You have to look for Club Passim, tucked in an alley behind the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, Mass. But when you get inside, singer-songwriter Ellis Paul says, you find a small, square room that holds about 125 people, sitting at wobbly tables in mismatched chairs.
"When you hear its reputation, you expect the Taj Mahal," Paul says. "It's really a basement with cobblestone floors, and there's nothing remarkable about the actual space. But there's something incredible about the actual space's history."
In 1958, the owners of a new coffeehouse jazz club reluctantly let a folksinger on stage, says Passim's archivist, Millie Rahn.
"There was this performer around town, long hair, often barefoot," Rahn says. "She had been playing some of the clubs across the river in Boston. And, of course, her name was Joan Baez."
Ever since then, Club Passim has been the place to play for folk musicians in the Boston area. The place has a storied history: The greats of the 1950s and '60s — Baez, Tom Rush, Bob Dylan — all played the room when it was called Club 47. Later, the club gave rise to singers such as Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega.
The music world has changed greatly. But the club's continuing to turn out new talent even this year, its 50th anniversary.
Coffee and Community
The club's original name, Club 47, came from its address: 47 Mount Auburn St. Coffeehouses were becoming popular, especially among Boston's many college students. Songwriter Rush was a freshman at Harvard in 1959.
"It was just up the street from my dorm," he says. "And I'd been playing the guitar and really loved folk music. So I started out as an audience member and eventually ended up performing there on a regular basis."
Rush developed his banjo chops by playing there just about every week. Other regulars included the Charles River Valley Boys and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Rahn says one singer was such a novice, he was only allowed to play between sets.
"It's a little-known fact: [Bob] Dylan never had billing at Club 47," she says. "Even then in 1962, 1963, that [billing] was the seal of approval that you had made it as a folk musician."
The club also created a community, remembers Betsy Siggins. She's the executive director of Club Passim, which is now run as a nonprofit. But in the 1960s, Siggins did a little bit of everything at Club 47.
"If there was an omelet to be made, I did it," Siggins says. "If there were tickets at the door, I did it. If they needed somebody to sit in the art gallery in the afternoon, and I could bring my kid and Maria Muldaur would bring her kid, we called that working. And then I sort of, I guess, graduated, although that seems like a silly word. I got to do scheduling."
But Siggins says that what remains with her most from those years are the people who showed her that the world was bigger than the few Cambridge blocks she and her Club 47 friends inhabited. It was the height of the civil rights movement. Siggins met black musicians from the South, like the Rev. Gary Davis, as well as rural white musicians such as Hobart Smith and Doc Watson.
"It was the most intense initiation into what was going on in this country at that time — and how it had been expressed through music since the first people came over on the boats and the first slaves started working in the South," Siggins says.
But this kind of music — and the crowd the club attracted — was always a little on the fringe, even for Cambridge. Siggins remembers that by 1963, Club 47's landlady was fed up.
"And one day, she came in and she made an announcement," Siggins says. " 'You've got to get these damn hippies out from in front of my property. I've had it. I've had it with all of you.' "
The club moved to where it is today, operating as Club 47 for about five years. But the changing music industry and dwindling finances forced Club 47 to close in 1968. A year later, a couple named Bob and Rae Ann Donilon opened a card shop in that space.
The couple named it Club Passim for the Latin term "passim," a literary abbreviation for "throughout." Singer Paul says the Donilons never intended the space to be used for music, but somehow the music kept finding them.
"They started doing jazz on the weekends, and then suddenly all these little folksingers started calling them, saying, 'Can I just slip on a Friday night and do a couple songs?' " Paul says. "And they eventually started booking folk music in there again."
The Donilons ran the club for about 25 years. Paul is one of countless musicians who credit the Donilons with launching their careers. Others include Colvin, Vega and Nanci Griffith.
The Donilons have both died, and today the atmosphere at the club is a little more businesslike. There are T-shirts and mugs for sale with the club's logo, and a vegetarian restaurant at the club helps bring in revenue. During shows, people can eat vegan peanut curry and sip soy lattes.
But one thing hasn't changed, Siggins says.
"Inside is the same place," she says. "If you come here on a Tuesday night and you see an open mic, you think, 'God bless 'em: They may not have much talent, but they sure have heart.' And this is not a place that says to you, 'You're no good.' It's a place that says, 'Keep playing.' "