nation – is celebrated, chronicled and performed, in the Wang’s main 3,500-seat auditorium, and in a variety of smaller space, where interviews, discussions, masterclasses and much besides will take place. 

The Wang is part of the National Register of Historic Places

It’s all about the song,” says Boch Center President and CEO Joe Spaulding, cutting efficiently through the thickets of discussion as to how the terms “folk”, “Americana” and “roots” should be defined and how they come together. “It comes back to what Woody Guthrie said – anyone who uses more than two chords is just showing off.  It’s about storytelling, and it’s about the music of our culture.” 

In fact, a great deal of time has been spent brainstorming the parameters of an idea that came to Spaulding in a 3am light-bulb moment a couple of years ago. A former folk singer turned music business executive, his first thought was for a folk music hall of fame, but he needed to know if it would work and if the city would support it. He called old friends in the music world and talked to musicians who come to play the Wang, all of them told him it was “a friggin’ fantastic idea” including Neil Young, who then went on-stage to proclaim to a cheering audience: “Boston is the folk music capital of North America”. 

Then someone told Spaudling that “folk means old”, even though the number of young artists on the circuit testify to its health and vitality. He must include Americana, which was “new”. Spaulding didn’t necessarily agree, pointing out that The Band had branded themselves as Americana way back in the 1960s. So too Young and Joni Mitchell, perhaps because they were all Canadians. Nevertheless, he was happy to embrace Americana. Then someone else told him he couldn’t leave out roots. Which was where the problems of nomenclature really started. Roots could be blues, bluegrass, country, southern rock… 

Rosanne Cash finally clarified things. She and Ry Cooder were doing a Cash and Cooder on Cash show – sold out, by the way. And Rosanne said to me, Joe, I gotta go to Marblehead. We were discussing the Ken Burns’ country music documentary – she was a big part of it because of the Cash and Carter families – and I’d said that by the time you get to the end it’s not about country music, it’s about the music of this country. Rosanne said that’s why I gotta go to Marblehead because the first of the Cash clan came over from the Old Country on a boat called The Good Intention and it docked in Massachusetts and they lived in Marblehead before they moved to Arkansas.

“Now that to me is roots!” exclaims Spaulding, excitedly, his deep voice rising to a crescendo. “Roots came from Africa, it came from the Jews, it came from the Irish…. It emigrated here. The first African-American meeting house in the US is in Boston. It was from here that it all grew and continues to grow. Everything is entangled… folk, Americana, roots. We went to trademark it and discovered that no one had ever put those three words together.”

Spaulding and his “volunteer army” – including Mark Weld, Chairman of the Boch Center Board, Peter Gold, Chief of Staff and co-founder of the Boston Music Awards, singer-songwriter Chuck McDermott, and archivist David Bieber – visited or spoke with similar hall-of-fame institutions in Cleveland, Nashville, Memphis and LA, plus Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, and the Guthrie Center in Tulsa, which will also houses Bob Dylan’s archive – to assess the offerings and discuss how best to proceed. Everyone offered the same piece of advice: don’t build a new building, which Spaulding had assumed he would need to do.  “And the artists told us to do it right here, that they loved coming to the Wang. No one has ever done that before, put a hall of fame into a living, breathing performing arts center.” 

Not only would Spaulding not have to raise vast sums of money but he could maximise use of the Wang Theater, named after the computer engineer and philanthropist whose vast donation kickstarted the $9.8m refurbishment of the 1925 art deco jewel, modelled on the Paris Opera, following Spaulding’s arrival 35 years ago. He’d been approached by local business and arts leaders in the city to rescue the Boch Center from bankruptcy.  

Josiah Spaulding Jr is both a folkie and a Boston Brahmin, a direct descendent of Alexander Hamilton (he was disappointed to lose out when Broadway hit show, Hamilton came to the city) and of the second governor of Massachusetts after whom Bowdoin College, his alma mater, is named. His mother, Helen, was known as “Mrs Boston”, a power behind the Boston Foundation who served on numerous boards and was the driving force behind the New England Aquarium, now one of the region’s top tourist attractions and an important research centre. His father was a lawyer in Washington and Boston, “a Republican when Republicans were good people”, who ran for the Senate (losing to Edward Kennedy) and who founded the renowned Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. “I’m their eldest son. So why did I leave the for-profit world where you can make tons of money? It was in the family. What the family said is you have a responsibility in giving back from where you have come. Since I understood this business, I took that very seriously.”

The Boch Center, which includes the smaller Shubert Theatre directly across Tremont Street, is in the heart of Boston’s historic Theater District. “Millions of people have been coming here for generations.” Spaulding remembers coming to shows as a child with his parents and grandparents and, as a young man, sleeping under the marquee in order to ensure tickets for Cat Stevens. “My own children grew up in the building” which, when we met in November, was between a season of Rent and another of White Christmas. “It has roots. I have roots here,” the bearded and genial Spaulding continues.

