Notes From the Underground

Page 6 of 7

Even without a record deal, he would make New York City his home for the next two decades. The heyday of the '60s folk scene in Greenwich Village was long gone, so MacDonald and other struggling artists set about creating their own. Every Monday night a group of songwriters that included Tom Intondi, Lucy Kaplansky, and David Massengill met at the Cornelia Street Café to swap new songs. Out of these weekly hootenannies came an album, Cornelia Street: The Songwriter's Exchange, released in 1980 on Stash Records. It included two songs written and performed by MacDonald. Shortly after the album's release, Stereo Review ran a glowing review, and MacDonald was among those singled out for praise: "Songs not only perceptive and linguistically rich, but touched with grace," the reviewer wrote of his work.

Despite this early success, many of the folkies were finding it difficult to land record deals. In 1982 Jack Hardy suggested they start up a musician-run label. Ten times each year, the label recorded new songs from a dozen different artists. Within two weeks each recording was on the streets for a price of just $2. The idea was to get the music into consumers' hands as quickly as possible, so the label was called Fast Folk.

Just as Fast Folk was getting started, the Speakeasy opened on MacDougal Street. Like the record label, the folk club was run by musicians for musicians. Many of the songwriters who laid down tracks for Fast Folk performed at the Speakeasy. MacDonald lived across the street from the club, and for much of the early and mid-'80s he was in charge of booking the venue. Mark Dann, who's worked with MacDonald as a musician and a producer for the last two decades, recalls that MacDonald was the first person to offer a little-known folksinger named Suzanne Vega a booking. "Before that," Dann says, "no one would give her a gig."

Artists who honed their chops in this thriving scene are legion. Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, John Gorka, Lyle Lovett, and Vega all worked with Fast Folk prior to becoming household names. Countless lesser-known musicians made their first (and often last) recordings on Fast Folk. The venture eventually became known as Fast Folk Musical Magazine, which published interviews and articles and released albums.

The movement reached an initial peak of respectability in 1984, when the first Fast Folk Revue took place at the Bottom Line. The then-decade-old Greenwich Village club had several times the capacity of the Speakeasy and was known for hosting notable artists like Bruce Springsteen. Among the relative unknowns performing that night were Vega, Kaplansky, and Christine Lavin. Near the end of the first set, MacDonald delivered a gripping rendition of his song "American Jerusalem," a stark meditation on urban life:

Oh, I been around

you could spend forever looking for a friend

in this town

and all you get to do is lay your dollar down

'til you're stumbling drunk up the stairs again

and the sign says,

"Welcome to American Jerusalem."

MacDonald was backed by a stellar band consisting of guitarist, bass player, and drummer. "I don't even think we rehearsed," he notes, "which makes it all that much more startling that it was as good as it was."

Richard Meyer, former editor of Fast Folk Musical Magazine, says the performance of "American Jerusalem" became a defining moment for the Fast Folk scene. "There was just a feeling in the room that something serious was happening," he says. "People realized that they had made a step up from being around the corner, at the Speakeasy."

Dann, who played bass on "American Jerusalem" that evening, recalls MacDonald saying afterward that it was "the greatest moment of his life."

"I remember it being a very magic moment," MacDonald notes. "I got that feeling as much from the performers backstage after it was over as from the audience. People were hugging me and saying, 'You really did it, Rod, you showed 'em we can do this.'"

Fast Folk stopped producing albums last year, after more than 15 years, but the Bottom Line shows continue to take place annually. The entire catalog of Fast Folk recordings was recently donated to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings to be remastered on compact disc. By the end of this year, more than 100 Fast Folk compilations will be available for purchase.

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko