Interview with filmmaker Laura Archibald on her new film
Greenwich Village, by ushering in the dawn of free speech, free love, and politically engaged art, changed the world forever. The artists who emerged - from Arlo Guthrie to Buffy Saint-Marie to Bob Dylan - challenged the status quo by singing about civil liberties, protesting the Vietnam War, and holding governments accountable for their actions.
Their music was heard. Their message universal. Their outcome revolutionary.
Yet there has never been an in-depth film - with over 20 interviews, rare archival footage, and new performances - made about the militant Greenwich Village music scene that so deeply and irreversibly changed the political, social and cultural landscape. Until now.
In the soon-to-be-released documentary Greenwich Village: The Music that Defined a Generation, Canadian filmmaker Laura Archibald sheds light on the music scene of Manhattan's Greenwich Village in the '60s and early '70s, highlighting numerous legendary singer-songwriters who collectively became the voice of a generation, including everyone from Pete Seeger to Judy Collins to Kris Kristofferson.
Laura Archibald granted Back Page Magazine her first media interview about the film, eager to chat about the indelible influence of Greenwich Village and the many artists she filmed.
Back Page Magazine: It's been said that Greenwich Village was essentially a state of mind, with no boundaries. Is that how you see "the Village?" A magical time and place that will never be duplicated?
Laura Archibald: Oh yes, and that was one of the many ideas about the Village that intrigued me so much that I wanted to make a film about it. This idea that everyone knew that you could go there if you were different, if you were eccentric, if you were gay, or if you were a communist - it didn't matter. You were accepted there, and I loved this idea that people made a pilgrimage to the Village. I was also fascinated by this place made up of just four or five city blocks, and how what came out of there is truly remarkable.
BPM: With so many talented and prolific artists to come out of the Village - The Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Peter, Paul and Mary - how did you decide where to start?
LA: I looked at it in a chronological way, and chose 1961 as a starting point. Obviously, you can go back to the 1800s in the Village, as there is a long history of bohemianism and people being able to express themselves through painting, poetry, writing, and then ultimately music. But I had to jump in there somewhere, so I decided '61 because that was the year the mayor decided there should be no more music in the park, because it was attracting "the wrong kind of people, like interracial couples and other problems" - whatever that means.
So they shut down the music in the park, and made every street performer or guitar player get a cabaret license to perform in the park, but when they went to apply, they were all suspiciously declined. That's when one day in '61, Izzy Young, a big leader in the folk community at that time, marched with others into the park knowing that police would likely show up.
And in the film, you'll see great footage from that time showing the riot unfolding and Izzy Young saying, 'You can't stop us from singing!" and they started singing the Star Spangled Banner. Well, how can you stop a group of people from singing the national anthem? And that was, as some say, the very first movement of freedom of speech. So I thought the riot would make a great bookend for the documentary, start and finish with it, and whatever happens with the interviews in between will take me along that journey.
BPM: Who are some of the first artists you cover, if you started with the early '60s?
LA: The early years would include Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan. And what I learned was these artists didn't just hang around one another simply because they were talented. There had to be some connection, some chemistry between artists, so I dove into the deep end with that idea and approached it chronologically. There would be a certain group of artist in the early '60s, then it would be a different group of artists by the mid-'60s where The Mamas & the Papas came in, along with John Sebastian (The Lovin' Spoonful) and those groups, all formed in the Village.
And by the time we get into the late '60s, concerts like Woodstock were being put together, and where did they go to get their talent pool? Ah, the Village! Where there's Richie Havens, and Melanie, they all went up to Woodstock because there were different styles of music coming out of the Village, during different chunks of time within that decade. Artists were evolving and writing music, and Greenwich Village was the place where everyone could experiment with writing and were allowed to do what they wanted.
Someone like Bob Dylan, he wrote his own music and sang it, and everyone said, 'Oh, we don't just have to sell our songs and have someone else perform them, the way they did in the '30s, '40s and '50s?' And once they realized that, that's what they started doing. And they wrote about what was going on in the world, or what was going on in their backyard with the gay rights problems that were there, and the racism. Like Dylan, they wrote and sang about it. So the birth of the singer-songwriter was, absolutely, in Greenwich Village.
