Allan Block, 90; sandal maker housed music spot
NEW YORK — Allan Block, a leather craftsman and fiddler who made sandals and music in his Greenwich Village shop — which became a bubbling hub of folk music during the 1950s and ’60s — died on Oct. 23 at his home in Francestown, N.H. He was 90.
Mr. Block’s shop was a showcase for talented pickers and singers like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Doc Watson, and Maria Muldaur; and a destination for aspiring musicians like John Sebastian and Bob Dylan.
Mr. Block, who studied classical violin growing up in Oshkosh, Wis., was a self-taught sandal maker who helped popularize open-toe footwear. But he was prone to setting aside his leather samples and his awl to pick up a fiddle and jam with the folk musicians, mountain music makers, and blues players who were wont to drop in with their banjos, guitars, mandolins and other instruments.
The store, the Allan Block Sandal Shop at 171 W. Fourth St., was just a few minutes’ walk from Washington Square Park and from the Folklore Center on Macdougal Street, where perpetual musical performances, both impromptu and planned, made Greenwich Village the red-hot center of the so-called folk revival.
Many evenings and weekend afternoons, the jams migrated to Mr. Block’s store, where the crowds often spilled out the door and onto the sidewalk. According to Mr. Block’s daughter Rory, a blues singer who worked with her father and ran the store after he decamped for New Hampshire in the late 1960s, Dylan dropped by more than once just to chat with her father.
“He’d be sitting in a chair and my dad would be working and they’d be talking,” Rory Block said. “And my dad said to me: ‘You see that young man? He’s a poet first and foremost. He values his art above all else. He’s been signed by a label, but he really doesn’t care about the business side of things.’ ”
Sebastian recalled in an interview Wednesday that in 1960, when he was 16 and living with his parents on the perimeter of Washington Square Park, soaking up what he called “the folk scene, the doo-wop scene, the beatnik scene, the blues scene,” that he often found himself at the sandal shop.
“This was a place that was an energy power point for the folk music movement,” he said, adding that many of those who played there were his heroes, old-time musicians who were featured on the influential 1952 set of recordings known as the “Anthology of American Folk Music.”
“And here were living examples, the people who had been on that anthology, and you could sit in a small wooden kind of room and be with them. It was unbelievable. I saw Son House, Bukka White, John Hurt.”
Allan Forrest Block was born in Oshkosh on Oct. 6, 1923. His father, Isadore, ran a scrap metal business that later expanded into building supplies.
After high school, he studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin but never graduated, leaving during World War II to join the American Field Service, which he served as an ambulance driver in India.
Afterward, he moved to New York City — where, his brother Daniel said, he became interested in folk music — and then, for a while, to the woods of New Jersey, near Princeton, where, his brother said, he began making sandals.
Back in New York, his first shop was a tiny hole in the wall on Macdougal Street. According to “Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña,” by David Hajdu, the West Fourth Street store opened in 1950.
There, Mr. Block’s daughter Mona Young said, he perfected his method of making custom-tailored sandals, complete with arch supports.
Mr. Block’s sandals, famous in their day — actress Faye Dunaway and musicians including Baez, Fariña and members of the band Sha Na Na bought them — were groundbreaking footwear, fashionwise.
“Most people saw sandals as something very European or feminine,” Mr. Block told Hajdu. “Then, I think, people started relating the idea of exposed feet and natural leather and something handmade with folk music and crafts.”
In New Hampshire, Mr. Block continued his leather work; in addition to sandals, he made belts, handbags, guitar straps and other items.
He also performed on the fiddle at folk festivals.
In addition to his daughters, Mr. Block, who was married several times, leaves a son, Paul; a brother, Daniel; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.