Betsy Siggins

Cape Cod Life  /  Annual Life 2020 /

Writer: Chris White

Founder of Folk New England  \\  Cotuit’s folk queen

Sometimes all it takes for vision is to open one’s eyes. In the case of folk luminary Betsy Siggins, of Cotuit, it was also her ears that led her in 1958 to the epiphany that “The Times They Are A-Changin’” a good six years prior to the release of Dylan’s first true anthem of their generation. At age eighteen and headed to college, Siggins was primed for her journey with the folk revival, and she left home on the Cape at exactly the right time. She had attended a “progressive prep school” called Cherry Lawn in Darien, Connecticut, where she took three years of drama, creative writing and dance. She recalls, “I wasn’t so academic, but I was good at art.” In the summertime, she sang in the chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan plays in Falmouth. “It kept me off the street as a crazy teenager,” she jokes. Thus, by the time she arrived at college, Siggins’ eyes and ears were both wide open. Still, the convergence of events in her life over the next few years could best be described as fate. “On day one at Boston University, I met Joan Baez,” she marvels. “How lucky could a girl get? Right away, we were not putting on the freshman beanies; we were giving them hell right away.” Siggins and Baez became best friends and remain close over sixty years later, and the partnership that they forged around folk music would help define both of their careers and legacies.  

By 1958, folk music had been growing in underground popularity in Boston and Cambridge, and a number of coffee houses and clubs featured live music. Siggins landed a job waitressing at the Golden Vanity, which she describes as “a fabulous coffee house decorated like the inside of a ship, with barrels for tables and knit stockings on the walls.” She and Baez explored the music scene and were drawn to Cambridge, where Siggins became the founding member of a new venue, Club 47. Here, she paid Joan Baez $10 for her first “gig.” Soon, both young women had dropped out of college, and the coffee shop soon became an integral piece in an exploding music scene; through collaborations with Debbie Green and Margie Gibbons, Baez helped put Club 47 on the folk map. “I blame Joan for almost everything,” says Siggins, who would help run the venue for about ten years by doing all sorts of jobs ranging from manager to dishwasher to board member. 

Club 47 wasn’t just a place to hear music. Siggins and her collaborators were crucially reviving music and providing musicians opportunities to preserve and share their cultures. Jackie Washington played African-American and Hispanic folk music, while Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt brought the blues to Cambridge. Because of segregation, hotels refused African-Americans accommodations, so Betsy Siggins would host these visiting artists on her couch. Other folk traditions arrived via Harvard student musicians such as Tom Rush, who had easy access to the university’s library, where they mined the Child Ballads for material. A “Victorian obsessive,” according to John Burgess of Harvard Magazine, Professor Francis James Child had collected 305 ballads from Scotland and England, which he published in five volumes from 1882-98. When Tom Rush, Joan Baez, and other singers performed these songs, many of which dated back to the 1500s, they referred to them by number: “Child 22” or “Child 301.” Club 47 also drew upon the “white mountain music” of Appalaccia. In 1961, she married Bob Siggins, another Harvard student and the banjo player for the Charles River Valley Boys, a local band that had embraced the traditions of bluegrass. Recalls Siggins, “I started my career as a waitress, but I loved the music. Meeting Joan, Tom Rush, Jim Kweskin, and other singers was the catalyst.” 

During its 10-year run, Club 47 hosted many of the most famous names in music, including: Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Mavis Staples, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Taj Mahal. When it closed, Siggins continued working for both folk music and for human rights. She moved to Washington, D.C., where she helped Ralph Rinzler at the Smithsonian to bring in musicians and record music for the Festival of American Folklife. Later, she organized benefit concerts in New York City to help people with AIDS, and she worked in soup kitchens in Harlem. Over the course of twenty years, she remarried to Benno Schmidt, but divorced again in 1979. 

A year after the closing of Club 47, the venue reopened as Passim which would later develop into Club Passim. Betsy Siggins returned to Cambridge for a second run in her old stomping grounds and helped Passim through some “financial dire straits” by serving as the club’s executive director from 1997 to 2009, during which time a whole new generation of musicians rose to prominence. Siggins also founded FOLK New England in 2009, ( now partned with UMass Amherst) a nonprofit seeking to “document, preserve, interpret and present the ongoing cultural legacy of folk music in all its forms, with emphasis on New England’s contribution to the enrichment of North American life.” In 2019, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh declared that February 28th is Betsy Siggins Day, and on November 14th the Shubert Theatre hosted Passim’s 60th Anniversary Concert, featuring Patty Griffin, Josh Ritter, and Dar Williams. During this celebration, Joan Baez presented her friend Betsy Siggins with Club Passim’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Betsy Siggins lives in Cotuit with her partner, where she is writing her memoirs and continuing to work with folk musicians. At the time of writing, she is attending the 2020 conference of Folk Alliance International. She says, “I’m off to New Orleans to play with 3,000 other folkies.”

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Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.