That’s a familiar face . . .

Guest blog from folklorist Millie Rahn:

Old friends Betsy Siggins, Bob Dylan, and Maria Muldaur backstage at the Wang Theatre, Boston, Nov. 15, 2009. Betsy is the founder of the New England Folk Music Archives and was a mainstay of the Club 47 in the '60s. Photo courtesy of Siggins Collection, New England Folk Music Archives.

The New England Folk Music Archives, based in Cambridge, was launched earlier this year with collections that reach well back into the last century.  Some of the Archives’ strongest collections have to do with the folk revival of the late 1950s and 1960s in and around Cambridge and Boston.  But the roots of the music  scene, then and now, reach well back into the 19th century and came out of a long, local tradition of interest

in folk music, folksong collecting, and cultural revivals.


Club 47, considered the epicenter of the revival, started as a jazz venue and coffeehouse in 1958, but soon joined the folk music boom. Club 47 launched regional performers such as Joan Baez, the Charles River Valley Boys, Eric von Schmidt, Tom Rush, and the Kweskin Jug Band, who mined many early recordings and song collections. Others like Jackie Washington and Taj Mahal drew on their families’ Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and African-American traditions.  Club 47 also introduced audiences to earlier generations of southern roots artists from the 1920s and 1930s such as Maybelle Carter, Mississippi John Hurt, Bill Monroe, and Muddy Waters.

During the month of November, the New England Folk Music Archives has partnered with the Harvard Square Business Association and its members to exhibit photographs and memorabilia from the collections in store windows and restaurants around the Square.

This Sunday, November 22 at 7 p.m. the Brattle Theatre will have a rare screening of Festival!, one of the essential documentaries of the early Newport folk festivals, with a reception with filmmaker Murray Lerner afterwards.

Hand crafted “copper man” finds new home

About two years ago, we visited the training center of Sheet Metal Workers Union Local #17 in Dorchester. It was there that I met with retired sheet metal workers who were constructing a tin man for our exhibition, Keepers of Tradition.  Though we had only asked for one figure, we were surprised to learn that they chose to make three, eager to demonstrate their ability in working with three different types of metal: 16-ounce copper, glavanized steel, and stainless steel.

William Walsch, Dan Hardy, Richard “Dick” Clarke, and Glenn Walker – all retired sheet metal workers – would spend more than 50 hours each fabricating the tin men. The making of tin men was once taught in apprenticeship classes. The skills required in making a tin man include all those necessary to become a journeyman: layout, scribing, cutting, folding, rolling, bending, riveting, soldering, and filing metal.

Figurative sculptures known as tin men were made by metalsmiths long before the tin woodman in the Wizard of Oz appeared onscreen. Metalsmithing is an ancient trade. For centuries, tin men have been used as trade signs advertising a metalsmith’s shop or wares.

These life size sculptures, emblematic of trade skill, were on display in the opening section of our exhibition. Once the show closed in June of this year, the tin men found a permanent home in the training center of Local Union #17.

I missed them. And, truth be told, I wanted one.

Having gotten to know some of the retired sheet metal workers, I learned that making decorative objects serves as an outlet for creativity and affirmation of membership in a highly skilled trade. In fact, when we visited the training center, in addition to the tin men, the men had brought in half a dozen creations for our consideration: baskets, lighthouses, boxes, and a clipper ship.

So, with the blessing of the training center coordinator, I contacted Richard “Dick” Clarke to see if I could commission a tin man of my very own. Two months later, I drove to his home in Stoneham where I was delighted to see the finished product.