You Can’t Bury Canterbury: Ann Arbor's hidden musical gem (Part 1)
Photo of the gate on Maynard in the 1960's and now, courtesy of Bentley Historical Library and Alec Cohen/Daily
The recording starts with Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” on the organ — you’d know it if you heard it — with a minor modulation of pitch, a quiver. Then a voice rings out above the organ’s echo.
*organ intro repeats*
“This is Dan Burke of Canterbury House”
*organ once again*
“… bringing you some of the sounds of the good news.”
“Some of them are weird sounds, some of them are sweet sounds and some of them are perplexing sounds.”
Burke’s deep, rich voice is immediately cut off by the first verse of Carl Anderson’s “Superstar” from the “Jesus Christ Superstar” soundtrack. If this recording of Reverend Burke’s radio show from 1971 doesn’t convey Canterbury House’s blend of musical innovation and spirituality, I don’t really know what could.
Burke’s radio show, along with a litany of purely magical musical performances recorded right at Canterbury House’s late 1960s coffee shop location at 330 Maynard in Ann Arbor, were recently unearthed by the Michigan History Project. The seven-inch reel-to-reel tapes were previously owned by an independent collector, then they were lost for a few years, until MHP found them in the hands of a musician and immediately got to work converting them to a digital format and then preserving the original tapes.
MHP is constantly on the lookout for more tapes in a quest to preserve the cultural memory of Canterbury House before all the original recordings from the era are lost, according to the president Alan Glenn. MHP is currently in talks with a record company and is hoping to issue the tapes as part of a deluxe vinyl release series. Sadly, some of these new recordings might not see the light of day due to copyright restraints.
“We’re (trying to release the material) mainly to further our mission of preserving and publishing the history of Michigan — and also because it’s so incredibly cool!,” Glenn wrote in an email interview. “Seriously though, people’s mistaken expectations that their old tapes, films, photos and the like are worth a lot of money is a big problem for historical preservation … This stuff rots away in a musty attic or basement until it turns to crumbling, moldy dust. That’s a tragedy, because when history is lost, it’s gone forever.”
These tapes are an archivist’s heaven — they aren’t cheap bootleg recordings made by an audience member, but rather professional tapes run directly from the venue’s soundboard made with permission from the artists. More importantly, they represent the panoply of music during a time of political turmoil, with the Vietnam War in full swing. On these tapes, artists such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, Doc Watson, Len Chandler, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, the New Lost City Ramblers, David Ackles and Steve Noonan bare their souls to crowds of fewer than 200 University of Michigan students and Ann Arbor residents, some just before the world would know their names and musical creations.
During my “listen to my Discman on the bus” phase in sixth grade (everyone had those, right?), I got a Best Buy gift card for Christmas. My dad took me and convinced me to buy Neil Young’s Greatest Hits. There it stayed in my yellow Discman Sport for months on end.
When the Coen Brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis” came out, I couldn’t get the soundtrack out of my head. That’s where I learned about Dave Van Ronk, and his songs have stayed in my cover repertoire ever since. Once a guy at an open mic brought me three Van Ronk LPs cause he knew how much I idolized the folk singer.
This past summer, Joni Mitchell’s Blue got me through some incredibly rough times. I’d be lying if I said she doesn’t creep into my weekly listening habits this semester too.
I’m telling you this because the music that came out of these found recordings has been with me for years. When I told people I was working on this piece, the response was eerily similar among almost everyone I talked to.
“What’s Canterbury House?”
The music Canterbury House has provided a platform, for from the ’60s, to today has influenced me as a writer and as a person. Canterbury’s story inspires me to both respect the art of the past and continuously look to the future to consider what space my own art can occupy. I hope it does the same for you.
Bishop Samuel Harris saw the need for an Episcopal student ministry on the University campus in 1885. According to documents provided by current Canterbury leadership, Harris worried the student body at the time would “become too secularized and forget their religious foundation,” and took it upon himself to see Hobart Hall — shortly after renamed Harris Hall — be built at 617 East Huron Street. The building still stands, but is now used as office space.
