The Moon-Cusser Coffee Shop remembered by the folk music loving Sewards

The Simon Sisters, Carly and Lucy, performing at the Moon-Cusser, circa 1964. — Photo courtesy of Peter Simon

Sixty-six-year-old identical twins Doug and David Seward are collectors. They grew up in Menemsha and most of what they collect, art and memorabilia, has a Vineyard connection, much of it a Menemsha connection. Doug, who has worked for the R.M. Packer Company for 46 years, lives in West Tisbury, and David, a semi-retired builder, lives in Vineyard Haven. They also collect memories and some of their favorite memories are of the time they spent as teenagers at a ’60s coffee shop in Oak Bluffs called the Moon-Cusser.

The Moon-Cusser first opened during the summer of 1963, 50 years ago this summer. It only lasted three years. It is known primarily, when it is remembered at all, as the place where James Taylor and Carly Simon got their start playing folk music as teenagers. But to the Sewards it was a lot more than that. It was where they took their dates whenever they had the money and where they would see their friends, and most of all where they could feed their growing interest in folk music, listening to some of the best folk and blues musicians of the time. They went as often as they could.

Both Sewards have pretty good memories, but when they are together their collective memory exceeds their combined memories, or so it seems. When recounting events they frequently seek confirmation from each other. Each is comfortable correcting and being corrected by the other. They weave tales with an apparent accuracy that is astonishing, down to the day of the month, 50 years ago in some cases.

They say they often talk about the Moon-Cusser days and would spend time recounting stories with their good friend Tom DeMont, the Edgartown scrimshaw artist, who shared their experiences and their memories with them until he died in 2011. They said the old Moon-Cusser sign has been painted over and is now the sign for the Vineyard Wine Shop next to Reliable Market on Circuit Ave.

The Sewards call themselves “crickers,” a nickname for those with a long family history in Menemsha, by the creek. Their mother’s family, the Flanders, have been on the Island for 350 years, they said. Their dad was Menemsha postmaster and their mother ran the small store in Menemsha across from the Home Port. Now known as the Menemsha Store, it was once called Seward’s Seagoing Grocery.

The twins’ interest in folk music predated the Moon-Cusser. They remember hearing folk singer Tom Rush in a small room at the Chilmark Tavern when they were 15 in 1962.

Bill Keith, a Chilmark summer kid who went on to become one of the best banjo players in the country, introduced them to Mr. Rush. “It was like wow, holy mackerel, I hadn’t heard anything like this,” Doug said. “We were enamored of him. We started to buy his albums and that’s all we listened to. I have his first record. There were only a couple of hundred made. That was our introduction to folk music. We followed him to the Moon-Cusser.”

A banjo playing high school American history teacher, Hubbard Nitchie, who later founded the magazine the Banjo Newsletter, nurtured the Sewards’ folk music interests. “He made history come alive. He played folk music in class. He was a wonderful man. He made high school bearable for us,” David remembers. “He would say come on down to the house. You’ve got to hear this record. I’ve got this great record. He really tried to cultivate our interest in the music.”

What was new to the Sewards and to a growing segment of young white America in the ’60’s was what turned out to be the last bright flame of a folk music revival that had begun in the forties. Popularized through the fifties by singer/songwriters like Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and The Weavers, and Pete Seeger, folk music was adopted and expanded by the baby boomers, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, the Greenbriar Boys, The Lettermen, Tom Rush, and many of the musicians who played the Moon-Cusser.

Through the fifties, folk music venues sprang up all over the country. From McCabes and The Ash Grove in Los Angeles, and the half dozen or so clubs and coffee houses in Greenwich Village in New York and in Boston where there was the Cafe Yana, Club 47, and the Unicorn, the biggest of the Boston clubs.

David Lyman managed the Unicorn in 1963. In a conversation with the Times from his home in Maine, he said, “Ginny Blackmar, a student at Colby Junior College and Vineyard summer resident, told me the Island would be a great place for a coffee house with folk music.” He talked up the idea until two Unicorn regulars, Fritz Dvořák and Dick Randelet, electronic engineers from Route 128 put up $2,000 to finance the plan.