Not only does the Boch Center present every genre of live entertainment, as well as galas and awards ceremonies, and occasionally serve as a movie set (Ghostbusters and American Hustle, to name just a few was filmed there), it is the base for ArtWeek, a 10-day biannual festival that offers hands-on, behind-the-scenes access to the creative process. Educational initiatives include the City Spotlights Leadership Program which enables some sixty at-risk teenagers to spend a summer working in the theatre for minimum wage and learning a craft. “It has changed their lives and it’s changed my life,” says Spaulding, adding with pride that a number of students have gone on to gain college scholarships. “We’re a non-profit arts centre that gives something back to the community.” 

But the question is always how to stay relevant and viable at a time when Broadway is owned by two giant companies (one, the Ambassador Theatre Group, is British) and Broadway Across America.  Live Nation (owner of Ticketmaster) and AEG effectively own the live music scene – venues, ticketing, artists. “What could we do that might provide the opportunity to do something that no one else has ever done,” was the question that obsessed Spaulding and led to that 3am moment. “I was a folk artist. I know how important Boston was. I had a record label here. I recorded many of the artists, toured with them, hung out with them.” Two years later, the names attached to the project are testimony to the validity of the Boston’s Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame: Baez, Keb’ Mo’ and Noel “Paul” Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary are among the honorary chairs, while advisors include Bob Santelli, Executive Director of the Grammy Museum; Ken Pattengale and Joey Ryan of The Milk Carton Kids, Ruthie and Mike from The Mammals exciting young folkies; and Nashville-based sculptor Alan LeQuire whose Cultural Heroes exhibit was an early acquisition for Spaulding, brought to his attention by Doug Yeager, another of his advisors, who managed Odetta and Josh White, the latter among LeQuire’s magnificent heads.

For Peter Gold, LeQuire’s vast sculptures of Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Billie Holiday, Lead Belly, Bessie Smith and White – iconic artists who put their careers (and sometimes lives) on the line for their beliefs – are at the heart of what he and Spaulding are creating at the Wang. “To me, they’re like a tuning fork. That’s why we’re here. I want people to come and see the Cultural Heroes exhibit and to fall in love with the music, if they haven’t already done so,” Gold says, with a catch in his voice. “I want them to talk about the role of music in the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti-war movement… For me, you can’t separate music from its context. That’s what informs it. It’s why the music was created in the first place.” Gold cites the release from jail of ten black activists in the ugliest days of the civil rights struggle – because Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety “just couldn’t stand their singing” and so he gave them a ride out of town – and quotes the old spiritual that Josh White sang so often: “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down.” 

Baez, another folk musician who put much of her life at the service of others, has now retired from singing and is painting a series of portraits, coincidentally parallel to LeQuire’s project – Mischief Makers, among them Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and Harry Belafonte, friends from the civil rights movement, and Vaclav Havel, who liked to talking about “making mischief”. She speaks of this music which we call (in its broadest sense) “folk music” as being earthy, close to the dirt – which was why it had captivated her, despite the viability of a classical career. And it is of the people and for the people. Broadside ballads that chronicle our history. Child ballads that tell of love and loss and death. Work songs, sung by those toiling in the mines or in the fields, often as slaves and sometimes prisoners – John Henry, “the steel-driving man” about whom Odetta sang so powerfully, is one of the great heroes of folksong. The blues encompasses spirituals, hollers, work songs and ballads. Country music draws from just about everything – listen to Dolly Parton and catch strains of the music that came to America from the British Isles by those fleeing persecution, famine, the highland clearances. Common to all those musical forms is the banjo, which began life in Africa, a one-string instrument – gut stretched over a gourd – before travelling through Europe to the United States. 

“It mixes through continents and time,” agrees Peter Gold. “In the one traditional sense, folk music is English, Irish and Scottish, while roots music comes from the people who arrived here from other places. But it’s all blended together, because musicians – they hear something they like and they incorporate it. Then it’s what we call Americana.”  By way of example, he cites “House of the Rising Sun”. The song can be traced to both France and England, and folklorist Alan Lomax recorded a version in Kentucky in the 1930s. In New York City a couple of decades later, Dave van Ronk had a version, which Bob Dylan famously “stole” – but Dylan was then blown away by the Animals’ 1964 electric version. And they claim to have learned the song from Joan Baez’s 1961 recording. “That’s the folk process.” Music that comes around and goes around.

The Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame will celebrate it all and central to the project is the Folk and Americana series of concerts, masterclasses, lectures and discussions whose ticket sales will help underwrite the endeavour. Emerging talent will find a place on the Wang’s smaller stages in rooms where displays and exhibitions will be curated by David Bieber, whose archives – lovingly preserved over many years of a life of enthusiasms spent in music and the media – fill an out-of-town warehouse. Photographers who chronicled “the great folk scare”, as the 1950s revival was called, are offering their material, collectors their prized guitars. Spaulding believes that less is more, and his goal is to acquire individual artefacts and instruments that are freighted with history and meaning – Pete Seeger’s banjo perhaps, Joni Mitchell’s dulcimer. “No offence to anyone, but we don’t want eight-thousand pairs of cowboy boots and three-thousand guitars,” explains Spaulding. “We want the boots, the guitar – things that ‘talk’ about what we’re doing.” And music history is in the Wang’s DNA: Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, the Eagles and the Allman Brothers are just a few of the acts to have recorded live on its vast stage.

