Washington Square Park

by

images

excerpt from Elijah Wald (“BEFORE THE FLOOD:
LLEWYN DAVIS, DAVE VAN RONK, AND THE VILLAGE FOLK SCENE OF 1961″):

The center of the Village scene in those days was not a nightclub or coffeehouse, but Washington Square Park, where singers and musicians gathered to jam on Sunday afternoons. Dave Van Ronk started showing up in the mid-1950s, and recalled that there would be six or seven groups playing at the same time, each with their own circle of friends and listeners.

By the arch at the bottom of Fifth Avenue, a crowd of kids who had gotten into folk music at progressive summer camps and Labor Youth League get-togethers would be singing union songs they had picked up at Pete Seeger concerts or from Sing Out! magazine. Over by the Sullivan Street side of the square the young Zionist socialists of Hashomer Hatzair would be singing “Hava Nagila” and doing Israeli folk dances. Around the fountain, a banjo virtuoso named Roger Sprung led the first wave of urban bluegrass musicians, picking high-octane hoedowns and singing in nasal harmony.

Sprung was one of the few people on that scene who had any connection with the commercial music business: he had recorded four songs in the early 1950s with a group called the Folk say Trio, whose two other members shortly renamed themselves the Tarriers and got two top ten hits, “Cindy, Oh Cindy” and “The Banana Boat Song.” A song the Tarriers recorded with Sprung, “Tom Dooley,” was copied by a younger group called the Kingston Trio and topped the pop chart in 1958.

No one on that scene remembers Roger Sprung for his near brush with the Top Forty. They remember him as an older musician who knew more than the rest of them about real Southern music, and was willing to teach anyone who cared about that style. He was in the Square every Sunday, accompanied by a fellow named Lionel Kilberg who played a home-made washtub bass, and they would have a cluster of younger players around them that over the years included pretty much all the musicians who went on to lead the urban old-time and bluegrass scenes of the 1960s. Kilberg was particularly important because he was also the person who went down to city hall each month and got the permit to play music in the Square.

Advertisements

One Response to “Washington Square Park”

  1. REED MARTIN Says:

    Any updates about Roger Sprung ? I remember his coming to the early southern festivals and being totally open to having others jam with him. We were shy and mostly just watched. As I remember he was very important at many southern festivals because he found really good instruments “up north” and brought them “south” to sell.
    Yes – they were expensive by southern standards, but Roger enabled many good southern pickers to buy their first quality instruments.
    He deserves much respect and thanks for enabling southern pickers to improve their music by improving their instruments. His ability to loosen up on stage was another gift he left those at the festivals. At one festival – he met Dorothy Rorrick – who was a great fiddler. Mrs. Rorrick would fiddle the strings off her violin – while pointing the bow at the audience and hollering things like “go to church” and “y’all be good ” at the audience – and never missing a note on her fiddle. Her dad was Rufus Quesenberry – one of the original members of “The Old Timers” band from Hillsville, Virginia, and she knew ALL the early string band tunes – and eagerly shared them with anyone who wanted to join in while standing around in the fields at the festivals.
    I think Roger Sprung had a much more profound positive effect on southern festivals than we realized back then.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s