BPM: It's been well documented that Bob Dylan spent his early days in Greenwich Village, having moved to New York in '61. How prominent is Dylan in your film?
LA: At first, I wanted to ignore Bob Dylan and not even include him in the film. Because, how many biographies and books can be written on Bob Dylan? How much more talking can people do about Bob Dylan? He was not the only person in the Village. He's a very talented guy, I'm not disputing that, but I wanted to talk about all these other really talented people in the Village, and what was going on, because it wasn't just about Bob Dylan.
But you really can't interview all these Greenwich Village artists and not have his name come up, over and over again, because they all knew him and admired him.
BPM: So how much of a spotlight did Bob Dylan actually get?
LA: You're the first to know this, but I have a whole chapter in the film called, What About Bob? (laughs). It's tongue-and-cheek; this was my way of acknowledging him, by having everybody else talk about him in one chapter. So yes, Bob Dylan has his own chapter in the film, and also because I'm not a fool when it comes to marketing. I realize that if I had excluded him entirely, people and critics would be saying, "What the heck is she doing? What about Bob!" Having said that, maybe that in itself would have been a good marketing idea (laughs).
BPM: Does anyone speak critically of Bob Dylan in your film?
LA: Sonny Ochs, the sister of Phil Ochs, probably spoke the most honestly about him, because there was always that problem between Phil Ochs and Dylan, with Phil not getting the recognition he deserved at that time, being the strong songwriter that he was. There was always that competition.
Sonny Ochs was a really nice lady and works very hard to keep not just her brother's image and music alive, but his musical reputation as well. Phil Ochs ended up killing himself, had a huge drinking problem, and it was so sad as he was a very talented artist. And his sister does a great job and tries her best at keeping his musical legacy in people's minds, which should precede everything else you've ever heard about Phil Ochs. And it was Sonny who connected me with Kris Kristofferson, because Kris helps out with 'Phil Ochs' special nights and fundraisers.
BPM: What was it like to sit down and chat with Kris Kristofferson?
LA: Kris was an absolute gentleman and had some great stories. He came to the Village via Nashville towards the end of the decade, and what you'll find in the film is a lot of these people, though competitive, helped each other out. And Kris was a great one for that. He was the one who encouraged John Prine to come down to the Village, and talked to Paul Colby (owner of The Bitter End club) and said, 'Just give this guy a chance.' He (John Prine) actually signed a record deal, they say, that night. So Kris was very gracious that way in helping other artists out.
BPM: Kris Kristofferson hasn't given a great deal of interviews in recent years, has he?
LA: Well, I think when it's something that he is passionate about, which he certainly was about the Village - because he was there - then he's interested in talking, as opposed to his own publicity. I found him to be very down-to-earth.
BPM: In the trailer for your film, Carly Simon and her sister Lucy look to be having a blast, especially when sharing a hilarious memory of the Smothers Brothers.
LA: Carly and Lucy Simon, that was a beautiful interview. Their warmth, and the relationship they share as sisters really came through in the interview. Carly actually phoned me, gave me her address and arranged the whole interview, and even asked me, "What do you think I should wear?" It was so relaxed sitting down with the two of them, they're on the couch and the dog is jumping around. And as we were setting up, they chatted about sister stuff, and were just very normal people. At one point, they broke into some French song they used to sing, flubbing the words and laughing out loud trying to remember it. The sisters were so funny and candid.
We think about Carly Simon as more of a contemporary artist, but the Simons in the early days lived in the Village, hung around the bars and put together their duets. When Lucy went off and got married, Carly went off on her own and one of her first gigs was in the Village. Again, it was the place where you could find record producers in the audience and you'd come off stage and they'd sign you. That doesn't happen today, and it hasn't happened since then. Carly Simon, you don't meet many singers like her.
BPM: Judy Collins spoke so passionately about the Village, saying: "It was just an amazing place to be."
LA: Well, Judy Collins herself is amazing, and probably the most articulate interview I had the pleasure of doing. Judy was around in the Village since the beginning, and I have to say, she's certainly one of the reasons that I wanted to do this film and cover all these different artists who don't always get the recognition. Case and point, she's this absolutely amazing talent, and yet people often bypass Judy when they talk about the Village. But she was there, and recognized Dylan's talent early on, along with Leonard Cohen and later Joni Mitchell.