The Hobart Guild, the organization in charge of the Hall, aimed to “stimulate (the student body’s) spirituality,” hosted their first regular meeting on Oct. 2, 1890. Harris Hall, a steam-heated building with a capacity of 500 people, included a stage — a crucial symbol of performance that would continue with the Church for years to come — a non-smoking billiards room, a library, a dining room, a bowling alley and more.
The building would fall into disuse as a social gathering as the University grew — eventually being swallowed up and leased by the school — and the ministry moved to a smaller house owned by St. Andrew’s on Lawrence Street in 1935. Several years after the World War II, the Episcopalian Student Foundation took over, hiring a chaplain and moving to 218 North Division Street. The institution, after changing buildings (and even names) a few times, would finally settle at its current location of 721 Huron as Canterbury House in 1995.
Go back to 1967. What I wouldn’t give to be in the room with Burke and Martin Bell, the Chaplains at the time, when they decided to transform the mission of Canterbury House, and subsequently Ann Arbor’s place in music history.
Burke, following the trend of religious institutions nationwide in the late ’60s, wanted to blend current fads with spirituality to connect with a generation bent on rebellion. The college students of the late ’60s wanted nothing to do with an organized establishment telling them what to do, when to do it and what to believe. The dream of the coffee house chapel, in Burke’s words, was a “means of establishing contact, whether it be through folk music, folk rock, blues, liturgy, art or drama.”
Burke and Bell, along with student manager Ed Reynolds, a music fanatic who, according to Canterbury documents, “was completely turned off to all things that smacked of religion,” made the move to an old print shop at 330 Maynard and turned the space into a coffee house/ministry/concert venue/everything but the kitchen sink in terms of cultural potential.
This move was a catalyst for the flood of musical invention that was brimming at the University. Students plucking away at guitars and banjos in their dorms were dying for a place to play and hear their musical idols. Burke, Bell and Reynolds made this dream possible.
When I first received a batch of the recording samples from Glenn at MHP, I was sitting in a pristine white coffee shop with antique furniture, delicate latte foam designs and the sounds of Noname’s new album Room 25 pumping through the speakers just around the corner from 330 Maynard. I closed whatever homework I should have been working on, as well as the Facebook tab I was mindlessly scrolling through, and rocketed my hand towards my backpack to find my earbuds. I found the files and knew which one would be my first listen.
I hit play on the reel-to-reel sample. The voice of an emcee emerges. It is quick and businesslike, as if he’s announcing the next stop on the subway.
Applause follows. However, after a name like Joni Mitchell’s, given her legendary status today, you’d expect a stadium of cheering fans to be heard. Canterbury House is no stadium. It wasn’t even the size of the Michigan Theater. It was, in this iteration, quite literally a coffee shop with a stage, a decent sound booth and minimal lighting.
This low-key setup feeds into the recordings. The claps reverberated off the walls in a way only intimate venues can allow. Then, everything around me melted as Mitchell began to sing.
“Marcie in a coat of flowers / Stops inside a candy store / Reds are sweet and greens are sour / Still no letter at her door …”
I’m in a tight spot here. As a writer, it’s my job to find the exact words to convey Mitchell’s vocal quality, her fingerpicking on her acoustic guitar, her lyrical prowess as a songwriter, to you, the reader. I’ve heard the tapes and you haven’t. This isn’t a taunt, but rather a description of the role I am in the position to fulfill.
The problem is Mitchell transcends description. Her serene, profound soprano register lures you in but, as soon as you think you have a moment to breathe and revel in the beauty Mitchell has constructed around you — her lyricism and guitar chops knock you on your ass and demand you pay your respects to the Queen of California. Attention must be paid, and Mitchell will get that attention without breaking a sweat.
Bob Franke sure paid attention. And she thanked him for it.
Franke, a student at the University during the late ’60s, was what many would consider a staple of Canterbury House during the coffee house period. Like many folkies of the period, Franke and his buddies were inspired by Bob Dylan’s mainstream success and the folk renaissance. In true early Dylan fashion, Frankie and gang would listen to people like Reynolds, a mentor to Franke, perform cuts from the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, a seminal collection of folk songs from the ’20s and ’30s that laid the groundwork for the folk renaissance of the ’60s. From there, the folk fever spread in true folk tradition.
