A bit of history, alive and singing
You’ve never heard of one of the most important people in history. Probably. A tiny percentage of the people who read this article will recognize the name Jackie Washington (though some of those might be thinking of one of the two other semi-famous Jackie Washingtons). The Jackie Washington I’m talking about is performing at Nighttown on Nov. 11, which I find amazing, because he's historic, and because it is such a rare appearance.
Here’s why, in a ridiculously simplified overview, I think Jackie Washington is historically significant: The late-'50s and early-to-mid-'60s folk music scene encompassed the Folk Revival and the original singer-songwriter movements. Following the Kingston Trio’s million-selling single “Tom Dooley,” on Capital Records, which took everyone by surprise in 1958, all of the other labels signed a few folk artists, hoping to cash in on what they determined was a folk music fad. There were some smaller, newer labels at that time who did believe that folk was here to stay—most notably Folkways, Elektra and Vanguard—and signed artists who were good, and not necessarily potential commercial successes.
Jackie Washington was one of those who signed with Vanguard Records. But why was that so important? Because several things happened to come together right at that time: The Baby Boomers had reached high school and college age; they had spending money; rock music was becoming insipid (between the first wave of rock pioneers and the Beatles) and many Boomers were looking for something more substantial; radio was now a big deal, with millions of (mostly Boomer) listeners; records were selling in the millions; and, at the same time, there were suddenly a lot of burgeoning social movements—including anti-war, civil rights, women’s, ecology, Native American, and others—and folk music was a great way to impart messages about those movements.
So, what about Jackie Washington? Well, though there have been musicians throughout history who have written and sung message songs—like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie in the 1940s—the songs were heard by relatively small numbers of people, who may have heard the songs only once or twice. But in the '60s—when Bob Dylan, and Tom Paxton (who has written, I’d guess, at least a half-dozen songs you’ve heard), Phil Ochs (the country’s most prolific '60s protest-song writer), Buffy St. Marie (who wrote everything from Native-American message songs to hits by Elvis Presley and others) and several more singer-songwriters sang their topical songs (and Joan Baez, Judy Collins and many others also performed those songs)—for the first time in history millions of people could hear them, and could own the records on which they appeared.
Oh, yeah—Washington: So, when Dylan, Paxton, Ochs and all the others were kids just starting out in the music business and trying to get gigs at Club 47 (the heart of the singer-songwriter movement) in Cambridge, Mass., and in the Greenwich Village folk clubs, there were already a few folk singers playing in those clubs—performers like Carolyn Hester, Bob Gibson, Dave Von Ronk, Eric Von Schmidt and Jackie Washington. And it was they who taught and inspired those kids, who, of course, became much better known than their mentors.
So because Washington, one of the most popular early-'60s performers at the legendary Club 47, was among those who mentored Dylan and his peers, and because Dylan et al helped, probably more than any other single way, to disseminate the messages about the important movements of the time, and because those movements changed the world, then Washington is one of the most important people in history.
But I can’t blame you for not being aware of him. He recorded four albums in the 1960s, but they have not been reissued on CD, so they’re rare. Washington, who was born Juan Candido Washington y Landrón in 1938, in Puerto Rico, and grew up in Boston, has mainly worked as an actor, in movies and on stage and TV, using the name Jack Landrón, since the '60s.
In 2012, he released his first album in 45 years, Curbside Cotillion, also under that name. When you see him at Nighttown, you’ll be watching a bit of history.
Jackie Washington; Nighttown, 12387 Cedar Road, Cleveland Heights; Nov. 11, 7 p.m.; tickets are $20; http://www.instantseats.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=buy.event&eventID=CB9D1B69-0D41-AE74-EF34B67B6724ECD8.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.