“You suggested we meet in the old Joshua’s (now Allison’s Restaurant)? That was one of my first venues here. It was 1973, 74 right in there, when we were really getting going,” says Marc Black. The singer, songwriting performer and I are sitting outdoors at the Garden Café in Woodstock, reminiscing about life in this here Artists’ Colony some 50 years ago. Codgers, he calls us, as we set the scene for a concert on the Village Green at 3 p.m. Saturday, September 23 featuring his band, with Sabrina and the Gems opening. At that event, Marc, who has played perhaps 1000 benefit shows over the decades, and maybe more, will be honored for that work by receiving a Key to Woodstock, an acknowledgement of his generosity and community participation.
“Michael (Esposito) and Betty (MacDonald) and I used to play at Joshua’s. Michael built a little stage, I think it was four feet by four feet, we were jammed in a little corner there, and people were lined out the door…it was very exciting. It was the big time. When I started, there was no upstairs. In fact, there was a little alleyway, which is now gone. They were going to remodel and put in an upstairs and they were taking out the front door, it was a Dutch door, but it was going away because they built a different opening. I often would play just for the door, so I said, ‘Joshua, I want to play for the door tonight…’ He says yeah…I said, no, I want the door, and I took it home. And it became the door to the cabin I built in Riverby…”
The Key To Woodstock, (some call it a Key to the City, which of course, Woodstock is not) is a beautiful work of art fashioned by Rennie Cantine, and has been bestowed on a few artists and contributors to the community irregularly over the years by an unofficial committee of fluctuating personnel. Town supervisor Bill McKenna will present the Key. Attendance at the concert and presentation is free.
For decades, if a community member was in need of a helping hand, Marc Black was the essential Woodstock go-to guy, always willing to lend a song, or a set or a whole concert.
“I’ve always felt that benefits were part of the musician’s job description” Marc says. “Gilles (Malkine) did a cartoon once, a couple of guys sitting at a table like this, trying to get people to register to vote, and nobody is showing up, and one says, ‘Maybe if we get Marc Black down here for an hour or two…’
“I had a record deal with RCA in the early 1970s that fell through, and I was kind of despondent. And I remember, one morning I woke up and said to my girlfriend, I know what I want to do. I want to have a band that is about this town…I want to write songs that people will dance to, that are about them. It was clear, an inspiration that I had. Playing benefits was just part of being woven into the culture of the town.”
Asked how many he might have played, he surmised, “I would say, I played an average of two or three a month for all these years.”
Rennie Cantine tells a little of the history of the Key presentation.
“I was at a Ramble (at Levon Helm’s studio) and I saw a picture of Muddy Waters getting the Key to the City…He was here doing a recording with Happy and Artie and Butterfield and all those guys, and somebody decided to give Muddy Waters the Key to the City. I think he was the first one, around 1977. They went out on the green and gave him the big To-Do,” says Cantine. “I saw the picture and I pulled Barbara O’Brien (who was instrumental in production of Levon’s Midnight Rambles in the first decade of this century) aside and said we should do it again, we should give Levon the Key to the City. So that led to Levon coming to the Green, and it was one of the favorite days of my life. We gave Levon the Key to the City and had Levon Helm Day. We had a bunch of bigwigs, legislators, Maurice Hinchey was there. Levon pulled up in a Cadillac and was like, ‘what’s going on here?’ It was such a beautiful surprise…”
Cantine made the key off of a template of one of Levon’s mandolins.
“Jeremy (Wilber, then town supervisor) said, let’s do this again. So we gave it to Happy and Artie Traum (posthumously, to Artie). And it just kind of took off from there.”
Other recipients have included Cindy Cashdollar; Jack DeJohnette; Neal Smoller of the Village Apothecary, and one went to Rennie himself. The one for Marc Black is the first not to be a surprise.
“In relation to this award,” says Marc,“I’m pretty clear about what I’ve done with my life…this is what I’ve done with my life…being a musician here, my sense of place.I had those years of doing house concerts across the country, scoring commercials and films and I always carried what I learned here and the times I was here, with me. They made me a different person. It’s very rewarding to me to be recognized for having given my heart and soul. It’s not about how many strings you broke…I tried most times to be intimate with the audience, to be in it.”
More reminiscences spill out, along with names of venues long gone — Joyous Lake, 5 Rock City Road, the Oh My Café, Café Espresso…
“My favorite club was the White Water depot, hands down…The entire building would shake. We used to do schtick there — once we got together with some people there and built a huge papier mâchédragon and brought it to the parking lot and put it on top of a huge bonfire, and when it was time for the show we lit it and smoke and sparks came out of the dragon’s mouth for a long time and then it exploded…
“This was my world and it seemed so big. I look back on it and say how did I keep myself entertained here…my parents were freaked out…I graduated from Colgate University Phi Beta Kappa and they said, you’re doing what? My first summer here when I had a band with Jimmy Weider and George Quinn, I went around to all the stores on this street, starting where Joshua’s was to where Duey’s (now Pearl Moon) was and said I’ll sweep in front of your store twice a week for a dollar. I would come into town at six o’clock in the morning on Monday and Thursday and I had a broom called the black beauty and I swept the entire street all summer long. I was living in a barn up on Cooper Lake Road that had no walls, just a huge roof so I never got wet. I had a sleeping bag on some hay. I had a rocking chair, a tambura, my guitar, my dog and some dog food. To bathe, I would jump into Cooper Lake, don’t tell anyone. That was my world. And it seemed fine, seemed huge. The fifty dollars a week I was rustling up was plenty somehow. How was that possible? We were young and making magic. We weren’t worried about it. My parents were freaked out. You’re doing what? Sweeping the streets? What?”
Marc and his wife Susan have raised two boys in and around Woodstock. True to form, music is central to both sons. Jeremy lives in Berlin and is an electronic music composer and performer. Jaime, Marc and Susan’s other son, lives in Topanga Canyon and deals with grooming and training dogs. He also has a punk band. Marc has done shows with both of them.
Over the years, Marc’s Woodstock shows have always been with Michael Esposito on bass, as will this one. Personnel has remained constant, though the band did mourn the passing of violinist Betty MacDonald and pianist Warren Bernhardt. For the Key concert, Harvey Sorgen will be on drums and Don Davis on saxophone. Others may join in.
“It’s a free concert, Saturday September 23 at 3 p.m. on the Village Green,” says Marc.
“Of course, the first thing you think of when somebody says we’d like to give you the Key to the City, is, they probably have the wrong number…you don’t expect it.
“So I looked up on line when they gave the key to Cindy Cashdollar, and it said in the article something about a committee that met every couple of years and decided on who they thought had given a lot to the town, and it related (mostly) to music. I don’t think the criteria is iron clad…maybe people who play at least three songs in E-flat…that would leave me out although I got two in A-flat…”