16 - Gerdes Folk City

Lonnie Johnson and Victoria Spivey
Lonnie Johnson and Victoria Spivey

Victoria Spivey was born in 1906 in Houston, Texas. Lonnie Johnson was born in 1899 in New Orleans, Louisiana. This is a story about their reunion at Gerdes Folk City in New York.

I'm speaking here about my days on New York City's Lower East Side and Greenwich Village. I used to go to Gerdes Folk City which was located on the eastern edge of Greenwich Village, just before you got to Washington Square Park. I don't know who owned it but they sure had the feeling for a trend because Gerdes became the epicenter for new talent during the folk boom of the 60s. We would go in there and stand opposite the bar where there was a high wooden railing facing the stage. You could lean against it and catch the action on the stage without paying the cover or tips that you paid if you sat down. We were poor so this was a good compromise. You could nurse your beer and stand for a couple of sets, or as long as you could handle standing and you got some real entertainment. The tables beyond this folk singers 'mourner's bench' were more expensive but, standing, you could get drinks from the bar and had a bird's eye view of the action.

We usually went on Monday nights for the 'Hoots', as the open stage was called. I saw a number of firsts there. Brother John Sellers, who was a blues and gospel shouter, acted as the M.C. He had a fresh-faced boy up there one time. Two of them, in fact, because both of them were young. I don't remember what the other one was called but the one I do remember was called Bobby Dylan. First time I heard him I said to myself, "He'll never make it! He only knows three chords and he sings through his nose." I made a mistake there because he did make it and he did fairly well in the music business (smile). He ended up leaving Gerdes and Sellers and everybody else in the dust.

'Mighty Times' these were, as the saying goes. People who were my neighbours got recording contracts. Hugh Romney, a sort of stand up comic, became Wavy Gravy of the Hog Farm and the psychedelic bus. Someone you were sitting next to in a coffee house could become a folk star by the next time you got around there.

I had an interview with John Court, who was Albert Grossman's right-hand man. Grossman had Dylan, Odetta, Ian and Sylvia and Peter Paul and Mary under his management wing. My interview didn't come to anything in the end but for about two weeks most of my friends were kissing me off. I guess they figured I'd do the same to them if I got on the golden trail. Life's like that.

The Reunion of Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson at Gerdes Folk City

I remember the return there of Victoria Spivey. I knew her son-in-law, Vince Hickey. He belonged to a group I also belonged to and was married to Victoria Spivey’s adopted daughter. I met Vicky through Vince. Vince was a drummer in the Baby Dodds, New Orleans style.

Victoria Spivey was a remarkable woman. From Texas originally, she has been the ingénue lead in the first talking, singing black movie, “Hallelujah” I saw that movie double-billed, believe it or not, with “Birth of a Nation”. I think it was a case of equal billing.

The movie, “Hallelujah”, had a formula plot and lots of clichés and stereotypes. Vicky was good in it. She was real. She was believable but, most of all, she was Victoria Spivey. She carried that movie experience with her and her later years were a bit like a replay of “Sunset Boulevard “. Yes, she was a blues singer and she played barrelhouse piano very well but you’d better not forget that she was a movie star in the old ‘star’ tradition.

Gerdes Folk City made the reunion of Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson a big deal. Victoria and Lonnie had performed together many years ago and were pals. I was there for their opening show. When she first came in Lonnie was already on stage, opening up. He was wearing a gold lamé jacket was doing those wonderful things he did on guitar. He saw her and reached into what you might call the literature of the blues and said something like, “Big leg mama with the meat shaking on her bones” Vicky didn’t take too kindly to the notion that she might be fat. She went into a pout and they had to send people to coax her on to the stage. Of course, you couldn’t have kept her offstage with a bulldozer but it was very dramatic at the time.

When she did come in to do her part of the set she was wearing a white satin gown.
Her big hit had been the ‘Black Snake Blues’ – “Get that Black Snake out of my bed.”
As I said she was wearing a white satin gown and there was a big, velvet black snake with rhinestones and sequins across the front of that dress. It kind of wobbled when she walked. She made quite an impression with that snake. When she sat down at the piano it was the real thing and she swung into ‘Black Snake Blues‘ and wowed us all. She did a whole bunch of other numbers and she and Lonnie sang together beautifully.

I remember especially a song of Lonnie sang, not a blues but it stuck in my head.


"What a difference a day makes,
Twenty-four little hours,
What a difference the sunshine can make to flowers..."


He wrote that one and had a hit with it. He also claimed to have written 'Careless Love'. He might have. He was a composer. He might have adapted it and written more lyrics. He felt strongly about this. Lonnie Johnson was a kind and gentle man, a gentleman in the southern fashion. I had sung one of my songs on the open stage during intermission. He heard me and was kind enough to tell me that he liked it. I appreciated that then, and I still do.

Wavy Line

© Sonia Brock 2005

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