02 March 2017
Those who rub shoulders with Susan Beattie of Palmyra in the Fluvanna Leadership Development Program usually have no idea she used to work with the greatest names in folk music.
Beattie, who refers to herself as “homely” at that time in her life, may have seemed like a wallflower, but she had one of the best seats in the world as secretary for a New York City attorney’s office that functioned as a talent booking agency.
After growing up in Union, Mo., Beattie was awed by New York. “Imagine how I wandered around!” she said.
Her job at Len Rosenfeld’s place, as it was known, was to help with arranging recording contracts and booking.
“The biggest name in the office was a blues singer named Josh White,” said Beattie. White filed the first civil rights act suit in the state of Maryland against public accommodations because somebody refused to serve him in a bar, Beattie said. “He won and we went back there and had a drink!”
Beattie’s job consisted of talking to club owners and promoters to make arrangements for their clients. She operated as sort of a “girl Friday” for entertainers who needed to know where they would be playing and sleeping for the night, she said.
White was very popular with the ladies. “Everywhere he went they liked him a lot. He always had to have towels because with the hot spot lights, he’d sweat,” she said.
“There was a period in that time where other managers and music enthusiasts were going out in the South looking for old blues singers and finding people who had made blues records in the ‘20s and ‘30s, back when they called them ‘race records,’” Beattie said. “Most of them had stopped recording. So there was this curiosity, ‘What ever happened to…?’”
Mississippi John Hurt, whose renditions of “Frankie” and “Spike Driver Blues” were included in The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952, was among performers who were sought after.
“[Enthusiasts] brought them back and took them to the Newport Folk Festival where they played with white musicians from Appalachia like Doc Watson,” Beattie said.
“Mississippi John ended up touring and when I wrote his contracts, I had to put in his accommodations because his wife and grandson always traveled with him,” she said. “In most areas blacks weren’t allowed to stay in white hotels.”
Janis Ian was a regular at Rosenfeld’s office. “The people here will know her because she wrote a song called ‘Society’s Child’ about herself dating a black guy, and then she wrote one called ‘At Seventeen.’ Both became big popular hits around the country,” Beattie said. “But the way I knew her is she used to come and hang out in our office all the time. It was a shock when she got famous. I found her kind of a nuisance being underfoot!”
Antiwar sentiments were beginning to heat up in the years Beattie spent making folk singers happy. “Lyndon Johnson was president. Everybody hated him,” she said. “Two singers became quite well known – Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton. Neither of them was a client of ours but they were playing all the clubs in [Greenwich] Village. They hung out at The Kettle of Fish [bar] along with Dave van Ronk – the guy they call ‘the king of Greenwich Village.’ It cracked me up to see those two guys arguing about who had just written the most stupid song.”
She laughed at the memory. “They would go back and forth! Here are these two guys revered in folk circles, both telling each other they were completely lousy and only half joking.”
Being in the village put Beattie in the center of the world of creative people like Bob Dylan – a man she’d barely met and determined was a jerk. She also met people in the underground film movement, such as the Coen Brothers. “Which is about as far from Union, Mo., that you could possibly get,” she said.
Beattie’s experiences “solidified my love of music in general and needing to have it around me,” she said. “It taught me that you can be an oddball, an ‘out of it’ teenager, and still find other people you could get along with well.”
Fluvanna may not be an easy to place to point out the who’s who of cultural innovation, but it has its fair share of notable people – like Beattie and her husband, Troy Weidenheimer, who Beattie said is a “phenomenal” guitarist who used to jam with Jerry Garcia.