Sioux City Sue (The Donlins and Passim Coffeehouse)

This one always makes me think of Rae Anne Donlin, who was from Iowa, which I didn’t know until I sang it one night in the club she ran with her husband Bob, and she told me it made her think of home and asked me to do it again next time I played there. The club was Passim Coffeehouse in Harvard Square, and it’s not easy to explain how important it was to me, or in how many ways. For one thing, that’s where I met Dave Van Ronk, who appeared there twice a year for weekend residencies, and where I saw him play dozens of times. For another, it was the first club that booked me for paying gigs, starting with six weekend shows opening for Norman Blake, then a weekend with Tony Bird, a split-bill weekend with Geoff Bartley, and eventually weeknight shows on my own.

The Donlins knew me before all of that, though, because my grandmother used to go to Passim every Sunday afternoon for coffee and pastry with her brother, reliving their past lives in Vienna, and I sometimes went along. And then in high school I started going once a week with a small group of friends to talk about deep, personal matters that required serious discussion. It was a good place for talking, because it was quiet and on a weekday afternoon we could sit as long as we liked, and the pastries were wonderful.

Bob was a legendary character — he’d been a  beat poet and running buddy of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy, mentioned as “Bob Donnelly” in a couple of Kerouac’s novels — but that was a long time before Passim, and by the time I came around he was notoriously taciturn and curmudgeonly. Beyond that, he was a reformed alcoholic and particularly crabby with performers who drank — he loved Dave despite the drinking, but never really warmed to Bill Morrissey, and the lack of affection was mutual. But he was always nice to me, asked about my family, booked me for good showcase gigs, and even smiled and laughed his creaky laugh at some of my jokes.

As for Rae Anne, she was nice to everybody, despite the headaches of running a coffeehouse, music club, card shop, and whatever else it took to keep the place afloat. She loved Bob and he loved her, and they provided a home for folk and acoustic music in the tough years between the collapse of the 1960s folk revival and the arrival of the singer-songwriter scene. Those six-show weekend residencies were my school, a chance to study Dave, Rosalie Sorrels, Utah Phillips, Townes Van Zandt, oddities like Leon Redbone and Martin Mull, and interesting newcomers like Claudia Schmidt and Greg Brown — I remember one weekend when Greg did six hour-long sets of original songs without repeating himself.

As for “Sioux City Sue,” I learned this off the Willie Nelson/Leon Russell double album, which was the first album I had by Willie, and the only one for quite a while. I loved the first record, which had more western swing on it, and learned a bunch of the songs, but this is the only one that stuck with me. It was originally a hit for its composer, Dick Thomas, and then for Gene Autry and Bing Crosby, but I don’t recall hearing any of those versions, and I don’t think I’ve performed it since Bob and Rae Anne finally gave up the coffeehouse. The room is still there, now run as a non-profit (it was at least as non-profitable in their day, but not officially) under the slightly altered name of Club Passim, and I’ve played there a bunch of times since, and it’s still a nice gig… but I miss them.