Judy is the very artist that people should hear more about. She's a gifted piano player, guitarist, and she writes her own music. Her voice is still fantastic. And though I'm focusing on the '60s in this film, hopefully at the end of the day there can be an interactive DVD component where I can showcase what these incredible artists are doing now. Because there's people who will say, "Oh yeah, Judy Collins, she made Both Sides Now a hit," but you've got to hear her play piano now and sing her own stuff. She's quite amazing.
BPM: The artwork for the film perfectly captures the cool vibe that will likely resonate with younger viewers as well, perhaps not familiar with names like Judy Collins, Harry Chapin, or Ian & Sylvia.
LA: Well, what we did was put together a concert with the second generation of Greenwich Village artists, which would be the kids of many of these people. So we had Denny Doherty's son John Doherty come in from Toronto, Lucy Simon and her beautiful daughter Julie performed together, Tom Chapin and his girls (The Chapin Sisters) were there along with Harry Chapin's daughter, Jen. We also had Peter Yarrow's daughter Bethany, and Jean Ritchie's son Jon (Pickow). So yeah, I wanted to show the talent of the next generation and interview them as well, with some crossover from the generations. We also had Cass Elliot's daughter Owen, which made for such a great event.
BPM: "Mama" Cass Elliot's remarkable voice was full of such clarity and beauty. Does Owen's voice, in anyway resemble her mother's?
LA: I always thought, 'Cass Elliot's voice - how could you ever match that?' But it was kind of freaky meeting her daughter, because not only does she look somewhat like Cass, but the voice is identical to her mother's.
In the film, we've actually got a great, previously unreleased version of Cass Elliot singing one of John Sebastian's songs. He lived in the village and grew up there, and he was one of the early guys to go from folk to something a little more rock oriented. So he was bringing a different sound into the village very early on, and worked with Cass Elliot from time to time, before she joined the Mamas and the Papas.
BPM: From the Mamas and the Papas, you interviewed the only surviving member, Michelle Phillips, right?
LA: Yes, that was when I went out to Los Angeles. California Dreaming, y'know, was written in the Village. On that same trip, I also interviewed Carolyn Hester. She was one of the early folk singers in the Village, who came there in '57. When I interviewed her, she was very grateful and said, "Everyone forgets about me." She was friends with Buddy Holly, who got her, her first record deal. When she was recording one of her albums, she asked a very young Bob Dylan if he'd like to come in to the studio and play harmonica. She told her producer, "This guy's got a lot of good stuff and you should listen to him." So, even though few people remember who she is, in this generation anyways, she recognized Dylan's talent early on.
In '90, Bob Dylan did a show at Madison Square Garden and invited her to show up. I don't know if Bob has ever said, 'thank you,' to too many people in his life, but he remembered her for getting him his first record deal. Carolyn Hester moved from Texas to Greenwich Village, and said, "I went to Greenwich Village to find Pete Seeger." Because Peter Seeger was "God" back then.
BPM: The trailer to your film opens with a beautiful snippet of Pete Seeger saying: "If there is a world here in a hundred years, one of the main reasons will be music." What was it like speaking at length with Pete Seeger, one of the most beloved, respected artists in the history of American folk music?
LA: Pete Seeger truly lives this life he's been singing about all these years, and that's something I admire so much. He set the example for others, and you'll see through all the various interviews in the film that a number of these artists have lived that life too, because they believed in what they were singing about, and still do.
And that's a fascinating thing, when you look at someone like Harry Chapin who started WHY (World Hunger Year). That was the first time that artists demonstrated the power and influence they had over the people, and showed how they could put that power to good use. Organizing fundraiser and charity events for a particular cause, that was something new, and Harry Chapin was doing that before Live Aid, Farm Aid, or No Nukes.
At the very first launch for Greenpeace, there was a concert in Vancouver with Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs. And many of these artists from Greenwich Village are all still very generous today, and committed to changing the world as best they can, even if their reputation and record sales may not shine like it once did, all those years ago. They still live that life, and that's because of the influence of people like Pete Seeger, who, at the age of 92, gives away virtually everything he makes and is still fundraising.
