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Izzy Young, Center To The Folk Music Revival, Dies At 90

Feb 8, 2019
Originally published on February 8, 2019 10:27 pm

Izzy Young made his mark as a major force in the folk music scene in New York City starting in the 1950s. Young died Monday, Feb. 4, in Stockholm. He was 90.

Raised in the Bronx, Young was passionate about folk dancing and his dive into folk music followed. "Those folk songs told me about my life," Young said in a 2004 interview from the Museum of Pop Culture archives. "And other people's lives. Stories that I could understand."

In 1957, Young opened the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. It became a magnet for young folkies. Mitch Blank was a regular there when he was a teenager.

"They would come to the Folklore Center as part of a haaj, a pilgrimage in the era when MacDougal Street was, like, the center of the universe," Blank says.

The folkies who showed up included Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Joni Mitchell and the Traum Brothers, Happy and Artie. Happy Traum was in the the Folklore Center on opening day.

"The Folklore Center was kind of like a clubhouse for us," Traum remembers. "It was a place where we could go and hang out, gossip, hear music, jam in the back room. Izzy was very tolerant of all us kids taking instruments off the walls and leafing through magazines without buying them."

Young was also an autocrat who was known to throw people out of the store he found irritating. "Izzy was kind of like the lord of the manor," Traum says. "We learned to love him. He was just such a character and had opinions about everything."

Young convinced the owner of a nearby restaurant to book folk performers in a back room and that space became Folk City, the most influential folk venue in New York. Young staged concerts himself, usually charging $1.50 and splitting the profits with performers. He produced the first New York concerts of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Tim Buckley, who recorded an album at the Folklore Center.

In 1961, New York officials banned music in Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park. Young helped organize a protest, as he told NPR in 2011. "I say, 'OK, now we're going to start singing some folk songs.' And I have everybody singing the 'Star Spangled Banner.' I said, 'They can't hit us on the head while we're doing that,' " Young said.

Young closed the Folklore Center in 1973 and moved to Stockholm, Sweden after becoming enthralled with traditional Swedish fiddle music. He ran that shop and staged concerts until just last year.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A key figure in New York's folk music scene of the 1950s has died. His name was Izzy Young. Bob Dylan wrote in his memoir that Young's store, the Folklore Center, was the citadel of Americana folk music. Young also produced concerts by the likes of Phil Ochs and Jean Ritchie. Reporter Jon Kalish has an appreciation of Izzy Young, who died Monday at the age of 90.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Bob Dylan once described Izzy Young's voice as sounding like a bulldozer. It was a Jewish bulldozer from the Bronx. He first became passionate about folk dancing. His dive into folk music followed. Here's Young in a 2004 interview from the Museum of Pop Culture archive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IZZY YOUNG: Those folk songs told me about my life and other people's lives, stories that I could understand. (Singing) A rich, old woman in our town, in our town did dwell. She loved her husband dearly but another's twice as well. So you get the whole story in 12 words or something.

KALISH: In 1957, Young opened the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. It became a magnet for young folkies, says Mitch Blank, a regular there when he was a teenager.

MITCH BLANK: They would come to the Folklore Center as part of a hajj, a pilgrimage in the era when MacDougal Street was, like, the center of the universe.

KALISH: The folkies who showed up included Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Joni Mitchell and the Traum brothers Happy and Artie. Speaking via Skype, Happy Traum says he was in the Folklore Center on opening day.

HAPPY TRAUM: The Folklore Center was kind of a clubhouse for us. It was a place where we could go and hang out, gossip, hear music, jam in the back room. Izzy was very tolerant of all us kids taking the instruments off the walls and leafing through magazines without buying them.

KALISH: Young was also an autocrat who was known to throw people out of the store he found irritating.

TRAUM: Izzy was kind of like the lord of the manor. We learned to love him. He was just such a character and had opinions about everything.

KALISH: Young convinced the owner of a nearby restaurant to book folk performers in the back room, and that space became Folk City, the most influential folk venue in New York. Young staged concerts himself, usually charging $1.50 and splitting the door with performers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUNG: I wasn't selling anything - no beer, no Coca-Cola. It wasn't comfortable. I had benches that I built myself, and people would get up after two hours, and they would be crippled. And I never ever got a complaint.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM BUCKLEY SONG, "SONG FOR JAINIE")

KALISH: He had a hand in the first New York concerts of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, who drew just 32 people, and Tim Buckley, who recorded an album at the Folklore Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONG FOR JAINIE")

TIM BUCKLEY: (Singing) Got the untortured mind of a woman who has answered all the questions before.

KALISH: In 1961, New York officials banned music in Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park. Izzy Young helped organize a protest, as he told NPR in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

YOUNG: I say, OK, now we're going to start singing some folk songs. And I have everybody singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." I said, they can't hit us on the head while we're doing that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see...

KALISH: Young's friend, Mitch Blank, says there should be a memorial.

BLANK: I propose a statue of Izzy Young in Washington Square Park to commence immediately.

KALISH: Izzy Young closed the Folklore Center in 1973 and moved to Stockholm, Sweden, after becoming enthralled with traditional Swedish fiddle music. He ran that shop and staged concerts until just last year. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONG FOR JAINIE")

BUCKLEY: (Singing) And Jainie, don't you know, I've been tryin'. Jainie, don't you know? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.