I could easily drop the still familiar names of many big shots of the ’60’s Village folk music scene who hung out or passed through my friend Marc Silber’s Fretted Instrument Shop, and talk some trash about some of those with whom I may have rubbed shoulders, but I don’t think that will be completely necessary. If you are reading this now, you already know who you are. Nor will I attempt to write a detailed, exhaustive history of the place. What I’d like to recount are a few fond memories that I hope will illustrate my own relationship to this unique place and my friendship with its equally unique proprietor.
I first encountered Marc one balmy evening in the fall of 1963 while being one of the kids who were perpetually hanging out on the front steps of Izzy Young’s Folklore Center, when it was still located on MacDougal Street, a few paces down from the Gaslight and the Kettle of Fish and almost directly across the street from the Fat Black Pussy Cat. These places are all long gone now, but I’ll bet that because I mentioned them, you are seeing them again in your mind right now. Just for the hell of it, I think I’ll add the aroma of greasy smoke rising from the coils of Italian sausages with peppers and onions sizzling on the grill in the open front stand a little further down the block. Mix that with the smell of gyros, frying falafels and car exhaust, and you certainly got yourself one solid sense memory there, kid.
Marc just seemed to “show up”. Soon, there was a guitar, and discussions about Skip James, Fred McDowell, and most importantly, Joseph Spence. If you don’t know who he was, just go to YouTube and listen to his rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”. That should clear things up a bit for you. No doubt about it, Spence had a very eccentric guitar style, which Marc had been able to master, but the one thing he couldn’t replicate were the seemingly random gutteral utterances that Spence made while he was playing. Marc called this vocalizing “grunning”. This is where I came in. Marc did the playing and I did the grunning. PRESTO! The Complete Simulated Composite Joseph Spence Experience! I believe it was at this point that we became real friends.
Let’s skip ahead a couple of years to 1965. Marc’s Fretted Instruments shop had been established in a space one flight up on 6th Avenue a few stores down from the Waverly Theater, the Cube Steak and the entrance to the W. 8th Street station of the IND subway. It was soon to be joined next door by the Folklore Center. Across the avenue, were the famous basketball courts at the corner of West 3rd Street where the best street basketball players in New York City hoped to get the attention of scouts from the professional teams. SERIOUS BUSINESS! In contrast to all the intense action that was going on across the avenue, Marc’s shop on a quiet afternoon was like a sanctuary for me. Even though, at that time, my life in the world outside could be really, really rough, Marc, in his calm way, always made me feel welcome. I was free to shoot the shit with Marc, play some really good “used” guitars (we didn’t have the concept of “vintage” yet) or look down at the endless parade of attractive young women passing along the sidewalk below the shop’s windows.
A year before, I had committed folkie apostasy by selling my “used” Martin Herringbone Dreadnaught and getting a brand new double pick up cutaway Gibson electric jazz guitar. When everybody else wanted to play like Doc Watson and Reverend Gary Davis, I wanted to play like Kenny Burrell and Grant Green. It’s now 45 years later, and I’m just beginning to get there. Maybe in another 45 years, I’ll have it right! Anyway, finally realizing that the chances of someone like me getting to play in a funky organ trio in Harlem were at best, more than nil, I sold the electric and got it into my head that I wanted a nice Guild flat top. Wouldn’t you know it! Marc had just the instrument for me. It was a “fixer-upper” with the neck of one guitar grafted onto the body of another guitar that had been recovered from a car accident. It was a fine and funky instrument, just the way I like ’em! $125 was the price, cardboard case included. SOLD! SO I hung out with Marc for a couple of hours more, getting acquainted with my new guitar, and then happily got on the subway and made my way home. A few more hours passed and I suddenly realized that I had walked out of the shop without giving Marc the money, nor had he called in the interim to ask for it. BACK TO THE SHOP with the dough and no harm done!
And now, a final fond memory of my friend Marc in New York City. It was 1969 and Marc had given up the shop, and was often in and out of NYC, hitting the road, and hanging out in exotic places like Morocco and Berkeley. Around this time, Izzy Young was running a series of concerts at the Washington Square Methodist Church. He offered to let me make posters for the concerts and If I wanted to go to any of them, I could get in free. John Fahey was the performer for the first concert, and even though I just didn’t understand what all the excitement was about, I figured, maybe if I saw him live, I might “get it”. Frankly, I was bored stiff. However, during intermission, I was rescued! From out of the milling crowd, Marc suddenly appeared with his accomplice, Jack Baker. Boldly exclaiming “You don’t wanna listen to HIM, you wanna come play music with US!”, Marc grabbed me by the arms and Jack grabbed me by my feet and they both yanked me bodily from the church and out into the street. From there, we went to Jack’s studio and played our own music and I think we had way more fun than anyone in the audience did at the concert.
Decades have passed since then, along with all the events of life that go with them, and sometimes close to a decade passes between the times that I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some time hanging out with my old pal. Suffice it to say that he’s one of those friends who, even if you haven’t seen him in years, it seems as if you saw him only yesterday. Whenever it happens to be, I’ll be looking forward to the next “hang” with you, Marc, mi amigo!
Daniel Hamburg, New York, November 2023