Betsy Siggins on running Club 47, and hanging out with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez

An excerpt from Friends and Other Strangers: Bob Dylan Examined by Harold Lepidus

Friends and Other Strangers Bob Dylan Examined Book eBook
Bob Dylan Book_Amazon Rating

Betsy Siggins’ Boston University freshman roommate was Joan Baez. Her first husband was a member of the Charles River Valley Boys. She hung out with Bob Dylan in Cambridge and New York, had the Rev. Gary Davis sleep on her couch, and ran Cambridge’s legendary Club 47.

Betsy Minot Siggins has lived a full life, a testament to the ideals of the 1960s folk movement. During her two decades away from the Boston area, she worked for nonprofit organizations where she fed the hungry, then founded programs for homeless people with AIDS. Now she’s back in Massachusetts where she has founded the New England Folk Archives, and recently appeared in the documentary, For The Love Of The Music – the Club 47 Folk Revival.

“I was into folk music a little early,” Siggins told me recently over the phone. “I went to a small artistic school (Cherry Lawn) in Connecticut, with a class of about 12 people. Most were theater-bound, writing bound, music bound. I was a high school sophomore, and the Weavers were getting heard on the radio. There were the Everly Brothers, with a hint of R&B. I also overdosed on Gilbert and Sullivan as a teenager.”

Siggins was also influenced by her stepmother, a classical pianist, and the far away, flickering signals from the West Virginia country music station WWVA.

“They were my musical bookends,” she said. When she arrived at B.U., Siggins’ roommate was a young, aspiring folk singer with long, black hair, and the voice of an angel. Her name was Joan Baez.

“We spent a lot of time not paying attention to academics. She had a great wit. We spent time talking about silly things, and we laughed a lot. I was captivated by this inner strength she didn’t know she had, but others saw.”

Siggins started waitressing at the Cafe Yana, then moved over to the Golden Vanity. “Both clubs featured folk music. Cafe Yana was in a tiny basement outside of B.U., while the Golden Vanity was an opened warehouse near the Mass. Pike. Inside was a nautical theme, and there were lofts above that were rented to painters. It was a multicultural hangout.”

One day while working at the Golden Vanity, she met her future husband Bob Siggins of the Charles River Valley Boys. “He probably told me about Club 47. He had funny friends that knew so much about old-timey music. It certainly was an education!”

The couple married in 1960 and spent a year in Europe, along with the other members of the Valley Boys. “I spent my honeymoon with four other guys!” she laughed. “The band played, which paid for booze and food. The boys recorded an album at Dobell’s Record Shop, and all the British folkies came to hang out.”

When the newlyweds returned to the U.S.A., Siggins worked at Club 47, doing whatever needed to be done. “I really liked the community, the camaraderie … That’s when I got my real education, at the cusp of world changes. I do remember it being a turning point in my life. At the beginning, everybody thought (the Vietnam conflict) was a just war. People were brainwashed. Friends went to Canada. There were hard choices, and not a lot of support.”

These were also the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, and Cambridge was not excluded from racist incidents. In fact, Siggins said that someone had to buy a piece of clothing for blues singer Elizabeth Cotten (Freight Train Blues, Shake Sugaree, Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie), because she was unable to do it herself. “Elizabeth Cotten wanted to buy a blouse in a department store in Harvard Square, and they refused to sell it to her,” Siggins told me. “It was like being hit by lightning. Nancy Sweezy, one of the Club’s first board members, had to go in and buy it for her.”

Many of the blues musicians stayed with Siggins because they were not allowed to stay elsewhere. “I had the Rev. Gary Davis sleep on my couch. He never took off his coat. It was like he was always waiting for a train.”

Siggins later divorced, then married Benno Schmidt, the future president of Yale University. She left Boston in 1974 and the couple moved to New York City. “I spent five years being a mom, then ran soup kitchens for hungry and homeless people with AIDS. I worked in East Harlem. There was so much need, never a dull moment. I embraced it completely, worked hard for 12 or 13 years.” Her second marriage ended, and she’s been with her partner Hugh McGraw since 1979, but said, “Two marriages is enough.” The couple moved back to Massachusetts in 1996.

