Jan/Feb 2002 Nonfiction

A Folksinger in Greenwich Village

by Randy Burns

Wearing old dirty jeans and a clean shirt, I headed down Bleecker Street with my guitar in hand. Finally, I was actually going to work at the Gaslight Cafe. After taking a right on MacDougal Street I caught sight of the marquis. It was right where it always was, directly in front of the club on the sidewalk.

  Now Appearing At The Gaslight

                   * * * *

             John Hammond
             Tom Ghent
             Randy Burns

                   * * * *

Certain moments stay with you forever. That first glimpse of the Gaslight marquis with my name on it, made all the hard times seem petty. From the moment I descended the stairway and greeted Mr. Hood, I felt like I was a part of history. This had always been my dream since I was a young kid living at home. I'd read about the Gaslight and all the folk stars who performed there. How they would all go upstairs to the Kettle of Fish when the night was done... guitars lined up along the bar like dominoes... drinking and singing until the early hours of the morning. I was only sixteen when I first read about it. Before I'd finished the article I knew that's what I wanted. I'd found it, the search for what I'd do with my life was officially over. Nothing ever changed that.

When you went to see a show at the Gaslight, you had to go down a flight of stairs from the sidewalk to enter. When the show was over, the audience left by using a different stairway on the left. Entering from the world upstairs, you'd be greeted by the Gaslight's original owners, Mr. and Mrs. Hood. There was an old cash register on the left and you could pay either one of them. However, I don't recall anyone ever receiving a ticket. After you were escorted through a partially drawn red curtain, one of them would walk you directly to your seat. You were definitely underground inside the Gaslight, it was conducive to the atmosphere. The two-foot high stage faced the front of the club where you came in. A single non-directional mike picked up the voice and guitar perfectly. A bright white spotlight shone straight down on the microphone and the empty stool behind it. With the rest of the lights in the club turned low, that scene created a visual atmosphere that was an important part of the music that people came to hear. It literally "set the stage."

Mr. Hood introduced the performers from the front of the club using a hand held mike. They'd make their entrance through another red curtain just off to the right of the stage. Once introduced, the curtain in the front of the club was drawn shut. Performers could feel that happen. It was show time, man! You and the audience were left together to entertain and be entertained. It was a completely different way of being alive. Every aspect of your life, good or bad, disappeared the moment you were introduced and took the stage.

I won't say I knocked them dead on that first night because I didn't, although I did think I sang well. The sellout crowd accepted me well enough and I received a respectable amount of applause. At the end of the night Mr. Hood came backstage. He put some money in my hand and said, "See you tomorrow night Randy." Well, that gave me no indication of whether he was satisfied with my performance or not. Since I didn't know Mr. Hood very well, I had no way of reading him and would have to wait until I finished the gig on Saturday night. Maybe then he'd let me know what he thought.

On Saturday, I arrived at the Gaslight an hour before the first show would begin. Each performer had three complete shows to do on the weekends. There was a sizable break in between shows, so the house could be turned over. The tables needed cleaning and the chairs were straightened out, which gave the performers time for a couple of cold ones upstairs at the Kettle of Fish. The new audience would be given enough time between shows to get settled. They were never rushed or made to wait too long. The intervals were always just right; Mr. Hood made sure of that. When the club was ready for the next show, he'd come upstairs to the Kettle and signal the performers. This gesture let others know it was time for the show to begin. I sang my best that Saturday night, and I didn't allow myself to expect any more from it. Hell, being able to say I played the Gaslight for two nights with John Hammond would be a fine first feather in my cap. One that I could wear proudly.

I was in the back room where the performers prepared to go onstage. It would be their home for the length of the gig. I was packing away my guitar, wondering if I'd ever get the chance to do this again. Since I hadn't seen Mr. Hood, I hadn't been paid. I'd prepared myself to find him. I picked up my guitar, turned, and he was standing right there! Like the night he first hired me. The moment had come, time to learn what he thought. Mr. Hood grabbed my hand with one of his and put some money in it with the other. "I like what you do," he said. "Why don't you come back tomorrow night and open up for John again." No answer was called for, it was never a question. He was deep in thought and I wasn't about to go anywhere. "Matter of fact," he said to me, "why don't you keep coming back until I tell you not to." I was in shock, but still I wanted to say something. Mr. Hood continued, "We'll just keep your name on the marquis outside and in the paper, then we'll see what happens." He was becoming more animated with his arm and hand gestures. His hard face had relaxed and turned warm. He'd opened up. I felt like asking him "are you sure?" but I didn't want him changing his mind if he'd suddenly lost his senses. All this at once, the whole thing was astonishing. "Thank you," I said to him, because I couldn't think of anything else at all. "You'll learn a lot here Randy, I'll make sure of that." No response from me; never was a need for one. Mr. Hood stared hard at the floor thinking, then he raised his head again. "I want you to work every night, on open mike nights too."

"Okay," I responed quickly, pretending that we had some sort of dialogue going.

"You'll only do a twenty minute set on those open mike nights, just so I can tell the audience you'll be appearing all week with whomever the headliner will be." I could tell he was pretty near done.