Mr. Lyman set up and managed the Moon-Cusser the first year. He went to the Vineyard and rented a vacant market on Circuit Avenue that is now the Basics store. He covered the inside walls with old barn board and burlap, built a two-foot-high stage, bought used kitchen equipment from dealers in Boston, brought in a sound system, theatrical lights, a cash register, and 20 tables and 100 chairs purchased from a Goodwill.

He took the name “Moon-Cusser” from the book “The Maritime History of Massachusetts” by Samuel Elliot Morrison. “I wanted a name that was traditional, colonial and slightly naughty,” he said. A “mooncusser” was a thief who would draw boats in to the rocks with lanterns and steal their cargo. A bright moon would render their method useless when the ships’ captains could see the shoreline.

“Mitch Green, a booking agent in Boston, helped me assemble the summer’s schedule of acts,” he said. “Some performers I knew from Boston, others I’d interviewed on my radio show, or they’d played at the Unicorn.”

According to the Sewards the list of performers at the Moon-Cusser was a virtual who’s who of the folk music scene at the time. “And we heard them all,” David said. In addition to Tom Rush, the line up included The Country Gentleman, Jesse Fuller, Ian and Sylvia, Geoff Muldaur, Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Jose Feliciano, The Charles River Boys, The Clancy Brothers, Alan Arkin (before he gained fame as an actor,) Jessie Benton, Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightin’ Hopkins, Don McLean, Phil Ochs, Bill Keith, Jerry Corbitt, Dick and Mimi Farina.

“Many of the performers had never heard of the Vineyard and when the word got around it was not too difficult to get them to come down,” said Mr. Lyman. He rented an Oak Bluffs house because he said he knew musicians needed a place to stay and a place to unwind. “They would often jam with each other early into the morning at the house after a show,” he said. “They had a good time and usually didn’t get up until noon and you never who would be sleeping with who.”

In 1964 and 65 the coffee shop was managed by a New York folk music manager, Charlie Close, who bought into the club the second year. “I rented a horse farm in Vineyard Haven where the New York musicians I brought down could relax,” he said. “I said if you want to have a wonderful vacation for free on this horse farm and go riding, I’ll pay you what I can afford and you can play in the club and they ended up loving it. It was great hearing folk music coming from the front porch.”

The other owners who were technically oriented brought in a “killer sound system,” he said, and they also had a guitar and string shop in the back of the club.

“We went out of our way to invite families to bring in their young kids, we had a parents night. It was very, very successful. It was alcohol and drug free and all the parents just dropped off their kids. It was a safe place for them and they got to hear good music,” Mr. Close said.

The menu included a variety of coffees and teas, pastries, muffins, apple pie, gingerbread with whipped cream, cold drinks including Vineyard Groge, a blend of cranberry and other juices.

Few of the performers were teetotalers, however. Both Mr. Lyman and Mr. Close said they remember having to hunt down some of the performers who were fond of their drink at the Lampost or the Ritz down the street when they were set to play.

Monday nights were the “Hootenanny” nights, open-mike nights, when the young local talent like Will Pfluger and James Taylor and the Simon Sisters got their starts.

Remembering the days like they were yesterday David Seward said, “We had just started dating in 1963, that spring of our junior year. We got there [to the Moon-Cusser] as much as we could. I had a high school sweetheart and I would drag her in there. She was kind of straight-laced. Not interested in any kind of music really, but she would be a good sport. She would go with me. She knew I loved it so much. And we would just sit in the corner and we would drink Vineyard Groge and have the gingerbread.”

Doug remembers a night would cost him about $5. The $1.50 cover charge would leave just enough for the Groge and a bite to eat.

Doug, the elder by three minutes, is the more serious collector. The walls of his immaculately neat, clean West Tisbury house are filled with art, mostly originals, paintings, drawings by well-known artists and prints, ship models. He has the front cage of the old Menemsha Store post office mounted high on a wall. He also has about a dozen original Moon-Cusser posters and his prize, a Moon-Cusser menu.