So far, Spaulding and his team have raised approaching $1m from private donors and special events – that gilded lobby can host a banquet, and it has. Photos show a beaming Spaulding on its marble staircase, picking his Martin D35 next to resident singer-songwriter Chuck McDermott and guests Pete Yarrow, Noel Stookey and  Rodney Crowell, who has said: “My hat’s off to the great city of Boston for realizing the need for a Folk Americana Roots Music Hall of Fame and for establishing its existence. Guy Clark would approve!” 

The goal is a pot of between $5m and $10m and the business plan is being refined and rewritten. “We’re going out to fundraise and sit in front of groups of twenty people,” Spaulding continues. “It will extend our reach. Up to now we’ve gotten money from people in Boston but now we can get it nationally and internationally as well.” Belfast is Boston’s twin city, and he would like the Hall of Fame to have an outpost across the water somewhere. McDermott has a unique skillset on which to draw, for he grew up in Washington among the Kennedy clan, dropped out of college to become a musician, and then went to work with Joe Kennedy at his old friend’s Citizens Energy start-up. When Kennedy ran for Congress, McDermott directed his campaign and joined him in DC as Chief of Staff for two terms before returning to Boston. Spaulding had followed his circuitous career path and considered the mix of music and politics ideal for his new project. 

“Joe [Spaulding] called me and I agreed it was a great idea. We met for a drink and he gave a very heartfelt and eloquent presentation about the music that had changed our lives, and which had tried to change the world – and at moments it did. He and I are maybe a little late in our lives but we still have enough petrol in the tank to do something that commemorates the past, nourishes the present and makes sure there’s a future for this kind of music,” McDermott continues. “We want to be one of the five things that tourists do in Boston” – which means displacing Lexington, Concord, the Freedom Trail, the Kennedy Library or perhaps Helen Spaulding’s New England Aquarium. 

Homer was a busker, and his epic poems tell the history of Ancient Greece. Boston is “the Athens of America” and the folk troubadours of 20th and 21st century America are heirs to the Homeric tradition. Betsy Siggins, founder of Folk New England and a tireless advocate of folk music for sixty years whom the Mayor of Boston honoured by proclaiming February 28 Betsy Siggins Day, believes that folk music “tells the story of America, and Boston is the perfect place to keep telling that story”. Siggins, who befriended another would-be drama student named Joan Baez on freshman day at Boston University in 1958, was a key figure at Club 47 which, along with Gerde’s in New York, was the most important folk club in the US. She is a founding director of its successor, Club Passim and, together, 47 and Passim comprise America’s longest-running folk club, an occasion celebrated with a star-studded sixtieth anniversary concert at the Wang last November, when Baez presented Siggins with a Lifetime Achievement award. It was the first award presented by the Folk America Roots Hall of Fame and along with curation and fundraising, a priority for Spaulding and his colleagues is figuring out the criteria for annual awards and the nomination and judging procedures. 

At a time in history when so much of life is superficial if not fake, folk music offers an opportunity to connect with something real and meaningful – genuinely authentic, a way to understand the present by exploring the past. McDermott believes the artists who have defined the genre deserve to be honoured and celebrated. “We believe there is a way to marry the story about the music with Boston’s identification with American history. Folk, Americana and roots music are a Venn diagram and you can define it as music that was born out of period of historic transition in this country, some good and some bad. A lot of what we call roots music impacted country music, and the blues is a musical legacy of slavery. The music of the civil rights movement brought white and black together, so that Dave van Ronk and Odetta made sense to each other. It plays an important part in these historical transition moments in our history, and sometimes the gaps between them. A lot of the tourism that comes through Boston is around accessing the history the city commemorates. There’s a lot of opportunities, the busts of the Cultural Heroes are a wonderful teaching aid.”

With some 40 million tourists passing through Boston annually, there’s all to play for. 

Liz Thomson is a London-based journalist and broadcaster who has contributed articles and interviews to newspapers and magazines around the world. A contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, she is the co-editor (with David Gutman) of quasi-academic studies of John Lennon, Bob Dylan and David Bowie, and the author of a forty-year celebration of Chickenshed, the uniquely inclusive theatre company. She has lectured at Liverpool University’s Institute of Popular Music, been a Visiting Fellow of the Open University Sixties Research Group, and is the founder and executive producer of The Village Trip, an annual festival celebrating the history and heritage of New York’s Greenwich Village. Her biography of Joan Baez, The Last Leaf, will be published internationally in fall 2020.

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