Information about the San Francisco Folk Music Club has long announced that it was founded in 1948 by David Rothkop. True. “And what else did he do?” we’ve wondered. Dave was recently encountered by a mutual friend in British Columbia, Canada, and thinking that SFFMC members would like to know ‘what else’, he was persuaded to write it out. Of special interest to those of us who are Old Timers was his founding of the I and Thou Coffee House in the Haight-Ashbury in 1966. Subsequently he organized the first civil rights demonstration held in San Francisco —a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s office thanks him for that—and throughout his life he has worked to help build a more just and loving world. In his own words:
by David Rothkop
The San Francisco of the 1940s and 50s was a far cry from the more welcoming and inclusive city it was to become. The municipal establishment—including the police and fire departments, the school system, etc.—was overwhelmingly Caucasian. Gays generally kept a low profile, while black, brown and yellow folks inhabited their respective ghettos or barrios.
My home throughout my adolescence was on Telegraph Hill, then an all-Italian neighborhood with a Bohemian sprinkling here and there. Prominent among these outcroppings was a small apartment complex at the bottom of Edith Street, actually an alley.
There my mother and I lived in a small one-bedroom apartment, once dilapidated, lovingly restored by Aunt Ann and Uncle Lincoln Bartlett (Uncle Linc later founded Cost Plus Imports). “Edith Street” thus became a mecca where all colors and persuasions were welcome. Our nine small cozy units surrounded a bamboo-lined courtyard. A communal rooftop with a panoramic view of the West Bay and Golden Gate Bridge adorned this magical Eden, where camaraderie and “salons” and progressive dinner parties flourished joyfully.
This was indeed a fitting place for some youthful folkies to gather in 1948 and make a first, feeble attempt to form the San Francisco Folk Music Club. We were mostly inner-city Commerce and Mission High School kids with virtually no discernible talent in the instrumental music department. But we did manage to sing together and otherwise conversed and listened to Library of Congress recordings and Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, sometimes jazz and lots of blues. Whatever else, we were quite the ethnic mix of rather precocious and intellectual youngsters.
The biographical sketch of Dave’s life follows:
1931 Born in Omaha, spent many happy hours with Mother’s family in Fremont, Nebraska
1940 Moved by train with Mother to San Francisco. Once I saw the Rockies and Sierras I never looked back! I cleaned artisans’ shops in North Beach and worked as stock boy at Gump’s.
1943 I proudly carried the Red Flag while marching with the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union in the Mayday Parade.
1947-49 Attended Commerce High (R.I.P.) located in Civic Center; it was the most ethnically diverse high school in the City. As sports editor, I promoted integration of baseball, etc. Jackie Robinson remains a personal hero.
In 1948 I concocted the San Francisco Folk Music Club. We mostly met at our tiny apartment in North Beach. The first club fizzled out, but in 1949, as a freshman at S.F. State, I placed a notice in the college newspaper, the Golden Gater, soliciting interest in a folk music club. The response was great and the rest is history.
Fall 1950 Spent a semester at Reed College in Portland, Ore. Studied, washed dishes, volunteered for the Progressive Party. Then I spent 2½ years on a ‘socialist’ kibbutzim. After having my fill of Zionist bigotry and chauvinism, I departed for Europe. A fond memory: teaching “negro spirituals” to comrades on the kibbutz lawn after work.
1953-55 Hitching, hostelling, railroading through Europe. Spent a year in Sweden in student farm camps and preparing French fries at the largest restaurant in Europe in Stockholm. In Denmark, I attended folk schools in Humlebaek and Elsinore. Also worked in schools, on farms and at a plant nursery. Had many memorable friends, including teachers instrumental in the co-operative movement, social welfare, poetry, music, theology, social democratic politics, etc. that left me with fond memories of a simpler world of camaraderie and joviality.
1955 So blessed to have traveled on the last days of the ocean voyage, I returned to the States on the Queen Mary.
1955-60 Back home in SF to a B.A. and M.A at SF State. Organized full-page ads in the Chronicle by professors opposing nuclear testing. I became indignant at brutality against civil rights workers in Dixie, so I organized rallies at State in 1960 (An SF first?). I treasure my telegram from Martin Luther King, Jr. Also worked part time as a copy boy at the Chronicle. Married Audrey Woodward, had two sons, later adopted a daughter.
1960-63 Taught English at Stockton Junior College, where I organized a chapter of the A.C.L.U. and attempted to organize a Teacher’s Union (A.F.T.). The staff joined after my departure! Someone’s gotta plant them thar seeds, no?
1963-64 Taught a semester at Diablo College in Concord, subbed in many high schools.
1965-67 With my mother Dorothy dying, we lived at 150 Parker Ave. in San Francisco where Audrey managed the nursery school and I was Santa Claus and janitor.
April 1966 The I and Thou Coffee House on Haight St. opens and a long-time dream is fulfilled. My passion for diversity led me to the Haight-Ashbury, the most diverse community in S.F. Posted in the window was our credo: “This shop supports the cultural, social and economic integrity of the Haight-Ashbury Community. Recognizing that our common humanity must transcend all misleading labels such as ‘beat’ or ‘square’, ‘hip’ and ‘straight’, we welcome all persons who, above all, consider themselves Human.”
With free publicity from Ralph Gleason, Herb Caen, Kenneth Rexroth, et al, we never advertised. We were a community centre, not a “business.” All the small admission fees on Folk and Poetry evenings went to the artists. Money from the cigarette machine went to the Cancer Society. We sponsored benefits for “El Corno Emplumado”, a radical Latino publication; The Vietnam Committee, church drop-in centres, etc. We made good wages, we were not a “charity”. Alas, as Tourism, Voyeurism, Greed, Hard Drugs and Crime overcame the street I reluctantly moved on.
1967-68 To Mexico, Central America, Ecuador with my wife and young sons. While traveling rickety trains and buses, renting simple digs, we were more visitors than gringo tourists.
1968 We immigrated to Canada, bought a 15-acre Doukhobor farm at Proctor, B.C. (near Nelson) overlooking Kootenay Lake. The Doukhobors are a Russian Christian Pacifist sect who refused to serve in the Czar’s military. Fortunately for us, they were farming organically long before it became fashionable. During the Korean War, U.S. Quakers had settled on the lake at Argenta; a multitude of U.S. draft resistors settled throughout the W. Kootenays during Viet Nam. Lots of congenial continuity!
1970s I subbed in Nelson high school, taught in alternative school, was a child care worker, contracted and worked on our “dream house” in Proctor, then separated, divorced.
1980s Spent several ‘snowbird’ winters in Mexico studying sculpture, painting, etching. Many fine friends, teachers, Mexican, European, North American; then onward to Victoria where I’ve worked as a gardener, house painter, etc. Organized musical benefits for Amnesty, other worthy causes, was instrumental in concocting Café Simpatico, a bi-weekly bistro to raise funds, consciousness for Central America during U.S.-backed aggression. We were Victoria’s first venue for Latin American music.
Most of my time in Canada I’ve been active in the New Democratic Party, also in disturbing the overly smug and comfortable. Presently my life has “gone to the dogs.” Literally.
That’s how I met my good friends Bruce Brackney and Margaret Potter (who persuaded him to write this biography).
Hounds are such great facilitators!
I remain a passionate, fanatical organic gardener.
Blessings upon you, fellow explorers.
Always remember to speak and chant, sing and dance.
Truth to Power!
Isn’t that what we’re all about after all?