After more than 30 years of playing together, award-winning folk musicians Caffè Lena with her husband, Bill, in 1960.
You’ve been in the folk scene for a long time. When was the first time you played at Caffè Lena?
Oh, jeez, probably, 1984.
Have you been back since they renovated it?
This is my first time since the renovation. And I’m dying to see it. I was there during the old days—well, the semi-old days, when Lena was still around. She was really kind to me, just a lovely, kind, sweet, generous soul. You felt like you were walking in the presence of greatness. She was wise and eccentric, and I spent a lot of time listening to her, because she had important things to say, especially in terms of community.
The folk community?
Yeah, there was a moment back in the day when a lot of big major labels were courting guys like me, and I was talking to Lena one night when I realized that if I tried to move up into something bigger, I was going to have to leave this community, and I didn’t want to do that. As a friend of mine said, “If you’re using the coffeehouses as a stepping stone to something different, you don’t belong in those coffeehouses.” So I chose community, and I think I chose well. And I’ve remained loyal to Lena, and Lena has remained loyal to me. It’s one of those places that makes me feel better, just knowing that it’s still there after all these years.
It sounds like you were very close to Lena and the folk scene here.
Yeah, I was. She taught me about a lot. She was one of the village elders. There was her and Utah Phillips and Pete Seeger, and all these people who were kind of out there, but you still had access to them. She had this idea that all these little places we played were part of a larger community, and the performers were just this rabble that were going around, and we were all interconnecting on some deep level. This was our village. It answered a lot of questions for me about what I was trying to do.
Speaking of that community, what do you think it is about folk music that brings people back year after year?
I think for a lot of the performers, if they’re playing old, traditional material, it’s because all those songs are telling a story. If you listen to, say, Woody Guthrie songs and Carter Family songs, it’s not Tin Pan Alley stuff, it’s not about “love and dove” and “the moon in June.” It’s about people dying and being separated, and there are shipwrecks and train wrecks and terrible things happening. It’s the human condition. The ballads get handed around and changed, and they get sort of molded to fit whatever community they’re being sung in currently. So there’s also an inversion going around. And if you’re a songwriter, if you have any sense at all, you’re aware of that immense tradition about the human condition. Some of the ballads of Europe are 300 years old, and they’re still relevant.
You and Archie have been playing together for more than 30 years. How did you two meet?
I’ve known Archie since 1976. We met in Toronto at the Mariposa Folk Festival. And I had heard about him; I was a fan of his music, and we just kind of hit it off as friends. So we’ve always kept in touch, and in about 1985, I got in touch with him and said, “I don’t know if you’d ever think about coming over to America or Canada to play, but if you’d like to do it, I’d be happy to drive you around, and we could play some tunes together, have some fun and perhaps even make some money.” And he came right back and gave me a timeframe. So for 33 years, we’ve been meeting in a haphazard way and taking it out on the road.
What’s it like maintaining a musical partnership like that for so long?
We’ve always had our solo careers. We get together maybe once a year, sometimes once every two years. We do a run together and it’s always joyful, like, “What have you been doing? What do you have that’s new?” And we adjust ourselves to what the other guy has been working on; we collaborate on our show. We both have healthy careers as soloists, and these are always special one-off tours. We don’t do it constantly, and that’s one of the things that makes it fun. It’s not a grind. It’s just like, “OK, we’re gonna go out and do 10 or 20 shows together.” Then I might not see him again for another year. So it keeps it fresher.
What are your plans going forward?
Well, [Archie and I] are going to be recording the last four or five shows, all in Canada. We’re going to take a small crew out and record whatever happens and see if there’s something that we can have as a memento of the tour. Right now, in terms of my solo stuff, I’m kind of taking a hiatus in writing. I released an album four years ago. Usually, I have a year or year-and-a-half of a dry spell after I finish a recording project. But after I released the last album, I dove right into a 730-page memoir [Night Drive: Travels With My Brother]. I just sat in a chair for eight months and pounded away at the keyboard, [which resulted in] this bizarre and vulgar and completely truthful memoir of my years on the road with my brother, from 1974 until ’83 when he died. It’s just about three young guys, broke and terrified and pretty much drunk all the time, on the road trying to play original folk music and some of the trouble we got into: Police chases, bad agents, really bad managers, horrible clubs, arrests and that sort of thing. It was a different kind of folk music than you see at Lena’s. [laughs]