Press enter after choosing selection

More on Ann Arbor in the 1960s

Michael Erlewine

I am happy to share with you some wonderful reminisces on Ann Arbor in the 1960s back in the day by my friend Paul Bernstein.

Bernstein has been gathering all kinds of reminiscences from the 1960s era of Ann Arbor. I have written a lot on what I know, but when I receive notes from another writer on those times, how wonderful is that, to find someone else who was there and who also cared for the events, celebrated that time, and left enough of a trail of notes to help shine light on those times.

Paul Bernstein first came to Ann Arbor in Fall of 1959 and was there through 1972, with the exception of a year and a half at Iowa in the mid-60s. My close friend Jeff Mitchell, poet and a winner of the Hopwood Award at the U of M, invited Bernstein to contribute to the Generation arts magazine at the university. Paul Bernstein is a poet, author, and liberal activist, who has now returned to and lives in Ann Arbor.

Here are some notes by Paul Bernstein about Ann Arbor in the 1960s. 

Poets Gather
Midjourney graphic created by me, a flavor of those times.


By Paul Bernstein

Michael Erlewine's tales of Ann Arbor in the 1960s bring back a lot of memories. I was around Ann Arbor for most of the 60s as a student, grad student, and later leftie activist / library worker / aspiring poet / weekend hippie.

I actually put in a good deal of time at the Prime Mover house at 114 N. Division Street. Prime Mover keyboardist and ONCE musician Robert Sheff (Blue Gene Tyranny) was a good friend whom I often visited. The ground floor was occupied for many years by printmaker/artist Ruth Weisberg, who had her studio in the basement and whose husband, Kelyn Roberts, was one of the first people I met when I came to Ann Arbor. The back door of their apartment was always open, and they more or less kept open house for local Ann Arbor artists and writers.

Ruth was not only a graduate art student but also taught at nearby Eastern Michigan University, and so was acquainted with the local talent. It was there that I first met Al Loving, who later became the first Black artist to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, and encountered novelist/short story writer Lennie Michaels, and a host of others. Ruth herself later became Dean of the School of Art at the University of Southern California.

When I first got to Ann Arbor folk music was in. I can remember listening to Jessie Fuller--I still have the vinyl LPs he did then--David Blue, Al Young and Bill McAdoo, Danny Kalb and Joan Baez when she came to town. It was later, through Sheff, that I began to know the local musicians. I can recall hearing the Prime Movers at the original Ark on Hill Street--Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Turn on Your Love Light" was my favorite.

I was not much of a drinker and so didn't hit the bars often. But I do remember going with my girlfriend to Clint's Club to listen to Sheff playing keyboards for Billy C. and the Sunshine. (We would get a quick drink to satisfy the management then sit on the back stairs outside between sets drinking gimlets from a soda bottle she kept in her purse.) Billy C. Farlow later became lead singer for Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, which also featured Bill Kirchen on guitar and vocals. I had first heard Kirchen as the lead guitarist and singer for a band called Seventh Seal. He later became a Grammy-nominated virtuoso on the Telecaster guitar who still regularly returns to perform in Ann Arbor.

Sheff eventually formed his own band--Bob Sheff and his Real Great Band, which featured a demon saxophonist named, I think, Steve Mackay, and Rich Dishman on drums. I believe he was also drummer for a fun local country band called Buddies in the Saddle that had a female lead singer, Lorna. He is still in the Ann Arbor area, playing with George Bedard and the Kingpins and others. I confess that I was not into so-called "high-energy" bands like the UP or Iggy Pop's Stooges--by that time my tastes had turned to very tight genre music, particularly Bakersfield country music and Chicago blues.

An acquired taste was the ONCE group, a set of experimental musicians, multimedia artists, and film-makers who organized a series of festivals in the mid-1960s, often collaborating with figures like painter/choreographer Robert Rauschenberg and composer John Cage. I particularly recall a multimedia piece called "Megaton for William Burroughs," which featured soundtrack excerpts from a British World War II movie called "The Dam Busters," and a set of performances on the roof of the Williams Street parking structure. Joe and Anne Wehrer, performers in their own right, made their home the locale for notable parties during the ONCE Festival, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and other events.