"This alright with you?" he asked as an afterthought. He had this all planned now, and it put him in a good mood. "Of course it is!" I answered him, same as saying thank you. This caused a smile to break across his face. "See you tomorrow, Randy." Then he left and went back toward the front of the club. When I walked past Mr. and Mrs. Hood on my way out, I said good night to the both of them. They must have seen me glowing. Hey, what the hell, I was a very proud young man. Up to this point in my life, I had never come close to anything I had set my heart on. I was still so young. Nothing like this had ever happened to me so it took a while to fathom it... like waiting for something to arrive that you've already received. Had I actually made the big leagues? Me, Randy Burns, opening the show every night at the legendary Gaslight Cafe!

Long before coming to the Village, I had listened to everyone even remotely connected to folk music. One night in his never ending zeal to have me meet all the big-name performers, Mr. Hood brought Buffy Saint Marie back to the performers' room. I recognized her immediately.

"Randy," he said, "I'd like you to meet Buffy." I stood up, smiled and shook her hand. I was indeed honored.

"Is that song 'Mr. War,' your song?" she asked.

"No, it was written by Irene Paul, sometime in the early forties." It was the most beautiful and haunting anti-war song I had ever heard. I was doing it in every set.

Why you walking by my side, Mr. War, why you asking me to die, Mr. War, what are you askin' me to give, I ain't had a chance to live, and my honey should be walkin' there not you. Yes my honey should be walkin' there not you.

"Would you mind if I tried doing it from a woman's point of view?" Buffy asked. Then she told me her idea. She started singing... Why you walking by his side, Mr. War, why are you asking him to die, Mr. War, what are you asking him to give, he ain't had a chance to live, and I know I should be walkin' there not you, yes I know I should be walkin' there not you. "Perfect!" I said, "the song loses nothing. It's just as beautiful your way."

"You sure it's okay to do it?" Buffy asked again.

"Of course it's okay," I told her, "I'm a fan of the song myself." She didn't have to ask my permission to sing the song. Hell, I didn't write it. That's just the way things were during the folk revival. She heard me sing it first and it was part of my show, so the proper thing to do was to ask my permission. If you knew a singer did a song regularly and you felt like doing it, you'd ask them. Even if the song wasn't theirs, you asked them anyway. It was folk etiquette. All the performers had a solid sense of camaraderie back then. All of them would go out of their way to share what they had with each other. It was all just as simple as that.

One of the Gaslight's all-time favorites was "Mississippi John Hurt." He was loved and followed everywhere he went, but when he played the Gaslight it was a special occassion. John Hurt, with his charisma and easy way of playing and singing, simply charmed the hell out of everyone all the time. Mr. and Mrs. Hood loved him from the deepest part of their hearts. Although he'd come back to center stage with the emergence of the urban folk revival, everyone knew he'd been ill and spending time in the hospital. We all wished him well and looked forward to his return.

Whenever a major folk star unexpectedly dropped into the Gaslight, he'd be given the stage for as long as he liked. It was the custom; didn't matter who was playing. On a very cold winter night, Ramblin' Jack Elliott came down the stairs and into the Gaslight. I was performing with Steve Gillette and we relinquished the stage in short time. It was late, so Jack's set just might finish off the night. Steve and I sat down to listen. Ramblin' Jack took the stage, grabbed a stool and sat down. He pulled the mike stand back in toward him. Jack was wearing a double-billed, plaid, Sherlock Holmes style hat. It looked a little odd on him at first, but it worked. He sang song after song, interspersed with crazy stories that came off the top of his head. Somehow, these stories tied right back into the ones he had just told. By now, everyone was glued to him. Jack was really "on." I got up and walked toward the front of the club where Mr. and Mrs. Hood always were, to see how much they were enjoying Jack's show. I stepped behind the red curtain, wondering why they weren't out in the room listening with everyone else. When I found them, they were alone-facing each other with their heads down. Both of them were crying. Obviously, I'd stumbled into a very private moment. They noticed I was there, and then both of them approached me at the same time.

"Randy," Mr. Hood spoke softly to me, "we've just received word that Mississippi John Hurt has died." I can't remember what I said, but I knew how much they loved him. I was sad for them both.

Back on stage, Ramblin' Jack Elliott was on a roll with everyone loving it. Mr. Hood waited until Jack finished a song, then he walked on stage quickly and handed him a note. When Jack opened it, he stared down at it without moving. After a few silent moments, he put the note in his pocket.

"Folks," he said, "I just received word that Mississippi John Hurt has died." There was a gasp from the audience, many of them started to cry. The urban folk revival had lost a legend.

Jack Elliott stood up, pushed the stool off to the side and pulled the microphone up to standing height. He took off his plaid hat and placed it on the stool. Then, soft and clear, he sang a John Hurt favorite, "The Angels Laid Him Away." The Hoods were standing in front of the curtain while Jack was singing. Tears flowed freely down their faces from their hearts.

When Jack finished the song, he put his hat back on his head. Then he lowered the microphone, pulled the stool back toward him and sat down. When he finished the set, Ramblin' Jack Elliott stood up quietly and left the stage. The show was over. There were no more performances at the Gaslight that evening.


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