Half a century before Occupy Wall Street, young protesters occupied Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. Like OWS, they ended up clashing with the police. Unlike OWS so far, their protest produced a small but practical and lasting change.
In the spring of 1961, the Washington Square Association, a community group of homeowners around the square, appealed to New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation to do something about the hundreds of “roving troubadours and their followers” playing music around the square’s turned-off fountain on Sunday afternoons. They were mostly college kids, playing guitars and banjos and singing folk songs. The practice had started in the post-war years, when Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger planted the seeds of the folk musical revival in the Village. By 1961 it had grown enough that both the police and the neighbors found the “troubadours” and the tourists they attracted a nuisance. In his posthumously-published memoir, Dave Van Ronk recalls that there were various cliques in the park: a Zionist group singing and dancing “Hava Nagila,” Stalinists, bluegrass fans, folk traditionalists. Black journalist John A. Williams reported that the locals’ complaints were not really musical but social: “In the ensuing meetings with city officials, it became apparent that what was opposed was not so much folk singing as the increasing presence of mixed couples in the area, mostly Negro men and white women.” In the late 1950s the parks commission began issuing permits to limit the number of musicians, allowing them to “sing and play from two until five as long as they had no drums,” Van Ronk writes. This “kept out the bongo players. The Village had bongo players up the wazoo… and we hated them. So that was some consolation.” He doesn’t mention that those bongo-players were very often black. This racial aspect had an old historical precedent in Greenwich Village. In 1819, white residents of the area complained “of being much annoyed by certain persons of color practising as Musician with Drums and other instruments through the Village.”
In 1961 the parks commissioner responded to the complaints by refusing to issue any permits at all. Izzy Young of the Folklore Center and others organized a peaceful protest demonstration. On Sunday, April 9, 1961, a few hundred young people gathered, attracting a few hundred more spectators. Among the latter was eighteen-year-old Dan Drasin, a mild-mannered kid who liked to hang out in the park. He brought one of the big, boxy film cameras of the era and documented the afternoon in a short black-and-white film, Sunday. The film shows clean-cut college and high school kids, many of the girls in Jackie O hairdos and heels, many of the boys looking like the young Allen Ginsbergs with serious, sensitive, owlish faces behind heavy black-framed glasses. They carry hand-written placards and cardboard guitars and argue with the dozens of beefy, florid-faced cops who’ve shown up. Izzy Young, also bespectacled and in jacket and tie, lectures the cops about the constitutional right to make music as the kids sit in a circle in the dry fountain and sing “This Land Is Your Land” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As protests go it all looks low-key and polite. Then paddy wagons arrive and the cops haul off one nebbishy young man cradling an autoharp, pushing him into a prowl car. According to Drasin, most of the singers and musicians had left the park, leaving the few hundred spectators loitering around the fountain, when the cops’ tempers finally boiled over. They wade into the crowd, shoving boys and girls to the ground, mauling them, dragging a handful into the paddy wagons. Reportedly they knocked some heads with their clubs, although it’s not shown in the film. The whole event, Drasin says, lasted maybe two hours.
The next day, the New York Daily Mirror, the conservative Hearst tabloid, ran a giant war-is-over front page headline, “3000 BEATNIKS RIOT IN VILLAGE.” Other local papers followed suit. That week’s Voice scoffed at the Mirror’s “hysterical” coverage, wondering if there were three thousand beatniks in the entire country that Sunday, let alone in Washington Square Park. By May, the outrage caused by the cops’ overreaction forced the city to back down and issue permits, a practice that continues to this day.
Among the protesters hauled off that day was the Village character H. L. “Doc” Humes, identified in the Mirror as a “scofflaw” and the “mob leader.” Humes was a gregarious polymath, a novelist and raconteur, co-founder of The Paris Review, designer of cheap housing made from old newspapers, director of a lost film updating the Don Quixote story as Don Peyote, LSD pioneer with Timothy Leary, later helper to Norman Mailer when he ran for mayor in 1969, later still a paranoid drug casualty who believed UFOs, CIA and the Pope in Rome were out to get him. He would not have been a stranger to the cops in the park that day. Just a few months earlier, he’d had a very public spat with Police Commissioner Stephen Kennedy.
