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Thoughts About the PBS Documentary “Greenwich Village: Music That Defined A Generation”

Last night, PBS aired “Greenwich Village: the Music that Defined A Generation,” a 2012 documentary about the synergy of the cultural milieu of mid-century Greenwich Village and the ascension of the singer-songwriter aesthetic that flourished there during that period. As one who grew up on Bleecker & Thompson Streets during those years, I am still pissed off at its assumptions and omissions. Not that it isn’t well done, nice footage, good interviews — very professional. But it has to be said that it’s a one-sided, smug, whitewashed, monochromatic interpretation of the subject. I missed the first 15 minutes and didn’t watch the last 15, so perhaps I missed something, but the hour that I viewed made no mention of jazz, and barely any of the blues except as practiced by white acolytes. Where’s Nina Simone, who was on the singer-songwriter track well before any of the people mentioned? Where’s Miriam Makeba? Indeed, except for light doses of Buffy St. Marie, Odetta and Richie Havens — and smidgens of Len Chandler, and Bill Cosby — I saw scant mention of any African-American musicians,whose presence seems proportionate to the ways in which they influenced the white folkies and rockers whose story the documentary chronicles.

If the subtitle had read “The Folk Music That Influenced A Generation” or “The Singer-Songwriters Who Influenced A Generation,” you might excuse the absence from the narrative, however ill-advised, of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Albert Ayler, Paul Bley, Ahmad Jamal, and Bill Evans. All were leading bands in the Village during the documentary’s timeframe, making music that it’s no stretch to describe as generation-defining and world-changing. For sure, none of their music sounds dated, or targeted at post-adolescents. That’s not the case for 80%-90% of the sounds that “The Music That Defined A Generation” uses to represent its thesis. That the title is what it is speaks volumes about the director’s self-referential hubris — and that of the lovefesting musician interviewees bloviating on the glory of their times.

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