This post courtesy of Explore Brooklyn, an all-inclusive guide to the businesses, neighborhoods, and attractions that make Brooklyn great.
Although the epicenter of the 1960s folk revival was Greenwich Village, a tour through the history of folk music in America has to include a journey through Brooklyn. The trail of American roots music winds from Coney Island to Flatbush, from Bed-Stuy to Montague Street. Below are some of the performers who touched Brooklyn and the neighborhoods they called home.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (Midwood)
Born Elliot Charles Adnopoz to a surgeon’s family in 1931, the boy who would become Ramblin’ Jack Elliott became enthralled with the rodeos he had witnessed in Madison Square Garden and ran away at the age of 15 age to join Col. Jim Eskew’s Rodeo. Three months later, he was back home, but his new passion was finger-picking the guitar, singing, and busking.
Graduating from Midwood High School in 1949, he eventually came under the influence of Woody Guthrie, who became his mentor and friend. Elliott paid that tutelage forward later by channeling Guthrie’s performance style for Guthrie’s son Arlo, as well as a young folk singer named Bob Dylan.
Since then, Elliott has recorded forty albums and wrote one of the very first trucking songs, “Cup of Coffee.” He continues to perform to this day. In August, he headlined the 10th Brooklyn Country Music Festival at the Bell House.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott photo via Wikipedia.
Harry Chapin photo by Rick Maue via Facebook
Harry Chapin (Brooklyn Heights)
Singer-songwriter Harry Chapin grew up in Brooklyn Heights with his musician brothers Tom and Steve. Chapin was known for his music, but also honored for his commitment to fighting world hunger. In fact, six years after his tragic death in 1981, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Chapin’s formal introduction to music came as a member of the Brooklyn Boys Choir (now the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) where he met his future bassist and on-stage straight man “Big” John Wallace. He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1960.
In 1972, his debut album Heads & Tales lifted Chapin to stardom with the hit single “Taxi.” His fourth album, Verities & Balderdash, included his biggest hit, “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
Chapin died in 1981 following a car accident on the Long Island Expressway. In 1986, the Parks Department dedicated the Harry Chapin Playground at the intersection of Columbia Heights and Middagh Street, where the young Chapin brothers played as kids. The Chapin legacy lives on musically, as well. Tom and Steve continue to perform, as do Harry’s nieces, The Chapin Sisters.
What to do in the neighborhood
Take a page from the Bob Dylan songbook and check out the cafes on Montague Street. Learn more about the fascinating history of our favorite borough at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Or do some thrifting at Housing Works.
Norah Jones via Wikipedia
Norah Jones (Bedford-Stuyvesant)
Norah Jones was born Geetali Shankar in 1979 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York, to American concert producer Sue Jones and Indian Bengali sitar player Ravi Shankar. Although she and her mother moved to Texas at the age of seven, Jones occasionally returns to Brooklyn, often performing with her alternative country band with Catharine Popper and Sasha Dobson, Puss n Boots, at venues like the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook.
Woody Guthrie and Lefty Lou via Facebook
Woody Guthrie (Coney Island) is the Rosetta Stone of American folk music, as much for writing some of its best loved songs, including ”This Land Is Your Land,” as for his passionate advocacy for social justice. Guthrie was born and raised in Oklahoma. Toward the end of his career, however, he moved to Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island with his second wife Marjorie. There the couple had four children, including their son Arlo, and lived there from 1947 until 1952.
The years on Mermaid Avenue were some of the most productive in the songwriter’s life; they were also marked with frequent trips to the beach and the attractions of the boardwalk with his young family.
In 1998, a collaboration between English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and the band Wilco produced the album Mermaid Avenue. A project organized by Woody’s daughter Nora, the album and two follow-ups put to music some of the thousands of completed lyrics Guthrie had written during his Coney Island period.
2015 Brooklyn Folk Festival via Facebook
Brooklyn Folk Music Today
Folk music is alive and well in Brooklyn. A number of venues and musicians are committed to keeping traditional music—including folk, Americana, bluegrass, old time, and country music—on stage. Every spring, for the past seven years running, the Brooklyn Folk Festival has brought some of the best known folk musicians in the country together. And recently, the first Brooklyn Americana Music Festival debuted in the archway in DUMBO and at four other locations, including Jalopy, 68 Jay St Bar, Superfine, and Pier 3 at Brooklyn Bridge Park.