The single most important music event during my stay in Ann Arbor was the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. I recall Roosevelt Sykes opening each festival on solo piano, Son House closing the first Blues Festival, Magic Sam's great set, and Bonnie Raitt lambasting the third Festival organizers for not inviting any other acoustic blues artists. Most of all I remember Howling Wolf stomping all over the stage in a memorable, prolonged set during the first festival; a story later spread around that he was angered about getting second billing behind Muddy Waters, who had been chosen to close that night's schedule. The following year, it was heartbreaking to see this imposing figure, body now broken by illness, limited to performing a truncated set while sitting down.

It was most unfortunate that plans to record the historic first Ann Arbor Blues Festival fell through because of a technical glitch. However, enthusiasts like me rushed over to Discount Records (at the corner of State and Liberty Streets, where many of the local musicians mentioned here worked at one time or another), to pick up the blues LPs issued on the Chess, Delmark, and other labels. Fifty years later, dozens of these LPs are still on my shelves.

It is seldom mentioned that the first two festivals were preceded and followed by a stream of individual performances, turning Ann Arbor into a blues haven second only to Chicago. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Mighty Joe Young, Luther Allison, Mississippi Fred McDowell----with a relatively short space of time they all performed in Ann Arbor, and those are only the ones I remember--there were surely others.

One aspect of Ann Arbor 60s life not covered in Michael's recollections is the poet/writer scene. There were at least three local journals--the student publication GenerationAnon, and Overflow--that I recall. Local writers who later became relatively well-known included novelist and poet Jerome Badanes, poet Martha McNeil Zweig, novelist Nancy Willard and short story writer Lennie Michaels. Oddly enough, while there are a variety of open mic/literary reading venues today in Ann Arbor, there don't seem to be any local journals, although Third Wednesday, a quarterly journal out of Redford, MI, is edited in part by local poets. There were also at least two underground papers--the Ann Arbor Argus, which was connected with John Sinclair and the White Panther Party, and the Up Against the Wall Street Journal (which I wrote for and helped edit).

Perhaps the best known aspect of Ann Arbor in the 60s was its political history. Ann Arbor was the site of the first SDS meeting, the first anti-war teach in, the first draft board sit-in, and the Black Action Movement strike that closed down the university. National anti-war leaders emerging from Ann Arbor in the 60s included Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, SDS Chairman and radical writer Carl Oglesby, and Weatherman leader Bill Ayres.

All of these movements--musical, artistic, literary, political--tended to mesh together as the 60s progressed. Joan Baez would meet with anti-war activists after her concerts. Martha McNeil was active in SDS. Award-winning Jerome Badanes worked with the Radical Education Project, edited the (short-lived) SDS literary magazine Caw and (according to himself) was the best sandwich maker in the Columbia 1968 Columbia student uprising.

The main place they meshed together was the middle room of the Michigan Union (MUG). It was at the Union that I first met Robert Sheff, Bill Kirchen, Kelyn Roberts, Jerome Badanes (who became my mentor and guide for both poetry and radical politics), and in all likelihood, Michael Erlewine. It was at the Union that I was invited to come to the first meeting of "a new campus political party" that became the Voice political party and eventually Voice-SDS. And it was at the Union that I was asked if I could contribute to Generation, leading to my first publication. Union regulars would often establish their own territories, showing up at the same time day after day and taking the same tables. On Friday nights, people would drift in throughout the evening to find out where the parties were. (On Saturday nights the room was turned into a "cabaret" with dim light, tablecloths and not-so-good live music, rendering it less accessible). I spent some seven years as an undergraduate and graduate student at the University, but the Union was my real education.

At the end of the 60s the Union basement was remodeled and all this came to an end. The remodeling may have been associated with the move of the student bookstore into the basement, but most of us were convinced the power that be (whoever they were) welcomed the opportunity to get the "radicals" and "longhairs" out. Mark's Coffeehouse, on William Street between State and Maynard, took its place. It had a fabulous jukebox, tolerant staff--I recall Pat (Reynolds?) and Sharon as mainstays, and Sarah Brown. now a bass player and songwriter in Austin--and occasional live music. Commander Cody band members would stop by when in town, Mississippi Fred McDowell hung out there for a bit after one of his Ann Arbor gigs, and I can remember Buddies in the Saddle playing there. But it folded after a few years, in part because coffee houses often do, but perhaps in part because the freely interactive culture that briefly came together in the 60s had pretty much fractured by the end of the decade.

[Midjourney graphic created by me, a flavor of those times.]


Rights Held By
Michael Erlewine