Patty Griffin was an undisciplined musician when she began performing at Club Passim in the early 1990s. A native of small-town Maine who grew up in a scrappy Boston Irish family, she was attracted to songwriting, though she didn’t quite know how to go about it.
“I’d have three high E strings on my guitar,” she says with a laugh, “and I’d just go for it.”
But the club owners at the time, Bob and Rae Anne Donlin, liked Griffin’s pluck. “They’d throw me opening slots,” she says. “God bless 'em, they stuck with me.” When Griffin began to get noticed, they closed the club one night so she could showcase for a major label.
Griffin, now a Grammy winner whose songs have been covered by Emmylou Harris, the Dixie Chicks, and many others, is part of an all-star bill that will celebrate Passim’s 60th anniversary on Thursday at the Shubert Theatre. Fellow songwriters Josh Ritter and Dar Williams are on the bill, as well as special guest Peter Wolf, who befriended blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf as a regular at Passim’s Harvard Square predecessor, Club 47. Joan Baez, who helped establish the historic Cambridge folk music community around the club, will be on hand to present Betsy Siggins with Passim’s first Lifetime Achievement Award.
Siggins and her first husband, Bob, were part of the management team at Club 47 from its origin on Mt. Auburn Street in the late 1950s through its move to the alley where Passim still resides. After a brief closure in the late ‘60s, the Donlins reopened the club as Passim in 1969, at first envisioning it as a literary bistro. (The name, Siggins says, “means ‘a little here, a little there, all around the text.’ How esoteric is that?”)
For nearly the past quarter-century, manager Matt Smith has carried on the tradition the Donlins quickly embraced, maintaining Passim’s standing as one of the premier folk-music breeding grounds in the country.
For Griffin, the significance of Passim’s history took hold only gradually.
“When I got past my almost permanent deer-in-the-headlights state, it did set me up to dig deeper into folk music,” she says. Passim, she came to realize, provided a space for a certain type of artistry that combined reverence for American musical traditions with a progressive social conscience.
“It nurtured a type of songwriting that serves others by giving voice to what they don’t know how to give voice to, about the world, and life,” Griffin says. “It’s taken me many years to grasp how big [the legacy] is, and how lucky I was to go through that phase.”
After a couple of decades in New York City, where she worked with food pantries and founded anti-poverty programs, Siggins returned to the former Club 47 in the late 1990s. She would serve as executive director of the nonprofit Passim for another dozen years. About a decade ago she founded Folk New England, raising money to support a growing archive now housed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“I’ve been begging for change for folk music for 60 years,” she jokes.
As a child growing up on Cape Cod, she’d sneak a radio to bed to listen to a powerful AM station from West Virginia that played old-time country music.
“I just took to it,” she says. “I had no idea why. When I met Bob Siggins, I knew why.” A Harvard student from Oklahoma, he was a founding member of the Charles River Valley Boys, the bluegrass group that became a Club 47 staple.
Betsy met Baez when both were Boston University students in 1958. They and folk singer Debbie Green all bonded when an instructor told the freshmen in the class to put on beanies.
“We said, ‘I don’t think so — that’s too conformist for us,’” Siggins recalls with a laugh.
Baez was soon performing to instant acclaim at Club 47, often barefoot. Tom Rush, Jim Kweskin, and Jackie Washington were among the early stalwarts, and a newcomer named Bob Dylan sometimes made the trip up from New York. Siggins did a little singing herself but preferred to stay behind the scenes.
“I started hanging around with musicians, and it was like getting a PhD in old-time country music,” she says. “Joan with her classical ballads, people like Geoff Muldaur and Kweskin with blues and jug band music, and Bob Siggins and country music — I mean, that was like manna from heaven.”
Baez, who recently retired from touring, says she got her first taste of the old English ballads that would become her signature from Debbie Green.
“I was in love with a Harvard boy. We fought all the time — we were a perfect neurotic match,” she explains with a laugh. “I met [him] down at the banks of the Charles. He was on the rowing team, and he rowed over on his own. That’s when the fantasy started, including those songs. And they were all sad.”
The first time she played Club 47, the audience consisted of her parents, her two sisters, and her boyfriend, who paced the sidewalk trying to decide whether to go in. Shortly thereafter, Baez was invited to sing at the Newport Folk Festival, the appearance that launched her dizzying ascent.
For her next sets at Club 47, “there were lines around the block.” Afterward, her circle of friends would repair to the Hayes-Bickford cafeteria and drink coffee into the wee hours. Baez, not yet 20, would keep singing at the club.
“Those were the days when I would literally fall asleep with a guitar on my chest, wake up with it that way, and go on playing,” she says. “That’s all I did.”
Besides the music, the budding folk community shared a common interest in social justice. They fought for civil rights and against the “military industrial complex.”
Siggins was instrumental in bringing many African-American blues performers to Club 47, often providing a couch for them to sleep on. Wolf, the future lead singer of the J. Geils Band, was a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. His rock ‘n’ roll band at the time, the Hallucinations, was one of the first of its kind to play Club 47.
One night in the club’s bathroom, he overheard two of Muddy Waters’s sidemen, James Cotton and Otis Spann, expressing their dismay that the venue only served coffee. He offered to get them a bottle of scotch and let them use his nearby living room as a kind of green room before their set.
They passed the word along, Wolf says, and soon his apartment was a requisite stop for headliners from Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Wells to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
“I was Muddy’s unofficial valet,” he says. “It was like being a painter and having Matisse or Picasso come by your house and hang out.”
Wolf is eager to play the anniversary show at the Shubert, his first time on that stage. His father, Allen Blankfield, was a member of the Shubert theater chain’s national touring company. Wolf still has the Playbill from his father’s appearance in a 1930 Boston run of “The Merry Widow.”
“I’m carrying on, as they would say, in the family tradition.”
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
PASSIM’S 60th ANNIVERSARY CONCERT
With Patty Griffin, Josh Ritter, Dar Williams, Sol y Canto with Alisa Amador, Rose Cousins, and Peter Wolf. At the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, Boston. Tickets start at $35, www.bochcenter.org