Martha’s Vineyard has a rich and storied musical tradition. Go all the way back to the tribal music of the Wampanoags. The sea chanteys brought home by Island whalers. The sound of foxtrots emanating from the Tivoli Ballroom in Oak Bluffs. Or the Sousa marches oompah’ed out for generations by the Vineyard Haven Band at Owen Park.
With no disrespect to these rich Island musical genres, we’d like to delve into the more contemporary music we hear on the Island. We’ll start with the folk revolution of the ’60s, and end up with what Island music might sound like in years to come.
To those generations raised on grunge, metal, punk, and hip-hop, it may sound inconceivable that there was a time in the early ’60s when the music that had the ear of America was something as prosaic as — folk music. The folk revival began in the ’40s with singers and songwriters like Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Josh White, and the Weavers. They in turn inspired groups like the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Chad Mitchell Trio, who went on to achieve broad commercial success in the late ’50s. But there was a large group of roots musicians on the folk circuit who, while not as commercially successful, were more authentic and more interesting, at least to my ear, and that circuit ran right through Boston, Cambridge, and the Vineyard.
Growing up in the late ’60s and living outside Boston, the folk scene was in full bloom in Cambridge, and we would regularly trek into town to go to the legendary Club 47 (now Club Passim) in Harvard Square. This is where we were introduced to folk greats like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, and Reverend Gary Davis, as well as the new generation of folk singers like Tom Rush, Joan Baez, and Bonnie Raitt.
Meanwhile, the Vineyard had a scene of its own, beginning with seeds sown by the likes of fiddle player Gale Huntington, who played with members of the Athearn, Correllus, and Silva families, and guitarist and singer Jessie Benton, daughter of Thomas Hart Benton. The music was played informally in town halls, people’s living rooms, around campfires at beach parties, and at venues like the Chilmark Community Center or the Chilmark Tavern.
In a 2018 interview with The Times, Tom Rush talked about the early music scene here. “The Community Center was, as advertised, very much of a community thing. There were always three or four acts at Hootenanny Night,” Rush said. “There was Jim Rooney and Billy Keith, who was just learning to play the banjo back then by recording on reel-to-reel everything that Earl Scruggs ever played, and then slowing it down to half-speed and learning it note for note. David Gude was part of that too. There was some really good talent back then.”
Dave and Doug Seward were high school students on the Island in the early ’60s, and they look back at one evening in 1962 that opened up their ears to this new kind of music. In an interview with Linsey Lee, oral history curator of the M.V. Museum, Dave said, “It was an impromptu concert at the Chilmark Tavern, there was Tom Rush, Bill Keith — one of the best fiddle players in the country — Jim Rooney, Fritz Richmond on washtub bass, Dave Gude, and we were all sitting on the floor, but then Tom Rush got up there, and it was like ‘Ooooh, my God.’ That was the beginning of my whole idea of what music was about.”
Kate Taylor, who was sitting next to the Sewards that night, told Linsey Lee of her reaction to the concert. “I remember I was about 13, I went there with some of my friends to hear Tom Rush, who must have been about 18, he was a youngster. And we were very excited to see him. He was playing along, and Davy Gude, who opened for him. And he introduced a song called ‘I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.’ And I was very excited to hear this. ‘Sister Kate.’ Because having four brothers and no sisters — oh, my God. So I kind of adopted that as a nickname.”
The next year, in 1963, I was right out of high school and working in Edgartown for the summer, and couldn’t believe my good fortune when a coffeehouse called the Moon-Cusser opened up in Oak Bluffs. The Moon-Cusser would turn out to be one of the premiere folk venues in the country.
In an essay submitted to Folk New England Magazine, David Lyman, who created the Moon-Cusser, writes that while living in Boston in the early ’60s, he was hosting a folk music show on WBCN, and in the evenings he managed the Unicorn Coffee House, a folk music club in the Back Bay. A patron of his suggested that Martha’s Vineyard would be a great place to open a coffeehouse. He talked up the idea, it gained momentum, and soon he had two backers, Fritz Dvorak and Dick Randelet.
Lyman and Randelet visited the Island in April 1963, and found a vacant grocery store on Circuit Ave. in Oak Bluffs (the site of Basics today) that seated 125 people, and they signed the lease. Lyman busied himself outfitting the space with a PA system, theatrical lights, tables and chairs, and Randelet found an old barn in Wellesley that he tore down, and used the barn boards to line the walls of the new club. They combined the siding with rolls of brown burlap to give it a rustic look. “I turned the old supermarket into a cozy nightclub,” Lyman said. But unlike a nightclub, the Moon-Cusser wouldn’t serve alcohol. “It was a place for all ages to come and enjoy music,” he said. He also brought on Phillip Metcalf, a local summer kid, to serve as assistant manager for the next two years.