“He and his friends would take songs from the (Harry Smith Anthology) which was, basically, the weirdest thing we had ever heard but the most wonderful too and he’d play all of these stories that we knew nothing about,” Franke said. “He learned the styles how how to tell these stories with a guitar and basically taught those techniques to me and we passed them back and forth among all our friends.”
Growing up, Franke was always attracted to music that told stories, specifically his parents’ musical theater LPs. Then, being in a city like Ann Arbor in the middle of a folk revival, he couldn’t keep away. Franke recounted the moment during his freshman year he really solidified his relationship with and lifelong reverence of Canterbury House as a space for musicians to share their passions and stories with the audience. When he asked to play a set, he was instead given a position revered by few but a blessing in disguise — the job of doorkeeper.
“It was an education itself. I took money at the door and got to see some of the most amazing people coming through, folk revival people and traditional folk people as well and, later on, people who sort of stood at the crossroads of folk and pop music,” Franke said. “I wound up spending all my time there and really learned an awful lot about music.”
But back to Joni. While working as doorkeeper and sometimes playing his own songs, Franke saw Mitchell perform at Canterbury House in ’67. According to a letter from Mitchell’s agent Elliot Smith to Reverend Burke, “Joni loved playing the Room and when another date can be worked out, would love to go back once again.” Lucky for Franke, and frankly everyone else at the University, Smith and Burke arranged for Mitchell to play three nights at Canterbury March 8-10, 1968, for $650. Franke wasn’t going to let Mitchell’s talent slip through Ann Arbor’s fingers again without getting the word out somehow.
Along with his trusted position at the door, Franke was also occasionally writing for The Michigan Daily’s Arts section. He had written a review of Mitchell’s first Ann Arbor show in ’67 and, in The Daily’s March 9 issue, penned the article “Joni Mitchell Yang, Dylan Yin,” which began with a simple command: “Joni Mitchell is playing at Canterbury House this weekend. See her.”
Franke described Mitchell’s music best, in my opinion, when he wrote, “Perhaps one of the best words to describe it is joy. Not happiness as such, but the positive unity of human experience.” With this glowing review in print, Franke wasn’t going to miss the show for anything.
“Apparently, (Joni’s) manager had shown her the article and she was delighted by it because every artist wants to be heard, and I had heard her deeply and reported on that experience so she asked to meet me,” Franke said. “I was still taking money at the door and I just went right down, met her and she gave me a big hug, thanked me for writing the article and I’ve remembered that hug for the rest of my life.”
In our conversation, Franke made it clear how large of an impact his time at Canterbury had on his career as a musician. Canterbury House was a place for Franke to improve his chops and be exposed to all styles of music, learning from other performers and having fun all the while. Out of all the things he has kept from the period, Franke mentioned he held onto his articles on Mitchell.
“What (the articles) meant to me was that I was proud that I had gotten it right, that I had found something of real value and reported on it, shared it with everybody and that that had an effect to help Joni herself become the person and artist that she’d become,” Franke said.
While sitting in Espresso Royale (South University location) looking through a Kodak box of film prints and contact sheets, the smiling face of a young boy with a guitar piqued my curiosity. Al Blixt, the photographer, told me to turn the contact sheet over to see if he had written who the performer was. Sure enough, it was Franke.
Blixt, also a student at the University at the time, photographed countless concerts and performances at the coffee shop location. Dozens of his prints are in the Bentley Historical Archives for Canterbury House. In the Espresso Royale lobby, I was holding photographic history.
Blixt got his start photographing racing tracks with his father growing up. Once he got to the University and found out about Canterbury House’s Division Street location, he fell under its spell, like everyone eventually did, and became the official Canterbury House photographer.
“I saw something in The Daily or the paper so I went and I was hooked,” Blixt said during our conversation. “I loved it and, of course, at the time in my dorm, everyone seemed to have a guitar and they were all listening to the Great Folk Scare of the 1960s.”
