Andy's Notes - An Intermittent Article Series

Izzy Young, the New York Folklore Center, and Folklore Centrum

by Andy May
Izzy Young
Photograph by Ray Sullivan. Image Folder 124_03: Photo-Sound Associates photographs, circa 1957-1960 in the Ronald D. Cohen Collection #20239, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A collection of Izzy’s writings.

When I was a teenage musician in NYC in the 1960s, Izzy Young was one of the people who occupied a place pretty much in the center of the folk music world. He owned the Folklore Center, which he had opened in the late ’50s on Macdougal Street. There, he sold a variety of books and LP records embracing a wide range of folk and ethnic music, as well as musical instruments. Izzy was passionate – about folk music, about poetry, about politics, about social justice… about many things. He was also a prolific writer, and his newsletters and columns – in which he voiced his views on musical trends and events, among other things – were published in a variety of magazines. His passion attracted musicians to the Folklore Center, and it became known as a place where you could learn what was happening in the folk music world of NYC and well beyond.

A very young Andy – NY Folklore Center – New York, NY – ca. 1970

By the time I was active in the music scene in the mid-to-late ’60s, Izzy had moved the store a few blocks west to 6th Avenue, and it had become a gathering place, a performance venue, and a musical instrument shop as well. (I bought my first Martin guitar, a 1949 D-28, at Izzy’s shop in 1964!) Izzy had also taken on the role of promoter for musicians whose work he valued. In the early ’60s, he rented a hall and gave a struggling and relatively unknown singer/songwriter named Bob Dylan his first concert opportunity. He did the same for me some nine years later.

My association with Izzy led to me and my band, The Star Spangled String Band, being included in a Carnegie Hall “Hootenanny” concert hosted by Pete Seeger. I also played in the house band for Izzy on his live weekly radio show on WBAI. Izzy had lots of guests on that show: I remember one day when Jerry Jeff Walker came in and sang his new song: Mr. Bojangles. I also played square dance music for Izzy when he called a big dance – and I probably played a political rally or two for him as well!

The Star Spangled String Band, 1969. Image Folder 194: Scan 13. Photo-Sound Associates photographs, circa 1960-1969 in the Ronald D. Cohen Collection #20239, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Izzy called me one day in the late ’60s and told me to come down to the store and bring my guitar. He said there was a girl there from the Washington, DC, area, and he thought I might enjoy making music with her. Her name was Emmy Lou Harris – at that point, pretty much unknown outside the DC area. We played a bunch of music that afternoon! Izzy also put me on a concert bill with Rory Block, my friend Allan Block’s daughter, who was just starting her career.

I could go on and on with Izzy stories. The most recent one, though – and one of  my favorites – is how things have come full circle:

After I moved to Cambridge, MA, in 1970, I didn’t see much of Izzy. A few years later, I heard that he had moved to Stockholm, Sweden, where he opened the Folklore Centrum and more or less continued doing all the things he had done in New York. He’s been there ever since. I would occasionally hear about him from musician buddies who were gigging in Europe, but I lost touch with him myself.

Izzy Young and Andy May at the Folklore Centrum, Stockholm, Sweden, 2016.

In early 2016, I read that the Smithsonian Institution’s American Folklife Center had acquired Izzy’s writings, notes, and recordings from the old days for their collection. On a whim, I called him up out of the blue, and as we talked it seemed like the years rolled away. He promptly invited me to do a show and a Master Class at the Folklore Centrum, and he put me in touch with Brian Kramer, an associate of his, who invited me to appear as a guest at the International Blues Jam the same week. And so, in October of 2016 – some 46 years after I had last seen Izzy – I headed to Sweden for three unexpected gigs and to visit my old friend and mentor, Izzy Young, now in his late 80’s.  (Read about this visit in my post: Room for Roots in Sweden.)

More on Izzy:

February 4, 2019 It is with great sadness I share the news of Izzy Young’s passing. Izzy was a vocal, dynamic, and unflagging supporter of folk music who left an indelible impression on lives and culture. He was a friend – to me and to the music. His NY Times obituary, below, is a wonderful tribute.

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