Pete's Blog

Coffeehouses

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Those of you who frequent Facebook probably know that I'm in the middle of a project called "40 Songs in 40 Days," where I record an original song every day until I've done my entire book or close to it. On Sundays I play instrumentals and today I recorded Davy Graham's "Anji" in the well-known Bert Jansch arrangement with its quote from Cannonball Adderley's "The Work Song." Ever since the early '60s "Anji" has been a defining test (one I feel I've never quite passed) for any aspiring guitarist - but what kind of guitarist? It's not jazz. It's not blues. It's not really world music despite Graham's half-Guyanese background; and it's definitely not folk. What I call it is "coffeehouse music." Like other styles named after the venue for the music rather than the music itself (think disco) the stylistic parameters here can be a bit elusive. I suppose you should begin with the room. The coffee bars of London, New York, and San Francisco in the early '60s were small storefronts, low-rent in every sense, usually filled with cigarette smoke and steam from an espresso machine. There was no stage or lights or PA. Usually there was only room for one performer. You went in with a guitar (unamplified, portable), sat in the corner, and did your best to fill the crowded space with your unaided voice. Pay was in tips. These were not the hygienic quasi-libraries invented in Seattle and exported around the world. I'm quite fond of those, but they're not exactly dangerous, are they? The dark-haired girls you find there have fewer secrets, the lighter-haired girls don't imitate the dark-haired girls so assiduously and they don't have parents who would be aghast to know where their daughters were tonight. I think the venue, and the music, may have reached its apotheosis (who declared this National Thesaurus Day?) in London, perhaps because of the British Left's embrace of bad food as a political statement. Certainly I can't listen to early Davy Graham or Bert Jansch records without imagining the hiss of steam and a thick fog against the windows, inside and out. It may have been their voracious eclecticism (if it works use it - who cares where it comes from) that kept Graham and Jansch (and in New York, Dave Van Ronk) from the mass-market acceptance of the Folk Boom. Or it may just have been the raffishness of the milieu they defined - and the bad habits you can pick up there. But the empowerment so prized by Mass Folk, the Blues crowd's nostalgia for a past that never existed, the false transcendence of so much '60s rock, is nowhere in evidence in coffeehouse music. The dark-haired girls I knew would never let you get away with that shit.

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