Although he said he loved photographing the folk musicians, Blixt made a point of noting it wasn’t just folkies with an acoustic guitar in one hand and Harry Smith’s Anthology in the other on stage at 330 Maynard. His photographs of the Buddy Guy Band, with two saxophone players and Buddy on electric, back up his argument. He points to the metamorphosis in Bob Dylan’s sound from the early ’60s to ’67, incredibly explored in D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary “Don’t Look Back,” to highlight the diversity of sounds echoing down the alley.
“By this time, Bob Dylan had gone electric so after that, the crossover between electrified music and folk music was breached,” Blixt said. “We would have people who would come in and sing traditional Scottish ballads, mostly it was singer-songwriters, but … a jug band is not folk music. A blues band is not folk music. As a matter of fact, if you’re not a string band, you’re not folk music.”
Blixt also remembered the events that weren’t necessarily performances, such as noon movie screenings and free brown rice and apple cider. Blixt said the people there knew the space was special.
As the official photographer, Blixt’s photos were mounted on the walls of the the coffee house for patrons to see. In his photos lies both a journalistic eye for capturing the event and a sense of drama and storytelling. We talked extensively about one photo of Doc Watson, a singer-songwriter who had been blind since he was a year old but revolutionized folk music with his flatpicking style. In his print, Watson is waiting in the green room of Canterbury House before a performance, and Blixt and I couldn’t help but comment on his concentration and what could possibly be running through his head — lyrics, stories to tell onstage or anything under the sun.
“Anytime you’re photographing musical artists, there’s no sound so what you’re trying to do is capture a representation that encapsulates the experience the best you can,” Blixt said. “What you’re trying to do is to (capture) something where people would say ‘That’s a cool picture and I don’t even know who it is.’”
Gayle Rubin, an associate professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies, started DJing in junior high school before becoming a Wolverine. She discovered her passion for music when she noticed the reaction from people at parties when she’d take a turn selecting albums for the record player.
“People would be sitting around, feeling awkward and I would just go over to the record player and start putting stuff on and they would start to dance,” Rubin said.
Rubin started her college career in ’66 and discovered Canterbury at the Maynard location in ’67. Like Blixt and Franke, she remembered having the opportunity to see tons of incredible talents, some that made it big and others that potentially should have. She got to see Neil Young, Mitchell, Jim Kweskin and many more artists in their prime.
However, like Blixt, she also looked back fondly on other elements of the magical space for members of the artist community at the University, such as the spirituality in the space and the conversations around food sustainability.
“It was wonderful in so many ways,” Rubin said. “It was a religious organization first and foremost … but a lot of the ministers were very progressive so it became a place where people who were part of ‘the Movement’ gathered and went for meetings, to hang out, to go to services on Sunday. I am not religious, and I didn’t grow up Christian but even I went to services. They were just really profoundly pleasant and inspiring services to go to. Also, one of Ann Arbor’s first health food restaurants was located as a little kind of salad bar in the front of Canterbury House.”
Although Rubin currently still DJs from time to time, she finds the differences between recorded and live music to be crucial to an audiophile. As you can tell from recordings such as Neil Young’s Sugar Mountain - Live at Canterbury House 1968, shows at Canterbury were nothing like the recorded material from the same artist. They told stories, they had extended asides, or “raps” as the Young reissue calls them, and they could converse with the intimate crowds. Rubin said this is where the beauty of live music rings true.
“Recorded music always sounds the same, because once it’s recorded, it’s like publishing a book. It’s codified. It’s there on a page,” Rubin said. “Live music is more spontaneous. It can vary quite a bit more … And the way sound works live is very different than the way it works coming off of a stereo or coming out of speakers … You can feel the air move and you certainly could at Canterbury House.”
With folks like Young and Mitchell selling out amphitheaters today, these gigs have a superstar aura to them — huge amplification systems, big spotlights and thousands of adoring fans. However, Franke, Blixt and Rubin were lucky enough to catch them and many more at the intimate sets of Canterbury, with the air moving around them.
However, the music wasn’t the only thing making the air move in the late ’60s. If you wanted to rebel against the Man and the War Machine, you’d just have to head down the very same alley at 330 Maynard.
Part two of this series will be published in next Wednesday's edition of Statement Magazine.