Columbus, Ohio USA
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Bill Cohen's
Amazing Magic Carpet Ride to the '60s
By Karen Edwards
November 2010 Issue

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Photos © Emily Noble

Bill Cohen takes a stand in his home surrounded by '60s memorabilia.

It’s 1960 and you’re sitting in the Cockroach, the Columbus coffeehouse that graced several (largely basement) locations across the city before finally settling on OSU’s campus. The lights are down, candles flicker on the table and you’ve just deposited the dime that allows you to make yourself a cup of instant coffee. A folk singer, accompanied by a guitar, strums and sings as you find a seat. You listen politely and wait your turn at the mike. You have some killer poetry you can’t wait to share.

If you didn’t come of age in the 1960s, you missed what the coffeehouse culture was all about. This wasn’t your Starbucks meet-and-greet. The 1960s coffeehouse was a community center, a cheap date night, a place to flex your creative muscle, and, of course, a rallying point for all the causes fought for in that turbulent decade.
But don’t take my word for it. You can experience the 1960s coffeehouse for yourself.

All you need to do is show up November 12 in the basement of the King Avenue United Methodist Church in Victorian Village. Here, each year, the coffeehouse experience of the 1960s is re-created in a two-and-a-half hour show that will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year.

Credit a wiry, bearded Bill Cohen with creating the “Spirit of the Coffeehouse” show. The same Bill Cohen who impartially reports the news as a Statehouse reporter for NPR radio each weekday likes to return to his folk-singing past at every opportunity. And there is no doubt that the ‘60s shaped his repertoire.

The folk singer
Bill Cohen and his brother Bob grew up in a typical 1950s home in Bexley, sons of a radiologist and a homemaker. At the age of 14, Bill taught himself the guitar and seemed to gravitate to folk music. “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” – an African-American spiritual that had been recorded by folksinger Bob Gibson in 1957, then later by The Highwaymen in 1961 – was one of the most popular folk songs of the early ‘60s and one Cohen remembers well.

“People who didn’t live through that time think the ‘60s began as this wild, explosive decade. It didn’t,” says Cohen. “It was fairly calm, a continuation of the beliefs and lifestyle of the previous decade.” “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” was typical of the music of that time. Dylan, Ochs, Seeger and Baez came later.

That late ‘50s vibe may explain, in part, Cohen’s political naiveté when he reached the campus of Northwestern University as a freshman in the ‘60s.

“Yes, I had heard of the war (the Vietnam War),” he says – but it had not really occurred to Cohen on a conscious level that, at his age, he was likely to be drafted. But there, on campus, away from home, the draft and war suddenly became very real. “I asked myself, was I really capable of killing someone?” says Cohen. “I knew the answer was no.” While that response prompted many young men to move to Canada or defiantly burn their draft cards, Cohen registered as a conscientious objector. “I was ready to go work in a hospital or school or wherever they wanted to put me,” he says. “But my number was never pulled.”

By that time, however, coffeehouses had begun to spring up on campuses across the country. “They were someplace we’d go as a respite from campus life,” explains Cohen. He remembers visiting coffeehouses several times a week while at Northwestern. Sometimes he’d even perform – folk songs and songs he wrote himself.

History happens
But as the decade continued, history-making events began to happen quickly. President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march on Washington on behalf of civil rights that same year. And by 1965, students on college campuses around the country had organized protests against the Vietnam War.

The 1960s helped Cohen begin to shape a world view. “I have immense respect for people who make their views known, especially when someone’s rights are being challenged. Citizens became involved in the ‘60s. They marched against the war; they stood up for civil rights. They questioned the way things had always been done.”

And that political consciousness grew out of the coffeehouse.

Imagine, today, a march against the Afghanistan War being organized at Starbucks. “It wouldn’t happen,” says Cohen. Today, everyone is tied to their laptops or cell phones, communicating with anyone and everyone but those they share a physical presence with. In a sense, the Internet may be today’s version of a coffeehouse, but the anonymity of its users makes conversations, discussions and arguments – the mainstays of the ‘60s coffeehouse – more vitriolic and volatile.

