Baby Let Me Follow You Down…to a basement in Boston

UNLIKE most of Ireland I have no connection to Boston.

I never had a plumber uncle in Dorchester, cousins in the Boston Police Department or an older brother working as a barman and sometime GAA player.

I didn’t spend summers moving furniture and dossing with a dozen others in a sublet in Quincy, painting mansions on the North Shore or drinking in Southie’s Irish bars.

Growing up if you’d asked me about the place I might have mentioned a tea party, or how I never really watched Cheers, or why I really wanted to visit New York and how far was it to Massachusetts?

Club Passim, October 2003.

At Club Passim, October 2003.

That was until Boston – or rather Cambridge – gave me one of the best nights of my life.

It occurred in the salad days of my time as a (very) occasional singer and guitar player.

I pursued this vice sporadically and anonymously for a period in my 20s, playing in a garage band with friends in Dublin and in open mics wherever.

All of which brought me, one Autumn evening in October 2003, to Boston.

I could have come to the area for the history, the seafood, the city.

But instead my buddy S and I hauled ourselves and our guitar cases out of the Back Bay and to a small basement club, on a tiled alley called Palmer Street, close to Harvard Square in Cambridge.

This was (and is) the site of Club Passim, formerly Club 47, the hub of all things folk in the area since the 1960s.

A local student called Joan Baez got her start there, singing about silver daggers and homicide.

A tyro Bob Dylan played for free just to get onto the stage. Bruce Springsteen didn’t even make it that far – his plea for a spot was turned down.

It was that kind of place and just about everyone who was in anyone in my record collection had stepped up for a set there.

At first glance I wasn’t going to get within 900 Miles of the stage.

But once a month, in the finest folk tradition, the club ran an open mic, showcasing original songwriting. A couple of dollars membership, patience and luck might get you a five minute slot.

On stage at Club Passim, Cambridge, October 2003.

On stage at Club Passim, Cambridge, October 2003.

We paid up and took our places that night amidst the coffee-sipping, hummus-nibbling regulars.

Local after local got up and did their stuff. I was sure neither S nor myself, blowin’ in on spec, would get a look in.

But then one after another, and just before they shut down, we got the call. We took the stage together, with a plan to accompany one another on each other’s song (in the end I think we just played solo).

I could try to explain the head-shattering combo of joy, terror and release that I felt facing the room. Alas I was focusing so hard all I can truly recall is the spotlight and the microphone.

And the round of applause the good folkies of Boston gave me. It’s ringing in my ears to this day.

I’ve never been back to Club Passim. It’s still on Palmer Street and it’s flying the flag this week for music, free expression and all that true stuff.

It’s small story, but I’m grateful for what Cambridge laid on for us that night – a welcome, a leap of faith and a brief moment in the folk spotlight.

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