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Small Music Club Celebrates 50 Years of Making a Big Impact

This article is more than 11 years old.

A tiny music venue in Cambridge is celebrating its rich, 50-year history this year. Club Passim has helped launch the careers of some of the most famous voices in folk music, including Joan Baez, whose soaring soprano awed listeners at the club when she was barely out of high school. Baez is among the thousands of singers and songwriters who have shone in the big spotlight on Passim's very small stage.

WBUR's Abigail Beshkin has this look back at club Passim's first five decades.

BESHKIN: You have to look for Club Passim, tucked in an alley behind the Harvard Coop. The small, square room holds about 125 people who sit at wobbly tables and mismatched chairs. Visitors are often surprised by this humble space, says singer songwriter Ellis Paul.

PAUL: When you hear its reputation, you expect the Taj Mahal. Then you get in there and it's really a basement with cobblestone floors and there's nothing remarkable about the actual space. But there's something incredible about the actual space's history.

BESHKIN: In 1958, the owners of a new coffee-house jazz club in Harvard Square reluctantly let a folk singer on stage, says Passim's archivist Millie Rahn.

RAHN: There was this performer around town, long hair, often barefoot, she had been playing some of the clubs across the river in Boston and of course her name was Joan Baez and she just blew people away.

MUSIC: Joan Baez

BESHKIN: Originally, it was known as Club 47 because of its address at 47 Mount Auburn street. Coffee houses were becoming popular, especially among Boston's many college students. One of them was singer-songwriter Tom Rush.

RUSH: I was a freshman at Harvard and it was just up the street from my dorm. And I'd been playing the guitar and really loved folk music, so I started out as an audience member and eventually ended up performing there on a regular basis.

BESHKIN: Rush played just about every week. So did groups like the Charles River Valley Boys, the Jim Kweskin jug band. And, archivist Millie Rahn says, there was one singer who was such a novice he was only allowed to play between sets.

RAHN: It's a little known fact: Bob Dylan never had billing at Club 47. Even then in 1962, 1963, that was the seal of approval that you had made it as a folk musician. And he would get up between sets and he would sing at Club 47, so he could say he had played at Club 47.

BESHKIN: But it was the community that Club 47 created that people remember most from those days. Betsy Siggins is now Club Passim's executive director. In the 1960's she was a key player in the Club 47 scene, hanging out there every day.

MUSIC: Doc Watson

RAHN: From the club, we'd go to someone's house. And we'd get some old black blues guy who'd never been north, who'd never talked to white kids. We'd get reverend Gary Davis on the couch. We'd get Mississippi John Hurt on the couch. Doc Watson always stayed with another friend of ours. That gave us a much deeper understanding of the music the times and the place they came from in America.

MUSIC: Doc Watson fades out

BESHKIN: But this kind of music, and the listeners the club attracted, was always a little on the fringes. Even in Cambridge. Siggins remembers that in 1963, Club 47's landlady had had enough.

RAHN: She came in and she made an announcement. "You've got to get these goddamn hippies out from in front of my property. I've had it. I've had it with all of you!"

BESHKIN: The club moved to where it is today. It operated as Club 47 in this new space, for about five years. But the changing music industry and dwindling finances forced Club 47 to close in 1968.

A year later, a couple named Bob and Rae Ann Donilon opened a card shop in that space. The couple named it for the literary term "passim." singer Ellis Paul says the Donilons never intended to run a music venue, but the music kept finding them.

PAUL: They starting doing jazz on the weekends and then suddenly all of these old folk singers started calling them, saying, "can I just slip on Friday night and do a couple of songs?" And they eventually started booking folk music in there again.

BESHKIN: Paul is one of countless musicians who credit the Donilons with launching their careers. He remembers persuading Bob Donilon to let him on stage, calling him once a month only to be told:

PAUL: "Ellis, you gotta call me back in a month!" You know, for several months in a row. And finally, I think, the guilt was more the situation that got me in there, and he booked me. But he fell in love with what I was doing, and so did Rae Ann, and they took me under their wing, they were really like parents to me in a lot of ways.

BESHKIN: Paul has since had a successful career in the folk world. Others who got their start at Passim have gone on to make it big in the mainstream, including Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega and Nanci Griffith, who played Passim for the first time in the 1980's.

MUSIC: Nanci Griffith

GRIFFITH: Prior to Passim's, I had only played in really loud bars in Texas. And Passim's was my first experience with what a real music venue should be. Where people actually come in and pay to sit and listen to the music.

BESHKIN: These days, the audience still comes to sit and listen to the music. The place has changed over the years. The Donilons have both died. It is now a not-for-profit. A vegetarian restaurant at the club brings in extra revenue. During shows, people in the audience can eat vegan peanut curry and sip soy lattes. But there's one thing that hasn't changed, according to those who have known the club for a long time: the passion of the musicians who perform there.

For WBUR, I'm Abigail Beshkin.

This program aired on July 14, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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