History Lesson: The '80s Folk Revival You've Probably Never Heard About

The place was New York City’s Greenwich Village, the time was the early ’80s, and the nightspot was the farthest thing from fashionable. At a time of new-wave iciness, it was hard to say what was less cool about the SpeakEasy, a cafe on MacDougal Street: the constant whiff of falafel inside or the incongruous fish tank behind the stage.

It was the people who stepped onto the stage who left the largest impression. At clubs like that and nearby Folk City, a ragtag group of musicians, poets, strummers, and hustlers struggled to keep the singer-songwriter tradition alive. Fans of musical intimacy and students from nearby colleges — like me — stumbled upon a recondite community brimming with new talent: a Barnard student named Suzanne Vega; a sophisticated folk-blues guitarist named Frank Christian; a transplanted Southerner and dulcimer player named David Massengill, the Village’s answer to Tom Waits. Other nights showcased mythic local characters like folk-jazz interpreter and raconteur Dave Van Ronk, who died Feb. 10 at age 65, of colon cancer. Known as the ”Mayor of Greenwich Village,” Van Ronk was a link to the past and an influence on Bob Dylan, but also proof of the immutable music world embedded in the downtown streets.

Between 1982 and 1997, the scene was documented on 105 independently pressed and distributed compilation LPs dubbed the Fast Folk Musical Magazine series — indie folk in an era of indie rock. Those now-obscure discs were all that remained of this great lost acoustic revival — until the release this week of Fast Folk: A Community of Singers & Songwriters, a double-disc 20th-anniversary set (compiled by local songwriters and Fast Folk torchbearers Jack Hardy and Richard Meyer) on our government’s prestigious Smithsonian Folkways label. ”We document American vernacular music, and this is certainly a chapter,” says Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place. ”Folkways had elements of singer-songwriters up to the ’70s, and this fills in the gap about what happened since then.”

Even non-New Yorkers will recognize Fast Folk’s best-known participants: Vega (an early version of ”Gypsy”), Van Ronk, Shawn Colvin, Steve Forbert, John Gorka, Christine Lavin. But lesser-known talents also supply highlights: the grave balladry of Rod MacDonald and Gerry Devine, the earnest intensity of Judith Zweiman. All told, the blend of folk chords, introspection, and politics is enough to impress the most devout David Gray fan.

Beyond music, the album resonates with the inspiring sound of obstinate, media-shunned outsiders making art that couldn’t have been further out of vogue. ”New wave was popular right then, and no one was thinking much about folk music — except me and the other people who were down there,” recalls Vega. ”I thought of it as a haven. It was a place where people would talk about writing songs and poetry and politics. In terms of songwriting, I thrived there.”

Vega herself is extending this legacy by producing a compilation of Sept. 11 reflections by new and veteran songwriters; the proceeds will benefit the widow of Fast Folk bassist Jeff Hardy, a World Trade Center chef (and Jack’s brother) who died during the attacks. ”It’s exactly what the Fast Folk was,” Vega says, ”a recording of the time and the moment in a way that’s very direct and not a big Top 40 statement.” Like that Village world two decades ago, it’s proof that certain traditions are worth sustaining.