Even though the Moon-Cusser closed after only three years, Mr. Lyman said the coffee house had a lasting impact on the Island, on music and on the lives and careers of people who were there. That is certainly true for the Sewards.

Mr. Close said he thinks the opening of another folk club, the Unicorn, in the old Tivoli building where the Oak Bluffs town hall is now, diluted the market for folk music on the Island leading to the demise of both clubs. The Sewards like to think it was bands like the Butterfield Blues Band that were so loud that the town eventually shut the place down.

The folk music craze of the ’60s was short lived. The Beatles and the British Invasion took command of the ears of the young and the wave of psychedelic soon followed. Even the folk icon Bob Dylan turned electric. There is no evidence that the Sewards’ Moon-Cusser closing tale is how it happened, but it is perhaps not too far from the truth.

More stories about the Moon-Cusser’s founding and first year are on David Lyman’s website.

Tom Rush looks back through the mist

My recollections of the Mooncusser mainly center around the bar next door, the Lampost, which is to say they are a bit hazy. One that is etched in my synapses, however, involves Liam Clancy of the Clancy Brothers. I’d gone to their show at the MC and afterward Liam and I went to the ‘Post to discuss important matters of state, which, as near as I can remember, centered around our waitress. (I, of course, wanted to talk about economic destabilization in the Balkans, but Liam was such a chauvinist!)

At the witching hour Liam missed the “Last Call!” call and was outraged when the bartender wouldn’t accommodate his entreaties for “just the tiniest wee little bit of a dram.” He rose to his feet and, while backing toward the exit, began to curse the bartender with a truly breathtaking eloquence that seems to be reserved for the Irish. He went on for fully five minutes without repeating himself once (though he did dwell on the genital warts suffered, apparently, by the poor man’s mother). The bartender was unresponsive, I suspect because he had by now been transformed into a pillar of margarita salt, and Liam stood in the doorway as he delivered the coup-de-grace before slamming the door behind him. “May your overhead exceed your gross profit! That’s all you bastards can understand!” — Tom Rush

Geoff Muldaur: “We would pick til all hours”

The gatherings at the Mooncusser house with Butterfield and Bloomfield, Jose Feliciano, Mississippi John Hurt et al were almost more memorable than the gigs were. A continuous party, lots of lobsters and beer.

Fritz Richmond, Jug Band jug player, and I used to collect wood on South Beach for use up in Cambridge making shelves, beds, paneling VW buses, etc. and we would dry the wood on the lawn of the Mooncusser House. It was mostly mahogany and oak. Came off of the freighters as they rounded the Cape and started unpacking their crates. One day John Hurt inspected some of our wood with his thumb nail and his trusty eye and concluded “My goodness, this is all cypress.” John, a native of Mississippi, used to sing Cypress Blues, so he must have been surrounded by those trees at home. We took him to the beach one day and when he got there he caught his first glimpse of surfers he commented, “Look at this wave saddles!”

I never met anyone who could match the endless jive of those Bad Boys from Chicago, Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. Those guys had someone on radar in case they got too close to the truth. Amazing tall tales, one after the other. But Man, could they play, and we loved them. The electric thing wasn’t all too popular with the merchants on Circuit Avenue, though, especially after the mirror shook itself off of the wall in the pharmacy next to the Mooncusser one night while they were rocking the joint.

Jose was the funniest of them all. We would pick ’til all hours with the guy and he could play anything.

As to the Kweskin Jug Band gigs, I’m a little fuzzy. We shocked, of course. We even had an aerosol fog horn to blast customers who disrupted the show with chattering. This I remember. In my case, I probably cruised through those nights on beer and Dark Bacardi after a full day at the beach and plenty of fried clams at the little place down the street on the corner, now part of Giordano’s. I do remember, however, that The Simon Sisters opened for us one time. They were so innocent and delicate. And I remember the night Leonard Bernstein came to hear us. In his cups, but, hey, Leonard Bernstein! Years later, Fritz learned to play the adagio section of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto on the jug (really!). I wish we had been able to do it that night for The Maestro. — Geoff Muldaur