Izzy Young's Greenwich Village: When Art Triumphed over Commerce

Directed by Jim Downing
MVD Visual 52150
* * * *

If the name Izzy Young rings no bells, t'is time to educate yourself. A superb re-release from DVD Visual will help you do so. In 1957, Young—fueled by the energy of the Folk Music Revival movement—sold his life insurance policy and opened a storefront on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village called The Folklore Center. He gave it that all-purpose name because he wanted it to be more than a hootenanny venue, though it was certainly that. In 1961, Young produced the first concert for a kid calling himself Bob Dylan.  Dylan even wrote a 'talking blues' song in Young's honor titled "Talking Folklife Center." The Folklife Center was a drop-in magnet for those identifying themselves as bohemian, countercultural, or unorthodox—a place to hear poetry, discuss politics, watch dance performances, catch a concert, learn about progressive causes, or find publications not sold at your local newsstand. The same year Young welcomed Dylan to the Folklore Center, he led an important free-speech battle in New York aimed at overturning a stupid ordinance that banned singing folk music in Washington Square on Sunday. You could (and should) call that event a precursor of the countercultural Sixties. Young also DJed a progressive music show on WBAI, bankrolled a few publications, wrote a column titled "Frets and Frails" for Sing Out! Magazine from 1959 to 1969, helped bring The Fugs to prominence, and welcomed hundreds of artists to the Center. In many respects, Young embodied the idealism and anti-materialism of the late 50s and 1960s. As he put it, "I couldn't have had a better time, or earned less money."

 Alas, the dream didn't last. Young closed The Folklife Center in 1973, moved to Sweden, and opened a Stockholm version of his vision, where (at age 87) he still presides. This film was originally aired on Swedish TV in 1989, and recounts Young's visit to his former Greenwich Village haunts. Although it centers on Young, one cannot help but muse upon the death of pure art, the decline of idealism, and the triumph of soulless commercialism. That is to say, it's sad for reasons other than the fact that many of those who appear in the film are now dead: poet Allen Ginsberg (1997), musician/anarchist Tuli Kupferberg (2010), former New York Mayor Ed Koch (2013), folksinger Pete Seeger (2014)…. In the film, the Village Young knew is already on its way to becoming a high-rent district for the moneyed classes. The Center site was empty, high rents having driven out several tenants since Young left 15 years earlier. Young noted he was able to open it back in 1957 in part because he paid $75/month rent for his apartment in a neighborhood now occupied by the nouveau riche.

We also see Young back at the mic at WBAI, where old friends such has Heather Woods, Danny Kalb, and Marc Silber polish off a few standards. We also see him with Allen Ginsberg, who does a fine version of "Father Death Blues" before discussing how "workaholism" is a neurosis; with Kupferberg, an unreconstructed anarchist who justified stealing from the rich; and with Ed Koch, who rather presciently opined that "bohemianism is a state of mind" and that artists that missed out on buying cheap property in the Village ought to think about Brooklyn and the Bronx. Koch may have missed the mark on the Bronx, but he was spot on concerning Brooklyn. Brooklyn was also where Young spent much of his youth, and we see him there making bagels with his brother, Oscar, a union baker; and singing Yiddish folk songs with his mother. Later we see him in Peekskill with Pete Seeger—talking about folk songs, of course.

Director Jim Downing was onto something back in 1989. He gives us subtle glimpses of the downside of gentrification: fast food franchises in spots once occupied by family businesses, sleek limos clogging streets once given over to youth culture, and street characters whose seediness results from poverty rather lifestyle choices. Above all, he shows ubiquitous symbols of commerce—the bucks that replaced the vibes. Even Art D'Lugoff's famed Village Gate closed five years after this film was made; a CVS now stands there and can anyone argue that society is richer for that? Downing did with his camera what those being pushed out did in words; both are lamentations on how artifice supplanted art. As Ed Sanders (The Fugs) put it in his poem "The Five Feet": You've got to have five feet to skitter down the road/One foot in the grave/One foot in the glitter/One foot in the gutter/One foot in the glory/One foot near the Grail. This small film shows us a remarkable man—Izzy Young—but it shows what is lost when you take away everything except the glitter and the gutter. I generally don't get nostalgic about the Sixties, but this film (and a steady diet of hollow commercialism) induced waves of it.      Rob Weir

PS—This film can be viewed as a $3.99 rental on YouTube if you can't find it elsewhere.  

No comments: