By Jason M. Rubin
At a time when a number of established music venues in the Boston area have closed, Club Passim continues to thrive, thanks to the loyal grassroots support it has enjoyed over six decades.
Though Boston seems to have a perpetual chip on its shoulder when it compares itself to other American cities, the truth is our region can boast some of the finest and most influential institutions found anywhere. Our universities and hospitals are world-class, of course, but we also have one of the world’s greatest concert halls (Symphony Hall) and without question the greatest NFL franchise of them all. But at a much smaller — yet no less impactful — scale, the folk music world over the last 60 years has seen few venues that rival Cambridge’s intimate Club Passim in featuring and nurturing the brightest lights in folk.
Founded in 1958 as Club 47 (befitting its original address at 47 Mount Auburn Street), Club Passim (renamed some years ago from just Passim, as a nod to its roots) is celebrating its 60th anniversary with a massive, star-studded bash at the Shubert Theatre in Boston on Thursday, November 14. On the bill are Patty Griffin, Josh Ritter, and Dar Williams, with special guests Peter Wolf (J. Geils Band), Sol y Canto with Alisa Amador, and singer-songwriter Rose Cousins.
And, to put this event over the top, the legendary Joan Baez (whose history with the club goes back to its earliest days) will be on hand to present the Passim Lifetime Achievement Award to Betsy Siggins, a founding member of Club 47 who returned to Passim in 1997 and served as its executive director for 12 years.
Says Matt Smith, managing director of Club Passim since 1997, “The original Club 47 opened right at the dawn of the big folk boom of the late ’50s and early ’60s. There was a critical mass of young people in the area who were interested in the history of folk music, and it became the place in the Boston area to go. Baez was a huge part of what got that going, playing here as a teenager. It was a place where the older artists could get rediscovered and the newer artists could get their start.”
After the founders of Club 47 turned the reins over to new owners Bob and Rae Ann Donlin in the late ’60s, the name changed but the venue’s values didn’t. Artists who have performed there over the decades include Baez, Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, Joni Mitchell, Chris Smither, Suzanne Vega, Jackson Browne, Nanci Griffith, Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, and Ellis Paul. It may have been a “folk” club, but blues legends such as Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, and Elvin Bishop played there as well.
Now deceased, the Donlins sold Passim in 1995 and it currently runs as a nonprofit, still providing a stage and an audience for new generations of artists to develop their craft and find their voice. Former patron Smith recalls, “When I first started coming here, it was still privately owned by the Donlins. I went to shows all the time. When it closed down, I was heartbroken. Then it reopened as a nonprofit, and when they asked for volunteer help I signed up right away. I never would have suspected I would one day be running the club and doing all the booking.”
Today, “Club Passim” is the name of the venue and “Passim” is the name of the umbrella nonprofit organization, which also offers a music school, artist grants, and outreach programs. By the way, there are those who insist the name is pronounced PASSim, while others contend it is PassEEM. According to Smith, who prefers the latter, they are both acceptable.
Proceeds from this concert will benefit all of Passim’s activities. At a time when a number of established music venues in the Boston area have closed, Passim continues to thrive, thanks to the loyal grassroots support it has enjoyed over six decades.
“When you have a community,” observes Smith, “the community will take care of itself.”
There are also a limited number of VIP tickets that include premium seating and a preshow reception. For tickets, go to www.passim.org or call the Boch Center Box Office at 866.348.9738.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 33 years, the last 18 of which as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for The Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, combines in a single volume an updated version of his first novel with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, depicting the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.