Siggins soon fell in with Club 47 again, just as it was on the brink of folding completely. “They turned it into a non-profit, and I just had 10 to 12 years experience with soup kitchens in New York. I called on a lot of old friends, and tried to turn the ship. There were lots of good feelings from my contemporaries. We had concerts at the Sanders Theater to celebrate Club 47, I was writing grant proposals.

“But after 11 years, after the 2009 crash, four or five of us got laid off. I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ Then a light bulb went off three or four years ago.”

The epiphany came just by looking around her place. “I stared at all these boxes with photographs, and bags with tapes, and realized that what I have is an archive, even though I never thought of that word. I had been working with the Smithsonian, and thought, ‘This could all go in the trash after I die!’ So I started the New England Folk Music Archives.

“We didn’t have any money, but we soon received two grants from the GRAMMY foundation, enough to transfer some reel-to-reel tapes, which were extremely fragile. They’ve been moved to the Harvard (University) Audio Preservation department.

“The Harvard Historical Society partnership was an endorsement that the collection is worthy of living there. I knew enough that the artists would never have an archive of their own, except for the few at the top. It’s for people to see, to document a turning point of this country.”

Siggins now works for a small gallery in Harvard Square, and another in Somerville’s Armory, where there are workshops, salons, and classes that teach the history of music culture in schools. “It’s an easy access to their history. We’ve got over 200 pieces in archival frames, and that’s a pretty big show.”

Back in the day, while the performances were going on at Club 47, the music was often being captured for posterity. “I ended up with all the tapes. Most of the artists were not aware they were being recorded. I have 25 songs of Doc Watson before he ever recorded, some Joan, a few Dylan pieces (from April, 1963) which can be heard in the For The Love Of The Music documentary, with Eric (von Schmidt).

“That movie was a great gift. I sent Todd (Kwait, who, along with Rob Stegman, co-produced and directed the film) an email after seeing his (jug band documentary) Chasin’ Gus’s Ghost. I asked if he would be interested in doing a Club 47 documentary, and he loved the idea. I asked how we would do this, and he said, ‘Let’s get started.’ I thought it would be tough! The film meant a lot to Todd and Rob, and a great deal to me. I think it’s very intimate, and it gave me a clearer vision of my own life.

“We were all 17, 18, 19, at the time … We were all green kids, now we’re the seniors in the group, and have stayed connected through the years. It’s comforting that I’m back in Cotuit, the town I grew up in, and I can call Tom Rush and get an answer.”

Speaking of old friends, Siggigs met up with Dylan after a gig when he played three nights at Boston’s Wang Theatre in 2009. “Maria Muldaur was playing in Cambridge the night before (November 13 at the First Parish Church). I had been at her show, and we were talking about my first exhibit, Forever Young. Then the next day, Maria called and said, ‘You’ll never guess who called?’ Dylan was bored to death (in his hotel room) and called her for some coffee and a chat. He gave her five passes, and we all went. There were two backstage passes, and Maria and I were escorted and told where to stand.

“Dylan saw me, and I said, ‘You know I’m 70!’ He said, ‘No, you’re not!’ We went back and forth, it was as silly as can be. I gave him an ‘Archives Soup Kitchen’ poster. It was as he was leaving, and nothing stops the flow of his moving forward.”

Siggins recalled the time she found something Dylan had left in her apartment back in the 1960s. “He left a draft one night of free flowing poetry that he typed on my typewriter. A copy can be seen at the Cambridge Historical Society.

“Dylan was a funny enigma. He talked about people and life. He was well into who he was going to be, but in such a way we could hang out with him. There was no wall up around him. He and Joan were very funny together! I found him so unique. We went to Washington Square in New York, and he smoked, his leg would be shaking, and he’d talk about Rimbaud. I not sure what he was talking about, but it was cool to listen to.

“He is one of the great wordsmiths,” Siggins said in closing. “People say he’s a recluse, but you don’t need to do everything in public. He’s given so much, and he’s still doing a lot.”