Of particular interest to the songwriters in the Village is the Monday night songwriters exchange, which has been going on for five years now at the Cornelia Street Cafe.
Every Monday night, beginning at about 7 P.M., songwriters gather and sign up to sing a song they have written the previous week. The rules of the workshop are simple. You are asked to attend one Monday night without participating, just to observe, if you are here for the first time. After that you can sign up to sing every Monday night if you like, as long as your song was written, or at least revised in the previous week. Each week someone volunteers to be the next week’s host. The workshop runs no later than 9:30, usually with two or three sets in the evening.
There are many types of songwriters who meet here: intellectual songwriters with intricate lyrics; jazz- influenced guitar players with less complicated lyrics; basic old-fashioned folk-song writers, and song-singers with no music accompaniment at all. The cafe is a forum; a place to hear what people are thinking about and being influenced by; a place to meet other writers and talk and listen to them. Some people come once or a few times and never return; others come faithfully for years. If a person comes consistently and works hard, they are not overlooked.
It has been nearly two years now since I came to my first Cornelia Street Monday night. At first the idea of getting up and singing a newborn song to a group of other possibly more talented and critical songwriters was enough to keep me away for months I felt sick when I finally attempted it but it’s not really like that. The songwriters exchange is meant to be non-competitive; you don’t get criticism unless you specifically ask for it (usually from your friends), although people will comment if they particularly like a song. The worst that can happen is no reaction at all. This is not a hoot; this is not the place to come and try to impress the management with a high-powered rendition of one of the latest top 40 hits. (The woman upstairs will pound like hell if you do. She pounds anyway.) It is not performance-oriented , but is aimed at providing an atmosphere in which to perfect your craft of songwriting.
The cafe was started in 1977 by Robin Hirsch, who is responsible for the performing at the cafe; Raphaela Pivetta, who is responsible for the art; and Charles McKenna. Robin Hirsch came here fourteen years ago from London, with a background in English and Theater.
Since its opening, the cafe has been a success. It is open seven days a week, between 8 A.M. and 2 A.M. It’s a great place to work in small and atmospheric with white brick walls, and it is an art space as well, which means there are usually interesting paintings, sculptures, drawings, or photographs for sale on the walls. It was expanded recently, and now has a separate room for special Sunday night performances and the Monday night workshops.
As I write this, there is piano music in the background from the radio, and people talking as they wait for this Sunday night’s performance to begin. In February, there was a prose reading, a bawdy puppet show, comedy, and the latest version of a new play.
And there is food. Bread and butter with jam is a dollar, a glass of wine is $1.25; there are quiches and croissants and cafe au lait and mulled wine and fruit. Also cheese, and soup… I could go on. It’s a little expensive, but very, very nice.
Playing here on a Monday night won’t help you get a gig at Folk City or the Other End or the Bottom Line, but it is an important part of this supportive community important to the spirit and souls of people who are trying to create and not just repeat what has been done. The songs and singers are not always polished, and the material is usually highly personal. I don’t know of any other place like it anywhere. It has the atmosphere of the local meeting place of an old tribe or village, a gathering place for those with a song in their veins that they must express. And everyone is welcome.