“The Internet could never replace the coffeehouse of that time,” says Nancy Cline Bailey, a member of the Columbus Folk Music Society and a long-time organizer of the Central Ohio Folk Music Festival. She remembers attending coffeehouses once a week while attending classes at Marquette University in the ‘60s. “The coffeehouse is where singer-songwriters could get their feet wet and try out their music,” she says. Besides, there was an ambiance to the coffeehouse – an atmosphere that unified rather than polarized the people who went there.

“And the music helped energize them,” says Cohen.

The songs Cohen and other coffeeshop crooners of that time began to sing in the mid-to-late ‘60s were songs of protest, black comedy and wry observation. Pete Seeger wrote and sang “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” in 1961 and a year later resurrected his folk song “If I Had a Hammer.” Bob Dylan drafted “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963, then came Buffy Saint-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” in 1964; Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” in 1965 and John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969.

Cohen learned them all. At the same time, he was collecting and preserving artifacts of the period.

The ‘60s room
On the second floor of the modest Clintonville home Cohen shares with wife Randi and daughter Hannah (now away at college studying microfinancing), there is a room that’s as close to a shrine of the ‘60s as one can (and probably should) get.

Protest posters cover the wall, along with a poster touting comic Pat Paulson for President (a campaign that grew out of the controversial “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” that ran on TV from 1967 to 1969). Cohen points to one of the war protest posters. It reads: “Dear Mom and Dad. Your silence is killing me.” “That was one of my favorites,” he says. Around the room, lava lamps line up like beacons, and colorful Pez dispensers parade across the window frame. Love beads hang at the door, and, ironically, a gas mask (handy for those times when the police or National Guard lob a tear-gas canister or two) is nearby. As for the rest of the room, it’s hard to describe. It’s too overwhelming to describe. Piles of tie-dyed T-shirts threaten to tumble over; LP albums by ‘60s artists hold court on the floor; old Look magazines are stacked on a desk; buttons commemorating different NASA space missions collect in a small display case. It’s as though the essence of the 1960s swooped in and decided this was the place to retire – but, like true anarchists, the material refuses to be catalogued, filed or organized into anything but the roughest of piles.

Much of the material in the room belonged to Bill Cohen, the folk-singing student. “He had the foresight to collect all the newspapers as events happened,” says wife Randi. The LP albums include her own collection from the ‘60s but her husband has been adding to the stack ever since – just as he’s been adding to his ‘60s collection, piece by piece.

If Cohen can claim a life outside of work and his music, it would include racquetball, Clippers games – and his weekly foraging trips to local garage sales and thrift shops. “If the place has ‘antique’ in the name, it’s too expensive for me,” he says. It’s on these trips to thrift stores and garages that Cohen finds his lava lamps, his ‘60s political buttons, his LP albums and the tie-dyed shirts he sells for $5 a pop at the coffeehouse. “We donate the money we make from the shirts to the Food Bank,” he says.

He also brings along other ‘60s items to the coffeehouse experience – clothing and posters and buttons and albums. In addition to triggering memories and educating those unfamiliar with the period, the props serve as a mood lightener. After all, songs of civil unrest and war can feel heavy at times.

But that was the ’60s, a turbulent, uncomfortable – but necessary lurch forward in history.

The coffeehouse show

Bill and Randi Cohen share the spirit of the sixties with a smile.

What is amazing about Cohen’s ‘60s coffeehouse show is its attention to detail. True, Cohen lived through the period, but he’s obviously done enough research on the ‘60s to make the decade come alive – gathering photos, tapes, newsreels and other documentation to weave into the show’s narrative. It’s like watching a Ken Burns documentary, only you have the opportunity to hear the music portion live.

“I think that’s one of the things I really admire about Bill’s show,” says Randi, who runs the sound board during the show. Randi Cohen used to set up her own
coffeehouse nights in the ‘60s when she worked as a DJ while attending the University of Maine. “Bill’s show tells a story,” Randi continues. “He has collected all this data, and he has put music to it. It’s magical the way he has crafted something out of nothing.”

“When I first started performing folk music,” says Bill, “I thought it would be a good idea to talk a little about the song, to put it in context of the period it came from.” The narrative began to grow as Cohen added more songs. Soon, he had enough material to present as a show.

And Cohen’s coffeehouse show covers the entire decade. The music evolves from “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” to Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”

The coffeehouse crowd
Mike Hale, a musician with the band Halfway Home, has attended six or seven of Cohen’s shows and now volunteers to help with the sound system.

