Welcome to the “Church of Folk Music”

Marblehead’s Me&Thee brought coffeehouses to houses of worship

When people call Boston the folk music capital of the country, they don’t exactly mean Boston. For more than 50 years, this region has been a nurturing sanctuary for folk music, and the action these days is mostly in the suburbs. There are a few important urban clubs, notably the indestructible Club Passim in Cambridge, and a steady stream of major concerts; but no area in the country can match the array of folk clubs that dot Boston’s suburbs.

David Tamulevich, who covers New England for Fleming-Tamulevich and Associates, the largest folk management agency in the country, estimates that more than 200 Greater Boston venues offer folk music, all but a handful in the suburbs.

The heart of this grass-roots folk boom is a thoroughly New England phenomenon called the church coffeehouse.

The modern folk revival can be traced to the growth in the early 1980s of small clubs, run by volunteers, driven by community based audiences indifferent to the latest pop trends, and fueled by performers who eschew the bright lights of pop stardom for the living room closeness of the coffeehouse.

But the granddaddy of them all, and model for most, is the 28-year-old Me&Thee Coffeehouse at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Marblehead. Nearly every story about how a new coffeehouse was started begins, “First we went to Me&Thee to see how they do it.”

Anthony Silva, a familiar New England presence as business editor for WBZ radio and reporter for Channel 4, founded Me&Thee in 1970 at the beginning of what he calls “the great folk drought.”

“There were a few little clubs left down on Charles Street,” he recalled. “Passim and the Nameless were just getting started, but there was just nothing out in the ’burbs. The few church coffeehouses there had been, like the King’s Rook in Ipswich and the Adam’s Rib in Lynn, had closed. Even the few small clubs left were going rock. There was lots of good folk music going on, but very few small, attainable rooms.”

Silva had no trouble persuading the congregation, of which he was a member, to take a chance on a coffeehouse. After all, the parish hall installed around the turn of the century was fitted with a stage and brocade curtain to house a theater troupe. There is a long tradition of cultural activity at the church; in fact, it still hosts the Marblehead Summer Jazz Festival.

But on Friday nights, it reprises its role as one of the most storied and respected acoustic venues in the country, and that’s not overstating one whit the stature of Me&Thee in the folk world. Apart from being the flagship for the local coffeehouse revival, it is revered as one of the few stages that kept the folk flames fanned during the disco-driven ’70s and MTV-happy early ’80s.

It is the very model of the modern folk club, living-room comfy and front-porch social, yet a first-rate and keenly professional listening room.

A major misconception about these church coffeehouses is that they are second-rate venues featuring beginning or over-the-hill acts. While most of today’s biggest folk pop stars — from Suzanne Vega to Shawn Colvin to Dar Williams — cut their musical teeth at local church coffeehouses, most of the artists who headline these coffeehouses have fashioned careers designed for the small stages. These venues are where they feel this most personal of music forms, which has its roots in family kitchens and hearthsides, is best displayed.

Beth Sargent, who, with her husband, Jim, runs the 15-year-old Homegrown coffeehouse at First Parish Church in Needham, has boned up on the history. The word “parish,” which is part of so many church names here, was meant in Colonial times to denote that the church also functioned as the town hall, she said.

In areas more recently settled, such as the Midwest, the church was the one place people could go to celebrate not just their religion, but their ethnic or racial identity. They are regarded as more private places, and attempts to open coffeehouses, even at Unitarian churches known for their secular outreach, often fail.

“The parish hall was where a lot of civic and secular work got done,” Sargent said, “so there’s a long history in New England of viewing churches as secular community spaces. I would say, in 15 years, we have had maybe two people for whom coming to the coffeehouse became an entree to joining the church. It’s just not that feeling; people think of the coffeehouse as a performance space. Everything is designed to make it feel inviting and welcoming to a general public.”

Most halls are simply rented at bare-bones cost to volunteer committees which usually, but not always, include church members.

Canadian singer-songwriter Garnet Rogers, a folk star in Canada, has repeatedly rebuffed serious offers from major record labels preferring to release CDs on his own Snow Goose Records and to steer his career down the smaller, slower roads that lead to homey venues like the Me&Thee, which he’s played many times.

Rogers revels in the up-close immediacy of church coffeehouses, most of which have audiences of 125 to 175.

“Generally, for me, I walk in around 5 o’clock,” he said, “and the first volunteers are opening the place up. One of the things I really like about these church coffeehouses is the volunteer aspect; this is part of their social life, they’ve given up an evening out of their week to make this hall someplace I can play.

“It’s like watching a National Geographic special, all these army ants come in with baked goods and coffee and chairs and tables, table cloths, sometimes candles. A stage gets set up, a sound system, usually a tapestry with the coffeehouse name hanging behind the mikes. I watch this big, empty church hall turn into a nice little folk club right before my eyes.”

It takes a special kind of performer to work these rooms, one who thrives on spontaneity, happy to discard the greatest-hits list and wrap the evening around moments of surprise and discovery. They are what audiences come for, those off-script, in-the-moment moments that make coffeehouse shows so memorable, and that so perfectly suit the honest charms of folk music.

“We should have a little sign on the door that says, “Prima donnas need not apply,” said Silva. “We look for a person, first of all, who can relate to an audience. I think a lot of the performers come here for the give-and-take; they know the audience is going to get involved in the show. There’s an electricity in the air when a show starts, an apprehension from the audience and the performer that something fresh and special is going to happen here. And it always does.”

Most church coffeehouses draw heavily from the local community, with ages ranging from teenagers to seniors. Their season runs from September to June.

Tom Nelligan of Waltham works as an applications engineer for Panametrics and has been a habitue of the coffeehouse world for more than 10 years. He thinks little of traveling an hour from home if he knows he will catch a favorite performer in a good coffeehouse setting.

Nelligan says he loves the social informality of the church coffeehouse. What draws him to folk music is a sense of genuine emotional connection, he says, whether it’s a traditional song that has had enough to say to people that they have passed it down from generation to generation or a contemporary song by a writer striving for that same intimate communication.

For many, the fame of the artist is secondary to the social aspect of the evening. Most church coffeehouses have intermissions lasting up to an hour, while people mill around, chatting and munching home-baked pastries, sipping coffee, tea and cider. Nearly all, are alcohol- and smoke-free, valued as friendly, nonthreatening places to go alone, as a couple or in groups. The etiquette is that people can be as social or as private as they please.

Silva said Mugford Street was originally named Meeting House Lane, because the Unitarian Church was also Marblehead’s community hall. While Me&Thee is certainly a secular club, he does see some similarities between it and the church.

“Unitarian churches have what’s called a free pulpit, and that’s what a coffeehouse is,” he said. “It encourages an exchange of ideas. We feel the audience is there to be intellectually stimulated, and to share the experience together. In our culture, we too often have snort of a ‘me and they attitude,’ as opposed to ‘me and thee.’ The idea behind the name was to underline the fact that we saw people as individuals.

“I think maybe coffeehouses are among the last bastions of the simpler existence. The music is acoustic, it’s a simpler environment with homemade food. You look at the presentation of almost any other art today, and it’s getting more and more complicated, more and more driven by technology. That separates people from the experience, rather than bringing them into it.”

Rogers said: “If you look at the demographic of who goes to the church coffeehouse, they tend to be people who are leading a more examined lifestyle. They’re people who tend to read a lot, are serious about music and involved in their community. They’re looking for something beyond Michael Bolton. You’re free as a performer to express deeper ideas, with people.”

This article originally appeared in the Boston Sunday Globe on September 28, 1997.