Tom Chapin, in honour of his brother Harry's work, is still out there doing benefits, because that's what we're supposed to do. As Judy Collins says in the film, "I believe people give more and think more about good causes because of what happened in Greenwich Village."
BPM: You interviewed an impressive list of stars for the film - Pete Fornatale, Buffy Saint-Marie, Happy Traum, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Steve Earle, Eric Andersen and many more - but were any personalities elusive? Did anyone turn you down?
LA: There were a few. I wanted to speak with James Taylor because he started in the Village, though those were difficult days for him personally. Another one I couldn't get was Paul Simon. With Leonard Cohen, I went through his management and they said he really doesn't do interviews, which is too bad because Judy Collins covered his songs. And then Joni Mitchell; I received a lovely email back from her management saying that, "Joni wishes you the best of luck, but she doesn't do anything regarding her career any longer." She just doesn't.
BPM: Along with the people, many of the famous bars and concert clubs are featured in your film. What was it like walking around Greenwich Village today with your film crew, visiting historic venues like New York City's The Bitter End?
LA: It's pretty rundown, and The Bitter End is pretty rough. I don't know if you'd want to go there in the daylight (laughs). I remember going to see Judy Collins perform there, which is where I was introduced to her, and she said, "I just have to use the ladies room," and I thought, 'Oh my god - Judy Collins is going to go into that washroom!' And she did!
They're tired old bars, the ones that are left, but they still bring the people in. So the charm may be gone, if it was ever there, I don't know. I've had people say to me that The Bitter End hasn't changed a bit. Greenwich Village is still a very laid back, and cool, kind of place, we found. The problem today, though, is that the university is buying up all the property and it's being really over run with students now, and student housing.
BPM: And you got to sit down with Paul Colby, longtime owner of The Bitter End. He would have had some stories to tell, right?
LA: Did he ever! He worked for Frank Sinatra, that's how he got started. I grew up with Frank Sinatra's music, that was the music my parents listened to, so I was very interested in those tales he had to share. He told a story about running an errand for Frank Sinatra, where he had to deliver something up to the apartment. When he got up to the apartment and knocked on the door, who answered the door but Ava Gardner - stark naked!
BPM: Eric Andersen says in the film: "I don't think they've actually done a film like this before of the Village." To your knowledge, has there ever been an attempt to document the story of Greenwich Village in this way?
LA: Since I started this project, PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) released something in August, but it was a fundraiser that included a couple of interviews and some old footage.
And I know of the Coen brothers working on a feature film, loosely based on Dave Von Ronk. So, it would seem there's a bit of a folk revival. Actually, I don't want to say just 'folk,' because my focus is on the Village itself and the artists who came from the Village. In fact, I see the Village as this incubator that included all these fantastic, diverse styles of music from wonderful artists who were humanitarians.
BPM: As you said earlier, you decided to jump on to the story of Greenwich Village at 1961. Where in your film, do you jump off?
LA: Around 1973-74, when many of these artists moved on, and there was an exodus to California. Whether it was the weather, or the fact that The Troubadour and other clubs became the next stepping stone after the Village, I'm not sure. But things evolved, as they do in other areas and clubs, as people get tired of the same old thing. At that point, the genre of music had changed, the Village had changed, but thankfully the nostalgia is still there.
BPM: How long will it be before wide audiences can see your film - and what do you hope they will come away with?
LA: I'm submitting it to film festivals as we speak. Right now, I'm just so grateful to all the people who took their time and gave me interviews, right there on the spot. I'm amazed at the generosity of these artists. On that note alone, these people confirmed for me that liking their music is one thing, but these are truly beautiful people behind that music, doing good things.
I'm sure that in some situations, you hope to have made something controversial, because controversy makes for good press. But this may be one case where there is no controversy, and it's an example of good press, because these are really great people we're talking about.
I hope the people who see this film will see these artists for who they are, who continue to be relevant in their work and music today. Greenwich Village was this magical place, and I'm sure many people today will wish they had grown up there, and had the ability to change the world.
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