The name Moon-Cusser came from the term New Englanders applied to people who lived along the coast and hung lights on dark moonless nights to lure ships onto the beach, where they could plunder them. “I wanted a name that was traditional, colonial, and slightly naughty,” Lyman said.
Opening night was on Friday, June 21, 1963, and the place was packed to hear the three opening acts: the Charles River Valley Boys, a popular bluegrass band from Cambridge, singer-songwriter Mark Spoesitra, and Carolyn Hester, a singer-songwriter from Texas. But unbeknownst to anyone, three burly-looking Irish gentlemen decided to crash the party — the Clancy Brothers. They were old friends of Lyman’s from the Unicorn Coffee House in Boston. “The Clancy boys pushed me aside and took over,” Lyman wrote. “They sang rousing Irish drinking songs, told stories, got people singing along, and introduced Carolyn and Mark. It was a whale of an evening.”
Over a stretch of three years, the Moon-Cusser attracted patrons of all ages because of its fun and spontaneous vibe, great selection of coffees and teas, and a menu that featured homemade pastries, but the thing that made it truly successful was the music and the quality of the performers.
Geoff Muldaur, member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, recently pointed to an old broadside he had framed and said to me, “Look at these acts, they’re the giants of folk music.” He was referring to acts like Doc Watson, the Paul Butterfield Band, Mississippi John Hurt, and John Hammond. Over the three-year run of the Moon-Cusser, the club featured a virtual who’s who of folk music headliners, including Dick and Mimi Farina, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Phil Ochs, Ian and Sylvia, Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band (fresh off an appearance on the “Johnny Carson Show”), the Country Gentlemen, Jose Feliciano, Alan Arkin (before his fame as an actor), and Don McLean (before his success with “American Pie”).
In an interview with Lyman from his home in Camden, Maine, he said, “One of the most successful nights at the Moon-Cusser was Monday night, when we held the Hootenanny, or open mic night. People would come from all over, from on and off-Island, and we’d cram around 250 people into the space.”
This proved to be a launching pad for Island artists like James Taylor — he was only 15 when he first performed at the Hootenanny — and the Simon Sisters, Carly and Lucy. “I can still see them standing in the spotlight, each in a matching white dress, singing ‘Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,’” Lyman said.
For the summer of ’63, Lyman rented a house on East Chop, which he used to house himself, the staff, and the visiting musicians. As soon as the club closed, the group made a beeline for the “Folk House,” as it was called, where the musicians could trade licks with one another and the partying lasted well into the night. Every night.
Changes were afoot in 1964. David Lyman would leave the Moon-Cusser, he would go on to do a stint in Vietnam, and in 1973, he founded Maine Photographic Workshops, which he ran until 2007.
Charlie Close, a New York talent agent with interests in folk music bought out Fritz Dvorak. The other big change was that another folk music/coffeehouse, the Unicorn, opened up in Oak Bluffs, operating out of the Tivoli Building, and down at the end of Circuit Ave. where the Oyster Bar once was.
In 1964 Close would lease a horse farm in Tisbury that would take the place of the Folk House. His pitch to musicians was to come play at the coffeehouse, we’ll pay you what we can, but you’ll have the time of your life. And by all measures it seemed to work.
“The Moon-Cusser house was even more fun than the club,” Geoff Muldaur said. He’d often stay at the house, even when he wasn’t playing at the club. James Field, whom Randelet brought on to help manage the Moon-Cusser in 1965 — he would later play with the Charles River Valley Boys — told me that the appeal of the house was getting to know the other musicians. “I really got to know Mike Bloomfield with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band,” Field said. “Those guys were great fun.”
Muldaur bonded with Missippi John Hurt over, of all things, a love of driftwood. “And Jose Feliciano …” Muldaur said, “we became great friends; he’s one of the most intelligent and funniest guys I’ve ever met.”
The Moon-Cusser Coffee House would last until the fall of 1965; the Unicorn closed its doors then as well. One theory is that having two coffeehouses on the Island diluted the market for folk music — there simply wasn’t enough money to go around. Another theory was that bands like the Butterfield Blues Band simply got too loud for the downtown area. “I heard that the vibrations from the sound shook a mirror off the wall in the drugstore next door,” Muldaur said.
But there were other, larger societal issues at work as well. In an email to me, Dave Lyman explained why he moved on from the Moon-Cusser.
“1963 was the last summer of our innocence. That perhaps explains why I did not return. The music was changing, the times were changing, things were heating up in Vietnam, drugs and sex were arriving. The Beatles arrived, and Bobby Dylan introduced electric guitars at the ’64 Newport Folk Festival.”
So by 1965, perhaps folk music had simply had its moment, and what an amazing moment it was. Over the years, new music and new venues would take its place on the Island, but the summer of ’63 will always have a special place in my heart.