Izzy Young died the other day. He was 90. If you don’t know the name, you’re probably too young or too distracted or uncaring about what’s come to be known as the New York Folk Scare.
It happened in the 1950s and the 1960s. Young owned and more or less operated a store at 110 Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village. The Folklore Center, he called it. Records, tapes, a few musical instruments. Magazines. Books. And Izzy who was the main attraction and didn’t cost you for a consultation. About … um… whatever.
He was gaunt. He wore thick lensed and thick rimmed glasses that made his eyes look like a frog’s. He had a lot to say about a lot of things.
Izzy and his shop were the center of that Folk Scare. It was more than a hangout than a business. And how he stayed in business remains one of the great mysteries of the era.
Well… he did produce concerts. Dylan, other people like that. He wrote. Mostly for free. “Sing Out!” Magazine didn’t pay much if anything. He had a radio program on WBAI, a non-commercial station that has been described as chaotic and beleaguered for all 60-ish years of its existence. But he was influential, just by showing up and turning the key in the door in the mists of the pre-noon hours. Nothing opens early in The Village.
Once open for the day, the store was always crowded. That’s because it was so small that seven people made it look like New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Minus the tourists. And the confetti. And Ryan Seacrest. Also unlike Times Square, there was a working bathroom.
A visitor, a regular, joined the Scare there. He walked in one day with a waitress from Figaro’s down the street on Bleecker who said she could sing. She was semi-shy. The visitor told her to sing for Izzy. She sang for Izzy. She was called Mary Travers. You remember her, right?
Instant stardom followed. Some context: Instant stardom in those days meant getting booked for a paying gig on a weeknight at Cafe Wha’ or The Gaslight, where applause wasn’t permitted -- it disturbed the neighbors -- but you could snap your fingers to show appreciation.
Some of the “paying” meant the coffee chef let you borrow his hat to pass around. Coffee chef? Yeah. Al, the guy who ran the espresso machine on the days it would still run.
Once Izzy brought his parents to work. Immigrants from the Pogrom fields of Poland. They looked confused.
When the city prohibited the Sunday singing gatherings in Washington Square Park, Izzy formed a committee to oppose the new rule. He brought in clergymen. The visitor brought in newly minted lawyer Ed Koch who won the case and thus put himself on the legal map. He’d been trying to put himself on the folk singing map. Two problems: carrying a tune was not part of his skill set. Neither was guitar playing.
Decades later, Koch said he still had that piece-of-junk guitar. That may have been a fib.
Izzy got tangled up in the fight against racism and lost. So he moved to Sweden which at the time -- 1973 -- had a higher tolerance for people of color than even the socialist capital of America, New York.
He opened a store there. He took phone calls. But in that era, overseas phone calls were pretty expensive. So he rarely made them and people who knew him and called would get their New York Tel bills and thereafter wrote letters.
We’ve missed you all these years, Izzy. Hope the end came easy.
I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
© WJR 2019