It started in October 1960, when cops shut down a performance by Lord Buckley at the Jazz Gallery in the East Village. Lord Buckley was a stately man with sleek gray hair and a pointy Daliesque mustache, who often performed in a tux and orated in a plummy, faux-British voice, seeming every bit the vaudeville and burlesque master of ceremonies he once was. But what came out of his mouth was pure hepcat jive he’d learned from the jazz musicians and pot-smokers with whom he’d associated since the 1930s. In the 1950s he started to recast biblical stories, historical texts like the Gettysburg Address, and Shakespeare in White Negro proto-rap: “Hipsters, flipsters and finger-poppin’ daddies, knock me your lobes. I came here to lay Caesar out, not to hip you to him.” It sounds like novelty schtick today, but in Eisenhower’s America there was something inherently subversive about a man who looked like the maitre d’ at a fancy restaurant jiving like a viper. “His Royal Hipness” had a lot of fans and friends downtown, where he performed and hung out whenever he was in New York.
The cops halted Buckley’s gig because of a problem with his cabaret card. Since 1941, anyone who worked in a New York City nightclub, from performers to the hat check girl and the busboys, had to get fingerprinted and carry a picture ID card. If you had any police record, you couldn’t have a card, which meant you couldn’t work. It was intended to weed the Mob out of the nightclub business, but it could be disastrous for performers. Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker all had their cards yanked for drug violations; Lenny Bruce lost his because of an obscenity conviction; exotic dancer Sally Rand, refused a card in 1947 because the cops thought her fan dance too risqué, took the NYPD to court over it and won. Buckley lost his because he’d failed to report a pot bust that went back to the 1940s. Without the card, he couldn’t perform in New York City, including a scheduled appearance on his old friend Ed Sullivan’s tv show (they’d toured together with the USO during the war).
Despondent, Buckley called his pal Humes. Humes talked his Paris Review friend George Plimpton into letting Buckley give a little performance at a party in his Upper East Side apartment, with the idea that Plimpton’s influential crowd might help him get Buckley’s card reinstated. With Village jazzman David Amram at the piano, Buckley went into his schtick. The response was cool. Plimpton’s literary swells had come to sip cocktails and talk about themselves, not listen to Village-y jazzbo jive. Buckley the old vaudevillian worked hard to win them over, pulling out bit after bit, overstaying his unwelcome. As the crowd grew increasingly bored and angry, Norman Mailer started heckling. Amram remembers that Buckley finally gave up, then “came over to the piano and whispered in my ear, ‘Let’s split and get out of here, man.’”
It turned out to be Lord Buckley’s farewell performance. He died of a stroke shortly afterwards, at the age of fifty-four. Art D’Lugoff offered the use of the Village Gate for a memorial service, at which Ornette Coleman and Dizzy Gillespie played for a large crowd of Buckley’s friends and admirers. He was laid to out at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel on the Upper East Side, New York’s funeral home to the stars. (Rudolph Valentino, John Lennon, Jackie Onassis, Nikola Tesla, James Cagney, Igor Stravinsky, Norman Mailer, Heath Ledger, Judy Garland and Candy Darling were all laid out there.)
Humes, Mailer, Amram and others then started a public campaign to end the cabaret card system. Humes charged that police harassment had killed Buckley, and claimed that if Buckley had only slipped the right cop a hundred bucks the whole thing would have been settled under the table. That enraged Commissioner Kennedy, who retaliated by tossing Humes in jail for unpaid parking tickets and ordering up the biggest crackdown on cabarets and nightclubs in years, sending cops to more than 1200 venues looking for non-card-carrying workers. But this protest worked as well. Kennedy was sacked for his overreaction, and though it took another seven years, the cabaret card system was eventually abolished.
by John Strausbaugh