Music

‘Club 47’ documentary explores heyday of famed Cambridge folk hub

Joan Baez plays at Club 47 in 1959.

Joan Baez plays at Club 47 in 1959.

The story of how Club 47 went from humble Cambridge coffeehouse to nationally known folk music mecca is a fascinating one. And yet, it has never been told in such panoramic detail as in the new documentary “For the Love of the Music: The Club 47 Folk Revival.”

Nestled in a cozy space at 47 Mount Auburn St. in Harvard Square, Club 47 was the epicenter of New England’s burgeoning folk scene in the late 1950s and ’60s. Its first breakout star, a teenage Joan Baez who started performing there on slow nights, ended up becoming the movement’s matriarch. Countless others, including singer-guitarist Tom Rush and jug-band pioneer Jim Kweskin, would cast their own long shadows over future generations of musicians.

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As part of the Boston International Film Festival, “For the Love of the Music” will have its premiere at the AMC Loews Boston Common on Tuesday. The movie takes its title from Rush’s assertion that the Boston/Cambridge folk scene was built around amateurs who played purely for the love of the music.

“I thought the film was fascinating, but, of course, I was there,” Rush says. “The thing that strikes me about that whole time period is just how much ferment and cross-pollination there was between the different artists. Really good art very seldom arrives in a vacuum. It’s almost always a bunch of people in communication with each other and basically stealing each other’s ideas and then expressing them in a different way. And I think the film captured that.”

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“For the Love of the Music” works well as a companion piece to “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” the book that’s widely considered the definitive word on Cambridge’s folk revival. Published in 1979, it was written by two of the scene’s prime movers and shakers, the late Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney, both of whom are featured prominently in the film.


The documentary, though, has at least two advantages: It surveys the scene long after its heyday, and it was made by two filmmakers who had never even been to the original club.

James Reed

Todd Kwait (left) and Rob Stegman made the documentary “For the Love of the Music: The Club 47 Folk Revival.”

Rob Stegman and Todd Kwait came to the project with some distance from Club 47 and its legacy. They met as freshmen at Boston University in 1977, nearly a decade after the venue had shuttered its doors before reopening later as Club Passim.

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“We’re going to make a true confession,” Kwait says recently from Ohio, where he lives. “We knew nothing about Club 47 at that time.”

“Yeah, that was across the river in Harvard Square,” Stegman, on the other line from his office in Needham, adds in jest.

The film adheres closely to Club 47’s chronology, from its modest beginnings as a jazz club opened in 1958 by Joyce Kalina (now Chopra) and Paula Kelley through a decade of its ups and downs. After the club’s original home at 47 Mt. Auburn St., the venue uprooted in 1963 to another location on nearby Palmer Street. As Club Passim, it’s still going strong.

The film focuses almost exclusively on the 47 days, giving equal time to the scene’s linchpins (Baez, Rush, Kweskin, Jackie Washington, Geoff Muldaur, the Charles River Valley Boys) and lesser-known names who were pivotal in keeping the place afloat, including onetime club manager Byron Linardos.

It’s noted that Bob Dylan passed through on various occasions, but Kwait says he declined to be interviewed for the film. (“I was told that Bob doesn’t like to look back,” Kwait says.) Dylan did, however, give Kwait and Stegman permission to use previously unheard audio of him playing at Club 47 with von Schmidt.

Just as she was to the club in its early days, Betsy Siggins was an integral part of the film as its historical advisor. She suggested to Kwait the idea of making a documentary. She organized a few California jam sessions with some of 47’s old-timers, footage of which is sprinkled throughout the movie. And she also enlisted actor Peter Coyote, an old friend she met on Martha’s Vineyard in the ’60s, to narrate the film.

“I thought it was a wonderfully intimate insight into the era that people talk about as being an unusual time in American life, but they usually don’t give more credit to how it changed politics, civil rights, and women’s rights,” Siggins says. “You don’t think this when you’re 18, but when you look back, it was a very complex time that we took just one day at a time.”

Remarkably, the film doesn’t shy away from conflict. Jackie Washington Landrón, known back then simply as Jackie Washington, talks with incredible candor about how he felt like the token African-American performer in the nearly all-white scene.

And Debbie Green not so subtly suggests Baez stole her material when both women were college friends and young singers just starting out. (Siggins offers an on-camera apology to Green, admitting that the club conveyed an air of exclusivity that shut some performers out.)

The film also addresses the distinction that set Cambridge’s folk scene apart from what was happening across the country, notably New York’s Greenwich Village.

“Cambridge was characterized by an intellectual elitism about folk music,” Judy Collins says in the film. “So you had to watch your Ps and Qs up there – and your silver daggers.”

In another scene, Rush concisely needles the claim that Cambridge back then was rife with musicians singing about experiences vastly different from their own.

“There was implicit irony in all these Harvard and MIT guys sitting around singing about how tough it was in the coal mines and on the chain gang,” Rush says.

You have to wonder if that kind of reflection would have been possible earlier in Club 47’s legacy. Siggins doesn’t think so.

“The film takes 47 several generations away from the von Schmidt/Rooney book,” she says. “At the time in the ’70s when we were all asked to reflect on those days [for the book], we were so much younger then. This is one of the beauties of staying alive: You get to grow up and have a different perspective.”

“FOR THE LOVE OF THE MUSIC: The Club 47 Folk Revival”

At: Boston Common on Tuesday, 6 p.m. Tickets: $12. www.fandango.com

Boston International Film Festival

At: Boston Common,

April 13-22. www.bifilmfestival.com

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a production error, the cover story in Friday’s ‘‘g’’ section on the documentary film ‘‘For the Love of the Music: The Club 47 Folk Revival’’ omitted a photo caption. For complete caption information, visit www.bostonglobe. com/arts.

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