“The shows are great because Bill is great. I’d rather listen to Bill perform the songs of the ‘60s than to hear the original artists,” he says.

Hale missed the coffeehouse scene by a hair. “I graduated from high school in 1970,” he says. During that time, he and a friend would play guitar from a large book of folk songs. “But we didn’t realize the songs we were playing were protest songs,” he says now. Cohen’s ‘60s coffeehouse show, Hale continues, “helped fill in some blanks for me.”

While a good portion of Cohen’s audience for the show is made up of baby boomers, he also draws a fair portion of younger generations as well.

“I think it’s important to teach children about the ‘60s,” says Cohen. “There was a spirit to the people at that time – they took a stand and tried to create a better world. They thought about things outside of themselves.”

Cohen’s coffeehouse show is the “best history lesson in the world,” adds Cline Bailey.

Maybe that’s why Cohen’s ‘60s show is in demand by schools around the state. He’s done portions of his coffeehouse show for Columbus, Westerville and Worthington classes and for schools in Cincinnati, Dayton, and even Woodstock, Illinois.

Cohen doesn’t change his show much from year to year. It proceeds in a chronological fashion, with music, poetry and news reports, a 1960s trivia contest and all those surrounding props. You can feel free to sing along. Much of the audience does.

If you don’t know the songs, they’re easy enough to pick up.

Hale, who is president of the Columbus Folk Music Society, would like to see more young people attend the coffeehouse show – not only to expose them to the history of the time, but to the music. “Today, kids don’t get a lot of exposure to folk music.”

Bill Cohen, the folk-singing student.

Cline Bailey agrees. “Folk music is an oral tradition and we’re in danger of losing it,” she says. “We need to pass it on.” She’d also like to see more young people come to the show. “You can’t really understand the ‘60s by reading a textbook,” she says. “Bill’s show accurately recalls not only the history and music of that time, but the feeling of the coffeehouse – its ambiance.”

Whatever your reasons for going to the show, Hale and Cline Bailey guarantee you’ll be entertained. “Bill’s a terrific performer,” says Cline Bailey. Randi Cohen naturally agrees. “When Bill and I first met, he saw my guitar sitting in a corner and asked if I played,” she recalls. “I asked him if he did, and he said a little.” At that point, he picked up her guitar and performed “Over the Rainbow” and “When You Wish Upon a Star” – just for her. “It was so romantic,” she says – and so well done that when he was finished she promptly told him she couldn’t play or sing herself. Who could top what she just heard?

“Over the Rainbow” may not be a part of Bill Cohen’s ‘60s repertoire, but the rest of the songs will sound familiar, even if you weren’t a part of the ‘60s culture, and the 10 to 15 boxes of memorabilia that are brought to the show each year will help create that coffeehouse history and ambiance. If you didn’t come of age during that period, you may learn a little something attending the show. If you did, memories are apt to come flooding back. “I’ve seen people crying when some of the songs are sung,” says Randi Cohen.

And who knows? You may even leave with a sense of purpose, of wanting to stand up for a cause or change your corner of the world.

That’s why Cohen says he’ll continue presenting his ‘60s show. It energizes him, and it energizes his audiences.

“We should remember the ‘60s as an important decade,” he says. “It brought people together. They were able to accomplish things, and they were proud of that. They were proud of who they were and what they were able to do. They made the world a better place, even though that wasn’t easy to do. They showed by standing up and speaking out, they could make a difference.”

It’s a lesson for future generations, and one Cohen himself takes to heart. Through his annual revival of the coffeehouse culture, its music and spirit, it’s plain to see that even in the 21st century – some 50 years away from the tumultuous ‘60s – Bill Cohen is still making a difference.

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Bill Cohen will present his candlelit “Spirit of the 1960s Coffeehouse” at 7:30 p.m., Friday, November 12, 2010, at the King Avenue United Methodist Church, 299 W. King Ave. at Neil. The program is suitable for adults and mature teens. Suggested donation is $10 with proceeds from donations and the sale of tie-dyed T-shirts going to the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. Refreshments will be available at no extra charge. Free parking is available in the lots south and west of the church. Call Bill at 614-263-3851 or visit for more info.

© 2010 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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