I wish I’d saved some to the memorabilia from that period like the “Talking Folklore Center Blues” that Dylan wrote to commemorate the store.
‘You get a bumper and I'll get a fender
We'll go down to the Folklore Center
You get a daft and I'll get dizzy
We'll go down to see old Izzy
What did the fly say to the flea
Folklore Center is the place for me.
I'll make a pie and you'll make a salad
We'll go down to see Jack Ballard
What did the belt say to the suspender
You got to support the Folklore Center.”
I happened to be in NYC on an Antioch co-op job as a puppeteer. As it turned out I could either work the puppets or remember the lines, but could not do both. They fired me. I was young, broke and with winter coming on I went to work at the Folklore Center.
Here is an excerpt from the report I wrote for the college 50 years ago:
I was literally down to my last 25 cents when I wandered into the Folklore Center (hub of the American Folk Movement on MacDougal Street) and convinced the boss, Israel G. Young, that I was truly the person he was seeking to set his chaotic world in order. I had worked in a bookstore before. I knew bookstores like the palm of my hand. Name a facet of the business and I’d been doing it since before I learned to walk.
So he hired me: For $40 a week I worked 50+ hours. To begin with Izzy, my boss, had his own ideas about business procedure. When we got an order with a check, why he’d cash the check. Sometimes he’d send the books, you had a 50-50 chance, but if you sent the check you had a 100% chance he’d cash it. It was our most basic and consistent policy; we always cashed the checks.
I spent the first week making files. There were two files: one for bills and one for irate letters. Everything was either a bill or a letter from someone in Omaha who’d sent a check for $5 and two books about nine months ago and still hadn’t gotten his books and this was his sixth letter.
I would arrange the letters in order (we never threw anything away so all the irate letters were still there). Letter #1 one would start off a little puzzled…. perhaps the books had gone astray? But by letter #6 they’d read… “You are a cheap crook. Don’t send the books. Send me back my money.”
In my desire to square accounts I wasn’t too particular about what went out. I remember the one from a buyer in Kalamazoo who had written us a record number of fourteen letters.
Letter fifteen was anguish itself: He now had 4 copies of Pete Seeger’s Banjo Method, 3 copies of Ewan MacColl and 2 of Lead Belly, when what he really wanted was 1 Seeger Guitar Method, 1 Irish Songs of Resistance, and 1 Old English Ballads. He would however be willing to trade.
As part of my duties I was assigned the telephone. There was a long list of people for whom Izzy was NOT IN. He was most particularly NOT IN to the bank, the telephone company, the rent collector or the city marshal. If a check bounced it was a “horrible mistake” and the world was “persecuting” him. There was one week we did not bounce a single check; it was a real occasion for celebration.
Izzy ran his shop on the theory it was a club. It was there so he could see all his friends and talk to them and find out what was going on. He ran his shop so all his friends would know where to find him. He would be at the shop.
He envisioned his position as one of leader, friend, mentor and valiant fighter for Right and Justice. If you worked for him you knew that your employer was Friend of the Underdog, Seer of Future Things to Come, Prophet Without Honor in His Own Time. In short you were working for a Social Institution and it is a well known fact that Social Institutions do not have pay their bills like other people.