By Steve Gilford – At Yale, I was part of a student group made up of people who were passionate about traditional music. We formed a group with an unusual goal – to put on concerts in Yale’s 2400 seat Woolsey Hall auditorium that we rented, and to make money on them. We had performers like Theodore Bikel (he introduced us to his protégée, Odetta Felios – that was a powerful voice), Cynthia Gooding, Rambling Jack Elliot, and I think we put on the New Lost City Ramblers. The one sure moneymaker was Pete Seeger. We could sell out the auditorium twice a year if we could get Pete Seeger. The purpose of these concerts was to raise money for a special once a year weekend, a folk music festival, free to all participants.
For this big free weekend, we would invite both well known and the not so well known but terrific musicians to join us. Even the beer was free. Literally, we could sit and talk with people like Fiddler Beers and Blind Rev. Gary Davis. I had never seen a psaltery before and Fiddler showed me how it was built, how it was tuned, played and told me the story of how it came West in a covered wagon with his family.
Judy Collins also came at least one year. She was already starting to make a name for herself. Listening to someone that beautiful sing so beautifully was really special. I later found out that Bob Dylan had been there, but he was only just beginning to make a name for himself and I have no memory of him there. He was still singing folk songs and even his admirers have to admit that singing is not his forte, but that his original songs are what would win him worldwide fame.
Getting Pete Seeger meant dealing with Manny Greenhill, his manager. Manny was tough but was really good for the talent he handled all over the country.
One time we approached Manny wanting Pete Seeger because we were otherwise going to be a little short on the money we would have for our Spring Folk Retreat that year. When we called Manny, it turned into “Let’s Make a Deal”. Yes, we could have Peter, IF! The “if” was that we had to also take a young singer Manny was handling. We had to give her her own concert, and there were some stipulations about how much publicity we had to do for it, but if we would agree we could have Pete Seeger, and he would charge us very little for the young folk singer that he was adding on because, as he explained, he wanted her to have the experience of playing in a large hall.
You’ve probably figured out already that this was Joan Baez.
I hadn’t met her yet. I was up in the balcony checking on the follow spot. I’d finished and was down in the orchestra seats waiting with the rest of the audience for the concert to begin. I don’t think there was one person in a hundred in the hall who had any idea of what to expect. Someone who knew Manny pointed out Joan’s father, mother, and sister in the audience. Because it didn’t make any difference at the time, I don’t know which sister this was. It might have been Mimi, who was to have her own musical career. Only later did I realize that her family must have thought this was very important because we were on the East Coast and I believe her father was teaching at Stanford. I think they must have been very proud and wanted to be with her when she took her first step out of tiny coffee houses where the audience is numbered in the tens to a small auditorium where the numbers are in the thousands.
Then Joan appeared. She stepped out on the stage and I remember my first reaction. It was electric – all these thoughts hit me simultaneously. “That long hair is beautiful”, “She looks so tiny all alone on that big stage”, “What a beautiful voice”, and “She’s barefoot.” Somehow the lack of shoes made her look even more vulnerable. When she began to sing, I think most of us fell in love on the spot. Remember, this was at pre-co-ed Yale. The concert was a great success.
Manny charged us $50 for that Baez concert. We brought her back several more times in the next two or three years. The Baez popularity had begun. Her records were selling well and Manny’s price went up to over $2,000 or 40 times what she made at the first concert. Not only was she a terrific singer, she had a great manager.