The cashews were really loud. I didn’t care in the slightest. I’d rushed in from work and taken a seat next to Mom in the back of the auditorium. She greeted me with a white Chinese food container from our favorite place, Charlie Mom, on 6th Avenue. The forbidden delight of consuming my chicken and cashews while sitting in my Wall Street attire and hearing about musical protests of an earlier time made the meal ever more delicious.
We were in the New School auditorium, on West 12th Street Street in the Village. In those days The New School offered an enticing array of learning with a popular culture bent. On stage against an unadorned black backdrop were two chairs, maybe a small table with water. And two people sat in the chairs each week, one constant, and one changing. Harold Leventhal, the man who believed in and promoted many of the folk music greats, interviewed one of our heroes each week. We could sit at their proverbial feet and take it all in. Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Peter Yarrow, a couple of folks new to us, and Mom’s ultimate best, Mary Travers, sat on the stage and chatted with Harold.
Mom and I held onto every word and talked about the speakers for years to come. We even took the class more than once! Mom who loved the Weavers and Pete Seeger from her teenage years/their early years, relived moments of watching them catch public attention and listening to her LP’s in the 50’s and 60’s. And she raised Jackie and me on this nourishment, taking us to the Newark cathedral once to hear Pete Seeger, and another time to into the City when he played at Hunter College. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Peter, Paul & Mary provided a soundtrack for my childhood, Puff the Magic Dragon, being the first song I learned to fingerpick, This Land is Your Land a staple which I am certain Mom’s decades of Kindergarten students learned too. I never asked Mom, but can’t help but wonder if she wished she were on the front lines in the cafes and at the protests with our musical heroes. I certainly wished I’d been born at an earlier time.
When I lived at home after college, we listened to WQXR’s Saturday night folk radio show Woody’s Children, and then discovered a “new” show in a sanctuary of singer-songwriter acoustic music. Sunday mornings on his show Mixed Bag, DJ Pete Fornatale introduced new musicians like Suzanne Vega, Christine Lavin, John Gorka, and built shows around timely themes. Before the days of streaming at any hour, Mom and I would endeavor to catch both radio shows when we could.
Then one day we went to a musical brunch at the Bottom Line. We’d heard about it on Mixed Bag. It promised front-row seats to see new and old folk icons. Mom and I had tickets immediately! We headed for the Village, listened starry-eyed.
Looking at the program, we saw that the brunch was put on by a grass-roots nonprofit consulting group called Folkworks. Soon enough I had called to inquire about volunteering. The next year, and the one after that, Mom and I were there, working at the Mixed Bag brunch aside our heroes and making new ones. We caught a back stage glimpse of Art Garfunkel, had our hearts melted by Buskin & Batteau and laughed out loud with Christine Lavin. I fell hard for John Gorka and Pierce Pettis’ soulful songs, and hung on every word of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s. Mom and I picked up programs, cleaned up, whatever was needed. We didn’t care.
Over the years since, Mom and I saw fewer concerts together but kept each other connected on the music. When I took my children to see Peter & Paul (Mary had died) and to a Woody Guthrie tribute, she was thrilled. Any new writing or song about Pete Seeger we imbibed like a treasured sweet. Sixteen years ago, Mom came to Chicago for a long visit to help the eight-month-pregnant me move into a new house. The thank-you gift? Tickets to the Joan Baez in concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
I’d forgotten or put aside these memories of late. Until December. It was a Saturday night and I was doing my favorite things, baking in my kitchen listening to Chicago folk radio shows on WFMT. I heard Rich Warren, DJ of the show The Midnight Special announce their New Year’s Eve live concert and hurried to buy one of their last tickets. On December 31, I entered WFMT’s studio, a room where I knew no one, was over dressed, and dropped the age by a decade at least. I didn’t even know the musicians or their music. I sat down. The music filled my soul, the memories flowed back in as if a dam opened. I sat alone, but really was not. Mom, at the time fast asleep across the country, was with me.