A year before his fatal plane crash, Buddy Holly moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village where he recorded his final demos. Like many local musicians, Holly used to perform in Washington Square Park. Locals say he often went unnoticed, blending in as just another musician despite having songs on the top of the charts. But he didn’t just live in the Village, unbeknownst to many music fans, Holly was also on top of the emerging folk scene.
“The legend goes that he was going to the clubs, but especially The Village Vanguard,” explained Richard Barone. “I live behind the Vanguard so when I first started reading about this it hit me that I’m in the middle of what was the hotbed of that activity.”
Barone, who became famous in the 1980s as part of the influential new wave band, The Bongos, is currently paying tribute to the artists in his neighborhood who helped usher in the singer-songwriter movement with a record called Sorrows & Promises: Greenwich Village in the 1960s. The album begins with “Learning the Game” by Buddy Holly, one of the last songs he ever recorded.
The record features Barone reinterpreting songs by artists like Tim Hardin, John Sebastian, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, Janis Ian, Dion, and Bob Dylan. Songs which were likely all written within a 5 blocks of where Barone has lived since the mid-1980s.
He’s joined on the record by several guests including John Sebastian, Dion, Nellie McKay, and Alison Moorer. Mitchell Cohen, a long-time music critic and A&R executive (Arista, Columbia, and Verve) suggested the concept of the album to Barone and is working with him on selecting the material. Steve Addabbo (who has worked as a producer, engineer, and musician on albums by Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, and Eric Andersen) is producing the record.
Barone believes this was a pivotal period for songwriters; one in which artists began singing songs that they wrote about their own lives and situations.
“It was so direct,” said Barone. “That was a new thing then. Now we just take it for granted when you hear a song on the radio that the artists wrote it themselves. But in those days, that wasn’t the case… the days of the early singer-songwriter are exciting to me because it was true self expression — full and complete self expression and Buddy Holly was spearheading that.”
According to Barone, when The Bongos started out as a trio they were very influenced by The Crickets (Buddy Holly’s band). He describes his band as trying to develop a sound that was akin to Buddy Holly meets Donna Summer. The emerging clubs at the time were rock/disco clubs and so the band sought a sound that would be applicable at a dance club.
“We wanted to get a sound that was Buddy Holly which would translate to the beat people could relate to on the dance floor at the time,” said Barone. “If you listen to early Bongos songs like ‘Glow in the Dark’ or even ‘The Bulrushes.’ Those songs were very influenced by Buddy Holly and the Crickets.”
The songs on Sorrows & Promises are ones that are somewhat lost in the history of the sixties because of the tremendous evolution of music — and recorded music — which took place during the decade. While the sixties began with folk music featuring a guitar and maybe a harmonica, it ended with orchestral layers from bands like The Beatles and The Byrds. Even songs by Dylan bore little resemblance to the bare bones approach he used at the start of the decade.
Together, the songs not only paint a portrait of the immense talent located within Greenwich Village at the time, but they symbolize the sixties as a whole. And each has its own story such as Dion’s “The Road I’m On (Gloria),” which was an early B-side for the artist.
“I think (Dion) was touched when I told him I was going to do that song because it was an early song of his and not well covered,” explained Barone. “It’s a very personal song. It was a song to Gloria Stavers, who was the editor of 16 Magazine. Dion and her were a couple. I believe the lyrics hint of a breakup, but also hint that he was taking a different path than he was as a pop singer. He was taking on a more singer-songwriter path. He’s singing, ‘The road I’m on won’t bring you home.’ I think he means he’s going to be his own musician and not necessarily what the Belmonts were. That’s my interpretation and how I approached it when I sang it. It’s another symbolic song about the singer-songwriter movement.”
The title of the record comes from a mashup of the first two songs - “Don’t Make Promises” by Tim Hardin and “Pack Up Your Sorrows” by Richard and Mimi Farina.
“I thought that was symbolic of the promise of the sixties and the sorrow of the sixties,” recalled Barone. “Of course, the most important part of the record’s title for the public is ‘Greenwich Village of the 1960s’ because that says exactly where these songs came from - literally a few blocks radius from where I live.”
The Village has always been an artistic community and this record pays tribute to an important part of its history. “It’s literally a village, a community, and that’s the spirit of this album,” continued Barone. “This album is a musical reflection of that community. All of the songs were likely written and performed for the first time here in the Village.”
Serendipitously, The Museum of the City of New York is currently presenting an exhibit entitled, “Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival,” which is a perfect companion to Barone’s album project. The exhibit examines the City’s role as the center of the folk music revival from its beginnings in the thirties and forties to its heyday in the fifties and sixties, as well as its continuing legacy. The exhibit is on display until January 10, 2016.
“New York, which has been the source of so much creativity throughout its history, was central to the folk music revival that swept the country and became one of the remarkable phenomena of the 20th Century,” said Susan Henshaw Jones, Ronay Menschel Director of The
Museum of the City of New York. “Folk music spawned a whole culture, and the legacy continues today in New York and far beyond. This exhibition and our related public programs explore the revival and will let visitors experience it in a fascinating and joyous way.”
Two of the public programs will showcase artists from the Sorrows & Promises album. The first is a performance by Eric Andersen on Friday, November 6. The second is a special performance by Richard Barone based on the album on Thursday, December 3. Both shows will take place at The Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue).
“Even though I love writing songs and doing albums of songs that I wrote, this gives me a whole other way of working,” said Barone. “I’m interpreting such a large body of work. It’s not just doing a cover song on an album, it’s a whole album of covers that are specifically from my neighborhood. It’s so important that songs outlive their composers, that they continue to be interpreted and embraced as the classics that they are.”
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.